As he walked from the pitch at the end of Birmingham City’s vital victory here, Harry Redknapp pumped his fist at the crowd. And how they responded.
‘A-ree, A-ree, A-ree,’ they chanted, universally delighted that their fortunes are finally this season in the hands of a manager who appears to know what he is doing.
This win over Huddersfield in his first home game in charge was only the club’s third in 24 games since the turn of the year. It does not secure Championship safety – Blackburn’s victory over Aston Villa means the decision will be postponed until the final match of the season next weekend. But Redknapp is halfway to completing what he set out to do when he came to St Andrews with only three fixtures remaining: stem the woeful slide towards League One that had seemed inevitable under Gianfranco Zola. In place of despair, he has given the Blues hope.
In his programme notes, Redknapp described Birmingham as ‘a proper club’. And there was a sense of what potential he might unleash when he emerged from the tunnel: there was not an empty seat in the house.
This match had the sense of a club waking from a nightmare. And when he took a look at the team sheet, Redknapp must have thought his luck was in. Huddersfield’s David Wagner, with an eye to more pressing matters ahead, made 10 changes from the side that had secured a place in the play-offs last Tuesday.
“I’d have done the same, I did it at QPR,” Redknapp said, insisting that no one could complain about his counterpart’s decision. “Anyhow, they’ve still got a lot of good players.”
As he took up his position on the edge of the technical area, the new man must have been astonished how promisingly things began. Birmingham, reorganised by his assistant Steve Cotterill, started with a visible coherence. Where under Zola there was confusion and mess, here was an evident buoyancy. And after less than five minutes, 26,000 people were leaping from their seats when Lukas Jutkiewicz was brought down by Mark Hudson and the referee Michael Jones pointed to the spot. The Polish forward picked himself up to take the penalty. And planted a soft left foot shot into Joel Coleman’s midriff.
Watching from the side, Redknapp did not flinch, keeping his hands deep in the pockets of his substantial track coat. He remained equally unmoved 10 minutes later when Che Adams slid in on the Huddersfield centre back Martin Crainie and Jones showed him the red card.
“I thought it was a harsh decision,” he said. “Very disappointing. After the missed penalty I thought we were bang in trouble. But we showed unbelievable spirit.”
Alongside Redknapp, Cotterill frantically gesticulated to reorganise the line-up. And it worked.
Jacques Maghoma, in particular, was full of spirit and ambition. Skipping through the Huddersfield midfield after 40 minutes, he earned a corner. Craig Gardner took it and Jonathan Grounds somehow bundled the ball over the line. As relief bellowed from the stands, Redknapp remained unmoved, turning away, hands still in pockets, face impassive.
“I leave the screaming and shouting to Steve Cotterill,” he said.
But nerves were never far from the surface. An edgy buzz spread round the ground as news came through that Blackburn had gone one up against Aston Villa. Normally news of their local rivals going behind is greeted with much jocularity hereabout. Not today. Not with the tension crackling.
Redknapp, though, showed no sign of alarm. And when, with 10 minutes remaining, Maghoma was upended by Whitehead as he skipped into the area provoking a second penalty, Redknapp was the only man among the Birmingham back room staff not to partake in an impromptu samba. He was right to be cool. Gardner thundered the ball home. And victory was assured. With it came the inevitable questions about whether Redknapp will now stay on.
“It’s been great, I’ve really enjoyed it, good people,” he said. “It took me five minutes to say I’d do the job. But who knows if I’ll stay, it’s not up to me.”
Any bargaining position he might wish to take will be substantially enhanced if he completes the job next weekend. The maths is simple enough: with a woefully inferior goal difference, Birmingham must better Blackburn’s result to stay up.
“We need a win, nothing else is good enough, a point doesn’t help,” he said. “Still I’d rather be two in front than two behind.”
He has cause for optimism. Long after the final whistle, the fans in the pubs outside the ground were chanting “we’re Birmingham City, we’ll fight to the end.” Two weeks ago, the fight appeared to have gone. Now, thanks to Redknapp, it is back.