London – One thing has tended to lead to another at Birmingham City this season and after the unwarranted sacking of Gary Rowett then the ill-advised decision to bring in Gianfranco Zola, there was a certain inevitability about Harry Redknapp being introduced to his new public in the St. Andrew’s stadium’s Jasper Carrott suite.
At 70, Redknapp is two years younger than Birmingham’s resident comedian, though many feel he too should be looking back on his best days instead of continuing to take his act on the road. Carrott still gets laughs, to be fair, while for Redknapp the amusement might not last much longer if he cannot extricate Birmingham from their predicament, but they are not down yet and confidence is always a great help in this sort of situation.
To no one’s surprise, when Redknapp turned up at his latest club he was full of the stuff. “I can’t change the players at this stage of the season, all I can do is try to put some confidence into them,” he said. That might not be easy at a club that has fallen from the fringes of the play-offs to the edge of the relegation zone, winning only two of 22 league games under Zola, but Redknapp is undeterred.
“I love football, I never want to stop,” he said. “Last week I was out in the park across from home, coaching some under-10s. Tonight I was supposed to be at Cheltenham, managing Tony McCoy’s XI in a charity game. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore because I was struggling to find a center-half in the jockeys’ team. But I didn’t hesitate much when I got the call, I knew I wanted to do it.
“I didn’t ask for a contract, I just shook hands. My wife thinks I’m mad because when I got back from meeting the owners in London it was gone two in the morning and she asked me what was happening. I told her I was the new manager of Birmingham. She still thinks I’m mad but I’m looking forward to a Midlands derby on Sunday already. I know I’m not getting any younger but I love being involved. As long as I am still fit I’ll always be popping up somewhere if I am still wanted.”
The derby Redknapp mentioned is the first of the three testing fixtures that City must negotiate to cling on to their Championship status. They play Aston Villa away, then Huddersfield Town at home and finish the season with a trip to fellow relegation strugglers Bristol City. So that is two away games, one against local rivals and the other against direct competitors, sandwiched around a visit from a form team still very much involved in going for promotion.
And should Blackburn and Nottingham Forest manage wins on Saturday, Birmingham will go to Villa Park in the bottom three. “It’s a big challenge,” Redknapp said. “I hadn’t seen the fixtures when I said yes to the job. When I found out what they where I thought: ‘Oh, it’s a bigger challenge than I thought.’”
Given that the first game is in three days, the end of the season in a fortnight, and Redknapp freely admits he does not know much about Birmingham’s personnel or playing strengths, it is a risk on both sides. Redknapp reportedly stands to gain around £250,000 if he can keep the side up, and though such a reward would be a bonus – the manager has confirmed he would not expect payment if he fails – of the candidates readily available for such a short-term turnaround he has experience of similar situations at Portsmouth and Tottenham. This time, however, he is flying in the dark.
“I’ve come in pretty blind,” he confessed. “I’ve seen Brighton and Newcastle and a few other Championship teams on the telly this season but Birmingham hardly ever seem to be on. I don’t know any of the players, but having met them for the first time this morning they seem good lads. They must have talent, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing in the Championship. What we have got to try to do is bring it out of them, and quickly.”
Redknapp does not imagine his reputation or status will have an instant transformative effect. “I’m sure they have been back to basics before now, Gianfranco will have tried that,” he said. “It’s a myth anyway that a manager can just walk in and transform a side in two days. Sam Allardyce has Crystal Palace playing the way he wants now, but it took five or six weeks for that to happen. All I can do in the time available is try and work on the confidence. I have always thought players respond better to a pat in the back and a well done to being told they are rubbish. My job here is to restore self-belief. I think we are going to need at least one win to get out of this, possibly a win and a draw. If we can scrape a win somewhere, that’s fine by me. I’m not saying I have all the answers here, I’m just hoping for a bit of luck.”
The Guardian Sport