Today at Wimbledon – Column
Sunday, 15th Jul 2018 14:34 by Clive Whittingham
What better way to forget the inevitable, crushing disappointment of England’s World Cup exit by embarking on the inevitable, crushing disappointment of QPR’s 2018/19 campaign? LFW climbed back on the horse at Wimbledon on Saturday…
There can be few more hateful concepts in sport than a play-off for third place. Necessary, surely, only in an Olympic Games – and even then just hand bronze medals out to both losing semi-finalists and let them go home to be alone with their grief – it exists in a World Cup for reasons nobody can comprehend but are almost certainly to do with somebody making some money somewhere.
Even before Wednesday’s agonising England defeat to Croatia in extra time of the semi-finals, the chances of me sitting down to watch yesterday’s match were slim at best. As it turned out, with our unexpected success in the tournament and the demon hope of a first final since 1966 being dangled and then snatched away, I’d rather have spent the afternoon giving a rim job to John Prescott after he’d spent a long, hot day in his garden than tune in to England Reserves v Belgium.
Luckily, QPR had my back in the form of a handily scheduled pre-season friendly, and so as one horribly inevitable crushing disappointment ends in Russia, so another began almost immediately in a quiet corner of town between Kingston and New Malden.
A game with AFC Wimbledon came with the added incentive of a new ground to visit. Love a new ground. Despite being just nine miles south of Loftus Road on the other side of Richmond Park, and regularly being in the quarter of the draw from which our early round League Cup ties are picked, a trip to Kingsmeadow had so far eluded us since Wimbledon set up camp here. Of course, a nice midweek tie at Wimbledon would get in the way of all the thrilling opportunities to play Swindon, Northampton or Swindon – or, in the case of this season, Peterborough, which is as close to Northampton as you can get without actually being Northampton. Fiendishly fucking clever that League Cup draw, never missing an opportunity to bore the living shit out of us.
Wimbledon have been here since 2002 and this coming season will be their last, with Wimbledon Dog Track razed to the ground and a new home for the Dons back on Plough Lane ready to spring up in time for 2019/20. Kingstonian, who originally called it home and opened the place with a friendly against QPR in 1989, were forced out by mismanagement and financial woes and so this quaint, rather likeable little lower league ground will soon revert to a permanent place for Chelsea to park all the millionaire teenagers they’ve hoarded with no intention of ever using in their first team. Everybody’s favourite Russian-backed racists have bought the leasehold for £2m and there are already signs everywhere for their women’s team.
So an escape from the horrors of England Belgium, a new ground to tick off, and a first chance to get a look at Steve McClaren’s Queens Park Rangers. What’s not to like? Well, being perfectly honest, I’m not ready for this yet.
Perhaps it’s the weather. London has been oppressively hot for weeks, apparently rendering it socially acceptable to go topless on the Northern Line. It’s always the ones who really shouldn’t who go first with that isn’t it? One of the many positives of England’s resurgence is it has distracted attention for a few weeks. Last time it was this hot for this long the city responded by burning down family furniture shops and pillaging Footlocker – although it is a source of some civic pride that the Toby Carvery Barnet remained open and serving throughout that horrible week. Attention hungry looters… Despite the country’s desperate political situation, the visit of Trump and the Saharan weather conditions, people have been too busy trying to get on UniLad by spontaneously throwing their pints in the air to celebrate a fifth goal against Panama to cause many problems. Nevertheless, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s time for club football again just yet.
Perhaps it’s the World Cup itself and once today’s final is out of the way and I’m stuck watching golf next week I’ll get the craving back. Or maybe it’s the change of manager that’s sapped a bit more of the love out of me.
I’ve spent the last month overseas and had a lot of time sitting in the sun to reflect on the departure of Ian Holloway (that’s the sort of thing I do when plonked in an idyllic paradise). The more I think about it the more uneasy I am with the whole thing. Whether you liked him or not, whether you rated him or not, whether you thought he would take us forward or hold us back, I think you’d be hard pushed to argue that he didn’t fulfil the remit he was given when he was appointed which makes the sacking, and the manner of it, harsh. He cut the wage bill, reduced the size of the squad, blooded a whole load of youngsters very effectively and maintained Championship status while doing it. There were problems, particularly away from home, and he infuriated me at times, but if you’re from the school of thought that actually this team is a lot better than its recent league finishes and was being hampered by Holloway’s management, I fear you may be in for quite the awakening once we get underway on August 4.
Anyway, I liked him, and Marc Bircham, they’re QPR people and I think they deserved a bit better than that week before and after the Leeds match on the final day of last season where the club starting leaking like 8,000 colanders and basically everybody knew they were getting the push long before they actually did. We need to be better than that as a club, particularly when dealing with our own, and it actually adds pressure to an already very difficult task facing Steve McClaren. Last year I desperately wanted QPR to do well not only because I’ve spent my whole life desperately wanting QPR to do well, but also because I wanted Holloway and Bircham to succeed. Now I’m back to just desperately wanting QPR to do well because I’ve spent my whole life desperately wanting QPR to do well, and I’ve long since come round to the idea that we’re a bit shit. It’s just taken the edge off it a bit for me. I’m weirdly uncomfortable with it, and I bet I’m not the only one.
So what can I tell you about Wimbledon 0 QPR 1? For that is how it finished, an away win secured with a last minute goal from Luke Freeman thanks largely to a dreadful bit of goalkeeping from Wimbledon’s second choice stopper Tom King in injury time.
Well, not much. Madness lies in drawing conclusions from pre-season friendlies, particularly the early ones like this, particularly ones played in a sweatbox. It will surprise nobody who’s ever watched a McClaren team that QPR did indeed line up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ryan Manning and Josh Scowen the two in front of the defence, Ebere Eze, Luke Freeman and Conor Washington rotating as the three behind Matt Smith. I’d be gobsmacked if we didn’t start in that shape for the opening day defeat at Preston, if perhaps not quite with this personnel.
Washington went through on goal and saw his shot saved, naturally. Matt Ingram, fighting it out with Joe Lumley to be the permanent successor to lovely/traitorous Alex Smithies, managed to make two outstanding saves from Mitchell Pinnock’s troublesome corners in the second half to preserve a clean sheet, although was frequently wayward with his distribution which will be a concern for a manager who likes to play out from the back. Probably a good job that Wimbledon's new signing James Hanson - like a Matt Smith for the lower leagues - wasn't on show here given the quality of Pinnock's delivery and QPR's varying struggles with them.
Darnell Furlong looked good at right back but went off injured. The new German looked big, and physical, and powerful, and dominant, and slow as rust. The pattern of play was obvious and unyielding: going wide, left or right, from the back; then being set back to the deeper lying midfielders; and then turned into the channels – over and over again to no great effect. McClaren did a lot of headshaking.
The game was, it must be said, a dreadful bore, as they often are, enlivened only very briefly by the sprinklers coming on mid-match. I’d have had a nap but the glare from the new pink kit kept me awake – we look like the clean-up team sent in after an explosion at the Pepto-Bismol factory.
It improved from a QPR perspective quite considerably when Little Smyth emerged from the bench, injecting pace and peskiness into the attack, winning a series of dangerous set pieces, and helping to set up what turned out to be the winning goal in injury time with a well-controlled, first time, volleyed cross into the danger area after being picked out with a raking crossfield pass. Kid looks sharp. Kid looks keen. Kid looks effective.
Interesting (it’s all relative) to see Idrissa Sylla, David Wheeler and Bright Osayi Samuel in the second string at Staines on Friday, though Samuel did get a brief cameo here as a substitute. McClaren’s only worked with Sylla for a fortnight so is still probably at the “what the fuck is this guy doing?” stage of enlightenment with him but Bright was looking good at the end of last season and one would hope can kick on this. Wheeler missed most of last season injured so could be like a new signing if he can hit the ground running come August – and as we’re not allowed actual new signings having a few pretend ones might be nice. Massimo Luongo returns to training this week after his World Cup – the lads have two matches against Champions League qualifiers Hoffenheim in Germany next weekend.
McClaren was surrounded on the touchline by a cast of thousands, all carrying iPads. That mint green training gear makes the staff very easy to spot and we counted at least one of them for every player, spread between the bench and the gantry above. It did look slightly excessive – aren’t we meant to be skint? Flitting around under their feet, unused sub Joe Felix, signed from Fulham’s academy after a successful trial – possibly the smallest human being I’ve ever seen.
The man himself watched the first hour from the television gantry, hunched forward and frequently resting his forehead on the barrier in front of him like the hungover custodian of a bottom set GCSE maths class. When the sun, and/or the tedium, became too much he decamped downstairs, to the back of the empty side terrace, and paced around an empty bin for a bit. From England manager to this, babysitting a creche at skinted Queens Park Rangers while Gareth Southgate is hailed as a national hero. Penny for his thoughts. Somewhere out there in a parallel universe it’s Steve McClaren MBE, and football fans are staging a run on Marks and Spencer umbrellas rather than waistcoats. It’s a sign of how low his stock has fallen that he’s here at all and he will have all on this season trying to raise it with the tools at his disposal at Loftus Road.
I’m slightly concerned. And very hot.
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Pictures – Action Images
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