Onuoha on survival, relegation and Wembley promotion – Interview
Thursday, 17th Dec 2020 10:36 by Clive Whittingham
In the first part of our Patreon interview with former QPR captain Nedum Onuoha we look at his move to the club, first impressions, survival under Mark Hughes, relegation under Harry Redknapp, and promotion at Wembley.
LFW has been conducting written interviews with figures from QPR’s past and present for 16 years and publishing them free-to-view. This year, in addition for the first time, we’re also making the audio from these interviews available to all three tiers of our Patreon subscribers as podcasts as a thank you for your support. Listen to the full interview via our Patreon by clicking here or read an abridged version for free below…
How did you come to join QPR?
I was training with the 18s at City and I thought I was going to leave in the previous transfer window. I’d taken all my stuff home on the last day of the transfer window and said goodbye, then not ended up with a move and had to take all my black bin liners back in which was a bit of a stinker. I’d been nowhere near the team at that point, I hadn’t even seen them train because it got to the point where they pushed back our training so we didn’t have any interaction with the first team. They were just trying to push you closer to the edge so you’d do something and get kicked out. It was complete separation, couldn’t even be in the same dressing room. Anyway, September 1 I’m still there, City had the first Champions League game in their history a few days later and I was in the squad for the game, as if by magic. It was a homegrown thing. They needed a certain amount of homegrown in the squad. I was getting messed around. I was dead wood in that space, playing Legaue Cup games. Roberto Mancini had no interest in playing me and a few others. It just doesn’t click with some people.
I had to leave. You can’t waste years in this game if you’re in good health. The next transfer window they said they’d accepted an offer from QPR and I had to go down and speak to them right away. I’d never experienced that before. You don’t really have choice as a player, the club decides it’s good business for them and off you go. Mark Hughes had been my manager before Mancini and was talking well of the club. As a Mancunian I still wasn’t sure about moving down to London, and where QPR were in the table I thought it was a dicey thing potentially moving and then getting relegated to the Championship. I weighed it up against a chance to play, and work with a manager I’d worked with before, and took the chance. I came, I played a lot of games which I’m proud about, I grew to love the city, my best memories are playing at Loftus Road.
Was any of that a hangover from the incident with Garry Cook and your mum?
I think it was yeh. It wouldn’t surprise me if certain people wanted me out of the club. Garry Cook obviously lost his job off the back of it but was close with people who remained at City. One of them in particular was the person who told me I had to go to QPR, but my friend who works as an agent told me there was an option to go to another club on loan with a deal to sign permanently at the end of the season and that was a deal I favoured because it was up north. When I went to see the guy he said there was no such deal available. It was a shame how it ended.
Mark Hughes isn’t remembered fondly at QPR, but you obviously have a lot of time for him.
I spoke to him recently on my podcast and I think a couple of things let him down at QPR. Some of the signings we made had potential to be great but didn’t work out. The big issue in those first two or three years was we didn’t have a clear identity for what we wanted to be as a team. You had stalwarts like Clint Hill, Jamie Mackie and Shaun Derry in there who were great servants for the club and suited the heartbeat of the fans of QPR. Mark Hughes came in and was given money - lest we forget it’s not just him spending his own money, it’s getting signed off elsewhere and at any point the club can say no which they started doing further down the line – to bring players in and turn QPR into this new thing. But QPR has an 18,000 seater stadium, performs better when it’s an underdog, and has a heartbeat which is much more Clint Hill, Shaun Derry, Jamie Mackie. Compete first, play second. Mark Hughes was bringing players in to play first, and compete second. They weren’t sinister people, they were just coming from places like Real Madrid where making a tackle isn’t perhaps in your top ten list of priorities. When you’re winning games everything is beautiful, when you’re not winning games then you have a problem because you’re going away to Liverpool or Chelsea and you’ve got half the team that wants to try and play and control the game and the other half with an FA Cup underdog mentality, get in their faces and battle. You need everybody on the same page. They signed good players, they weren’t bad people, but the mix wasn’t right at all. You never once had 11 players on the field who all believed in the tactics, some of them wanted to be front foot, others wanted to drop off.
Mark Hughes, tactically, is a good manager. I’ve seen a lot of managers, and a lot who weren’t as good as he is. But the other thing that didn’t really help him at QPR was most of his stuff is done through his coaches and he’s more of an introvert. When you want passion on the side, he’s not going to be ranting and raving, it’s not in his nature. He’s within himself, making sure everybody is doing their jobs, but the fans at QPR are very passionate and it’s perhaps not what they want to see. He’s not a Neil Warnock, heart on sleeve type. As a manager he didn’t suit the fanbase.
It takes seven games for you to experience a win, the Clint Hill Bolton controversy among them, what were your first impressions?
The way they got you back then is when you came down to sign you’d meet at an agent’s place, then get a tour of the stadium, then after you’d signed you’d get to see the training ground and the training ground was an absolute disaster back then. Day one I arrived in my car, didn’t really know anybody, I’m stretching in the gym and there’s 20 years’ worth of dust under the equipment. It was different. It wasn’t a Premier League training ground. We couldn’t train on a Wednesday because the college was using it. We’re going out and competing on Saturday against teams trying to win World Club Championships and Champions League, but we can’t prepare for it on the Wednesday because the college students are there. First impressions, not brilliant, but the chance to play was good. Within a few weeks the training ground was under snow so we had to train at the stadium and I’m seeing people throwing headbutts, thinking what is going on here? It was so different to the club and the years I’d had previously, but this was my club now and I had to buy in. I’d been in a relegation dog fight with City a few years before but it felt different because you were still getting 25-30,000 people in the stadium. The dressing room wasn’t as cohesive as the one I’d left, City were obviously going for the title this year whereas QPR hadn’t won for x amount of games, the pressure was on, everybody had different ideas of how to get out of the situation. It was a tough intro.
It does irk me that all the money spent back then, none of it was invested in infrastructure, though they’re finally correcting that now.
I’m glad you said that. I remember when I was captain in the Championship going down to some field somewhere to put a spade in the ground and have photographs taken at what was going to be the new training ground, and actually nothing has changed from that point. Mistakes were made on and off the field and it’s a shame to think we had three years in the Premier League but to look at the training ground and stadium you’d have no idea it had ever happened. It’s a shame and something they’ll regret looking back because that money is a lot harder to come by these days.
We then have an incredible run, beating Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Swansea and Stoke. How?
It was insane. We were an absolute horror show on the road. Horrible. But for some reason there’s a Loftus Road factor. Nobody likes going there. People talk about how great it is for atmosphere and fans close to the pitch but that’s only when you’re winning, when you’re losing and you’ve got fans breathing down your neck while you’re taking a throw in, they’re intense moments for people. We got going and got a bit of momentum and it felt really special in there for the big games with Arsenal and Spurs. Everybody talks about the Aguero game but we only stayed up because we beat Stoke the week before in the last minute of the game. The Cisse goal for us was as big as the Aguero goal for them, because that’s the one that kept us up. We got on a roll, Adel was playing well, we were incredibly competitive. Everytime you arrived at the stadium, regardless of who we were playing against, there was a belief we would get something. It was years since some of these teams had been to Loftus Road, most of the players had never played there, every game was a must win and with every win we grew in belief that we could come back next week and do it again, and again.
When Samba Diakite is sticking one top bins against Arsenal you’re onto something special. Or weird.
Samba was a good guy man. I enjoyed playing with him. He still spends a lot of time around London and whenever he drives past the stadium he sends me a SnapChat of it because he’s got such fond memories. He was probably a little misunderstood, he didn’t speak English, but he loved playing for QPR and trying to compete.
There were some incredibly tense moments at the end of that season. We went away a few times thinking we would get a result and let ourselves down which then put more pressure on the home game and there were some massive, absolutely massive moments. Djibril scoring last minute, at the back post, then Tony Pulis Stoke get a chance to put a long throw into our box in injury time and Ryan Shotton puts his shoulder out taking it and drops it ten yards in front of him – things like that were going for us. Incredible moments. You’d prefer not to have those stressful end to the season.
Take me through the Aguero game from your point of view…
I’d been at City most of my life. I’d been at QPR just over three months. I didn’t know the people particularly well, we were in a crisis and it was stressful, there wasn’t much to enjoy playing under that level of pressure with strangers. Going back to City from the moment I arrived at the stadium I could tell you the name of every person, the guy on the gate, the kitman, the paramedics, because I’d been there my whole life. My biggest fear going to QPR was being relegated, because once you go down to the Championship it’s so hard to get back out of it both as a player and as a club. It was the second time I’d been really nervous in my career, the first was my second league appearance for City which was at Highbury against primetime Arsenal. I was thinking of all the different scenarios, what happens if we lose really comfortably and they’re laughing at us and jeering ‘going down, going down’ in my city in the stadium I used to call my own. As the game goes on City are getting into their groove, we’re defending, Zabaletta scores and he never scores, and the City fans are signing about Martin Petrov, an ex-player who was playing for Bolton and they were winning. I’m doubly hurt. We’re going down, they’re singing for Martin Petrov, I’m from Manchester, I came through the academy.
The dressing room was eery at half time. We knew what we had to do, but we had no away record at all. We’re at a team who’d dropped a couple of points at home all season, and we’re sitting there talking about how we’re going to win the game, what we’re going to do second half, it felt like you were in the desert saying it’s going to snow. I don’t think anybody in there would have put money on us getting the result, but City perhaps took their foot off the gas a bit. Bang, it’s 1-1, I did a little celebration, I was always one of those that hated seeing former players celebrate at their old clubs. Bang, it’s 2-1, ok, slightly bigger celebration. Right in front of Mancini. Right in front of him. He was brewing now, giving it every Italian swear word under the sun at his team. They’d turned into a shambles. Vinny Kompany and Joleon Lescott taking it in turns to shoot from 30 yards. Complete disarray. Fans on edge. It was old style typical City, when the big moment came they’d flopped.
We’d gone down to ten men and I was raging off that, so now we’re just digging in and holding on. Injury time, 2-2, Dzeko, he was my man and I couldn’t get off the ground. The third goal goes in. Now, half of us were distraught because we thought we were down, and I was doubly distraught because I thought it was my fault. The ball had gone out for a throw on the right, and I could have given it the proper walk and really wasted time, but I did something a bit quicker than a walk to get the ball. I threw it down the line for Jay Bothroyd, but he hadn’t gone, so I’d given it straight back to them and they came down the field and scored off that. I was panicking. I thought I’d sent us down. I look up and see our bench and our fans celebrating. It was the biggest moment of relief of my entire life.
People ask me about it a lot now. Let me tell you, for two or three days after I couldn’t tell you who scored their winning goal. I don’t watch games back and I didn’t have a clue. It was perfect for me in the end, my new club stayed up, my old club won the league, and my old old club up at Sunderland were taking the mick out of my arch rivals Man Utd, all in the final minute of the season. You would never have thought it could end that way. I dipped into their dressing room afterwards and they had bottles of champagne whereas we had beer in ours – that’s the difference between winning the league and staying in it.
We’ll never be in this position again
Were you optimistic about the following season? There was huge excitement around the support base about the players we were signing.
We were. We’d proven we could stay and compete in the Premier League. We had most of the same faces, plus a bit extra. But, it comes back to the identity of the football club. You have money to invest in people, but is that investment going into people who suit the current system or people who are moving the system towards something else? We then went on what felt like a four-week tour of Asia, flying every ten seconds to this place and that place. That’s part and parcel of the business but it wasn’t a good pre-season. We were doing the PR side but not as much prep as you would have hoped for. We were on the back foot from that and it snowballed into 15-16 games without a win. You know when you’re a bad team and you’re nowhere near, but there were spells within that where we deserved more, we drew games we could have won. It would have been easier to be that Derby team that finished with 11 points, but it never felt like that, it felt like we were close.
As every week went by there was more pressure on the manager and players being put on by people who’d been there before. You see in football over the years unfortunately at times people don’t welcome new people into a group, they feel threatened. When things are going well it’s fine, when it’s not there’s a lot of finger pointing. The new people didn’t know what it was to play for the team, the gravity of playing for this club, they don’t know Chelsea are massive rivals, they don’t know the history with Fulham and Brentford, and the people that have been there a while and do know that set the culture, but when things went wrong everybody had a different idea of how to fix it. If you’re all on the same page the manager can make a tweak and everybody will go in that direction, but as each week passed and there were more headlines about us not winning and more pressure, at times like that if you don’t have an identity then that’s when people can go rogue. If you have a team where everybody is on the same page bad times never last that long because they’re all in it together.
I was born in Nigeria. I was raised in Manchester. I am a foreigner and a Brit at the same time. I know what it’s like to be perceived as a Mancunian, and as a foreigner at the same time. At that point a lot of foreign players came in, they weren’t really aware of the gravity of playing for this club, but they also weren’t really allowed to prosper because they were never welcomed into the group by one or two people. It might have made a difference, because they’d been signed to make the club better. They weren’t signed to take away from this person or that person, but that’s how it felt. The environment around training wasn’t brilliant. The team spirit wasn’t brilliant. It’s hard enough with a mix of personalities, but when you have that mix and you don’t have success on Saturday it becomes a lot more stressful. I’m from both worlds, I can see both sides, I get why people think one way or the other, but the mix and identity just wansn’t there. In the moments we needed it, it wasn’t there. We’re ten without a win and a lad like Esteban Granero, good friend of mine, is stepping on the field wanting to play. Then you’ve got somebody like Clint Hill, a great servant, who wants to compete. If they’d both wanted to play or both wanted to compete you’re on the same page, but that mix was never there. Before you know it you’ve got nothing left going forwards.
Is it the money the new players were on, the threat to people’s place in the team, language, nationality?
A bit of all of that. Personally as long as I’m earning enough money for me to be happy it doesn’t bother me what somebody else is getting. We had a period in that season where Chris Samba came in and the chat was he was on £100k a week, but he wasn’t playing well with it. Two years before we’d been in the Championship where the top earner will have been on £x. There was no gradual increase, there was just a massive spike. I’d seen massive spikes like that when I’d been at City and they don’t work because certain people get left behind. Some of that money resentment came in because it wasn’t a gradual change, it was a massive change. Some people felt they deserved more, others felt they deserved to be playing. If you’re not playing and the team isn’t winning it’s very difficult to just keep working hard and believing you’ll get in eventually through working hard. It can get poisonous, people resent the person playing ahead of them, but we’re all the same pool of players trying for the same thing, there should be healthy competition, you need each other.
It started to get a bit sinister. You had people from different countries, leagues, different ideas, coming from different clubs. They weren’t bad people, it was just different types of people. When the proverbial hits the fan, that’s when a set identity can get you through those times. We didn’t have people pulling in the same direction, we had people with their own ideas, French and English, competitive and playing, gym and no gym, drinking and not drinking. A thousand ideas coming together to solve one particular problem doesn’t tend to get that problem solved too quickly.
So Harry Redknapp was on a losing footing to begin with, or am I giving him a free pass there?
That’s somewhat of a free pass. Before he came to QPR there’d been all this talk of him being the England manager. I was surprised personally, I thought he was going to be much more hands on and a big motivator given how people had spoken about him beforehand. We were such a mess at that time and he was quite negative around the place which was hard to deal with because things were tough enough as it was. When he first came in there wasn’t like an elevation. He had his coaches doing what they were doing. His thing was “get the ball down and play”, that was his mantra. We were in a tough situation. Not everybody loved Harry Redknapp in the way you’d anticipate, and the way they had at his previous clubs. There was just something about his personality in that first six months which wasn’t really there. It didn’t feel like he rated us as players or people, it was a really weird situation.
I’ve worked well under some people and less well under others. I think initially he didn’t really speak to me for two months and I wasn’t playing. I didn’t really understand why. We went on a winter trip to Dubai and he’s a big no drinking guy, no drinking on tour. I don’t drink, that’s fine for me. A few people on the trip did go out, that’s the tradition. We went out to train one day, it was the worst training session I’ve ever seen in my whole career, I think some people were seeing four footballs, they’d literally walked straight in from wherever. He started having a go at me. I said something back to him because I didn’t think it was just, and after that he didn’t speak to me for two months. I could be in a lift with him and he wouldn’t say anything, he’d walk past me in the corridors. He actually went out for dinner with his wife and a friend of mine and got talking about how much he hated the players drinking, and my friend told him I didn’t drink, and he was like “yeh he does”, so I think he’d misjudged me as a person and thought I was one thing when I’m another.
Anyway, he hadn’t talked to me for two months, we’re away at Fulham getting killed, Berbatov is putting on a masterclass, Chris Samba is having a nightmare and he turned to me on the bench before half time and said “go get yourself ready, I need you”. It was the first thing he’d said to me for two months. “I need you”. Oh my God, look at this guy here. Anyway I went on, played quite well, and although we ended up going down I think from that point he had a whole lot more trust in me, spoke to me more and played me. I think he misjudged people when he first came in.
I’ve bounced back Lynn
The following season is a promotion season, but I found it a strange experience as a QPR fan. There was very little to enjoy about it and actually most of the best football was played at the start when Steve McClaren was there.
Exactly right. I was surprised how Steve McClaren went in his last spell at QPR because I expected a lot from him. He was coming in as I was leaving and I was thinking is this the right thing to do? I’d got on so well with him and he was so good for us at that time. He’d come in when Harry had a knee problem and was basically the manager for a couple of months. He was implementing this and that, a style of football. Harry could be very angry about things and fob you off, call you a bunch of whatevers and ask what you’re doing, but when Steve was there he would always watch the game from higher up and come downstairs with an idea of how to fix things. He’d say “it’s simple, we need to tweak this, do that, this is what they’re doing”, in a calm manner and in a way you could take out there. Look at the stats from around then, I think we beat Barnsley at home and won 2-0 and the stats were north of 600 passes and Tom Carroll had 100 passes himself. That’s primetime football. We went through six or seven games without conceding.
The squad we had in my opinion was the best squad in the Championship that season and we were playing up to that. Steve went, and the emphasis on those elements disappeared. We went back to how we were playing before. We had the same coaches, Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond, and the style of football changed again because Harry was at the helm and it was more just “get the ball down and play” rather than somebody saying specifically this is how I want you to play. Harry’s good at finished articles, whereas Steve was better at taking people there and showing you how to get there. We ended up winning games in the Championship purely because we had the best team, we wouldn’t play well but we’d get a result. We’d get killed by a team and win 1-0 because Charlie scored, or Joey, Bobby, Junior did something good.
We limped into the play-offs, survived the away game at Wigan, went 1-0 down to James bloody Perch at the home game, who never scores. But from the point we went 1-0 down the fans never stopped singing, there were thousands of fans outside beforehand waiting for us to arrive. We killed them. It was the best I’d felt on a field in a big game, the crowd was rocking, we were dominating, Bobby Zamora was bullying their centre back, we played off him. It was incredible to be a part of. That got us to Wembley and we deserved that, but we were obviously so lucky to go and win that game. Again, it’s funny how things work out. Who we playing in the final? Steve McClaren. Knows our team in and out, now bringing a young team together playing the style we wanted to play earlier in the season. It was like playing a younger version of ourselves. We had experienced players who knew what it took to win a big game – Gary O’Neil’s red card, Junior battling in the corner, Bobby taking the one chance. It ended well, we achieved the goal, but the way we did it… I think looking at the Leicester squad, we should have been winning the league.
I’ve deliberately skipped over and around Joey Barton to this point, I heard what you said about him on the Open All R’s pod, but let’s talk now. He’d been on loan at Marseille, giving it the big ‘un about how he wouldn’t be playing in the Championship, bad mouthing the club, then walked straight back into the team without a pre-season for Sheff Wed at home opening day. Personally, not a fan, and I was fuming about that, did it bother you?
I was surprised he could just come straight back in. It was a different manager but it always felt like from the moment we stayed up in 2012, the following year when he was at Marseille, it felt like he was enjoying seeing the club struggle. He was only on loan at Marseille, it was still his club, but he was revelling in it because he had an issue with the manager. I always thought you should be respectful to the people you work with and the manager you’re working for regardless of how you felt personally, you don’t just go out and attack them. He was doing that and enjoying it. It affected him as well because if you come back you’re coming back to the Championship, surely if you do come back you want to be coming back to the Premier League. It felt like he enjoyed it. Certain people have been able to enter the world at the right time and have a big voice on social media, as opposed to people in the past who maybe had a big voice but didn’t have Twitter and things like that. He used to say a lot on there, and it was annoying for us because as each week passed it felt like he was enjoying it more and more. To see him come back and go straight back in the team, don’t get me wrong he’s a good player, but again in my opinion if you have a true identity as a club he doesn’t come back in, because we didn’t he was able to. He played well that season, he was a big part of the success we had, but if that’s somebody else he doesn’t come back in like that. The power he had he was able to. It was disappointing but you move on because he was a big part of the promotion so credit to him for that.
We’d rather crawled through that second half of the season, how did we get up and get through the play offs as it’s often the team that comes on strong with momentum that fares better in that situation?
It was down to having so much experience out there. These were players who’d played highest level and in the Premier League. We had full internationals. We did well based on experiences we’d had before. We’d loved to have played that second half of the season well but we were doing enough to stay in the mix and lots of teams without that experience would probably have sunk like a stone. We’ve seen in the last few years QPR have had promising starts which have tailed off into midtable and lower. We had all the right people in the right places who knew you don’t necessarily need to play well in a game to win it. We were poor second half of the season compared to the start. We made it in, we beat Wigan who were a very dangerous side at that time, and then when it came to Derby we just knew what type of team they were. They were a young team, playing football we were very familiar with, with a coach who we knew all about. They played well in the final, we weren’t great, but it rather summed up our second half of the season. We did enough to win. As we found out down the line, doing enough to win a game in the Championship doesn’t mean you’ll have anywhere near enough to stay in the Premier League.
Richard Dunne in the final, magnificent. I remember seeing him play like that in a big game for Ireland in Russia one night.
I loved playing with Dunney. He’s a really, really nice guy. On the field he’d always been so dependable. The way I tried to be as a professional was always based around Richard Dunne, Sylvain Distin and people like that. Unless I can’t walk I’m going to be available to play in the game. Sometimes you can be on the bench and you’ve got a centre half rolling around on the floor, you’re going to warm up three or four times in a game. Richard and Sylvain, their minds were made of stone, incredible, you knew what you were going to get from them, it’s all I ever wanted to be.
Is Gary O’Neil speaking to you yet?
Another prime example of having experience. It was my fault, I gave the ball away, and it led to the red card. I’m not sure many young players would think it the right thing to do in that moment to just take somebody down there, but he got it, and we had lots of players like that. I thought I’d blown it, I’ve got the guy a red card, I’ve cost us promotion to the Premier League after a 46 game slog of a season. As soon as we won Gary was cool with me. At some point I owe that man several beers. It was crazy in that moment, I thought I’d completely f-d this final up, Gary’s a hero to me and the rest of the team as well. We just stayed involved, did what needed to be done, and it was a truly incredible moment. I’ll never forget being on the halfway line as Bobby put it into the top corner. I could see every single fan of ours, from the halfway line my periphery had all the fans on the edges as well. Seeing 40,000 people.
Could you believe it?
It sums up football. People say that’s why we love it. You never know. You literally never know. Sometimes it feels like you do know, it’s the same thing over and over and over. But you never, ever know what’s going to happen. You don’t need to be the best team on the day to win a game, you just need to find a way. It’s crushing when you play well and don’t win. That’s why we still play the game. To see Junior, a good friend of mine, do what he did in the corner, Bobby, a good friend of mine, convert like that in the biggest moment. Bobby, like me, there were spells where the fans didn’t like us, they didn’t appreciate that Bobby was going out and playing every single game with a horrible hip injury. He should never have been playing. He was fighting through pain to try and help the team. Every time he crossed the white line he was judged as a healthy player, and he was nowhere near it. Fans in the stand say they’d do anything to get out there and play, but they missed that empathy with him. If he’d just said he was injured he’d have got no sympathy anyway. He said to me one time when we were sitting on the bench and getting heckled “I’m not leaving here until they love me”. By the end of that season he scores that goal, in the play-off final, to get us to the Premier League. Mission complete.
Read Part Two here.
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