It was the first important signing of Harry Redknapp's three decades in management and making a profit of almost 2,500 per cent after only a year convinced him that he had an eye for a footballer. Nearly 30 years later, the player in question believes the Football Association would be foolish not to make Redknapp the next manager of England.
Colin Clarke was the name, a stocky blond centre-forward from Newry, Northern Ireland who was knocking in goals for Tranmere Rovers in the Fourth Division when in 1985 Redknapp decided he was the man for Bournemouth. The young manager's conviction was so strong that he was prepared to put together a syndicate to fund the modest £20,000 fee, contributing a quarter himself. Impressed by this show of faith – or perhaps concerned by Redknapp's plan that the consortium would then take the profit from any subsequent transfer – the club's board scraped the money together and Clarke rewarded them with more than 30 goals in the season.
The move might still have fallen through, Clarke recalled last week, had he not developed an immediate bond with Redknapp. Speaking from North Carolina, where he now coaches Carolina Railhawks in the North American Soccer League, he said: "We agreed a deal but hadn't signed the contract. Then Chelsea came in and wanted me to go there. I assume it would have meant more money but I'd agreed to go to Bournemouth and so I did."
Clarke's prolific season won him a first Northern Ireland cap and then a place at the 1986 World Cup, where he played in every game, attracting the attention of bigger clubs. Southampton took him into the top division, giving Bournemouth £480,000 profit in under 12 months. For Redknapp it was confirmation, he later said, "that I had a future in this management game." The following season he led Bournemouth to the third division title.
"Harry was great and is still a friend today, who I speak to from time to time," Clarke said. "He would be magnificent for England, and the FA would be silly not to offer him the job. The public want it, everybody wants it and to have any chance at the European Championship they've got to get him in there. I think he'd bring in a few younger players too to shake it up a bit. There are too many championships where England have underachieved and this is one where they could go in with a real chance of winning it."
If Redknapp, whose Spurs team go to Stevenage in the FA Cup today, has matured and developed, some of his qualities were apparent in those earliest days, Clarke says: "He's a players' coach and gets the best out of them. They want to play for him. It was early days at Bournemouth but it was evident then and at all the other clubs he's been to. Look at the number of players he's had who want to come back and play for him again."
When he first went to the United States 15 years ago, Clarke was not able to watch much English football at all. Now, he says, "we're swamped with it", enabling him to keep up with former clubs like Southampton and Queens Park Rangers. He has coached four clubs in the NASL, one grade below Major League Soccer, and of a standard he describes as comparable to the bottom half of the Championship. "The standard of MLS has been growing in the last 10 years and that trickles down. Six or seven years ago, Premier League teams would come here in pre-season and beat MLS clubs, but now they can get beaten, and even lose to teams in our league."
Clarke, now 49, only switched to Carolina before Christmas, after three years at Puerto Rico. The highlight of his time there was winning 4-1 away to LA Galaxy in the continent's equivalent of the Champions' League. David Beckham was injured at the time but Clarke credits him with a significant role in the development of the sport in the United States: "He can be very happy with what he's done and the profile he's given the game. And even at his age he's still in demand."
As is one Harry Redknapp, 27 years after being prepared to put his own money where his mouth was in commending the merits of a fourth division footballer.
Stevenage v Tottenham Hotspur is on ITV1 today, kick-off 2pm
Laid-back Harry deflects aggro
"Aggro" it may be, as he termed it a couple of weeks back, but the England manager's job remains the peak of the profession for any native coach, and Harry Redknapp says he is experienced enough to take the rough that would come his way sooner or later with the smooth.
Although occasionally tetchy and sarcastic when criticised, he claimed on Friday to be immune to changes in public perception that beset national team managers. "We all know what football's like, it can change so quickly," he said. "A few bad weeks and you go crash just as quick as you get put on a pedestal. But I don't get carried away, I never have done. I'm pretty laid-back about it all."
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