One Sunday night in 1999, Harry Redknapp, then manager of West Ham United, ended up chatting to an unemployed former professional footballer at a banquet being held to honour Kenny Dalglish. The ex pro seemed disaffected. He was down on his luck and unhappy at being out of work, resigned to the reality of looking for a job outside the game. Sympathetic to the man’s plight, Redknapp invited him down to the Hammers’ training ground the following day.
Redknapp had a position in mind for his dinner companion.
West Ham had a “development squad”, comprised of teenagers not yet good enough for the first team, which needed a coach.
“Come in and take them,” urged Harry. “We can’t pay you, but it’ll get you out of the house. Come to my office afterwards, we’ll have a cup of tea. See how we go from there.”
The offer was accepted and, two years later, the once-disillusioned ex pro found himself comically sporting a yellow hard hat and standing awkwardly in front of a cluster of photographers beside the under-construction West Stand at Upton Park. His name was Glenn Roeder, and he’d just replaced Harry Redknapp as manager of West Ham.
For Redknapp, it was the end of a complicated but mostly harmonious relationship with a club he’d first joined as a player in 1962. By the time of his sacking in the summer of 2001, Harry had become almost synonymous with West Ham, a charismatic if elusive figurehead for a side moulded in his image.
His reign had been defined by a host of personal and professional idiosyncrasies, leading the BBC’s Frank Keogh, the day after Harry’s departure, to describe the Redknapp years at Upton Park as “an unpredictable mix of flair, failings and farce.”
In the Premier League era, Redknapp was all but unique.
He was a punter of the old school, an East End Doyle Brunson ruefully watching the game change around him as he persisted in remaining much the same. Even as far back as the late nineties, Harry was one of the top tier’s last bastions of the native British culture of ad-lib football management: an impromptu, visceral style besmirched by the more executive competence of a growing cohort of foreign managers arriving in the UK at the time.
But the Redknapp methodology had already manifested itself during the eighties while he was managing at Bournemouth. Appointed at the south coast club in 1983, he set about scouring the country for bargain basement players who he felt could add something to his team. An ambitious board found themselves pestered to back him in the transfer market, and duly did so, ploughing relatively large amounts of cash into the side.
It was an approach that paid dividends four years later with promotion to the Second Division, but by 1992 Redknapp had overseen a relegation back to the Third Division and Bournemouth had somehow run up a debt of £4.4 million.
Five years later, Roy Pack, a consultant tasked with raising Bournemouth from the mire of financial ruin, remarked to the News of the World: “Harry made his demands and he got them. There was a degree of irresponsibility in his actions… What has happened is almost unbelievable and in a business sense it is ludicrous.”
By then, Redknapp was long gone.
He’d departed the Cherries in 1994 and found a job as assistant to Billy Bonds at West Ham, eventually displacing Bonds as number one. Upon his installation as manager, Redknapp’s intentions quickly became clear.
“He envisaged himself as the club’s saviour,” wrote Tom Bower in Broken Dreams, “and began a buying spree of foreign players.”
As had been the case at Bournemouth, Harry lobbied his board to afford him as much free rein as possible when it came to transfers. But he would find his spendthrift policy a harder sell in east London than it had been on the south coast. The Cearns family had, with a few interruptions, run the club since the 1930s and were notably tight-fisted.
Consequently, West Ham was a club known for its stability, but had a board who, according to Alex Fynn and Lynton Guest in Out of Time, “were also famous for their parsimony. For many years they had been living on a shoestring and getting away with it.”
But, under constant pressure from Redknapp, Terry Brown, a property developer who had succeeded Martin Cearns as West Ham chairman in 1992, felt obliged to loosen the purse-strings a touch. Players began flowing in and out of Upton Park with a frequency that is probably best described as “alarming”. West Ham boasted anything but endless resources, but what little funds they did have available, Redknapp spent. Some of his signings were inspired: Paolo di Canio, Slaven Bilić, Eyal Berkovic, Trevor Sinclair.
Many, however, have since passed into the realm of mythology when it comes to the Bad Transfer Deal: Marco Boogers, Florin Răducioiu, Ilie Dumitrescu.
Yet Redknapp’s scattergun approach to recruitment somehow began to pay off. The early years had brought relegation fears and mid-table mediocrity, and a limp 1996-97 season led to “Redknapp out” chants and Terry Brown being attacked outside the stadium. But as the millennium loomed, West Ham began to haul their way towards the upper echelons of the Premiership. By 1999, Harry’s lucky dip side were among the competition’s most attractive outfits and finished the 1998-99 season in fifth position.
The ascent was aided by the emergence of a prodigious crop of young English players. West Ham’s under-19 team won the Premier Academy League in 1999 and 2000, with the likes of Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Joe Cole all passing through the youth setup around this time.
Two other academy graduates who would go on to be among the finest players of their generation, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, had already been promoted to the first team by Redknapp several years before, meaning that come the turn of the 21st century Harry was in charge of one of England’s most gifted collections of homegrown talent.
Given their age, they weren’t always in the first team together and spent many collective months on loan, but the academy core was there, and Redknapp made use of it as much as he could, relying on the young bucks to fill gaps that his transfer deals couldn’t plug. His side played exciting football: from the silken Ferdinand at the back to the frenetic Di Canio up front, millennial West Ham were an imaginative and free-flowing unit, albeit one prone to occasional defensive negligence.
But come the end of the 2000-01 campaign, West Ham were treading water.
They’d slipped back down the table, finishing 15th and rounding off the season with a bad run of defeats. Still, Redknapp wasn’t worried: he’d already negotiated a new contract with the club, apparently worth around £10 million. Terry Brown, however, was having second thoughts.
West Ham’s chairman had recently presided over the £18 million sale of Rio Ferdinand to Leeds in November 2000, a controversial move as part of which Redknapp is said to have secured a payment of £300,000. The sum was offered by Brown in order to encourage the manager to abstain from a transfer splurge. But as the club began to slide towards the lower realms of the Premier League classification after Ferdinand’s departure, Redknapp swiftly resumed his pestering of the board for more transfer funds.
In came Titi Camara, Rigobert Song, Ragnvald Soma and Svetoslav Todorov, and out went another £8 million of West Ham’s cash reserves. Brown observed with trepidation as Redknapp’s post-Ferdinand bargain-hunt failed to deliver and his side ailed in lower mid-table.
But for Harry, there was an obvious solution: “I want £12 million for new players”, he declared following a cup defeat to Tottenham in March.
Two months later, an excited Redknapp presented himself at Brown’s office, ready to sign the contract they’d agreed.
Instead, the chairman had some bad news: “Harry, we’ve decided to let you go.” Redknapp was stunned and devastated. He’d given the better part of a decade to West Ham as manager, and hadn’t expected to be discarded in such a manner.
“Leaving the club was the last thing on my mind when I went over this morning”, he said in the aftermath. “I never dreamed it would happen. After meeting the chairman it all changed and I found myself out of work.”
Yet Redknapp, perhaps, had only himself to blame: he’d been reckless on the transfer market and, when it came to coaching, was failing to move with the times. He had always been an avowedly off-the-cuff manager, one who steadfastly refused to yield to the notion of systematisation, preferring to trust in luck, motivation and his eye for a player.
But to some observers, including Terry Brown, he was beginning to look like a dinosaur, an example of how cronyism and carelessness had led to widespread despair at English coaching standards and the resulting influx of foreign coaches.
“A seismic change had occurred in English football since Arsène Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal in October 1996”, writes Bower. “The cool, analytical approach of the new breed of managers, especially foreigners like Gérard Houllier at Liverpool and Sven-Göran Eriksson as England’s coach, branded Redknapp as a symbol of a bygone culture.”
And so Harry was beginning to gradually fall by the wayside, a rare gamesman in a field of technocrats. Brown had seen that, and made up his mind to bring in someone with a more modern mindset. Or, perhaps, someone with less inclination to constantly demand increases in the transfer budget. The only question was who.
“The day after [Redknapp] is sacked, The Guardian runs a list of contenders for the post of West Ham United team manager,” writes Pete May in Irons in the Soul.
“These include Charlton boss Alan Curbishley, ex-England managers Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan, former Arsenal and Spurs boss George Graham and current player Stuart Pearce. Perhaps it is all part of a Baldrick-like cunning plan and the board has decided that the club has gone as far as it can with Redknapp and is now going to appoint a top boss to have us challenging for those European Champions League places. Then again, maybe not.”
A month after Redknapp’s departure, Glenn Roeder was announced as manager. Roeder commented at his inaugural press conference, “When Harry Redknapp brought me in to join the coaching staff, I never dreamed that I would be his successor.”
The trouble was, neither had anyone else and, within hours, enraged Irons fans were busily organising protests outside the ground.
Roeder was in many ways the Badger to Redknapp’s Toad: reserved, unobtrusive, compliant.
Precisely the type of person Terry Brown wanted in charge of his team, but not one who was ever going to win over the fans with his charisma. Whatever about Redknapp’s ability as a manager, he was an icon among many West Ham supporters, and replacing him with a rather dour background figure like Roeder was beyond the pale for the Hammers faithful, who quickly cast the new manager in the role of Yes Man, a factotum who would stay quiet in the face of perceived penny-pinching by Brown.
It wasn’t only the supporters who were underwhelmed. Even Roeder himself seemed aware he was a somewhat uninspiring, de facto choice: Steve McLaren had been offered the position but rejected it in favour of Middlesbrough, while Curbishley preferred to stay on at Charlton. Other candidates such as Alex McLeish and David Moyes also judged it more desirable to remain in their jobs at Hibernian and Preston North End, respectively, leaving Roeder to snap up a job no-one seemed to want.
“I know many supporters expected a bigger name to take over,” he said, before going on to compare himself to Foinavon, the Grand National winner who was the only horse to finish the race. Later, he freely admitted a need to “win over the doubters.”
Still, Roeder may not have been a “name”, but he was no mug. He’d managed Watford for three years in the early nineties, albeit unsuccessfully, and was considered a coach of some pedigree. Paul Aldridge, West Ham’s managing director, described Roeder as “one of the game’s most respected young coaches.”
Some of the players were also positive about their new boss. “When people ask me about Glenn Roeder, I will always say he is probably in the top three coaches I have ever worked with,” said Joe Cole shortly after the appointment. “I know being a manager is a lot different, but if there is anyone who I know personally that can do the job – he can. He really has got all the credentials; the lads love him, he knows how to coach and he knows his football more than anyone.”
Others, however, were less enthused. In an interview with Italian media, Paolo di Canio openly questioned Roeder’s capacity to manage the team. Di Canio felt that Roeder had been given the job due to his close relationship with some of the club’s academy graduates, something that Cole’s words would seem to corroborate. Nonetheless, the Italian assured supporters that he would be “fighting tooth and nail” alongside Roeder.
One man, however, who would not be giving his all to the West Ham cause was Frank Lampard. Roeder had watched on helplessly as, three days before he officially got the job, it was confirmed that Lampard had agitated successfully for a move elsewhere.
In truth there had been little chance of West Ham being able to keep the England midfielder at the club under a new regime. Redknapp was Lampard’s uncle, and Frank Lampard Senior, who’d been part of the coaching staff, had been asked to leave alongside Harry. Within weeks of Redknapp’s and Lampard Senior’s exits, Lampard Junior was pulling on the blue jersey of Chelsea.
Notwithstanding the team’s precarious state, Roeder’s West Ham actually had a decent campaign in 2001-02. They finished in seventh, with the academy trio of Carrick, Cole and Defoe coming to the fore. Defoe, in fact, ended up as the club’s top scorer ahead of Di Canio and Fredi Kanouté, while Carrick and Cole’s composed midfield performances suggested they were very much the real deal at Premier League level.
Meanwhile Roeder’s signings – David James, Don Hutchison, Tomáš Řepka and Sébastien Schemmel – had all been impressive in their first season at Upton Park. Against all expectations, Redknapp’s replacement had returned the team to the upper mid-table position that many felt was their rightful place.
Things were looking up. But in the off-season, the transfer funds dried up completely.
The year before, Roeder had been allowed to use the proceeds of Lampard’s move, but prior to the beginning of the 2002-03 campaign, he was told there was simply no money to spend. The only first team players brought in that summer were Gary Breen, Raimond van der Gouw and Édouard Cissé – two Bosmans and a season loan.
It was an inauspicious way to kick off the season, and results soon began to reflect this. West Ham failed to win any of their first 12 home games. It wasn’t until the end of January that the team succeeded in winning at Upton Park, a victory that was greeted with jubilation by despairing Irons supporters.
“Even in the days of Moore, Hurst and Peters there were never scenes of celebration like that,” comments Pete May in Hammers in the Heart. “29 January 2003 would be forever enshrined in club history.”
By that time, a teenage Glen Johnson had emerged from the academy to take a berth at right-back, while Lee Bowyer and Les Ferdinand had been enlisted to steady a ship that was sinking rapidly. The veteran Rufus Brevett arrived soon after, but the new men were unable to arrest the team’s descent into the murky depths of the relegation zone. West Ham’s PA began playing the theme from “The Great Escape” regularly at home fixtures.
An email from Terry Brown to a fan appeared in print: “I note your comments regarding our manager’s abilities, but I do not believe Glenn could have foreseen that David James and Trevor Sinclair would return from the World Cup with a loss of form. He could not have allowed for the injuries to Paolo Di Canio and Fredi Kanouté, nor would he have expected Christian Dailly and Tomáš Řepka to turn from one of the best centre-back partnerships to possibly one of the worst.”
Then, on February 23, Roeder hauled off Di Canio in a match against West Brom.
The Italian appeared to be injured, but was furious at being substituted and, despite his side going on to win 2-1, made his displeasure clear: “Glenn is still a young manager and makes mistakes. Just because we won doesn’t mean all his decisions were good ones.”
Roeder subsequently froze his star turn out of the team, using Di Canio’s injury as justification for not including him in match squads even when the forward had recovered from his knock.
West Ham’s form continued to suffer, and the pressure increased on their manager to the extent that, after a victory over Middlesbrough in late April, Roeder collapsed and was rushed to hospital. It turned out he’d suffered a brain tumour brought on by the stress of the job. He wouldn’t return to the dugout until the following season, when his convalescence was complete.
With three games to go, and West Ham languishing, Trevor Brooking was brought in to steady the ship. But it wasn’t to be, and West Ham were relegated to the second tier.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Roeder’s appointment was not a good one.
But it was a direct result of the excesses of the Redknapp era. What West Ham chairmen of the age craved more than anything else was stability, and Harry’s extravagance threatened that. Hiring someone like Roeder was the logical next step after Redknapp’s sacking. The problem was simply that they’d chosen the wrong patsy.