Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Redknapp celebrate their birthdays today. Pochettino turns 41, Redknapp will be 66 and once their afternoon engagement at St Mary’s is concluded the two men will exchange greetings, possibly over a glass of wine, by which time Redknapp may be in need of a stiffer drink.
The manager of Queen’s Park Rangers is in for a bumpy ride. He is not a popular figure in Southampton – far from it. Southampton is the blot on the Redknapp copy book; he was in charge when the club’s 27-year stay in the top flight ended in 2005 and then he left them, according to many supporters, in poor shape in the Championship and returned to bitter rivals Portsmouth. In contrast, Pochettino, after little more than a month and having been parachuted into the position in difficult circumstances, has won over the majority who will fill St Mary’s this afternoon.
There are plenty of differences. Indeed, apart from having been born on the same day and both having managed Southampton, the pair have little in common. Redknapp, raised in the urban intensity of London’s East End, was taking his first steps into management, at Bournemouth in 1982, while Pochettino was growing up in the wide open spaces of Argentina’s Santa Fe province, the son of a farm labourer.
“I lived in a country house, a humble house – not a hacienda or anything. The toilet was outside,” says Pochettino. “My days consisted of going to school and playing football, in the street or fields, until it became too dark and we had to go home.”
He liked to pretend to be Pele or Franz Beckenbauer. News from the world of football filtered through slowly to the village of Murphy, where he grew up, 150km south of Rosario. “TV was barely starting so we didn’t see them often,” says Pochettino. “We followed them on the radio – that is how I learnt of players.”
The family had a small black and white television that was allowed on special occasions. Pochettino’s father would take the battery from the farm’s tractor and use it to power the TV. “It was a prize for us to watch TV. When I tell my kids that story they look at me and they say ‘Papa, stop lying. That cannot be true.’ But it is. I grew up in a field, where my dad was working the field. He was a labourer, coming from a very humble home. I was very happy.”
This afternoon will be Pochettino’s sixth match since he was recruited from Spain, where he had lost his job at Espanyol, ending a roller-coaster tenure that had previously seen him touted as a possible replacement for Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and being praised by Pep Guardiola. “They remind me of us,” Guardiola said of Pochettino’s side, Barcelona’s city neighbours.
The bare results at Southampton have been modest: two defeats, two draws and a solitary win. They sit 16th, three points better off than Aston Villa in 18th. When Nigel Adkins, having lifted them from League One to dining at the top table, was dismissed in January, Southampton were 15th, unbeaten in six league games, among those draws at Arsenal and Chelsea. But there is cause for the optimistic air on the South Coast, albeit one that needs sustaining with three points today. That sole Pochettino victory was over Manchester City, while defeat at Old Trafford furthered the new man’s habit of attracting high-profile admirers. Sir Alex Ferguson described Southampton’s second-half performance in a 2-1 defeat as the best seen by visitors at Old Trafford this season.
“He can’t just click his fingers – he needs time,” says Morgan Schneiderlin, Southampton’s French midfielder. At Espanyol “the Sheriff” developed a reputation as a tough trainer. “He makes you suffer like dogs,” was how one of his former players put it. He was also liked by players though – the sessions were intense but varied.
“He shows how he wants us to play and it looks exciting,” says Schneiderlin. “Every session is different. Every day he tries to bring us something different. It’s coming. In the next few games you will see a difference when we have the ball.”
The most obvious difference to Adkins’ footballing diet is when they do not have the ball. Pochettino urges his players to press opponents and for that he demands high levels of fitness. Jack Cork, who partners Schneiderlin in midfield, says you need “two hearts” to play for the Argentine.
“He likes a midfielder with a good engine,” says Schneiderlin. Pochettino, who is at the training ground each day at 7am and remains there until 8pm, has been impressed with the engines he has in the garage.
“You have to be fitter here and that is down to the way the game is played,” says Pochettino, whose own playing career took him from his home country to Spain and France as well as the 2002 World Cup. “It’s a lot more tactical in Spain – here it is a lot more direct, physical. Here you see that the players are enjoying running so much and the fans are also enjoying that kind of game too. The game is more fluid, there are a lot less fouls than in Spain, the effective time of the game is a lot higher than in Spain. There is a difference of 10 minutes more in real playing time than in Spain.”
Pochettino speaks via an interpreter in public – but his English is good enough to take training. “Little by little,” he says of learning the language. He is still learning his trade too, especially in the Premier League, but with three years in La Liga this is no managerial novice.
“If it was down to experience or age, managers like Harry would always win,” he says. “Experience is an important factor but so is youth. If you are lacking in age or experience you maybe have more energy, more work ethic to perform better and counter that lack of experience.
“In football every single person has their own values, truths and opinions but what experience did Guardiola have before he was managing Barcelona? After four years he is one of the best managers in the world. I know other managers who have been managing for 30 years and have never won anything, so…” He pauses and shrugs. “Maybe they never had Messi in their team!”
Head to head: how the birthday boys compare
M Pochettino vs H Redknapp
2 Mar 1972 Born 2 Mar 1947
Murphy, Argentina Birthplace Poplar, London
Centre-back Playing position Midfielder
2 League titles, 2 Spanish Cups Playing honours -
20 International caps 0
Espanyol, Southampton Teams managed Bournemouth, West Ham Southampton Portsmouth, Southampton, Spurs, QPR
- Managerial honours 1 FA Cup, 1 Intertoto Cup, 1 First Division title