Chelsea’s sentimental hardman

When men were men, Chelsea’s Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris scared them witless. But it’s all so different now, he tells John Riordan.

IN any walk of life, retirees look at their former trade with a mixture of longing and hostility.

Chelsea legend Ron Harris — or Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris to give him the full title he worked so hard to attain — would like nothing better than to walk out on Wembley today and “throw a bit of stick about”.

But realistically, he knows he wouldn’t last long. As much as we’d love to see how Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard might respond to an early bit of advice Chopper-style, modern football is not like it was in the Londoner’s heyday.

Be it Bobby Moore pickpocketing Jairzinho or Chelsea’s appearance record-holder sending the career of Leeds United legend Eddie Gray into tailspin, the tackle from behind is tantamount to a crime against humanity, rendering the defender a second-class citizen.

As a 16-year-old, Harris was enticed west from Hackney, arriving at Stamford Bridge in 1961 to begin laying the foundations of the old school. A regular by early 1962, he would go on to captain Chelsea to their first FA Cup in 1970 — a zenith almost halfway through two decades of service. With only John Terry to rival that sort of commitment these days, he is unsurprisingly sentimental about the good-ol’-days.

“If you asked any supporter who’ll remember us in the seventies, ask them what they’d rather watch and they’ll say the football in my time,” Harris says with the authority of someone very much aware of their place in the fabric of football folklore.

“Football today is like a game of chess, isn’t it? They cancel each other out, most of them play with one fella up front and flood the midfield. Years ago, teams played with wingers, crosses would come in and the goalkeepers would get (he claps his huge hands together to let me know exactly what the unfortunate goalkeepers got) — that doesn’t happen any more, does it?

“It was more enjoyable in my time. It was more exciting because players could slide in when it was nice and greasy. All the water used to splash up and the crowd used to love it.”

When I check he has emerged intact, he raises one of those large hands to his head: “Touch wood, I’m fine. I might have inflicted a few injuries,” he trails off laughing.

HARRIS’ docile demeanour belies a brutal reputation and the manner in which his contemporaries/victims speak about him these days belies the animosity he inspired during that heady period when a nation about to lose its grip on the World Cup saw its domestic league become an intense and entertaining battleground.

What’s more, his own circumstances belie the perceived cold brutality of the upper echelons of the modern game. With all the moaning about foreign ownership and Roman Abramovich in particular, you’d never have thought the Russian billionaire had a soul. And Harris should know — he works in hospitality at what he depicts as a rejuvenated club keen to take care of its traditions.

“They’ve changed all the names of the (hospitality) suites,” he says before adding proudly. “The biggest is the Ron Harris suite. I think I’m well respected and I think I do a good job meeting and greeting people.

“I work with a lot of very nice people from the top right the way down to the very bottom who respect me for what I’ve done for the club. I bumped into Roman Abramovich at the last home game and he will always come over and say hello and all that. I can only speak as I find him.

“When he took over he brought me upstairs for a chat that lasted a good hour. It was him talking to me about certain things. The conversation finished with him saying to me he’d like me to come back to Chelsea Football Club.

“They look after ex-players, if they need an operation or something like that, they take care of it.”

It’s the current clutch of overpaid players that raise his temperature.

“In my time, I never had an agent,” he points out. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve played more games for Chelsea than anyone else. I can never see that being broken with the way things are today. Loyalty is not worth two bob today. In my time, you stayed loyal to people.

“If you were an agent and someone had half a sniff at your player and he was sold for 10 million, you’re going to cop your percentage, ain’t ya? So the more players move around, the more money you make.

“In the (1970) cup final, we had six homegrown players. The only lad that’s in the Chelsea side at the moment, who has come through the youth ranks is John Terry. It’s sad that he’s a rare specimen.

“What amazes me is that some of these players today are quite happy to sit in the stand and earn their money without even playing. Players in my time were more honest and genuine. Nowadays they get in the area, one ‘slight touch’ — sometimes these fellas are 6’3” — and they go down like a sack of s**t.”

But he does have some sympathy.

“These fellas are high profile. We weren’t on the television every hour of the day. You had Match of the Day once a week. But if a top player came in here today, they’d be swarmed with photographers. If I was seen in the company of a young lady, nobody cared two monkeys. But if Ronaldo was sitting with a girl, there’d be a picture of him and they’d be saying he’s having an affair.”

THE Chopper stare grips me so it’s time to redirect the attention to the much-anticipated all-London cup semi-final.

In 1970, Harris raised the FA Cup. It meant the world to West London. Nowadays it borders on being a nuisance for the top clubs.

“I don’t think it will be brought back up to where it was,” says Harris. “The clubs are just interested in following the money into Europe.

“But it’s going to be a very close encounter. Arsenal have weathered that storm and Chelsea are doing well under Guus Hiddink. I think it will be a very attractive game.”

The London derbies that matter for his club, he says, are Chelsea v Spurs and Chelsea v Arsenal but what about the Chelsea v Leeds rivalry back in the day?

“You had two good sides that were heavily committed,” he recalls, probably for the thousandth time. “We had three exceptional players: Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie Cooke. We had the grafters and the people who could put some stick about if it got tough. Leeds had (Billy) Bremner, (Johnny) Giles and Eddie (Gray), one or two workhorses and people like Norman Hunter and Big Jack, who, if it got tough, they got tougher.

“It’s sad that they’re in League One now. I think there will be one or two clubs that go bust but it needs for a major club to die before people come to their senses as regards player wages. I say good luck to them, maybe I would have gone for the best deal that I could but when you look at the amount of money these fellas are earning and you have people are struggling to pay their mortgages, something must be wrong.”

His philanthropic vigour offsets the animosity. Invited to Cork by local football club Carrigaline United to whom he offered his after-dinner anecdotes, he is also a few weeks into an eye-opening attempt to break the world record for signing as many autographs as he can between now and next April.

“I’m a patron of the South London branch of a Down’s Syndrome charity and a friend of mine, David Knight, came up with the idea of me doing this. And the chosen caricature which he’ll be scribbling on? “It’s me kicking George Best in the goolies at Old Trafford in a League Cup game.”

The good ol’ days.

www.chopperharris.com


Lifestyle

Ovarian cancer has been dubbed ‘the silent killer’. Christina Henry tells Rowena Walsh why she is one of the lucky onesAgeing with attitude: Life after ovarian cancer

More From The Irish Examiner