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Chekhov's winter - Awaydays
Saturday, 29th Jul 2023 23:28 by Clive Whittingham

If you were hoping for some sort of statement of intent for the campaign ahead from QPR at Oxford in their final pre-season friendly on Saturday, then I fear you may have got exactly that.


Summer was always a strangely conflicted time for me as a teenager.

For ten months, a little after 3pm each day, I would trudge away from the force of enormous, all-encompassing evil that was my secondary school and plough headlong into the icy winds of a northern winter which whipped up and over the brow of the hill and across the playing fields that divided the sanctuary of my home from the hellscape of my Monday to Friday.

I was beaten down by the violent monotony of being slightly different and remotely intelligent in a place which actively - often physically - punished both until you learned to hide them from public view. At all of four-and-a-half-feet tall, and six stone in a baggy coat, I was also completely frozen through to my spleen by being forced to spend said winter learning equations, algebra and practically useless parts of the French language in a post-war prefab that should have been (and shortly after I left, was) condemned. Crumbling asbestos ceilings, single pane windows still rattling in their frames from the Flixborough disaster, and enormous iron radiators which the budget didn’t ever stretch to turning on. Wearing a coat in class was a crime akin to raping one of the year sevens, and punished in kind.

And so we sat there in shirt in tie, and froze, breath hanging before us in the air, hands too frigid to write – not that anybody in that place was ever remotely interested in writing anything down anyway. It was a cathedral of misery, and my five years there was more torture porn than education. Mum told me it was “character building” at the time, and now bursts into tears of regret whenever I bring the experience up. When I eventually made it through my back door each evening, alone in the house with the parent still alive still at work, I would run myself a bath at 13 years of age, sit in it to thaw out, and weep. Often uncontrollably. My school was not a place for humanity, and I was so out of place there it physically ached.

The last day of term, the first day of summer, should, therefore, have been joyful. But even at that age I found the speed at which time passes anxiety inducing. Six weeks would become five would become four would become two would become a day in the blink of an eye. I hung around with nobody, because I hated them and they hated me. I would deliberately fill my days with nothing, and make myself bored, to try and make the time drag. And yet no sooner had I walked out of that dungeon for the final time in July, I was being dragged back into it on the first Monday of September. Asda George’s “back to school” adverts piercing the peace like a siren calling me back to the rocks. God it was a desperate existence.

There was also no coping mechanism in the summer. The railway ran up from the swing bridge over the Trent into the steel plant beyond along a steeply inclining viaduct that ran essentially right over the top of my gran’s house, which would vibrate violently in the night as each load of coal for the blast furnace or oil to and from the Humber passed by. The only thing stopping me from wandering up there and standing in front of one of them was the thought of escaping down the tracks the other way on Saturday to see QPR, wherever QPR may be. To be with my dad, and later my dad’s mates who took me under their collective wings after his death, and away from everything else. It was a terrible QPR team – all Karl Ready, Karl Connolly and other abysmal footballers not called Karl – but it was a paradise compared to what it took me away from and I loved it. In the summer… they weren’t there. Saturday after Saturday, with no Christer Warren in my life.

I couldn’t work out whether I wanted the clock to speed up or slow down.

One June afternoon in 1997, desperately trying not to be noticed at the back of a stupefying science class, the school receptionist arrived with a package for me. A large brown business envelope, which my dad had driven across town from work to deposit at the front desk and ask them to take to me wherever I may have been on the timetable. Inside a single sheet of A4 paper onto which he’d simply written “Ipswich H”. Our opening day fixture. Another couple of months away but, still, hope. We’d soon be away from all this, back in The Goldhawk together. I folded it up, slipped it into my satchel, and started counting the days. QPR drew the game 0-0. When he died the school told my mum I should be back in lessons as quickly as possible, including the week between the death and the funeral, because “normality is important for children in these circumstances”. The vile cunts wanted my SATS results to keep them from the bottom of their precious league tables.

The Covid lockdowns took me back to those days. The painful frustration of being forced away from the thing that keeps you going, the people you love, the places you thrive. All the broccoli, all the homework, and no cake to reward. Just day after day of the same punishment, and then occasionally a glimpse of what we were missing via grainy feeds streamed from empty football grounds. Like forcing an addict to quit smoking by chaining them to a desk and playing a video of a beautiful woman chuffing Marlboro Reds on a loop. I’d have done anything to get back to QPR, to Loftus Road, to that away end at Luton as Charlie Austin bagged the first goal of his return, to that stand behind the goal at Watford where Albert Adomah netted a last minute winner. Anything.

Now, barely two years later, I’m dreading that thing. Dreading it. The summer has burned past. I’ve tried to fill it with things, I’ve travelled, I’ve hiked up mountains, I’ve read books, I’ve sat on trains, I’ve seen people. It’s been, at times, majestic. And all the time that Saturday August 5 has loomed ever closer, with its 48 match previews, 48 match reports, just like the first day back at school used to. My hobby and love, becoming a second job and a chore.

I’ve told myself it might be ok, I’ve searched for positives, I’ve looked for three teams worse than us.

And then, on Saturday, I waded through train strikes and country pub beer gardens to Oxford United.

The Match Report

You’ll know, by now, that QPR lost the game 5-0.

Oxford finished nineteenth in League One last season, and spent much of their time after Christmas preparing for League Two. Between January 24 and April 22 the U’s played 17 times without winning once, losing 11 and drawing six. Liam Manning, formerly of MK Dons and once on the shortlist to takeover at Loftus Road until Honest Mick got his PowerPoint out, is charged with turning their fortunes around and in Cameron Brannagan has a central midfielder so clearly and obviously the best player on the pitch on Saturday that it became quite embarrassing for his opponents.

Brannagan scored the first goal, just before half time, and in their 1 min 18 second highlight package the club has tactfully, surreptitiously, cut out Taylor Richards jumping so high and far out of a tackle by the dugouts that he ended up at the back of the main stand and startled the air traffic controllers at Heathrow. An act of cowardice that set the whole chain in motion. He was not invited back to join us for the second half after another woeful, tossed off performance. If he doesn’t clock soon that he is on a downward spiral, in both life and career, and do something about that, then he’s going to be in a bad place, and our decision to spunk summer budget we no longer have on signing him permanently is going to look even more ridiculous than it already does. The only time he did get on the ball with any purpose he tripped over the bloody thing. The time, for Taylor, is now, or literally never.

His half-arsed ineptitude had plenty of company in the first half. Alongside him in the attacking half of a 4-2-3-1 were Ilias Chair, Chris Willock and Lyndon Dykes. That’s as good as we’ve got left at the club, and between them they didn’t manage a single, meaningful shot on target all afternoon. Willock’s curled effort a foot wide of the far post just after half time was the “highlight”. Chair’s very presentable first half free kick from 20-odd yards out - into the wall at waist height - pathetic. The promise of getting the ball wide and swinging in proper service for Dykes, as he gets with Scotland, playing truant here.

You can, of course, debate whether stationing Willock and Chair, two of the supposedly best ‘tens’ in the division and lethal on their day when they play close together, far away from each other on the extreme right and left of the field is shrewd tactically. But both should be doing more than this against this standard of opposition. Chair looked checked out. Willock, in “the best shape of his life” according to Ainsworth in a fans meeting on Thursday, has spent the last few weeks adding bible verses and trite “our journey is decided by the Lord” cliches to his Instagram stories. I wonder if “God’s path” might include him removing his fist from his arse at some point? Or are he and his dad just intending to cruise through to Ryan Manning’s regular table at the free transfer buffet next summer?

Paul Smyth, once again, nowhere to be seen. Quite what Ainsworth gets out of pretending it was always the plan to take him off after 30 minutes in Austria, pretending his absence since then is due to “loading”, then sitting in a room of 20 of the club’s most committed fans on Thursday and saying he’s basically fine and will play on Saturday when he’s not and he won’t, I don’t know. Gareth, surely it’s going to be worse for morale in the long run when it turns out Paul Smyth is injured and you’ve told people he’s not? … They won’t remember.

Mostly though, I feel for the manager. He’s waited a decade for this job, it’s all he’s ever wanted, it’s the only thing he would have left Wycombe for, he’s coveted and courted it forever, and he’s got it… now. At the point when the team is worse than the one he left behind, and the FFP situation is so tight we can’t even afford the £400k required to bring Chris Forino (whose Championship credentials are highly questionable anyway) along with him. Dominic Gape, who Wycombe released after two years of solid injury problems, played a second trial game for us here. He is - how do we put this delicately? - an odd shape. Ainsworth has gone from thinking we’ll have “two or three” new faces for Watford when he met me ten days ago, to talking up one “32, 33-year-old from leftfield” in the meeting this week.

The only change he has been able to implement is sport science, better preparedness, and bringing in Ben Williams from the clean and tidy world of cycling. The hope/prayer is they won’t have the injury problems that hamstrung us so much last season. Availability will be key in a small squad, and he’s trumpeted coming through the summer with only Jake Clarke-Salter crocked as a major plus point. That nearly went out of the window last week at Wimbledon when Jimmy Dunne’s prolonged spell of treatment left us staring down the barrel of Watford away with Deon Woodman and Joe Gubbins at centre back. Well, you’d best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner, you’re in one. Dunne’s sickeningly awkward fall in the first half separated shoulder from torso and required a stretcher and oxygen. Fuck me to death. Is there anybody on board who knows how to play centre half? Good job we released Conor Masterson.

With Gubbins and Trent Rendall at centre back, not a league appearance between them, a second half carve up could have been predicted, and duly occurred. Oxford played all the football on the day, pressing and winning the ball high, passing it with pace and purpose around midfield, switching it hither and thither and exposing isolated full backs on both sides. One such move allowed Mark Harris to spin in behind and thump a second into the roof of the net for two. Another, with the superb Ruben Rodrigues (available on a free transfer from Notts County this summer, hello muppets anybody out there?) at its heart, saw Marcus Browne run through and chip Asmir Begovic for three. How you finding it Asmir? The hakas will continue until morale improves.

Podgy-nosed Everton loanee Stanley Mills slipped an amateurish offside trap for four soon after. Watch, first of all, how easy it was to play out and around our initial press onto Oxford in their half, and then keep your eye on Andre Dozzell’s “tracking back” as the U’s meandered up the left touchline. Disgusting stuff this. Like a Bullseye contestant so useless Jim thanks them for “saving us the time” by not bothering to even attempt the question. Dozzell, like Willock, seems to think he’s a bit better than all of this, but do these guys not think football people talk to each other? That word doesn’t get around? Who’s watching either of them at the minute and thinking they fancy a piece of that action?

The whole thing richly deserved a fifth, and that came from the obligatory shambolic set piece concession ten from time – Jordan Thorniley with the free header into the unguarded net with nobody on the posts. If you think you’ve seen us concede that goal a few times before then let me remind you you’ve seen that exact goal scored before by the self-same player in the 6-1 defeat at Blackpool in March. Thorniley’s done 180 minutes against QPR in 2023, and is currently 11-1 up on aggregate with two for himself. He’s a centre back. Not a particularly good centre back either.

It actually deserved a sixth, and when Osman Kakay spent 45 second looking for somebody to take a throw in to down by the Oxford corner flag, and then ended up giving the thing straight away and losing a tackle trying to recover, the home side paraded all the way down that left flank again and struck a firm effort past Begovic and out off the inside of the post.

The majority of the 1,700 travelling idiot section had long since headed for the exit, and those that remained were getting increasingly, audibly aggy. Some of these players are not good enough, and however much you shout at Zesh Rehman he’s not going to become Kenny Sansom. Some of these players, however, are not arsed and they deserve everything that’s coming their way. Talk about pre-season being a fitness exercise, results not mattering, I agree with you. Countless examples of teams who had shit pre-seasons, including Neil Warnock’s 2010/11 title winners, going on to do great things. It’s next week that counts. But in the final friendly you do at least want to see a bit of shape, a few combinations, a positive direction of travel. Those watching at home tell me even Nick London and Andy Sinton on the official club coms were in something approaching a relatively open revolt about some of the stuff that went on here.

Oxford’s match report describe their efforts as “confident, structured and playing bright, attractive football where everyone knows their role”. They’re right, too. If you’re not alarmed by some of the stuff we offered up in return I don’t know what to say to you.

On the plus side

Ainsworth said an interesting thing in the meeting with fan groups at the training ground on Thursday afternoon. “Every year,” Brent mused, “there’s a team that blows out on the opening day of the season and gets done 5-0. Look down the EFL next weekend, there will be one. I don’t want that to be us.”

At the time I thought ‘Christ, I know we’re trying to alter the mindset and temper the mood but flagging up a three or four goal defeat at Watford as a potential positive is a bit bloody defeatist even for the circumstance we’re in’. But having watched us all summer, and then again today, I think it was actually more than expectation management, I think he genuinely feared it might happen. Because to watch us, against Slavia Prague, Steyr Whoever They Were, Wimbledon (bar one nice move in the first half), Reading’s youth team… I think we’ve looked miles off, and this sort of thing has been coming. Today you play a halfway decent League One side that wants to pass the ball, attack, play with width, and you get absolutely annihilated. Can any of us say we’re actually surprised?

The positive is it happened today, and not next Saturday. Obviously you’ve now lost Jimmy Dunne, so you’re hoping Morgan Fox and/or Jake Clarke Salter can come in with no pre-season at all and do 90 minutes at Vicarage Road, otherwise it’s a creche. But, more than personnel, the problem at Oxford, as it was for so much of last season, was attitude, application and the response to adversity. Ainsworth has thumped the tub promising a different mindset and vibe, but only Asmir Begovic is new in this starting team. These boys have shown us, countless times, what they’re about, and they did so again here. Several of the team’s bigger, better names disgraced themselves. If you’re not very good (and we’re not very good) then effort levels can cover that to a certain degree – players like Dom Ball have made a career out of that. If you’re not very good (and we’re not very good) and you’re not making the effort, then you get brutally found out. Ainsworth described it afterwards as a “kick up the backside”, my predecessor on this site Simon rightly described it more accurately as a “kick up the frontside”.

Even Mr Positivity Ainsworth appeared dejected, downbeat, furious and frustrated in his post match. He, and we, just have to hope that one of these experiences flicks the switch in this team’s collective mindset. I found myself wanting Oxford to score more – let’s get done seven, eight, nine, now, while it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’ll wake somebody up at some point. I feel like that dog who finds their owner unconscious and inadvertently chews them to death trying to rouse them.

Ainsworth left the field with a rueful smile and shake of the head. I wasn’t sure whether that was disgust at what he’d seen or annoyance at the hostile reaction from the away end to what was, at the end of the day, just a pre-season friendly. His CV says if anybody can keep this team in this league this season it’s him, and honestly if he does then it’s statue on Batman Close time. Newcastle’s Championship title winning team got done six at Leyton Orient the week before the campaign started, and the whole thing served as a catalyst. Maybe it’s this latest humiliation that finally lights the painfully lacking fire beneath their feet.

When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of FFP.

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ozexile added 00:09 - Jul 30
Nice writing Clive.

Gleni1977 added 04:41 - Jul 30
Powerful piece Clive. Thanks for sharing. Ainsworth getting a lot of stick, but who would want to manage that squad with no money to improve it. Going to be a long season.

Churchie added 06:39 - Jul 30
Tough share Clive. Well done to you.

davman added 06:58 - Jul 30
With you on how angry GA seemed, but I was expecting wholesale changes this season. But this is the same group of mentally fragile tears that ended last season. They will never be good enough at this or a division below.

Nothing can change their mindset, so he needs a whole new squad, which he has not got.

Darkness, my friend, not allowed on the message board, but f-me...

Akindweevil added 07:41 - Jul 30
As usual, a wonderful write up, Clive. And, also as usual,
the injection of humour goes a fair way to lessen the senses of pain and despondency. It will, no doubt, be a challenging winter. But more than this, I was genuinely moved by your opening section, and description of those bleak school days. I was sorry to learn that and empathise, (though in my case it was because I ended up going to a grammar school, having made the mistake of passing my 11-plus). Thinking positively, maybe your mum was right about such challenging experiences being character building (if you can survive them)... not sure the 0-5 drubbing will have the same effect, but hope springs eternal, and we are currently sitting in our happy 16th position in the league.

E15Hoop added 08:57 - Jul 30
Can I come back on this whole "darkness not allowed on the message board " bullsh*t that I keep seeing??
Speaking for myself at least - and seeing as I've taken a fair amount of crap from various quarters over the last few months, I feel I'm fairly justified in speaking out about this - my whole point has been to formulate a balanced, objective viewpoint on exactly where we are.

Many in the "happy clappers" camp, as we are often somewhat patronisingly referred to, have simply been asking for those who clearly enjoy indulging in self-pity and seeming to love coming up with the phrase "I told you so" on as many occasions as possible, to justify their standpoint.

I saw a couple of messages - not a great surprise, to be fair - yesterday saying "I can't wait for the happy clappers to come out and justify this sh*t", clearly salivating at the prospect of sinking their ravenous teeth into those of us who have simply been asking for some degree of balance and perspective.

Sorry to disappoint you all, but I'm not going to come at you with "it will all be fine next week" and all the "blind optimism" that you've been dying to see from me in response.

This post-match interview is, indeed, very telling, and I would hope for a particularly uncomfortable week in training this week for those individuals who GA clearly had in mind with the phrase "those who don't want to try won't play", regardless of what their surname is.

Paddyhoops added 09:43 - Jul 30
You know we are bang in trouble when Jimmy Dunne does his shoulder and it feels like we’re staring into the abyss . Let’s not forget he was woefully out of form in the latter part of last season.
However the alternatives are too woeful to contemplate.
As for Dom Ball . The longer he has left us the better he gets. A brilliant pro in comparison to what we remains.

komradkirk added 10:34 - Jul 30
After a season or more of berating our very poor footballers looks like day one is going to be more of the same.

extratimeR added 11:08 - Jul 30
Well done Clive really, the only positive it seems from yesterday's debacle, is your match report.

It sounds dreadful, I thought the dressing room clear out of the loan players would generate a sea change in morale, but it seems to have got worse, ( is that possible?)
I'm guessing after the next round of Internationals that Lyndon will be on his way, (hence Contract extension), someone will take Chair for next to nothing, and then er?

Great journalism Clive, most of the people around me were very good players, but we are a tadge old, fan selection for next week?

Cheers Clive!


thehat added 12:12 - Jul 30
Thanks Clive - Spot on it was a throughly shambolic performance.

The body language from some of the senior players was a disgrace. A few think they are better than they are and dont want to do the uguly stuff. Our best hope this year is to stop trying to play pretty football as we are not good enough. We may have to park the bus and look to hit teams on the break with Armstrongs pace. I’m also glad you mentioned Chair’s pathetic free kick as 60 seconds later the ball was in the back of our net.

A complete and utter pile of steaming poo………..

ParkRoyalR added 12:21 - Jul 30
Great report Northern, brilliant writing as always, seems wrong that we benefit from your 7 year stretch as a southerner in a northern comp, sounds like one of those 'banged up abroad' crime doc's

The Goldhawk now that was a great pub with great characters, even Tony the Barman must have seemed liked a friendly face after a week spent in a freezing pre-fab.

Phil_i_P_Daddy added 12:31 - Jul 30
Nobody would blame you for taking the season off Clive. God knows the club seem determined to.

Faurlinho added 12:48 - Jul 30
The football may be shite, but your writing is, as always, exceptional. Write the book,Clive, write the book.

Northernr added 12:56 - Jul 30
ParkRoyal - I still remember one of the cup games with Millwall in the 90s, maybe the Clive Wilson penalty one, where The Goldhawk was "closed" but if you went round the back, knocked on the door and Tony knew your face then you were in.

We later moved over to The Brackenbury with him.

qprcmob added 13:02 - Jul 30
Brilliant Clive at least we have your reports to look forward to this season along with Kevin Gallen on the R's podcast and our kit and maybe a lot of tremendous saves from Begovic

ParkRoyalR added 13:15 - Jul 30
Northern, we transferred likewise as my mates dad was likely guvnor in The Brackenbury then (and maybe Margaret had retired at same time) still see Tony the Barman round the Bush, hasn't changed at all, must have looked mid-60's in his early 40's, good times.

E15Hoop added 14:20 - Jul 30
I'd like to personally thank Damo for his downvote to my earlier comment.
Tell me, my friend, exactly what you objected to.
Was it the reference to a lack of balance in the self-pity brigade, or was it the fact that I let you down by not fulfilling your preconceptions by offering my blood up to be bathed in?
To repeat - so its clear this time - all I'm interested in is a balanced, objective view of where we currently stand. If its crap, I'm not going to deny its crap.
Hopefully, its reedemable, and I trust this management team to find a way to do that, even if its a painful process for us all to endure in the meantime.

UPPERLOFTNZ added 21:36 - Jul 30
beautifully written as always Clive. Your efforts keep us poor expats sane.. ATM here in NZ there are the bunch of us in the "official New Zealand R's" group (161, out of a pop of 5.5 million) All trying to be optimistic, but not me I'm afraid. You think last season was bad? I fear this season we'll start bottom, stay bottom and we'll have to watch one of our heroes try to manage a team that is simply not good enough, nor cares enough, to win a game.

I may even bet on us losing each week just so I have a tenner to start saving for the arsenic (expensive over here) I'll need by May...

R_from_afar added 15:25 - Jul 31
Sorry to hear your school days were so tough, Northern, it sounds grim.

Thanks, as ever, for the write-up. It was painful enough reading it, composing it must have been ghastly. We are in such a state!

My greatest fear is that what looks like a dog rough season doesn't end up setting fan against fan. I think it's important to remember that the pro-Gareth / anti-Gareth dynamic is not binary in that I doubt there is anyone who is supportive of him (e.g. me) who thinks everything is fine. I certainly don't.

Conversely, I'm sure most if not all of those who want him out believe he is bringing at least a few positives.

Brace yourselves, it is going to get ugly, sigh...


Hadders added 01:00 - Aug 1
I came to LFW to read about football yet the opening of this stopped me in my tracks. It is brilliantly written, moving and harrowing and so raw and confessional that it is hard to read, Northern's hurt and fury still palpable. No-one should have that much sh*t to deal with growing up Clive, and I hope you have managed to leave it well behind, at least most of the time. Reading it made me feel like giving you a hug, though if I ever bump into you, I guess you'd prefer a Peroni.

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