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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Waddock Profiled

Sunday Times - Waddock’s big shot

The ex-Ireland midfielder overcame two serious setbacks as a player. He now has a tough task as QPR’s caretaker-manager
Gary Waddock’s new office in a prefab at the back of the Queens Park Rangers training ground at Imperial College in west London is a spartan affair, filled with little more than a desk, a phone, a couple of filing cabinets and a few cardboard boxes. No baubles, mementoes or pictures, not yet anyway. But then Waddock has never done over-elaboration and sitting behind a high table would not be his style when a player walks through his door.
“With all the experiences I’ve had in my career,” he reflected when he found time for a breather on Friday afternoon, “when the players from the youth team or the first team speak to me, I know how they’ll feel when they’re low and I know how they’ll feel when they’re high. I’ve tasted both, the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs.”
In football speak, those words are about as close as there is to the truth. At the age of 17 Waddock made his senior debut for QPR as a battling midfielder and he was 20 when he helped the club win promotion to the old First Division, then the highest tier. At 25, they showed him the insurer’s report on damage to the medial ligament in his right knee and then showed him the door, saying his injuries would make it impossible for him to play at the highest level again. As a local boy QPR was “in my blood”. So is Ireland. And the greatest blow was yet to come.
“I was told that I would never play 42 league games in a season in this country at the highest level. And the club decided that I wouldn’t be the same player, so there was an agreement with the insurance company and I retired.
I’m quite a determined character and when people say, ‘I don’t think you can do this’ or ‘I don’t think you can do that’ and me knowing my body better than anybody else, I thought my knee was in a reasonable nick. At the back of my mind there always was the question, ‘Can I play at the highest level again?’ That would have been in the top flight over here or back on the international stage with the Republic. And that was always the driving force behind it all, me getting back and proving to people, ‘Yeah I had an injury, but I battled back and rolled my sleeves up.’”
Waddock bought himself an exercise bike, started putting in the hard miles and then exiled to Royal Charleroi in Belgium. He was made their player of the year in 1988 and they desperately wanted him to stay, but Waddock had unfinished business back in his old manor.
Millwall had seen enough to come to an agreement with QPR whereby the insurance company was reimbursed a substantial part of the £300,000 they had paid out in compensation.
Waddock also knew that Charleroi was not the type of place where he would come to the notice of Jack Charlton, who had replaced Eoin Hand as Ireland manager in 1986. Waddock — his mother hails from Limerick, his father from Wexford — had become the second- youngest player to represent his country when he made his debut against Switzerland at the age of 18 years and 44 days. All his 19 caps had been earned under Hand. At Millwall, he teamed up with Tony Cascarino, who recommended him to Charlton. The Ireland manager was blessed with some fine attacking midfielders, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend among them, but quickly came round to the qualities that Waddock could bring to his squad. He was still a ferocious competitor despite the obvious hazards.
“It’s funny,” he says, “I was never a guy who picked up a strain or a pull and would be out for a week or two. I’d be the guy who’d smash his body to bits and be out for six months. With my ligament I was out for nine months, broken ankle six months, but that was the type of player I was.
“I competed, I put myself about and then gave it to somebody who was better on the ball than me. If I took that side of my game away I wouldn’t have played at the level I did.”
Charlton brought him back for a World Cup warm-up game against the Soviet Union in April 1990. It was Waddock’s first international in five years, but he had always looked comfortable at that level and that afternoon at Lansdowne Road was no different.
Three weeks later, Charlton named his squad for Italia 90 and Waddock was in it. In May, the Ireland squad travelled to the Mediterranean for some acclimatisation and Waddock started the friendly against Turkey in Izmir.
All the time, however, Charlton was fretting over niggling injuries to Whelan and Houghton. A big decision had to be made.
“I had a premonition,” Waddock recalls, “I said to Bernie Slaven, my roommate — Bernie put it in his book — I said to him, ‘I’ve got a feeling I ain’t going to be in it.’ Bernie said, ‘No, you’re joking. You’re in the 22, you’ve got the itinerary, you’ve got all the uniform.’ But my gut feeling was that I wasn’t going to be in it and I was proved right.”
From Turkey, the team flew to Malta and then assembled to collect their baggage.
We were waiting at the carousel to pick up the bags and go to the hotel. Jack pulled me aside and said, ‘Can I have a word?’ And I was told in the airport terminal. It’s difficult now to remember everything he said but the bottom line was that I wasn’t going to be included in the final 22. I think Mick (McCarthy) and Niall Quinn could see that something was going on. Jack said, ‘Do you want to stay on?’ I said, ‘No.’ I didn ’t say it in that polite a manner. But I told him, ‘I need a ticket to get home and get out of here. Now.’ We couldn’t get a ticket for, I think, two days.”
Waddock’s purgatory was served at the team hotel. His replacement, Alan McLoughlin — a more attack-minded player — arrived in the foyer. “I was there for an evening with him, sitting round the dinner table, him being on a high and me on a low,” Waddock says. “As soon as he walked into the building I had to go and see him. I congratulated him. ‘Well done, I hope it goes well for you. It’s got nothing to do with you. I wish you all the very best.’
“Devastated I was, but not towards him. I wanted him to do well and not feel awkward. He’s a good footballer and a nice guy.”
Waddock eventually had to force the issue of his flight home. “I went into his (Charlton’s) room and we had a conversation. Sometimes you need to get some things off your chest. You can imagine the state I was in. I had all the different emotions. I rang my wife and I said, ‘I’m not going to be involved in it, I need to get away as far as I can from the World Cup.’ As soon as I got home we went on holiday. But the World Cup is a world tournament.
It doesn’t matter where you are.
“I had a can of Coke in a restaurant and I looked at it and it had a World Cup history on it or something. And I’m thinking, ‘I cannot get away from this.’ It was devastating.”
What could Charlton have done differently? His decision was made with the best of motives, he was blunt but honest. Should he have drawn a curtain around the player before committing the execution? “I was offered a lot of money to do a story on him,” says Waddock, referring to the interest of the tabloid press at the time. “He knows about that as well. I was never going to do it. He was employed to do a job, to do what he felt was right.”
Waddock, however, reserves the right to disagree with the decision and the way he was handled.
“He could have done it on a beach. He could have done it in the hotel, it’s still bloody wrong in my opinion and I’ve never changed my opinion on that. And knowing the history of my career, I think it was wrong. If before he named his original 22, he would have thought about it maybe a little bit longer and harder . . . If I wasn’t in the original 22, I would have been able to accept it a little bit more than I did. I actually got over the final hurdle. I’m running towards the finishing line and was tripped up.”
Charlton has always made a point subsequently of praising the way Waddock handled that awful situation and included him in one subsequent squad for a friendly game, but Waddock never played for Ireland again. After a spell at Bristol Rovers, he finished his playing career in 1998 at Luton Town, after 18 years and 573 League appearances. Waddock had just finished taking his coaching badges and this time the decision was on his own terms.
“I was 36 and I had another year left on my playing contract. I got an offer to come back here and work in the academy as under-17 coach. I decided I would hang up my boots, which isn’t bad for somebody who had a dodgy knee and had to retire at 24.”
Lately, the breaks have started to go his way. Waddock has stepped into the breach after the two biggest egos at the club, the manager, Ian Holloway, and the chairman, Gianni Paladini, finally collided, Holloway being sent on permanent gardening leave for talking with Leicester City about filling the vacancy there. Holloway isn’t coming back and Waddock has been given until the end of the season to prove himself. After the glory days of the 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s, QPR seem to have found their level in the middle to lower reaches of the Championship, but if Waddock can reverse their fortunes it will open up a whole new catchment area for the hero status he already enjoys with many of the older fans at Loftus Road.
“At this football club I’ve come through the ranks, been brought up in a certain way with a certain style of play. I want my players to pass the ball, to move, to entertain, to enjoy their games, but ultimately we have to secure results along the way.”
Waddock is a realist who enjoys the dream. Still.

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