Steel worker, garage manager, mobile crane salesman, international, European Cup finalist, world’s first transfer fee rugby player (probably), American rugby galactico (almost), All Black beater (nearly), Don King victim, Cardiff legend, beer muse, and England’s longest-standing director of rugby – life has never been dull for Mike Rayer.
Every day Rory Underwood, Scott Murray and Paul Turner look down upon Mike Rayer’s desk in his portacabin office at Goldington Road, Bedford. Pinned to a wall in a team photo, they’re just a few of the names in the line-up that wore the Bedford Blues colours in England’s highest rugby division. “That was twenty years ago this year,” explains Mike. “We’re having a bit of a reunion at the end of season club dinner, so I’ve been in touch with quite a few of them recently – a lot have come through actually.
“It was a talented group,” he continues, “Scott Murray launched his career here and then, at other end of the scale, Jeff Probyn was still hanging on in, he’s not in that picture though. Neal Hatley’s there, Junior Paramore, Rory, Aadel Kardooni, Rudi Straeuli – yeah, a good group of lads. Martin Offiah came here too for a bit.”
If there were price tags next to each player in the picture, Mike might not have been on the biggest salary, but his value to Bedford Blues would ultimately dwarf any amount of zeros on a contract.
Mike first arrived in Bedford in 1996. His good friend Andy Booth had introduced him to the chairman and, also knowing the Welsh coach Paul Turner, he was a shoo-in for the club’s ambitious plans. Just back from a serious leg injury (which we’ll get on to later) and with a young family to worry about, he couldn’t say no. “We were paid minimum wage at Cardiff back then, I think I was on about ten grand,” explains Mike, “I was also working part-time for a local mobile crane company, in Cardiff Docks as it was, at a company called Baldwins, I was doing a bit of sales.
“Bedford paid a small transfer fee to get out of my ‘massive’ contract at Cardiff, and I came here. It was a big move, because I’d been in Cardiff all my life, but needed a bit of security for my young family. The wages were pretty good, I wouldn’t want to divulge, but there were people here earning six figures – I wasn’t one of them unfortunately, but I did well.”
What was the transfer fee? “I think it was fifteen grand in the end,” responds Mike, “it was the first money ever paid for a player I think, it was the really early days of professionalism. The irony is it was worth more than my contract.”
Stardust was everywhere at Goldington Road back then, even in the boardroom, with boxing promoter Frank Warren as chairman. “Frank was here every game pretty much,” says Mike, “he was heavily involved, but he left a lot of it to Geoff Cooke and Paul Turner. The first season I was here a lot of the original Bedford boys he’d got promotion with [from the third divison] were still there. That side (in the picture) wasn’t there when I arrived, it was formed over two years. We made quite a few signings but we had Richmond and Newcastle in the league that first year. They had more money than us at the time and Newcastle ran away with it and Richmond were in second, so we were a distant third. My favourite game out there was that season, when we beat Newcastle on Sky and in front of seven and half thousand people. You can only really get three and a half thousand here comfortably – after that they don’t get such good views.”
Bedford strolled to promotion the year after, with Mike again doing a big shift, finishing ‘top points scorer’ for the second season on the trot. Not even a ball had been kicked in the Premiership before cracks began to show and the dream started unravelling – so much so Mike left before the season began. “It was very difficult because, look, Frank had his problems with Don King in America, I think he had his assets frozen or something and there were a couple of cheques that were bouncing and it just became a little bit unstable. It was a tough decision, but I had to put my family first and foremost and I had to go to court – which was quite daunting – to get released to go back to Cardiff.
“Towards the end of the season, there had been a few issues with payment of players. As soon as we got our cheques we’d all run to the bank – it was a race to get it cleared as there’d been a few bouncing. We even went on strike one day, I remember going to the pub with Ben Whetstone and a few of the lads sat in training kit. Everyone was going mad because they hadn’t been paid. I was the first to go and off the back of that, Geoff went, Paul Turner went, we could all see the writing on the wall.
“To be fair, a lot of lads stuck around and they all talk about them times of adversity when they all stuck together and managed to stay another year in the Premiership, but the following year it all fell apart. I think when Colin Jackson came in he only had one player to work with that following season – James Hinkins.”
“It was a tough time,” he continues, “but Frank did so much for this club, he did so much for the profile of the club and for it to end like that wasn’t what we wanted really.
“But I had to think of my family and the courts found in my favour so I was able to go back to Cardiff.”
Cardiff is everything to Mike, and the feeling is mutual, he’s even got his own beer. In parts of the city, ‘Mikey Rayer’ is local slang for ‘all-dayer’, so a local brewery made an all-day 4.2% session American Pale Ale in his honour. It’s not just Cardiff though, if we’re to really hone down Mike’s roots, then the focus is Llandaff North, a tiny neighbourhood of the city that still means everything. It’s where he met his wife Debs – they were neighbours and went to junior school together. And it’s where he grew up in the same house his parents still live in today. “I was born four doors down from Llandaff North rugby club, the club was in an old pie factory,” says Mike. “My back garden was Hailey Park, the field of dreams, we were always out there playing whatever was in season, at the tennis courts during Wimbledon, playing football when the FA Cup was on and when it was Five Nations we were out there trying to be Phil Bennett or Gareth Edwards, it’s the way it was. Wales had some unbelievable iconic rugby players at that stage and mini rugby had just started, so I played for the school on Saturday and the club on Sunday – my dad was heavily involved with Llandaff North and it was a natural thing for me to do.”
Even as he started to make his way in the game, whereas most players of his ability would have switched to Cardiff in his teens, he stuck with North. “Cardiff youth were incredibly successful,” he admits, “but I was enjoying playing with my mates so it was a no brainer to stay with them.”
He made his first team debut at “16 or 17” against fierce rivals. “That was a pretty scary ordeal – fingers in your eyes and things like that,” he says. “But you always back yourself to be a bit faster than the old boys running around, so you try to avoid them. Good thing about rugby in them days was there were always boys in the team to look after you – any sign of trouble and there were always boys around you looking after you.”
A successful trial with Cardiff at 18 took him into the big leagues. “I spent my first season in the rags [second XV] pretty much and got my chance when Pablo (Paul Rees) got injured and never looked back really.”
Mike discovered the rugby was a bit different from Hailey Park on a Wednesday night at Pontypool Park. “It was a massive crowd of 12-13,000 and I remember running up them steps and seeing a bank-full of people, it was a real baptism of fire,” he says of his first Cardiff game at Pontypool. “David Bishop was in his pomp, they had a really tough pack and we lost. I think Gareth Davies dropped four goals for us and they’d scored one try and I think Bish made a break. It was your own touch judges at the time, so Bish ran around his touch judge – so he’s outside of the pitch – and fed it back in for Goff Davies for the winning try. “The following week we went to Bath and it was a full house there as well – they were massive games at the time, so it was quite an introduction. We ended up winning the cup that season, funnily enough we beat Newport with Paul Turner – he was man of the match – and the year after got to the final and beat Swansea.
“I was just happy to be in the changing room,” he admits. “In the early days we had Terry Holmes, Ian Eidman, Geoff Lightfoot, Alan Phillips, Bob Norster, Kevin Edwards, Gareth Roberts, Bob Lakin, Gareth Davies, John Scott, Alun Donovan, John Hadley – unbelievable! And I was a 19-year-old kid sat in awe of everyone around me. I had a good year in the second team, I probably learnt more in that year than any stage of my career really. I was just fortunate to be around so many good players, it made my life so much easier. It was great because in those days there wasn’t much training going on – we’d play Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. I think I played 38 games one year.”
Off the field, his day job was a bit less glamorous. “I was a sheet metal worker then,” he says, “making fish and chip ranges. I was an apprentice and did eight years in the factory. Work wasn’t tough, it was good fun, it got a bit boring towards the end, doing the same thing, day-in, day-out.”
Still living at home, Mike was able to take unpaid leave for tours, he soon settled into first team life, noting Donovan and Adrian Hadley as particular mates, the latter ending up as his best man when he wed his Llandaff North love, Debs. “I was living the dream, I was a Cardiff boy playing for Cardiff with all these superstar rugby players, I just went with the roll, they didn’t make it hard at all.”
So strong were Cardiff, they even ran the All Blacks close – it could’ve been a win but for some dodgy place kicking. “Yeah I made the mistake of telling the boys here [at Bedford] it was on YouTube so I got some ribbing for it,” explains Mike. “I missed two kicks pretty much from in front of the posts. We had three or four kicks in front of the posts and myself and Dai Evans missed them, it would’ve put us a couple scores clear. We were 12-6 up or something at half-time but it could’ve been more if I’d kicked my goals.
“I probably should’ve practised [kicking] more but myself and Dai just had a system. Whoever started kicking and made a botch of it, the other one would come on and kick everything. I only really started practising kicking when I came to Bedford and Paul [Turner] said ‘look you’re the goalkicker, get out there and practise’ that’s when I started taking my goalkicking seriously – probably too late really.”
Mike’s international break came in arguably the worst defeat in Welsh rugby history. “Yeah it was against Western Samoa, another source of hilarity to the lads here, especially Paul Tupai,” he says. “The infamous game where we lost and pretty much ended our World Cup hopes in ‘91. It was bittersweet for me though because obviously I got my first Welsh cap and did okay when I came on – we were losing already.
“It was really about the carnage and destruction they inflicted,” he continues. “I got capped because Apollo Perellini wiped out Anthony Clement – you only used subs for injuries in those days – and Richie Collins went off, Phil May went off, it was absolute carnage, we just couldn’t handle the physicality.”
Starting the next game against Argentina – including securing his first and only penalty kick, “I’m one from one”, he jokes – he became a fixture in the Welsh squad over the next four years. “I never took it for granted that I’d be in any squad that was announced,” he says. “If I was doing my job on a day-to-day basis then that’s all I can do – you can’t control selection. And it was always easy for me to forget about Wales and go back to Cardiff and get out on the Arms Park and enjoy myself.”
But he was addicted nonetheless. “When you get that first taste of international rugby, you just want more, it’s just like a drug,” he says. “People pay money to have that sensation and that’s the way I felt.”
Nineteen-ninety-four was the year of the biggest highs and lows in Mike’s career. The high came during the Five Nations, two tries off the bench against Scotland, followed by starts versus France and a Grand Slam match against England. It ended in a 15-8 defeat at Twickenham but he’d made his mark and would start six more games that year, the last of which was also his final Welsh cap – a 29-19 world cup qualifier against Italy. “I broke my leg two weeks later,” he says, “I threw one dummy too many. It was against Treorchy, Justin Burnell tackled me and all his weight went on my shin. I had a fracture of my shinbone and broke my fibula as well – I had to have it nailed and pinned. Then there were a few operations to remove the pins, and then eventually the nail came out – it went down to the shaft of my bone – and I had a plate put on the front of it.”
Did he think he’d play again? “I never thought like that, but it was painful,” he admits. “When I came back I was playing with a plate across my shin which was close the surface of my skin. Did I get back to the level before? That’s for other people to judge really isn’t it?”
He was never bored during his time off though. “Me and Debs ran a Shell service station on the Caerphilly Road,” he says. “We ran it for 14 months and that filled my time when I was injured. It was interesting, working night shifts when the staff didn’t turn up, dealing with drive-offs and shoplifting.”
He even managed to sign a deal to help rugby break America. “I signed a contract with the Kerry Packer circus [an attempt to create a global rugby super league outside of the traditional governing bodies],” he says. “I was injured at the time so I was fortunate to be offered a contract, but Mike Hall managed to get me on the list. I was outside of the squad with the injury, so I wouldn’t have been in the Welsh squad but would have gone to form a franchise in Boston or New York or something. There were a few noughts on the end of that contract. I think the English and South Africans scuppered it when they did their own deal, so we were all like ‘ah shit’ when it didn’t happen because we were all so excited about going.”
When he did return to action after over a year out, his early Cardiff games were far from ideal. “I played against Fiji,” he says. “I wasn’t picked at first because I wasn’t quite ready but somebody got injured so I was drafted in – I hadn’t had a pre-season, just getting my leg fit was enough – so I was blowing out of my arse. Then I played in the Heineken Cup final against Toulouse and I was in bits.”
The injury had changed Mike’s mindset and with Cardiff – along with many clubs – not quite getting to grips with the reality of the dawn of the professional rugby era, he put his family first and accepted Bedford’s offer.
After two seasons in Bedford, Mike returned to Cardiff and the Welsh squad. “Graham Henry rang me and I thought somebody was taking the mick really,” he recalls. “I remember being sat in Roath Park taking the phone call. He just asked ‘have you still got it? Can you still mix it?’; and I said, ‘well I think so’. You always back yourself, don’t you? I’d had two really good seasons at Bedford and broke club records, but it was not the level that international rugby was.”
He describes his first Wales medical/fitness test on his return to the fold as being little more than a shrug of the shoulders from the fitness coach accompanied with, ‘well, I can’t do much with you at your age now, can I?’ “The Welsh squad had changed quite a bit since I was last in it four years before,” explains Mike. “Graham came in with a 50-page playbook which scared the life out of me – we’d never really had massive thick playbooks. ‘Learn them by the end of the week’ he said with a wry smile. I just threw it in the corner because I was always a kinesthetic learner – I need to see and do things rather than read up on them.”
Selected on the bench against South Africa, although never a nervous player, he admits to giving in to them this time. “I was a bit daunted by the thought of playing South Africa at Wembley,” he admits. “I was a bit nervous about coming off the bench because, truth be told, I didn’t know if I still had it in me to play at that level. You only ever want people to remember you when you’re in your pomp. With age you do put under yourself more pressure.”
He never found out. His Welsh comeback amounted to two games on the sidelines, one against South Africa, the other against Argentina. “They paid me though,” he laughs, “which was quite good – even though I was on the bench, I got paid. I think it was about £5,000 for a win, it was based on caps but I already had 21 caps in the bank so I was okay. I got ten grand for two games. That was after tax as well.”
After his Welsh ‘comeback’, with a calf injury forcing more time on the sidelines, Mike began the path to coaching. First with the Cardiff youth side and U21s while still a player (Jamie Roberts, Nicky Robinson and Chris Czekaj among his charges), then while in the process of applying for a Wales skills coach role, Bedford came back into his life.
Moving his wife and two children, Lloyd and Abigail, back to Bedford for the second time may have been slightly trickier than it was the first time – ‘they were four and five then, now they were teenagers and had all their friends’ – but the club he was joining was a settled one. A new board had meant the financial problems were now a distant memory, and his former team-mate Rudi Straeuli had taken over as coach to settle things on the pitch too. “I inherited a lot of senior boys and we came second to Harlequins,” explains Mike. “It was a great first year for me really.”
A cup win soon followed with, ironically, Exeter Chief’s current coach Ali Hepher (then Bedford fly-half) dropping an injury-time goal to secure victory against his future team.
It’s one of many great memories of his tenure. A regular in the play-offs, but with the Goldington Road ground falling beneath the Premiership entry criteria, promotion is never on the cards. “It’s still a 13-team Premiership really isn’t it?” he says. “One side just comes down here every year on gardening leave.”
Should the criteria be in place? “I understand why it is,” he says, “but if, for instance, we chose to go up and we’re living within our means and we’re playing well, what’s wrong with that? It’s our risk isn’t it at the end of the day? Is it a restraint of trade? That’s down to the solicitors isn’t it. And the whole thing is about being sustainable for the future, there’s no point going up if you can’t sustain it. Would we add value to it? Difficult to tell. The gulf between our budget and a Premiership side is not even worth discussing, it’s so off the chart.”
His side may not have been promoted, but Mike has been doing his bit for the Premiership and even international rugby. An endless stream of internationals and top-flight players have either cut their teeth at Bedford – Ali Price, Duncan Taylor, Mouritz Botha and Josh Barrett – or were dual registered there. “We’ve had some brilliant boys here, George Kruis, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs (as a centre)… Owen Farrell played four of five games here when he was 18 and he was bossing people around, it was music to my ears.”
The best he’s coached? “Billy Twelvetrees,” he says. “He could do everything.”
Mike has been having one-on-ones with his squad. He’s got about 30 players on roster. They train three times a week, a gym and field session on Monday morning; then the same in the afternoon on Tuesday and Thursday. “We’re encouraging them to take on a course or part-time work because there’s a lot of time in this game for your mind to wander. It’s full-time for a rugby player, but part-time because the boys can do other stuff, we’ve got gardeners, butchers and electricians here,” explains Mike. “Look at the Richmond model and it’s brilliant what they’ve achieved, it’s basically the same squad that got them promoted. I think other clubs will go down that route. It suits us to be part-time, we can make use of the dual registration system and we don’t have the extra costs that go with being full-time, having the doctors and physios and other bits around all the time.”
Planning goals for Bedford is far from straight forward. “People ask what our short-, mid- and long-term goals are but the Championship changes its position on an annual basis so how can you plan? We don’t know what the format is for next year because the B&I Cup is going.
“Where’s the rugby going to come from? For us, for everybody, we need games, it’s a bloody rugby club and because we get such a good crowd here it’s massively important to have home games of rugby. Without the B&I Cup I’m not sure where they’re going to come from. There’s talk of being 14, which makes a lot of sense to me but who knows? But the RFU and NCA have to agree. The RFU do have to get to grips with the Championship though, it’s their baby. There’s also talk of ring-fencing as well and we’re just always waiting for the crumbs off the table of the Premiership to be honest with you – it’s the way it is.”
As for Mike, he admits to being ‘13 years into a three-year-plan’. He’s never had a contract with Bedford, only a handshake and a deal that rolls and rolls. There have been approaches to return home, but never the right one. Would he apply for a job at the Blues? “I think people know where I am, I haven’t gone anywhere in 13 years,” he says. “I think, for these jobs at the top level, people should be head-hunted, simple as that, they’re such big jobs. And if I’m not deemed right for the job, well, it’s down to them at the end of the day.”
Indeed, should an offer ever come, then like the rest of his career, it’ll be about when as well as what. “My whole career has been about timing,” he says. “I was never the quickest on the pitch, but I had reasonable timing of when and where to do things and that’s how my off field has been shaped too. If the time’s right, then you move, that’s it.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Taz Mattar