I interviewed Rangers' new boss back in 2002 when he was in charge of Youth Development at QPR, with his promotion to Caretaker Manager it seems appropriate to re-produce that interview today.
QPRnet.com: You signed for QPR as an apprentice and now you are in charge of that area of the club today, do you wish you’d grown up in the sort of environment you’re now working in?
GW: That’s a good question. I came to the club as a young lad of twelve or thirteen and there were good coaches around at the time, people like Theo Foley. He was an excellent coach and really helped me in those early days and saw me through the youth team, reserves and into the first team. I’d like to think I’m doing an OK job here, I try to put on training sessions that not only improve the players but also sessions that I would have enjoyed being a part of myself. I’ve had no complaints as yet!
QPRnet.com: How would you compare the training the kids get these days to what you had?
GW: Well times have changed, the game’s got a lot quicker, people now are looking for a more mobile, athletic player. Back when I started they were always looking for the flair player but you don’t see as many of them these days. There’s a lot more work being put in like weights, agility work etc which is a part of their weekly training schedule, I can’t ever remember doing anything like that. Basically they’re athletes these days, even the food they eat is monitored in the build up to a game. When I was playing you’d just have steak and chips, but that’s totally out of the question now. Here we’re trying to educate the boys to start eating properly from the age of fourteen, because if they get into good habits now they’ll take it through the rest of their careers. If they do then it will extend their careers, people are already playing well into their thirties now. It’s changed totally in the last fifteen years and what I’ll find interesting is how things move in the next fifteen years.
QPRnet.com: What do you remember about your debut for Rangers?
GW: My full league debut was against Charlton, the manager was Tommy Docherty at the time, he was a fantastic character. I turned up at the ground and found out I was in the squad - I only had an hour to take it all in. I think Tommy handled that the right way, if he’d told me on the Friday I wouldn’t have been able to sleep. I’ll never forget it though, we won four-nil. Tommy told me how well I’d played but left me out for the next game! I was gutted. Again, he did the right thing, though. When the next game came around he pulled me aside and said I wasn’t playing and explained why. I was devastated but it gave me a taste and I wanted it even more then.
QPRnet.com: Tommy Docherty left shortly afterwards, replaced by Terry Venables. What impact did his departure have on you?
GW: Looking back now it was unsettling. You never know when a new manager comes in if you’ll be playing or not, but I was fortunate to be already training with the first team so I had the chance to impress the new boss from day one. I consider myself fortunate to have played under Tommy Docherty though, I certainly learned a lot from him.
QPRnet.com: Terry Venables was almost as colourful a character as Tommy Docherty, but how did they compare as managers?
GW: Well it’s easy for us to sit back now and say what a good coach Terry is but it was clear even at that stage. He wasn’t frightened to try out new ideas, different formations and tactics. He helped the younger boys through into the first team and of course got us to a Cup Final as a Second Division side, then promotion to Division One. That was a fantastic achievement in a short space of time. He had great man management skills, he’d have a laugh and a joke at the right time but he knew when to pull away and become the manager.
QPRnet.com: What do you remember about your first goal?
GW: It was against Fulham I must’ve driven it in from five yards out! It was at Craven Cottage and we won two-nil. I think I got a nosebleed from being that far up the pitch!
QPRnet.com: Rangers were always the centre of controversy because of the plastic pitch in the eighties - people complained that the astro-turf gave us an advantage. Did it?
GW: Yes, it was an advantage because we were used to the surface but I think it made us better players because our passing had to be so accurate, you had to find your team mate otherwise the ball would fly off the pitch. It was challenging for us though as we had to switch between plastic and grass every week, but you could sense teams didn’t fancy it when they came to Loftus Road. The burns were the worst part, for players like me. If there was a tackle that needed to be made I’d go in for it but when I got up my legs would be in bits. You’d go to bed, wake up on the Sunday morning and the sheets would be stuck to your legs where the burns had been weeping. The funniest player was Michael Robinson, he didn’t get a single plastic burn during his Rangers career until his last game, then he fell over and ripped himself to pieces. But he only suffered the pain once, I went through it every week!
QPRnet.com: We took Tottenham as far as we could during the 1982 Cup Final, can you remember what the spirit was like before the games?
GW: The first game was amazing. I remember watching Cup Finals on TV as a kid then going down the park with my mates and pretending to be man-of-the-match, so it was like a dream come true. All these thoughts go through your mind and you’re tossing and turning all Friday night, I didn’t sleep well at all. Then you have all the build up throughout the day, getting off the coach with the TV cameras pointing at you, just like you remember watching as a kid. To have it happen to me at such a young age was unreal. On the day I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited. The biggest thing for me was seeing the twin towers, it hit me just how many people were going to watch the game. The one thing I will never ever forget is the noise when we walked out of the tunnel, it was just amazing, a fantastic feeling. I could see my wife in the crowd, I still don’t know how, but I picked her out of thousands of people straight away.
We did okay in the first game and I couldn’t move until the Tuesday, as I was absolutely shattered. It was surreal, at the reception on the Saturday night we suddenly realised we had to play another Cup Final in a few days time. Obviously we got beaten in the replay, and I vividly remember when Spurs got their goal with about fifteen minutes to go, I was playing and crying at the same time. The emotions you experience going through something like that are amazing. But we won so many fans with the way we tried to play in that game and I think that helped a lot of players’ careers. For a Second Division club it was an amazing achievement, every player’s dream is to play in a Cup Final at Wembley, we did it and no one can ever take that away from us. It hurts to lose and it hits me hard, but a few weeks later we realised what an achievement it was.
QPRnet.com: We romped the Second Division the following season, what was that like to be a part of?
GW: It was great. The Cup Final gave us a lot of confidence and we went into the season with the right attitude - there was no way we were going to stay in that division. You could sense the confidence in the squad, we performed week in, week out and we were very worthy champions.
QPRnet.com: The year after that we finished fifth in Division One and qualified for the UEFA cup, that might have taken others by surprise but did the squad they were capable of European football?
GW: Our first game back in the big time was Manchester United away, I knew Ray Wilkins when I was growing up and he played for United in that game. We lost three-one but played well and afterwards Ray said to me that if we could continue to play like that we’d have a very good season - which we did. We knew what a good squad we had and we’d been together for a while. So everyone knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we worked really hard together to achieve the success we had.
QPRnet.com: Did it hit the squad hard when Venables went off to Barcelona?
GW: It did, but if a club like Barcelona comes knocking at your door you take the job! I think everybody was pleased for him. It’s the same with players really, if Manchester United or Liverpool had come in for someone, you’d be disappointed they were leaving, but understand why they were going. I just consider myself lucky to have worked for the fella, he improved me as a player.
QPRnet.com: Terry Venables was replaced by Alan Mullery, but he didn’t last very long. It must have been hard for him to follow someone like Venables, but why didn’t things click under his regime?
GW: Terry was always going to be a hard act to follow, whoever stepped in. Mullery was a good coach in his own right, he was good to me when he was here and he’s said nice things about me since I’ve retired, but it was always going to be difficult for him to follow someone like Terry after the success he’d had.
QPRnet.com: One game I wanted to ask you about from the eighties that every one remembers was the 5-5 draw with Newcastle, then I looked it up and realised you didn’t play in it!
GW: [Laughs] Yeah, I was injured at the time. I was sitting in the Upper Loft, I used to get my complimentary tickets and change them to go and sit with the fans and I got to know quite a few people. But the Newcastle match was a remarkable game, amazing to watch - what a comeback!
QPRnet.com: What was it like for you as a player sitting with the fans?
GW: The people I sat round just knew me as Gary the supporter whenever I was injured, I always had a great rapport with the crowd which was fantastic for me. They were great to me and I always used to enjoy hearing their views and they would ask me mine. To me that’s what football is all about. Not every player would feel comfortable doing the same though.
QPRnet.com: Another high scoring affair was when Rangers got eliminated from Europe in 1984. You played in the game where we got knocked out, but after taking a 6-2 lead to Partizan Belgrade it must have been a huge shock to get dumped out of the UEFA Cup?
GW: I missed the first leg at Highbury as I hadn’t quite recovered from my broken ankle and I watched the game from the stands. We did remarkably well against a very well known team. Alan Mullery brought me back for the return leg as he knew the game was going to be a bit of a battle and he wanted me out there. There was a very intimidating atmosphere over in Yugoslavia, as we walked out onto the pitch there were ball bearings being thrown at us - then we got battered on the night. On that performance Belgrade thoroughly deserved to go through and it opened our eyes as to how the game could be played and it was a good learning curve for us. After the first game we thought we had a big enough lead to get us through, we prepared properly, but the result shows you what can happen if you get off to a bad start the return leg in European football.
QPRnet.com: Shortly afterwards you suffered the knee injury that was thought to have finished you career. Everyone was telling you that you’d never play at high level again, the medical people had written you off and the club’s insurance company had issued the compensation payment which means a pro has to call it a day. That wasn’t the end though, was it?
GW: I wanted to prove everybody wrong. When I first damaged my medial ligaments and I learned the extent of the damage, my only concern was whether I’d play again - my medical advisor said ‘yes I would’. After about ten months the recovery hadn’t gone as planned and the club made a decision that they thought I couldn’t play any more, so I returned to the same advisor. I said to him, ‘you told me that I’d play again...’, he just looked at me and replied, ‘yes, you will, but I didn’t say at what level’ - so he’d covered himself. So I wanted to prove a point, people obviously thought I couldn’t be the same player again, but I thought I could be, I thought I could even improve as a player, but a decision was made to claim the insurance money and it left me without a career. My only options, if I wanted to remain a player, were to play in the Second Division up in Scotland or go to America or Europe. Rodney Marsh at Tampa Bay Rowdies asked if I’d like to go over to The States and there were a number of German, Dutch and Belgian clubs who were interested, so in the end, I had to weigh up what I thought was the best route back for me personally.
My goal was always to come back, my dream was to play at the highest possible level that I could and prove people wrong, because I am that kind of person. There was no way I was going to lay down and die, anyone who has seen me play will know that. I felt that Europe was my best option, if you can make a name for yourself it’s not too far away for people back home to hear about you. I then had three trials, two in Belgium with Standard Liege and Charleroi then another with Vitesse in Holland. They all went very well and I wanted to focus on just those three, then I wanted to make a decision, not them, me, I was intent on doing what was best for myself. In the end I picked Charleroi, I felt it was right for me and they initially offered me a six month contract even though they warned me it may take that long for me to get into the first team. But by the end of the pre-season matches I was in the first team, after just three weeks. So I went in to see the Club President and asked him if he’d rip my contract up, he agreed I had another medical and they said my knee was fit enough to be offered a two year deal.
QPRnet.com: That must have been a great day for you, to hear that good news after all the previous knock backs.
GW: I can’t thank them enough to be honest with you, they were still taking a risk with me as I could have broken down after three months. Obviously the standard isn’t as high as it is over here, but they’d given me the chance to build up my confidence again and get the strength back in my knee. I stayed there for almost two years, then my mother-in-law died which was obviously a very difficult time, especially for my wife living over in Belgium. It was also around that time that I started to hear rumours that I was being watched by a couple of English teams. By chance I bumped into Jack Charlton at an after dinner presentation at Gerrards Cross, we got chatting and he asked me over to play in a game in Ireland. Tony Cascarino was there too and when he went back to Millwall he got the ball rolling for me. Millwall asked me to come over to London for a couple of days to see if I could stand up to the training but it was a development that put me in a very difficult situation with my club in Belgium. I went to the Charleroi President and explained the situation, in reality I would have been happy to stay at the club for the rest of my career, but it was my goal to get back to England and play at the highest level. The first day training with Millwall I put in a crunching tackle and I think that must have made their minds up because the next day the manager called me in and offered me a two-year contract. There were still a couple of stumbling blocks to get over though, firstly Millwall had to pay Charleroi a transfer fee and they had to pay nearly all of the injury insurance fee back before I was allowed to play in the Football League again - but they did it. So I’d completed my come back, people said I couldn’t but I was back even though getting into the Millwall side at the time was going to be tough with Terry Hurlock and Les Brieley ahead of me who are club legends. I think I showed the fans there what I was capable of but at the end of my two years there, Gerry Francis asked me if I’d like to come and train back at QPR.
The whole place had changed since I’d left the club, completely different medical staff there was a different Chairman and a different Board. So when Gerry subsequently offered me a one year contract to come back to Loftus Road I accepted because I didn’t feel Rangers was run by the people who had made decisions about ending my career a few seasons previously. Gerry Francis was the one who asked me to start getting involved in developing the youth players and I am very grateful to him for that even though I was still only twenty nine myself. But I wasn’t happy just playing in the reserves and coaching the youngsters, I wanted to be back playing first team football. Glen Hoddle, who was Swindon manager at the time, then came in for me, remember, all this attention was for someone with a supposed bad knee. I told you that after my injury my objective was to fight my way back and play at the highest possible level again - so when I was told I was called up to the full Republic of Ireland squad, Christ almighty, I was the happiest man in the world.
QPRnet.com: Was that the proudest moment in your career?
GW: Well, I’ve been lucky enough to have a number to chose from - playing for QPR’s first team at seventeen was a great achievement, then representing Ireland, then playing in the FA Cup Final in 1982, getting promoted to the top flight the next season and playing abroad - but getting married and having a little girl supersede all of those achievements.