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    The Beautiful Game


Life as a Professional

Jim Smith (photo taken during his Oxford days)

Although Venables had been a major factor in me choosing QPR, I never actually played under his direct management. His success at the club led to Barcelona offering him the job at the Nou Camp and the rest, as they say, is history! However, in Jim Smith, QPR had found a replacement who was well on his way to becoming a well liked and respected manager. He gave me my debut at Loftus Road and later bought me when he was up at Newcastle - so I must have made a fairly good impression with him.

I really enjoyed my time at QPR, it was an exciting time for me and the atmosphere at the club was very positive. Having signed from non-league Hayes, Les Ferdinand had also joined at a similar time. Like me, he too was to sign for the Geordies – although a year or two after I’d returned to London. My debut at QPR was made on the infamous plastic pitch where we managed a 2-2 draw against Sheffield Wednesday and I felt my professional career was really underway. The quality of the pitch was highly questionable, and although a number of other clubs followed QPR in laying their won artificial pitches (Preston and Oldham for example), as a benchmark, ours was probably the poorest. The bounce was far too exaggerated and there was a definite knack in getting in low crosses from the wings – an advantage that we accentuated by practising regularly! It was hard on the joints though, I’d have been 6’ tall if I hadn’t played and trained on that surface!

Harry Redknapp

After three years at QPR and at the age of 19 I decided that I needed more first team action, in all my time there I’d only started seven games. Gillingham came in for me and after initially signing on loan, I later joined the Kent club on a permanent basis for a fee of £40,000 in December of 1987. Once again my father played an integral role in the transfer, he was the Manager at Gillingham and the knowledge that I would be playing regularly was enough for me to take the drop in division. Signing for my dad made me fight even harder to make a good impression, we were both aware that I had to prove myself to both fellow players and the fans. In fact I was probably given a harder a time by my dad just because he had to dispel any thoughts of nepotism. There were no complaints from me, I understood the situation and went into the contract with my eyes open.

After 18 months and around 75 appearances at the Priestfield, I was to move to the South coast with Bournemouth. The fee of £250,000 was a record for Gillingham and it was nice for both my dad and the club that I helped the bank balance. Harry Redknapp, although a young manager at the time, had already built a good reputation for his style of football and his general management skills.

However, and shortly after signing for the club, he was to be involved in a horrific road accident during the 1990 World Cup. His injuries were such that it was impossible for him to return to work for quite some period. As he recuperated, Tony Pullis took over but in November 1990 my career was given a massive boost when I got the call from Jim Smith at Newcastle.

My dad’s side of my family is from South Shields on Tyneside. Although South Shields is perhaps split evenly between the two persuasions of black and white, and red and white, my family were firmly of the Newcastle camp. As a child I’d spent many a summer on the beach at Shields and I remember the impact of Kevin Keegan signing for the club in 1982. In actual fact I had an old grey Newcastle away kit from Keegan’s playing time at the club. As a child I grew up with my dad playing for Charlton so they were the club I supported, but I always had a very strong liking for Newcastle and when I had the chance to move to North East, I grabbed it.

Ossie Ardiles

Of course, when you look at the Newcastle United of today, there’s little that’s not changed – apart form the fanaticism of the fans. I joined a team that was struggling to fulfil it’s massive potential and although we had a great leader on the pitch in Roy Aitken, the results failed to materialise. Shortly after my arrival, Jim Smith was replaced by Ossie Ardiles and as with all players when a new manager comes in, I wondered if he’d rate me as a player.

Jim Smith was a good, strong manager who some would describe as ‘ old school’, you knew where you stood with him, he was passionate about the game and he demanded 100%. It just didn’t happen for him at Newcastle, if he’d got the side promoted in his first full season at the club it would have been a different matter. I also think the team struggled due to injuries – particularly with Mark McGhee being out for so long.

Ossie was great to play for, all he asked was for us to enjoy our football. He played a lot of youngsters and in doing so was always prepared to take the pressure himself, he used to tell us not to worry about the press or the league table – it was his concern and all we had to do was play.

With a new manager coming in, every player worries whether he’ll be rated by the new guy, however any of my fears were misplaced, his style of football was very positive - a diamond formation meant my role became far more attacking and I really enjoyed it! Although the goals came my way, the team – which was very young – was never able to put a run together. He was also quite astute in that he knew that the crowd would be supportive of the youngsters, and as a result that bought him time – but evidently not enough time.

Off the pitch I settled in very well. After initially setting up at the New Kent Hotel in Jesmond, my wife Amanda and I bought a house in Durham City. One of my old friends from QPR was Alan Comfort, who was playing for Middlesbrough at the time, and he too lived in Durham. It was a help having someone we knew, and with both Amanda and his wife getting along well, we were very happy. It wasn’t long at all before we really settled into life in the North East.

After the Ardiles reign came to an end, the whole football world was shocked with the appointment of Kevin Keegan. I’d been in for training and it was only when I turned the radio on one afternoon that I heard he was joining us. I’d always looked up to him, perhaps even more so as we were a similar build and both of us liked to get among the goals. I remember the first time we met, at an afternoon team meeting, and immediately he won over the players with his inspirational manner, his belief, his confidence that we would together turn the club around.

Keegan in his first season at Newcastle

Personally, it was a fabulous time and undoubtedly, along with the Chelsea’s FA Cup run, one of the most exciting periods of my career. I remember his first game in charge, over 30,000 turned up to see us beat Bristol City 3-0. Before the game he’d spoken to me in his office, telling me that Bill Shankly once asked him to “cause trouble all over the pitch”, and now he was asking me to do the same for him. I left the office feeling fantastic and ready to take on any team in the world – this is why Keegan is so good, his motivation and management of players is second to none. Funnily enough, I heard that Kevin had given Paul Scholes exactly the same pep talk when he was in charge of England.

After the excitement of the promotion season, the focus then moved to life in Premiership. However, due to domestic circumstances with the birth of our first child, my world was turned upside down. Amanda, during her pregnancy, had been fit and well. All the scans indicated that the baby was healthy and without any complications, however when she gave birth to Jake, we found that he was missing his lower arm. Looking back to this period, one of the major concerns wasn’t the fact he was missing part of an arm, but the fact that we didn’t know if there were further physical or mental problems. As you can imagine, this led to a very stressful time, and after an awful lot of consideration we decided that it was in our best interests to move back to London for the support of our family.

Let me stress that it was purely for family reasons that I requested a transfer, we were very happy in the North East and loved living in Durham City. When I spoke to Kevin I was relieved and very pleased to hear his response. Not only did he understand our situation, but he also assured me he wouldn’t price me out of the market. He also allowed me to stay in London for my pre-season and train with Charlton. As always, he was good to his word and when Chelsea came in for me with an offer of £1.25 million, there was little hesitation in accepting Glen Hoddle’s offer. Like Keegan, Hoddle had been a childhood hero of mine and I was looking forward to working with him. He’d previously come in for me when he was managing Swindon and when I declined his interest I remember him telling me that maybe he’d be back in for me at a later stage – and he did!

Jake ‘s birth certificate shows he was born in Newcastle, and within the family he’s affectionately known as ‘Jake the Geordie’. However the Chelsea move offered me both a great professional opportunity, and a return to London where our families were based.

Next Part: Life as a Pro - Part 2