As a child, and long before I entered into my official affiliation with Loftus Road, I was fixated with the matchday programme that my brother Jeremy would bring home. I would avidly pore over its pages, reading and re-reading Ranger to Ranger, committing it to memory, chuckling at the cartoons of Bill Tidy and being awestruck at the statistics provided by Derek Buxton; but the apogee of all the articles, as far as I was concerned, was The Michael Wale Report. Not only was his column well-written and entertaining, but he was on the telly! And although he really did look like Francis Beckenbauer, he truly was one of us. When Michael’s peerless pieces were purged from the programme, along with editor and elder statesman Ron Phillips, in favour of the insipid offerings of a faceless publishing company, I was utterly bereft and often mused on Michael over the years, more latterly placated by the knowledge he was still safely ensconced in Shepherds Bush. I was honoured when he granted me this most enjoyable of interviews.
Where did you grow up?
All over the place. Originally Epsom. Then my father, who was a pathologist, moved to Haywards Heath in Sussex when my parents broke up and I was looked after on a farm in Sussex, with an orphan called Michael Buckley, who is now a noted racehorse owner/trainer, at quite a young age. I sided with my father, as my mother left me. I write about agriculture now because of my upbringing! My father then moved to the Leicester General and I spent a lot of my time in a village in Leicestershire. The first club I ever followed was Leicester City. I was taken by the police sergeant who worked for my father. He used to get in for free! Then I followed Leicester at Filbert Street and, like a lot of locals, I followed the football team one week and the Tigers [the Rugby Union team] the next week. That is pretty unique amongst fans, that crossover. I saw Leicester in the 1963 Cup Final. They played Tottenham.
My father was dying at this time [he died at quite a young age] and I was adopted by his good friend, another doctor. I was then sent to Kidworth Grammar School, and I remember a boy at the school, Howard Riley. He became a big star for Leicester City. His family had no money. His shoes had holes in them and he joined Leicester. I think he is still involved behind the scenes for them. That is the great thing about Leicester City. Alan Smith wrote a piece about them recently. He said even the tea ladies have been there for years. The new owners understand all that and it is still very much a family club. As now, they never expected success but that was one of the reasons they have done so well. I used to like going there because the team would run out on the pitch to the post-horn gallop! There was a man who used to play a blooming great post-horn! He would blow on it and make a strangulated tooting sound!
Where were you educated?
Before I went to Kidworth, I went to a prep school - but I was expelled from there for running a book! I lived a fairly delinquent life: my father had been very ill and I lived on my own. I didn’t do any school work. Nowadays there would have been social workers knocking at the door!
Do you think that affected you?
Probably. After my father died, his best friend, who was a dermatologist, thought I needed straightening out, so he sent me to a an amazing co-ed boarding school, which was very progressive, called Bedales, in Petersfield, Hampshire. I went there and I didn’t want to go to lessons, so they said that’s okay, it’s up to you go in the library instead; and they said read Orwell, which I did, and after four weeks I went to lessons and I did very well there. I followed Portsmouth. We used to sneak out of school and get the train down to Portsmouth from Petersfield. They were a brilliant side at the time. [Another club that Harry Redknapp ruined! I have a friend in agriculture, who is a Portsmouth fan and they would cheerfully murder him!] Anyway, I left Bedales and went straight into journalism, as I had run a tabloid paper at Bedales and it was fairly scurrilous. We got into trouble. We attacked the Head all the time! It was a progressive school and we said he’d been at Winchester, which is the most right-wing school, so we said this man shouldn’t be the Head! We had to have cold baths every morning and we wrote to the British Medical Journal and said surely this was injurious to our health and it got in the newspapers. He was furious!
Did you get hot baths after that?
Who were your heroes, sporting and otherwise, when you were growing up?
Mainly jockeys. Gordon Richards, Charlie Smirke - a villainous jockey! Leicester City players: Arthur Rowley. Cricketers, as I used to watch Leicestershire: people don’t realise that in those days there were amateurs in sport and cricketers used to be called by their initials such as W.K.T Moore! He also played rugby for Leicester. As he was the last amateur in the game, it should have been K. R. Sanderson for Rangers! Lords used to have two gates - Gentlemen and Players - to differentiate the two!
What were your first jobs in journalism?
In the holiday after I left school I worked for the Leicester Advertiser but I got turned down by The Mercury. The Derby Telegraph turned me down. They wrote me a letter suggesting I pursue some other occupation. I’ve still got the letter somewhere! I ended up on the Westmorland Gazette in Kendal. Thomas de Quincy had been the editor once! It was an amazing newspaper but after six months I was head-hunted by the Northern Echo. It was a culture shock, going from a weekly in the Lake District to a morning in Newcastle! It was huge pressure. It was much more fast-paced but I enjoyed it. I followed Newcastle United quite a bit and I saw them play Arsenal.
They hate Arsenal up there. They see them as still being the embodiment of the 1930s and the divide between the North and the South, which still exists. If they take to you it’s amazing, like they did with Glenn Roeder, and he returned the love. The Geordies appreciate that. I remember once I was covering a dinner and I got all the shit jobs because I was the junior, and the guy sitting next to me said: “Have you heard The Blaydon Races?” And I said: “No I haven’t,” so they all got up and sang the song. It’s like the national anthem up there! The Northumberland Fusiliers got the Freedom of the City while I was there, and they marched through Newcastle playing it!
How did you come to be in London and Fleet Street?
I fell in love with this girl and I got out of my apprenticeship with the Echo and came and worked for the Acton Gazette because they had a very good editor, Ken Meadows, in the early 60s. But I used to freelance at night for The Standard. After a few months, the Daily Express hired me to work in Dublin. I was still apprenticed, so they said... well, walk out and we will pay the fine. I remember I finished on the Friday and left the desk as it was, went in the Kings Head on the High Street, Acton [which is now closed] and had a drink with all the staff, knowing I’d never come back. I was the first person to have broken NUJ Indentures. I was a rebel from the start. Bedales breeds rebels! The housemaster said to me. “I’m really pleased with you, you’re unemployable!” So I worked for a while in Dublin, then came back to Fleet Street. Then I started script-writing.
I worked for The Observer, covering matches in the 60s. Hugh Mcllvaney was there at the time. I used to play football on a Sunday morning and he used to play for a team called Chelsea Casuals, and we were their deadly rivals. Our team was called Battersea Park, although none of us lived in Battersea. We had writers and actors, artists, a literary editor - we had a real mix. Alfie Hines’s son: the guy that robbed Maples. He was a huge professional villain but a very skilful one. He never used violence. The irony was a lot of my time in Ireland he was living there, but no-one could find him. And they’d say there’s been a sighting of Alfie Hines, and then I met him. He had been captured but had escaped from jail, and I think they more or less let him off in the end. He was an incredibly nice, meek sort of fellow. One of his sons went to Cambridge.
Where would you have shopped for your clothes and records in the 60s, when you first came to London?
I remember Carnaby Street and all that. I grew my hair long and was just swept along with it, I suppose.
Do you still think you look like Franz Beckenbauer?
I never did!
Reference a comment that you made in your column in the programme about choosing a byline photo because it made you look like him...
Oh did I? I was posing! Trying to be like the man in the Gitane advert of the time!
Working for a liberal newspaper such as The Observer in the 60s sounds idyllic. Is that how you remember those days?
Yes, in a way, although I don’t look back because I work with young people now. People say they were the golden years and they probably were. I could earn more money in the past than I can now, because journalism was better paid then, in general. The Observer was an amazing paper. It was properly run. I think now it’s not what it was. It was run by the Astor family, a privately-run newspaper [very much like football clubs]. In the afternoon, if I didn’t cover a match, I used to do the round-up and I’d be in the office about 4.30pm and they would serve sherry! It was a sort of tradition. It was very civilised. They were incredibly clever people, intellectuals.
I was part of the Fleet Street scene then. We used to go in The Cock or El Vinos, and there was a lot of drinking. When I cover stuff now, I’m often the only reporter there, because they just sit and watch the internet. It’s very easy to do but you miss a lot by not being there. I went to a Select Committee the other day. The Agriculture Minister was there. She was grilled for two hours and it got no coverage. It was unbelievable. The obverse is they go mad and cover stuff to the point of saturation. As with the referendum. I had lunch with a friend the other week, who is head of Global News and LBC and we were talking about this. I said: “If I were in charge, I would have a non-referendum station, because people are pissed off already! When you cover parliament, as I do, I attend committees there once a week. It’s a whole world within that world. It doesn’t belong in the outside world. It’s very insular.
You would have arrived in London at the height of the Swinging 60s. What memories do you have of that time?
Well, I became the first rock critic on the FT! I don’t know how that happened.
Have they still got one?
I don’t know, because I don’t read the FT!
You were a great advocate of the independent football magazine Foul, when it emerged in the early 70s. Do you feel that it had a lasting legacy?
It was two young guys, and I remember they came to my house in the Bush. The house was a wreck at the time, when I bought it. I lived in one room upstairs and there was hardly any staircase! They said: “How the hell do you live here?” I just laughed! They were great guys. One of them became a journalist but, sadly, he was killed reporting a war. It was a fantastic publication. I think something like that is needed today. I think the fans are crying out for it. Look at the situation in Newcastle. I think the owner should be jailed for what he has done, not only to the team but the town. The club is a way of life to the people there. Owners don’t seem to realise that! Its history is tied up politically. The Jarrow March, the poverty, it’s all reflected in the nature of the club. He tried to change the name of the ground. I think there should be a national magazine for fans.
Your early career in the media was diverse to say the least, starting as a regional journalist and quickly becoming a comedy script-writer. How did this come about?
There were three of us journos. We all had jobs, but we were fed up with journalism and we wanted to write comedy. So we used to meet up in an office in Fleet Street in the evening and write. One of the guys I teamed up with was Joe Steeples, who worked for a Sheffield newspaper but in London, and we wrote a show called Now! That was on ITV in Wales but it was made in Bristol. We held an open audition - and I discovered Michael Palin as a presenter. He is still a friend of mine.
We called him Dirk [after Dirk Bogarde] We were taking the mick. We all did to each other! We all had nicknames. He was The Thespian! He’s a lovely bloke, just the same now as he was then. The show was a comedy rock show, in that we had these amazing rock bands on like The Small Faces and Rod Stewart. Tom Jones was on nearly every week. Anything Welsh, Tom was there! He was a nice bloke. We had Dusty Springfield and we used to smash pies in people’s faces, appalling things like that!
So you pre-empted Tiswas?
Yes, I suppose we did. It was very anarchic. We did things that you would never be allowed to today. We used to say: “If the Marquis of Bath is watching [he lived in that area] one of your lions has escaped!” Anything mad we could think of, we did! It was an amazing show. After that, I helped create a star called Simon Dee, and wrote his show with Joe. Simon Dee was a ghastly person. He thought he was bigger than he was. We had a lot of power as writers. We worked with the producer, not him.
We just said that’s what you’re doing and we gave him the script. We used to book the acts. We had Jimmy Hendrix on the first show and I remember Bill Cotton Junior was there [he was Head of Light Entertainment] and he came up and, using the most racially offensive of words said: “Get that ****** off my show, I’m not having him on again!” All the acts we booked, we used to know socially. None of them had much money or indeed wanted it. It was a much less materialistic time. I think that’s what’s gone wrong with the world. I was at a dinner party recently with the actor Graham Seed, who played Nigel Pargetter in The Archers. He was killed off by falling off a roof and has never forgiven the scriptwriters!
You wrote for Tony Hancock, and went to Australia to work on a series with him when he committed suicide. What impact did this have on you?
I wrote for a few shows for David Frost with all the Python team.
What was David Frost like?
He was alright. He always claimed he played for Nottingham Forest, which none of us believed! John Cleese used to say “Mega la, Mega la, Maniac!” He didn’t like him! So I knew all that set and I rung Alan Simpson [of scriptwriters Galton and Simpson who were probably the greatest comedy writers ever, apart from Johnny Speight, who I also knew very well ] and I said could I take Hancock back to what he was? I wanted him in his trademark coat and hat, but displaced in Oz, where he could say things like “It’s bloody hot here…” and he’s in that coat and hat! Unfortunately, when I arrived there the guy that signed me said: “I’ve got some rather bad news for you…” I had written a show for ITV on the Saturday night, then flown out to Oz so I was absolutely zonked. “You wont be seeing Hancock for a while because he is pissed out of his head! And it’s breakfast time! I said: “Oh my god! How long’s he been like this?” He replied: “Oh a few weeks!”
I’ve come all that way, so I said we might as well write the scripts and if he recovers he can do them. So I wrote the first ones and actually he got better but he had a few bugbears and problems. He committed suicide after the first episode… he and I were very close.
You didn’t talk to him about Rangers did you; pushed him over the edge?
No! He didn’t like sport at all! I used that antipathy in the show. I had him saying, “Everybody’s at it here! There’s people bouncing up and down and swimming. Awful!” I played football there for a team called Artaman, The Robins. They were on the Pools! If people in England had known that! We used to go down the British Consul and have a look to see if we were on the Pools!
I was there about six months, in Sydney. I could have stayed. I had a good time. They didn’t particularly like the English, I don’t think. You had to be a bit careful! I couldn’t live there. It’s a nice place to go for the sun but it’s a rather peculiar place. When you are in London there’s everything around you, but there’s just nothing there! And their mentality is fairly odd, very basic. If you didn’t like sport in Oz, god knows what you do! I like sport, so I was okay.
Willie Rushton was out there for some reason and we had a drink for Hancock. The English people were over there, in the Press Club in Sydney, and I said to Willie: “Well, they need someone to take Hancock’s ashes back to London and that’s never happened before! [The English taking the Ashes back.] Rushton was a cricket-lover and he laughed - and he did, in his case! I was offered a huge amount of money to write the inside story by one of the Sunday papers but I turned it down. I could have done with the money then but I didn’t take it and wrote a piece for a hundred quid for The Times called Death of a Comedian. I never looked back after that.
It was funny. I always got work, I’ve always remained quite ethical. That’s why I fell out with the R’s because of what went on with the ownership. A friend of mine bought the club: Chris Wright. He was a great fan but I don’t think he understood how to run it - it is an art in itself. Jim Gregory was absolutely brilliant at doing it whether you liked him or not! We used to call him “the gremlin”! [He never knew that…] You wouldn’t want to cross him! He started off in North End Road market selling fish and then he branched out into vans one week when they didn’t have fish!
He was an amazing bloke. He told me that he made Terry Venables go on the pitch and say he was staying. I knew Venables had got the job at Barcelona. He wasn’t going to turn that job down, even for QPR! So he said to Gregory I can’t do that, I’m leaving! Gregory was having none of it and told him: “You will go on the pitch and tell the fans you are staying!” And he did! Afterwards Gregory said to me: “That Terry Venables thinks he’s cleverer than he is…” In truth Venables was a very clever man and a virtuoso in relation to set-pieces. He practically invented them!
When did you start going to QPR, and how did this come about?
I started going to games in the 60s, I don’t know why we chose QPR but it may have been the fact that, at the time, Rangers kicked off their games at 3.15pm, which was very appealing to us. The fact we could have a drink down the pub before closing time and then see the match. This was very accommodating but may have been due to the fact the fans in the Bush wouldn’t have been happy to have their drinking time cut short either! The club must have realised they wouldn’t get a crowd!
The group included quite a few media types such as a guy called Kevin Billington, who became quite a noted TV Producer. (And still alive and well, a subscriber to this magazine, living in Dorset and a regular still at Loftus Road - Ed) We stood on the Loft from the start and loved the intimacy of the ground, and we were blessed with the wonderful football that was being played there.
You famously trained with part-time player Keith Sanderson in the mid-60s. How did this arrangement come about?
I’m not sure how it happened but I was asked to train with Keith, who was the last amateur to play in pro football. He was an engineering graduate from Cambridge. He used to train at night. I met Alec Stock and he said: “Can you run with him twice a week? And he used to train at the stadium. We would run up and down. He was a nice bloke but he wasn’t really a part of the team. Rodney was there. Rodney was different from any other footballer. The referee used to come in and say are there any questions [about his refereeing, etc] and Rodney would look up and say: “Who won the Derby in 1936?” And Rodney would know! He used to drive the team mad. He would sit on the bus reading Pears Encyclopedia!
Any anecdotes about Alec Stock?
He used to put messages up around the dressing room. After Sanderson retired, Alec Stock was very nice and said to me: “Seeing as you’ve been training with Keith, you might as well come once a week” - and as a writer, I could do that. He was a very interesting man, Alec Stock. The messages he put up would say things like ‘Effort equals attainment’. All sorts of things like that, which made Rodney laugh! He used to train the team at Chiswick in what was the Chiswick Polytechnic stadium. There was a big bank and Alec Stock would stand away from the team, and walk up and down the bank. Bill Dodgin, who was excellent at his job, would coach the team. They were ahead of their time in their approach.
Which part of the ground did you watch the 1966/67 season from, and what are your recollections of this experience??
I was behind the goal in the Loft . I remember Leicester coming down to play us as they had been my team, and they were First Division and we were Third. They had Gordon Banks in goal and we were shouting abuse, putting him off. I don’t think he had ever been so close to a crowd. You could almost touch him! It was incredible!
Your memories of the League Cup run and the Final itself?
All seen on the Loft. The Final, I think we went on the tube. At half-time, I thought we’d had it. It was expected really, because they were in the First Division and we were in the Third. We did think Rodney might turn it around, as we knew he could. Like Bowlesy, there’s only been two players ever at Rangers who could turn a game like George Best, who I knew in Manchester when I was working for Simon Dee. I trained with Man City once a week [through Alec Stock] when Allison and Mercer were there. Best wasn’t drinking then. He was a fantastic player. He would stay up all night, clubbing, but he would never drink. I remember I played in a big charity match at Oldham Athletic. It was Man City v the rest of Manchester, I think. I was left-back and I was marking Bestie - and Ken Barnes, who was then one of the coaches at City, was shouting to me: “Keep him tight! Keep him tight!” George dropped his shoulder and just went past me as if I wasn’t there! I won one tackle and there was such a roar I didn’t know what to do with the ball!
Rodney v Stanley: You interviewed these extraordinary characters many times. How would you compare them; and with which of them did you have the closer affinity?
That’s a difficult one. I’d probably be closer to Bowlesy, because I was older and I used to drink in the Crown & Sceptre, which was a great R’s pub. So, yes, I’d say I knew Stan better. I followed him to Brentford, as a good friend of mine, Martin Lange, bought Brentford and he looked after Stan incredibly well. He got him a house there and looked after him financially. Martin Lange actually invented the play-offs. He’s never been given credit for it but he realised the season just used to tail off, and it was his idea. Jim Gregory looked after Stan, too, I have to say. Yes, I’d say I had a closer relationship with Stan.
Who would you say was the more complete player?
I think Rodney, because he was bigger and stronger, therefore you couldn’t knock him about. Rodney told me once he was playing away at Liverpool and their half-back was out to do him. Rodney was on the blind side of the referee and he punched him in the face! And in the second-half, he said he didn’t go out of his own half! But he didn’t get any more trouble out of him. Rodney was a bit of a personality, whereas Stan was a rather ordinary person, really, who had this amazing talent.
From the word go, Rodney saw himself as a star. Before he came to Rangers, he was at Fulham, playing with Johnny Haynes. Haynes was God in those days at Fulham, and Rodney was about 19. Haynes passed the ball to Rodney and it didn’t come to him. Rodney went down on his knees and lifted his arms to the heavens. I also remember saying to him once: “Cor, you took long enough to score that goal!”; and he replied: “Do you know why? I was doing fifteen across and ten down: that part of the net!” That supreme arrogance was part of his talent. Also both players had huge technique, which is quite lacking in the English game.
In 1978 you played in a charity 7-a-side game for Rangers alongside Stan. You described this as “half of your dream” Any tales about this?
I remember him hitting a ball. He just said to me: “Run there, just go there.” I thought, why - because there was nothing there. But I did what I was told and the ball just landed at my feet. I tapped it back to another teammate, and we scored. He had that incredible vision.
You said the other half of your dream was to play in the number 10 shirt in a testimonial. Is this still your dream?
Well, no, I’m too old now! I wouldn’t want to embarrass the number 10 shirt! No way! I’ve still got the shirt I played in, in the Gary Waddock testimonial. It didn’t have a number on it - but it was an old-fashioned R’s shirt.
You played in a lot of charity matches. In one in particular, you played for Rick Wakeman’s XI against a showbiz team at Marlow Town. Your memories of this?
Yes, I had a bit of a running battle with the actor Patrick Mower. I think he came off the worse, as he ended up with a half-inch deep cut on his right leg! I remember being in another charity game for Keith Blakelock [the policeman who was killed at Broadwater Farm] in South London, the then centre-half of Brighton took me out and I got him back and he didn’t play on the Saturday!
You interviewed a considerable number of Rangers players and managers over the years. Who were the most memorable interviewees?
People like Mick Leach. He was a very intelligent man and was quite interesting, but most footballers never let that out as it seems not to be the done thing. Hopefully this mentality will change with the influx of European players into the Premier League. They seem to be more rounded individuals
You have supported Rangers since 1965 - what are your best moments?
The League Cup Final. Also the 1982 Cup Final. Before the match, I went to the hotel and I travelled with the wives on their bus. Terry Venables asked me to talk to some of the younger players, as they were very nervous. He pointed them out to me and said: “Just keep talking to them. Keep them occupied.” I went to the party afterwards, when Terry Venables sang What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?! I also remember the much less auspicious occasion of the 1986 Milk Cup Final. I came back from Wembley on the team bus and they dropped me off at home.
Any particularly trying times in being a QPR supporter?
Too many to mention really! Relegations. I remember one year both Leicester and QPR went down. I was their lucky mascot! When I first started supporting Rangers, the ethos was entirely different. The team played with style and finesse. That seems to have gone and I regret that. I’d like to see two things happen: to return to that kind of football and also to return to finding good, young, local players. Also to use the non-league more. DJ Campbell was a great prospect. It didn’t work out for him, sadly, but that is an avenue the club should go down.
Also go out to the local estates and look for youngsters. I could never understand why the club didn’t take advantage of the talent on their doorstep. I think it’s beginning to happen again. Les Ferdinand has kept Chris Ramsey on as a coach in the Academy/Youth team set-up, and for me that is a very good move. I think QPR should also go back to being a community team and forget the new ground. All those figures they plucked out of the air about getting 40,000 attendances! That’s never going to happen. We can barely get 20,000. Maybe for the big games, but what about all the other fixtures?
Where did you stand in respect of the proposed merger with Fulham in 1987?
I was completely against it.
Do you think that Jim Gregory tarnished his reputation by the manner in which he sold the club to property developers?
I don’t understand why he did that, because he was a dyed-in-the-wool QPR man. During the period he was chairman, everything he did was for the benefit of the club. That’s why selling out the way he did was so unfathomable.
Your fondly-remembered column appeared in the programme for many seasons from 1969 onwards. The impression given was that Ron Phillips gave you free rein to write about whatever you wanted to, with no editorial intervention: would this be correct?
Very true. He was wonderful. It was a great time for me. Then the club allowed the programme be taken over by some company that had no connection with Rangers and they produced it like any other club. Anodyne and sterile, characterless; the obverse of what the programme had always been.
Did some of the QPR players become personal friends?
Gerry Francis has always been a friend, and I felt deeply sad about Dave Clement’s suicide. I thought clubs could learn a lot from that. He felt he was out of the camaraderie once he retired, and I think that clubs - and Rangers in particular - should be forging stronger links with ex-players. It is a subject close to my heart, because I was trying to find Keith Sanderson and if the club had something in place to facilitate this, I could have done. They said they had an address for him in Hull but no contact details, and I was a trifle put off. I would really like to write a piece about him because he was the last amateur. Whether he would do it is another matter. He might do it for me as I trained with him, all those years ago. [Keith Sanderson is alive and well, and nowadays lives in Preston. He is in regular contact with our own Mike Lancaster - Ed]
You have previously supported the idea of clubs ground-sharing, and have argued that grounds should be fully utilised. Is this still your stance? And do you think this will ever happen in English football?
Well if Chelsea had moved near to Rangers, I think it would have been a good idea to ground-share and there’s the 40,000 capacity stadium [NEVER! WE WOULD NEVER SHARE WITH CHELSEA!] Friends of mine say: “Never use the C-word, and they mean Chelsea!” Football clubs, again, should be part of the community. The fans would have to decide. In West London, you could share because property is so expensive. If there was a neutral place that could be agreed upon, like Wormwood Scrubs, I’ve always said that’s where Rangers should build their stadium. To me, it’s a perfect place. It’s very run down. There would be huge emotion and outcry from people, about wildlife and birds and all the rest of it, but don’t worry about that. [AS LONG AS NO ALLOTMENTS WERE TO BE DESTROYED, EH MICHAEL?] Of course! I fought against the Olympics in East London on that very premise!
You also pre-emptively floated the idea of an all-weather pitch, a year and a half before Rangers introduced the Omniturf. Looking back now, was it a good thing for Rangers?
I’ve been proved right in the long run, in that Saracens, the rugby club, play on an all-weather pitch and most of the wealthier football clubs all train on Omniturf. It’s obviously the thing of the future. The surface we had was appalling; but we were the innovators and it was in its embryonic stage. When I played in Gary Waddock’s testimonial, the ball shot by at an incredible height, and you could get third degree burns if you went over, whereas now the bounce is perfect. It has been improved considerably in the last few years.
You were an early advocate of all-seater stadiums. With growing calls for affordable, safe terracing (based on the German model) to be brought back, do you still feel this way?
I did like standing, and I started going to football when you went on the terraces; but on the other hand after a considerable amount of tragedy and death because of unsafe terracing, and other factors, something had to change. I met Lord Chief Justice Taylor, who brought in all-seater stadia. He was a good man and acted for the best of reasons. Certain areas in grounds, people still stand up, so I don’t see a problem if safe terracing could be installed. If fans voted for terracing, I would be in favour of that.
You said of QPR supporters in 1980: “It is interesting that one thing that binds us together, not that we demand to win, but that we want our team to play well, with style and spirit.” Do you think this philosophy still holds true with QPR fans in the modern era?
I think it holds true with the fans, but maybe not with the club. I think the players should be made to read that. And the owners. And the Board! Who are the board now? Where is Fernandes now? He was ever-present on all the social mediums and now he seems to have disappeared.
Back in 1980, you queried why there were not more black players on the playing staff of West London football clubs as, “After all, in this area many of the best players are Londoners and black.” Was there a climate of racism at Rangers then, would you say?
Of the era, people were racist - and in this area, in particular, which was quite an Irish area, and the older Irish, through ignorance, could be termed racist. It’s ironic because the two cultures mixed very well eventually.
When discussing plans for the building of the new Loft, you mentioned that 10 squash courts were to be incorporated. These never materialised - do you have any idea why?
I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t make them money! Jim probably put the block on it. I think Rangers do a lot in the community now, but I think the ground could be used more by local people.
What were the circumstances of your departure from the programme? Would it be right to assume that when you left it was not on the best of terms?
I think they departed from me! They didn’t want me any more. Ron left and the people who had taken over the programme didn’t seem to understand what I wrote, and I don’t think they wanted it anyway. I would still like to write for the programme, but on my terms!
Did the manner in which you left the programme have a negative effect on the way that you subsequently perceived Rangers?
No, I will always love Rangers. I always look for their results. I went into rowing at quite a high level, as a cox, and it took up a lot of my time.
Looking back, Ron Phillips never shied away from including independent voices and distinctive talents in the programme, such as yourself and cartoonist Bill Tidy, and occasional contributors such as the novelist Leslie Thomas. Nowadays the content is overwhelmingly generated, and carefully controlled, by the club. Should this change in emphasis be regarded as a retrograde step by the club?
Yes, but far be it for me to say so! I don’t know if the club produce the programme themselves or if they contract it out, but I would be quite willing to write for the programme again!
But you are going to write for us?
In modern football, everything emanating from a club is tightly controlled by its media department. What is your opinion of this state of affairs?
I don’t like the PR industry. I don’t deal with it in my work. I write about agriculture and the environment, and unless I can speak to the relevant Minister or other relevant officer, I don’t speak to anyone. Some PR people are quite helpful but it’s not the greatest industry and I think that modern government actually personifies the industry, because its all about spin but no substance. It’s needed in certain circumstances. You have to sell the product, which is football, but I don’t know how available the players are nowadays. In my day, Rodney used to stand outside the Harp cafe, specially posing - like the man in the Gitane Ad again! All the players used to eat there. I’d like to see more of that in football; more accessibility. The fans are generally polite and wouldn’t bother people. That was the lovely thing about the Crown & Sceptre. The night we got to the 1982 FA Cup Final, we all came back and the team were serving behind the bar! Can you imagine that now? I’m sure many players would, actually, if given the chance.
Walk around Shepherd’s Bush now and you see local kids wearing replica shirts of the top English and European sides, but who have never set foot inside Loftus Road to watch a live game. Shouldn’t this concern Rangers, in respect of where the next generation of supporters are going to come from?
Again, you go back to marketing. I would market the club locally. I always say to local people why are you wearing those team colours? You should be wearing the hoops! I work with The Phoenix School and they do say good things about the club, and their work in the local community but could they be doing more?
What approach do you think Rangers should take to building a team that can get back into the Premier League and then establish itself there?
Les Ferdinand should pay me for this answer! I think they’ve got to bring in one or two older players, like they did in the past with, for example, Frank McLintock. Frank was partially injured when he came to Rangers. He had a bad ankle but he read the game superbly, so he could compensate for that with his vision and experience, and bring young players into the mix. We’ve lacked continuity in management. Too many short-term measures.
The club have held tentative discussions regarding establishing an ex-players association at the club. Would you be supportive of this? And what should its remit be in your view?
I would be very supportive of such an association. I’m sure the ex-players would appreciate it. Dave Thomas, on the Legends Day, told us all about how he was going blind, and I don’t know if the other players previously knew that. Brian Viner wrote an excellent piece for the Daily Mail on Dave, and publicising such issues does help if players and fans know about such things. I’m sure they would be more than happy to help, and also I’m certain players would like to meet up. An association could assist them not only in matters such as welfare, but social too. Also in relation to Stan - when I went to the Legends game, I met Stan’s brother, and he was a lovely bloke. He said to me: “Don’t let him be alone on the pitch, because that’s when he gets really worried. And it hit home to me the toll Alzheimer’s is taking on Stan. An ex-players assocation would be taking care of Stan’s welfare and providing support for both Stan and his family.
Under Harry Redknapp two years ago, Rangers were promoted playing perhaps the dullest football ever seen at Loftus Road. Does the end justify the means?
No, because the fans don’t like it!
Recently you were invited back to the club, along with several former players and staff members, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the wonderful 1975/76 season. What did you make of your experience of watching the modern-day Rangers?
It wasn’t comparable to the 1975/76 season! Maybe we felt a little disappointed. But, on the other hand, we were asked to predict the score and bets were being taken. I should have had the bet because I said to Les “3-0” - and it was! He said to me: “You better come again!”
What have we lost and what have we gained as the modern era of football has developed?
We’ve lost the fan feeling, through pricing them out. And now the Premier League is awash with money, ticket prices should be brought down. Also the cost of food and drink at games should be reduced. The money should not all be going on players’ wages. It is going straight out of the game. I think its obscene. Two years ago, my life was saved by a doctor at Hammersmith Hospital - a fantastic heart surgeon. You think what he earns and what footballers earn. Okay, there is the entertainment element, as with rock stars. People pay to go and see them, but I think the game has lost a sense of proportion. I don’t blame the players for getting as much as they can - anyone would, in any job, but some sort of restriction should be in place.
Could it be argued that football journalism – both in the quality and tabloid press – has become somewhat lazy, boring and unoriginal nowadays, with journalists across the board just faithfully writing up club-controlled press conferences?
In my day I only spoke to the manager alone, so I think it’s possible - as long as you prove that you are trustworthy. I think there’s a lot of untrustworthy news people going around football, looking for scandal - and the clubs become self-protective as a result of it. You have to train players how to deal with the media. That’s fair enough, because some of them will be wary of it. However there is a sort of ‘crowd-mentality journalism’ in football nowadays, where they all seem to stream along the same line. I don’t think much of Louis van Gaal but the media helped him to get the sack. They baited him and he fell for it one day, and lost his temper. They wouldn’t do that with Ferguson. If you asked intelligent questions of him he answered them. Hugh McIlvaney was a great friend of Fergie and they used to share a bottle of wine, but Hugh would ask intelligent questions, as I said. I’m not so sure that interviews should be given too soon after a game because you might not be in the right state of mind to do so.
What about the role of social media in football? Do you believe that players should be allowed to freely express their opinions on Facebook and Twitter - even if they are provocative and distasteful - or should clubs exercise a blanket ban on their players using these outlets?
Yes, I do think they should be able to express their opinions. I don’t see that you can ban it. It’s a modern medium and part of modern life. But as a writer, my words are precious - and all these idiots who tweet about what they had for dinner, I think: “My goodness me! Have you nothing better to do with your life?”
How would you compare the modern-day QPR programme to the Ron Phillips-edited version that you contributed to for so many years?
That’s a provocative question! My PR person said I shouldn’t answer it! Obviously I loved that programme and I do think that the programme should have a more personal touch and again I am offering my services to the club. I did find it odd on the day that I was a ‘Legend’ that they didn’t have one of my old articles in the programme! I’m not certain they really knew who I was!
One aspect of the Ron Phillips-edited programme that should never be underestimated is the magnificent photography of John Brough. Do you think that there is mileage in the club staging an exhibition of his impressive portfolio, with a book to accompany it?
Yes, also even more importantly the Bill Tidy cartoons, because they must be worth a fortune! I got to know Bill Tidy later. He was involved in a comedy that I was involved in. I did a football album at one time called A Funny Game, Football. It had a lot of the Pythons on it and he did the cover. I think Ron just met Bill somewhere and asked him to contribute to the programme - that’s how Ron was. Ron used to stage plays at the Barons Court Theatre. He ran the theatre and wrote a lot of the plays that were on there, so he knew a lot of people in the entertainment industry.
As someone who was an ‘insider’ at Rangers during the greatest period in our history, have you ever considered writing a book about those days?
No, because I am just finishing a book now and it’s taken me five years! I’ve got 71,000 words done… [71,000 WORDS? THAT’S ABOUT THE LENGTH OF ONE OF MY ARTICLES!] The book is about how small farms can feed the world. I could put it in a one-man show. I prefer performing. Like all writers, I’m lazy…
I’m a writer and I’m not lazy!
Well there you are, you’re a good writer!
How might you summarise what Rangers have meant to you in your life?
It gave me huge happiness and it brought me inside football, which was interesting. It was stimulating to be able to write about football as someone in the know. I’ve always taken part in sport at a high level and I’d like to see more journalists do the same. As a rule they don’t. I think you then understand what winning and losing means. You understand the emotion that is involved. I was involved in horse racing, later riding out and riding work, and you become part of the yard and that taught me a lot. You realise what it means to people. In rowing, you hate the crew and the crew hate you! Like being a jockey, it’s a most peculiar position being a cox. Most of them loathe you because you are telling them what to do and they think they know better than you! If they win it’s down to them and if they lose it’s down to you! The coach said to me you are like a goalkeeper: they only look at your mistakes!
You have also had a varied career on radio and TV – ranging from presenting the Rockspeak magazine programme on Radio One in the 70s, to working as a TV presenter on programmes ranging from local news to the children’s programme, London Bridge. What memories do you have of those days?
Good memories! When I interviewed Gaddafi, I thought I was going to get shot. I did a piece on London News about the Libyan show-jumping team coming to the Windsor Horse Show, and I did a fairly satirical report on that. I said the Queen has some rather unusual visitors this afternoon. And we panned off from Windsor Castle down to the Libyan show-jumping team. Then I got a message from Libya, saying, “Mr Michael, you come to Libya.” It was from this guy who was one of the PR assistants to Gaddafi. “We are holding big show-jumping competition in Tripoli.” I replied:|“I can’t just go to Libya!” But in the end I went there. In those days, I was fantastically briefed - even now there’s nothing I don’t know about Gadaffi. I interviewed him - and his entourage didn’t like the tone of my interview! I interviewed him on a whole range of things, not just sport. I pointed out that in his famous little green book, he was going to blow up all sports arenas because he felt the people should be in charge of sport! So I asked him: “Are you going to blow up this place I’ve just watched the show-jumping from?” He replied: “Oh, did I say that? He was trained at Beaconsfield by the English. We should never have got rid of him. He was a total despot, but there you go!
Anyway, the next morning there were two cars. They put the crew and the director in one car, and me in the other. I said: “Well, I suppose this is the moment I get shot is it?” The Libyans thought that was a wonderful joke. I liked Libyans. They have a great sense of humour! This was in the 1980s. I remember arriving there. It took six days before he gave me the interview. He was like a drag queen, Gaddafi. He had all sorts of dresses and uniformed garb!
One day he would be dressed as the Head of the Navy, this day he was dressed as an Arab sheikh. He was in an Arab tent in the desert, so he had to walk across the sand into the tent and it was about 100 degrees and incredibly hot. I was in a suit and tie and they said: “Don’t worry, talk to the Leader,” as they called him. “Yes, sit down and talk to the Leader before the interview. He’s very nice. Just relax.” So I said: “Hello Leader, it’s certainly hot out there!” He was dabbing himself with cologne like on an airline, and he said: “Is it?”And that was the last word he said before the interview! So that was probably the most memorable moment of my career - and I got out of it alive!
Did they ever come back, the Libyan show-jumping team?
To England? No.
Do you have a preference for a particular medium?
I like radio. I like listening to cricket, I like five-day Tests, when they talk for half an hour. I think a lot more of that could happen in football. I’d like to do a programme where you talk for half an hour to a footballer, manager, etc. I think radio has a terrific magic that television doesn’t have. People think they have to perform, and they can be very forced and wary. I would love to do a programme where I talk to ex-players from years gone by, about the old days at Rangers and they would tell you funny stories that they probably wouldn’t tell on television. I think it’s a beautiful medium and people forget that it’s not just a music medium.Talk Sport has started more of the kind of thing I’m referring to.
Your favourite books and authors?
Because I went to United Arab Emirates last year and wrote a couple of pieces out there, I became interested in a writer called Alfred Thesiger, who crossed the desert before the war with only an Arab for company. He’s an amazing man and I have read a lot of his books. I also read a lot of books about horse racing.
You were always ‘a man of the turf’, and often cited Damon Runyon. Did the raffish types that frequented the racecourses considerably add to the attraction of horse racing/dog racing for you?
Today, if I was in charge of things, I would make modern dog tracks small and comfortable, quick to put up. It could be a fantastic sport if some investment was put into it. I love horse racing because of the mix of people. It’s unbelievable that you can get the Queen walking through a gate, and then the biggest villain in the world! However, I would stop the betting adverts on TV because I think people don’t realise how addictive gambling is. I think those adverts are very hypocritical, with their warnings to gamble sensibly. Who thinks of that in a betting shop?
Who are your horse racing heroes?
Desert Orchid, Mill Reef - I’ve got his picture downstairs. Paintings by John Skeeping - a great artist. I knew him and I have many of his paintings of horses. Peter O’Sullevan, I knew. He was a great hero. He told me a fabulous story about White City dogs. Peter always had a bet but he was a very clever gambler. He went to White City dogs one night with John Skeeping, and they ended up on a pub on the Green. Skeeping said: “I’m brassic! I’ve done all my money, Peter. I can’t even buy you a drink.” So Peter said: “I’ll tell you what. You give me those four paintings you did that I like for fifty quid!” And he did.
Of course, the paintings were worth much, much more! They were great friends, though, and Skeeping was flown all over the world to paint horses. He was an amazing man. He was married to Barbara Hepworth, the sculptress, to begin with but that didn’t last too long! He was a bit of a reprobate!
Do you think that there is a lack of colourful characters nowadays in sport in particular, and life in general? If so, do you think everyday life is diminished as a consequence?
I think there’s still some characters. I like Ronnie O’Sullivan. I remember interviewing him when he was 13, so I almost discovered him! I thought at the time this is an amazing story. He was quite grown up for 13. He was at home in the East End, and his Dad was there - but he was like his father’s father. Of the two he was the more mature one! His Dad later went to prison. I think Ronnie is a genius at what he does - and also he is good fun!
You are now very passionate about the sport of rowing. How did this come about and what is the extent of your involvement?
I came back from the country to London, so I wasn’t riding any more. I filmed the Oxford crew rowing, and I thought that looks interesting. One of the team said: “If you come down at half-past six tomorrow morning, we’ll start you off coxing,” So that was that! I’m not very popular in rowing, in that I introduced freelancing, so to speak, and I had no loyalty to any one club. Rowing is very old-fashioned and people usually stay with one club for the whole of their lives. I’ve had about five or six ! I’m mercenary really! I’m not paid but people ask for me, fortunately. I’ve been with Quentin now for three years - but they were loyal to me when I was ill, so there we are.
Your favourite music and artistes?
Pink Floyd - and Rick Wakeman, who I knew. I helped discover him, I suppose. He was playing with The Strawbs - and I suggested to Rick he should forge a solo career. I like The Who - a good Shepherd’s Bush band! Pete Townsend said to me: “I spend all my life trying to leave Shepherd’s Bush and you go and entrench yourself!” But I love it here, the nice mix of people.
Another great interest of yours is the use of land for allotments. How did this develop?
I had an allotment and then I led a campaign to save the allotments in Bromyard Avenue, W3. The Park Club at the back wanted all the land to build on. I wrote a book about it, called View From A Shed, which is the whole story about how I got involved. Now I would look more for community growing. I met the head of Westfield and said they should have a community orchard, and I keep on at the Council about planting growing areas. They have a really bad record in relation to this. I think rather than allotments, this is what they should be doing because people move far more now.
I think there should still be more allotments, but I devised the notion of half-plots for women. These are smaller pieces of land. I wasn’t being patronising. I’ve always believed in the equality of women. It was the practicality. Women were faced with these huge areas and having limited time, with jobs and families to bring up - but with half-plots they could grow a lot but didn’t have the burden of a full allotment. I led the move for the association to appoint the first woman chair.
Is it a case of what was initially a hobby becoming a source of employment, given that you are now regarded as primarily an agricultural journalist?
I had to switch from covering sport during the fight to save the allotments. So it came out of that. Also I became quite ill and had to have various surgeries. I was operated on for cancer and when I came round after the operation, I was in this room and there was a doctor leaning over me. He said: “Do you remember me?” I replied: “Well, I’ve been out for two hours, so I’m slightly groggy.” He then said quite animatedly: “You coxed me at Imperial College and we won lots of big competitions. This man is to be looked after like family!”
In 2013 you advocated the provision of a pay-per-view system for the BBC - but surely that negates the premise of a free broadcasting service?
In my opinion, the whole future of the BBC has to be seriously discussed. There are people in middle management earning £200,000 a year, which is ridiculous. I think it has got far too large and I would reduce the licence fee to £100 and make them cut their cloth accordingly. They are in magazines - I don’t think they should be going into such areas. They are a broadcaster and that should be it. As much as I love BBC4, I do not see the need for it as it was only put in place because BBC2 had been watered down as a channel. I think the BBC has lost its way. It’s 2016, not 1938.
Many of the familiar landmarks of our locality have now disappeared: the White City Stadium has long gone; as have the cinemas on the Green - the Odeon and the Essoldo; the Hammersmith Palais went in recent years; and we are currently being systematically denuded of the BBC. In fact, if Rangers were to leave the Bush, we will have lost practically everything that made the area distinctive! As a long-term resident in the borough, what are your views on this process?
A lot of my life has been obliterated! Various papers I worked for, the buildings have gone. Lime Grove has gone. I was very angry with the BBC because I worked for them for several years and Lime Grove was a leading place. It should have been made into a television museum because it had been part of the film industry, before the television industry, and all they have got now is the name Gaumount Place, which to me seems like a ghastly joke. Shepherd’s Bush has been very important in television and film and all that should be remembered and commemorated here, not in Salford!
Are you currently working on any projects?
I’m finishing the book about farming - 71,000 words, due five years ago! I’m hoping to do a one-man show, which I will do in the Bush. I wouldn’t venture out of the Bush, I wouldn’t feel safe! Nobody would know who I was! I have been in the Bush on and off since the 1960s and I am here to stay!
And on that note I ended a most pleasurable few hours talking to one of most important but uncelebrated characters in Rangers social history! Michael has led an amazing life, ever at the epicentre. He may be a rascally raconteur but remains a gentleman; slighter greyer now, yet looking much as he did in those treasured programmes of my youth.
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