Monday, December 10, 2018

The Ray Wilkins Interview

After three years of trying, we finally got him. We were honoured and, I'll be honest, a little surprised when Ray Wilkins agreed to an interview with us. Ray talks openly about his time at Rangers as both a player and a player/manager. You joined QPR in 1989 after a glamorous career, what made that an attractive move for you?

RW: I was just leaving Glasgow Rangers and I wanted to come back to London, Don Howe was there at the time with Trevor Francis and it had been mooted Trevor wanted to sign me. I just didn’t hesitate, I knew a lot of people that had played for Rangers before and they said what a great club it was and how well run it was so I thought let’s give this a bash, let’s get home and get cracking. You were 33 years old at the time, outsiders may have seen it as an old pro winding down his career. It didn’t pan out like that though did it?

RW: Absolutely not, there was no way I was just going there to see out time, I looked around at the players they had at the club and I knew I was going to enjoy life at QPR. Thankfully I was able to play there for a good few years because I had some really good times and we had some fantastic results against some really good teams. You went on to play some of the best football of your life. What clicked for you at QPR?

RW: I think it was the working environment: we had a great bunch of lads, a really exceptional bunch of fellas. We all got on well, enjoyed each others’ company and worked hard for each other and it just went from strength to strength. Gerry came in after Don left and he got us extremely organised and we were very tough to beat. It wasn’t quite as common to see someone playing at 35 or 36 in the Premier League at the time. What do you put that longevity down to?

RW: Well firstly I never had any pace, the first thing people say as you get older is that you’ve lost a yard but I never had that yard to lose! Secondly I looked after myself as a pro, since joining Milan I’d always looked after myself because I love playing football. Thirdly was simply that I was enjoying myself. I was lucky enough to have a bunch of young blokes around who were prepared to work very hard and to a large degree a lot of those young fellas did a lot of my running which helped me enormously. You mentioned Milan there, I assume once you get to your 30’s diet and nutrition becomes very important. Was that something you brought back from Italy with you?

RW: Most definitely, I don’t think I became a full professional until I went to Milan. My diet wasn’t what it should have been and I probably didn’t look after myself as well as I could. You can take fitness for granted but when I went to Milan I went up another notch which I think kept me in good stead for years to come. Having played in some of the biggest stadia in the world, how much fun was it playing at compact Loftus Road?

RW: I’ve always said that atmospherically QPR is as good a ground as any. It only holds nineteen or twenty thousand but by Christ when it’s full the noise down on the pitch is something special, it’s as good as it gets. We had some great times there playing some massive games against big teams and sometimes absolutely battering them as well. Any games in particular stick out in your memory?

RW: I remember being a goal down to Spurs and we absolutely battered them 4-1. There was one against Arsenal on a rain-soaked night in the cup, we’d drawn at Highbury and we beat them 2-0. Another great game from your time was the 4-1 win at Old Trafford, how much did you enjoy that bearing in mind they were your old club?

RW: That was New Years Day and Mr Bailey up front, it’s not often anyone gets a hatrick at Old Trafford is it! It was one of those games that while you were playing you just kept thinking when are they going to start bombarding us, but it just didn’t happen. It must have been one of the only times that a Manchester United team has played at Old Trafford and had nine players off synch. Fortunately for us we had the whole team on synch and we deserved to beat them, we battered them. As an experienced pro were you always on hand to help out with the younger lads? Certainly Les Ferdinand is always very complimentary about your influence on his career.

RW: I think that’s what being an older pro is all about. Les was something slightly different in that you could see a potential that was so untapped it was embarrassing. This fella was so dynamic and he could leap like a salmon. A lot of lads were very supportive and when he missed chances it was always “unlucky Les, next time Les” but that has to stop at some stage and someone has to point out that it’s not unlucky it’s a bad miss. I think I might have been one of the first to tell him so. I don’t think he was too chuffed but from that time he took more care in what he did.

When he was young he was moving at a hundred miles an hour but trying to finish at a hundred miles an hour as well. He soon came to terms with the fact that by all means he could move fast but he had to stay cool in his head at the same time. I think that’s why over his career he became such a tremendous player. He’s a solid bloke, he just had to work at his game to be something and he achieved that. Ian Holloway always says his job was to get the ball and give it to you and he is always quite self-critical of his playing days, do you think he is unfair on himself?

RW: In some ways I would say Ian has it 100% right, but certainly the effort and the work he put in to improve himself as a footballer meant he became far more than just a ball winner. He was very good at that job and yes he was one of the guys that did a lot of my work for me as I got older but certainly he was still a very valuable member of the team and good grief did he work hard. I think the teams he has produced as a manager have mirrored what he was, they all work very hard and they all want to win the game. That’s the attitude he had as a player and full credit to him for realising he had to work at his game because when he did that he became a far better footballer. Did Olly give the impression he’d move into management?

RW: He certainly gave the impression that once he set his mind on something he would be totally disappointed if he didn’t achieve it. He’s created this image of himself that he is a born winner and to be fair that’s what he is and I think what he’s done at QPR over the last few years is exemplary. You and Ian were managed at the time by Gerry Francis, whom you mentioned earlier. He certainly got the best out of the players he had, what was he like to work for?

RW: He was good as gold Gerry, he had us very well organised. At the time, apart from the side that Gerry himself played in, he probably had the best side that QPR had seen in a long while, we were a good team. I was talking to Andrew Impey the other day, of course he is now with me at Millwall, and we were wondering how that side would fare in the Premiership today and I think we would do very well. You scored ten goals for QPR, do you have a favourite?

RW: Probably the best one was against Liverpool, it was a long range effort from about thirty yards off the left foot that just creamed in. Unfortunately we lost 3-1 though. To be honest I’m never one for favourite goals because the way I played I was never going to score too many, I was more of a playmaker and holder in midfield, I scored a few early on in my career at Chelsea but in the latter stages I was never going to score loads. I’ve always thought if the team wins then that’s what is paramount, it doesn’t matter who scores the goals. Obviously you want the forwards to be knocking them in because that’s their gig but as a midfielder I wasn’t too concerned. You left the club on a free transfer in 1994 and joined Palace, it was a shock to the fans at the time how did that come about and what were your feelings?

RW: It was really simple actually, I wanted to continue to play but Gerry didn’t have the funds to keep me so he let me go. I joined Palace and then of course Gerry left QPR six months later. Peter Ellis called me up and said he’d like a chat so I went over and met with him and Richard Thompson, they asked me to be manager and I jumped at the chance. That’s why I didn’t stay at Palace for long because I was just desperate to get back to Rangers. The first season you came in as manager we were struggling and you lifted us up the Premier League and we finished tenth. You must have been pleased with that turnaround?

RW: We were fifth from bottom when I arrived and we should have qualified for Europe by the end of that season. We were flying, the lads were buzzing, but then unfortunately we had a very poor Easter. All of a sudden we lost three on the spin, maybe the lads realised we might achieve something and got a bit panicky. Did relegation the next season catch everyone by surprise?

RW: It was going to be uphill after losing Les, we went with two young blokes in Kevin Gallen and Danny Dichio and it was always going to be difficult to score goals. As I said before though the effort and the work rate they put in was nobody’s business and you can’t really grumble as far as that’s concerned. Kevin was in fantastic form after we came down from the Premier League and it took him a long, long time to get over that cruciate injury, his career was hampered immensely by that. When we sold Ferdinand do you wish we’d brought a direct replacement rather than strengthened the squad generally?

RW: We just couldn’t replace him that was the problem we had. If you want to replace twenty plus goals you have to spend six million quid and that’s what we sold Les for. It was probably fantastic money for the club but we couldn’t reinforce as well as we would have liked. Obviously when you lose an England centre forward and an international class left back in Clive Wilson it’s very difficult to persuade other top class players to join because they don’t want to just be in a division, they want to win things. It must have been quite frustrating because the club was on the verge of doing something really momentous. If we had just built on the team rather than dismantle it, who knows what could have happened.

RW: I’ve always said that if you’ve got no control over a situation you just get on with it, you can’t be wallowing in what ifs. I never whinge about something I don’t have control over. If something’s my fault I can complain as much as I like but if I don’t have control over it then that’s someone else’s gig. Players from the time have commented that they felt they let you down in that relegation season and they came back next summer with a new determination and that there was a fantastic atmosphere around the place because everyone was determined to come straight back up. Was that how you found it as well?

RW: Yes I did, we had a group of fellas that were breaking their balls for Frank and me, and we felt when we came back for pre-season that we would come back, we had a good enough group of boys and we were determined to give it a blast. You left the club after only four games in the old First Division, Alan McDonald told us in his interview that he thought that was the day the club was ruined. Frank Sibley said that he was offered the chance to stay but left on principle because of the way you were treated. How do you feel about it?

RW: Things behind the scenes were extremely difficult, we’d started the season strongly, won the first two games, drew with Wolves then we lost at home to Bolton who were always going to be a strong side then that was that. If I’m honest I think we would have bounced straight back up, Kevin of course had injured his knee at Portsmouth and we would have missed him immensely but we had enough players to get ourselves back in there. I’ve got to say that when that day came about I was absolutely devastated. Do you think it was just down to the new owner wanting his own man in?

RW: I don’t think it was entirely down to Chris, I think there were people behind him who probably wanted someone different in. If you could have your time in management at Rangers again what one thing would you do differently?

RW: The one thing I didn’t do was play enough, I should have played more. I was fit enough and wasn’t involved as much as I should have been, but the main reason we went down from the Premier League is because we lost Les Ferdinand and Clive Wilson. We lost two blokes out of the dressing room who were fantastic players and had immense respect from everybody and when your dressing room is decimated as ours was it’s very hard to bounce back.

Obviously Les gave us twenty goals a season and Clive Wilson was probably the best uncapped left back to ever play. When those two left I was absolutely distraught and we couldn’t really get ourselves into shape again. I can’t criticise the lads that were left though, no matter what team I picked they just worked their socks off for me. Do you never wish you’d concentrated on solely managing rather than trying to balance it with playing as well?

RW: No not at all, the opportunity came up for me in that way and I knew I just had to take it. Fortunately for me I had a great number two in Frank Sibley he was different class for me so I had no concerns with that side of things. The only problem I had with Frank was that the bugger kept taking me off! What would you say was your proudest moment at the club?

RW: It was after we’d been relegated from the Premier League unfortunately, we went down after beating West Ham at home and our last game in the division was away to Nottingham Forest. There were about four and a half thousand QPR fans there and at the end of the game they wouldn’t leave until I’d gone out to see them. I remember thinking I must have done something right to get that sort of reaction from a group of people.

I’ll tell you the saddest moment as well, that was when I left the club. In total as a player and manager I had eight years at QPR and my family and I were so close to the club and we were devastated when it happened, absolutely devastated. Even when I go back now the place still holds so many fond memories. The nicest thing was the whole of my family was accepted into the club and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You have worked mainly in coaching and assistant manager roles. Is that something you prefer and would you ever take on the responsibility of manager again?

RW: Oh absolutely, I can’t wait for the next opportunity. It’s been a pleasure to work with the people I have, and it’s always nice to be asked, but I still want to go and do it myself. I think I’ve learned a hell of a lot over the last few years and I want to do it again. I miss being the person who makes the decision, I want to decide how the team plays, when you are an assistant you can offer an opinion but you don’t have that final say, and that’s what I want to get back to doing. Of course you don’t have the pressure either though, is that not something that concerns you?

RW: I’m not bothered about that, the pressure is irrelevant. The only pressure I had was picking a team and winning games but that’s what we do and that’s what I want to do. When I was at QPR the pressure was taken off me by Sheila Marson, Terry Springett and of course Frank Sibley, they did everything off the field for me. Frank was different class and the two girls were absolute diamonds, if you could bottle them and take them with you wherever you went then you would. I’ve got similar people at Millwall, the girls there are absolutely outstanding. And if you had to compare playing and management……

RW: No chance, don’t even go there! To come off a pitch wringing wet with all your mates alongside you after you’ve just battered somebody is by far and away better than anything you reach as a coach or a manager, you can’t beat it! All that pre-season grinding, bashing out the laps on the track, you hate every second of it at the time but you cannot beat being physically fit and going for a game of football with your mates. You are constantly named in QPR best ever XI's. How does it feel to have made that kind of impact on people?

RW: When I look back at some of the players QPR have had it makes me extremely proud. People say to me “It’s only QPR”, but it’s not only QPR, they’ve had some fantastic footballers at QPR. Often when you leave a club you can be forgotten easily so it gives me immense satisfaction to even be thought of after all these years, let alone named in best ever teams by fans. If the chance ever came to be involved at QPR again is it something you’d consider?

RW: No hesitation whatsoever! As an outsider looking in and having drawn twice with Rangers this season, what’s your view of the club and are we going in the right direction?

RW: The first thing we said to our lads was that they will work their socks off against us. Ian has put together an extremely hard working side. As a club they seem to have themselves back on their feet and that’s the way it should be because they deserve to be so. You get what, fifteen and a half thousand average gates? That’s three and half more than Millwall and probably one of the best in the division and if you can keep the crowds to that sort of level every week then Loftus Road is going to be a really hard place for teams to go and play at. Please God it all continues the way it’s going at QPR and they get back in the Premier League where they belong.

We would like to express our thanks to Ray for taking time out of his day to talk to us.

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