This is all very embarrassing. What started off as a simple mention about going along to see Ray Harford at the training ground for an informal chat had soon escalated into full-scale rumours that I, together with the two lads from the unofficial website, had conducted a sort of John Pilger-ish interview and was about to provide an in-depth expose of all manner of things. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Although expansive, Ray Harford said little that we didn’t already know or could guess at.
When we - ‘we’ being Phil Weller, Dave Anderson and Stan Hackwell - met with Ray Harford on his first day in charge at QPR, we told him he’d walked into a much harder job than he had imagined. He grinned knowingly and nodded agreement, the 1-0 home defeat by Sunderland that afternoon providing plenty of evidence for this assertion. What had been planned as a brief 10-minute chat turned into a marathon two-and-a-half-hour in-depth discussion, in which we went through the team, the club and the reasons Ray Harford had found himself charged with the responsibility of arresting a decline that had begun five, six, or maybe even seven years beforehand.
He listened to what we had to say; and we, in turn, listened to his views on our club from the perspective of an experienced and fresh pair of eyes, and to his early impressions. If we were impressed by his immediate grasp of the problems and the way in which, unlike his predecessors, he gave every indication of not only listening to our points but hearing them too, then we like to think he, in turn, respected the views and opinions we put to him. The glances at watches that evening, as the discussion moved towards the three-hour mark, were ours. Ray Harford looked for all the world as if he would have talked all night.
It was longer than I’d have liked it to have been - but, finally, three months down the line, we caught up with Ray Harford again - this time in his office at the training ground. It was a different ‘we’ this time: myself, Ben Humphrey, who runs the unofficial QPR website, and Graham Waddon, who helps support it.
We found Ray in his office at the top of the stairs - despite being assured that because his door was shut firmly (“It’s always wide open”), he couldn’t possibly be there. He was - and the tape recorder in his hand, together with the welcoming handshake and “Would we like coffee?” (we would), reassured us there was nothing sinister in the closed-door welcome.
“So, Ray,” went my opening gambit, “do you believe us now about the size of the task you took on?” He grinned and rolled his eyes to the ceiling, making any further comment unnecessary.
Coffee suitably dispensed all round, we began by asking him about the relegation battle. How scared was he? “Shitless,” was his honest and immediate response. But then you always get the impression he’s never less than honest. Or frank. And he remembers everything spoken about in previous meetings. He revealed his fears had been eased with the signings of Vinnie Jones and Neil Ruddock. “Real men” in his words - and winners, too. They would, he was certain, demand and command respect from the other players. It was a word he used a lot, “respect”, particularly in relation to ‘lack of’ - something he felt too many players at the club had. Not for him, as manager especially, but for each other.
There was, he said, a lot of dishonesty in the team, with players arguing amongst themselves and few prepared to accept responsibility for their own actions. He talked generally, rather than specifically, but did reveal the names of two young players who, in his words, “hate each other”. This general lack of respect for team-mates too often resulted in players not playing a particular ball, or making a particular run, to help out each other. And so contempt breeds dishonesty, and dishonesty breeds resentment.
One of the things Ray Harford had claimed back in December was that if players wanted - really wanted - to learn from him, they would. But he wore a resigned look when he spoke of some young players’ attitudes. “You can’t talk them, they don’t want to listen. They think they know it all. And when you are trying to teach them, to improve them, they don’t want to listen even more. I couldn’t get anyone to play willingly out wide in midfield. They’d invent injuries. One young player told me he’d rather play in the middle for the reserves, rather than out wide in the first team. That’s why I had to play Paul Murray out there, even though I knew he hated it.”
The idea that anyone could adopt that sort of attitude left us bemused. If we’re given an instruction at work, we suggested to Ray, our employers were entitled to expect that it would be carried out. “But then you live in the real world,” he retorted.
One particular player, Ray revealed, was worrying him big time - and was even the main topic of conversation over the dinner table and beyond at the Harford house most evenings. It wasn’t drugs - he’d had him tested - but it was his home circumstances that was the root of the problem, he felt.
So concerned was he, Ray had sent him to see Eileen Drewery - that Eileen Drewery - but without too much success. Some players, he said, can handle the pressure, others can’t. Take Chris Sutton, when he (Ray) was at Blackburn.
He (Sutton) had the world at his feet, he was playing for the top team in the land, earning 12 grand a week - and all he kept saying was, “Boss, I just feel like driving my car into a tree.” “The pressure, see, he just couldn’t handle it.”
So it would be fair then to assume the players bought in came with a more positive attitude? It would. What about John Spencer and the bizarre situation, where a team battling relegation was sending out a contracted player on loan to a Premiership side? “After Stockport, Spencer raged at me words to the effect that ‘They’re all wankers. I’m never going to kick another ball for this club again’.” Happy to let him go then? “No choice.” Sinclair? “Likewise.”
Who else to follow? “Tony Roberts will be released at the end of the year. Not sure about David Bardsley. He’s been obsessed about his contract being renewed. He’s on to Clive Berlin almost every day about it. He only trains when he feels up to it. So who knows.”
What of the players bought in? “Scully is an exciting prospect. Mark my words, he’ll be worth £2m in a year’s time. Kulcsar hasn’t done it in the way I thought he would.”
And Vinnie? “No, he won’t be taking over as manager. And, yes, I do intend to see out my contract at QPR. Vinnie will improve things on the training ground. You know who was most responsible for the lack of team spirit at this club? Bruce Rioch...”
What about this “Harford’s teams are notoriously white” thing? “Not true. Nothing in it at all.” “England’s chances of winning the World Cup?” “Nil.”
And had he since won over the players already at the club when he arrived? For once, his response was slow and measured. “One, maybe - Kevin Gallen. Perhaps Karl Ready.”
We took that as a cue to leave. I refrained from asking Ray if, indeed, his job was harder than even I had imagined. But I think I knew the answer by then anyway.
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