Here is the interview I did with Darnell last week at QPR's training ground in Harlington, I hope people enjoy it.
When you look on the map, QPR’s training ground looks pretty close to Heathrow, but you only get a sense of just how close it is when you drive towards Harlington along the A4 and a jumbo jet lands almost alongside you, so close you can make out the pilots in the cockpit. It’s quite a surreal feeling, but the hustle and bustle of the world’s third busiest airport is soon lost as you turn right onto Harlington High Street and then left along Sipson Lane and suddenly you’re in a different world. Green fields and trees line the road and after a quarter of a mile there’s a modest sign to let you know you’ve reached your destination.
The training ground itself, leased from Imperial College, is also a world away from the often over-the-top glamour of the Premier League. There’s a security guard at the entrance who points me towards the car park and another friendly security guard who shows me where to park my motorbike and leads me to the sports pavilion to meet Paul Morrissey, QPR’s Press & Media manager. The car park is not populated by Ferraris, Maseratis and Baby Bentleys, but mainly just ordinary cars, the exception being the late-model Range Rover I park next to, which turns out belongs to Rio Ferdinand. Everything about the place is relaxed.
This feeling is epitomized by Paul Morrissey who greets me at the first floor entrance and could not be more friendly. What I also discover, after he ushers me into the long meeting room that overlooks the training pitches, is that he’s a genuine fan. Les Ferdinand is being interviewed by Sky TV and we lean against the back wall and watch. While I’m listening to Les’s tirade against racism in the modern game (something that has caused much interest on this website and elsewhere), Paul taps me on the shoulder and shows me his phone, where he has written the word ‘Faurlin’. I follow his gaze onto the pitch adjacent to the one where the first team are warming down to see Ale Faurlin going through a series of vigorous exercises with a trainer. Paul is clearly excited by the prospect of Ale’s imminent return to full fitness, as am I.
The interview over, Les wraps up with the Sky reporter, and Paul and I chat about what it means to be a QPR fan; the incredible highs, like last season’s play-off final, and the many lows, which we are all so familiar with.
The Sky reporter is asking Les where he lives now.
‘Near St Albans’, Les says and then we all join in a discussion on the best way to get across London from there. While Paul heads off to find Darnell, Les comes over to talk to me. For 15 minutes we chat about everything from the new training ground to how much football has changed in the modern era. It’s a great conversation and we shake hands warmly at the end. I couldn’t feel more welcomed into the QPR family. As Les leaves, Darnell Furlong arrives with Paul and we sit down at a table and start the interview proper.
The first thing that strikes me about Darnell, apart from his winning smile and his deep voice that belies his 19 years, is how self-composed he is. And this is something I have to remind myself of throughout the interview, that this is a young man who has been primed from an early age for this role. Just how early soon becomes apparent a few minutes into the interview, when I ask him whether he enjoyed football from the start.
‘When I was young I just really enjoyed it, really enjoyed playing for my Sunday league side and then as I got older and I came on trial at QPR and that’s when I started to think wow! I like this! I like playing in this kit! Seeing that kit on TV and then playing in it yourself, made you feel good, so I definitely did start to want it from a young age.’
How old were you then when you first started taking it seriously?
‘Well I signed when I was 10 years old so I was really young. I remember having a trial game out on the astro over there (he points outside the window) with a few of my team mates from my Sunday League side and they took a couple of us and we just had to try and build on it from there..’
So were you a defender, a right back, from the start?
‘When I first signed I was a striker actually, and I suppose just playing when you’re young, it’s a bit of enjoyment, and maybe you might have to fill in for a game, so I filled in at midfield, so I started to play midfield for a bit, then when I was an under 15 there weren’t many spaces in midfield so I played up top maybe once or twice, then in the right back spot. The coaches here put you in somewhere they think you might do well, or they think maybe you’ll benefit (from playing) somewhere else and they’ll just move you around. And it’s good because for you to say, when you’re young, “I want this position”, sometimes you might not develop in the way that that position needs, so to change around I think is good.
So you were a striker like your dad then?
‘Yeah, I came as a striker, nothing else, but since I’ve been here I’ve probably played in every position, but I think right back suits me best.’
Well you’re suited to a full back position in a way because you’ve got a lot of pace, haven’t you?
Darnell chuckles, ‘Er, yeh!’
Well you seem to!
‘I hope so!’
I have to say, it’s been really exciting to see you break through into the senior side because many of us fans felt, not just this season, but in the Championship last season, that there didn’t seem to be any young players breaking through. It seemed like there was a bit of a glass ceiling?
‘I’ve said it before, that with Chris being here, that everyone can see there’s a pathway now, whether you’re an under 10 to be able to play in the under 12s, to the under 14s, there’s a pathway to go through now - and I think that everyone in the academy, even in the under 21s that’s what we kind of think – we can see that the rewards are there, if we have it in our heads that we can get there, now we have the motivation.’
That’s not exactly the answer I was looking for, a criticism of Redknapp’s tenure, but Darnell is too diplomatic to fall for that. I turn to the issue that is clearly the most relevant and ask him: what was it like for you when you got that call up?
Darnell laughs as he recalls the moment.
‘Very nerve wracking! But I just had to try and do everything that I’d done before, the way I play with the under 21s, and the under 18s last year. I just had to try and copy that, do everything I’d learnt and do it at my best. I know it was against better opposition, but I just had to do everything that I’d learnt and constantly stay switched on.’
But for you it was like being thrown in at the deep end, because you’d never played in a professional league before, unlike other young players who go out on loan to lower league clubs?
Darnell laughs again
‘It was a shock! I remember waiting in the tunnel with the whole team ready to go out and I was looking outside through the gap, seeing everyone there (the crowd) and I was quite scared, but once I warmed up I just thought I have to block everything out, and that was how the game went, after the first whistle you just kind of forget about everything else and focus on what’s happening on the pitch.’
So in a sense you’ve practiced for so long that it kind of becomes like autopilot, you know what you’re doing?
‘Yeah yeah yeah, obviously it will be harder because of the opposition you’re playing against and the standard of football is a lot higher, but I just had to try and copy everything I’d done leading up to there, since I was young and playing in the under 21s and I just had to go out there and do what I’d been taught.’
Well I thought it was a fantastic debut personally, I was really excited to see you come on, it made a lot of people feel really good to see you come through to the first team and obviously because you’ve got a QPR pedigree, with your dad being a QPR legend of course! Paul (Furlong) is the boss of the under 18s now, so was he your boss coming through?
‘Not really, he kind of took over as I was coming to the end. The under-18s manager Steve Gallen got moved up to the under-21s for the last 6 months I was a scholar, and my dad moved up to the under-18s at the same time, so I was only with him for a couple of months and then I came back to join Steve in the under 21s, that was this year.’
So was it a good thing or a bad thing to have your dad as your boss?
‘I suppose I’ve had it growing up with him almost being a coach off the pitch, so having him being coach on the pitch was just a different scenario, but it’s not really that much different; so when he’s telling me everything, he’s obviously been there before and experienced it all so I listen and learn; nothing what he’s saying is going to be wrong (he laughs), so everything he says is what I need to do, so I just try and take in as much of it as I can and where some people may see it as a bit of a pressure for me, I’ve never seen it that way, because it’s all I’ve ever known, and I try to just use it as advice, as if I’m getting advice from anyone, I just take it in the same..’
So you’re like the perfect example of what every fan or manager wants, a young man coming up through the ranks?
‘I suppose a lot of people would like that, but that’s not always the way it happens. There’s a lot of foreign players and some people are late developers, there are people in the under 21s now who only came through with the under the under 16s and before that they were playing Sunday league. They’re late developers, and it doesn’t show, it doesn’t make any difference.’
So everyone blends in ok?
What about players like Reece Grego-Cox?
‘Well I think Reece came in at the under-15s, I remember because you train together when you’re that age – under-15, under-16 and he’s always been very good and very hungry – if he loses or doesn’t score he’s not very happy (he laughs), he’s very competitive!
When you made that debut I read in the papers the next day that several other Premiership clubs were immediately interested, how did that feel?
‘It was obviously good to hear but at the same time I was so focused on what I was doing – ‘cos I knew we were going away (to Dubai) after that, so I just blocked it out, because really I was just thinking about the next game – am I going to play? Am I going to play? Because it was about focusing and trying to do my best in training, because after that first game, I just wanted to play again.’
When he says this I can tell what it must’ve been like for this young man to feel on the brink of a real breakthrough, but not knowing, especially after such an eventful debut, whether he’d make it back into the starting eleven again. And I realize just how much pressure there is on the shoulders of any young player, let alone in the cauldron of a Premier League relegation battle. I ask him how he felt about that debut against Hull, and in particular his tackle that led indirectly to Joey’s red card.
‘Well if you were in the moment you’d understand, but the Hull players - any team would do the same - they’re trying to look after their player and then Joey’s come over to look after me, and then obviously things escalated, but I think in the first place the tackle, although on TV from the way it’s been shown (it’s seems bad), but I think if you saw it from other angles, you’d maybe see that, I thought it was a good tackle.’
From the concern etched in his face it’s obvious it matters a great deal to Darnell that his performance is scrutinized fairly.
‘Well it was a terrible shame that we’d lost Leroy Fer just before your debut and then Joey following his red card, how did the team feel about that?
‘Well yes, they were definitely missed but once they’re gone you’ve just got to do your best and try and make a platform for when they come back…
When Leroy comes back, hopefully he can be in the best position possible to come in and do what he’s been doing all season, which has been unbelievable.’
Well it’s going to be very interesting timing isn’t it, because we’re kind of hanging by a thread right now, we could still stay up but…
Darnell becomes very animated at this point, because clearly it really matters to him.
‘Of course, yes. I was in the changing room after the Everton game and it’s not over, you can tell that from how everyone was speaking in there, everyone is still focused. I don’t have much experience of being in this kind of the situation (facing relegation) but from what I can see they’ve (the players) definitely not given up, they’re going to give it their all right to the end.’
What’s it like training and playing being with the senior players, do they look after you?
Darnell gives a wry chuckle.
‘Oh yeah, they do, they do look after you. At first it was crazy because you know I’ve grown up watching all of these players on TV, especially people like Rio, and then when I’ve got Rio in my first game telling me how to play and what to do it was weird..’
Well yes, it must be quite surreal!
‘Yes, I couldn’t believe it! I was on the bench in the FA Cup and one of my friends texted me “oh, it won’t be long before you’re playing with Rio”, and I kind of brushed it off as like “ahh, shut up!” But obviously I hoped it would happen, but honestly I never thought it would. If someone had told me at the start of the year that I would’ve played in three games (before the end of the season), I wouldn’t have believed them, but I’m happy with what’s happened.’
Was it a real surprise when you got that call up?
‘I didn’t really know to be honest. I was coming off from training, just trying to do my best, and not really thinking about that too much, but in the weeks leading up to the Hull game I noticed that a few times in the team shape, I was in it, then I was out of it, then I was in it, so there was something in my head thinking ‘maybe I could…’
When he’s describing this moment I can see how intense this must have been for a young man who’s spent pretty much his entire life living and working towards this dream, and then when it becomes tantalizingly close, how tough it must be, but like everything else about Darnell, it seems he approached it with the professionalism that he has absorbed through countless hours playing with the academy. It also makes me think how hard it must be for the youngsters who don’t make it; I realize what a cruel game football can be for those who don’t make the grade.
Darnell continues, ‘..and then Chris obviously spoke to me and said there’s a chance that I could be in the team, but then when we got there and he said I was in, in the starting eleven, it was quite scary (he laughs as he relives the moment), but then I just had to go out and warm up like I normally do and try and play like I normally do.’
And what was it like in your second game against Arsenal, playing against the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil?
Darnell smiles widely, then laughs deeply.
‘That’s another thing, that was crazy, when I’m watching Real Madrid when I’m a kid, and I’m seeing Ozil playing and then for him to be playing against me!’
Was it was scary?
‘Unbelievably scary yeah! A lot of people said to me, was I less nervous for my second game? Things like that, but because in the second one I knew what I was going to have to deal with, with Sanchez there, the nerves were just as high. So again, I just tried to do as best as I can. I had to give him some respect, obviously (he laughs ironically), but I also had to treat it like a normal game.
After your third game against Crystal Palace, Yanick Bolassie said that he deliberately targeted you, and that he felt bad about it, because you’re a young player, but he had to torment you, because that’s football. How did that feel?
‘Well it’s understandable, if I was a manager and there was a young kid playing maybe that’s what I’d do – it’s about 3 points isn’t it? But for me personally, I’ve just got to try and deal with that. I suppose it just tests me further. I have to be against the best to learn, if that’s the way it’s got to be, that’s the way it’s got to be..’
But you were taken off at half time, was that difficult?
‘It was definitely difficult. I was gutted. I was gutted at the score, at the performance, everything… But when I came off I was thinking to myself I just need to stay positive and try and hope for the next one to come sooner, because if I let it crush me, there’s no way I’m going to stay in the game. (And) probably that’s going to happen again if I have a long career, so for me to let it crush me, I may as well stop now…’
You’re out of contract at the end of the year, what’s happening about that?
‘Yes, at the end of the year. I would hope to get something done soon.’
If we got relegated, would you still want to stay with QPR?
‘Yeah, I’d love to stay,’ he says straight away, without a trace of doubt.
Are there any players you’ve modeled your game on?
‘I suppose when I’m watching a game I like to watch the full backs, whether it’s left back or a right back, I just watch the game really, I like to watch Ivanovich a lot, I think he’s good at what he does, and that’s what I’d like to do.. in any game really I just like to watch the full backs and see what they different to me and try and learn.’
What team do you support?
Darnell turns to Paul with a cheeky grin and says, ‘Errrr, I’m just trying to focus on what I’m doing here really!’
I don’t have a clue who he does support, other than that it might be someone QPR fans might not be too happy with, maybe the Ivanovich observation is a clue, but it seems it’s not QPR!
That’s a very diplomatic answer, I say and we all laugh.
What interests do you have outside of football?
‘A lot of things.’ His eyes light up. ‘I love cars!’ he says
You’re into Formula One aren’t you?
‘Yeah I really am, I like the sport a lot. I love Lewis.’
Is he your hero?
‘I just think he’s great at what he does, and I think there’s a real art to what they do, it’s another thing to watch and maybe come away from football sometimes and let my mind rest.’
So if you weren’t a footballer, is that what you’d like to do?
‘I think that’s a very hard industry to get into, but yeah, that would be a very close second.’
What about anything else you’re interested in, like music, would you want to be a DJ or like Rio with his rapping?
‘Maybe, but I don’t, know. Since school and everything I’ve always been very focused on my football, since I was very young.’
Clearly for a young person to make it to the very top like Darnell has, you need a singularity of mind and purpose that is quite unusual at that age. But then Darnell has grown up with football, and his focus has led him to be a leader.
You were captain of the under 18s weren’t you?
‘Yeah, I was made captain when I was 17.’
So obviously you must be very focused, do you think all the young players who are successful are like that?
‘Well there are players out there that have great ability, and you can go far just on that, but that will only carry you so far; if they have good attitude with that ability then they’ll go really far.’
You hear about young players who get carried away before they even break into the first team, because obviously it’s like a dream to be a footballer for most young men, there must be a lot of distraction?
‘Yeah!’ he laughs ruefully, ‘Um, I suppose there is!’
A lot of people must want to be your friend. Do you get a lot of girls after you?
He smiles almost shyly, then turns almost immediately serious.
‘I don’t know, since I’ve been young I suppose… although I do see there’s a lot of distraction around, I think there’s a lot of distractions for everyone no matter what you do… it’s just how focused you want to stay and what you want to be.’
It’s clear Darnell prefers to keep his focus on the pitch, and he’s more comfortable talking about football, at least in our conversation.
Did you play with Raheem Stirling in the youth team?
‘He was a couple of years older than me so I didn’t play in the same team as him but I trained with him a couple of times when he was here, and after I made my debut he contacted me on twitter to congratulate me, which was nice. I’m not in touch with him apart from that.’
Your birthday is on Halloween, what’s that like,
He laughs heartily.
‘Well yeah, I get a lot of jokes from my friends and things like that!’
Who’s your favourite player?
‘Since I’ve been young I’ve always liked Sergio Ramos.’
He was incredible in the Champions League final last year, he almost won that game on his own.
‘Yeah, he’s unbelievable. I watched El Classico the other day, and the quality in that game, you’re just kind of looking at it, it’s a dream.’
So was he someone you modeled your game on?
‘Well obviously he plays centre back now. When I was younger I used to watch him, but I didn’t know I was going to be a right back then, so I haven’t really had anyone as a role model, an idol. I suppose the only idol I’ve really had is just my dad. Maybe not the same position, but the way he’s done everything and I’ve just tried to follow the way he’s gone.’
Your dad didn’t see your debut did he?
‘No, he was in Bristol with the under 18s so he couldn’t come, but he still texted me and we were talking before and he wished me the best of luck, so I just tried to go out and get on with it.’
Has we watched you since?
‘He didn’t make it to the Palace game but he was at the Arsenal game.’
He must be incredibly proud?
Darnell laughs, clearly moved by this and says quietly, ‘Yeah, I hope so.’
Have you got any brothers or sisters?
‘Yes one of each. My brother’s going to be leaving school this year and my sister’s just started secondary school.’
Are either of them planning on being footballers?
‘Yeah, my brother’s here at the moment in the under 16s and my sister likes to play at school as well so yeah, she just does it for fun at the moment but my brother would like to take it seriously.’
What position does he play?
‘He’s a centre back ‘cos he’s quite big for his age, he’s got good ability when he wants to show it, so he just has to work hard and hopefully, I’m sure he’ll be able to get somewhere.’
So you’re the eldest, do you feel like a role model for them? For other young people?
‘Yeah I know that I have to be professional wherever I go; whether I’m in my tracksuit or not in my tracksuit, people are watching you, whether it’s even my brother’s friends. But you’re taught that from very young being in the academy, that you have to be respectful, and that’s not just to do with football, that’s in general, you just have to be like that if you want to get anywhere in life, and that’s the way I have to try and be and that I am being.’
Well that must be quite hard. When I was 16, 17, I got up to all sorts of things and no one was watching me!
‘Well, yes, it is,’ he agrees, almost wistfully.
Whereas as you seem to be a very responsible young man, perhaps it suits you?
‘I just know that this is what I want to do, so if I put everything into it and if nothing comes of it, at least I can say I did everything I could.’
Well maybe you can catch up when you’ve retired!
‘Yeah’, his eyes light up, ‘oh gosh!’ he says bashfully.
Darnell is not just a model pro, but also a very likeable young man.