The end of the beginning – Column
Friday, 28th Aug 2020 09:58 by Clive Whittingham
QPR’s outstanding player, Ebere Eze, has left to join Crystal Palace, which could be a tragic shame, or an absolute triumph, depending on what Rangers are able to do next.
Next big thing
Ebere Eze’s Queens Park Rangers debut lasted 18 minutes.
The tombola drum Ian Holloway drew his team selections from always was capable of turning up more interesting results than the plastic bowl they use for the FA Cup and so there we all were, first week of January, frozen feet and spent souls, looking at a kid we’d heard excited mutterings about from the U23 watchers, suddenly thrown in from the start against Blackburn Rovers in the third round.
It’s always Blackburn Rovers.
Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes it’s MK Dons, as a treat.
Eze was playing in a deep lying midfield role, as much as anybody ever played any sort of defined position in a Holloway team. Around him, Ben Gladwin, Mass Luongo, Jamie Mackie and Pawel Wszolek. Behind him, James Perch, Joel Lynch, Nedum Onuoha, Grant Hall and Jake Bidwell. In goal, Matt Ingram. Up front, nobody seemed sure. A disparate group milling around, like the worst episode of This Is Your Life ever filmed, for one of the shit ones nobody’s ever heard of from Emmerdale Farm. Five defenders and five midfielders, twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom. They were 1-0 down after eight minutes. Lynch scored an own goal. Klutz. Don’t let anybody ever tell you dyspraxia is a barrier to playing professional football. Keep the meter running driver, we won’t be long. Nor, as it turned out, would Eze. Done after a quarter of an hour and withdrawn disconsolately to be replaced by, checks notes, Yeni Ngbakoto, preserving the integrity of the 5-5-0.
Eze, it was said in post-match, had “rolled an ankle” although in more candid and lucid moments down the line Holloway claimed he’d simply cramped up with the nerves of it all. Odd, until you looked at the boy’s background. A cage footballer from Greenwich, he’d been in Arsenal’s academy to begin with before being bombed out and picked up by Millwall. They too released him, while Fulham and Reading also both passed. All the usual stuff that has plagued coaching and youth development in this country for decades about the skilled black lad not running enough, not working hard enough in defence, “not wanting it enough”, being “lazy”, perpetuated by jumped up pricks who like to sit in pubs in their initialled tracksuit and talk loudly to their fellow bores about how they’re a coach for…. zzzzz. Pur-lease.
“I just thought, if only you knew how much I wanted this,” Eze said of those experts more recently. Rejected by all and sundry he was rescued from the last chance saloon by Chris Ramsay and QPR, a club with a poor record and reputation of developing and then promoting youth over the last 20 years but one with designs on changing all of that by becoming a sort of lost and found for exactly this sort of underappreciated talent hoping to be given a chance to play some actual bloody football and hone his skills. Having come through all of that and finally made it onto the field from the start in a professional match for the first time… he could be forgiven his first night nerves/cramps.
At that point Eze had barely registered in the People’s Republic of Shepherd’s Bush, and he wouldn’t feature again at all that season. So many times we’ve seen these kids appear fleetingly in our cup farces, slung in by managers prioritising sixteenth in the league over knockout football and desperate to just get it over with and get back to the vital business of losing the following Championship game, and never seen again. Bye Ebere, cool hair though. Those who’d braved the cold went back to talking about anything but the football to pass the time while the annual cup exit was played out to a 2-1 conclusion. What’s the biggest animal you think you could punch to the ground? How is Elaine, she left you yet? See that Bears game last week? Helluva game.
Eze retreated to the dressing room, Tweeted “every disappointment is a blessing in disguise” and pinned it to his profile. It’s still pinned there today, as he becomes a £20m Premier League footballer.
Who’s that boy?
Ian Holloway’s random draw team selection was still in place for 2017/18, but Ebere didn’t have a ball in the bag. He’d been asked to pack an overnight case and head up the Chiltern Mainline to Wycombe, where QPR send their projects for a big fat dose of Gareth Ainsworth to test application, attitude and ability in League One. Like Dustin Johnson turning up at the Wednesday night clutch and playing off 24 it was, really, rather unfair. Several defenders were humiliated in front of friends and family. When he found the top bins at Cambridge United from 25 yards out the Wycombe players and supporters enjoyed it so much he did exactly the same thing again ten minutes later to make them happier still, as Jesus would have wanted. Ainsworth said he was the best player he’d ever seen for his age, and did a big air guitar motion. All glory be to God.
Back at base, it was nearly time for QPR to go into one of their six game losing nosedives. Bloody love a nosedive. The faithful are well drilled in how to react to these now and as well as demanding the head of whoever happens to be in charge at that point - to be replaced by some flavour of the month of entirely opposite beliefs and styles of play - the checklist also includes seeking a quickfix hero who’s not presently in the team. Ryan Manning and Paul Smyth have been frequent beneficiaries of this, improving every facet of their game and losing all their respective weaknesses simply by not being in the team and not being the guy who currently has their position while we lose six games in a row for the third time in a year.
If you want to be that guy then scoring absolute bangers on the Quest highlights while QPR are busy getting bummed in the gob by Forest, Villa, Derby, Preston, Leeds and, to all intents and purposes, The Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew’s Sporting Orient, is a sure fire way to claim the title. There was as near as we get in our tired, forlorn, resigned state to a genuine, official clamour for him to not only return in January but also to play. From the start. Up front. As captain. And also as the goalkeeper. Sort it out Holloway you mug.
Back he came, and sub he was. Repeatedly. For defeats to MK Dons, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Wolves, Sheffield United, most emphatically Nottingham Forest and a solitary home win against Bolton Wanderers. Ha ha, fuck you Bolton. When the Trees ran five through QPR at Loftus Road it was getting towards “it’s just not working out” and “it’s not me it’s you” stage in W12 once more and something had to change. Out went the back three, and all manner of associated systems designed to get the Scowen-Freeman-Luongo midfield triumvirate - apparently more important than even the air we breathed - into the team together at the same time. In came, from the start, for the second time in his career, Ebere Eze. I just want to wish you good luck, we’re all counting on you.
Now, to be fair, it was only for Sunderland at home, the only team worse than ha ha fuck you Bolton, and they did further the QPR cause by getting accident prone goalkeeper Jason Steele sent off for attempting to catch the ball outside the penalty area at the start of the second half. Has anybody actually ever checked whether that geezer knows the rules? But, nevertheless, there was Eze’s winning goal, scored by somebody who clearly knew exactly what they were doing, carving through a static backline of players you’ve heard of, making Matt Smith’s lousy touch look like an honest contribution to a one two, and burying the ball in the bottom corner. Oooooooooh.
He started again on the Tuesday at Aston Villa. On an apparently unstoppable charge to the Premier League they’d run a rather impressive pork sword right through title shoo-ins Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend and QPR, with only three away wins since the war, were seen as little more than cannon fodder. Eze dismantled them. A clear and obvious man of the match, in front of 40,000 people, in a 3-1 win. Big Racist John left only to mime lifting trophies, some of which he’d had nothing to do with, in front of a jubilant away end. What had we got ourselves into here? Soon Ebs was scoring again, dominating once more, casting James Maddison into a long shadow, in a 4-1 demolition of Norwich. “Who’s that Eze boy?” our Carrow Road correspondent asked afterwards in the Crown. You’ll find out soon enough mate.
Two things about 2018/19 were decided long before 2017/18 had even ended.
The first was that Ian Holloway would not be managing the team. The people who run the club day to day hadn’t particularly wanted him in the first place and had grown weary of the outbursts pre-Millwall and post-Brentford, as well as his wild chopping and changing of the team – dropping the best performers in a 4-2 midweek win against Sheff Wed for a 2-1 weekend loss at home to Preston particularly damaging. Tony Fernandes had needed to get Steve McClaren out of his system since his brief stint as a coach here in 2013/14 anyway and of course, you don’t need the greatest PR team on Hair Island to tell you, he always has been a better coach than a manager. Or so the story went anyway.
The second was that Ebere Eze was to be fattened for market. He was given the number ten shirt, and asked what it meant (Bowles, Marsh, Wegerle, Bradley Allen). He took a penalty in a pre-season friendly with Union Berlin, postage stamped it, and the club booked an open top bus tour round the Green. While McClaren bombed out the majority of players he was meant to be developing – that Holloway had been giving gametime to, albeit in a slightly haphazard way – and demanded a “team of men” on loan from the Premier League to cover his arse, Eze played every minute of every game. He scored beautifully against Sheffield United, the sort of goal he makes look easy but certainly isn’t. When he did so again, up at Bolton, Luke Freeman had his arms in the air in celebration before it had even left Ebere’s boot. He scored against Millwall too, one of several barbed reminders he’d be sending their way in due course. You released this? You don’t deserve to live.
McClaren came to rely on him so heavily he couldn’t sleep without him there in the room. It’s ok Schteve, I’m here. He played every single second of every single game and there was, eventually, inevitably, a dip. As a tired and mismanaged team dropped off the side of a cliff after Christmas, winning just three games in the second half of the league season, Eze rather went with them too, unable to carry the job on his shoulders any more. All the old tired clichés came roaring back. Cool black boy with dreadlocks is lazy, cool black boy with dreadlocks doesn’t want it enough, cool black boy with dreadlocks won’t track back in defence. If I’d thrown the cunt sitting behind me for a 3-0 defeat at Brentford down the stairs I’d have been the one in the wrong under law, but the murder would have been just and I wouldn’t have apologised as they strapped me to the chair. “I don’t really see what Eze does” indeed. On South Africa Road after a night game Ebere’s mum turned over her shoulder to call after him and ask if he had his front door key. Expectations and prejudices of 10,000 beered up football fans weighing heavily on the shoulders of boys.
What Ebere does became clear in 2019/20, a third full season in professional football in which he would pass 100 professional appearances – key numbers to bear in mind in the future when we’ve had a few and we’re losing away from home and we’re “not sure” what Chair or Bettache “does”.
Ebere scores goals. He scores goals from five yards (Cardiff H) and twenty-five (Luton H). He scores side-foots (Stoke H), firm strikes (Preston H) and cute placements (Preston A). He scores goals after he’s gone past players (Blackburn H), sometimes multiple players (Stoke A), sometimes the same player more than once (Hull A). He scores free kicks (Wigan H), and penalties so disgusting they should only be allowed after the watershed (Derby A, Hull A, Preston H). He does clever handshakes in his celebrations, presumably in case there’s a Spurs scout there. They’ll regret not noticing, not that Jose Mourinho should be allowed within 50 feet of an attacking talent like this.
Ebere creates goals. From set pieces, and through balls, and crosses, and passes so perfectly weighted and judged they take multiple opponents out of the game in one move – passes nobody else on the pitch had even seen or thought about never mind able to execute. Passes most Championship footballers have only read about in books. There was an outside of the foot assist for My Chemical Hugill against Wigan delicately lifted straight from the warmest recesses of Scarlett Johansson. He set Nahki Wells up for a goal against Cardiff on New Year’s Day with a raking crossfield ball of such perfection Wells was able to head it over a stranded goalkeeper and into the net without checking his stride having started the move in a different time zone. Four players taken out of the game and one introduced to it with one pass. Aden Flint was so far behind the thought process that went into it he was still in flared trousers.
Ebere goes past players, often like they’re not there, sometimes through skill, sometimes with a nutmeg, sometimes with pace, sometimes with craft, sometimes with intelligence, sometimes with power, sometimes with balance, and sometimes with a combination of all of it. He’s an intelligent footballer, light years ahead of most opponents in that regard, well aware of what’s happening next well before the ball has even arrived with him. There’s core strength there, he’s toned and durable, with metronomic balance, rarely shrugged off the ball or injured. You’d have more luck knocking over a war memorial than our only league ever-present last season. Each attempt to snap him in half by less talented second tier cloggers merely ridden out or turned into a slick spin and escape that leaves the assailant’s wife scouring the dating apps for a better man. A man like Ebere. We all need one in our lives. Luckily he’s been in ours for the last four years.
Ebere has a first touch that could solve world peace. You could buy a plastic ball from the petrol station and drop it on him from the moon in a storm the Met office has given a strong boy’s name – Ben maybe, or Jack - and he’d kill the fucker stone dead. If you’ve ever been into somebody for a really long period of time, and never done anything about it, and spent literally years in that state, loving everything about them and holding them at the centre of your world without them ever knowing, only occasionally allowing yourself to dream of what it might be like to finally give in, confess, find out they feel the same way, and very slowly, very gently, very cautiously, reach out and touch each other’s fingers for the first time… that first touch would be about three tenths as good as Eze’s is. Every. Single. Time.
His season ended at West Brom as it began at Stoke, with a goal of pure natural beauty made to look remarkably simple by an incredibly gifted player. Most of what went between was mesmeric brilliance. The destruction of Hull City on Humberside was total. I was embarrassed for them. The schooling of England’s own Kalvin Phillips at Loftus Road, the cheeky smile in the background of his frustrated red card, everything we get out of bed for in the morning. The Wayne Rooney ‘assist’ – strictly business – made life worth living. All of this, unlike the other courted talents of the Championship, done in a pretty poor side, a team we know full well is difficult to play for and succeed in. Some of his teammates can’t pass a ball ten feet; Eze can do twenty-yard rainbow flicks.
Sometimes you’re stuck in the office on a Tuesday evening trying not to strangle the living shit out of people who exist to make your life worse, wondering if you can face the Central Line to Shepherd’s Bush. Sometimes you wake up with hangover anxiety to the terrifying realisation that Sky have moved your game to 45 minutes from now, and you have a choice of 12 stairs to the television or a manic Uber dash across the capital to the ground. Sometimes the game is at the other end of the bastard country, accessible only via a demonic rail replacement coach service from somewhere called Northallerton, that may or may not actually exist. Sometimes, sometimes, it’s New Year’s bloody Day. Sometimes the rain and the sleet is coming in at just that angle that you know before you get there will absolutely soak your seat. Sometimes the snow comes down in June, sometimes the sun goes round the moon. When the temptation to sack it off is strongest you need something to get you there. And for a while now that’s been Ebere Eze.
It’s been an absolute privilege.
It’s more of a Brentfordville idea…
You know, a QPR with money's a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.
I personally think he’s a bit of a snip at £15m, with £4.5m of add ons and a 20% sell on clause. I think he’s better, in a worse team, than James Maddison was when Leicester paid Norwich £25m for him, for instance. I think a lot of clubs are going to kick themselves for not getting involved at this price point. Nevertheless, it represents a record sale for QPR of a player they picked up for nothing less than five years ago as an unproven teenager. It’s a big, important moment.
The club under director of football Les Ferdinand and CEO Lee Hoos have banged this drum for sometime – a beat we’ve been wholeheartedly behind, to the annihilation of our Twitter mentions. Developing players, selling them on, reinvesting, sustainability. Now they have a genuine smash hit on their hands to shove in the face of the detractors when they point to money wasted on several botched recruitment drives, or ask what that Toni Leistner shaped object is under the sheet in the corner. From free transfer to £15m player in four years, how do you like those apples? But it’s no good if it’s just a one off.
Ebere Eze goes with our absolute best wishes. A brilliant, beautiful player, a grounded and well-mannered boy, an immaculate professional and a credit to our club, his family and himself. I don’t have strong feelings one way or another about Crystal Palace but I want him to go there and absolutely smash the league apart, and not only for the sell on clause when the world finally wakes up to this lad either. If they do that Premier League thing of giving him a couple of League Cup games, and an hour in defensive central midfield with James McArthur in a 4-0 away surrender, and then bomb him out on loan to Stoke then there’s going to be genuine bloodshed. I know where some of them live.
But of more interest is who and what is next for us.
Firstly, who’s the next Eze coming through the system? Can we have a big break out season from Ilias Chair, for instance? He has followed a similar path of carving up a lower league loan and then coming into our first team with mixed results over the last two- and a-bit seasons. Can he now do as Eze did in year three? Can we be getting offers north of £10m for him next season? Will fans remember what Eze was like through years one and two, and appearances 40-80, and give similar players more leeway now they’ve seen what might await on the other side?
And secondly, how are we going to spend the money? QPR don’t have money often but when they do get it they tend to do rather stupid things with it – when they sold Les Ferdinand, when Chris Wright took over, when Flavio Briatore took over, when they got into the Premier League, when Tony Fernandes took over… There can be no aggressive pursuit of Mike Sheron’s non-union Mexican equivalent here. No Mark Hateley, no Joey Barton, no Jay Emmanuel Thomas on a three-year deal. Sadly the timing isn’t great, with the sport on its knees after six months of Covid-19 lockdown, and a good chunk of this money will offset losses the club was already making and cover the further problems caused by coronavirus. Mark Warburton said in a club interview this week that fans shouldn’t expect a spending spree which was part expectation management, part not wanting other clubs to think we have £15m burning a hole in our pocket, but also largely true.
Some of it will be available to spend though and we cannot waste it as we did our parachute payments and other windfalls. Three or four really well thought-through, cost-effective additions who we can also develop to sell.
We need to be selling players like Eze for money like this most summers. It’s heart-breaking to see him go but it’s progress and exactly what we need to be doing. As much as we take the piss, it’s how Brentford have got to the position they’re in, on the cusp of a Premier League promotion with the best team anybody’s played all season. You sell Eze, sign two or three well scouted prospects, Chair steps up this season, then you sell him, sign three or four more, then some of those prospects step up, and it snowballs. If you get it right then soon you’re selling players for £10m-20m every summer and being able to spend ever more on their ever better scouted replacements. You can trade your way out of this league, it is being done elsewhere.
It’s fascinating and terrifying what we do next. QPR have talked that talk, now they have to walk that walk.
Something else Ebere Eze does rather well.
Eze in numbers…
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