Ron Harris: Chopper the Chelsea hardman with plenty of axes left to grind

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The Independent Online

Ron "Chopper" Harris has a niggling grievance that just will not go away. He played 655 league games for Chelsea FC, more than anyone else ever has or probably ever will; he was the first Chelsea captain to lift the FA Cup, and the first to lift the European Cup Winners' Cup. But is there a bar or a function suite or even a turnstile named after him at Stamford Bridge? No, there bleedin' well isn't.

"I go to the ground, and see Roy Bentley remembered, Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, [Gianfranco] Zola, Dennis Wise. There's even a Nigel Spackman entrance. But me, nothing. If I'd been a pain in the arse I could understand it, but..."

He trails off, mere words failing to convey the disappointment. Still, at least he is permitted to pass through the Nigel Spackman entrance these days. For long periods during the Ken Bates era, Chopper, like several other distinguished Chelsea old boys, was told that he was not welcome at the Bridge. His crime, like theirs, was to be quoted in the media venturing criticism of Chairman Ken. It was a rum state of affairs; or a rum-and-coke state of affairs in the case of Alan Hudson. Funnily enough, Chopper had never been a carouser, not like Hudson and Peter Osgood. Off the pitch, he rarely got into trouble while a player. So he little expected to get into trouble as an ex-player.

Ah well. Bates is history and the new Russian regime is less sensitive to criticism; maybe because they don't understand it, or maybe because there's not so much to criticise, at least not if you're a Chelsea fan. Harris is sure his beloved club will win the Premiership. "And they're the biggest certainties under the sun to win that Carling Cup," he asserts.

He hasn't met Jose Mourinho but, as you would expect of a man whose mobile phone ringtone is the 1970 Chelsea anthem "Blue is the Colour", he likes what he sees. "He's arrogant, but he's entitled to be. He's never played football himself, but he's got them going on both flanks. I was a defender all my life and I can tell you that defenders don't like being attacked like that. These days they're used to 4-4-2, without natural wingers. But Mourinho's got [Damien] Duff and [Arjen] Robben running amok. I can't see anyone beating them to the title."

If anyone does, however, he would like it to be Arsenal, whom Chelsea play on Sunday, at Highbury. This you might not expect of a man with a "Blue is the Colour" ringtone. But as a boy, growing up in Stamford Hill, north London, Harris was a devotee of the Arsenal. He started going to Highbury in 1952, when he was eight, and, significantly, his hero was not a fancy striker but the uncompromising left back, Wally Barnes. In 1959 he joined Chelsea as a 15-year-old and had to shelve his affection for the Gunners. "But theirs is still the second result I look for."

Harris has owned up to his old Highbury habit in his newly published autobiography, Chopper: A Chelsea Legend. The book is not, it has to be said, likely to make him the first Chelsea captain to lift the Nobel Prize for Literature. On the other hand, if his ghost writer hadn't written it (Chopper hasn't even read it yet), it is exactly the book you could imagine him writing.

Like him, it is both engagingly earthy and brutally direct. Of Micky Droy, the gigantic centre-half who played alongside him in his latter years at Stamford Bridge, he says: "We bought him from Slough, and he looked useless. For such a big lad he couldn't even head the ball. He was a gentle giant, a big baby. If someone was going to fail a fitness test, you could bet it was going to be him." But the book has bigger fish to fry, bigger kippers to stitch, than Droy. His old team-mate Terry Venables, for one, who was flash and loud and everything Chopper wasn't.

"I've no axe to grind with Terry," he tells me, although that might be considered disingenuous coming from a man named Chopper. "I do think he was overrated as a player. There were fellas around him at Chelsea, like Bobby Tambling, George Graham, who were far better players. Off the field it was, 'Come on lads, let's do this or that', and everybody followed. But as soon as he went to Spurs he was a nobody. Fellas like Jimmy Greaves, Alan Mullery, Dave Mackay, didn't want to know."

Interestingly, and maybe relevantly, Chopper's brother Allan, who also played for Chelsea, was one of Tel's closest friends. "My brother worked with him wherever he went," Chopper says. He chose not to stay in football himself, following a brief coaching spell at Brentford. But he has done alright for himself in the property market. Even though the taxman recently tackled him from behind, he is, at 60, fairly comfortable; not on his uppers like his old mate "Huddy" Hudson.

Tel, of course, is never likely to end up on his uppers. I ask him whether he rates Venables as a coach. "Don't know, never worked with him," he says, shortly. A pause for a slurp of coffee; we are in a pizza restaurant down the Fulham Palace Road, shortly before Fulham host Chelsea in the League Cup. "What's he won? Not much. The Spanish title with Barcelona? In them days Real Madrid and Barcelona were like Rangers and Celtic. It was always one or the other. The Spanish league's a bit more competitive now."

Now that I've got Chopper chopping, so to speak, I am eager to get him onto the subject of the new-look Chelsea. He has met Roman Abramovich, and talked to him, through an interpreter, for an hour. He liked him, and liked the fact that Abramovich seemed to value his opinions. "I've heard that Russians are very good at picking other people's brains," he tells me, earnestly. All the same, does it satisfy him, as perhaps the ultimate example of a man who rose through the ranks at Stamford Bridge, to see the club buying its way to success?

"Well, money don't always buy success," he says. "Mind you, Blackburn won the title with Jack Walker's money and if you give Sam Allardyce £90m, he'd probably win it at Bolton.

"I must admit, I would like a limit on foreign players. Chelsea have only got one home-grown player, John Terry. He's similar to me in the way he plays, although the difference is that when he tackles someone, the guy gets up afterwards."

I oblige him with the laugh he doubtless gets when he delivers that line in after-dinner speeches. "John Terry would run through a brick wall for Chelsea," he continues. "But if you look at some of the foreign players, I don't think you can say that. If you talk to some of the older supporters, there's not the same excitement as there would be if three or four John Terrys were coming through. And I do think these foreigners deprive English lads of opportunities. If my own lads had a chance of going to Chelsea or a lower-league club, I'd send 'em to the lower-league club. I mean, this boy [Robert] Huth has played for Germany. He's lucky to be a sub at Chelsea. And Scott Parker, if he had the opportunity of still playing regular at Charlton or one in 10 at Chelsea, which do you think he'd take?"

Chopper is on a roll. "The other thing is the stuff that's come into the game since the foreign players come in, like spitting. That never happened in my day. And manhandling in the area at free-kicks and corners.

"They always used to do that in Serie A and we'd laugh at it. Now it's become the norm. And the national side has gone down the pan since the foreign players (arrived). Where are all the top English goalkeepers now?"

I don't agree with him for a second about the influx of foreign players being responsible for the decline of the national team. After all, when the influx began, as a trickle, in 1978-79, England had just failed to qualify for two World Cups. Nor am I sure that British players haven't always been capable of directing the odd volley of phlegm at an opponent. In fact Tommy Smith - one of the few men as hard as Chopper - once told me he got it in the mush, during a league match, from a well-known Scotland international. But this is no time to take issue with Chopper. Instead, let's talk about Sven Goran Eriksson. I hazard a wild guess that Chopper is not a fan, and what do you know, I am right.

"He's a very, very lucky fella. If you look at that match against Spain, it was one of the worst performances I've ever seen England give, but all this racism come up and he got off the hook. Any other national manager who's never done anything gets the bullet, this fella gets a £1m pay rise. I never see him doing anything. Even on the training ground he has Steve McClaren doing the work, or Brian Kidd. He just stands around. And what that other geezer's there for, that Tord Grip..."

So who would Chopper appoint? "I admire people like Sam Allardyce, Steve McClaren. There's two candidates straight away. I never even seen Eriksson shout. Have you got kids?" Yes, three. "What's the youngest?" A six-year-old boy. "Right, if he keeps doing things wrong, and you gently say, 'pack it in', he'll just carry on. You've got to say, 'PACK IT IN!' A woman feeding a baby at a neighbouring table looks over, startled. Chopper is oblivious. "It's the same in football," he says.

Changing the subject, I tell him that this interview gives me the set of 1960s-1970s hard men: Norman Hunter, Nobby Stiles and Tommy Smith being the others I have talked to. He smiles. "Yeah, but every side had the so-called destroyer, the hatchet man, whatever you want to call them. There was a lad at the Arsenal, Peter Storey, he was the same."

I ask him whether, with a choice sentence perhaps containing the word "ambulance", he used to intimidate opponents even in the tunnel before a match, like Smith of Liverpool did?

"No, I never did that. I seldom used to speak to anyone before or during a game. But my manager at Chelsea, Tommy Docherty, gave me a fantastic tip about man-marking. He told me to larrup somebody in the first few minutes, and after that just to stay behind them and cough every now and then, to show them I was not too far away."

The tactic plainly worked in the case of Jimmy Greaves, marked by Chopper 19 times, scoring just the once. It is Greaves, in fact, who has written the foreword to the book. It begins: "I've been acquainted with Ron Harris, better known as Chopper, for longer than I care to remember - and for most of that time I thought he was an evil git."

Like Smith, Hunter and Stiles, however, Chopper could do more than chop. Indeed, he was a multi-talented sportsman who played both cricket and football for England Schoolboys. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to ask the "evil git" who was most gittishly evil in return?

"The toughest fella was a big Scotch geezer, broken nose, called Andy Lochhead. I knew if I got stuck into him, I would get one back, that instead of me winning 40-love, it'd be deuce. Denis Law was the same.

"But only one fella ever got the better of me. A geezer called Mike Barnard, played for Stoke and Everton. He came right over the top of the ball, and that was the only time I ever lay on the ground. My father used to say, 'Never show 'em you're hurt', and apart from that one time, I never did."

'Chopper: A Chelsea legend', is published by bigbluetube, £9.99

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