Down to the Wood – Column
Wednesday, 17th Jul 2019 18:07 by Clive Whittingham
Mark Warburton pulled few punches from his new team as they slipped to a sloppy 2-1 defeat at Conference side Boreham Wood on Tuesday night, but how did LFW find the trip to suburbia?
For the elite, now another grotesque cash printing scheme. Pack your cases, collect up your passports, slap the Premier League badge on it and shake your moneymaker. Newcastle v Leicester live from Malaysia at ten in the morning. Wolverhampton Wanderers-themed rooftop fashion shows backlit by the Singapore skyline. Arsenal v Arsenal XI with rush goalies, played on a floating pitch in Hong Kong harbour, with locals paying a month’s wages to watch from a surrounding flotilla. Daniel James v Jamie Vardy sprint races, conducted in weightlessness, in a magic rocket, sponsored by Emirates. Manchester United 0 Manchester City 0, played in 20-minute quarters in heat that would cook a lizard medium rare, blogged minute by minute by every national newspaper website, at one in the morning, in front of 100,000 people, with halftime analysis on just what a “wonderful human being” Paul Pogba is supplied by actress Julia Roberts to former Blackburn clogger David May.
We call it the Premier League Asia Cup, or the Intercontinental Championship Trophy, or the Super Sunday Brunch Spectacular these days. It’s a trick borrowed from rugby union, that realised 90,000 chinless fucks from the Barbour catalogue could easily be parted from four-figure sums to watch a meaningless friendly in the pissing November rain at Twickers simply by branding it an “Autumn International” and pretending there was some point to the winning and grave (unseen) consequences to the losing.
It’s a flagrant charade that’s proven so lucrative the actual football is now getting in the way and the same people that used to prattle on about fixture congestion and damage to the national team’s chances – as if they ever gave a monkey’s toss about either – now cart their supposedly dead-on-their-feet multi-millionaire twenty-somethings off in May as well for post-season tournaments and friendlies. Tottenham pushing back against the call up of players for actual England U21 tournament football because it would damage the commercial viability of their post-season tour of Australia not to have them there, is apparently now a thing. Chelsea losing Ruben Loftus-Cheek to a sickening long-term injury sustained on a sub-standard, freshly laid patch of grass on top of a baseball diamond because they were “contractually obligated” to fulfil a friendly commitment in the United States a week before a major European final, likewise.
This scum have their midwinter break next year. They blew the FA Cup schedules apart to accommodate it. When asked to sign a contract promising to use the gap for the rest they’d always said they desperately needed, rather than to crowbar in more foreign tours and friendlies, the Premier League clubs refused. Quelle surprise.
For the players, this is a dreaded time of the year, when their entire existence is governed by bleep tests in midday sun. The unique challenge of a 48-game season stretching out over the coming nine months; long spells sedentary in bus seats or hotel rooms interspersed with 90 minute blasts of jogging, concentration, and sudden, explosive 20-yard sprints; the physical rigours of a division played more in the air by tough men than on the floor by pretty boys; the challenge of working on tactics, and skills, and pattern of play, and fixing up problems amidst a fixture list that restricts you to playing, travelling, recovering, sleeping, eating and shitting for many weeks at a time… each of these issues in turn is tackled by flying en masse to somewhere the temperature touches 40 degrees and finding a big hill for everybody to run up in the heat of the day.
Quite how much use this ever was is up for debate. Quite what the point is now, when the world of Instagram tells us most players seem to spend their time off taking themselves away to said 40-degree heat with a personal trainer and charging up and down the beach in small shorts and no shirts is lost on me, though there are of course exceptions. Joe Lumley and Ryan Manning, for instance, have spent the time off on a holiday that would make The Inbetweeners blush, hanging around with their bantersaurus mate who does a nice mime line in lifting an imaginary giant penis over his shoulder at the side of one of those swimming pools jammed shoulder to shoulder with beautiful young people listening to music that sounds like an old-style dustbin blowing down the road. But Lumley’s a goalkeeper, and Manning is the fittest lad in the world, so it scarcely matters. Jack Wilshere likes to spend his time preparing for a dozen ill-judged sliding tackles followed by three months in the treatment room by chilling out with a large pack of Marlboro Reds in LA hot tubs. And Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford like to host fancy dress parties in Miami hotel rooms to which only they are invited, shouting “beans, beans, beans” down their phones at their legions of drooling YouTube subscribers. Huawei want to spy on this shit do they? Be our guest.
For the rest of us, this is an odd time. Sultry evenings spent ground ticking in suburban shitholes, forking over 15 notes to watch a glorified fitness exercise against teams vastly inferior or superior to anything we’re likely to face in a fortnight’s time, reading deeply into the training session presented to us and getting carried away with the good bits or panicked needlessly by the bad. So it came to pass, on Tuesday night, that LFW found ourselves on the train to Borehamwood, or Boreham Wood as the football club insist upon.
It’s a town of flat roofs, a Wetherspoons that looks like the third-class bar that went down with The Estonia, and a spectacular McDonalds that is to this part of the world what the Santa Maria del Fiore is to Florence. There’s a star for Harrison Ford on the floor of the railway station, a world class film and television studio facility at the other end of the high street flanked by people in folding chairs waiting to get Ricky Butcher's autograph, and a Wimpy Bar between the two. A ridiculous number of QPR fans came to see it, several hundred at least, traipsing down the street like barely reformed smack addicts queuing for their methadone. To be honest, it felt like the sort of place you wouldn’t have too much problem getting fixed up with the real thing. After 90 minutes of this, that sounded quite appealing.
What can I tell you about the game? Well, not a great deal.
Partly because this smartly appointed Conference ground, with new stands stretching down one side and behind the goal at the far end, has a set of floodlights that point straight down, turning the toilets in each corner into an x-ray lab you shouldn’t stay in for too long without a lead coat but leaving the centre circle rather like football by candlelight. I smell a council planning department at work. Once the glorious evening sun had dipped behind the main stand, your guess was as good as mine really.
Also because, to keep things interesting, the teams had decided to turn out in matching kits. Borehamwood/Boreham Wood in standard issue Sunday League light green, QPR dressed like the staff at an all-inclusive resort in the Maldives in light blue. The new kit looks alright to me in the flesh to be fair, certainly better than the Pepto Bismol monstrosity of last year, though like its predecessor has as much to do with QPR’s history and identity as John Terry’s birthday barbecue.
And, additionally, because of all we’ve rambled about before. This is a fitness exercise, a training game, a chance to work on some stuff. It’s not the finished product, it’s not competitive, there are players still to come, there are players still to go. If we send that team out playing that way against Stoke City we’ll come back looking like a guest from one of Michael Barrymore’s pool parties. But we won’t, so it’s not worth fretting about. Yet.
That said, this was a bit of a stinker. We lined up in a 4-2-3-1 set up with Grant Hall and Yoann Barbet in the middle of the defence between Ryan Manning and Angel Rangel. Luke Amos played deep in the midfield with Dominic Ball. Ebere Eze and Bright Osayi Samuel rotated with Ilias Chair, back in the team after missing Friday’s friendly in Vienna with concussion (some bastard left a drawer open), in the three behind Aramide Oteh.
There were three key problems with the performance that was turned in. The first, quite obviously, was a lack of anything at all up front. On the rare occasions QPR did enjoy good ball around the edge of the home penalty area, options ahead of the play were non-existent and decent quality deliveries from wide areas were allowed to fly through the danger zone untroubled by a visiting forward. There was, sadly, and I’m trying not to be overly critical I promise, plenty of evidence here for why Oteh struggled for game time at lowly Walsall last year. That spell seems to have drained much of the confidence he’d come into January’s cup match with Leeds bubbling with.
Unlike some, I’m not overly concerned with this as yet. Our club is stupid, and accident prone, but it’s not going to attempt a Championship season with Oteh as its only option up front. Other strikers will arrive. Whether they’ll be any good or not is another matter but I’m not sure I really get the point of haranguing the club, its manager and its owners on social media, every reply to every post demanding a striker be signed immediately in ever more rude and forthright terms. Do you think they don’t know? Do you think they haven’t realised? Do you think Mark Warburton reckons Oteh is going to whack in 25 Championship goals this season and the only way he’ll realise he’s wrong is if some meathead Tweets him constantly reminding him we need forwards? Chill your boots. They may be dog shit, but they’ll be here. Still wouldn’t have let Matt Smith go mind.
The second, more troubling for me, was the defence. I’m more concerned about this because we’ve done our business there, this is more than likely the personnel we’re taking into the season, and more importantly it’s the style we’re going to be using. Getting angry with us playing out from the back having appointed Mark Warburton as manager is a bit like shouting at a parked car for straddling two bays when there’s nobody at the wheel, and you parked it. Plus, as I keep saying, it's early days yet, just two friendlies in. At the moment though there is a whiff of last summer about it all with the goalkeepers, particularly Lumley, looking panicked by it, taking risky options that are never on. When the full backs bomb forward and we lose the ball, we’re immediately and horribly exposed in transition – as we were for two goals here and three on Friday.
The actual defending itself is nowhere near where it needs to be. Barbet believed he was fouled for Vienna’s second on Friday when he needed to be stronger, and here he backed off to the edge of his own area and made no attempt to challenge Kabongo Tshimanga for a first goal that was far too routine given where he picked the ball up. A summer recruit from Oxford City, where he scored 37 goals in National League South last season, Tshimanga was better than anything QPR had in attack, but our defence really shouldn’t be struggling with him to this extent. If Grant Hall and Barbet are to be our centre backs this season, and this is our style, I’m going to need some new tablets.
And the third, which hopefully will correct with time, is the pace of the play. To make a success of this style there have to be options for a pass and the ball has to be moved quickly, a point Warburton stressed in his Vienna interview. Every extra touch, every additional second taken in possession, is a chance for the opposition to push higher, closer, in bigger numbers, cutting options off and suffocating you in your own half. There was too much dawdling, and Amos was asked to shoulder an enormous burden of always being the go-to option for a series of delayed, hospital passes. Even a Conference team were capable of feasting on the sort of buffet that resulted in. “Even a Conference team” does Wood a disservice actually – they looked fit, and organised, dangerous in attack and handy at full back. They could do damage this season.
When the ball was moved quickly we looked better. A glorious, swiftly-delivered ball down the line from Manning had Bright Osayi-Samuel in for an early penalty converted - despite ponsing about in the run up - by Ebere Eze. I was hoping his Sheff Wed miss might have deterred that sort of Pogba nonsense, but apparently not. His shooting other than that was poor – too tepid, trying to be too clever, all side-foot. Come on love, put a bit of minge round it.
I’d originally written the second goal off, scored through the gloom by academy product Sorba Thomas, as a bit of unintended stuff and nonsense before seeing the replay and reassessing it as the greatest goal of the new millennium. It was, regardless of the finish, a product of the same defensive failings as the first.
Threat of an equaliser was scarce, though Rangers looked better for the introduction of Mide Shodipo who’d been poor in Vienna but was better here, and Josh Scowen who’s gone from not even getting in the team under Steve McClaren to looking like one of our best players in double quick time under first John Eustace and now Mark Warburton.
The new man at the helm wasn’t impressed. To his enormous credit he passed up the free hit such opportunities provide to just trot out the usual PR lines about works in progress and minutes under belts to lay into his players after the final whistle, slating the standard of performance and the losing mentality of the team. Darnell Furlong, by several accounts, was loudly furious with others in the dressing room afterwards as well. It resulted in an odd post-match interview in which Tony Incenzo offered up all the sort of club-approved excuses you expect from the manager, while an angry Warburton swatted them back with the sort of “not good enough” ire usually reserved for the angrier section of our support on such occasions.
He looked angry, and he was right to be. Whether it was that anger speaking, or a genuine intention, he appeared to promise a further five signings – three in short order (Cameron, Alan Judge and Barry McKay at an uninformed guess) and two strikers on top of that.
That would be 13 through the door this summer.
Our mental little club hasn’t been taking its meds again.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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