Revisionist history and red herrings – Column
Wednesday, 9th Nov 2016 19:27 by Clive Whittingham
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s reign as Queens Park Rangers manager lasted just 11 months. While that was entirely predictable, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t the right appointment in the first place.
It’s little surprise that Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink failed to make it to the one year anniversary of his appointment as Queens Park Rangers manager. Only two of his eight predecessors managed to clock up more than 12 months in one of football’s hottest seats, and Harry Redknapp should have been waved on his way long before he actually was. John Gregory’s 13-month reign prior to that was worthy of a carriage clock by the club’s more recent standards, while Ian Holloway’s five year stay ventures into statues and testimonial territory.
It’s just over a month since Tony Fernandes was celebrating in front of the away end at Fulham, and using his Instagram account to talk about the “QPR family” sticking by its own after the Telegraph wafted vague insinuations in Hasselbaink’s direction. It’s not even a fortnight, and only two matches, since director of football Les Ferdinand was again preaching calm and patience prior to the Brentford game. One awful performance there, and a draw at a ground Rangers have never won on later and the Dutchman is packing his bags. QPR still preach long-term sentiments, while working in dog years.
This has long since filtered down to the support base. Hasselbaink didn’t win any of his first eight matches in charge and that was enough for some to already be questioning him through the usual message board and social media channels just two months into the job prior to a win at Rotherham in January. QPR don’t do new manager bounce – Chris Ramsey won three of his first 14 games, Redknapp two of his first 14, Mark Hughes one of his first eight. They also don’t get a lot better or worse for trading players and yet this doesn’t stop the constant, insatiable desire for more signings and an ever-quickening change of managers.
One would think the results continuing to flatline after every change would make people question whether the manager is really the problem, whether the change was necessary or will really help or achieve anything, but it doesn’t. Fans have become used to three or four bad results in a row meaning the manager gets the sack, and now get over-the-top angry when it doesn’t happen.
QPR have a midtable Championship standard team with a League One quality infrastructure and a declining budget. They are currently sitting in mid-table in the Championship, equidistant between relegation and play-off places. They are exactly where they should be, and yet the growing tide of anti-Hasselbaink feeling over the last two months – since the admittedly unforgivable Newcastle debacle – has been more worthy of a team propping the league up without a win for months.
But none of this means Hasselbaink has been hard done to at Loftus Road, nor does his early sacking mean he was the wrong appointment in the first place, because weirdly he hasn’t but wasn’t.
That was then
There’s a deal of revisionist history goes on from all of us in this weird online football world we all inhabit at this time. My favourite this week was the suggestion that Burton Albion weren’t that bothered about him leaving them in the first place – this, apparently, despite him winning the League Two title, then immediately taking them to the top of League One at the point of QPR’s approach upon which a compensation package in excess of anything Burton had ever received for a player or manager before was insisted upon.
There’s a story about wrestler Shirley Crabtree turning to a loud ring-side critic while pinning an opponent to the floor in a headlock and asking “do you want to come up here and have a go?” that I feel is rather apt when people talk about Hasselbaink being “never the right choice in the first place” or “never a good fit”.
After the disastrous consequences of the Mark Hughes era, there was a general consensus that QPR should ditch the big name policy and look for younger players and managers who wouldn’t cost the earth and would come with plenty to prove. Hasselbaink, who despite a glittering playing career had worked his way up the coaching ladder via Woking, Forest, Royal Antwerp and Burton, fitted that bill. After Harry Redknapp had half-arsedly drifted through a couple of years in W12 – taking a club bottom of the Premier League heading into an away game at Sunderland and leaving it two years and £200m later bottom of the Premier League heading into an away game at Sunderland – there was also a consensus that a fully committed manager who wanted to coach and improve players rather than simply buy new ones from Willy McKay’s client log all the time was needed. Again, Hasselbaink fitted the bill.
Of course people are now saying we need an experienced, grizzled old manager again because of the nature of the Championship. Just as they always used to say a “football man” with QPR at his heart was needed in a director of football role between the club’s manager and Malaysian board was required to stop the Hughes/Redknapp/Beard/Fernandes fiasco occurring again, but now criticise Les Ferdinand and ask why he’s there.
This recruitment lark is not easy, and by constantly putting themselves in a position where the appointment has to be made mid-season Rangers make it tougher still. The ‘runners and riders’ piece LFW ran prior to his appointment had him third favourite in an uninspiring field led at the time by Nigel Pearson (booted by his last two clubs for his odd behaviour), Neil Warnock (more shortly), Alex McLeish (do me a favour), Tim Sherwood, Paul Lambert and Ian Holloway. Kenny Jackett and Mark Warburton were priced but already had jobs. Others on the bookies' slate included Gary Megson, John Carver and Brain McDermott. QPR were not swimming in quality options at the time, and Hasselbaink was a good fit for what the club said it wanted. A great many supporters, including some now being wise after the event, would have made the same appointment.
The idea that Neil Warnock should have been kept on permanently is a red herring. His wife was ill at the time, he’d specifically told the club he couldn’t commit beyond a couple of months, and even during his brief four match caretaker spell he had to duck out of an away trip to Middlesbrough because of those personal reasons. As Sharon Warnock’s health improved, and following a heart to heart with her husband who wasn’t doing well stuck at home out of work, he subsequently took the Rotherham and now Cardiff jobs but that doesn’t mean he was an option for QPR 11 months ago because he himself told the club he wasn’t. A particularly harsh stick to beat Ferdinand and Hasselbaink with that one I thought.
And while we’re on animals, let’s address the horrible elephant in the room – the colour of Hasselbaink’s skin, which should have been completely irrelevant but in this increasingly vile and intolerant modern Britain became an issue for some.
Because Les Ferdinand has spoken publicly about the difficulties faced by black and ethnic minority coaches in getting managerial jobs in football there was, far too often, this perception that Hasselbaink, like Chris Ramsey before him, was given the job ahead of others more qualified, and kept in it longer than he should have been, because he was black. Sometimes that was said outright, usually on Twitter but I’ve seen message board posters referring openly to “Les’ black agenda”. Sometimes it was more (though not much more) subtle. “Les won’t want to sack his mate” was trotted out a few times, without any clarification as to why two people who’d never played or worked together before, weren’t from the same country and seemingly had nothing in common whatsoever other than playing position and skin colour were mates.
Mark Hughes actually brought all his mates into QPR – Glynn Hodges, Mark Bowen, Eddie Niedzwiecki and so on. Harry Redknapp did the same – Bondy Bond, Joe Jordan, Niko Kranjcar. Neither were subjected to the same kind of “boys club” and “jobs for the boys” stuff Ferdinand has had to put up with at QPR.
While not my choice to succeed Hasselbaink this time around, Chris Powell is at least worth a second glance, maybe even an interview, on merit. He’s managed clubs of our size, in challenging situations and on difficult budgets before. But, sad as it is, we know what the reaction to him getting the job would be, and how quickly some people would turn and what they would say if it didn’t go well.
Hasselbaink didn’t get the job because he was black, he got the job because he was the best man from an admittedly limited field – which didn’t include Neil Warnock at the time – for what the club wanted, could afford and could attract.
Key mistakes and misfortune
So why has it not worked out then?
Some of it, as ever, has been down to bad luck. Jake Bidwell, Joel Lynch, Ariel Borysiuk and Yeni Ngbakoto were all bought over the summer as key signings, and all have been injured for big chunks of the season so far. We’re just 16 games into a 46 game campaign and it may have been fairer, with no real sign that a relegation struggle would ensue if this happened, to give Hasselbaink a few more months to see how he got on as the new signings bedded in and those four players came back to fitness.
But then let’s look at those four again. Lynch, when he has been fit, has either been played left back or left out altogether in favour of Steven Caulker, Nedum Onuoha and Grant Hall. He’s been repeatedly rushed back from his hamstring injury, exacerbating it. Borysiuk, likewise, presumably bought to replace Karl Henry but largely consigned to a watching brief while Henry has started more often than not. When Ngbakoto has played, it’s often been on the opposite wing to his favoured foot – inverse wingers, a pox upon modern football, one of Hasselbaink’s favourite things.
There are mutterings now, as no doubt Hasselbaink has a few ‘off the record’ chats and starts positioning himself favourably for other jobs in the future, about the club’s transfer business, which admittedly did land him with four players from Italy, Belgium, Poland and France all coming to the UK to play for the first time in a notorious division where Les Ferdinand himself has said it can take foreign players 18 months to get settled in and start performing.
As I’ve been saying consistently, 16 matches is no kind of time to be judging these players, but Hasselbaink has hardly helped them with his selections has he? Pawel Wzsolek starts right, left, central or not at all from one week to the next. Ariel Borysiuk, likewise, is on the bench as much as he starts, and has played in three, four and five man midfields already. Idrissa Sylla is used from the start, as a sub, as a lone striker or partnered with a very similar player in Seb Polter. He’s been asked to be a target man for long balls, or a goal poaching striker chasing crosses, often in the same game. Would it not have helped to pick a team in a consistent shape and system and leave these boys in settled positions to learn the game at this level?
I’ve seen talk of missed transfer targets. Local journo Sean Gallagher was well-connected to an apparent interest in John Bostock, who would have been great here, but went to Lens. We had it on good authority that they wanted Alfie Mawson from Barnsley but couldn’t shift Steven Caulker before he then got a Premier League move to Swansea. Icelandic European Championships hero Jon Bodvarsson took a bigger offer from Wolves. There’s suddenly mention of Adam Le Fondre for the first time.
But at the fans’ forum a couple of months back Hasselbaink declared himself, emphatically, twice, “very happy” with the players brought in. Ferdinand told fans they’d only failed to land one of their summer targets. No club ever signs all the players they want in the summer, and one miss for six signings sounds like a decent strike rate. It seems a bit rich to be talking about Bodvarsson when one of Sylla or Polter is on the bench every week while Conor Washington is stuck on the wing – Sylla looks a good deal better than Bodvarsson anyway and has scored more goals. Likewise Bostock, who presumably would also have been scratching around as a makeshift winger, as we’ve been forcing Jordan Cousins to do – Cousins an incredibly fit, exceptionally talented central midfielder who never gets picked there. We’ve already got so many centre backs that last year’s Player of the Year Grant Hall is often benched, Nedum Onuoha often at full back and so on, so where would Mawson have gone?
I’ve seen it suggested that Washington was a Ferdinand signing who Hasselbaink didn’t want. Washington scored twice against Hasselbaink’s Burton for Peterborough before they both moved here. And if he didn’t want a smaller, poacher, off-the-shoulder type striker because he was only going to play one up front, what exactly would Le Fondre have been doing then? Carrying the water? Was Burton Albion’s Nasser El Khayati an Evil Les signing too then? Another player Hasselbaink knew well but seemed to have little idea what to do with having got him.
And having mentioned Washington and Cousins (another who’s suffered for being rushed back from hamstring injuries), two very decent players toiling away out of position, we must also bring up Massimo Luongo. A superb player, the most naturally talented we have at the club, reduced to the role of midfield dog. Outnumbered midfield dog usually. Fourteen goals in just shy of 100 games for Swindon, five goals in 23 appearances for Australia, nothing for QPR. Just two goals from central midfielders in the whole of last season. Something not right at all there either.
Luongo suffered more than most from Hasselbaink’s reliance on players being part of his gruelling training sessions to take part in the weekend match. He would be left out automatically of every game after every international break, meaning we actually lost him for three weeks in every six rather than two. This, and the insistence that a Tuesday night team would have to be changed wholesale if there had been a game on a Saturday, is fine in principal but didn’t yield better results. Rangers won one of Hasselbaink’s seven midweek games last season, and have won only one from four in the league this season. Again, would a settled starting 11 for a few games not have been worth a try?
Ah yes, those training sessions. Great for PR, after years of players tossing off their time at QPR and the team frequently being run off the park by fitter opponents. Seb Polter said he couldn’t believe how easy pre-season had been 18 months ago compared to Germany and how it had hampered his start to life in West London. An old style hammer and tongs approach to training played well with fans, as did Hasselbaink’s promise that he wanted high tempo, high pressing, high energy performances on the field.
But the training seemed only to tire the players out. Beaten 2-0 at home (easily) by winless Preston in just the fourth game of the season, Hasselbaink said his player looked tired. Club hero Ale Faurlin was released because his knees weren’t thought to be up to the style, and yet Karl Henry was retained – not a bad option as cover maybe, but Hasselbaink started him every game, despite him being the exact opposite of the tempo and pace he apparently wanted in his team. Cousins, as discussed, who could do it, shoved out to the wing instead.
Clint Hill was also released for the same reason, but all Rangers have done this season is push the defence suicidally high up the field and appealed in vain for offside decisions. He could quite easily have done that, while also bringing leadership, organisation and strength in the air sadly lacking in the current back four. Hasselbaink added pressure to himself by getting rid of those two in the summer – a point he didn’t really seem to understand when a member of the LFW team put it to him at the kit launch in the summer – and the style he said he did it to accommodate was never in evidence.
What Hasselbaink said, in his odd on-camera interview style which is completely different to how he talks normally or even at events like the fans forum and did him few favours, often bore little relation to what was happening. He’d say “that wasn’t us” after performances that looked much like all the others, but then say “that was more like us” a week later after an equally poor one. He felt the first 45 minutes at Huddersfield this year was “more like it” which was deeply concerning as we were fucking terrible.
Often the team would click into something a bit more like it, as we saw in the final half hour at Nottingham Forest. This was usually when support had been given to a previously isolated lone striker, and the ball was fed wide to wingers for crosses rather than pumped long down the field. It was also, increasingly, whenever Mide Shodipo was on the field – and while Hasselbaink deserves huge credit for bringing a genuine youth prospect through to the first team for the first time in years, he was perhaps too protective and not using him enough in recent weeks.
The problem with these periods of decent attacking play is that you’d come back a week later for the next game, and the original 4-2-3-1, long ball to a lone striker routine would be back in place again like it had never happened. English football overall is becoming much slower, more attritional, more cynical and harder to watch as continental styles and thinking become the norm- viewing figures down across the board this season – so Hasselbaink is hardly unique in his 4-2-3-1, grind it out approach. Given that fans hated Chris Ramsey as well, despite his team top scoring in the league and doing things like recovering from two down at Wolves to win 3-2, because his side couldn’t defend I don’t want to place too much stock in this but… at a club like QPR, with its history and old image the supporters long to have back, you’re not going to win many friends boring the tits off people. Neil Warnock understood that first time round, indulged Adel Taarabt as a result and did better than anybody else has managed.
Whether it’s true that this group of QPR players are good and simply not being used correctly will become clear in time – but you can’t blame the fans, and ultimately now the board, for thinking that.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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