Harry Redknapp is a delightful, engaging character in real life.
I first dealt with him in 1997 when he was the manager of West Ham and I was General Manager of Celtic. We negotiated the transfer of Marc Rieper. Even when Harry was driving you nuts – as he was on that occasion (the deal was on, then it was off, then it was happening, then it was delayed, not once, but twice) – you couldn’t help but love him.
In 2001 we worked together covering European football on ITV On Digital. Harry was involved in the role of pundit, and I was commentating. The laughs never stopped.
But would you believe he blamed me, even berated me, for allowing Paolo Di Canio into English football by sending him from Celtic to Sheffield Wednesday?
I reminded him that he didn’t need to buy him from Sheffield, but he explained that at a time West Ham were really struggling (as they were) his chairman insisted on a box-office player being signed. Hence Di Canio, who was certainly that.
But handling him was a different story – as I knew; as David Pleat of Sheffield Wednesday knew; as pushed-over referee Paul Alcock knew; and as Harry soon found out. Nevertheless Harry insisted that his difficulties with him were all my fault! He said I should have kept him in Glasgow or sent him back to Italy.
I digress. My interest here in Harry arises from a wonderful story from 1994 when he was assistant manager at West Ham.
They were playing a pre-season friendly against Oxford City and throughout the first half this big guydecked in claret and blue behind the technical area gave the West Ham striker Lee Chapman unrelenting stick. At half-time Harry turned to him and said, “Can you play as well as you talk?”
The fan was stunned into silence. So Harry said, “C’mon, let’s see, you’re going to realise your dream and play for West Ham.”
He took him down the tunnel and the big guy dulyemerged stripped to play the second half.
A local journalist called over to Harry and asked him who the substitute was. Harry replied, “Don’t you recognise Tittyshev, the Bulgarian World Cup striker?”
It turned out the guy could play a bit, and guess what? He actually scored!
The relentless abuse served up by the fan in the first half leads me to this question. What do you reckon is the most consistently used sentence at football matches worldwide?
My suggestion? “That’s the worst referee I’ve ever seen”.
It leads me to despair at the state of football.
In my opinion it’s clear that the governance of the game is fundamentally flawed, and must change. I have already spelt out my abhorrence of cheating in the game.
Rather than condemn one individual faced with the thankless task of dealing with twenty-two cheats we should be eliminating the cheating. Cheating is endemic – it is not only condoned by coaches, spectators and commentators, it is expected, even demanded.
An environment has evolved where it has also become acceptable to yell foulmouthed abuse at matches towards players and officials alike. “I paid my money so I can shout what I like”. The only problem is that such abuse is frequently a criminal offence. Sadly, it seldom leads to arrest.
In my first ever match for Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1964, we played with a referee but no linesmen. Shortly after the start our right winger set off on a run. Suddenly he stopped, picked up the ball, and handed it to an opponent. I was screaming at him: “What are you doing?”
He responded calmly: “ I carried the ball out of play – it’s a throw-in – there’s no linesman, so I have to be honest”.
Honourable in the extreme. But definitely not the done thing at that time on the black ash pitches of the old Palace Grounds in Hamilton, or the black ash mixed with broken glass at Espieside, Coatbridge, where I had become accustomed to playing. And certainly not an approach you will ever see today in a professional match.
Can the omnipresent cheating be eradicated? Yes, definitely. Education is the starting point. It should teach fundamentally that cheating is unacceptable.
Referees should be empowered, even obliged, to issue red cards for cheating – they can recognise the countless instances. Once that happens managers and coaches will insist that there should be no cheating. If there is genuine resolve, it can be sorted out quickly.There should be no differentiation between diving and the many other forms of cheating (see the Appendix!).
The appalling phrase used by commentators “taking one for the team” must be eliminated – by making the offence involved punishable by a red card. Any situation where you can profit by cheating must be eradicated.
At the same time, there must be zero tolerance of swearing on the pitch and from the stands. Immediate expulsion should be enforced. If the numbers are too great for that, the club being supported by the perpetrators in the crowd should be compelled to play the next match behind closed doors – and, if appropriate, forfeit any television money from the match by means of a fine.
The game is too good, too influential and too important, for this not to happen. The question is – do the administrators, FIFA, UEFA, in Scotland the SFA and SPFL, have the courage and resolve to deliver? The evidence so far suggests that they don’t. The inevitable assault by social media and mainline media would be deemed too damaging.
No fundamental changes ever come easily and a great social opportunity is being passed up.
The only answer is for a club to set the tone, and thus the agenda. Ideally it should not be too big a club and be based in a one-club town/city. In Scotland, from the Premiership it could be Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Ross County, Livingston, St Johnstone or Hamilton. St Mirren are probably too near Glasgow and Paisley is a large town. The quaintness and geography of the Accies, in particular, appeal. New Douglas Park, or the Fountain of Youth Stadium, as it’s now known, is also easier to police in terms of size and layout.
It would require strong, principled leadership from the chairman, directors and chief executive, and total buy-in from the manager, and thus the players. The conduct of the players would be of paramountimportance. They would have to agree not to show dissent to the referee, nor swear or spit on the pitch – not to employ gamesmanship tactics such as blocking and delaying opposing free-kicks, grappling at corner kicks and timewasting – basically not to cheat.
Players should acknowledge the crowd at the beginning and end of the match, win or lose, and generally behave like gentlemen – competitive gentlemen, who should play aggressively and make the necessary tackles, but all within the rules of the game.
The club should support this unstintingly, and impose sanctions on players who step out of line, regardless of any steps taken by the referee. Players should be asked before signing if they will buy in to this way of working, so that they cannot complain about any sanctions for breaches of the club protocol.
The target would be for the national news to be reporting on a weekly basis: “Once again, Hamilton Accies had no yellow cards”. It enables a call to be made throughout the local community to back the club by bringing family and friends, women and children, to matches in the safe knowledge that they will be proud of the conduct they witness on the pitch.
At the same time, there must be zero tolerance of misbehaviour from spectators in the stands – no swearing or any kind of verbal abuse acceptable. Stewards would be instructed to identify the seat number of culprits and, where possible and practical, arrange for immediate ejection from the ground. The standards required would be communicated in advance of the matches.
Clearly, all that creates difficulties in respect of visiting supporters. They should initially be kept to a minimum number, regardless of the cost, and they should be isolated within the stadium – to identify precisely where the offensive behaviour comes from.
The initial media reaction will be that this cannot be achieved, which is sad in itself. But it CAN be achieved – if collective resolve exists within the club. The chairman has to put his head above the parapet and say to the media: “What’s wrong with this policy? Why do you say it can’t be implemented? Don’t you want to see it implemented? Does everyone not want to see it implemented?”
If the policy can be maintained it will eventually generate massive positive publicity, and, hopefully, shame other clubs to follow suit. It would attract international attention and put FIFA and UEFA under a level of pressure I reckon they couldn’t resist. They would certainly pay attention, if, as I anticipate, attendances rise.
Strangely enough, this could be one positive outcome of COVID-19. Perhaps this revolution becomes more achievable, now that we are accustomed to empty grounds and limited attendances.
It is surely worth striving for football utopia. And one last thought – how is a golf cheat treated by his peers? He is largely shunned and ostracised. Surely that tells us something.
Deliberately tripping / blocking / grappling with and generally fouling opponents.
Taking free-kicks from the wrong spot and corner kicks outwith the quadrant.
Claiming penalty kicks, free-kicks and throw-ins when not entitled.
Abusing referees to pressurise them unfairly.
Failing to retreat ten yards at free-kicks by standing over the ball to prevent quick execution.