TORONTO - Harry Redknapp got a rude shock after taking over Queens Park Rangers in November 2012.
The team was in last place in the English Premier League, its roster filled with bloated contracts and egos.
"The attitude stank. Attitude towards the game, attitude towards training," he wrote in his autobiography "Always Managing."
"I can't remember a worse one — and behaviour like that cannot be altered overnight."
Redknapp, however, found one kindred spirit.
"Within weeks I had worked out that my best player was Ryan Nelsen, a 35-year-old New Zealand international — and he couldn't wait to get out," Redknapp wrote. "‘You've got no chance,' he told me. 'Not a prayer. This is the worst dressing room I've ever been in in my life. You haven't got a hope with this lot. I don't know how you solve it.'"
Today, Nelsen is in his second season as manager of Toronto FC. He recalls his season with QPR — his finale as a player — as a ringside seat on what happens when a dressing room goes wrong.
"It was an amazing learning experience for me," he said in an interview this week.
Redknapp, whose team was relegated at the end of the 2012-13 season, is on the verge of taking QPR back to the Premier League after one season in the Championship. QPR faces Derby Country on Saturday at Wembley in a promotion playoff worth up to 120 million pounds (C$220.5 million), mostly from broadcast rights, according to a 2013 report by the Sports Business Group at Deloitte.
With reported debts of 177 million pounds (C$325 million), Queens Park Rangers could do with hitting the promotion jackpot despite the deep pockets of millionaire owner Tony Fernandes.
Among the things Nelsen learned at QPR was the need to get recruitment right, to watch wages and that a good football team needs chemistry off the field as well as organization in it.
"It was an environment that probably players were getting paid too much for potentially their mentality to win," he said of QPR. "Young guys probably on too much before they had earned it."
There were also older players who might have lost their fire. And second-tier Championship players who had the character desire but perhaps not the talent needed.
"Everybody tried their best to get the mixture right, but it just didn't jell," said Nelsen. "It was just wrong."
The ill-fated QPR spending spree was funded by Fernandes, a British-Malaysian businessman whose net worth as of February was valued at US$650 million according to Forbes magazine. He took over in August 2011, almost a year before Nelsen came on board.
The New Zealand international didn't expect to play much at QPR, thinking his job would be to help then-manager Mark Hughes and successor Redknapp off the pitch. He ended up playing 21 league matches, becoming captain and turning into a fan favourite before leaving in January 2103 to take over Toronto FC.
Nelsen points no fingers today, saying the intentions of Hughes and Fernandes "were so right for the club to do really well."
The rot had set in too much by the time Redknapp took over.
"There had to be a clearout before you could get it back again," he said.
There are more fashionable soccer teams in London but Loftus Road, QPR's home in Shepherd's Bush, has seen its share of players with flair in Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis in the 1960s and '70s.
A blue-collar club, QPR won the League Cup in 1966-67 and was runner-up in 1985-86. It was also runner-up in the FA Cup in 1981-82 and was runner-up in the First Division, precursor to the Premier League, in 1975-76.
Celebrity QPR fans included musicians Phil Collins, Pete Doherty and composer Michael Nyman.
A no-nonsense defender at the end of his playing career, Nelsen's work ethic appealed to the QPR fans tired of rental players on big salaries.
"I think they just liked that I worked hard and tried to win games," said Nelsen. "People respected that."
Nelsen loved the QPR supporters right back.
"But it wasn't right off the field," he said of the team. "And that weighed heavily on me because I was kind of brought in to help that out."
QPR was relegated several months after Nelsen's departure to Canada. According to the Daily Mail, the club's wage bill was higher than that of Spanish champion and Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid.
Toronto benefited from the subsequent clearout, with Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar coming to MLS on a loan agreement. Loic Remy (Newcastle) and Adel Taarabt (AC Milan) were also sent out on loan.
Cesar, whose attitude has earned nothing but praise from Toronto coaches and players, says QPR wants him back in August. The team will have to reload if it returns to the Premier League.
Redknapp, a master wheeler and dealer, brought in hardened veterans of the Championship to help climb back up the mountain.
"He invested really wisely," said Nelsen. "He moved guys that probably had big value. And in saying that, their value has probably increased."
Nelsen will be watching closely this weekend.
"I've got a lot of friends on that QPR team," he said.
In addition to the big-time Charlies, he remembers of group of honest players desperate to succeed.
"And QPR had them. They probably got outnumbered bit a little at the end but those guys, you wish them the best so badly. and for Harry as well, because at his age (now 67) he probably could have gone off and retired somewhere. But he knuckled down in the Championship and you wish them all the success.
"All of his coaching staff were fantastic when I was there. And they've helped me since I've been here, to tell you the truth."