Monday, December 10, 2018

The Lee Harper Interview

Just before the play off final we had a chat with former Rangers and current Northampton 'keeper Lee Harper about his time at QPR. Lee talks about his managers, the clubs problems, his relationship with the fans and much more. You came to QPR in the summer of ’97, what prompted the move – first team football?

LH: I was offered a new contract by Arsene Wenger but I believed I wasn’t going to be playing many games with Mr Seaman there in front of me, so at the time it was a career decision. I had the chance of first team football at Rangers rather than hanging around at Highbury where the odds were always going to be against me. It was close for me so I didn’t have to move house and as far as I was concerned QPR were a big club so it was a great opportunity for me. Stewart Houston and Bruce Rioch were running the club then, were they a big factor in your decision?

LH: Not really, obviously I knew what they were about from the Arsenal days and they knew what I could do but whoever was there, Ray Wilkins or anyone I would have gone. QPR were a club that I didn’t believe should have been in the first division at the time, let alone the second division now. Rangers had finished the previous season fairly strongly and ended up 9th in Division One. Were the squad fairly confident going into your first season?

LH: That first year I think I played thirty nine games and we only just avoided relegation yet we had players like John Spencer, Trevor Sinclair and Gavin Peacock at the club. They were quality players and why the team didn’t gel I really don’t know. The belief when I got there that summer was that they’d had a great run at the end of the previous season and we thought we had a great chance of going up. So if we had the players to challenge what went wrong?

LH: At the end of the day you get people in teams who feel they shouldn’t be playing in the first division. You can have players on peanuts and want to be winners and players on a hell of a lot but are happy to sit there and take the money. From my point of view it was extremely frustrating when I look back because I didn’t see it going the way it did. Things just didn’t gel and the manager lost his job because of that. You hear that Bruce Rioch in particular was not popular with the players; having played under him before did you and the Arsenal boys have a different relationship with him and Stewart?

LH: I’d heard rumours when I got there that people weren’t taking to Bruce and that had Stewart been on his own he may have been able to do a better job. Obviously they’d reversed their roles from Arsenal and it was always a bit strange. Bruce is a very strong character; he does things the way he wants to do them and won’t accept any crap, from anybody. That was his way and he may well have upset people because of it. The fans never took to Stewart and Bruce and eventually they were sacked in the November, how did the players find out?

LH: I’m not too sure; I don’t think we heard it until it happened so we probably found out in the same way everyone else does, through the media. John Hollins took over as caretaker and immediately dropped Matthew Rose, Steve Morrow and yourself, how did you feel about that at the time?

LH: I quite liked John as a person, he was quite a funny guy but he had a thing for Tony Roberts. Football is like that, if you’re liked by a manager you’re in and Tony was liked by John. He liked his personality and felt he could do something I couldn’t. I don’t think I was made a scapegoat but I was upset at being left out at the time. When Stewart and Bruce were in charge the fans were never happy with them and there was a lot of stick about all the ex Arsenal players coming in, I think John may have done that as a way of winning over the supporters. The crowd were delighted and were signing “we’re not arsenal any more” that must’ve been quite hurtful for you though?

LH: It was hurtful yes. When I put on a Rangers shirt all I ever wanted to do was play well for the team. I made mistakes but everyone makes mistakes. All I wanted to was to do well for me, for my career and for QPR. I remember picking up a fanzine in the dressing room and it absolutely slaughtered me, Rosey and Morrow. At Arsenal we didn’t see these things because we were protected from it but I really took it to heart. That’s the sort of person I am, I don’t want fans giving me stick, if you hear that then it means that they think you’re shit! I can still remember that day now but that’s football. Eventually Ray Harford was poached from West Brom and appointed manager how did the squad take to him?

LH: When he came in he was reputed to be one of the best coaches in the game, that was the tag he came with. We were struggling though and we just avoided relegation. I think when it didn’t work he tried to change things around and when that didn’t work he’d change things around again until eventually we didn’t know if we were coming or going. All of a sudden we started to go long ball all the time and I don’t think the lads took to it, the results didn’t improve and he lost his job too. Vinnie Jones was at the club at the time, as a player he might have had his uses but wasn’t it a little odd having him as an assistant manager?

LH: I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with him or Iain Dowie. When he came in though I think he was the sort of thing we needed. He wasn’t the greatest player but he could kick people up the arse and get them going and you need that. He was a good leader and he was a winner, I’ll give him that. He was alright actually he wasn’t as bad as I thought he might be. I didn’t have too many rows with him…… After Ray went Gerry Francis returned, he steered us away from relegation then we finished 10th then we got relegated. How did we slump so badly, so quickly?

LH: We weren’t good enough. There are all sorts of excuses but you can’t finish 10ththen go down. The season we finished 10th we were scoring goals, Rob Steiner was red hot and Stuart Wardley was doing well. The following season we just didn’t score enough. It was during this time that you disappeared from the side for a bit and were replaced by Ludo. There were rumours that one more appearance would incur a fee being paid to Arsenal and that’s why you were dropped as the club couldn’t afford it. Any truth in that?

LH: I heard that as well, I heard it was meant to be £125,000 but if there was I didn’t know about it. I started that season flying, I was playing really well and getting good press reports. I remember we played Burnley at home and I spoke to some guy from the Mail and he asked me about my contract situation. I told him I was a QPR player and I wanted to stay at the club and sign a new deal. After that Gerry slaughtered me in the press, he absolutely hammered me and didn’t play me after that.

I also think Iain Dowie liked Ludo and was pushing for him to play. I honestly believe the fans got me back in the team though, they were starting to kick up a stink and eventually I was playing again. Gerry was always very good but I think if you upset him, that’s it. You learn to accept these things in football. It was about this time that Rangers were getting into financial problems, how much of this were the players aware of and what effect did it have on the squad?

LH: You’re aware of it the whole time and I don’t think it helps. When you hear the club are millions in debt and losing thousands a week it gets to you. I honestly believe that contributed to the decline. You can’t have that many players not knowing what they are going to be doing in a few months and expect them to fight a relegation battle. It’s easy to say that it should motivate players and force them to show their worth but when you’ve got families, mortgages, bills and debts it makes it tough. The day we went into administration was such a shock.

I think there were sixteen players out of contract and out of everybody there was only me, Karl Ready and Matthew Rose that Gerry took aside and said he wanted us to stay and he was trying to sort something out. Unfortunately I think it was just a delaying tactic because the club was in so much trouble. Eventually Gerry went and Ian Holloway came in. He has since said that the squad was overpaid and no passion or desire for the club. Do you see any justification in those comments?

LH: I know for a fact he’s not referring to me. There were young players at QPR who were on the same money as me. I’d played for Arsenal and played 130 games for QPR and they hadn’t played a reserve team game yet so you can imagine what some of the first team players were earning! I’m not going to name names but there were people there that were on a hell of a lot more money than me and weren’t trying half as hard. Unfortunately you were one the released players that summer as Rangers financial problems worsened. Were you disappointed to go or pleased to get out of there?

LH: I got released through my choice. It wasn’t because they didn’t want me at the club and it wasn’t because I didn’t want to stay. Everybody else was told to go but myself and Matthew Rose rejected the offers we were given. I ended up at Walsall but Matthew couldn’t find another club and went back to Rangers.

I wanted to stay without a shadow of doubt but the finances were in the hands of the administrators and the club had put a ceiling on the wages. The club offered me a contract that was a cut on what I was earning. Now Gavin Peacock had taken a fifty percent cut on his wages and was still earning double what I was on. I felt I’d done well for the club and to take a further cut didn’t seem fair to me. I was upset but these things happen. When you think back to your time at QPR you went from being tarring you with the Arsenal brush to being a respected member of the squad. Are you pleased with how your performances turned things round for you?

LH: Definitely, I didn’t want to leave and I wish I was still there. I thought the fans were magnificent and that was one of the reasons I wanted to stay. Things haven’t gone great for me personally since but Rangers seem to be sorting themselves out and good luck to them. Were you pleased or surprised with the good reaction you got at Loftus Road this season?

LH: Both! Before the game I wasn’t too sure would happen. I thought I’d done well for the club but I was worried that the supporters would think I’d turned my back on them as soon as they went down. During the first half I made a rick with a throw out and I got some stick from our own fans and that made me even more nervous having to go and face the Loft! When I came out for the second half the reception was amazing. I really appreciated it and I’ll never, ever forget it. It didn’t help me in the game though because it made me too relaxed! What does the future hold for you, are you going to stay at Northampton for Division Three football or are you looking to move on?

LH: Last season we were in 12th and I fractured my leg, I was out for three months and when I came back we were second bottom and really already gone. The sad thing is I believe I’m a better keeper now than I was at QPR. I’ve got another year at Northampton so unless anything happens or anyone comes in for me I’ll be spending next season at Northampton. Hopefully I’ll have a good season and we can get back up because I dropped down a division from Walsall to Northampton and I didn’t really want to and I certainly don’t believe I should be playing in the third division.

I’ve made mistakes in my life but I certainly don’t look at QPR as one of them. It was a fantastic club with fantastic people and they don’t deserve to be in the second division they should be in the first at the very, very least.

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