On the morning of 8 February last year Harry Redknapp was cleared of tax evasion; that evening Fabio Capello announced his immediate resignation as England football manager. The timing was hardly a coincidence. Capello had never been a popular manager – particularly with football reporters – and after he had made clear the previous year that he was planning to give up the job after Euro 2012, Redknapp had been almost universally anointed manager-elect. With his acquittal, the only obstacle to the succession had been removed.
The Harry love-in continued for a couple of months, with nearly every current England player and football pundit weighing in to back Redknapp as the ideal man for the job. Even the Football Association appeared to be endorsing him, with board member Phil Gartside telling the BBC that Redknapp would be "an outstanding England manager". And then, seemingly out of the blue, Roy Hodgson was given the job. If there had been a shortlist, Redknapp hadn't even been on it, as he wasn't invited for a job interview. Redknapp was gracious about missing out, but it was a public humiliation.
Worse was to come. Before the trial, Redknapp's Tottenham Hotspur team had been playing some of the best football in the Premiership. Afterwards, their form fell away and when Chelsea won the European Champions League, Spurs were squeezed out of the top level of European competition for the following season. It didn't seem quite the time for Redknapp to engage in brinkmanship with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy over the renewal of his contract. And so it proved; rather than negotiate, Levy sacked him in June.
By November 2012, Redknapp was back in business at another Premiership side, Queens Park Rangers, but his magic touch again went awol. At the weekend they were relegated.
Things haven't exactly been rosy in the England camp, either. Hodgson's tenure has proved much as expected: methodical, hard-working, but inspiration- and charisma-free. England predictably made hard work of Euro 2012, losing to Italy on penalties in the quarter final, and are no certainty to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next year. Many England supporters who have been observing Redknapp's apparent fall from grace at QPR couldn't help but wonder if Harry wasn't the second-best manager that England never had (the accolade for best still goes to Brian Clough). What almost no one was thinking was whether it was just possible Redknapp had dodged a bullet.
There was a gag going round the terraces of White Hart Lane last season when it seemed inevitable Redknapp would become England manager. "What's the first thing Harry will do when he takes over England? Buy a couple of Croatians." The joke was double-edged, recognising both that the England team looked old and short of quality and that Redknapp's preferred solution at all the clubs he had previously managed was to buy his way out of trouble. With this being a non-starter for an England manager, the implication was that Redknapp would struggle at international level.
And yet it was equally possible that his weaknesses at club level could have proved an asset for England. "The England manager has to play the cards he is dealt," says TalkSport presenter Sam Delaney. "While Harry was very good at wheeler-dealering, it could be very distracting. As England manager, his focus would have been maintained on his existing squad. In the same way, an international manager doesn't have to worry too much about building a squad and developing talent – neither of which are Harry's strongest points; his job is merely to pick the best players who are available to him. Nor does the team ever play so frequently that the squad needs to be rotated – another often-cited Redknapp weakness."
It has also often been argued that Redknapp isn't the greatest tactician – the former Spurs player Rafa van der Vaart once remarked that the tactics chalkboard in the dressing-room was usually kept blank – but he is more than good enough. And his motivational skills would have more than compensated, because at international level a manager is trying to achieve a short-term lift. For a single game or a four-week tournament, Redknapp's basic enthusiasm and common sense are precisely what is needed. Over the course of a full Premier League season, telling a striker – as Redknapp once did to Roman Pavlyuchenko – "to fucking run around a bit" might end up doing more harm than good, but to get a result over 90 minutes it can be effective street football.
Regardless of the qualities Redknapp may have brought to the job, his time as England manager would, almost certainly, have ended in tears. Because every England manager's does. The national side isn't as good as it thinks it is – or, come the major tournaments, as the media hypes it to be – and the inevitable early exit from the Euros and the World Cup is almost invariably followed by recriminations and a sacking. Not that it would have stopped him from accepting the England job had he been asked. Redknapp was 65 at the time and what better way to end your career than taking over the national side?
A more interesting question, though, is just how much Redknapp really wanted the England job. The answer is not what you might expect. Redknapp has been misread by fans, footballers and reporters for years. Despite appearances to the contrary, Redknapp has never been football's ordinary man; he has always been everyone's exception. Other British football managers may have had more success, but few have been more universally loved. He is a man with the gift of making you feel as if you know him when you don't: a national treasure whose weaknesses only add to his charm.
For some, he is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get, always-ready-to-have-a-laugh character out of an Ealing comedy: for others, including the police on occasion, he is the East End working-class wide boy. The archetypal dodgy geezer. Both versions of Redknapp are hopelessly simplistic. You don't get to manage a Premiership club just by cracking jokes and being charming. A manager who was a soft touch wouldn't last a month.
Neither does the dodgy geezer caricature stack up. There have been rumours about Redknapp's financial dealings for more than a decade, but he was cleared of taking bungs by the Stevens inquiry into corruption in football in 2007, released without charge by the police in the same year after being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting, and cleared of tax evasion charges at Southwark crown court in February last year. If there was something desperately dodgy going on, you might have expected it to have emerged by now.
But it isn't just the Redknapp caricatures that have been misread. It is also the finer, more subtle, points of his personality. Starting with his ambition. When Redknapp became everyone's firm favourite for the England job, it was generally assumed that becoming manager of the national team must have been the fulfilment of a lifetime's ambition. And Redknapp did make a few of the right noises. Yet being handed the job on a plate is very different from having a burning desire to do it.
Take a look at Redknapp's managerial career. He was 45 years old when he was forced out/resigned as Bournemouth manager, the age by which many men hope to have made their mark. He then went on to West Ham as number two to Billy Bonds before inheriting – or possibly manoeuvring himself into – the top job. He stayed in east London for about a decade, before falling out with the chairman and finding himself jobless. He then became "director of football" at Portsmouth – a title he had always previously described as a non-job – before again either inheriting or manoeuvring himself into the manager's job. Next up, he had a year in charge of Southampton, in which time the club was relegated from the Premier League, before going back to Portsmouth where he achieved his greatest managerial success by steering the team to a first FA Cup for nearly 70 years.
Bournemouth, West Ham, Portsmouth and Southampton were clubs where a little of Redknapp's stardust would go a very long way and where his managerial weaknesses would not come under too heavy a spotlight. Portsmouth's FA Cup success caught people's attention and the big clubs did come knocking.
Spurs were the first truly big team that Redknapp managed and he was over 60 when he took the job. It wasn't a job he had actually been seeking and a large factor in his agreeing to accept it – apart from the money – appeared to be that London was close enough to his home in Sandbanks near Poole in Dorset for him to commute daily. A lifestyle choice, rather than the realisation of a football dream.
All in all, then, Redknapp's may have been the career of a hard-working and talented manager, but it wasn't one driven by the vaulting ambition of a Fergie, Wenger or Mourinho, the alpha males of football for whom anything less than 110%, heart-on-sleeve commitment to being the best is an intolerable admission of weakness. Redknapp wants to do well, he's prepared to work hard to succeed, but the bottom line is that there are other things that mean more to him than football. Redknapp's main aim has always been to make a living out of the game, to earn enough money to provide for his family while doing something he enjoyed.
Doing a job he liked and being able to return home to his wife Sandra and the dogs to stare out across Poole harbour through the telescope he had mounted in his living room was all he had ever dreamed of when he first went into management. After he had finished his playing career for the Seattle Sounders in the US in 1979, Redknapp had returned to the UK unsure of his future: he had never made any real plans for a life after hanging up his boots and only drifted into management when his old friend and mentor, Bobby Moore, asked him to be his assistant manager at non-league Oxford City on £120 per week.
Redknapp was grateful for the work but shocked at how far Moore had fallen. "It had never occurred to him that a World Cup-winning captain and football legend could end up managing a non-league side, playing against opponents who openly disrespected his reputation," says Pete Johnson, a local sports reporter who has known Redknapp since his early days at Bournemouth. "It was a real wakeup call for Harry. If it could happen to Bobby, it could happen to anyone. From that point on, Redknapp was determined he wasn't going to end up as one of the vast number of bitter ex-footballers who had been spat out and left broke and broken by the game. He was going to keep his wits about him and not let anyone take advantage of him. From then on, whatever career he could make in football was going to be on his own terms as far as possible. And he wasn't going to end up penniless."
And he didn't, though it was a close run thing in the early days. Before he got the job at Bournemouth he considered spending his last £17,000 on buying a cab. Thankfully for football – and the south coast passengers who have been spared his patter – things worked out rather better for Redknapp. The 2012 Sunday Times Rich List in Sport ranked him in 84th place with a salary at Tottenham Hotspur of £4.4m a year and assets of £11m: those who were familiar with Redknapp's financial arrangements considered £11m to be a very conservative estimate.
Long after most of his contemporaries have retired to the golf course, Redknapp is still at it, doing what he loves best. Sure, he's disappointed that he didn't get to manage England, though he is not that sorry to have escaped a lot of the boredom that comes with the job. And sure, he is disappointed he couldn't prevent QPR from getting relegated, but it is not the end of the world. Redknapp had always been on a win-win bet at Loftus Road. If the club stayed up he would be a hero and collect a £1m bonus; if not, almost all the blame for its predicament would be attached to the former manager, Mark Hughes.
Besides, managing a Championship side isn't that bad. Redknapp has done it before and he'll do it again, if necessary. And there is always the chance that come December this year he will get a call from the chairman of another Premier League club – preferably within commuting distance of Sandbanks – who would be looking for him to get the team out of another relegation dogfight. Plus ça change. The sweat, the mud, the adrenalin, the agony, the joy. Who could resist? A footballer is a long time out of the game and Redknapp isn't planning on going away anywhere sooner than necessary.