Six of the best (and worst) from Warbs – Column
Monday, 9th May 2022 17:10 by Clive Whittingham
As Mark Warburton departs QPR after three years we look back at six of his best games in charge, and six of the worst, in the context of his reign.
Six of the best
Stoke City 1 QPR 2, Saturday August 3, 2019, Championship
LFW’s assessments of Mark Warburton, the job he’s done, and what he’s left behind will be largely favourable, and much of that will keep circling back to the state of the team he inherited from Steve McClaren. The QPR team Warbs took over in the summer of 2019 won away so seldom the fans commissioned a flag to that effect. McClaren had won just five of his 24 away games, Ian Holloway six of his 38, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink four of his 22, Chris Ramsey five of his 17. Following Rangers away had become a horrible chore, carried out by a bare 650 of the same people every other week. Trips on the early doors, extortionately expensive, Virgin Train out of Euston were particularly arduous – three wins from 36 separate trips to Burnley, Preston and Blackburn since the relegation from the Premier League in 1996. You were setting off with zero belief we would get a result, and very little hope we’d even compete. Harry Redknapp had described the away matches as “bonus games” and won none of the first 12 of them in 2014/15. A 2-2 at Wigan under his guidance in December 2012 brought up a full calendar year without an away win at all. Mark Warburton’s team, for the most part, played with a plan, an attack, an optimism and a belief that again made you think QPR could go and win at other places. This started right from the off, the travelling thousand struggling to believe their eyes as the R’s went to Stoke and played the hosts off the park, scoring one of the goals of the season through Ebere Eze in the process. Warburton made following QPR on the road fun again, and even in the season that has cost him his job we won nine away from Loftus Road, his best season total so far and the club’s best since Neil Warnock’s 2010/11 promotion season – only four teams managed more, and Sheff Utd qualified with the play-offs with fewer. His overall total of 24 wins from 72 away games is more than Rangers had managed over the previous five seasons put together and only four fewer than the previous six. He has more away wins than his five immediate predecessors combined. His points per game on the road, 1.24, is bettered only by Neil Warnock and is level with Terry Venables.
QPR 11 Wales 2, January 2020, FA Cup, Championship
When Warbs-ball worked, boy it really worked. QPR had actually had their usual very ordinary December, with a surprise 5-3 shellacking at bogey-side Barnsley, and a dismal 2-1 Christmas loss at home to Hull to dampen the mood. There were teams and styles we struggled against throughout his three years, and others that just seemed to suit us down to the ground. Cardiff were certainly one of those but few had seen the 6-1 demolition of Neil Harris’ team coming prior to kick off of this New Year clash. Nahki Wells got a hat trick but it says something of the performance of Bright Osayi-Samuel that it wasn’t enough to make him man of the match. Throw in Ebere Eze as well and it made Rangers unplayable on the day, and had Osayi-Samuel not been substituted and rested for the final third of the game (to widespread comedy boos) this could have gone into double figures. There’s an argument, which we’ll come onto in the second half of this piece, that a team with such attacking talent should have done a good deal better than thirteenth in Warbs’ first season in charge, but was held back by an inability to cure chronic problems that plagued them all season such as conceding from set pieces. Another of those – the goalkeeping – sadly reared its head with a late Joe Lumley clanger preventing the clean sheet. A week later, plenty of changes to the team for the FA Cup visit of Swansea, but another torching of a team from South Wales as Jordan Hugill bagged a brace and Lee Wallace and Josh Scowen ran their own goal of the season competition in a 5-1 thrashing. Sadly the January spurt from Wells provoked Bristol City to tempt him away with a ridiculous three-and-a-half-year contract on deadline day and Rangers were never quite as good without him that season – a move that worked for neither club involved, nor the player himself.
Norwich City 1 QPR 1, Tuesday December 29, 2020, Championship
As we’ll come onto, the 2020/21 season had not started well. Rangers went from a team that had won just four games in the whole first half of the campaign, to one whose record was bettered only by Norwich and Watford who won automatic promotion. That transformation was largely credited to the arrival of Sam Field, Jordy De Wijs, and particularly Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin on loan, and the common consensus (and obvious choice for this section) would be the subsequent 2-0 win at Luton in which Austin scored on his second debut for the club. For me, it had actually started a fortnight earlier, and before those four arrived. I thought Warburton was a gonner after a lifeless 2-0 home defeat to Swansea over Christmas, and certainly didn’t see him getting anything to support his cause at runaway league leaders Norwich away in a live Sky game just days later. ‘No plan B’ is a cliche that came with the manager from his previous jobs, and there have been times during his three years with Rangers where he’s been stubborn and slow to change, but I’ve never found the criticism fair. He’d previously brought back Toni Leistner, who he didn’t rate, for a special ops in a 2-1 win against Matt Smith’s Millwall, and shifted Geoff Cameron over to right back to counter Neil Harris’ wheeled cannon football in a 6-1 against Cardiff. He’s a self-confessed 4-2-3-1 manager, but he changed that to get Nahki Wells and Jordan Hugill in the team at the same time as Bright and Eze, and he flipped the formation again at this point to go to a back three which suited his struggling defenders – particularly Yoann Barbet and the full backs – a lot more. It transformed Lee Wallace from basket case to fan favourite. Away to champions-elect Norwich, whose players and manager spent the whole night in an empty stadium haranguing and bullying referee Oli Langford into eventually awarding them a joke penalty to go 1-0 up, they maintained character, composure, and shape. They equalised with a penalty of their own, and should have won at the death when Osayi-Samuel missed an open goal from an Albert Adomah cross.
QPR 3 Coventry City 0, Friday April 19, 2021, Championship
By the time April came around, QPR were absolutely motoring. Only that lousy start of four wins in the first 23 games kept them from a late assault on the play-offs. Only promoted Watford and Norwich won more than their 15 games in the second 23 fixtures. Six wins from seven games through January and February transformed situation, and Rangers then won nine of the final 14 games to build huge momentum and optimism leading into 2021/22. There were many highlights – a 2-0 win at Bristol City that could and should have been twice that, a 3-2 comeback at home to Millwall from two down, a 3-1 home win against Brentford, a 4-1 against Sheff Wed – but for me the best performance of this era came on Good Friday at home to Coventry City. The Sky Blues were, admittedly, poor, and struggling, but the absolute blitz of them from Warburton’s Rangers was exhilarating. The goal they scored after just a minute, through Chris Willock after a Lee Wallace-led assault down the left, was the quintessential goal of this QPR side and this period in its history. When it went right, it looked like this. Your problem, is it was followed three days later with a no-show and 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest, and I guess one of the main things holding this team back from bigger and better things during this manager’s reign has been that propensity to fall in a large hole just when you think they’re really getting somewhere.
Middlesbrough 2 QPR 3, Wednesday August 18, 2021, Championship
That momentum carried straight through a hot summer. QPR’s improvement, and attractive style of play, under Warburton had Premier League elite sides actively approaching the club looking for a pre-season friendly opponent. Manchester United were roundly thrashed 4-2, and a 3-3 with Leicester was a brilliant afternoon out for crowds returning to grounds for the first time post pandemic. A slight stumble on day one against Millwall, when 3,000 away fans took over the away end and the atmosphere and roared them into an early lead, still produced a point and Rangers then comfortably beat Hull 3-0 on the road. That Wednesday night they faced down an initial Middlesbrough onslaught, and played the entire second half with ten men after Moses Odubajo’s red card. Having come from 1-0 down to go 2-1 up, a bad mistake from Dom Ball surrendered us back to 2-2. None of it, none of it, bothered the team a jot. They played brilliantly, on the front foot, looking like they could score with every attack. The atmosphere in the away end was electric. There were QPR fans in there facing an all-night National Express coach journey home, and every one of them loved every minute of it. Winning away, winning in the north, scoring three goals a time, as a matter of routine - it felt like the Neil Warnock season reincarnated. Wallace forced an own goal, Lyndon Dykes humiliated Joe Lumley, Chris Willock stunned the crowd moments after Matt Crooks’ equaliser, and even with the numerical disadvantage they kept flying forward and Willock could have made it 4-2 into the bargain. It was a night when he really announced his arrival as a force in this league, and the performance of a team that should have been a serious contender for promotion.
QPR 4 Reading 0, Saturday January 29, 2022, Championship
Three goals up at half time, cruising to victory, Lyndon Dykes, with two goals already, trying his luck for a hat trick on the half volley from 30 yards out at the Loft End and almost getting it… even a pessimist like me couldn’t believe this team was going anywhere other than the play-offs at a bare minimum at this point, and had half a chance of running Bournemouth down for second. A month prior we’d worried that the loss of Ilias Chair, Seny Dieng and, to a lesser extent, the cover option of Osman Kakay to the African Cup of Nations would leave us short of numbers and robbed of two key players. David Marshall came in and was initially superb, Chris Willock stepped up, and Rangers went unbeaten through the month with five wins and two draws from seven games. At that point, with Chair and Dieng back the week after, I said we needed just seven wins from the remaining 18 to guarantee a top six finish, which would have been the form of a team in nineteenth (Hull). In the end, we got four, and had the worst record in the entire division over the run in. As I suspected at the time, 75 points was all that was required, and has got Sheff Utd and Luton there. What felt like the good old days was in fact a cliff edge. And nobody saw it coming.
Six to forget
QPR 0 Sheffield Wednesday 3, Saturday July 11, 2020, Championship
Mark Warburton’s 2019/20 was undoubtedly a vast improvement on the shambolic Steve McClaren 2018/19 that preceded it. In almost every metric you cared to consider – wins, points, away wins, goals scored, style of play, league position – things got better. However, there is a reasonable argument to say that a team with Nahki Wells playing up front with support from Ebere Eze, Ilias Chair and Bright Osayi-Samuel, with decent cover options like Jordan Hugill and Marc Pugh, should have done a good deal better than the thirteenth placed finish we ended up with that year. Rangers were six points off the play-offs and pushing on into the top half of the table after a break-out January that not only included the declaration of war on Wales, but also downed Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds for a third time in three Loftus Road meetings. The R’s won 3-1 at Preston, never a happy venue for QPR teams, and with Ebere Eze really looking the part there, and in a comeback 4-2 home win against Stoke, optimism and momentum were building. The pandemic, and the situation it created, was unprecedented, as Warbs was wont to say half a dozen times an interview. No team coped with it as poorly as QPR. Hands were shaken on Pugh’s release before we returned, out of contract club captain Grant Hall said he didn’t want to play and this was just taken as ok, goalkeeper coach Gavin Ward remained on furlough while both Liam Kelly and Joe Lumley had difficult ends to the season – this was a team that was well in contention for the six. It started with a pathetic 1-0 home defeat to a crap Barnsley side who Rangers struggled with throughout Warburton’s reign, and descended from there. Charlton, eventually relegated, also beat us 1-0, with Jordan Hugill adding another contender to his own personal miss of the season highlights reel and Old Man Pratley scoring the winner. A 1-0 defeat at Wigan, also relegated, was abject, and afterwards the manager gave a very odd interview in which he seemed to suggest the performance was acceptable and all would have been right in the world had Ilias Chair not missed a great chance in the second half – it was QPR’s only significant effort on goal. The nadir came at home to Sheff Wed. Rangers were beaten 3-0, and it could and should have been six. I think, pound for pound, the worst performance I’ve seen from a QPR side since that infamous first half against Ipswich Town on this ground in the Mick Harford/Paul Hart era. Warburton’s lack of explanation for why it went so badly in lockdown, other than it was “unprecedented” and “they’re human” was unusually vague and nonsensical for him, and missed a big opportunity. Wins against Barnsley, Charlton, Wigan and Sheff Wed would have been enough for a play-off spot.
Coventry City 3 QPR 2, Friday September 18, 2020, Championship
As I said above, I don’t buy into the ‘no plan B’ cliché, because Warburton showed willingness to change personnel and formations away from his favourites several times over his three years here, and at the end of the day you have to have an identity and a preferred style for your team that you keep going back to otherwise you’re back to Ian Holloway’s random team selector draw machine. However, I do believe and accept that Warburton was, at times, slow to change, and found correcting chronic problems with his team a challenge. QPR conceded a whopping 76 goals in his first season here, more even than McClaren’s shemozzle, and more of those came from set pieces than any other team conceded in the league. A testy LFW interview at the training ground the week before spent some time on why this was, because having conceded a shambolic goal from a corner in a pre-season friendly at Oxford, and then crashed out of the League Cup 3-2 at Plymouth with a series of goals from crosses, things didn’t look like they were about to change much. This the interview of the row about overdrafts. Off mic at the end of that Warbs had said to me what he didn’t feel people were taking into account enough, and giving him enough credit for, was that he was trying to mark strikers on up to and beyond £100,000 a week, even in this division, with defenders on £5,000 a week. He pointed out that he was going in that Saturday against Nottingham Forest sweating on the fitness of Lyndon Dykes, his only striker at that point, while Forest had just committed £30,000 a week to Loyal Taylor and a full 100% of Luke Freeman’s Premier League wage to go with the £45,000 a week Lewis Grabban they already had. None of that, however, applied the following week. Coventry were newly promoted, QPR comprehensively battered them in the first half, but lost the game through a series of defensive calamities that concluded with Kyle McFadzean being allowed three consecutive free headers from three successive corners, one of which eventually found the back of the net. All your arguments fall apart when a newly promoted team, and a lower league clogger like that, are able to pile in over the top of you in that fashion. It was to be the overdue end of Joe Lumley, and Seny Dieng’s long awaited call up transformed the defence, and that set piece stat. By January the following season QPR had conceded just three goals from set plays all term, the division’s best record. With Dieng injured and back out of the team, they shipped ten in 20, the division’s second worst total, highlighting the influence and impact of the goalkeeper. We got there eventually, but there’s certainly a case that he should have been in sooner, to deal with a problem that went unchecked for too long.
QPR 0 Swansea City 2, Saturday December 26, 2020, Championship
Rangers looked absolutely bereft here. At the halfway point of the season they’d won just four games, and given one of those was a last minute winner at Derby and two of the others were traumatic 3-2s at home to poor Rotherham and Cardiff teams that felt like trying to shit out a snooker table, only the opening dayer against Forest could be described as anywhere near comfortable and convincing – and there were plenty of chances for the visiting team in that one. They went ten without a win, there’s a 2-0 loss at Huddersfield that should probably be in this section, and it included 180 minutes with limited fans back in against Stoke and Reading without scoring a goal. Having conceded late to draw at lowly Wycombe the week before, this limp and lifeless showing against a Swansea team that won in second gear without facing a serious shot on target all afternoon felt like the end. Les Ferdinand and Lee Hoos pointedly remained behind after the final whistle, engaged in deep dialogue in the director’s box, where they knew they would be seen and filmed by the TV cameras for the fans locked back in their homes over Christmas. In a much more relaxed and convivial catch up that summer, Warburton admitted to us he thought he’d be sacked too. I do wonder, and strongly suspect, that if crowds had been in the ground at that time, the reaction at full time here might have been enough to push him over the edge. But he had support internally at that point, and survived. QPR were rewarded for patience and stability over a knee-jerk reaction. Fancy that.
Barnsley 1 QPR 0, Saturday February 12, 2022, Championship
The cliff-edge that occurred post 4-0 home win against Reading started with a miserable cup exit at Peterborough. Warburton has been better at cup competitions than his predecessors, who largely didn’t give a single toss about them, but still did things like rest in form Nahki Wells for a home tie with Sheff Wed knowing he was probably leaving (and playing against us) the following week and then losing the subsequent league game up at Blackburn anyway. Obviously Charlie Austin’s disallowed goal in the League Cup was a disgrace, but it’s a fact that Rangers had a home tie with a League One side and an away game at the worst team in our division for a quarter final tie at Arsenal and fifth round game at home to Man City – with all the revenue, television money, and exposure for players we’re trying to find rich buyers for that comes with it. QPR plead poverty, but gladly pass those chances up far too often. Long suffering Rangers fans deserve nights like that far more than the club is providing them.
However, given the cup wasn’t the priority this year, and the chances we missed at London Road meant it could easily have gone the other way, I’ve looked a week later into the collapse for the first sign that something was truly wrong. Rangers had drawn 2-2 with play-off rivals Middlesbrough in the week, and the general consensus was this was a good result as long as we knocked over Barnsley at the weekend who at this point had won just two of their first 26 goals. The tired, old, typical QPR, John Jensen, Lloyd Doyley bullshit don’t cut it for me here. There was zero excuse. Even missing Chris Willock, zero excuse. The performance was a disgrace, and deserved the 1-0 defeat it got. The first time I can remember the QPR fans booing a Warburton team from the field. It was the first public crack in the armour, but problems had been manifesting for sometime. Warburton and the execs above him had already fallen out over Andre Gray’s form and availability a month before this after Bristol City away – a much cheaper deal for Nahki Wells was on the table and the club were minded to do that and pack Gray back off to Watford. Warbs backed his man, and after a tongue-lashing from Les Gray did initially buck up his ideas at Birmingham and Coventry in important wins. Here he repaid his manager with 12 touches in an hour. There was trouble at mill, and this was the first public sign of it. Barnsley, meanwhile, a team QPR could at least guarantee three points from a season even in our darkest times, maintained a bogey over Warburton that eventually stretched to five wins and a draw with 15 goals scored. When we talk about chronic problems and struggles to fix them over time, there were teams we liked playing, and teams we really didn’t, and the Tykes we really, really didn’t.
QPR 1 Peterborough United 3, Sunday March 20, 2022, Championship
The collapse was in full swing by the time QPR somehow contrived to lose to lowly Peterborough for the third time in the campaign. Even with everything that has gone on, if you add back in a win here, one against Cardiff and one against Sheff Utd – three home matches all of which we led in the first half – we’d have made the top six. If the six games at the top of this article celebrate everything that was good about Warburton’s QPR, this match was everything that became bad about it. The weird, passive, pisballing about with the ball in defence when 1-0 up was here – where had that team from Middlesbrough gone? Premier League loan players, selected ahead of our own, playing like complete tarts, with Dion Sanderson in particular absolutely woeful against the artist formerly known as Jack Marriott. A second 37-year-old hauled out of retirement this season playing in goal, doing nothing that one of our kids couldn’t have happily done himself. Weird and wonderful substitutions from the manager, which while not quite a Steve McClaren v Bolton moment, certainly had the natives openly and verbally restless for the first time in W12 in his reign. The ownership had actually been minded to sack Warburton after a similar debacle here against Cardiff a fortnight before to try and rescue the promotion challenge, only for him to magic up a 2-1 win at Luton that surprised everybody and kept him employed for another week to this match which was seen as a banker home victory and then an international break to regroup. That the club moved a rare Saturday 15.00 kick off to Sunday lunchtime, surrendering all the revenue and atmosphere that comes with that, and putting supporters’ backs up, at the manager’s request to give his team the best chance of recovering from a midweek at Nottingham Forest, and then lost the game anyway exacerbated a bad situation. There was fury at board level, particularly from Tony Fernandes, and his fate was effectively sealed from this point on.
Stoke City 1 QPR 0, Saturday April 23, 2022, Championship
As I keep saying, QPR’s results in the first half of the season had been so good it was actually, in many ways, harder to miss the play-offs and qualify them from the start of February onwards. Even with Barnsley, Peterborough, Cardiff, the total collapse, the backroom tensions and rows, the injuries, the goalkeeper farce, and everything else besides there was still a chance three games out. Beat Stoke, beat Sheff Utd at home in the final home game, Rangers would have been joint sixth going into the final day. Stoke had won and won well at Loftus Road in December, but since had a nosedive of their own and Warburton’s post match mumbles about the experience they were bringing off the bench rang very hollow given they’d had exactly the same problems with senior players being injured as we had, and we brought on Charlie Austin, Albert Adomah and Andre Gray ourselves. Against a side with nothing to play for, on a ground where Warburton’s team had won and won well twice before in the previous seasons, to play as we did with it all on the line was dismal. Not a single shot on target in the whole game, and a pathetic 1-0 defeat. On the ground where this reign started with such flair and optimism, for it to end here like this was as poignant and tragic as football gets. The ructions subsequently came to a head during the week, when Les Ferdinand’s needless and rather tactless interview with TalkSport at the club’s golf day all but confirmed Warbs was gone and forced his and the club’s hand into confirming it prior to the Sheff Utd game. That then transformed the final home game into what would certainly have been a meek defeat played out in front of a tiny remaining crowd at the end, into some form of a farewell. Those left in the stands confused as to what has gone on, and wondering where it all went so wrong.
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When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #35 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #34 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #33 by wessex_exile
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