|The Iceman goeth|
Mon 06th Aug 2012 23:07 by Clive Whittingham
With a minimum of fuss and publicity, QPR last week allowed their top scorer for the 2011/12 season, Heidar Helguson, to join Championship side Cardiff City . LFW laments a lack of credit for the Icelandic striker's achievements at Loftus Road .
I can't imagine Cardiff City fans, already somewhat down in the dumps about their enforced switch to a red kit at the behest of a man on the other side of the world and reeling from yet another play-off disaster last season, are overly thrilled about their latest signing from Queens Park Rangers.
Sure, Heidar Helguson has a very decent record in English football with Watford and QPR, and he scored eight goals in the Premier League last season in a struggling team, but at 34 (nearly 35) it's hardly a signing that smacks of long term ambition. Indeed a trawl of the City forums quickly turned up one fan wishing they'd bought Jay Bothroyd from QPR instead, and another wondering why they'd allowed everybody's favourite pub footballer Jon Parkin to leave if Helguson was the limit of their ambition. Most seemed reasonably pleased but one called it an "awful" signing and another "pathetic."
And so the latest chapter in the saga of Heidar The Great Unappreciated Striker begins.
I'm sure the Icelandic target man is taking the lukewarm reception in South Wales in his stride, as he has done everything else through his career. After all, three years ago life didn't exactly start well for him at Loftus Road either.
The DVD extras for The Four Year Plan documentary feature a scene in Gianni Paladini's office that would be alarming for QPR fans if they weren't already oh so painfully aware of the way the club went about its business in those days and the results of that on the pitch. It's entitled 'The Striker' and it's a long scene from the cutting room floor of Paladini trying to add firepower to the QPR squad.
Now the method for such a quest at Loftus Road used to involve Ian Holloway getting out chief scout Mel Johnson's extra large file of players he'd been to see multiple times in various God forsaken reserve matches and picking one of his recommendations. Decent scouting is an amazing thing in football, and increasingly ignored by clubs who prefer to deal instead with favoured agents. Up in the North East Newcastle have climbed a division and qualified for Europe while vastly reducing their annual wage budget, acquiring what is now some of Europe's most sought after talent, and making a profit on transfer fees through the scouting operation run by Graham Carr. At QPR, Johnson's tireless trawling of the British motorways yielded previously unheralded stars for a cash strapped club, often in times of desperate need – Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook, Lee Camp, Danny Shittu and so on.
But presumably Paladini's opinion of scouts was much the same as his opinion of CEOs, which he expressed upon the ousting of Mark Devlin from that position: "freeloaders", "leaches."
In need of a striker for a team under the caretaker management of Gareth Ainsworth and shortly to be taken over by Paulo Sousa, Paladini picked up his mobile phone to his friends and contacts in the game. The stipulation was "desperate for a striker,” though this was later narrowed down slightly to "no, no he has to be fit." Thankfully Mel Johnson is still with us, or he'd have turned in his grave.
But in amongst the colossal amounts of tat that arrived at the club while Paladini was involved – some of which is only now being shifted on and almost none of which is having much luck finding another club as gullible as QPR – Rangers actually struck lucky in their quest for a 'striker who is fit'.
I've always had a soft spot for Heidar Helguson because prior to his signing I wrote a piece for LoftforWords detailing five strikers I felt we could sign who would make a difference to us, of which he was one. Well, I'm not right often so I've got to hark back to the rare successes when I can.
Luckily whoever Gianni was on the phone to thought Helguson was a "striker who is fit" as well. That wasn't quite the end of things though. Shortly after the confirmation that Sousa would be the manager the club announced it had agreed a loan deal with Bolton for Helguson and he was in line to make his debut that Saturday against his former club Watford. That Saturday at Vicarage Road Rangers were hammered 3-0 with Helguson nowhere to be seen.
Three days later Sousa took charge for the first time for a home match with Charlton in which Helguson played no part. In fact, Helguson hadn't signed at all and although the club remained silent on the issue they actually came very close to an embarrassing situation where a player QPR said they had signed on the Friday actually turned out against them for Charlton on the Tuesday. Luckily the deal with the Addicks never went through either, and Rangers were able to finally complete the signing at the end of the week – confirming as much with an interview on the official site recorded as if he'd been there all along.
An inauspicious start then and things would get worse before they got better. On debut, as a late substitute in a draw at Crystal Palace, Helguson was presented with the ball on the edge of the area by an uncharacteristic mistake from Eagles goalkeeper Julian Speroni who was left stranded away from his goal and had almost certainly cost his team the match in the final minute. Helguson sidefooted wide of the gaping target.
Rangers were in the midst of a run without a goal away from home that would eventually stretch to a record breaking 14 hours. After Damion Stewart's headed winner in the cup at Aston Villa the R's had travelled to Birmingham, Swansea, Reading , Ipswich, Manchester United, Watford and now Palace without scoring a goal. A week later they lost 1-0 at Sheffield Wednesday to extend the record still further – Martin Rowlands' penalty miss surpassed only in farce by Helguson's glaring horror from a yard out with the keeper laid flat on the floor.
Helguson rallied. He was superb in a home win against Preston, scoring twice, and netted that elusive away goal in a 1-1 draw at Plymouth. But his fitness was an issue, and he was in and out of the team. Sousa was eventually sacked after speaking to supporters outside the ground about the club singing the Icelandic striker and winger Lee Cook despite concerns about their knees. A year later, with Flavio Briatore's grand plan for QPR falling apart around his ears and a team managed by Mick Harford facing relegation to League One, the R's took to the field for a 1-0 defeat at bottom placed Peterborough with a strike force of Marcus Bent and Tamas Priskin who were both on loan. Helguson was thought of so highly by Rangers at this time they had loaned him out to Watford, one of their relegation rivals.
Nobody seemed that bothered by that. There were occasional mumblings of discontent whenever he scored for Watford – which he did 11 times in 2009/10, which would have made him QPR's top scorer of the season – but by and large the QPR fans didn’t rate him, didn't think he was fit enough, and weren't that sorry to see him loaned out. A stupidly small number of people questioned the logic of having a striker of that quality at Vicarage Road while we pissed around with Tamas Priskin.
Then Neil Warnock arrived.
Neil Warnock likes strikers. His judgement is often hit and miss – for every Jamie Mackie there's a Leon Clarke – but he likes strikers, he likes to have lots of them, and he enjoys signing them. Given the rack and stack nature of the way he put his Sheffield United attack together it's no surprise to know that he had tried to sign Helguson before, but it was still a fairly certain indication that the barrel chested forward wouldn't be spending 2010/11 on loan at Watford.
Helguson was magnificent for QPR in their promotion season. Again he lived up to his reputation of being underappreciated – with the plaudits mainly going the way of Paddy Kenny and Adel Taarabt – but Helguson was just as key to that title winning team as anybody else. There was much talk of the work of Shaun Derry behind Taarabt, clearing up the Moroccan's various tangles and keeping him in check, but, on the other side of Adel, Heidar was taking the brunt of the centre back abuse away from him. His hold up and lay game was second to none in the division and his ability to bring a ball down and use it intelligently to bring others into play was outstanding. The defenders couldn't leave Helguson alone, and couldn't defeat his muscular presence in 50/50 (or even 30/70) competitions so he was able to constantly get the ball under control in dangerous areas and then feed strike players like Taarabt and Wayne Routledge to do the damage. For good measure, Helguson scored 12 times for Rangers and twice for Iceland that campaign with a thumping header in a 3-0 win at Middlesbrough particularly memorable. His penalty technique terrified supporters, but never faltered.
He then became the victim of a series of mistakes made by Neil Warnock upon promotion. Admittedly working under impossible conditions thanks to Flavio Briatore's return to the forefront of the club's boardroom activity, Warnock was far too quick to abandon the players that had worked so hard to get the club promoted. Kaspars Gorkss was replaced by Danny Gabbidon, Adel Taarabt was soon left out altogether, and Helguson found his place taken by Jay Bothroyd.
To the Cardiff fan who asks if they wouldn't be better off signing Bothroyd instead of Helguson I say no. Unless, that is, you're into your club signing vastly inferior players both in ability and attitude.
He came back into the team at the beginning of October for a home match with Blackburn and gave QPR the lead after 15 minutes with a well flighted chip. Even then he hadn’t been scheduled to play and only got the nod late in the day when DJ Campbell, who had been slated to start, pulled up injured. He didn't look back though, following the Blackburn goal with a brace that included another bullet header in a 3-2 win at Stoke and a famous penalty winner at home to Chelsea . By January, when he rescued an undeserved FA Cup replay from a disastrous outing at MK Dons, his tally stood at nine.
Sadly it didn't move from there, derailed prematurely by injury. Helguson, sadly, always has had a knack of picking up a short term injury and turning it into a long term problem – it's always a strain or a pull or a small tear, it's always initially diagnosed as a month-long problem at most, and it's not unusual not to see him again for three times that length of time or more.
That's a trait, among many others, he shares with Paul Furlong – another striker who endured difficult early days at QPR before winning the fans over in a blaze of glory. Ian Holloway described Furlong as a Rolls Royce centre forward – beautiful, graceful, stylish – and Helguson has been exactly the same for Rangers when given the chance.
The decision to allow him to leave this summer makes sense. Helguson, at 34, was never going to be ahead of the likes of Djibril Cisse, Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora in the QPR pecking order and won't want to spend his final months as a professional knocking around with our reserve team. But his importance to QPR since he arrived here should be underestimated no longer. He overcame fitness problems, advancing years, a farcical managerial merry-go-round and more besides to lead our promotion side and then score the goals that kept us in the Premier League. He did it all in the same classy style, with the same fixed facial expression.
Heidar Helguson is a damn fine player, and it’s no surprise to see the best manager outside the Premier League ignoring his age and snapping him up.
Pictures – Action Images