A year ago tonight I was in a very sombre mood indeed.
I was contacting various people connected with QPR to give them very sad news about Harold Winton’s condition, and asking them to think about what they might like to say the following day when, sadly, I would probably be putting together a tribute to him.
Harold’s sons, Matt and Alex, had agreed that I should do this in preparation for the inevitable news that would follow. Harold had been suffering with cancer for some time.
Perhaps the person most synonymous with the Wintons is Dan Shittu, who was number one on my list that evening. But Shittu was on international duty with Nigeria and I was unable to get hold of him in time.
Shittu later paid his own tribute to Harold, who funded the player’s move to Rangers from Charlton and took a keen interest in his career after that.
Harold also agreed to help Rangers with the signing of Marc Bircham, who was sad to hear the news about him and said some nice words. Nick Blackburn had his differences with Harold while chairman but was sincere in his tribute, as was another former Rangers chairman Bill Power, who had great affection for him.
One person Harold always had a particularly soft spot for was Gary Waddock, who also paid him a nice tribute.
A sign of the esteem Harold was held in was that, after the news that he had passed away, so many others – some of whom I didn’t even know knew Harold so well – were keen to add their own tribute. He was known to many more former QPR players than I realised.
Harold is most known for his involvement in the Doudou, Bircham and Shittu deals, and it’s for those that he was invited to join the board and later given the title of honorary president.
But he also worked tirelessly behind the scenes during some incredibly traumatic times for QPR. I had a ringside seat for the battles that were fought during that awful period, and can vouch for the fact that Harold was at the forefront of the daily fight for the club’s survival.
He was later joined by the likes of Power, Kevin McGrath, Gianni Paladini, Dave Morris and others, but for a time he was the club’s leading firefighter.
Bringing in players was the fun – and the public – part. There was plenty more going on away from all that. There were bills to be paid and battles to be fought.
I liked Harold a lot. I never told him so, because I’d never tell a bigwig at QPR something like that. Plus we had our differences. He would sometimes be unhappy about a story of mine, never more so than one that suggested Ian Holloway was looking to replace Doudou, which Harold took great exception to.
But like Holloway, Harold didn’t tend to bear grudges. On one occasion, in 2006, I was banned from the press area at Loftus Road because of a falling out with the regime. Harold, who was poorly at the time, didn’t know about this and in any case was unhappy with me about something.
When he found out a few weeks later, he insisted that he would “sort it”. I didn’t say at the time because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I didn’t want him to get involved, as I was worried this would leave me owing him something. The Wintons are good people, but they knew how and when to call a favour in. I didn’t want to be in that situation.
A few months later, Harold and I had a disagreement over a story I’d done. I waited for him to remind me that I owed him one and was an ungrateful so-and-so, but he never did. Not then, or other times when we were on opposite sides.
He was always fantastic and engaging to speak to. Mad as a hatter at times, often touting some idea he’d come up with, and almost always with a plan to get this or that player to QPR by hook or by crook. The return of Lee Camp, for example, was something he had tried to bring about several times before a deal was eventually done.
There was also conflict. Harold was hugely supportive of Holloway and Paladini, but fell out with them for very different reasons. His relationship with the latter was affected by the boardroom coup of 2005, which Harold was deeply unhappy about. Later, the sale of Dean Parrett and other issues caused real acrimony.
Harold wasn’t perfect but there were some misconceptions about him. More recently, Paulo Sousa’s problematic reign opened many eyes to how the internet can be used to influence opinions. People seem wise to it now. But previously, Harold was a messageboard target in a way that made the Sousa debacle look tame.
For some time there was an implication that, among other things, Harold was responsible for various leaks and negative stories about QPR, was hell-bent on self-promotion, and couldn’t stop talking to the press.
Harold let that go without comment. As did I – the person who wrote 99% of the stories in question, and as such was the only person who knew the truth, while fiction was being presented as fact on messageboards.
It was a sad time. Harold and I had had our differences, but this was a sick and elderly man who’d done a lot for the club and was being demonised unfairly.
Ironically, Harold worked tirelessly to prevent leaks and worked to uphold the club’s reputation at all times. He could talk for England, but was actually very reluctant to comment on anything on the record, and was constantly putting the squeeze on me in various ways to try and prevent things getting into the public domain.
Far from being a sneaky leak, what Harold actually did was take the bull by the horns and speak publicly about something when he felt the need to. But these occasions were in fact very few and far between.
After Harold died it wasn’t appropriate to dwell on these things. But a year on, maybe it’s the right time to reveal that, actually, there were only five occasions when Harold sought publicity. In all five cases he initially tried to get his way via private persuasion.
The first was after the promotion in 2004, when there were divisions behind the scenes and Harold had fears about where things were heading.
The second and third occasions were over attempts to replace Holloway with Ramon Diaz, and later the 2005 boardroom split that led to Power and Mark Devlin being ousted. In both cases Harold was unhappy with me because he felt I should have written something sooner than I did.
The fourth was after Power and Devlin were removed, and Harold was unhappy that Paladini and the Monaco group were in sole control. He took his position as honorary president seriously, and felt that he should say publicly that he was concerned, and pointed to examples at Wimbledon and Stoke of what can happen when a club comes under foreign control.
The fifth and most controversial was Harold’s public call for Holloway to be replaced.
For his role in Holloway’s exit, Harold perhaps won’t be judged favourably by some. But he had his reasons, and it’s also the case that he had fought tooth and nail to keep Holloway in the job on several occasions when he was close to the sack. He had also backed him financially.
Once the club’s president and a former key ally made it known he wanted him out, the game was up for Holloway and he knew it. But that was Harold. One afternoon my phone rang and Harold’s number appeared. I knew from experience it wasn’t a good sign. He said what he had to say about Holloway and told me to do what I wanted with it. I warned him that the fans may never forgive him, sarcastically thanked him for wrecking my relationship with the manager, and that was it. That’s how Harold operated. In that respect he was as far removed from sneaky as you can get, so whispers that he was behind a series of leaks couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Whether he got the Holloway issue right or wrong, one thing is for sure: Harold loved QPR and had its best interests at heart. I also have no doubt that his involvement in Rangers took its toll on him, and on Matt and Alex.
Top of the league and owned by billionaires, it’s easy now to lose sight of what a mess Rangers were in a few years ago, and Harold’s role in getting the club to where it is today.
In May, if Rangers are promoted, Neil Warnock and the players will rightly bask in the glory. So will the owners and board. But Harold will have played his part too.
He was mad, yet when it mattered he was the voice of sanity. That was the great Harold paradox. And no matter how bleak things were – and boy were they bleak at times – Harold always had a Del Boy-like enthusiasm and belief that if we could just get this player or win that battle, then this time next year we’ll be millionaires.
In the end, it turns out he was right.
The likes of Briatore and Ecclestone may not remember him, but that wouldn’t have bothered Harold. He would, though, have wanted to be fondly remembered by QPR fans, who were always most important to him.
And, for what he did for his club during its darkest days, he ought to be remembered. Not just on this, the first anniversary of his passing, but always.