Interview: Robbie Herrera

Image: Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images

Robbie Herrera stood out for his ability as a fullback, as well as his long black curly hair, experiencing relegation & promotion at the club. The cult hero was Daniel Smith’s original favourite player, so guess who jumped at the chance to call Robbie for a chat about his Fulham career…

DS – First of all how does a young lad from Torquay become a professional footballer with QPR?

RH – Err, the full story. My brother was a youth team player at Torquay and they had a game and they were short of players. So he said my brother will play. So he ran back home, got me, got my boots and I played in a youth team game. I was 14 at the time so that was it that was the start of it for me originally. From then on in I trained with the Torquay youth team in preseason and school holidays, then when it came to signing as an ‘old’ apprentice the then manager Dave Webb who was good friends with Jim Smith at QPR, gave him a bit of a ring and said “you need to have a look at this lad.” So they invited me up for a couple of days and I ended up signing apprentice forms with them.

DS – Wow… so it was quite lucky then?

RH – Yeah, very much so. I was gonna take an apprenticeship with Plymouth but like I said QPR invited me up. Jim Smith actually invited me himself so I went up for the weekend with my Dad, I trained on the Saturday and I signed on the Sunday I think it was.

DS – Did you always want to be a left back and did you have any role models in the game growing up?

RH – Nah not really. Listen when I was a kid I wanted to play up front like everyone else. Obviously being left-footed I always started on the left. So I went to QPR as an attacking left wide man but they seemed to think I’d be more suited at left back so they put me there and that was it, I stuck there.

As far as role models go I used to love watching Diego Maradona especially as he was also a leftie. But I never envisaged myself as a fullback when I was a kid so never had any role models, as far as that goes.

DS – You started off on loan for 3 months which was a success, what was going through your mind when you had to return to QPR. Had you fallen in love with Fulham or were you open to a return to QPR?

RH – Yeah, to be honest with ya I loved my time. Don’t get me wrong my time at QPR was great; I had some strong relationships with some of the lads there. It was a good club at the time but I wanted to play. I wanted to go out and play games and I absolutely loved my three months at Fulham but not a lot was going on in my head about the future. I thought being out on loan that I had the best of both worlds, I was playing regularly but also thought I might be able to take that form back to QPR and get in the first team there. So I didn’t really think too much about it, I just had the attitude what will be will be.

But I loved my time at Fulham, absolutely loved it, great bunch of lads. The fans were brilliant towards me which made it easy for me to settle in and the deal managed to get done in the end which was great.

DS – Did you have any interaction with Rufus Brevett? It seems bizarre that he was the left back at QPR when you was a youngster and then years later Fulham signed him to replace you?

RH – Rufus was a mate of mine, we knew each other well at QPR. It was one of those at QPR though, I was young and down the pecking order, I’d only featured in 10 or 11 games but was in and around the first team and I just wanted to play. We had some good left backs at the time at QPR, Ian Dawes was a great left back, you’ve got Mark Dennis, Clive Wilson was playing, I was obviously still there, we had Rufus Brevett you know, so we had some good left backs at the club. Kenny Samson then came in so there was a fair bit of competition which is why I chose to leave. I didn’t have to but I wasn’t going to get many opportunities cos of the likes of Rufus.

I remember the day he then signed for Fulham, he came up to me and said he wasn’t sure whether to sign cos I was here and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to get many games. I think it was going to be a straight battle between the two of us but obviously, he was one of Keegan’s signings so it was one of those. I believe they’d just paid around £350,000 for him so was he gonna play ahead of me? Well, I suppose if you spend that sort of money you’d think that they’d play him. But it didn’t phase me with him coming in, we both knew what each other was about and I thought if I gave a big crack at it with all due respect to Rufus whose a good friend I thought I might have the edge on him. But hey, everyone sees it differently in football.

DS – I speak to many fans about that 96/97 team and your name always pops up. I’m yet to meet a fan who doesn’t speak highly of you and of course, the fans had bucket collections in order to try and stump up a transfer fee to sign you. How was the relationship with the fans from your perspective?

RH – Ah Brilliant! They were great, always chanting my name. I got to know quite a few of them personally as well. I got a lad that I’m still in contact with called Mick Roots, I don’t know if you know him but he’s a massive Fulham fan. It was just back in the day when fans and players mixed a little bit more than what they do nowadays. 

DS – I totally relate to that and I think that’s why your team is so loved by anyone who remembers it.

RH – Yeah, we’d go in the bar and mingle with the fans and there was a close relationship. I’m not saying that there isn’t a relationship today but it’s a little bit different. The players are sectioned away from the fans so it’s all different now. 

I heard about the bucket collection, I’ve still got the clipping somewhere, it was in the papers. I remember reading about it the first game I’d gone back to QPR after I’d left. It was unbelievable, such a great feeling cos we’d gone to a tribunal and obviously the committee there had set a fee for me. And I remember Jimmy Hill, God bless his soul, saying at this present time they weren’t in a position to pay that money. So it was gutting and I remember it well…

DS – Realistically it’s a lovely gesture but the fans were never going to be able to raise the money without help. So on deadline day, a wealthy fan paid your transfer fee anonymously. Is this true?

RH – Well it’s been rumoured in several bits that it was Hugh Grant but I don’t know for sure who it was. I’ve had one or two other people saying that they put the money in but I don’t know if they did. Who knows, it’s a lovely story and whoever it was, I’m very grateful to them.

DS – The club suffered relegation and then it’s lowest ever league position before that famous promotion. How hard was it as a player in those circumstances?

RH – I remember the game at Swansea, it was at the end of my loan spell. Everyone was disappointed with how we got relegated and the season that followed. I think as a player you just get it in your head that, listen your just gonna try and reactivate things and just go out and do your best. I don’t think there’s too much deliberating and trying to work out why it’s happened. It’s obviously done and you’ve just got to get on with things. So what helped us with our promotion team was that we had a group of lads that were really close and that got us over the line.

DS – What was your relationship with Don Mackay and Ian Branfoot like?

RH – Well Don I thought was a lovely fella, liked him, liked his mannerisms and the way he conducted himself, the way he was with the lads etc. He was quite (in my time there) quietly spoken but he knew how to handle different individuals so I learnt a lot from that, to be honest with ya.

Ian Branfoot, a different kettle of fish. Very sergeant major type, didn’t particularly like me as I’d had a falling out with him. But what helped me at the time was that I was a bit of a fans favourite and I think he was under pressure to play me. So my time with Ian I didn’t particularly enjoy but we got over it and in the end, it was a little bit of a successful period. I just don’t think I was his sort of player, I would like to try and play out from the back and take players on and he didn’t like that. He just wanted me to take it out of my feet and whack it into the far corner. It was all percentages football and listen it works for some and not so much for others. It wasn’t the way I wanted to play but at the end of the day, he’s the manager.

Contracts were different back then, I was on a month to month contract for about 16 months so needed to look after my own interests and he’s the manager so his word goes in the end.

DS – What was Micky Adams like as a manager & what did he change?

RH – To be fair Micky was great, he was obviously a teammate and I had a good connection with him on the left-hand side. So we got on really well, what he did he brought in a group of lads who all bought into his ideas and methods. And he made it clear he wanted a group of lads that would do anything for each other. So as a team we had a really close bond, we’d have a gathering every two or three weeks. The lads would go out together for a beer, we’d get to know each other personally, about each others’ families etc. It weren’t just about the football under Micky and if it was a social event you’d have the Mrs with ya so all the wives knew each other and were friendly. We had that camaraderie and you knew on a Saturday or a Tuesday night, whatever the case might be, if you weren’t playing well that your mate would help you out and when a player got the better of me, I knew my mate was behind me to bail me out and that goes a long way in football.

DS – Did the group go into the 96/97 season believing promotion was even possible? Was that the objective in preseason?

RH – To be honest we didn’t even talk about it, we just went into every game giving the best we had. After a few matches, I went into every game with the mindset that we weren’t going to lose. I was so confident because we had such a strong group. It was strange cos you don’t have many seasons where you feel that way. We had players like Micky Conroy who you knew would always get you a goal. At the back we had big Terry a good defender, Morgs was a leader, Nick Cusack and Darren Freeman were top players… we just never felt any pressure cos you knew what you had around ya and as I say I never felt like we were going to go out and lose a game. And it wasn’t being arrogant it was just a case of believing in your teammates. We also had a strong squad so didn’t matter if someone took a knock or was suspended, we had like for like replacements which help massively over a long season. So going back to Micky he got the mixture spot – Is there a particular match that stands out for you personally?

DS – Is there a particular game that stands out for you in a Fulham shirt?

RH – No to be fair there isn’t a particular game. Carlisle, I’m sure is a popular choice but it’s one of the games I was injured for so it wasn’t for me personally as I didn’t play. But as I said a minute ago, every game I had the same mentality so I never went into a game worrying that we had to win, there wasn’t really much pressure.

DS – In any other season, we would have won the league on goal difference as ours was better than Wigan’s. But for this particular season, a trial rule was in place to allow goals scored to overrule goal difference and Wigan scored more goals. Are you bitter about this because it’s the difference between owning a winners medal and a runner-up one?

RH – We obviously got a promotion medal and don’t get me wrong its lovely but it ain’t quite the same. It still means as much as it would but its gutting not to have a winners medal at home. I’m forever moaning about this when I speak to people in football!

DS – Who were your closest friends at the club and who did you room with, have you kept in touch with them or anyone else from your time with us?

RH – Simon Morgan – me and Morgs got on really well and we were also roommates. We were quite close family-wise too, my other half used to go over there and we would spend weekends with them. I was also close to Terry Angus, when we used to travel away he would come and sit next to me on the coach, so we were quite close. But you know, as I said before the whole group got on so well but they were probably the closest two that I had there, Morgs more so.

To be fair I haven’t spoken to Morgs for quite a few months now, same with Terry. I spoke to Nick Cusack recently and I have a few of the lads on Facebook. Micky Conroy, Mark Walton, Richard Carpenter, Martin Thomas, Darren Freeman so there’s a few on there. I’ve also lost touch with a few too. We’ve got a reunion on the 18th November when we play Derby at the Cottage cos it’s the 20th anniversary so it’ll be nice to see the lads again. I was hoping I would be busy with Torquay but I’m on gardening leave now so looks like I’ll be able to go after all. I think we will be introduced to the crowd at halftime.

DS – Hopefully they catch it on sky cos you will get a massive cheer as everyone loves that team. It would be great if the club could organise for your promotion team vs a celeb team for charity.

RH – I would love that!

DS – Moving on, I’ve heard some nicknames in my time but is it true you were known as the Columbian Drug Dealer because of your appearance? And we’ve got to talk about the hair! Were you in competition with Darren Freeman or something?

RH – Oh here we go… I think that originated from Morgs. I think Morgs started all that.

DS Did he really? The thing is you actually did look like one…

RH – Yeah, Yeah….. at the time I thought that it looked the business but now I Look back and think what was I doing, what was I doing?! Listen it got me noticed, I didn’t do it for that reason but as I say I think Morgs started it and it just got around. So cheers Morgs!

DS – Thing is you are right about it getting you noticed though because I used to stand in the enclosure in what you remember as the Stevenage Road Stand and I was only about 7 years old at the time. Obviously, we traditionally kick off towards the Putney End so you were always running along that side in the first half taking throw-ins etc….with your hair and obviously being a good player, I think that’s why I took such a shine to you. At that age by the time the second half started I was getting tired or my attention wasn’t as good so I’d go home remembering you. So really the hair gave you the edge!

RH – You’re not wrong, you’re not wrong! There was a method in the madness. 

DS – You should grow it back and go for the England job!

RH – I tell ya what, I’d love to grow it back but at the moment it’s just not happening. I ain’t lost too much to be fair but it ain’t what it used to be. A little bit thinner let’s just say! As for being in competition with Darren, no not for me. I don’t know what he did with his but mine was all natural, the curls were natural… I’m sure he permed his! It couldn’t have been real. I used to put a black band in to hold it back sometimes, I put it in a ponytail for training and I used to love it! It just cost me an arm and a leg in shampoo!

DS – Did you ever see the Michael Jackson statue? A lot of fans I’ve spoken to thought it looked more like you!

RH – Yeah I did, I played in that 40 challenge cup at the Cottage about 10 years ago. It was over 40s, Fulham had a team, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. That was unbelievable cos I got there and I thought not too many people are gonna remember me here. We got ferried from the school car park into the Cottage and as I walked in I was mobbed. We obviously had a walk way and I must have been there for 25 minutes signing autographs, taking photos, people had my name on the back of their shirts and I thought wow! That was unbelievable and I felt really humbled by that cos at the time I’d been gone from the club, it must have been 10 years so I wasn’t expecting it.

DS But I said this at the beginning. I’m telling you Fulham fans aren’t like that. They loved your team and still do; we don’t forget where we’ve come from.

RH – Yeah you’re right mate, great bunch of fans! Going back to the statue I think you’re right. It did look a little more like me than it did Michael.

DS – You should have got a selfie next to it!

RH – Well I had to throw my one glove away didn’t I for fear of being recognised. 

DS – Maybe that’s why they were signing your autographs for so long! They thought you were MJ!

RH – Yeah wondered why they were calling me Michael! I dunno it wasn’t great, was it. It could have been done much better in a classier fashion. The best thing about it was it brought me more work as an impersonator! 

DS – Do you remember either of your goals and could you describe them?

RH – I remember the one at Leyton Orient, it was when I’d just signed permanently. I got into the box, what I was doing there I don’t know but it came in from the right-hand side and I managed to get a touch across the defender and as the keepers come out I think I’ve lobbed him. That’s the one I remember, the other one you are going to have to remind me, I’ve forgotten myself.

DS – After promotion, Al Fayed bought the club and it was clear we were going places pretty quickly. Whose decision was it for you to leave, was it yours or the clubs?

RH – To be fair I had a year left on my contract and the season Kevin and Ray took over in the September I was playing and I thought they liked me. They would chat with me and reports came back to me that they liked what I was doing. But then they sold Paul Watson to Brentford and they were a fullback short and then I went and got injured. So hence Rufus coming in and I had a couple of clubs who came in and to be honest I had a chat with Kevin and he turned them down and he said if I got myself fit for the following season that I’d get a new contract. So I worked hard over the summer, we came back and went on preseason over to Scotland and I found myself with limited game time so I knew the writing was on the wall. Then there was a trip to Germany, I wasn’t involved in it so I went to see Kevin and he said that he’d had an offer for me from Torquay. He said it was a lot less than I was worth but it was up to me to make the move happen because being realistic I wouldn’t be getting many chances.

With hindsight, I think I should have stayed but things happen for a reason. I moved back home to Torquay on a 3-year deal. The lure of coming home and having all your family around you swayed it at the time I suppose. I thought rather than sitting around, I wanted to play. The level of football and players around me wasn’t the same, I didn’t enjoy it, I missed Fulham and if I had the chance again I would have stayed at the club and fought for my place. 

DS – Referring to the last question, Micky didn’t last long the following season under Al Fayed. Was the group divided in how it felt about the decision, were the players from the promotion team heavily impacted by his departure?

RH – I’m not sure. If you speak to some I’m sure they would say no not really. When a new manager comes in and new staff you naturally fear cos it’s a new system and new way of playing, you hope they will like you. They want to bring in their own players too so it can be a stressful time. All you can do is go out there and give your all to impress them and show them that you’re more than capable and I think a few of them did. If you speak to others who left they will feel they could have stayed and been involved and to be fair I think they are right but that’s football.

DS – You had a brief spell as manager of Torrington FC and were the number two at Torquay United for a long time. Do you see yourself as more suited for either role?

RH – I’ve gotta be honest I always thought of myself as a coach cos I just love getting on the pitch and coaching or as a number two. But having had a taste of management I know if a job came along now and gave me a chance at management I’d be interested. Cos I loved the day to day running, going to the ground and organising, looking for players and doing things my way. I stepped out of the shadows as a number two cos you’re never quite making the decisions yourself, you give an opinion and advice but it was nice to go out and put Robbie Herrera’s spin on things because as a number 2 even if you don’t agree with it you’ve always got to back the manager.

But listen I’d be thankful to stay involved with football in any role, to be honest with ya. Just being involved would be great. 

DS – I’m sure I heard somewhere that you had to drive the team bus to away games to save the club money. First of all, I bet that was a right laugh with the banter from players. Secondly, does it annoy you the unnecessary luxuries the top clubs get when clubs like Torquay have to make those types of sacrifices just to survive?

RH – Ha-ha, yeah it was good especially if we’d won! We were in a position where the club didn’t have any money. So we had a choice and you’ve got to remember that all the games are miles away, miles away from Torquay. So we had a choice of travel up by coach on the day or have a hotel for the night but travel by minibus because it’s cheaper. So we had a choice, we couldn’t have both and we opted for the minibus.

There were times we would go up in cars which was a bit strange but you know, it is what it is. We had a couple of times where the bus broke down and we had to go into the services and order 10 taxis to take us the last couple of hours to a game. We laughed about it cos we managed to get through it and it was a good experience.

I don’t hold a grudge though, I wasn’t pampered as much as players are now but we were well looked after at QPR when I was there 25 years ago, well looked after. So I’ve understood it at both ends. You just got to get on with it and give thanks for what you’re given. Fair play to the lads at the top, if someone offers you loads of money and offers to cook for ya and pamper you then you aren’t gonna say no, are you? So good luck to them. All I say to the lads that haven’t got that, if you want it, work a bit harder and you might get it!

DS – Finally Robbie, pie or pasty – which filling?

RH – Pie or pasty? Listen I’m not a Cornish man but being down this neck of the woods I’ve got to go for a pasty.