Monday, December 10, 2018

The Dave Thomas Interview

Our latest interview is with another member of that great 70's team, flying winger Dave Thomas. Dave talks about his time at QPR during that wonderful era, the fantastic spirit within the squad, how Dave Sexton was thirty years ahead of his time and much more. You came into Rangers as a young lad with a big transfer fee, a second division record at the time; did you feel any pressure with that?

DT: I didn’t really think about it, I was just thankful to get away from Burnley football club to be honest as I was having a bit of a bad time there. I must say though I didn’t particularly want to come south at the time either though but I took the gamble as you know and it turned out to be the best years of my career. If you weren’t comfortable moving south how hard did you find it adjusting to life in London?

DT: It was difficult, I was about 21 years old and it was quite an eye opener having come from Burnley. I was in digs around the local area to start with but the players were very supportive and there were people there like Terry Venables who obviously knew the city very well.  Not long after arriving I got married and we bought a house in Wokingham and that helped me settle down.

Some of the squad were quite streetwise which was an eye opener for a lad from a Lancashire town but I must say they were all great, they were good lads and I quickly started enjoying my time and it just got better and better. 1972 to 1977 were just the highlight years of my career really. As a fast, exciting winger that must have been a great side for you to play in?

DT: It was a great side we had the perfect balance of experience and youth and we were all great players in our own positions. The side very rarely altered, they didn’t rotate like they do today we only had 16-18 players and that was it. In your first season we were promoted to the top flight but we came second behind Burnley, was there some mixed emotions for you there?

DT: It was funny, they went up as Champions by a point and we came second. Burnley will always be in my heart as they were a big part of my life so in hindsight both of us going up was very nice. I’d already played ten games for them that season so it was a bit bizarre really to see both of my teams go up together having played a part in two promotions in one season. Gordon Jago bought you to the club but he was replaced by Dave Sexton how did they differ as coaches?

DT: Gordon wasn’t really a coach, he was a lovely fella, very easy to get on with but it was Bobby Campbell who did the actual coaching. The team had people like Venables, Bowles and Francis in it and I think they were bigger than him really. Gordon couldn’t handle the stars, if they had problems they wouldn’t go to Gordon they’d go straight to Jim Gregory.

You could tell Terry would go into management, he was a big influence in the dressing room and a big help to me. He loved football, talked about it all the time, he was very passionate about the game and liked helping the lads improve. Don’t forget he only a player at this time as well.  

Dave Sexton came in after Gordon went and, alongside Harry Potts at Burnley, he was the best manager I ever played for. He was a real football man, very knowledgeable. A quiet man, very unassuming and a real gentleman. He just commanded respect and he wanted to make you a better player. He very rarely raised his voice but he came from a boxing family and I tell you, you wouldn’t want to cross him because he was that tough.

He was a real thinker, such a clever man, if you ask any of the players at the time they’ll all say he was the best they ever worked with. He used to take himself off at weekends to go and watch games in Holland just to learn more about football.

He left contracts to the chairman, didn’t want to know about money. I really believe he’d have worked for nothing because he just loved football that much. He was and probably still is, one of the most respected men in the game.

We used to have a player of the month competition and if you won you’d get like a carriage clock or a nice cigarette lighter and Dave would pay for it out of his money. He was totally unique.

He used to collect cine films of old 60’s football and he’d sit us all down and say I’m going to show you a video on tackling or crossing, or scoring goals from outside the box and Dave would spend hours at home in Brighton editing all this together himself. He was so far ahead of his time it was untrue. At the time Stan Bowles was the terrace idol but there was so much more to the team than just Stan wasn’t there?

DT: Well he didn’t think so! That was Stan though, we all knew what he was like! He was a fantastic player though, absolutely brilliant. We were all very close as a squad  but across the team we were all good in the positions we were playing. Did we go into the 1975-76 aiming to push for the title or did it catch us by surprise?

DT: We knew we had a good side, I remember we beat Liverpool at the start of the season and they were in their prime and we hammered them. Once you start getting results it breeds confidence, it’s a bit like Aston Villa at the moment they’re not a great side but they’re going into every game with huge confidence and they’ve got this winning mentality now.

The Norwich game was the one that blew us up. They beat us 3-2 and that was the deciding factor because we had to rely on Liverpool slipping up from there on. They played Wolves at the end of the season and sadly they beat them. It was a sickner but there you go, we came close and it wasn’t to be. A little while after that Dave went to Manchester United and the club fizzled out from there. To be fair it hasn’t looked back since! Obviously that season was a massive achievement but after that did it motivate everyone to push the club forward or did it knock everyone so sideways that things went wrong?

DT: Dave stayed around for another season or so and we had the great run in the UEFA cup so that was another good year but when he left for United it was a big shock. You couldn’t blame him for taking that job of course but psychologically it was a big blow. It was the same squad but you just had a funny feeling things weren’t quite right. 

I got a phone call out of the blue from Frank Sibley who’d taken over as manager and he told me the Chairman had accepted an offer from Everton for me and if I wanted to I could go and talk to them. At the time the atmosphere at QPR just didn’t feel right so I thought I’d go up and see them, and I ended up moving to Goodison Park.

From my point of view it was another big club, possibly bigger than Rangers so I signed for them and then had another great three years there. I remember coming back to QPR and we beat them by five and you could sense the atmosphere was disastrous. All the players gradually moved on and the club went backwards so I think the timing was right from my point of view. You won eight England caps during your time at QPR and like Terry Venables you’re one of very few people to represent England from schoolboy all the way to full international. That must have been a great honour for you?

DT: It was, when you’re playing football you take a lot of things for granted and you don’t always realise just how much you’ve achieved. When I look back now, to be capped at every level was quite an achievement, not many people have done that. I probably treasure it more now I’ve retired than I did at the time.

I played for Alf Ramsey in the under 23’s and I liked him a lot but he was sacked and replaced by Don Revie, who eventually gave me my England debut. When Ron Greenwood took over and I was at Everton I could never get back in. I had Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill ahead of me and I could never understand it because I was having a real purple patch at Everton but I never got another chance. After Everton you moved to Wolves then had a season playing in the old American league that must have been an interesting experience?

DT: I was having a bit of a contract dispute at Everton at the time and I’d more or less agreed to sign for Wolves. They were doing really under John Barnwell and they’d just signed Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray so I shook hands on the deal. That night I got a very late phone call from Everton to say Manchester United had made an offer for the same money and the choice was mine. The chance to play for Dave Sexton again was something very appealing and I was living in Lancashire at the time but I’ve always been a man of my word so I felt I should go to Wolves because that’s what I’d agreed on. So I did and it was the biggest disaster of my life, I hated it. I only lasted there eighteen months and then went out to Vancouver and played there for a summer.

The trouble with America is it sounds so glamorous but it’s not, you’d go for an away game in Los Angeles and you’d be away for two weeks. We’d get thirty odd thousand people watching at home because there were a lot of ex pats in Vancouver but you’d play in California and you’d be lucky if there were two thousand there.

One week you’d play on astro turf then the next week you’d be playing on a baseball pitch. You’d be running down the wing and hit a bit of sand! Then you’d look up and there’d be a bloke playing the organ when you attacked! It was just bizarre.

The one that made me laugh was a team called Portland Timbers, they were famous for their forestry and they had a bloke behind the goal with a chainsaw, every time they scored a goal he’d start it up and cut a lump of log off! It was beyond belief, you’d think what am I doing out here! How do you think the roll of a winger has changed in the modern game?

DT: I don’t think it’s changed too much, football is a fairly simple game but when I see some of the crossing today it’s bloody abysmal! I have a feeling it’s something to do with modern footballs, they seem more like balloons to me. I watch football today and the consistency on crossing is awful. In the Premier League they are all small, quick and can’t cross. You watch Wright-Phillips or Lennon and they keep hitting the first defender. Bentley is probably the best crosser of a ball but he can’t beat a player.

I think football today has too much emphasis on tactics I watch modern managers writing notes after notes and I think what are they writing their autobiography!  They send a sub on for two minutes and there’s a coach with a clipboard telling him what to do, what can he do in two minutes! It’s all far too technical these days. You were famous for not wearing shin pads, you must have got some rotten kicks!

DT: Not really, I never tackled I just jumped out of the way! I don’t think I’ll get Alzheimer’s either because I never headed the thing! That’s why I played on the wing I didn’t have to tackle or head it! Did you ever fancy staying in the game?

DT: I had a couple of years coaching the reserves with Portsmouth then Alan Ball came in and he did the dirty on me really. Me and Bally were totally opposites, if he had the choice he wouldn’t have appointed me but I was already there when he took over. He was asked if he’d be OK with me moving to Youth Team coach and he agreed.

We missed out on promotion in the first year and the Chairman called me in to say that because of financial reasons they couldn’t afford separate youth and reserve coaches so Graham Paddon, who’d been doing the reserves would do both jobs and they’d have to let me go. I thought that was fair enough then two weeks later Bally brought Peter Osgood in as Youth Team coach. That hurt me and I decided then that if that’s what football was like I wanted nothing more to do with it. I’m an honest bloke and I can’t stand all the skull duggary involved with football. So what did you do with yourself after that?

DT: I’ve just retired actually, I’ve been teaching PE in a secondary school in Chichester for the last seventeen years. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I called it a day last July so now I’m enjoying doing nothing. I used to do a lot of radio work down here covering Portsmouth for Capital Radio but they pulled the plug and I haven’t done that for about four years now. Looking back over your QPR career then is there a particular highlight you can pick out?

DT: It was just a great crop of lads really, 72-77 was the happiest time of my life, everything blossomed at that time.  I got married, my children were born and the whole time just brings back happy memories. QPR was a fantastic club to be around and we just had such a great time. It was a very close knit community of players and there was no one I could say I didn’t get on with.

Once we crossed that white line everyone pulled together, we had such respect for each other’s abilities and we played great football. That QPR side will be remembered for donkey’s years, it’s just sad that they’ve never got back to that kind of level.

The only thing I’d criticise QPR for these days is how they treat players after they’ve retired. Burnley and Everton are fantastic they’re in touch all the time and always asking you down to be their guest for the day but QPR never do. Burnley do it all the time and considering the difference in resources I think that’s sad.

Everton are unique, they’ve formed a former players foundation and what they do for their ex players is beyond belief. Some guys from my era are destitute now. To be fair it could be their own fault you give some players a hundred quid and they’ll spend a hundred and ten because some people can’t cope with money. Regardless Everton raise funds through golf days, after dinner speeches and the like and it's all organised through a voluntary committee and held in a charitable trust. Then if any ex player gets into trouble financially or health wise the committee will help them out. If I needed a new knee for example I could get in touch with them and they would help me out. It’s an incredible thing they do.

I look at QPR and what they’ve done for their ex players and it’s nothing at all. I think that’s really sad.

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