End Of Term Report 21/22 – Midfield
Wednesday, 25th May 2022 16:20 by Clive Whittingham
Part three of our annual end of term report card takes a look at the central midfield where hopes were sky-high for Stefan Johansen's potential impact, but in the end Luke Amos became the people's champion.
7 Stefan Johansen D
There is a text message in my phone from around this time last year, when we would gather en masse (but only in groups of six of course, and Scotch eggs all round) in the garden at the Crown and Sceptre to watch the QPR games on perfectly synced up iPads waiting for normality to come back to our lives. QPR had just beaten Luton 3-1 a couple of streets away at Loftus Road, and Nathan Jones’ lower lip was bubbling once more. Stefan Johansen scored the middle goal in a 3-1 victory. Mel Huckridge, the man who brought us Mackie vs Routledge: The Road To Victory, and two separate books about how to get into interesting football matches you haven’t bought a ticket for, got in touch to simply ask if I could only sign one, Austin or Johansen, who would it be? Johansen was, and is, the answer. Mel agreed, and responded with the sort of language he uses to convey enthusiasm.
I couldn’t believe how good Stefan Johansen was when he first arrived at QPR. He’d played against us several times, and even scored at Loftus Road in his Fulham days, but games against Jeffers and AJ from the otherside of the Hammersmith Broadway always felt to me like we were paying for a day out in Tom Cairney Land. You’d click through the turnstile, marvel at The Tom Cairney Variety Show, get scared in The Tom Cairney House of Horrors, and sometimes be back out again before half time with the score long since blown out – Tom Cairney riding you, as it turned out, rather than the other way around. I can’t say Johansen had ever really stood out to my uneducated eye but he won the title in his last year in Norway, all three years he played for Celtic, at Fulham he won one promotion and lost a play-off final and on loan at West Brom he lost a play-off semi-final, which meant that 2020/21 with QPR was the first time in nine years that he hadn’t either won the league he was playing in, won promotion from it, or at least qualified for the play-offs. And that certainly wasn’t for want of trying – QPR won 15 of the 23 games he was here for through the second half of the campaign. You don’t get into teams like that if you’re a mug, and his arrival with Sam Field absolutely transformed the middle of our team. I spent the summer thinking, saying and writing that if we could get him signed up permanently for 2021/22 it would be the final piece in a puzzle that, once completed, would be an absolute shoo-in for the play-offs.
The general perception now is that Johansen has been complete crap, and certainly all those Fulham fans who said “his legs have gone” would appear to be correct. Numbers wise, that’s not entirely fair. Up to the turn of the year only Ilias Chair created more chances in our team, and Johansen was in the top ten for the entire division in that metric at that point, all while playing a deeper midfield role. At home to Huddersfield, in a 1-0 win against a team that may yet still win promotion, he was the best player on the pitch and controlled the game from higher up. After a painful 80 minutes away at Blackburn concluded with them scoring, QPR had nothing to lose for the remaining time, pushed Johansen further forward again, and he produced two outstanding defence splitting passes that should have yielded at least one goal for Andre Gray. He got five assists, which isn’t terrible, though considering he takes the majority of set pieces when he’s playing perhaps not great either. Two of the five came in the opening week at Hull and Boro, and the sort of clever, creative corner we saw for Lyndon Dykes at Hull, and Yoann Barbet at Bristol City, is another positive from 2021 that didn’t make it into 2022 – only Blackburn, Peterborough and Swansea had a worse xG from set pieces than us last season, as per @AnalyticsQPR. There’s no doubt that he was far less effective and influential this season than last, and through the second half of the campaign he was physically miles short of where he needed to be – incapable of doing the three game weeks the Championship demands, and way too far back down the field to make telling contributions to games.
I talked in the defenders piece about a few traits of Warburton’s team when it was at its best – wing backs pushed high, left and right wing backs linking up across the field high up the field, Seny Dieng releasing them with his passing, centre backs piling forwards over the halfway line. Another was midfielders getting up to join the attack. Look at the highlights of us at our best last season, and the goals we scored in a game like Preston at home this, and just how many men we were getting into the penalty box for attacks. All of that died away completely. Johansen scored four goals last season- all in impressive home wins against Bournemouth, Luton, Millwall and Sheff Wed – and should have had another to seal a win at Birmingham that riled Mark Warburton. This time he got just one, an injury time equaliser in the 3-3 at Reading. Sam Field, who also scored a key goal against Brentford while here on loan, got none. As I’ll come onto, goals from central midfield were a huge problem for us. I wanted Johansen far further up the field, influencing the attack, picking the pass, controlling those ice hockey power-play situations we used to put on around the Loft End penalty box, and contributing at least, at least, half a dozen goals. Whether because he’d been ordered to play deeper, or as I suspect because he can’t physically get up and down like that any more, by the end he was a million miles away from what he was, and what we needed him to be.
QPR are now in a really awkward situation here. They went super hot and heavy to get Johansen, offering a chunky three-year contract that will take him well past his 33rd birthday, and the captaincy of the club. There’s always stories about how much players are earning, and plenty of those are doing the rounds about Johansen now, but given where he came from, and that he wasn’t out of contract there, how desperate we were to get him, and how thick we laid it all on to tempt him here, if he’s on less than £20,000 a week then honest to God I’ll give you all the money I’ve got in the world. Having worked so, so hard over such a long period of time to get our wage bill below £20m p/a, and stuck to it so rigidly that we wouldn’t go over a £10k a week cap even to keep sellable prospects like Manning and Osayi-Samuel, it’s so disheartening to see it creeping back up towards £30m p/a in the most recent accounts, and for it to be deals like this, for players like Johansen and Charlie Austin who offer no sell-on value, to be dragging it there. The budget next season will have to be reduced, and we now have a player here sucking up a big chunk of that for the next two years while not contributing what we thought he would. The relationship with him is increasingly testy, hence him not being in the squad for the last game of the season at Swansea despite being fit – a game for which we named just five subs including two goalkeepers.
A salutary lesson that no matter how many times we get taught it, none of us ever learn. It doesn’t matter that he played well here on loan, it doesn’t matter that all the fans on social media are baying for it and telling you to show ambition and DMing Amit to get his hand in his pocket, it doesn’t matter that it will be popular, it doesn’t matter if idiot know-all bloggers like me are describing it as a “no brainer” and the final piece in the promotion puzzle. Ignore all of it and all of us. However unpopular it makes you, however much stick you get – if the contract is expensive, if he’s 30 or over, and if there’s no re-sale value, don’t do it. Don’t do it.
8 Luke Amos B
Luke Amos has had an interesting journey through three years as a QPR player. Prior to the knee injury he picked up in a 0-0 away at Bournemouth in 2020/21 Warburton picked him all the time and the supporters didn’t want him in the team half as much. Post ACL reconstruction Warburton barely picked him at all, and the fans wanted him in the team twice as often. As I’ll come onto in Dom Ball’s write up, and it applies to George Thomas as well, you can become a really good player and the answer to all our problems in the minds of the QPR support base simply by not playing for the first team.
When Amos was, belatedly in most people’s eyes, actually given some starts towards the end of the season he was ineffective as often as he was effective – the clamour was particularly fervent prior to Preston away, where he was completely anonymous in a 2-1 defeat, removed early and we rated him 5/10, as we did in four of his final six games. Also, to stick up for Warburton, Amos has had horrible ACL injuries on both sides over the last four years, which is mentally and physically tough to cope with. We know, from our own experiences with the legendary Ale Faurlin, that it’s a bit like drowning – go under the water once you can come back up, go under twice it’s dicey, go under a third time you’re lucky if you come back up again. Warburton loves and rates Amos, I’m convinced he would have liked to use him more, but we’ve got to treat him very carefully on this latest come back.
You could see why people wanted him in the team though. If you count Dom Ball’s goal at Reading, which initially went down as an own goal and I still think probably was, then QPR scored a paltry, pathetic, eight goals from midfield in the whole of last season. Amos got six of those by himself, and having hit the inside of the post against both Reading and Swansea was unlucky not to add another couple besides. The complete death of the box-to-box, goalscoring element of Stefan Johansen’s game that made him such a wow of a signing on loan, Sam Field’s point blank refusal to even contemplate crossing the halfway line, and the laughably bad performances from Jeff Hendrick, meant Amos was the only midfielder we had at the club with the legs, energy, desire and inclination to actually get up in support of the strikers and occasionally run beyond them for flick ons and shots of his own. He was, at times, transformative to a team that was listing and labouring badly. At Luton he came on as a sub, immediately belted somebody for a yellow card (Big Bad Luke is my favourite Luke: “I’ll punch your face” he says, in a high pitched child’s voice, in my mind), and started running up to join the attack, threaten, occupy the defenders, pose a threat. It’s not much, but it’s more than the other midfielders were doing, and it made a huge difference. The goals he got over Easter against Huddersfield and Derby were brilliant, exactly the sort of goals we need to be scoring, exactly the sort of goals we didn’t score often enough. Too often our strikers lacked service and support – Amos was able to supply both. Only Andre Gray had a better goals-per-minute ratio than Luke last season, and actually only Fulham’s Mitrovic and constant substitute Rodrigo Muniz had better goals-per-minute than Gray in the entire division.
Needs to be nastier. Needs to be able to effect and influence games like Preston away, when things aren’t going so well, and he can rather timidly melt into the background a bit. Needs to stop beating himself up on the occasions he doesn’t meet the impossibly high standards he sets for himself. But to come back as strongly from his injury as he has, turn the crowd completely around, and play as well as he did in the closing months while the team fell apart around him, is to his enormous individual credit and bodes very well for his potential impact here next season.
12 Dom Ball C
There is a syndrome at QPR, and I’m not sure whether it happens at other clubs, where you can become a really, really good player and important member of the team in the minds of the fans without actually playing. It can actually be really beneficial for your career to come here and not play at all. Ryan Manning made an absolute mint out of this. The longer we suffered Jake Bidwell’s painful mediocrity, the more time he spent not playing or pissing about on loan at Rotherham, the better he became and the more the clamour for him to start grew. Years and years ago I remember a similar thing happening to young Irish full back Danny Murphy here, because Paul Bruce was so completely dire in his position. There are three players in this section – Dom Ball, Luke Amos and George Thomas – who have benefitted from this over the course of 2021/22.
Ball actually started the season in the team, having trodden on Sam Field in pre-season and ruled his rival out for the first three months. Now, I like Dom Ball. Similar to Osman Kakay, I think having a player like this who is (presumably, as he came on a free from Rotherham) very low down your wage bill but competent covering a number of positions in your team is very valuable. Ball can play right side of the defence, centre back, and central midfield. He’s the best trainer at the club, his attitude is superb, and when he’s on the field he keeps it nice and simple, and can be very effective – check out that squad leading win percentage of 47.37% by the way. I’d have renewed his contract and kept him around for these reasons. Plus I found it amusing when he did his Gentle Ben at the kraft service table routine, haring miles out of position to smash through the back of some poor unsuspecting victim as the whole crowd cries ‘NO DOM’ as one and the referee reaches for the easiest and most obvious yellow card he’s ever given. Two of those, Blackpool home and away, absolutely hysterical. It’s only football at the end of the day, it’s meant to be fun. Stick a blow dart in him and let’s move on.
But, all that said, being a regular, every-game, starter in the centre of midfield was a bit much for him. Having done the difficult bit, he then gave the ball away cheaply for an equaliser up at Middlesbrough. He should have cost us another goal at home to Birmingham having played an inexplicable pass in behind his own full back, but Troy Deeney was too fat to get on the end of the resulting cross. We were better for having Sam Field back in his position, and a lot of people forgot his deficiencies in the first half of the season when starting to peg him as the answer to all our prayers during the spring collapse when he was never going to be that.
Nevertheless, I did feel it weird that Dom disappeared from the first team picture to the extent he did – often not even making the bench, to the point where he felt obliged to reply to that rising tide of social media traffic to say he was fit and available but just not being selected. A story did the rounds about him changing agents midway through the season, away from Mark Warburton’s son, which had a lot of conspiracy theories putting two and two together. He emerged from the bench as an emergency third centre back following Dion Sanderson’s brain explosion at home to Blackpool and acquitted himself brilliantly in horribly tough circumstances. As I’ve said already this week, Warburton did often seem to tie himself up in inconsistencies and contradictions between picking what he felt was his strongest team and rewarding players who played well. For Ball, and George Thomas, to come on and play as they did in that brave effort with ten men, and then disappear again afterwards, while Sanderson and Jeff Hendrick continued to waltz into the team regardless of performance, I thought was poor, and Ball’s family members have not been shy in saying the same thing to QPR fans at the latter games this season.
In the end, while not subscribing to the popular idea that this season’s slide could have been arrested if only Dom Ball and George Thomas had been used more, this was a better signing than I thought at the time. I’m disappointed he’s been released and would have kept him on for another year as an excellent bench option on a budget. His attitude and commitment to the club and the cause has been exemplary, absolutely first class, since the moment he got here. Being a professional footballer at this level, representing a club like QPR, really matters and mattered to him. And we’ll always have Cardiff. Huddled together in the freezing cold, dark, dank pub garden, watching QPR slowly and spirit sappingly let a 2-0 lead drift away, descending into a personal hell of misery and despair, only to see, out of the corner of the eye, on one of the iPads running slightly ahead of the other, Dom Ball draw back a left foot from 30 yards, and tear the net off the back of the posts from the top corner outwards, then turning back to the main screen to double check before celebrating because I daren’t believe my own eyes that it was true. I’ll never forget that moment, the scenes at the Crown and Sceptre, the almighty bollocking we got for it, and Dom Ball’s part in it all. It’s a tragedy the Loft wasn’t full to see it, and a disgrace it didn’t win the Goal of the Season.
It’s been fun. Thank you Dom, and good luck.
14 George Thomas C/D
George Thomas at Coventry was exactly the sort of goalscoring midfielder that this team, as said in the Luke Amos write up, is crying out for. He got nine in 33 starts and 20 sub appearances, including an edge-of-the-box scorcher against Oxford at Wembley to win Cov the EFL Trophy final. It’s why Premier League Leicester bought him. Unfortunately there, on loan at Yeovil, on loan at Scunthorpe, on loan at Den Haag, and at QPR, he’s never been able to recreate it. He has now scored four goals in five years. Against Stoke at home, when we desperately needed a goal, he ran through on goal and was denied by a leg save from the excellent Adam Davies. Against Reading, with the team 4-0 up and all the pressure off, he ran through on the goal and fluffed an attempted chip. Against Fulham, he had an amazing chance to equalise on half time, but caught the thing too perfectly and pinged it straight into the goalkeeper’s bread basket. There is a school of thought that if he could just get one, by accident off his bum perhaps, that the pressure would lift, the mood would relax, and more might follow. I’m starting to think that’s a bit of a stretch though, like the idea he might be an option at right wing back, which lasted as long as one torturous half hour at home to Barnsley.
What he can do is run around really, really fast. This is player 3/3 in this review who benefitted from the Ryan Manning syndrome of climbing the public popularity ladder through not playing, when in actual fact having to use players like this instead of players like Chris Willock is a big part of the reason we tanked towards the back end of the campaign. But away at Coventry, where a medical emergency in the crowd added 20 minutes to the end of a game QPR led despite being battered for most of the regulation time, he came off the bench and did a brilliant turn up front. Chasing the ball, harrying the defenders, winning possession high up the field, denying Coventry the chance to pump service into the QPR penalty box unhindered. I thought he was brilliant that day, and at home to Fulham despite the miss, and feel like we could have perhaps utilised him more from the bench in situations like that where we were clinging on at the end of games – God knows we had a few, of QPR’s nine away wins last year, eight of them were by a single goal.
But until he starts hitting the net rather than the keeper a bit more often, it feels like doing that from the bench is the limit of his usefulness to this team.
15 Sam Field A/B
Sam Field’s average rating of 6.22 is the highest of any of the other central midfielders in this section, and should probably be higher still. I’m a huge fan of his, I think he’s tremendously effective as a screen and a destroyer in front of the defence, who can also pass the ball effectively and creatively. His height and physique makes him an important aerial weapon in our own penalty box, and on the final day of the season at Swansea he showed himself well capable of switching into the left centre back role in the back three if necessary. But I am conscious of my bias, so frequently if I come away thinking he was a seven or an eight, I’ll bump it down to a mark in case it’s just me getting all mushy over the doe-eyed boy in the designer cardigan again. It’s these sort of signings I really like – 22/23, already with a tonne of experience, great development potential ahead of them, signed within our budget. If we could find a couple of wing backs like that, or the mythical starting striker, we’d be well set.
I’m also going to focus more on the negatives here, because I can tell from the interactive ratings that you guys give him that the both regular readers are fans too, so I don’t need to sit here and talk about all the good little things he does unnoticed – because, clearly, you guys do notice them. Clever girl. The areas for development and improvement are obvious…
He is very, very prone to giving away needless free kicks and picking up yellow cards he simply doesn’t have to. I like that cynical disrupter in a team, every Championship side needs one and QPR have been way too nice when operating without one since Josh Scowen dropped out of the team here. Sometimes a halt has to be called to an attack in a completely deliberate manner, some yellow card medicine taken, and everybody there understands why. I think Field, possibly through not trusting his speed, does occasionally pull that lever as his first rather than last course of action – 14 yellow cards in 29 games is in no way sustainable.
Secondly, we need more going forwards. The lowest shots-per-game averages in our team are not the full backs or centre halves, it’s the two central midfielders – Andre Dozzell on 0.4, Field on a pathetic 0.2. We need our central midfielder to be having a shot more than once every five bloody games. Like Johansen, when he was here on loan, breaking up to and into the penalty area was part of the big sell, and he scored an important goal in a home victory against Brentford. It was a relief to hear him in a typically erudite, intelligent post-match interview at Swansea that this is an area of his game that needs to improve, because it really does. Our lack of attacking threat from central midfield, bar Luke Amos, is chronic and needs fixing.
But, look, I like him, I was impressed, and he’s got an A/B rating, which, as you’ve probably clocked now three quarters of the way through this year’s report card, is rare.
17 Andre Dozzell C
Do you remember that pass? At Cardiff? The pass. Phwoar, look at that pass. What a pass that was. Like a surgeon’s scalpel, right through the heart of the Cardiff defence, took the whole team out of the game. Even Andre Gray couldn’t miss. The one moment of quality in a dire Championship match played in an empty stadium on a cold, dark night.
That’s what Andre Dozzell does. He passes, he passes forwards, he passes incisively, and he passes accurately. He never gives the ball away – only Chris Willock (85.8%) completes at a higher percentage in this team than Dozzell (85.6%). He’s one of the players we do have who can, as the trendy types call it, ‘move us through the thirds’. You can tell he’s a product of the data analysis and recruitment model, led by Andy Belk, at QPR because he ticks all the boxes that they’re looking for – young, development potential, good on the ball, comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces, good on the half turn, and a very high scorer in key statistical areas.
While the assist at Cardiff was the headline grabber, for me a better example came in Luke Amos’ goal at Huddersfield. QPR struggled through the second half of the season to get out of their own half with the ball. The fast, exciting, progressive team of 2021 gave way to this staid, boring slop that just moved the ball aimlessly between the centre backs and one defensive midfielder, with no hope or idea of how they were ever going to escape. Teams countered us yes – Blackburn a great example of a team that had a lousy set up against us in the first meeting last season and then tactically took us out of the game in the second. Senior players hit a physical wall, key players got injured, uncertainty over contracts, all of this we’ve heard. But an obvious element often overlooked is the players who are capable of ‘playing through the thirds’ came out of the team – Dieng, De Wijs, Dozzell are three of those. In the Easter game at Huddersfield the sort of situation we’d previously become bogged down in deep in our own half was transformed into a beautiful and successful counter attack by Dozzell’s clever, accurate, instinctive pass around the corner in his own half opening the whole picture up. Whatever you think and say about him, he can do that, and he’s one of the few we’ve got who can.
His problems are everywhere else. Dozzell has an infuriating propensity to play that perfect pass, and then stand and admire it. You may be thinking ‘phwoar what a pass that was’, but quite often it feels like he’s doing the same thing. I want him, and we need him, moving forwards and beyond the ball to get it back again, and play another pass higher up the field, or get a cross in, or who knows maybe even the odd shot? Dozzell burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old with a goal on his debut for Ipswich at Sheff Wed, but he’s only scored twice more since – three goals in 125 senior appearances from midfield. This season at QPR he averaged 0.4 shots a game - a pathetic average, the second worst in the team behind Sam Field’s 0.2. Dickie, Dunne, De Wijs, Barbet, Lee Wallace (!), JEFF HENDRICK (!!!) all have a significantly better average than that. He has to be a bigger attacking threat. He has to effect games more from the centre of midfield – grab them by the balls and start dictating and controlling things, get into their half, get on the ball, and start pulling a few strings.
There’s a lot of potential there. Just 23-years-old, loads of development left in him, and as we always say if there wasn’t something a bit wrong with them then they wouldn’t be coming to QPR within QPR’s budget would they? Could well be one that sinks or swims depending on who the new manager is, and players like him that we’ve invested in and need to develop to sell are why it’s so important this next appointment is coherent and following on the themes of the Warburton era. Liam Manning? You’d think him pretty perfect for that style and system. Gareth Ainsworth? I could see him back on loan at Ipswich within the first half an hour.
27 Jeff Hendrick D/E
If you think Jeff Hendrick was in any way half decent for QPR last season, that his signing was in any way necessary or made any kind of sense, that I’ve been in any way harsh or scapegoated him over the past few months by repeatedly pointing at him and asking ‘what the fuck is he doing here?’, then this is probably a section to skip over. Let’s just agree to disagree. He’s gone now, it’s the summer. If you’re sticking around, then please excuse the banging that accompanies this write up caused by me repeatedly slamming my head into the desk. I’ve now, finally, given up any lingering hope that QPR will ever stop doing monstrously stupid things like this, and have instead resolved to just turn my brain into a pulpy gloop, so next time it happens – and there will be a next time – I won’t be able to feel the mental torment it causes me.
Welcome to today’s episode of Jackanory. Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Shepherd’s Bush there was a football club that couldn’t make its mind up whether a striker or a ‘ten’ was its top priority for the January transfer window. Les Ferdinand and his side of the business leant more towards a striker, Nahki Wells was on the slate again and Andre Gray had got a few backs up so could have gone back to Watford to cover the costs of that, and he wasn’t afraid to toss the manager under the bus a little bit in February by saying, pointedly, that Mark Warburton “didn’t want a striker in January”. Warbs wanted a ‘ten’, and given the problems the team subsequently had when Chris Willock got injured I’m sure he feels very vindicated in that belief. The problem, boys and girls, is they didn’t have the money for either. QPR have rich owners, yes, but this isn’t a case of tightness, it isn’t a case of “backing the manager”, it isn’t a case of it being “worth the gamble”, and no amount of sending Tweets directly to Tony Fernandes, Ruben Gnanalingam or Amit Bhatia calling them tight, telling them to show ambition, telling them to back their manager, or anything else besides will change the simple fact that the league we play in has a rule about how much you can lose over a rolling three-year period. Last summer QPR sold nobody, bought everybody both the manager and the supporters wanted, and plenty more besides on top of that, and did their budget then and there. Take Ebere Eze’s sale out of the 2020/21 accounts and they show a £24m loss. Given the money spent on players, and particularly their wages, last summer it’s highly likely it will be at least that when the next set of accounts are out next February, even allowing for the return of gate income. QPR will require budget cuts and player sales to avoid running the £39m loss limit very close 18 months from now. The absolute most they could do in January was try and take advantage of Jamie Paterson’s Swansea contract dispute, or the financial collapse at Derby with Tom Lawrence, but when those prices went up towards £1m that was that – again, not through tightness, not through the board not backing their manager, just through the rules of the league and the state of the accounts. The money was spent, the manager was backed, in the summer, when everybody was passing around HMS Piss The League memes.
The club and manager were reasonably happy with what they had anyway. They finished January unbeaten with five wins and two draws, they had Seny Dieng and Ilias Chair to come back into the team, and there was a feeling within the club that the 4-0 win against Reading couldn’t have been better timed to calm everybody down and keep the persistent “sign a fucking striker” gawp down to a dull roar on deadline day. What happened next, after everybody had gone home, with the clock ticking down, is they signed Jeff Hendrick. I didn’t think I’d read that right at the time, and I still don’t. Neither a striker, nor a ten. Not a player who would improve our team, not a player we ever had any hope of signing permanently, not a player we needed, not a player in a position we were short in – already with Johansen and Field starting ahead of Ball and Dozzell in two spots. Jamie Reuben, Amit’s chum, who’d been on the board here for precisely as long as it took for the Linford Christie Stadium idea to go south and the property development potential of Loftus Road to dissipate, was now on the board at Newcastle helping them throw Saudi blood money around to financially dope their squad up the Premier League table, in the process dropping Hendrick so deep down the pecking order they’d basically forgotten they had him at all and were willing to let QPR have him for free as a favour between mates – rare in Premier League loans, and the only positive takeaway from this whole mess.
You could, perhaps, make an argument that as Stefan Johansen was key to the way the team played, and was clearly waning, that bringing in an experienced Premier League player to cover his spot wasn’t a bad idea. Except they didn’t use him to cover his spot. Sure enough, initially, in his first four appearances, it was one or the other. But then they started picking them together – Blackpool, Blackburn, Luton, Forest. The result was an embarrassing, stodgy, intensely boring, farce. Two 30-year-olds, with the same cry-for-help haircuts, falling over themselves to pass the ball back from the midfield to the centre backs. Blackburn away, where we had not only the pair of them together but also Sam Field, was painful. Three centre backs, three incredibly defensive central midfielders, two wing backs and a goalkeeper. I was bored. It was boring. I never thought I’d see it or say it of a Mark Warburton team but we were a fucking abysmal watch. More than 1,000 QPR fans had got up at the crack of dawn to get all the way up there for a game disgracefully shifted to a lunchtime kick off by Sky Sports, and they were rewarded with tedium in its purest form. The amount of times a ball was played from one of the three centre backs into midfield, and Hendrick would just pass it straight back to them, without a thought or consideration to even bother checking whether there might be a forward, or even sideways, ball available, was utterly infuriating. Say what you like about Andre Dozzell, and I’m very unsure about him, but he’ll at least take that ball on the half turn and look to play you through the opposition lines. Hendrick at Ewood Park – 52 passes. Key passes? One. Through balls? One. Out of 52. In the 11 games he was involved in, we won just two, and scored just five goals while he was on the field. He finished with zero goals and zero assists. At Luton, where we’d again started Hendrick and Johansen together, the difference Luke Amos made, as somebody willing to run beyond the strikers, press opposition defenders, and occasionally cross the halfway line, was insane. Even in a tanking team, and while frequently having to wait for his place in the team behind the gruesome twosome, Amos was able to score five goals from midfield in his final dozen appearances.
One of the enduring mysteries of last season for me is the Mark Warburton Masterclass video which I’ve posted above. Allowed to pick an example of his team and system working at its finest he, ironically, picked Blackburn at home, which Rangers won 1-0 pre-Christmas, and talked us through the finer points. One of the things he stressed over and again is the last thing we ever wanted was for the two defensive central midfielders to ever be deep and square of each other. It always had to be one pushing and pressing, and the other dropping off – that night it was the far less experienced, supposedly less talented, far less expensive, and often-maligned pair of Dom Ball and Andre Dozzell doing the job so well Warburton picked the game for his showcase. I completely, wholeheartedly, agree with him. So what happened? What happened to that team? What happened to that ideal? That by the time we got to Blackburn away it had been replaced with three, never mind two, defensive central midfielders, all playing deep and square of each other, knocking the ball around aimlessly and pointlessly in their own half? It was like we’d changed managers halfway through the season without noticing. Warburton absolutely loved Hendrick, he would eulogise about his quality of touch, quality of pass, awareness, the way he trained – a Premier League quality player, apparently. He picked him remorselessly, ahead of players we owned, ahead of players we’re meant to be developing, ahead of players who were playing better than he was, often coming up with weird and wonderful reasons to crowbar him back into the team even if he’d played like a tart the game before (which he often had). He wasn’t alone in this, of course, but given all these supposed superior qualities, his anonymous performance in the 1-0 loss at Barnsley was shameful. The mood really started to turn ugly at Nottingham Forest, when a promising start and 1-0 lead that should have been two but for a missed sitter, turned to a 3-1 defeat, with Johansen and Hendrick once more summoned from the bench together on the hour. The groaning and eye-rolling spilled out of the away end, and the social media went a lot further than that. It put the backs up of the permanently players who were replaced, and of the supporters forced to watch a team that had done nothing but entertain them for the previous two-and-a-half years bore them to tears just when the serious business started.
A disaster, from start to finish. The signing itself and the reasons it was made, his impact and performances, the constant ongoing selection and favouritism showed a big-name Premier League loan player woefully underperforming, the effect it had on the team and the crowd and the mood of both. A source of some considerable personal despair and an absolute classic of the QPR bed-shitting genre.
If you watch Stephen Duke McKenna in the U23s or the B Team it’s like watching a child trying to be Ilias Chair. It’s all dribbles and attempts to go round people and everything within 35 yards of the goal counts as a shooting chance. On the occasions I’ve sat through this I’ve thought him over-complicated, and trying too hard to do way too much. On his brief first team outings, which came at the start of the season in the high profile pre-season game with Man Utd, and then three League Cup ties with Oxford, Everton and Sunderland, he’s entirely different. Little, niggly, mobile, rat boy. Duke McKenna The Goblin Boy, nobody knows how he was born. Every second involvement a tackle – usually a sliding one, that the victim knew all about. Given how well he did this, particularly against Man Utd and Everton, I was surprised and disappointed not to see a bit more of him. Again, when we’re naming a short bench against Stoke, Bristol City, Swansea, it’s difficult for Warbs to make an argument that kids like this couldn’t at least have gone and sat there as the sixth or seventh spare. There were a few games where I thought that ratting routine could have been useful on the field as well. He got a good amount of action on loan out at Torquay – 20 starts, one sub appearance, three quite flashy goals. I presume the hope is for a League One loan next season, but I’ve seen enough to maintain some optimism about his prospects.
Faysal Bettache was our star man in the cup game at Leyton Orient, and then he was never seen again. It’s another one I find strange. He was one of the few youth prospects out of the academy that Warburton was a genuine fan of. On the one occasion he turned up late to meet with me it was early in his reign and because one of the group sessions the manager laid on to try and get a notoriously quiet team and dressing room talking and communicating with each other better had, very belatedly, seen one of the players finally stick his hand up and say something. That was Faysal Bettache, post friendly defeat at Oxford, saying that it was hard playing central midfield in a team where the centre backs don’t talk. “Are you going to take that from him?” Warbs asked. And off they went into exactly the sort of full and frank conversation and exchange of views that he’d long been trying to inspire and spark among the players. When he played, and played that well, at Brisbane Road, I thought we might be getting a breakthrough season from him at first team level, and yet nothing since. Another key failing of the last 12 months has been the quality of the loan deals. We were once lucky to find Conference South teams willing to take our players and this has improved considerably under Les Ferdinand’s regime but this year only Conor Masterson can be said to have had anything approaching a halfway decent experience at a good level. Charlie Kelman had a dire time at relegated Gillingham, Duke-McKenna could only get midtable Conference despite impressing in the summer, and Bettache was landed in the absolute basket case of Oldham Athletic where he made just eight starts and five sub appearances with only two victories to show for it. Another whose direction of travel from here really hangs on who the next manager is and whether he fancies him.
The Twitter @loftforwords
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When Monday Comes #37 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and we reach the end of a topsy-turvy season, much of which hasn’t been that much fun if I’m honest, though latterly considerably improved under Wayne Brown. If I can, I always like to do the first and last game of the season, but sadly a trip to Hartlepool just wasn’t on the cards, not if I actually wanted to get home again tonight, so I had to console myself with a pretty enjoyable trip to the JobServe last weekend – not quite the victory the U’s deserved over Walsall, but a great day out anyway. I know it’ll be too late for the Player of the Year awards, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a Freddie Sears hat-trick this afternoon to round off the season.
When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes tomorrow, and I will be on a train heading over to God’s own county for my last U’s game of the season. That should have been last Friday’s trip to the Principality, but as posted elsewhere I was more than happy to be pre-booked to dog-sit Emma’s collie Reggie that night and had to be content with one of Nadine’s ‘downstreams’ on iFollow. Given both the performance and the result, whilst I was sorry to miss it in person, I was more than happy with how Friday night turned out in the end. Tomorrow will be a gathering of the clans for us, with at the last count at least 8, possibly more, of the family gathering for the match. Ironically, I’ll see them all again on Bank Holiday Monday for a family birthday, but I’ll be driving over for that one.
When Saturday Comes #35 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and the U’s have already given us a fantastic start to the weekend, with a stirring and well-deserved 2-1 victory at promotion-chasing Newport County. Yes, the Exiles had lost the previous three at home and are looking like they are going to bottle their chance for the play-offs, and yes with the U’s now safe technically we had little to play for, but don’t take anything away from this performance. If Wayne Brown is still being ‘interviewed’ for the full-time role as Colchester United manager, then last night was the equivalent of having an excellent incisive question of your own lined up for the interview panel.
When Saturday Comes #34 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and our Easter Bank Holiday programme is already underway, following a dismal 2-0 defeat at St James’ Park yesterday. It’s not so much the result that galls, in truth deep down I suspect we all thought it was going to be a difficult trip to get anything out of, it was the manner of that defeat. To say the U’s were lacklustre is a massive understatement – and it wasn’t as if it was down to Exeter City simply outplaying us, I didn’t think they were all that to be honest. I can cope with defeat, heaven knows the U’s have given me enough practice in recent years, but to go down without a whimper, relying on Man of the Match Sham to keep it from becoming a cricket score against an average Exeter City, was just dreadful.
When Saturday Comes #33 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and there was a time, not too long ago, when today’s game against the charmless Steve Evans and Stevenage was looking like it might be a relegation 6-pointer. Whilst we’re not out of the woods quite yet, back-to-back victories over Tranmere Rovers and Harrogate mean we go into this game knowing even if we were to slip up against Stevenage, we’ll still be 8pts plus goal difference ahead of them, and only five games left to play. Still, let’s not dwell on negatives, because three wins on the bounce will be the confidence-booster we’ll need ahead of the tough trip on Good Friday to St James’ Park.
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