The gains of Harry's game

Ian Ridley hears the West Ham manager explain his safety policy
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The Independent Online
HARRY REDKNAPP told himself five years ago, after surviving a horrific car crash in which one of his best friends died, that he would never again get so worked up about the little matter of football. It didn't last long. The latest to discover that Redknapp's passion endures was one of his West Ham players, Don Hutchison, a few weeks ago.

It was at Southampton. West Ham had just left the field with a point that Redknapp believed should have been three and he was particularly annoyed at Hutchison for, as he saw it, failing to track back with a runner. "He wouldn't accept it and he wanted to have a ruck," Redknapp says. "He just wound me up too much. There was a nice big plate of sandwiches on the table and he had the lot on his nut."

It was also a sign of just how the prospect of relegation has this season, more than any other, become so intense. The West Ham manager is a worrier, twitcher and bawler on the bench, but usually no ranter, raver or cup- thrower after a game. With four about to lose the milk from the Premiership cash cow, however, dishes of dressing-room delicacies and errant players everywhere are vulnerable.

The rationalisation of the domestic game's highest level can only be for the long-term good but that is of little short-term concern for the 12 clubs now embroiled in the scuffle to stay up. Once a chance to rebuild and emerge stronger, relegation now means the postponement, possibly cancellation, of prosperity.

Loss of status means forgoing £860,500 worth of BSkyB money for a start, plus the £77,255 fee for each home game screened. The bottom club in the Premiership receive £40,800 and, with each place above them, there is an increment of £40,800. To soften the blow, there is £430,250 per relegated club but the fear is of lower gate receipts, falls in sponsorship and sales of merchandise. And being left paying Premiership wages.

"It wouldn't be so bad for us as it would for the likes of Aston Villa, Manchester City and Everton because we are in a different ball game from the bigger clubs," Redknapp says. "We don't compare for wages and I don't really have a star player I would have to sell. But the fans just want to see the bigger clubs and our gates would go down."

Such anxieties have been behind so much managerial blood-letting this season. Half of the bottom 12 clubs have parted company with their manager - the latest last week being Norwich City and John Deehan. However, Redknapp's position, as David Mellor pointed out on his radio programme 6.06 last week, never seems to have been questioned. "Well, he's honest. He don't give us no rubbish," said a West Ham caller in response.

"The fans knew I took over in a difficult situation," Redknapp says. "And they knew my record in working with Billy Bonds, my part in getting us up and keeping us up without too much money to spend." Indeed, it did seem that West Ham supporters accepted that a relegation campaign was inevitable not just because of the history of two demotions in the past six years. There were also the early-season shenanigans when Bonds left.

"I think the chairman felt I was doing the job of working with players and arranging transfers and suggested to Bill that he became a director of football-type figure, but Bill wasn't happy with that," Redknapp says. "It wasn't a situation I wanted," Redknapp adds. "I was happy working with Billy. I had had nine years managing Bournemouth and didn't want the aggro. But I suppose I came round to it." Indeed, a man whose only relaxation is following the fortunes of his two yearlings at David Elsworth's yard in Dorset could not resist it.

It was in Italy during the World Cup of 1990 that Redknapp was involved in the car accident. His great friend Brian Tiler, Bournemouth's managing director, was killed along with three youths while Redknapp himself sustained multiple fractures, the worst to the skull. During recuperation, he pondered the words of solicitors who told him he could expect a fat cheque if he didn't work any more.

"Most people say that something like that changes you but it never really did with me. I thought at the time that I wasn't going to bother any more but I wanted to get back to work. The money wasn't important." It still isn't. "I could afford to live without football but I couldn't live without football," he adds.

Though, as a right winger with the club in the Sixties and Seventies, he is steeped in the club's stylish tradition, Redknapp is more of a pragmatist than some former Hammers managers. "There's got to be a reason why we have been up and down like a yo-yo," he says. "Sometimes we have wanted to play too much and not considered the defensive side of the game. It wouldn't bother me changing the way we play if it meant surviving," he says, "but I want us to pass the ball. I don't see any other way we can play. In the modern game, the hard work has to be done and I spend as much time talking about that as about passing the ball. And we have worked hard. I honestly don't know how we have got in this position."

Events are beginning to suggest he has a point. The draw last week at Nottingham Forest followed by the 3-0 win over Wimbledon last Thursday, which made it 12 points from seven games, five of them away, saw West Ham edge out of the bottom four. Victory at Ipswich tomorrow would further fuel his optimism. Four of their final five matches are in front of their inspirational home support, though Blackburn, his son Jamie's Liverpool and Manchester United provide the stiffest of opposition.

Against Wimbledon on one of those atmospheric Upton Park nights, West Ham displayed all the Redknapp trademarks. For 40 minutes it was a question of digging in and yielding nothing, Marc Rieper and Steve Potts outstanding in defence. "Keep it on the ground," bellowed a fan persistently.

Then a run by Matty Holmes brought a penalty and the chance for Julian Dicks to unleash his left foot. In the second half, more coherent moves followed. The gangling Jeroen Boere finally found his touch to head a splendid second and Tim Breacker's run and cut-back enabled Tony Cottee to stroke a third.

"We were 11-4 on to go down seven games ago but we are not a team out of form." Redknapp says. "Some teams are on a downward slide." He makes a telling point; last week others at the bottom must have been wondering where their next win was coming from. You begin to believe Redknapp that where West Ham are going to is safety.

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