The story of Kevin Gallen is the story of Queen's Park Rangers. His demise is their demise, his revival their revival. This was the player who broke the youth scoring records of Jimmy Greaves, who competed strike for strike with Robbie Fowler and who, at 19, was a Premiership player in demand. After 12 goals in his first season, 1994-95, great things beckoned. But Rangers struggled. Relegation and Gallen stayed. He should have left.
In scoring against Ports-mouth he crashed into a post, shattered his knee and was out for a year. Heavier and slower, he never fully recovered, and neither did the club.
Just as Gallen drifted away (to Huddersfield Town and then Barnsley on free transfers) so did Rangers. Relegation to the Second Division was prefaced by administration. Somehow losses rose to £27m in just four years - wages were bloated, as was the playing staff. The owner, Chris Wright, lost a fortune. Stability came last year from a £10m loan, although new backers are urgently sought.
Now there is hope. Today they play Cardiff City in the play-off final at the Millen-nium Stadium. "To be in this position now, of being just 90 minutes away from getting QPR back into the First Division, of getting pride back into the area and for the fans - it will be a massive achievement for me and the rest of the players," says Gallen softly.
Now 27, a victim of wounded pride, he sits in the trophy room at Loftus Road. His manager, Ian Holloway, walks in and chuckles. "Oh, Mr QPR is here," he says. It is a fair description, especially as Holloway takes up how he brought Gallen back to his roots and revived the club he also played for. Holloway, a hard-working midfielder, played behind Gallen and Les Ferdinand back in the mid-Nineties although even then he sensed the rot had set in at Loftus Road.
"He is on one third of what he used to be on," Holloway says bluntly. "But he is here for the right reasons, which are not money but football. I've told him he should have played for England like Robbie Fowler did when they were kids. I want the world to see the best of Kevin Gallen, because Kevin was part of it when we started on the downward spiral."
That downward spiral was horrendous. Holloway returned in February 2001, as manager, and the club were in freefall. He remembers going to see the director of football, Gerry Francis. "Gerry would not let me see the budget when I first came," Holloway says. "I said, 'Come on, I need to see it', and he said, 'No, I want you to focus on these last 13 games'.
"I believe we had some terrible luck, but we didn't stay up. The minute we didn't stay up he showed me the budget and I was absolutely fuming, because of the money they were earning and how they were strolling around." He inherited 51 professionals. Now, having released 10 players this week, he has 14. The wage bill has fallen from £5.1m to £2.6m. Holloway had feared that it would have to be halved again, but is delighted that he will have money to spend in the close season instead. Nevertheless, he will rely on free transfers and loan deals to get his squad up to "around 20".
"You don't want a stagnant pool of players," Holloway says. "You need to stick your motor boat in every now and again and churn it up, otherwise you get complacent."
QPR, he feels, have been "a fancy-dan footballers' club and I wanted to make it a real one". He uses a familiar analogy: "You need one pianist and some people to carry the piano on the stage. When I first took over, everyone was trying to sit on the stool."
However, he brought back Gallen and asked him to try out a few tunes again. "I questioned his work-rate, his desire," Holloway says. "I said that what I have got to do is get you fit enough to sort your life out. When you have been promised so much at a young age, it can dilute your focus."
The contact had come from Gallen after he had read "an SOS" by Holloway for a centre-forward. "His agent spoke to me and I could not believe what I could get him for," Holloway admits. In his first game, Gallen scored and created three others. This season, he has 14 goals.
Indeed, so concerned were the Rangers board that they may lose Gallen this summer - he is out of contract - that they have given him a two-year deal ahead of negotiations with the rest of the squad. "I didn't want to do it," admits Holloway, who was determined to treat him like the other players. "We could have lost him, but I don't believe he wants to go anywhere else."
Nevertheless, Holloway knows his worth. "I just believe his brain is easily of Premier League standard. I swear he has his best years ahead of him." After the trauma, the fans will be hoping the same is true of their club.Reuse content