The power of youth - Knee Jerks
Monday, 30th Apr 2018 17:39 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola returns for the final time this season with his six talking points from Saturday's 3-1 home win against Birmingham.
A lovely end to the season at LR, where results have been pretty good all season. It also, at least until TF's odd comments afterwards, provided real hope for next season. The only downer was the bizarre fight in the SA stand just below me, between two mature gentlemen who really were old enough to know better. Bit embarrassing - one of them went completely Barton-at-City-in-2013 - head completely gone. Madness. What was that all about? We were 2-1 up at that point, too.
Power of youth
Let's get the caveats out the way, because caveats, mostly, are boring aren't they? Birmingham were pretty awful. But that is only a very, very small caveat when weighed up against the side we actually put out.
By my calculations, none of the first XI were in the side 18 months ago, apart from Sylla, and even he has never been a regular. Seven of the 11 (Lumley, Kakay, Furlong, Manning, Chair, Eze, BOS) were under 23 and started the season with the asterisk of 'one for the future' next to their names and only two of them had had any sort of first team experience. Of our back five, the keeper is a youth product who'd only started one game for us before; the right back had only played four games for us, mostly in cups, the two CBs were out of position, and the left back is usually a central midfielder. The two oldest players in the team were Freeman and Sylla at 26 and 27 respectively. Given all of that, how good or bad Birmingham were is pretty irrelevant. That was a hugely inexperienced side without its four (maybe five) first choice centre backs and its first choice keeper and still we were the better side. There were, of course, a few scrambles and we were fortunate once or twice not to concede, particularly in the second half. But that was to be expected.
Overall, you couldn't have asked for more from that team. It was really impressive. We looked particularly good when getting the ball on the ground and playing through Chair, Freeman and Eze. We had pace. Everyone worked extremely hard. People knew their jobs. Scowen, I thought, was magnificent - he needed to be calm and disciplined as captain of a young side and that's exactly what he was. Freeman too, sparkled for probably the first time when playing in the same side as Eze and there were signs of a growing chemistry developing there. People worried before the game that teams around Birmingham would be angry if we fielded a weakened team - well, on paper this was the weakest team we fielded all season, with half the team changed from the previous week, and our captain left on the bench. And it was still easily good enough to win this game. Well done everyone.
Well, Ollie can't say we don't win when he plays now. I thought he had a great game and was arguably man of the match. He's been tidy whenever I've seen him play before, but this time he really upped his game. He started quite well, but as the game went on he seemed to grow in confidence and just get better and better, culminating in his richly deserved goal. It'll be really interesting to see how he develops. He clearly has a fabulous touch (one tough ball dropping out the sky in the second half he killed nonchalantly with one touch, giving the impression he could do that all day), his vision is good, he's tenacious, I thought he worked phenomenally hard and it was clear he and Eze in particular had a really good understanding between them.
His position is a slightly odd one. His Nick Barmby-esque shape makes you think he needs to play in the hole rather than be a central midfielder, but on Saturday he was certainly middle of midfield and despite giving up height and strength to his opposite numbers he wasn't over powered in the slightest. Having Scowen behind him clearly helped, and Freeman played very well too. The goal was brilliant. Freeman superbly skipping round a challenge and then playing an inventive ball well over the keeper for Chair to finish. It wasn't an easy one either, but, like Smyth the other week, his technique was excellent. Doesn't quite have the same dynamism as Freeman, but perhaps likes to move the ball quicker and perhaps there are signs that if Luongo or Freeman were to go this summer, Chair could be the one to step into their place next season. We'll see. Long way to go etc etc.
I often wonder whether left back might end up being his position and although he struggled against Jota in the second half (can't blame him for that), I thought he did really well playing there on Saturday. He is a good defender, but if he could start playing there what he'd also offer is his immense quality in passing and crossing. He is, of course, very comfy on the ball, but that real ability he has to pick passes and put good balls into the box would give us an extra dimension from that part of the pitch (although Bidwell's been racking up the assists from there lately to be fair).
At the moment, I think his best position is still not decided. He's a really good player, but is he quite good enough for central midfield? Or is that where his talents can be best demonstrated? I'm not quite sure. The one thing we'd miss if he played left back would be his intelligent runs into the box, his ability to support the strikers and get goals from inside the box, which Freeman and Scowen don't really offer - although Luongo has of late.
Still, the point is, as part of an inexperienced defence, I thought he had a great game, he didn't look out of position at all, and showed all his qualities. Be really interesting to see what happens with him next year.
I keep saying it, and I still believe it - future QPR captain. I don't know how many games he played as a CB at younger age groups, but he looked very confident there on Saturday. Scowen did a great job of talking to him and Bidwell, but despite being out-matched in terms of height, both of them did really well. Most young centre backs, if they can break into teams at a relatively high level, will come in as full backs, where they're not quite as exposed as they would be at centre back, but with scope later, as happened with Onuoha, to move to centre back. That may be what happens with Furlong. He's not the tallest, but he has a great spring and he's getting stronger physically too. I mean, this was a really tough ask - a hugely inexperienced back five - yet he never looked panicky, or worried, or phased. And when Birmingham finally realised their best option might be to chuck it in the mixer, Olly nipped that one in the bud with a sensible substitution.
It was a brave decision not to start Ned considering the poverty of options in defence, but here, I think, we saw a bit more of the philosophy about developing young players that Chris Ramsey has spoken about. He says that in the U23s and younger they might put players in unfamiliar positions or deliberately pit them against players they know will give them a really hard time, because that helps growth and helps them learn how to deal with extreme challenges on the pitch. It would have been easy to start Ned and Smithies, but instead Olly challenged the whole back five, plus Scowen in front of them, to deal with the game without two huge characters at the back.
That worked pretty well, but it was clear as Jota began working his magic and Blues went more direct to good effect, that a sub would be wise. It came at the right time, and Ned's presence, speed and power, along with Furlong being a bit of an improvement on Kakay (who did play well) pretty much halted City's progress in its tracks.
It really showed how important he is to this side, actually. The difference was striking. And it also showed how much we will miss him next season and how important it is that, whether we sign one, two or even three centre backs, we have to get this one right. On our budget, that is not going to be easy. People keep damning him with the faint praise of a 'decent Championship defender', but for me that's grossly unfair. Finding someone else with his experience, his speed, his strength and his leadership is a huge ask.
I was really pleased to see him get several ovations though - when he warmed up and then again after the game, when he waved goodbye. I think he's been great for us. In an era of ludicrously high turnover of players at LR, he's been a rare constant. In the end, he stayed here even longer than Clint Hill, but never received the same cult status, or had as much love. I'm not quite sure why. In purely playing terms, over the whole period, he's probably been at least Hill's equal. So maybe it's because Clint was a surprise, but we all expected a lot more from a relatively big money signing from (at the time) another Prem club. And yet, he's rarely let us down. He's been fit for most of his time here, he's a superb ambassador for the club, a great man to have as a captain, a very good player, extremely active in community issues, he's a very clean defender, rarely gets booked, was part of a promotion-winning side and took a pay cut to stay with us before. What's not to love? I'll miss him a lot - and I think the team probably will too. Cheers, Chief.
It's not often you know a player is off at the end of the season, and if Ned was never quite a cult hero, Mackie certainly was and is. Never universally loved on messageboards, he's nevertheless always been a favourite with the actual crowd. And the reasons for that are numerous: his never say die attitude, his strength, his tenacity, his teamwork, his willingness to play almost anywhere on the pitch. And the goals. Not just his incredible run when he first joined, but people forget he scored seven PL goals in his first season - highly respectable for someone who wasn't a regular, and wasn't playing as a striker. But more than that, it's his memorable goals. The Liverpool one will, of course, will forever be his calling card. A game dead and buried until he came on as a sub, he not only helped inspire the comeback through sheer force of will, he completed it with the calmest finish you'll ever see on a tumultuous night under the lights. But there was also the goal at Man City. The equaliser at Derby. There'll be others I've not mentioned, but for any QPR player to have scored three goals of that magnitude is a bit special.
His return to the club may have been as much about heart as it was about head, but I still think it was the right thing to do. It was shameful how Redknapp shoved him out the door (only months after saying he wished he had 11 Jamie Mackies in the side... before then inexplicably dropping him for most of the rest of the season), and it was a symbol of all the crap that was going on, transfer-wise, at the time. He may not have had quite the same impact this time around, but he still scored some vital goals, he still had real impact on games (particularly early this season) and I'm sure he was great to have in the squad. It's a real shame how injuries after that first one at Blackburn have stymied him a bit down the years.
I remember Paul Furlong's last game, and he went clean through late in the game and could've scored but for a great challenge. In the end, I think of that less than what Furs did for the club, and I hope it'll be the same for Mackie. But I was desperate for him to score on Saturday. He had one and a half chances really, the first he was forced a bit wide, but was still unfortunate not to score when his deflected shot just hit Stockdale on the face or chest. You could see even from where I sit that Jamie was almost distraught at his luck there. And then the second was not really a chance at all. Freeman had the ball just outside the box, and Mackie was free, but he delayed the pass and in the end he was a bit wide. Really, at that stage, no one would have blamed Mackie for just shooting even from that angle, but, ever the team-man, he elected to cross (although he had words with Freeman after). I wish one of those had gone in - it would have been the perfect ending to his QPR career.
It was genuinely emotional watching him walk off, tears in his eyes. He's played at a few clubs, but this was clearly the one for him and it was from the second he arrived. That doesn't happen often - the player who signs and just 'fits' - Ainsworth was another, Austin another. For Mackie it all came together at QPR. He'll be much missed. Thanks for the memories, Jamie. Hope Wycombe can find the wages to pick you up on a free. That would seem a great fit.
Pictures – Action Images
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