We’re used to seeing Harry Redknapp inside a car, usually rolling down the window as someone from Sky Sports approaches with microphone in hand to find out about his latest bit of wheeling and dealing on transfer deadline day.
But this time it’s ’Arry asking the questions, plying the driver who picks him up from Cork airport with queries about the Gaelic brand of football. “It’s 15-a-side, innit?” is one. “And will the ball bounce in the mud?” is another.
The scene occurs in the opening episode of The Toughest Rivalry, a series airing exclusively on AIB’s social channels which pits rival football legends Redknapp and Gianluca Vialli against each other as managers of, respectively, Castlehaven in West Cork and Erin’s Isle in Dublin.
The series will culminate with a rematch — due to be played in August — of their infamous 1998 All-Ireland Club semi-final which was decided in Erin’s Isle’s favour by a controversial last-minute goal.
For Redknapp, his first exposure to Gaelic football was an eye-opener.
I’d never seen a game before, didn’t know the rules, I never even watched it on TV,” he said in Dublin yesterday.
“So it was a bit of going into the unknown but I must admit I absolutely loved the game in the few days I spent there. I took a training session that I enjoyed and I only had to adapt football drills into it. You’re still kicking the ball, having volleys at goal, it’s still about technique.”
What most struck him about Gaelic footballers, however, was their all-consuming commitment based, as he saw it, on nothing other than their sheer devotion to the game.
That night when I went there I saw how hard they train, them boys. It was unbelievable really watching them train and how everything they did they took pride in. They weren’t sloppy, their attitude was absolutely spot on.
Amateurs with a professional attitude?
“Yeah. It was an eye-opener for sure to see lads turning up, driving 50 miles to come training because they love doing it, they absolutely love playing. Conditions weren’t great, pouring with rain, miserable night, coming straight from work, going out on the training pitch, putting everything into training. I thought it was great.”
By contrast, the game he knows best has changed out of all recognition from when he was a young player coming through with West Ham in the 1960s.
“For sure, yeah. Everything has changed in football, it’s a completely different game to the one I came into all those years ago. Everything is laid on. No stone is unturned. From the food they eat after training, dieticians, the way they travel, the masseurs. It’s just another world. They fly everywhere, they don’t go on the coach anymore. Arsenal played at Bournemouth last year which is about an hour and 45 minutes by coach but they flew down. It’s unreal now.”
Has anything been lost in all this progress?
Definitely. The players, do they even talk? When you used to get on the coach, there wasn’t even a television. You’d get on and talk to each other, talk about the game coming up and the game you’d played. I don’t think that happens too much now. They don’t even talk, they all have their headphones on, all in the zone or whatever.
For not unrelated reasons, Redknapp was entranced by the intimate community feel of his adopted home.
“I come from east London which isn’t like a little community in Castlehaven,” he said.
“I thought it was fantastic, a great place. Walking around the little village with the pub and shop. It was another world but I thought, ‘what a fantastic world’. People appreciate things more. I found that the people were amazing. I went back home and told people I’d had the best three days I’d had anywhere in years.”