Final throes - Preview
Friday, 17th Jul 2020 15:12 by Clive Whittingham
QPR finish a season at Loftus Road that promised so much and eventually limped to a conclusion with a game against Millwall on Saturday.
QPR (15-9-20, LLWLLD, 16th) v Millwall (16-17-11, DDWLWW, 7th)
Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday July 18, 2020 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >> Weather – Actually quite nice! >>> Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, Loftus Road, London, W12
And so we come, spluttering, stumbling, limping down the hill towards the finishing line, like some certified sex case that vowed to complete the London Marathon in an old fashioned diving suit and regretted it almost the second he put the thing on.
We’ve made it round safely, we’re not dead, which relative to what’s happened to some other competitors, and our own pre-race expectations, is a success. There have been some high points, when we actually got up a bit of momentum and a head of steam and actually looked like a real competitor. But the last few miles have been a demoralising drag. A club record amount of goals conceded at home (39) to go with last year’s club record amount of home defeats in a league season (11).
It is always worth remembering what you hoped for and expected at the start of the season. QPR won just three league matches in the entire second half of 2018/19 and sacked yet another manager as a result. From the team that inflicted that on us we lost the two best senior players – Luke Freeman and Massimo Luongo – having previously lost Alex Smithies, Nedum Onuoha and Jack Robinson from the defence the year before. Darnell Furlong soon followed, one of 16 departures in one transfer window. Hopes for this season were not high, especially after an alarming performance and defeat at Conference side Boreham Wood in pre-season. At that point if we’d been offered sixteenth again, with 62 goals scored, seven away wins, a clutch of memorable performances and victories, and big breakout seasons for Bright Osayi-Samuel, Ebere Eze and Ryan Manning, turning them into sellable assets, I dare say everybody would have gone for it. FourFourTwo had us at 22nd.
I’ll keep repeating all of that, because it’s exactly the same people who say “I’d take fourth bottom now” and “I’d bite your hand off for sixteenth” in the summer who are the first to kick off, complain, write players off, demand more managerial change, when the actual process of finishing fourth bottom, or in our case sixteenth, takes place before them. Did you think we were going to get to the sixteenth place you so coveted last summer by winning a lot of football matches? The aim for some time has been to reduce the wage bill while remaining competitive in the Championship, and by both those measures, whether you and I like it or not, the season has been a success. Had it ended at Preston, everybody would have had a big stiff hard on for 2020/21.
As it is, we go into another close season with several issues, and this is not the summer for that. As it stands the season resumes again on September 12 which gives us just shy of seven full weeks to prepare for it. The transfer window is to remain open until October 5, with another two weeks on top of that for domestic UK transfers, but if that is our start date then by the time the window closes we’ll already have played the thick end of a dozen league matches. We saw the August before last what happens when you start a season short and try to deal late in the window, and that was just four games. We may have got away with shipping the best part of 16 players in either direction last summer but I doubt we would this year, even allowing for the increased number of free agents floating around, and so we’ll have to prioritise issues. Joe Lumley and Liam Kelly having a bad season, and Todd Kane disappointing at right back, are probably going to have to wait in a squad that has problems at centre half, just two very mediocre central midfielders, and no senior centre forwards as of next week. Grandstanding about how our entire squad is shocking and needs replacing by the thick end of 20 new signings ignores the realities of football, finance and life at the moment. Battles are going to have to be picked. If West Ham and Jordan Hugill are willing to do that deal again we should be doing it right now.
If you want to be optimistic then there are going to be a tonne of options around. I’d have Jackson Irvine, released by Hull, or Alex Mowatt, about to be relegated with Barnsley, in a heartbeat. Both far better than anything we’ve picked at centre midfield this season. There will be loads more than that.
But while completely accepting of our club’s situation, fully aware that we started from a shambolic mess and these things take time to turn around, appreciative of the difficulties of taking a wage bill from north of £80m to south of £20m without plummeting through the leagues, and actually quite impressed with our performance this season after that huge summer upheaval a year ago, it’s not unfair to say our recruitment isn’t up to speed. I had hopes when Gary Penrice was bringing in Josh Scowen and Luke Freeman types, but I was perturbed by how many new arrivals last summer had previous links to the manager. When you loan in Jack Clarke in January, who we all said at the time was not a player we needed in a position we had plenty of cover in and was a needless expense whatever we paid, while Millwall are signing Ryan Woods from Stoke, everything we need in a position we’re desperately weak in, it’s fair to ask questions.
This summer relies on Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ebere Eze being sold early for big money – Bright to Club Brugge, breaking this afternoon, ticks one of those boxes – and then that money invested wisely in recruitment. The Clarke/Woods episode does not bode well and for all the support, understanding and empathy I give QPR, to the point where I’m accused of being in their pocket, we are once again facing a club tomorrow doing far more than we are with far less than we have. Millwall one place and two points shy of the play-offs.
Of course, there’s no real need to start on September 12. It was announced today that crowds will be allowed back into stadiums to a certain extent from October. I hear on the grapevine Millwall are planning 25% capacity, with no away fans, season ticket holders only asked to sit in pairs with four seats free in either direction, tickets checked at the main gate to the car park and then fans just into the ground through open gates rather than turnstiles. None of that works at Loftus Road and it’ll be interesting to see what our plan is. But whatever that plan is, would it not make sense to delay the start of the season four weeks and come back once some fans are allowed back? We pay lip service to player welfare and yet are now advocating bringing them back from a 12-month season within six weeks, with a truncated pre-season, and without fans. Today’s government announcement, however foolhardy it may turn out to be, does offer a chance to loosen the vice on that, give the players a break, and a longer pre-season, and not force clubs to make a loss on playing yet more games behind closed doors.
From the people that brought us the untelevised 4am League Cup draw in Beijing, I won’t hold my breath.
Links >>> Doing more with less – Interview >>> Wilson’s FA Cup penalty – History >>> Linington in charge – Referee >>> Two to go – Podcast >>> Millwall official website >>> South London Press – Local Paper >>> News at Den – Blog >>> North Stand Banter – Forum >>> News Shopper – Local Paper
Geoff Cameron Facts No.101 in the Series – Geoff is deeply concerned where his gratuitous mentions of Man Utd, Wayne Rooney and “that night in Barcelona” during early round FA Cup ties between Lincoln City and Northwich Victoria are going to come from now.
Team News: Word on the grapevine is Bright Osayi-Samuel is not playing tomorrow after a bid was accepted for his services on Friday. Media in Belgium reports that Club Brugge have agreed a €5m (£4.56m) fee for his services. Mide Shodipo, I guess, most likely to fill in for him from the start if it’s true. Mark Warburton seemed optimistic that Jordan Hugill might be fit to play some part here having not made it back from his Middlesbrough hamstring injury in time for Luton midweek, if not and if Bright is indeed absent you would think Aramide Oteh would be a shoo in for another start. Once again, we’re in perilous danger of having to give minutes to essential January loan signing Jack Clarke. At the back Angel Rangel has indeed snapped his Achilles in that incident at Kenilworth Road and will now have surgery that will keep him out for nine months. Desperately disappointing for a valuable squad member and great pro who is 37 and out of contract at the end of the season. All our very best to him.
Elsewhere: The battle for the automatic spots, the final play-off place, and the relegation spots are all still tight as arse cheeks as we approach the penultimate round of fixtures.
Reading down from the top… The Champions of Europe on 87 points and +36 goal difference will be promoted with a win at Wayne Rooney’s 24 Hour Beer and Brass on Sunday, or if Spartak Hounslow do anything other than win for an ninth game in a row at Stoke on Saturday. Second place West Brom, with 82 points and +33 goal difference, have Huddersfield away this afternoon and then some shambolic load of old shite on the final day of the season on Wednesday. They need to match the Justice League-leaders results to hang onto the second automatic promotion spot. Thomas Frank’s men, third on 81 points and +44 goal difference, have won eight in a row and will, in all likelihood, have to make that ten against first Stoke and then Barnsley on the final night, although that goal difference advantage could be crucial if the Baggies were to drop further points.
Tarquin and Rupert are technically still in the hunt in fourth on 77 points, but not really, and they’ll prepare for a two legged play off against Nottingham Florist who are fifth on 70 with a home match against Sheffield Owls. The final spot in the end of season knock outs is still open to as many as six sides although realistically it’s Cardiff currently in possession on 67 points and +5 goal difference with now safe Twelfth Annual Neil Warnock Farewell Tour to face away tomorrow. Any slip opens the door for our opposition Millwall who are two points back on 65 and +4, or their bitter rivals Swanselona who are on 64 and +5 with a home fixture against Bristol City to come. City, like Preston Knob End ahead of their home match with on-the-beach Birmingham, are on 62 and technically still in with a chance but not really and they play Swansea tomorrow. Likewise Wayne Rooney’s 24 Hour Old Birds and Bad Barbecue joint on 61, but now three defeats in a row and basically done for the year. Another enormous outlay well spent by Mel Morris there.
Down at the bottom Grimethorpe Miners’ Welfare came up blank from a brave effort against Marshmallow Bielsa’s men last night and now have 43 points and -22 goal difference with two to play. They need to beat Florist on Sunday and Racing Club de Kew Bridge on the final day to get to 49 points and stand any chance. Next up three teams on 45 points, Lutown on -30 GD and Allam Tigers whose 8-0 midweek humiliation knocked their GD, crucially, back to -26. Those two meet in Hull tomorrow. Wigan Warriors inflicted that massacre, and have taken seven points from nine since their scandalous administration debacle was announced, but are technically on 45 points with the 12 off, but with a GD of +1 and another eminently winnable game away to Charlton on Sky Sports Leeds on Saturday lunchtime. Charlton blew a safety-securing 1-0 win at Birmingham in stoppage time during the week and can slip into the bottom three again tomorrow on 47 points and -11 GD if they lose to Wigan and Hull v Luton doesn’t finish as a draw.
Given Hull’s appalling run of one win and 14 defeats from their last 18 games you would think Cowley sisters Danni and Nikki are reasonably comfortable three points and ten goals better off with them, now fifth bottom on -26 GD, particularly with the four teams immediately below them all playing each other this weekend. Just as well, given they play the division’s best away team West Brom on the tellybox this afternoon. Birmingham are similarly fortunate, technically not safe on 50 but benefitting from others’ incompetence after a run of no wins from 14 games and a shambolic approach to the restart. Another nice bonus pocketed by Uncle Neil for picking up the couple of wins Boro needed to reach 50, and Stoke are also likely now safe despite losing 22 times this season – only Hull and Luton have lost more.
Every game in the league technically has something riding on it this weekend apart from the pending classic between Blackburn and Reading.
Referee: James Linington from the Isle of Wight refereed our final game in normal times, here against Birmingham City on February 29, and he’s on the boat over tomorrow for the final home game of the season as well. Prior to this season we’d never lost a league game with this referee, but we’re 0/3 with him this season with two defeats. Details.
QPR: Rangers’ 1-1 draw at Luton on Tuesday was only their ninth tie of the season – only Stoke have had fewer with eight. It means they remain in their favourite sixteenth spot in the table despite losing 20 times over the campaign, a total higher than all but the bottom three (21, 23, 23), Charlton (21) and Stoke (22) again. The 3-0 defeat against Sheff Wed here last weekend took Rangers through the 70-conceded barrier for the third season in a row, and made it 39 league goals let in at Loftus Road this season which is a club record, to go with last year’s club record of 11 home league defeats in a season. QPR have just a win and a draw to show from seven lockdown fixtures so far, and have scored only three times. Dom Ball’s goal at Luton was only the second of his 155-appearance career, the other coming for Peterborough against Shrewsbury in League One in 2017, and he was the first person other than Hugill to net for Rangers since Marc Pugh scored against Birmingham on the last day of February. QPR, like Millwall, have suffered for losing the unique home advantage their stadium offers, losing all three matches at Loftus Road behind closed doors against Barnsley (1-0), Fulham (2-1) and Sheff Wed (3-0). Despite all of this, and one for the bed wetters who always insist we’re on the cusp of relegation to bear in mind, we remain nine points clear of the bottom three. Had we lost every game since the restart 6-0 we’d be fie points clear with two left to play and Hull and Luton playing each other tomorrow.
Millwall: The 2-1 defeat to QPR at The New Den in September, Rangers’ first win at Millwall since 1990, turned out to be the final home game for long serving Lions legend Neil Harris. Wawll had won just two of their first ten league games at the point he resigned, despite a summer revamp of the squad. Since then, and the arrival of Gary Rowett, they’ve won 14 and lost just eight of 34 Championship games played and with two to go sit one place and two points shy of Harris’ new club Cardiff in the final play-off position. Away from home they’ve won seven, drawn nine and lost only six games this season – the same number of away defeats as league leaders Leeds and a total bettered by only West Brom (three), Fulham (five), Forest (three) and Swansea (four). Without the home crowd roaring them on Millwall have actually lost two and drawn one of their four home games under lockdown, with the 1-0 win against Blackburn last time out their first success. Away from home however they’ve already beaten Charlton and Hull (both 1-0) and drawn 0-0 at Barnsley following a 3-0 win at Forest in the final game before the world fell apart. This means they’re unbeaten in four consecutive away matches and haven’t conceded in any of them.
Prediction: This year’s Prediction League is sponsored by The Art of Football. Get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s QPR collection here. Our reigning champion WokingR tells us…
“Finally, the team finally looks like it has reached the pre-lockdown level of fitness that everyone else seemed to have maintained throughout. And, certainly in the second half at Luton, we saw them starting to look to pass forwards again, rather than backwards and simply retaining possession for the sake of it. This will be a lot tighter and more competitive but still think Millwall will want it more and we'll go down 0-1 in a much more competitive performance.”
Woking’s Prediction: QPR 0-1 Millwall. No scorer.
LFW’s Prediction: QPR 0-2 Millwall. No scorer.
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Letters from Wiltshire #48 by wessex_exile
“And now the end is near, and so we face the final curtain…regrets, we’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”. Not quite right Paul Anka, probably more than a few, but otherwise a fair assessment of where the U’s are today. It’ll be interesting to see how we perform with the relegation monkey finally off their back – I’m not expecting miracles, particularly with Tranmere needing at least a point to guarantee making the play-offs, but they’ll certainly be more nervous than we will be, so can we make that count? This will be my last blog of the season, and not yet sure what I may or may not do for next season, but suggestions are always welcome.
Letters from Wiltshire #47 by wessex_exile
Here we are, at the penultimate game of the season, and our last game in front of the cardboard U’s faithful at the JobServe. It has been a long, difficult, and definitely strange season, which frankly I’ll be glad to see the back of. That’ll we’ll be here again in August is definitely going to be something to celebrate, but I suspect we’re facing a summer of significant rebuilding both on the pitch, and possibly off it too. I won’t be the only one, but the biggest oddity for me has been being able to watch every single game – not always easy viewing, but something I’ve never done before, and probably never will again. But it doesn’t really make up for not being there in person, the long train journey away-days, meeting fellow U’s and other supporters, and of course sharing a beer or three. Fingers-crossed we can return to the terraces in 2021/22.
Letters from Wiltshire #46 by wessex_exile
That was quite a week for us all then. In the space of four short but remarkably tense days we have gone from having to take shoes and socks off to check how many more points we need to guarantee survival, or whether we would even achieve it, to breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing we’re almost there. But close of play this afternoon, whether by our own actions or the failure of others, I am sure survival will be confirmed. Of course, Tuesday night not only all but guaranteed it, it also virtually condemned local rivals Southend United to non-league football for the foreseeable. Looking at the host of fully professional former football league sides currently battling it out for the two promotion slots out of the National league (including Hartlepool, Torquay, Stockport, Wrexham, Chesterfield and Notts County), it is not going to be a walk in the park for Southend to return any day soon.
Letters from Wiltshire #45 by wessex_exile
Tonight, Colchester United face Southend United in what may not necessarily be the most important game of our respective histories (though it’s certainly very close), but is almost certainly the most important Essex derby ever. However this season pans out, by the end of it there’ll either be only one team in Essex, or worst case scenario, none at all. If the U’s win, then Southend will be 9pts behind with just three games to go, and a minimum of a -12 goal difference to overturn if they want to overtake us. Certainly mathematically possible, but that would rely on a remarkable turnaround in their form, form that they’ve shown precious little sign of achieving so far this season. The stalking horse is Grimsby, with their game in hand, who have rather belatedly shown an improvement in form, so their match against automatic promotion chasing Morecambe tonight is equally important, particularly if we want to avoid the unthinkable, with both Essex clubs dropping out of the league.
Letters from Wiltshire #44 by wessex_exile
So here we are, as the nation mourns the passing of His Royal Highness, Duke of Edinburgh, the U’s face the first of two season-defining moments, with our late kick-off match at home to Walsall. Before then, no doubt many will have been focused on events elsewhere, not least the early kick-offs for Grimsby (at home to promotion-chasing Bolton Wanderers), and particularly Essex rivals Southend United, who faced a tricky visit to Exeter City – still very much in the hunt for at least a play-off spot. As I finalise this blog, I know that Grimsby have beaten Bolton 2-1, and Southend earned a credible 0-0 draw in the West Country. More to the point, the U’s will know this too. Whilst I can’t help but feel that will ought to be to our advantage, it surely must also put additional pressure on a squad whose confidence is paper-thin. We must hope that Hayden Mullins, assisted by Paul Tisdale, get their heads right, and send the lads out this evening fired up with self-belief.
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