The former Tottenham manager will let you laugh at him if, in return, you let him off the hook
Harry Redknapp, a man primarily known for giving interviews through his car window, creating a bank account in his bulldog’s name, and telling players to just run around, had the good fortune of getting into management before the rise of social media. This gave him time away from prying eyes to refine his managerial style. More important, it gave him time to develop his fundamental sense of Harry-ness: a mix of guile and cluelessness that can be recalibrated according to the needs of a situation, either maximizing his credit or minimizing his blame.
This, in a curious way, made Harry Redknapp the perfect 21st century manager. Every story about Redknapp is a discrete, shareable unit. Even better, the stories about him follow predictable three-act structures. In the first place, Harry appears on the scene, be it the sideline or a parking lot. In the second act, an action takes place: he goes on trial; his team comes from behind; he signs eight players. But if the story ended with the action, it wouldn’t be that memorable. It’d be about the action and not the man. The crucial part of a Harry Redknapp story is that it always ends with the man reappearing with a sheepish grin hemmed in by his jowls. This look tempts you to ruffle his hair and laugh “aw, Harry.” That’s the necessary punchline to every Harry Redknapp story. It is also what the kids now call a meme.
Harry Redknapp is cursed to be the punchline to every story he appears in. That curse also has its perks; it insulates him from consequences. The “aw, Harry”-effect limits his downside risk. Harry Redknapp may be a nice 69 years old, but rhetorically he is always an impish child. Aw, Harry.
The mimetic permanence of Harry Redknapp reasserted itself this week when the former Tottenham, QPR, and Portsmouth manager accidentally ran over his wife’s ankle. Really. The facts of this case are simple. Sandra Redknapp was being dropped off at the shops and crossed behind her husband’s car. As he pulled away, his wife’s coat got stuck under the car, and her foot soon followed. She was taken to hospital and has since returned home propped up by her husband and a crutch.
“It was just a freak accident you know,” Redknapp told the BBC. “Sandra went across the road and unfortunately she had gone behind the car to cross over the road and as I went to drive off I drove over her ankle.”
At face value, a man running over his wife’s ankle is not a funny story. But you probably chuckled. The details are just too perfect. A man known for giving interviews out his car windows ran over his wife’s ankle in the car and then gave an interview about it out his car window? Come on! That, in a nutshell, is the Redknapp effect: Instead of simply mocking him, the public feels in on the joke.
This story, like every other Harry Redknapp story, can easily be broken down into a tripartite structure. First, Harry Redknapp reappears on the scene. He hadn’t really gone away—you could have easily found him sleeping through TV recordings if you really tried—but he had receded from the public consciousness. Here he is again, just as we left him. No need to get reacquainted. In the second act, Harry Redknapp does something; In this case, he runs over his wife’s ankle. That is a very Harry Redknapp thing to do, but if the story ended there the audience would feel too guilty to laugh. Instead, Harry Redknapp needs to reappear a few hours later, lean out his car window—maybe the same car that ran over his wife’s ankle—and give the kind of interview he normally gives when signing Niko Kranjcar. His eyelids are even heavier than usual. This final act reassures the viewer that Redknapp is just a doofus. It is exculpatory for the viewer and, by extension, for Redknapp himself.
Soccer fans and soccer media have a long history of forgiving Redknapp — or at least letting him off the hook with lesser culpability.
This structure is familiar because soccer fans and soccer media have a long history of forgiving Redknapp—or at least letting him off the hook with lesser culpability. Alleged financial impropriety and a bank account in his dog’s name: Aw Harry. Ridiculous and ruinous signings: Aw, Harry. Getting the band back together at every stop on his managerial itinerary: Aw, Harry.
Sports media, it should be noted, isn’t actually biased towards particular teams; it is biased towards good stories, access, and predictable narrative structures. Some teams consistently fit this billing. But no single football figure ticks all the boxes quite so well as Harry Redknapp. He is what political critics might call a “media candidate”—a slightly more successful Marco Rubio, if you will. At its worst, that phenomenon results in coverage like this:
Harry Redknapp can run over his wife’s ankle and receive exponentially more sympathy than Gary Lineker does for his mild defense of refugee children. The structure of a Harry Redknapp story is soothing; you know the third act will offer a release. Gary Lineker calling for the humane treatment of refugees, however, is threatening to some: Who knows where the story is going? That is the faustian pact inherent in laughing at a Harry Redknapp story. In return for forgiving themselves for laughing, fans must forgive him for the underlying act.
A thought experiment: What could Harry Redknapp do that would not be met by many with a rueful grin and the typical “Aw, Harry” response? At this point, his life is like an elaborate experiment to test the limits of this effect. Rank incompetence, suggestions of criminality, and bodily harm have now all been forgiven because of the man’s essential Harry-ness. That doesn’t leave much territory to explore.
Soccer is a fundamentally unimaginative industry. It is a field populated by men who are more comfortable around types of people they already know, men who care profoundly about avoiding downside risk. Harry Redknapp is the manager for those men. He is predictable and comes with built-in excuses from which executives might benefit. He is “a football man,” whatever that means. Harry Redknapp is past his sell-by date now, but he keeps getting jobs. If he decided he wanted to manage at the club level again, someone would surely take the bait. He is unlikely to get the England job he once pined for, but if his name were to be announced, it would be greeted with a familiar reaction. “Aw, Harry,” fans would sigh, and the three-act cycle would start anew.