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Ron Harris still making his presence felt at Stamford Bridge
Published : 05 Apr 2010 17:47:37
So it seems only appropriate to ask Ron Harris, the man universally known as Chopper, if he had ever worn boots of that nature during his 21-year career at Chelsea. The full-back whose uncompromising muscularity was a feature of the Blues' back line for a record 795 games, narrows his eyes and shoots his questioner the sort of look that must have persuaded many a winger in the Seventies that getting on the wrong side of Chopper was really not a good idea. Related ArticlesCrunch time for pretendersSport on televisionOld Trafford man markingsMalouda at his sparkling best for ChelseaDrogba 'frustrated' by late entryManchester United 1 Chelsea 2"What do you think?" he growls. "Looking at them boots they wear today and them gloves and all that, I think, 'Blimey football: it used to be a man's game, didn't it?' And don't get me started on tackling. I mean, this law about sending off someone if they show their studs in the tackle. Excuse me, if you slide in how are you not going to show your studs? It's not physically possible." Ron Harris is exactly as you might hope him to be. While other sportsmen have a persona that is mere construct, Harris remains Chopper still: unwavering, tougher than teak, no more likely to shirk a question than he would a challenge. Plus, as he proves while taking The Daily Telegraph round his old haunts at Stamford Bridge, immensely good value. He is giving us a sampler of a special, sold-out Legends Tour he is conducting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of when he became the first Chelsea captain to lift the FA Cup in 1970. "I know, 40 years where did it go?" he says, as we sit in the Shed End. "Met a fella from Norway the other day and he said he'd seen me lift the Cup when he was only eight. And I looked at him, saw this middle-aged fella looking back at me and I thought: no disrespect or anything, but how could that be possible? How did he get that old in that time? Because honestly, when I sit down and talk about it, it seems like yesterday." In truth, as Ron stands alongside the picture of himself in his heyday which is displayed on the wall at the back of the Shed, you can see his point: it does not seem 40 years since he was lifting the Cup. A pound or two heavier, maybe, but he appears to be much as he was then: the gap-toothed smile, the neat mod hair, the thousand-yard stare. And a forthrightness that would have a modern football club press office reaching for the smelling salts. "People always ask me if I'm envious of the money they earn today and tell you what, I am," he says. "Most I ever earned was £295 a week here. I still have to work for my living and there's no way most of these fellas will have to work into their old age. Fair play, some of them deserve the money. "But I was watching West Ham here the other day and I tell you what, they was an absolute disgrace. Poor old Bobby Moore would have turned in his grave if he'd had to watch that. Some of them fellas earning £40,000-50,000 a week, I'd have been embarrassed to pick up my wages if I played like that. In all honesty, I'd have done a much better job than either of their full-backs. And I'm 65." It is not just the players' wages that have changed at Stamford Bridge. When Ron first played there, most of the place was open terraces and the North Stand was so rickety it would shake when the tube trains went past. Now there are hotels, fine-dining destinations, leather seats in the dugouts. Plus, in the corporate hospitality zone, there is the Ron Harris Suite. "They look after the old players here," he says. "And I'd do anything for the club. Twenty-one years I was here and I owe them everything. Whenever they ask me to do something I'm here on time. I've never been late for anything in my life. Except the odd tackle." It hasn't always been like that, however. "Nah, under Roman Abramovich it all changed for the good," he says. "Before that, under the previous regime, we old-timers never got the time of day. I'm not going to mention the fella in charge by name, but he's chairman of Leeds now." Leeds: rarely can the word be invested with the venom it is by Harris. For him, they were the true enemy. "There was no love lost," he smiles. "I reckon if Leeds played here now, there'd still be that feeling, that rivalry. It's your classic north v south, basically. Actually, in all honesty, you look at their side in my day and they didn't win what they deserved. They were a good side. Don't know why, but there seemed to be something about them that failed at the final hurdle. And I guess we were part of that in 1970." The two clubs met in the final at Wembley that year as early as April 11, the date brought forward to allow England time to prepare to defend the World Cup in Mexico. The first game was a draw, played on a terrible surface cut to pieces by the Horse of the Year Show. It was not an encounter which helped relations between the two rivals: the tackles were eye-watering. By the time of the replay at Old Trafford a fortnight later, Chelsea had a game plan. "Eddie Gray had given Dave Webb a real chasing at Wembley," says Harris. "So for the replay, we swapped flanks and I took Gray. Dave [Sexton, the manager] had a word with me before the game and said, 'If you get half a chance to rough Gray up a little, take it'. I took it after all of eight minutes. Thought that was nice of me to give him eight minutes." That final represented a clash of philosophies: paranoid Don Revie's brusque Yorkshiremen against the flash cockney swagger of the King's Road wide boys. "Yeah, this was the centre of the universe in the Sixties," Harris says. "Or at least it felt like it. When I first joined, in the players' lounge there was people like Arthur Askey. Then Dickie Attenborough got involved and he started bringing the film stars down, Steve McQueen, Raquel Welch. Everyone wanted to be seen here. Don't suppose you got that at Leeds." But if Chelsea represented the swish of trendy London, there was nothing soft about them. Especially not their captain. "In them days, every team had their kicker. There was Norman Hunter at Leeds, Nobby Stiles at Man United, Peter Storey at Arsenal. And me at Chelsea. Funnily enough I never come across any of the others on the pitch. We tended to stick to our own halves, so we didn't usually meet. "I remember Ossie [Peter Osgood] getting the hump with me once. We're in the tunnel lining up before a game against Leeds and I'd been giving it verbals, winding up Norman or someone. Ossie says to me 'It's all very well you giving it all that, it's me they end up taking it out on'." If he was angry, the animosity did not last long: Osgood, who died in 2006, was always Harris's best mate in the Chelsea team. "I miss Ossie," he says. "What a gent. At his funeral, all the lads were there and, I know it was a sad day, but we had such a laugh. Just remembering the strokes Ossie used to pull. You wouldn't believe it what that lad got up to. You could never ever do that now." It was Osgood whose diving header of an equaliser put Chelsea on course for victory in the Cup final replay. "We were a little fortunate to get out of jail in the first game, even in the replay we were 1-0 down with 20 minutes to go. But once Ossie equalised, you could see in their eyes they'd gone. You could see them think, 'Here we go again'. Our lads sensed it was only a matter of time. And when Webby scored, I kind of knew it was our destiny." Receiving the Cup, Harris says, is without question his finest moment. "Mind, I'm not knocking anything to do with Manchester United, it was at Old Trafford and not Wembley," he says. "You dream of climbing them 39 steps to lift the Cup, and I didn't get the chance. We received the Cup on the pitch. Still, what a memory. Old Trafford was always a happy hunting ground for Chelsea. Still is." The following season, having already become the first Chelsea captain to lift the FA Cup, Harris became the first to lift a European trophy when his side beat Real Madrid to secure the Cup-Winners' Cup (also after a replay). But after that the team were broken up as the club faced financial freefall following the building of the East Stand. Harris was the only one to survive, staying at Stamford Bridge until 1980. Now it is as if he has never been away. As we complete the tour in a dressing room which, with its acres of polished wood and shelves groaning with male grooming items, has changed somewhat since Harris's days of a big communal bath and a couple of pegs to hang the suit, it leaves us with just one question: does he ever mind the nickname? Descriptive it might be, but it hardly betokens him as a player of panache and skill, does it? "It's done me proud, has my nickname," he says. "And I tell you what, the ladies like it. That's the first thing they say: 'why did they call you Chopper?'" And what does he say? "Nothing. I just smile." Quick Questions: If not football? I had the opportunity to go on the groundstaff at Lord's, I was the first London under-11 to score a century in a competitive game and I done that twice. But I chose football and never regretted it. Who was the flashiest of the Chelsea set? George Graham. You'd never think he would make a manager when he was a player. All he was interested in before a game was spending half an hour putting Vaseline on his eyebrows. Pre-match rituals? We used to go to the dogs at Wimbledon on a Friday night before home games. Lads couldn't do that now. Imagine. If we got beat on the Saturday, you guarantee the secretary used to get a letter saying we were at the dogs. If we won, no one would say a word. Follow in the footsteps of Ron and other Chelsea greats on the Legends Tours at Stamford Bridge. The next available Legends Tour is on June 20. Visit www.chelseafc.com/tours or call 0871 984 1955 to book.