Onuoha on a new Prem failure, and the modern QPR – Interview
Thursday, 17th Dec 2020 11:27 by Clive Whittingham
In the second part of our Patreon interview with former QPR skipper Nedum Onuoha we look at the most recent Premier League relegation and how the club has gone about things since.
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…
Back in the big time
Same mistakes or new ones now we’re back in the Premier League?
The following season we had a group of players who weren’t like the ones from two years previous where there was a significant mix. This time it felt like we just weren’t good enough. We weren’t scoring enough goals, we weren’t defending well enough. As I said on the Open All R’s Podcast we were trying to learn a new formation and people were trying to sabotage that, so things like that didn’t help. But at times it just didn’t feel like we were good enough. In the Premier League you realistically only need to win one, maybe two, games a month tops, but if you’re not scoring, you’re not defending well enough, it’s disappointing. We played really well at home to Chelsea that year, late on Rob Green puts a kick up in the wind, they come through and score to win 1-0, it was a game we deserved to win. It’s not unlucky, it’s just who we were. In the biggest moments, in front of our goal or the opposition’s, we just weren’t there. The big difference between the Championship and the Premier League for me is mistakes get punished a lot more in the Premier League. People miss chances and give you another opportunity in the Championship, if you miss a chance don’t worry there’ll be another one along in a bit. Certain bits were unlucky, but why doesn’t it happen to everybody?
We’d spent all summer building for a switch to a back three only to abandon it after a game and a half, why was that?
When a team wants to switch to a three there is always some level of pushback, either players in private or one or two players in public. It’s an adjustment, but overall I think it’s a great system because you’ve always got three defenders and you never need worry about getting hit on the break. There are three people there to put their bodies on the line and stop the ball going in. There won’t be space opening up there and when you’re under pressure you can always drop into a five. We worked on it for a lot of pre-season. It takes some adjusting to but with football, and life in general, you’ll only adjust to something if you want to adjust to it. Some people did, some people refused to. We weren’t good enough, as we had been in the Championship, to just walk out there and win games, so everybody had to be on the same page. Harry, when he realised that important people in the team were refusing to get on the same page with it, had to go back on it. In football, if people have a chance to moan about something, they’ll do it to death. So he made things familiar. I would like us to have stuck with the system longer, we had Rio who could play in a three, we had Isla who could play right wing back, and it afforded us the chance to have two strikers. It could have been progressive and positive, but one or two people in the team didn’t seem to trust it and they were significant players in the team so instead of taking them out he took the system out and we went back to a more traditional system.
One or two? Or Joey?
Joey didn’t like a very specific thing about it. I can’t remember if it was to do with two people sitting and one person ahead, or what it was. But he was very, very, very, very, very upset about it, to the point where we had to hear about it every single day. I doubt it’s a system he’ll have used as manager since he’s gone down that path.
I really liked Vargas and Isla before they got here, but it didn’t really work for them did it?
Good players. But it’s the whole thing again, we as Brits, as football players and football fans, have an expectation that you know about the whole place, the team you’re playing for, the city you’re living in, all the ins and outs and the cultures. For people who come from foreign countries, and with all due respect they’re not moving to Arsenal or Liverpool where you know the history because it’s world football history, you’re coming into a place where you don’t know about the years in the Championship, the Adel Taarabt year, the struggles the previous year. You don’t know about The Four Year Plan. Certain people who are already there, who do know about all of that, get worked up when people don’t match the intensity and understanding of what it is to play for the club from the get go. If you want to do well at Newcastle and Sunderland, for example, the first thing you do is work hard, make tackles, compete. Somewhere else they’re not bothered about that, they want skills and passing - you sign for Real Madrid they want keep ups in front of 20,000 people when you sign. Every place is different. Vargas and Isla didn’t know the ins and outs of QPR, being the underdog in that league. They came in every day, happy people, trained hard, worked hard, it didn’t work out and it was a shame. Harry didn’t always want to play Eduardo, and obviously Isla and the change of system we’ve talked about, so now they’re in a place that’s a long way from home, they have no home comforts and familiarities, just the game itself and when that goes wrong they have nothing. So you don’t get the best out of them as people and players.
I’d have been tempted to shake Harry’s hand and part ways after that play-off final, even though we won. He’d even said himself he was thinking about what golf club membership he’d be taking out once we’d gone down to ten men.
That’s a wow thing to say by the way. Think about that. That means he was standing there when we were down to ten men thinking we weren’t going to do it, while we’re out there trusting him to make decisions to help us go up. It sounded like he was thinking of calling it quits and looking back maybe he would have been happier if he did because the next few months after that I don’t think were the most enjoyable of his career to say the least.
Had his departure been coming?
Possibly. He’d actually been there across three seasons which wasn’t normal for a QPR manager at the time. We went down, came up, now it looked like we’re going down again and he’s still there. We weren’t playing well. The club felt like they needed to do something to give us that chance of staying up, except this time there wasn’t that level of heavy investment.
Was there just too much power with the players? We’ve even heard about players making substitutions in games towards the end of the Championship season.
When you talk about these incidents, those privileges aren’t available to everybody. Hilly at the end of the promotion season a couple of times took himself off to try and bring somebody more progressive on. I hadn’t seen that before. He was trying to do it for the betterment of the team. That’s one thing. But when there were certain more negative things.
Ninety nine percent of people wouldn’t sabotage things because it’s not in their nature, but that one per cent it’s the old concept of give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. When those people get power and leverage it’s a problem. Joey, for most of the time he was there was a good player for the team, but there were times when he had too much power. He had the most power of any player I’ve ever seen in my career. People just didn’t want to have arguments with him.
Let me tell you this one. We’re playing four/five-a-side tournaments in training one day. Joey was on my team, with Adel and a couple of others. Adel had a shot, beat the keeper, and Bobby Zamora stuck his hand out and saved it. It is what it is, it’s training, it’s competitive, whoever finished bottom had to do a running forfeit. Bobby saves it, we have a penalty, Adel takes it and misses. Joey walks off the pitch. He said it wasn’t fair, Bobby should have been sent off. We played the rest of the game a man down, lost the game, finished bottom, had to do the running. Afterwards we’re waiting for Harry to do or say something. Kevin Bond tells him what happened and he just says “nah I didn’t see it, I can’t do anything”. That’s power, nobody else would have been afforded the opportunity to get away with that. Players can police things to a certain extent but ultimately it comes from the top. To see stuff like that, never in my playing career can I recall somebody get sent off in a five-a-side in training for handling the ball on the line, but he walked to the side of the pitch and watched his team, my team, play a man down for five minutes, lose, do the runs, and he just stood and said “no, it’s not fair, he should have been sent off.” Then come Saturday he’s giving it the ‘we’ve got to stick together’ camaraderie, “band of brothers”, and all that.
I’m absolutely not trying to start a war of words now. He did a good job for the team, he’s a good player, but there are aspects that just weren’t for me.
Chris Ramsey, bit of a left field appointment, how was that?
He and Les Ferdinand were basically doing it together when they first came in. They tried to come in hard, say we weren’t fit enough - the cliched thing for any new manager coming in. He is a nice guy, but he tried to be very stern at that time to try and draw a reaction from the players. It wasn’t enough. We weren’t great as a team, he organised us a bit better but the writing was on the wall. I think he’ll look back at that, his first big managerial job, and think he made a couple of mistakes. I got sent off up at Liverpool and missed the next game at Man City where City relegated us. I wasn’t involved but I remember the tactics for that game were to press them high. Again, all due respect, QPR going to the City of Manchester Stadium, I don’t think “go and press them” should be anywhere near your top priority list. They want you to press them, they’ll make it an expansive game. We conceded six.
He did the best he could in a difficult situation. He then had an off-season to get ready for the next season and I think by the time Chris left he actually had a better understanding of what was needed. For periods within it I don’t think he fully understood. By the time he got it, it was unfortunately too late.
Back in the Championship. Again.
We had a weird month where Neil Warnock came back to help him out…
Neil Warnock is QPR. Whenever QPR aren’t doing well, we start hearing rumours about Neil Warnock wanting to come back. And I don’t think that’s too far from the truth, I think he’d love to come back. He came in as an assistant and it was strange. It was Neil Warnock, at QPR, but under Chris Ramsey. He’s the one with thousands of games to his name and it was at QPR where he’d had success. Can you really be a number two to somebody like that? I think that was a mistake for Chris himself because he looks different when he’s standing next to somebody who is the gaffer. I don’t think they fully agreed on a few things, Neil was a big fan of Junior Hoilett and took him to Cardiff but at that point Chris had no interest in picking Junior at all. Neil would be telling Junior he trusted him, and giving Junior confidence which is good, but it undermined what Chris was trying to do. Having Neil in the building as number two isn’t possible. Neil Warnock in that building is number one. You can call him the assistant, you can call him the janitor if you like, but it’s Neil Warnock at QPR.
Since then, we joke on our website we’ve basically been sixteenth in the Championship for five years. What do you make of the direction of travel from the club, the cutting of the wage bill which probably needed to be done, and so on.
It depends what the ambition is. Initially were cutting the budget massively, but they had the same expectations on what the outcome would be. They felt we were still going to be in contention, round the play-offs, getting promoted. There were massive cuts and at the same time they were saying “it’s time to kick on”. We were spending time recruiting from League One and Two, but saying “it’s time to kick on”. I don’t know if that was misguided, or they knew something the players didn’t. Initially in that team we had Charlie Austin, Matty Phillips, Leroy Fer, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Seb Polter. It was a good Championship team. Maybe not top two but… Tjaronn Chery as well. When things get rolling that is a good Championship team. If they’d invested in that team and kept them there longer you’d have been looking upwards. A lot of the teams that make the six you don’t look at their eleven and say well of course that’s going to go up. Sometimes you get Wolves, and there’s a guy from Atletico Madrid on one wing, Sporting Lisbon next to him and Benfica up front. Most teams aren’t that, they just have a certain type of player and things click. I don’t think we were a million miles away, but they felt they had to cut costs again. That’s fair enough.
I think when you’re in the Championship focused on bringing players in from lower leagues and the academy then there’s always potential you could compete, but for me it’s always potential rather than reality. You look at the squad now and you wouldn’t think it has to be competing for promotion, whereas the squads we had in the past there were some really good players and it should be up there. I’d be interested to know what QPR fans thought, at the start of the last two or three seasons, what they thought the team could achieve. They might hope for something, but are they expecting top six? What dictates a failure now? Are we at the point where a failure is going down and anything else is a normal season? They cut costs, they provided more opportunity for people from the academy which I’m always a big fan of, opportunities for people from lower leagues and Scotland which is great because you get a certain type of player coming in who fans can really get behind. But owners at clubs need to make a decision. If you want to get promoted there’s certain things you have to do. The teams that do ultimately get promoted look very different to how QPR look right now. There are players who are capable of being in teams who can get there. Is that what the club wants? I think if it was they’d invest in a different manner to the way they have over the last few years.
It feels like they’re happy to be competing in the Championship, but not competing to get out of it. There is a difference in that. Look at the teams we had who got out of the Championship – 2010/11 you had Adel who was basically one of the best players in England that year, the year we went up under Harry we had one of the best squads the Championship has seen. What are we looking at now? There’s some good players in that squad, but not enough to be in the top six consistently. The squads we have had over the last three or four years, in my opinion, have had plenty of talent or potential, but it lacks the consistency that teams have when they find their way to the top of the league. At the moment we beat Reading on the Saturday then lose to Derby on the Tuesday, and that’s not what gets you there.
The recruitment has still been a bit all over the map during that time.
If you have a manager there for a longer period of time there’s consistency and building. At QPR at times it feels like people come in and try to build, then they’re not in and around it, there’s a bad run of results, they move on and you’re starting again. If Mark Warburton now can have the chance to build something you might see more consistency in where they’re buying players from, knowing exactly what type of player they want because this is the system and the style of play the club has. If you’re having to rejig it every 18 months that ground zero seems to get lower and lower, you’re always left with a group of players suited to the previous manager and system, a manager wanting new people for the new system, and them not necessarily wanting to invest in those so older players end up being put into a new system. If you can find some level of continuity in staff and workforce they’ll get better. Under Mark Warburton there have been times when they haven’t played well, but there have been other times when I’ve watched them and even if they haven’t won they’ve had a lot of possession and chances, with a young squad you’d perhaps say they’re overachieving. You’re relying on young players like Ilias Chair, Osman Kakay, Seny Dieng, these were just academy players and they’re now being allowed to play. I think they’ll get better. As much as they’ve been all over the place with players, managers, finding that level of continuity brings more confidence and success. Whether it’ll get them promoted I don’t know, but they can be more competitive the more continuity is in play.
I’ve interviewed Ian Holloway, it’s impossible, like knitting fog, is that just his public schtick and behind the scenes he’s really focused with the players, or is that just what he’s like?
That’s him. He’s really, really passionate. Exceptionally passionate. To the point where it crosses the line and it’s more than a job for him. When things are going well that’s great, when things aren’t going well you take those stresses and it affects you differently. It meant everything to him to be the manager of the club again. From the moment he arrived he made it abundantly clear how much it meant to him, and he tried to instil that in the players, saying it would mean as much to them too by the time he was done. He tried to make that the way. He had a few different styles, formations. He didn’t get on with everybody and I don’t think he understood some of them as people, people like Ben Gladwin and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas he wanted them to be exceptionally fit but the way he was doing that was keeping them away from the team to work on fitness. Those two are players who just want to get on the ball and be around their peers. You take something away that means the most to them. Overall he meant well. An incredibly different human. Everything you see on the television is exactly what it’s like when you try and talk to him day to day. I had a good relationship with him, he trusted me and played me. I wish, at times, he’d understood all of his players. He always tried to make sure they understood him, but it’s a two way street.
How do you come to leave the club?
When we got relegated it was the last year of my deal and it was a big deal to be honest. The club said instead of paying you that for one year, can we spread the same amount across three years. That sounded great. There was more security for me, it took me to the age of 31. To be able to have that guarantee was great. I signed that, and there was an option of a fourth year if I played x amount of games, which I did. It was supposed to be automatic but the club declined it. They said they couldn’t afford to pay me that again.
I was initially going to try and move back up north, there was interest from a team there, but that didn’t materialise. The club then came back with what was essentially a pay as you play deal. I’d been captain for three years, played 80-90% of the games in that period. I couldn’t sign that deal. It didn’t make sense. I was the captain, I’d just been voted Player of the Season by the players, I was playing well and available, it was clear to me they didn’t want me to stay. I get they’re cutting costs, but it was a very strange one. I played 220-odd games, I was a servant to the club through some bad times, I took a lot of grief from fans and fought through it to gain their trust, I was chosen as captain to help the younger players with their transition. Players we see now Mide, Niko, Osman, Seny Dieng, Ebere, I was helping take them under my wing and bring them on, and they’re all playing now. It was strange. That’s what they decided. Off I go.
The top two divisions in England pay better than the majority of leagues, but the money I was being offered at this point basically opened up the world market. I thought why not go and try something new, experience something different so when I retire I can talk about the experience. Something different, a new place, a new league, instead of looking back and saying I played 46 games a season for ten years straight. I got the chance and that’s where I’ve been.
Where do you stand on the job Les, and to some extent Chris Ramsey, are doing at QPR?
I don’t know how they work on a day to day basis now. When I was there, Les was DOF and people’s definitions of that vary. I’d see him chase people down because their body fat was too high. That’s not how I envision a DOF. At other points he was arranging transfer deals and so on. I don’t know what the job description is for DOF at QPR. Les played for the club, Chris has been at the club a long time, now the team is younger you’d expect them to be able to push the club forward.
As far as relationships go, I didn’t really have one with Les. We didn’t see eye to eye on certain things. Little things. I remember I got sent off at Hull after one of their players pushed Josh Scowen to the ground. I charged into the guy. Ian Holloway backed me 100%. I only did it because he’d pushed my team mate, I was standing up for him. I didn’t think it was a red. Monday morning I got a letter saying I’d been fined 50% of a week’s wage or something like that. I appealed it, I thought it was wrong. Gary O’Neil would get fined for his red card in this later day QPR, even though he did it to save the team. What if Gary O’Neil thinks I won’t make that tackle because it’ll cost me money? I got called into this meeting with Les and Ian and ended up walking out. It wasn’t for me - if you think I should pay for sticking up for a team mate. I’ve heard managers say to us after defeats “the thing that annoyed them most was we didn’t lay a finger on any of them”. You’re supposed to show passion and togetherness. You can’t have it both ways. That was the point where I thought it was enough for me.
Living in America
Do you get a choice where you go in the MLS, it’s all decided for you isn’t it?
The league is incredibly different to anywhere else in the world. I started reading more and more into it as I got ready to come over. Every team starts with eight international slots, and they trade for those. You’ll trade a player and some allocation now for a draft pick or international slot in 2025. They’re trade trades. I came in for the last third of the season and there were only four teams with international slots left on the roster. You knew immediately they were the only four teams you could go to. In addition, there are 28 roster spots available, and two of those teams had 28 players, so then it was basically between Salt Lake and LA FC. LA FC said why don’t you come to the end of 2018, season finishes in November, if we like you we’ll give you another year. Married man, three kids, it’s not going to fly to travel to the US for a short-term deal. Salt Lake said they couldn’t afford to pay me much for the first four months, but the next year was guaranteed and if you play 20 times we’ll give you another year. That was a two-and-a-half-year deal basically at the age of 31. I could take my kids out of school, bring my wife over, it made a lot more sense.
I actually think I could have gone to Orlando as well thinking about it. They were bottom of their conference, conceding three or four goals a game, my agent reached out and said would you be interested? They said nah, we’re just going to wait for next year. That’s the mentality, when there’s no relegation.
How’s it been on and off the field in America?
Salt Lake City is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I’m at the base of a mountain range. I wake up in the morning and see the sun rise over one mountain range and set over the other. Some of the national parks are the most beautiful places in the world. It’s been incredible, the life I’ve lived here. I’m five minutes away from bears. It’s insane. Learning to be part of a new culture has been fun as well, seeing my kids happy.
From a football side I’ve left a big legacy at the club, I was receiving ovations and a lot of TV attention when I left and I’ve only been here two years, so I feel like I’ve made a big difference. It’s another place with a lot of young players with ambitions and I feel like I’ve guided them and advised them. The team could have done a bit better, but it’s a good experience. It was exciting, in my first season I was stepping out on the field knowing nothing about the opposition, I haven’t had that experience since I was 17, 18. Having to watch videos of new players, learning about the game again in my 30s, has been joyous. I could have stayed in the Championship, but when you’re playing somebody for the tenth time in five years it doesn’t have the same edge.
There have been negatives. Being in America during Covid times, during times of social injustice, and during this presidential election, I could write 1000 books. Overall, it’s been incredible experience. I’m ready to come home now.
Not tempted to go and do a year at Bolton or something like that?
Not for me. From a young age I wanted to be able to walk away from the game on my terms. I didn’t want to be hobbling away injured, or getting no interest because I’m too old. Since I had my first child in 2014 it’s been much more about family. Myself and my wife could move anywhere in the world to try and get games, but as I’ve got older the thing I like best is spending time with my family. Games are fun, but my family is more fun. Starting the rest of my life now excites me a lot more than coming home to do something I was doing before would. When you’re a British player coming over to play in the MLS, you pretty much know you’re not going to get a move back, and as I got on the plane to come over here I was happy with that. I’ve drifted away from it, the time zone means I don’t get to see many Championship games, I’m outside of that bubble and intensity. I’ve no real desire to get back into it, I’ve left it behind.
Read Part One here.
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