Ex-West Ham, Spurs and QPR boss Harry Redknapp: I do stupid things, going to Southampton was the biggest stupid thing. Portsmouth was best time of my life

Harry Redknapp slides away the plate containing a half-eaten croissant decorated with jam and gently leans forward, sufficiently inspired to impart another anecdote from his treasure trove.

Monday, 21st March 2022, 6:00 pm
Updated Monday, 21st March 2022, 6:43 pm

Almost two decades on from his initial introduction as Pompey manager, the company remains as captivating as the football he masterminded.

‘I got on so well with Milan Mandaric, although we had our arguments,’ he told The News over breakfast at Rick Stein’s Sandbanks restaurant.

‘Having beaten Villa in our first Premier League match, we were in Manchester on the Friday night ahead of playing at the City Of Manchester Stadium.

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‘Now I’m trying to sign a left-back from Italy, I can’t think of his name but he ended up playing in the World Cup some years later.

‘So we’re having dinner in this dining area set out just for us, there’s me, Terry Brady, our chief executive Peter Storrie, and Milan.

‘I had been to watch this Italian the previous Sunday and was keen – then Milan brought it up.

‘He turned to me and said: “Harry, this player, he’s not really a full-back, he’s a centre-back”. So I replied: “No, he’s a full-back, a left-back”, only for Milan to argue back how he wasn’t.

Harry Redknapp celebrates winning the FA Cup with Pompey in May 2008. Picture: Steve Reid

‘When I asked how he knew, he said: “Well, Peter Storrie’s stepson has looked him up on Championship Manager”.

‘At that point, I have gone into one. We have a row like you cannot believe.

‘The next day we’re playing Manchester City. I used to go in the directors’ box then, but that match Milan wouldn’t sit next to me or speak to me.

‘On the Monday, I received a letter in the post – I’d been given an official warning. For the first and only time in my career.

Harry Redknapp and Milan Mandaric in December 2005 after reunited at Pompey. Picture: Matt Scott-Joynt

‘It stated that I had used this very, very, very bad word to Milan 16 times while giving him some grief on that Friday night. The word was four letters, you work out the rest.

‘The following day we have Bolton at Fratton Park for a midweek game, with Milan still not talking to me, he had the right hump.

‘We beat them 4-0, Teddy Sheringham gets a second-half hat-trick and we’re top of the Premier League after three games.

‘At the final whistle, Milan is straight up to me “Harry, come on, you’re my friend”. All forgotten.

Harry Redknapp managed Pompey for 243 matches over two spells, winning 108 of them. Picture: Robin Jones

‘I said to him: “Did I only use that word 16 times? I thought it was more than that”.’

Next week marks 20 years since Redknapp became Pompey manager, an appointment which would redefine the club’s standing in modern football.

As a disillusioned director of football at Fratton Park, he planned to walk out at the end of the 2001-02 season.

Then, following Graham Rix’s March 2002 dismissal, owner Milan Mandaric turned to the former West Ham and Bournemouth boss, initially on a temporary basis.

It would herald a remarkable era for the Blues, with the achievements and brand of football still celebrated to this day.

Simply, Harry Redknapp is Pompey's most successful manager of the last 69 years.

Sol Campbell and Harry Redknapp on the training pitch at the Hong Kong Stadium in July 2007. Picture: Will Caddy

He added: ‘Pompey was meant to be a stopover after leaving West Ham. Being director of football would keep me involved in the game.

‘I found it the most difficult few months I’ve ever spent in football. It wasn’t a role I knew anything about, I didn’t even know what the job entailed.

‘After a while, I didn’t intend carrying it on, I was going to leave at the end of the season.

‘It was also difficult for Graham (Rix). I like Graham, he was a fantastic footballer and an excellent coach, but I didn’t know him and I don’t think he wanted a director of football any more than I did when Velimir Zajec was later brought in and I cleared off.

‘I became like a chauffeur for Milan. We drove to the away games together along with Fred Dinenage, not going into the dressing room or the training ground. We didn’t feel welcome there.

‘Every morning, me and Milan would meet for a cup of coffee and chat for hours, wasting the day away, talking about the club and everything.

‘I was offered the Leicester job in October 2001, but didn’t fancy it at the time. Maybe if I sat tight for a bit another job would come up. I was getting one or two people ringing too.

‘Being the manager of Pompey was never, ever, ever on my mind or my agenda. It wasn’t something that I could ever see happening or I wanted to happen at the time, to be truthful.

‘Leicester had these fantastic training facilities, whereas in that first year at Pompey we were training at HMS Collingwood with a tree in the middle of the pitch and we’d eat in the Navy mess. It was like Sunday League, I had never come across anywhere like that.

‘Then, in March 2002, Milan asked me to take over until the end of the season. I told him I didn’t want the job, I was going to leave at the end of that season anyway, after a year of doing nothing, it was time for me to move on.

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‘Milan insisted Graham was going anyway so, whatever my decision, he was getting rid of him. I took it on for the last five games, before he asked me to do it permanently in the summer.

‘I’m not saying it just because I’m talking to you, but it became the best time of my life.’

During Redknapp’s maiden full season at the helm, Pompey won the Division One title in 2002-03 with 98 points and 97 goals.

Having been introduced to the Premier League for the first time, the Blues then finished 13th, after briefly topping the table, while defeated Manchester United and Liverpool at Fratton Park.

However, in November 2004, Redknapp quit over chairman Mandaric’s desire to sack assistant manager Jim Smith – in addition to appointing Velimir Zajec as an executive director to oversee football matters.

Within 15 days, he had joined unpopular neighbours and Premier League rivals Southampton.

Yet, 12 months later, Redknapp produced a shock U-turn to return to Fratton Park, taking over a club occupying the Premier League relegation zone with just two victories.

What unfolded is recorded in Fratton folklore – the Great Escape.

‘I do tend to do stupid things. Going to Southampton was the biggest stupid thing,’ laughed the 75-year-old.

‘When Milan brought in Zajec and wanted to get rid of Jim, I decided to leave. And I was probably a bit impulsive because I didn't have to do that, but I got the hump.

‘I was like that, I’m not saying it was clever being like that, I was just like it. Stick it.

‘After I left, Southampton approached me. I wanted to work and it was convenient for me. If I’m not going to manage Pompey then I thought “Yes”.

‘My relationship with Rupert Lowe was difficult. He’d ring me and say “I’ll come over to the training ground and show the players how to take a corner”.

‘I’d reply with “You’ve never kicked a ball in your life, you played hockey”. I would give him grief.

‘Then I went back. The people at Southampton treated me well, they made me very welcome from day one, but I shouldn’t have left Pompey - and Milan wanted me back.

‘Getting Pompey into the Premier League during that first spell was my favourite achievement, better than winning the FA Cup. It was amazing.

‘It was a special group of players, you loved being with them, loved being around them, they were the best I have ever been with.

‘There were no Billy Bigheads, no-one was causing a problem, they got on with that awful training ground, the cold showers, never complained, never moaned. They loved what they were doing - and the crowd loved them.

‘When I went back, Dejan Stefanovic said to me “Gaffer, you must be crazy coming back here, this is the worst team you’ve ever seen. All the good players have gone, there’s nothing. You’ve got no chance”.

‘I will never forget him saying that. I thought “What have I done?''.

‘At Wigan, I actually shed a tear on the pitch when I heard Birmingham had drawn against Newcastle and we were safe. Dejan came up and cuddled me. Such a special day.’

Redknapp’s achievements did not end on an emotional day at the DW Stadium.

Just two seasons later, he led Pompey to their highest top-flight finish for more than half a century, following an eighth-placed Premier League placing.

To cap that memorable season, the Blues claimed the FA Cup for the first time in 69 years after defeating Championship side Cardiff 1-0 in the May 2008 final.

In the process, it earned Pompey qualification for the Uefa Cup, signifying involvement in European competition for the first time in the club’s history.

Redknapp added: ‘We stopped Manchester United doing the treble that year, winning at Old Trafford.

‘I had never seen Alex Ferguson so upset at getting beat. He was bad news that day, not very friendly at all.

‘The pace of Sylvain Distin, the power, pace and strength of Sol Campbell, they could get into any team in the world at that point. It was a great side full of amazing players.

‘Hermann Hreidarsson, what a character. The night before the FA Cup final, I took them to an Italian restaurant in Bray, near our Windsor hotel, with karaoke afterwards. Hermann brought his Elvis outfit and belted out ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘An American trilogy’.

‘I’d asked my mate Kenny Lynch to come along and give us some songs. After he watched Hermann he said “Harry, there’s no way I can follow that” - and wouldn’t do it!

‘Then we had John Utaka and Kanu doing Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ on the karaoke. It was a good, fun night to relax them – then we won the FA Cup the next day.

‘Without doubt, Pompey was the best time of my life, I absolutely loved it there.

‘The rats running out the changing rooms in the early days, Linvoy Primus making the Fratton Park boot room into a prayer room, Big Kev doing the kit moaning about everything and being my golf partner taking on Jim (Smith) and Kevin Bond, the Harry & Jim song, and my friendship with Milan.

‘Such an incredible time.’

Redknapp left the Blues for a second – and final – time in October 2008.

The opportunity to join Spurs represented a fresh challenge, while the offer of £5m compensation appealed to Pompey as they spiralled towards becoming the first Premier League club to enter administration.

Almost a year to the day later, he returned with his Spurs side in October 2009 to claim a 2-1 success.

Yet Pompey’s finest manager since Bob Jackson has not been back to Fratton Park since.

‘No, I’ve never returned. I don’t know why really, I suppose you worry about one or two people getting the hump,’ he added.

‘No-one from Portsmouth has ever come up to me and had a go, although you will always get one or two.

‘I’ve not really been invited back to Fratton Park, but the other day I was asked to speak at Pompey’s end of season dinner and agreed to do it.

‘Then I realised it clashed with Sandra’s birthday, so unfortunately had to pull out.

‘I remember when I took Pompey to Nigeria in pre-season in 2008, I went to this event and there were a few of our fans there. Some said “Hello Harry” and we shook hands.

‘Then I went to shake the hand of this one guy and he responded with “I will never shake hands with you, Harry. You went to Southampton”.

‘You just don’t know how people will react.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Harry Redknapp salutes the Pompey fans during the open-top bus tour in May 2008 to parade the FA Cup. Picture: Joe Pepler
Harry Redknapp and his assistant Jim Smith with the Division One trophy after beating Rotherham 3-2 at Fratton Park in April 2003. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images