There were quite a few of us gathered in the W12 Club restaurant last night – fans who had sponsored our heroes` kits or, in my case, part of the kit (Akos Buzsaky`s shin pads to be precise). We drank what was on offer at the bar, ate a delicious selection of sandwiches and buffet-style titbits, and chatted very easily with those very same heroes!
In fact, after a glorious evening of meeting (most of) Rangers` First Team squad, having photographs taken and Club shirts signed, I have come to the conclusion that the players who make up that squad are very, very nice men! They are friendly, relaxed around the fans, easy to talk to and happy to chat with no airs and graces.
Biggest disappointment of the evening though had to be the absence of Akos Buzsaky through illness. Just our luck – my daughter had been waiting for her big moment to meet her hero since – well, since I signed up as a kit sponsor! As we entered the restaurant, with the players all huddled down the left-hand side of the room, at tables strategically placed near the windows that overlook South Africa Road, the first thing Amy noticed was – no Akos!
There was also no Hogan Ephraim – whose sister was unwell. And, most tellingly, in my opinion, was the absence of our manager, Paulo Sousa. This annoyed me intensely, as I had been practising my few Portuguese phrases taught to me most ably by Mrs Lenny over the internet. Grateful thanks to Mrs Lenny – and I shall have to try them out on you next week, Lenny!
It had been clearly stated that all players and management would be in attendance – but the only management there was the delightful Gareth Ainsworth. What a cracking good bloke! When I tried, in my inimitable but not very professional journalist style, to find out why Mr Sousa was missing, I did not actually get any sensible answer. I expressed a (half-joking) hope that it wasn`t because he was at home polishing off his C.V. or at Portsmouth applying for their manager`s position! I was quickly reassured that it was nothing of the sort and that Paulo Sousa was an honourable guy and wouldn`t do such a thing to us.
So, ladies and gentlemen, read into his absence what you will – because it may have been sinister or may not!
Now to the evening itself. I chatted to a friend of mine in the Commercial Department. He confirmed that cost-cutting exercises are going on throughout every area of the Club although, I was assured, that did not necessarily mean we would not be buying new players in the summer, as the money for players comes from a different pot than, say, employees in the Commercial Department.
Then Amy and I moved into the main area of the restaurant and we bumped into Gareth Ainsworth. (It was Gareth, by the way, who stood in for Akos Buzsaky and gave us our shin pads – with an official photographer taking, what I hope will be, lovely photos for our scrap book!)
Not being backwards in coming forwards, I first congratulated Gazza on the birth of his new baby – a little girl exactly one week old, the very proud father informed me. We then had a good five-minute conversation about kids: 2-year olds on the “naughty step” and how much like hard work it is having three kids under the age of 6 (that`s Gazza, not me!) Ainsworth is particularly proud of the fact that his 2-year old son has a wicked left foot – seeing as how Gazza did admit that his own left foot really is only for standing on!
The talk inevitably turned to matters QPR-ish. I dared to ask Gazza about whether his role had changed now that Bruno Oliveira had left the Club. He assured me: ” no because I was always 1st team coach and that hasn`t changed.” Fair enough! He also assured me that he would be staying at QPR in both a player and coaching role:
“Last year I signed a two-year player-coach contract and nothing`s changed. So I`ll carry on next year as both a player and coach.”
I cheekily asked him what exactly Oliveira`s role had been and, even more daringly, about Paulo Sousa`s future at the Club:
“He was Sousa`s right-hand man and friend,” was the answer to the Oliveira question and “He`ll definitely be around,” was the rapid reply to the second question. But then Gareth became a little flustered, laughed, and blurted out:
” Sometimes I don`t know what`s going on here and if I don`t know . . .!!” He left that last part hanging. So, if Gazza doesn`t know what`s going on then don`t be surprised if we don`t know!!
Whilst players were called up to present their kit to their sponsors, Amy and I grabbed the chance to get autographs and have a chat and a photograph ourselves. I have to say, Boxer, in one respect you are completely right about Gavin Mahon. He is a great guy – he is warm and friendly and very easy to chat to. I can`t say my opinion of him on the pitch has changed, but I couldn`t wait to have a photo with him after he made me feel so at ease. I asked him how he was and he admitted that:
“I`ve been injured recently but I am on the mend now and hope that I will play again this season,” to which I politely expressed a similar desire (I had to be polite, y`know!)
Heidar Helguson has been injured and he definitely did NOT play for Iceland! And that is from the “horse`s” mouth! I asked him whether he was really out for the rest of the season and, happily, he was able to reply that he was not.
“They didn`t know whether it (his injury) was going to respond or how quickly so, at first, they thought it would it be better to let it heal through the summer ready for next season,” he told me.
“But it has in fact responded really well and I am hoping to be fit and ready for the Wolves game.”
Patrick Ageymang also hopes to play for us before the end of the season; as does Angelo Balanta who would dearly love to get a game!
As for our recently returned Rowan Vine, I just could not wait to say hello to him! Shaking his hand I told him how extremely delighted I was that he was back playing again and admitted that Amy and I had been at Harlington last April when “it” happened. He expressed regret that anyone had been at the training ground that day to witness his injury (as it was so horrible for him – let alone every else watching). But he perked up immensely when I asked him how glad he was to be back!
Whilst Wayne Routledge is very happy to be at Rangers and sat chatting happily with his not-so-new club mates; Damian Delaney was sitting all on his own and agreed readily with me when I told him he was “billy no mates”. Pointing to his team-mates either side of him, he laughingly told me how they didn`t like him – what a decent bloke!
I think I embarrassed Lee Camp a little. I asked him if he was staying with us and he grinned and walked off without saying anything! I saw him a bit later on and said I hadn`t been trying to put him on the spot, or anything, earlier (which of course I had!) but I really hoped he`d be staying with us. I love his reply:
“Wish you`d tell that to Flav then!” Says it all, doesn`t it guys?
Lee Cook really is a fan. He is a proper gentleman too, politely telling me I didn`t look my age when I handed him my shirt that had my age plastered all over the back of it! I didn`t have the heart to tell him that my 40th had been a few years ago!! But he really is great! He was so relaxed all evening and I had a chance to ask him if he`d ever been to an evening like this one as a fan. He told me that his Dad had sponsored Gavin Peacock in the 80s & he got his autograph then!
My best chat was with Matthew Connolly as we checked out the Arsenal game which was being shown on one of the big-screen TVs in the restaurant. What an amazing guy. For a 21-year old he is incredibly level-headed and mature. For example, he does not regret leaving Arsenal one bit as he doesn`t believe he`d be playing for their 1st team even now. He totally loves being at Rangers and he loves everyone associated with our Club, particularly his team-mates who he thinks are top blokes and very friendly. After last night, I couldn`t agree with him more about that!
I asked him what he really thought of evenings like last night. He told me that he loves this type of evening because he really loves chatting to us fans and hearing our thoughts and opinions. I asked if he wanted to hear mine and when he said yes, I was off! We talked about this season and the first thing he said to me, as he jumped up excitedly from where he sat, was:
“How about our defence? We`re the best!”
He`s very proud of the defence`s achievements this season and I agreed that our defence has been the best part of our team. I complemented him on his outstanding performances week-in/week-out – but he`s not big-headed. He accepted my compliments but when I told him about someone I know who doesn`t rate him, he laughed and said:
“Oh well, I can`t please everyone, I`ll just have to try harder!” How`s that for an attitude (cough! Dexter Blackstock cough!)
I suggested that the midfield and strikers had really been the disappointment of the season and that gothim speculating on how well we would`ve done with the likes of Vine, Buzz, Rowly & Agyemang in the team. He turned to the end of the table where Vine and Big Dave were sitting and said:
“With them in the team, we`d have had at least 10 goals from each of them!”
Then Matt showed how interested in our opinions he really is by asking me whether I was shocked when Dowie left! I was taken aback but decided on the diplomatic answer: that I wasn`t really shocked but I did think that, perhaps if he`d have stayed we`d be in the play-offs now. But then Connolly interjected with:
“But we were not playing good, attractive football just too much route one stuff – hoof the ball down the pitch type stuff!” And that I could not disagree with!! That then got us talking about the present manager and his 4-5-1 system.
He is so honest. He thinks there have been times this season when they (as in the team) played absolutely awfully (his expression, not mine!). Indeed, he pulled no punches about that. He even said he could understand why some of the fans would boo the team although obviously he doesn`t like the booing:
“You have paid good money and then come in and see that rubbish! I can understand it!”
He kept citing the home game against Ipswich as a great example of us being pants! I could have named quite a few more games, but diplomatically didn`t!
Connolly hates the Loftus Road pitch and is desperately hoping that it is re-laid in the summer. He says that they can`t play football on it. He told me that he hates having to kick the ball downfield, which he says he knows he has to do sometimes.
“I`d prefer to play it out of defence but I can`t because of the pitch.” So I asked him if, for that reason, he preferred playing away from home. He laughed!
“Yes ,because there is less pressure,” he confessed. But then added: “But we`ve been really rubbish away this season, haven`t we?” I actually found myself saying to him that, under Sousa, we had begun to get better away from home as we hadn`t lost so many away from more recently!
Interestingly, Connolly also said that the Harlington training ground pitch wasn`t up to scratch either (should we shoot our grounds man now?!) He told me:
“I dread having to drive for 1 ½ hours from my home which is North West of London to the training ground each morning to train on that pitch!” Seems that one area we don`t want the Board cutting costs is on our pitches!
A final couple of thoughts from young Mr Connolly were that he would really love to see Angelo Balanta playing in the 1st team. He said:
“He`s an absolute natural and he`s brilliant. He`s quite like Berbatov!” But then he shrugged and said it was the manager`s choice! I`m guessing, though, that he doesn`t necessarily think it is the right managerial choice to keep omitting Balanta!
And he also admitted being worried that if and when we got to the Premiership we (as in QPR the Club) could become more like Arsenal by cutting the Club and players off from the fans. And he doesn`t think that would be a good thing!
Well, after such an enjoyable and relaxed evening with our First Team, I can assure you that I would not think it a good thing either. This was a truly memorable experience and my first task, at the end of the evening, was to renew my sponsorship of Akos Buzsaky`s shin-pads for next season. I am already planning on who I want to speak to next year, who I want to have photographs with . . . Thanks, QPR, for not forgetting your fans! And thanks to all the players who are truly top, top blokes!
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