|Preston North End v Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 4th August 2018 Kick-off 15:00
Marginal gains – Preview
Friday, 4th Aug 2017 07:44 by Clive Whittingham
With optimism in short supply, a game with losing play-off finalists Reading looming and signings numbering one, football’s latest buzz term can offer some solace for QPR fans.
Queens Park Rangers v Reading
Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday August 5, 2017 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >>> Weather - Warm and sunny with occasional showers >>> Loftus Road, London, W12
A frightening and disturbing London summer most couldn’t wait to end now gives way to a football season many of us hoped would never begin. Queens Park Rangers’ long 48 game slog through the winter starts with a visit from losing play-off finalists Reading on Saturday, and looks even longer and sloggier than usual.
The congregation in the parish of Shepherd’s Bush is dwindling in number and low on optimism. The general consensus is a team that proved short of goals at the right end and overly generous at the other last season only looks likely to be just as profligate and leaky this. Parachute payments are down to £10m and cease altogether at the end of next season – belts are being tightened accordingly at a time when Championship transfer fees are exploding. Rangers lost seven of their last eight games last season having lost six in a row over Christmas and it’s hard for many to see exactly how and why things will be different this time around.
This pessimism, while not good for gate receipts, may not be such a bad thing for the team. In everything from individual signings and matches up to entire seasons, it seems that QPR fair a lot better when expectations are low.
After two successive near misses with relegation few held out much hope for anything in 1999/00 when the Chris Wright money dried up altogether and Gerry Francis was forced to shop at Aylesbury (Jermaine Darlington), Saffron Walden (Stuart Wardley) and East Ham United (Ross Weare). In actual fact Francis cobbled together a super little team, led from the front by free transfer Chris Kiwomya and Bradford bargain Rob Steiner – Rangers finished in the top half and threatened a play-off push at one stage. There was a good deal more to spend in 2010/11 but years of rapid management rotation and a host of expensive flop signings had long since rubbed the gleam off Flavio Briatore’s much heralded takeover of the club. Neil Warnock signing crusty old has beens like Shaun Derry, Clint Hill and, fresh from a lengthy drug ban, Paddy Kenny, looked like a dodgy jobs for the boys act and yet Rangers won the division in fine style.
By contrast when Briatore’s money brought a whole new squad for Iain Dowie to take charge of in 2008/09 expectations – inflamed by eye-watering season ticket price hikes – were so ludicrously high that it took just 15 minutes of the first game of the season for the Loftus Road crowd to start chanting Lee Camp’s name at his replacement Radek Cerny on his first ever appearance for the club. And when Uncle Tony and Meticulous Mark went on their infamous trolley dash around Kia Joorabchian’s Mega-Mart there were hopes of European football, even Champions League qualification, on the message boards until a 5-0 opening day loss to Swansea brought home the stark reality. Rangers would win only four times all season in 2013/14. At QPR it seems we often find things aren’t as good as they seem when they’re going well, nor as bad as we think they are when they’re not.
I’m sure you’ll have heard already – and if not won’t be long into your first pint tomorrow before you do – what a horrendously difficult league the Championship is going to be this season. “The toughest ever I reckon” according to some bloke down the White Horse who knew for definite. Let’s be clear here and now – it’ll be the same steaming, festering pile of sloppy mediocrity it always is. We are not the Renford Rejects suddenly being parachuted into the 1993/94 Italian Serie A. This is a dire division of average football teams, structured around an unworkable fixture list, populated with overpaid dross, run by an entirely incompetent administration. To be afraid of it is like fearing your business is going to be overtaken and sent to the wall by one of those shops The Chuckle Brothers used to open – if it happens, it says more about you than it does about anybody else. In fact, with excellent Newcastle and Brighton teams exiting to be replaced by basket cases Hull and Sunderland it’s likely to be even worse than usual, certainly worse than last season when it was unusually strong.
If you think QPR will still struggle then you’re not alone, and quite possibly not wrong, but then also consider this. Had last season finished at the end of March – yes, yes if my aunty had bollocks but bear with – when QPR were top of the form table, on a seven-match unbeaten run and comprehensively outplaying promotion-chasing Leeds at Elland Road then the mood around 2017/18 would be sky high with talk of a surprise play-off push. Those performances and wins with Ryan Manning, Massimo Luongo, Pawel Wszolek and Grant Hall all playing so well, Conor Washington scoring, Darnell Furlong coming through at right back, the division’s best goalkeeper in goal… everybody was purring then.
It could just be that a unique combination of believing we were safe, carrying a few injuries, wanting to experiment with the team all while facing a tough run of fixtures came together in a perfect clusterfuck in April unlikely to be repeated. Losing is a hard habit to break, it was a deeply concerning end to the season, but it’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom. Huddersfield, promoted last season, won just three of their last 14 the season before and finished with a 4-0 loss to Bristol City and a 5-1 home defeat to Brentford. They beat Brentford at home 2-1 in the first game of the following campaign. The season before Ian Holloway got Blackpool promoted, they too only won four of the last 16 matches.
Huddersfield also disprove this idea that not being able to spend as much money means QPR have no hope. They made signings last season, lots of them, but they did so on one of the division’s lowest budgets, with no parachute payments and after several seasons of selling their best players. Aston Villa, meanwhile, finished midtable despite spending in excess of £12m on a striker on three separate occasions over the nine months.
I go on about this a lot but it does puzzle me that QPR – the fans, the manager, the owner – continuously look at the squad and think it needs another load of players signed. That’s not to say the team isn’t short in key areas, because it certainly looks it. Nor is it saying we shouldn’t make any signings at all, and it’s very frustrating to see Ollie Watkins move from Exeter to Brentford after his stellar contribution to last season’s League Two play-offs. Two years ago it was QPR buying the outstanding performers from the lower division play-offs, and whatever you think of Massimo Luongo and Ben Gladwin I liked that strategy and believe it would have worked long term for us – the row away from it since Ian Holloway returned is a shame and the wrong move.
But overall if you have such a low success rate with signings as QPR clearly do, why on earth would you be in a rush to make a load more? Charlie Austin was a rampant success, Alex Smithies has barely put a foot wrong, but apart from that since the Warnock summer of Hill, Derry, Taarabt, Mackie and Kenny who exactly have we signed that’s been any good, that’s been a run away success, that’s really improved the team? Richard Dunne was a shrewd one but even Matt Phillips, brilliant for Blackpool before us and West Brom since, struggled for all but four months of his time here. Players come in at great expense and in large numbers, they rarely do as well as they did at their previous club and the team doesn’t get any better – when you put it like that the ongoing clamour for more signings does seem a bit odd doesn’t it?
The declining playing budget could (could, if done right) be a blessing. The thing the 99/00 Francis season and the 10/11 Warnock campaign have in common is they both followed periods of overspend that hadn’t worked, and the managers and club were forced to think a little bit more carefully about what they were doing, who they were signing, what they were spending and how they were going about things. Suddenly we started making four good signings for every bad one, as opposed to recent years when it’s been the opposite. As CEO Lee Hoos says, it’s about finding value in the transfer market – Josh Scowen on a free, hopefully an example of that.
But more importantly QPR need to find ways of getting more from what they already have. For all the progress made by Hoos and Ferdinand, shown clearly in the accounts, you cannot profess to be a club getting its house in order and still have half a dozen players on first team salaries ostracised, not training with the first team and not going on the pre-season tour. We cannot afford this disposable footballer attitude any more. Ben Gladwin, in from Swindon, 50 professional games in his life, played half a dozen times, written off as shit. Nasser El Khayati, exactly the same. If this attitude had been prevalent in years gone by think of the players we’d have missed out on – Paul Furlong would have been bombed out, Les Ferdinand the same.
Rangers have to look for marginal gains all over their squad, rather than constantly seeking new members of it.
There’s improvement to be had in Jake Bidwell, Joel Lynch and James Perch – because they’ve all played better at this level for other clubs than they have done for us. Perch was Wigan’s Player of the Year playing in a back three, or defensive midfield role – QPR have persisted with him at right back for two years despite him being consistently awful. When he’s moved to left back or midfield for us, he’s looked good. Why would you continue to pick him at right back? A change in position revitalised Grant Hall last season, why do we keep flogging Perch at right back? In Jack Robinson and Jordan Cousins we have two good young players who’ve done it at this level before – can we get them fit? There’s two new players already on the books there if we can. Yeni Ngbakoto and Pawel Wszolek have both got a season of Championship football under their belts, they’ll be better for that. Do we play to their strengths enough? Do we play to Sylla and Smith’s strengths? Why do we seem so keen to discard Sylla – in the current market do you think you’d get even a ten-goal-a-season Championship striker for the money he’d fetch? Conor Washington can finish, can we get him in the position to do so?
This is what I mean about working with what you have, improving what you’ve got, before looking elsewhere. Low expectations among the crowd can help with this as well – see how Grant Hall was able to come in, settle and impress because nobody had heard of him or expected much of him. Players may be given room to breathe, find their feet in the team and the league, discover how they fit into the system without being harangued from the sidelines and written off after a stupidly small amount of games if the supporters expect nothing in the first place.
If QPR can find those marginal gains this season may not be as bad as we all think. Don’t put a lot of money on it though.
Links >>> In defence of a quiet summer – Column >>> More than just a website – Column >>> In the eye of the beholder – Opposition Profile >>> So near and yet so far – Opposition Interview >>> Duncan takes opener – Referee >>> Stan Bowles legend – Podcast >>> Four star Rangers slay Reading – History >>> Farewell to the King – Column
Highlights from QPR’s thumping 4-1 win over the Royals at Loftus Road in 2009 during that glorious fortnight of four goal victories that made it look like Jim Magilton’s team could conquer the world – before he started going round sticking the nut on them.
Team News: Ian Holloway says Steven Caulker is now in “a wonderful place”. It’s called The Hope and Anchor, lovely little pub by the river, does a great Sunday lunch. Ok, sorry, low blow, but we do now seem to be in a re-run of 2016 where Caulker follows up a puff piece in the Guardian with a spectacular return to training looking a million dollars and strong start to the season. Don’t knock it too much, the threeAugust wins we accomplished last season while he was playing like that kept us up in the end. Question is, how will he continue to perform/behave from September onwards if the transfer window closes and he’s still here?
Still a very talented centre back, albeit one with ‘issues’, wouldn’t go amiss at the moment with Joel Lynch and Nedum Onuoha the only two senior players currently fit to play in that position and Ollie lining up a back three regardless. Grant Hall has an ongoing tendonitis problem which has been caused by the hardness of the QPR training ground and absolutely not the hardness of the concrete hill they had them running up in Portugal all week. Jordan Cousins’ hamstring has exploded again. Idrissa Sylla remains a bit too foreign.
Reading have issues of their own up front with last season’s top scorer Yann Kermorgant out with an arthritic hip and high-profile transfer moves, most notably for Huddersfield’s Nahki Wells, so far drawing a blank. They have signed Jon Dadi Bodvarsson from Wolves and as the Fin not only nearly joined QPR last summer but also managed to score just three times all season and only once in his last 44 appearances I think we know where that one’s going. One-time QPR target Modou Barrow has joined on a four year deal from Swansea and goes straight into the squad.
Elsewhere: Yes it’s back again, roughly 20 minutes after it finished, another 10,000 rounds of this dirge played every day of the week between now and May and labelled the best/most entertaining/most competitive league in Europe by nobody who’s ever had to sit through any of it for any length of time. I’m tempted to pull an Ivan Dobsky and do something unspeakably evil just to get back into Crowmarsh so I can avoid it all.
Act of barbarism pending, there’s a big thick volley of mediocrity heading straight to your gob this weekend, starting on Friday night as the Derby Sheep visit Darron Gibson’s Winery to kick the whole thing off in front of 30,000 empty seats which will look absolutely brilliant on the tellybox. The idea of 1,500 scholars from the school of Fuck You I’m Millwall descending on Nottingham Hooters to celebrate their promotion on Saturday morning didn’t appeal to East Midlands Police so they’ve shifted their trip to the Trees to Friday night as well.
Eight games for the Saturday 15.00 start time, including Bristol City v Barnsley in this weekend’s key match-up between two teams beginning with B. We welcome back the Sheffield Red Stripes after six years away and they start with a home game against Brentford. Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion is the first date on the Eighth Annual Neil Warnock Farewel Tour.
Fans of the Ipswich Blue Sox probably wish the Mick McCarthy farewell tour would get underway sooner rather than later after a dire 2016/17 and a 6-1 pre-season defeat to Charlton hinting at more of the same. They start with the Birmingham Bad Knees at home with Barry Redchapp already warning a long season will be in store if he isn’t allowed to spend loads more money on loads more players immediately – sweepstake on the old two keepers on the bench trick?
The Sheffield Owls are hotly tipped to go one better this season after two successive play-off near misses and they begin at Preston Knob End. Sporting Wolverhampton begin their enormous FFP gamble on promotion at home to the team that’s actually going to get promoted instead, Champions Middlesbrough. Dark horses Tarquin and Rupert have been down to the pop-up Putney farmers market and brought in a fine selection of organic German sausage (£17.48 per/lb) for the visit of Borussia Norwich.
Big Racist John and the Boys hosting Tigers Tigers Rah Rah Rah rounds off Saturday with an evening Sky game and then it’s the Bolton Brassics against the Champions of Europe on the box to ease your Sunday lunch down the following day.
One down, 9,999 to go.
Referee: Scott Duncan sent off a Norwich player within 30 seconds of the game starting last time he was at Loftus Road, awarding Rangers a penalty into the bargain – which we very sportingly put wide of the post. Let’s hope for more of the penalties and less of the missing this weekend as he makes his first return since then. Full details and stats available here.
QPR: QPR infamously finished last season with seven defeats and one win (at home to Nottingham Forest) from their last eight games to finish eighteenth, just two points north of the drop zone. The Forest win was their ninth at Loftus Road, and they lost ten times on their own patch across the season – only Wolves and bottom-placed Rotherham lost more home matches. Pre-season hasn’t brought a great deal of solace with 4-0 and 4-2 wins against Bromley and Peterborough undermined by two defeats on the same day to todays opponents Reading, a 2-1 defeat to Union Berlin, a 3-2 loss at Lokomotiv Leipzig and a 1-0 defeat at home to Premier League Bournemouth.
Reading The Royals finished third last year with 85 points. While that owed much to an impressive home record of 16 wins and five draws – QPR and Villa the only two teams to win there all season – they also won 10 away matches. They achieved that despite conceding 48 goals on their travels (a total boosted by conceding seven at Norwich and five at Fulham) which was more than anybody else bar Rotherham. Bar the two wins against QPR in the behind closed doors games Reading haven’t had a good pre-season results wise either – on a pre-season tour of Holland and Belgium they’ve lost to KV Kortrjk (0-1) and Vitesse Arnhem (2-3) and drawn with Cercle Brugge (1-1), Sparta Rotterdam (0-0) and Turkish side Genclerbirligi (2-2).
Prediction: This year’s Prediction League is being sponsored by The Art of Football and we’ll be handing out prizes from their QPR Collection at the end of October, January and to the overall winner. Last year that was Southend_Rss who went close to 100 points so well done to him, and welcome to the arduous duties of match previewing which come with the prize.
Craig says… “As for any first game of the season, I'm buzzing and can't wait to get back to HQ and ride on the QPR rollercoaster once more. Both sets of fans will be expecting a strong performance and both teams will not want to lose. Especially this one for us, as it's always nice to stick one on the fakes. I don’t imagine we’ll see too much change in the Reading tactics from last year so expect it to be tight. I do like the look of Scowen and I always thought Ariel deserved to have another chance once he had his head settled. It's nice to see Olly getting behind the player publicly, which will boost morale. We are going to need a squad that is in it together this season. My heart says we’ll win 2-1 however I’ve gone for…
Southend’s Prediction: QPR 1-1 Reading. Scorer – Matt Smith.
LFW’s Prediction: QPR 0-0 Reading. No scorer.
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