The importance of being Les – column
Sunday, 25th Jan 2015 16:25 by Clive Whittingham
Les Ferdinand, QPR’s legendary former centre forward and now technical director, has outlined his vision for changing the reputation of the club.
The ultimate centre forwardQueens Park Rangers finished fifth in the first Premier League season, ahead of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. If they could repeat the feat in the modern era it would be held up as a footballing miracle, and qualify them for a European campaign the long suffering folk of London W12 would attack with relish.
They did so back in the day with a fabulous side, grossly under-represented in an England team managed by Graham Taylor and certainly not good enough to be ignoring the likes of David Bardsley and Clive Wilson. Up front, Les Ferdinand, a centre forward Rangers had found playing for Hayes, developed, loaned out, coached and cajoled into a world class talent. He scored 20 league goals that season, 16 the season after, and 24 the season after that. He did so without taking penalties.
It became inevitable that Ferdinand would leave Shepherd’s Bush. QPR were a selling club. It was how they operated. The £6m received was big money in those days – Wilfried Bony costing Man City £28m after 18 good (and nothing more than that) months in the Premier League makes you wonder just what Les would cost these days. £40m? £50m?
Rangers, infamously, made a mess of replacing him when he did finally head for Newcastle, whose manager Kevin Keegan had become infatuated with the player like a lovesick teenager after seeing his own swashbuckling side ripped apart by that QPR team on more than one occasion. Too much pressure put on the shoulders of youth team graduates Danny Dichio and Kevin Gallen, too much faith placed in the knock-knees of crusty old Mark Hateley, too much of the rest of the money wasted on Ned Zelic – the only Australian ever to not settle in London – and Simon Osborn, who looked half decent but threatened player-manager Ray Wilkins’ place in the team so was shifted on after six months.
Wilkins, and his CEO Clive Berlin, certainly could have made a better fist of that. Millwall goalkeeper Kasey Kelley, winger Mark Kennedy and midfielder Alex Rae, Leyton Orient and later Oxford United defender Darren Purse, Scunthorpe United and later Oxford defender Matt Elliott, Grimsby striker Clive Mendonca, Crewe midfielder Neil Lennon and Huddersfield Town target man Andy Booth all moved around that time for fees amounting to less than Rangers paid for Hateley, Osborn, Zelic, goalkeeper Jurgeon Sommer and his aversion to saving shots from 30 yards out, and Barbadian winger Gregory Goodridge from Torquay. All enjoyed successful Premier League careers and all fitted the QPR mould of buying low from lower divisions and selling on for a profit before repeating. This isn’t being wise after the event either, as anybody who had their ear chewed off in The Goldhawk about that list of players at the time by my old man will testify to.
But replacing Les Ferdinand was never going to be easy. He was irreplaceable. QPR were relegated less than 12 months after he left and didn’t return to the top flight for 15 years, during which time they entered into administration and dipped down as low as the Second Division.
Clear pathwaysThey say never go back, but Les Ferdinand has a QPR crest on his chest again once more. Appointed as head of football operations back in October, he was welcomed back to the club by manager Harry Redknapp telling the press that job title was “stupid”.
That’s more an indictment of Redknapp, and the way the club has been run, of which more shortly, than any particular slight on Les Ferdinand, but it is a curious appointment. Without wishing to be snobbish or insulting, Ferdinand has never projected the image of being a deep thinker about the game. He’s coached, at Tottenham, and expressed a desire to manage without ever being given an opportunity. But he’s been described, by both Gerry Francis and Ray Wilkins, as a player who needed an arm around his shoulder, somebody who would struggle for self-belief unless you drilled home to him that he was brilliant and could do it. It’s an obvious fit, given his history at QPR, and yet somehow it’s not.
But Ferdinand has worked hard on his qualifications, he’s served his apprenticeship in a variety of roles at White Hart Lane, and he’s arrived with apparently strong, purposeful ideas about how our club should operate. He’s brought Chris Ramsay with him from North London to head up the academy – their arrivals seen as many, including this website, as a precursor to the eventual arrival of their former colleague Tim Sherwood as manager – who has an excellent reputation.
Most importantly, Ferdinand comes with a knowledge of what this club used to be like. Rangers have no kind of image, ethos or identity at the moment. When Les was here it was a club that promoted youth players, and scouted hard in the lower leagues, Scotland and Ireland, looking for rough diamonds like Andy Sinton who could be bought, developed and sold. Everybody had a clear idea of their job, from the right back to the club shop manager, and the club was stacked with QPR people.
On the Twitter now you’ll find Bardsley, a Manchester-born full back with no previous QPR connection prior to his arrival from Oxford in 1989, speaking as passionately about the club as any three-generation supporter. He runs an academy in the US that bears QPR’s name, and wears QPR’s kit, but the club have never shown any interest in affiliating properly with that set up and accessing a potential source of young talent, nor bringing Bardsley back to work with the young players here. Andy Impey is a life-long Arsenal fan but nevertheless shows a keen interest and concern to this day in a club that scouted him at Yeading, developed him and gave him his chance. Rufus Brevett likewise, Gavin Maguire likewise, Kevin Gallen more obviously but Manchester-born and raised Simon Barker as well. Back then it was a club with a proud, strong identity that got into the blood of the supporters and the tight-knit group of players. It’s been like that more recently as well, and you see through people like Gareth Ainsworth, Martin Rowlands and Chris Day, who didn’t;’t consider themselves QPR fans before they joined, the galvanising effect it can have at the time, and long into the future. Many of these people have expressed concern in interviews and social media that the club has rather lost its way - Trevor Sinclair the latest from that 1990s class to do so. It’s easy to whip QPR these days but all these people with the club at heart cannot be wrong.
It’s hard to imagine many of the current crop, in 20 years’ time, setting their alarms and getting out of bed early in Florida to make sure they’re in front of the television to see the QPR game, as Bardsley clearly does each week.
Ferdinand was turned into a £6m England international centre forward by that set up and spoke this week about changing QPR’s reputation for failing to develop young players. He wants to create “clear pathways” from the youth teams to the first team. Since Richard Langley made his first team debut in 1998 under Gerry Francis, QPR have graduated just one single youth-team player to regular first team action at the club: the late Ray Jones. Raheem Sterling and Dean Parrett were both stolen away before they could make first team debuts, but even four in 17 years is abject.
Tony Fernandes spoke when he arrived about being “all about the academy” and in the second part of an interview with the club’s official site (available below) earlier this week said it makes him cross when people claim that no improvements have been made to that side of the club.
However, even in the Championship, even when trying to cut back on spending following relegation, the club still added Oguchi Onyewu and Javier Chevanton to the first team squad on short term deals and never played them rather than give bench spots to Max Ehmer and Tom Hitchcock. Michael Harriman, Man of the Match at Liverpool on his senior league debut for the club nearly two years ago, hasn’t made a first team appearance in the league since. They’ll still try and develop somebody else’s kid on loan – Tom Carroll – than offer a place to their own and they’ll still chase Hail Mary loans – Mobido Maiga last January and Dani Osvaldo this – rather than look within for an answer.
“It’s always has been a priority of mine - look at my record over the years, I've played kids wherever I've been,” said Redknapp when asked about the departure of Josh Laurent prior to the Man Utd match before saying that none of the juniors at the club were good enough. The QPR manager went onto say it was a game of opinions and that while Ferdinand and Ramsey had liked Laurent, the “previous regime” hadn’t rated him. Redknapp, who has been with the club for more than two years now during which Laurent has been the midfield mainstay of the club’s most senior youth teams, apparently hadn’t seen the boy play enough to offer his own opinion, and said he was reliant on other people for their assessments. That’s how keen Harry Redknapp is to graduate youth players to the QPR first team.
Les admitted that he’d watched Laurent play and liked him, but so disillusioned had the midfielder become by a lack of opportunities at Rangers that he’d already made his mind up to leave for Brentford. The Bees are a club that have lived in QPR’s shadow for decades but have a new stadium on the way, a far superior youth academy, a much more competent (QPR supporting) CEO, a chairman who has made far shrewder football decisions since taking over and a bright, forward-thinking manager, they are in danger of overtaking Rangers in the next two to three years.
Ferdinand has, however, succeeded in persuading young Irish midfielder Ryan Manning that his future lies here, rather than the several other Premier League clubs sniffing around. “I was able to show him the pathways we’re putting in place,” he said.
Something to make me sweeterThat bodes well, but the reputation damage suffered over the past eight years stretches far further than simply a lack of youth graduates.
Whether we like it or not and whether it’s entirely fair or not, our football club is seen by some as everything that’s wrong with the sport, and by others as a total laughing stock - constantly throwing good money after bad and wondering why it’s not working. Regular listeners to the excellent Football Ramble podcast will have heard the boys running through Harry Redknapp’s quotes after the Manchester United defeat a week ago.
“Somebody is trying to cause me a problem here by talking to the papers. But it’s not a problem. I’ve never been at a club before where somebody says I’m going to get the sack. Who puts it in the paper? Somebody puts it in the paper. When I get fed up with it I’ll say I’ve had enough. I’m not sure when that will be. It could be any time. It’s up to the chairman. Whatever he wants to do. I love Tony Fernandes, and I’m not saying that because I’m creeping up to him. If he wants to go down a different route that’s fine. What can I do? If someone goes out, falls over the ball and concedes a goal, what can I do? You can only do your best. And I’ve had a great time. And I want to continue doing it.”
So there’s a problem that isn’t a problem. He might be fed up and leave but actually it’s up to the chairman and he wants to continue doing it. Overall, second bottom of the league without an away win all season, Harry is having a great time.
You could hear the peals of laughter in the studio. It was bloody funny. But I don’t want our football club to be funny. I want people to gush about QPR in the same tiresome, monotonous way they do about Swansea and Southampton. I want to be sick to the back teeth of reading about our wonderful youth set up, wide ranging scouting network, forward thinking backroom staff, and seamless transition between managers.
At the moment you only read about QPR when Joey Barton has made another self-important, self-serving Tweet or television appearance, or Harry Redknapp has come up with some quotable press-conference bullshit. The way the Adel Taarabt weight gain quote was thrown out there and then allowed to drag on for a week was appalling. At no other Premier League club would it have happened. At no other Premier League club would the manager be allowed to routinely throw assets - for which the club is paying good money and presumably hopes to sell on - under the bus as Redknapp has done with Jose Bosingwa and Taarabt. No other manager would get away with telling the press one minute that he has no idea how much Charlie Austin earns, nor how much he’s been offered in a new deal, then in the next breath tell everybody the amounts that Shaun Wright-Phillips and Taarabt are picking up. No other Premier League player is permitted the headline-grabbing Newsnight, Question Time and Twitter outings that Barton currently engages in - all while having another distinctly mediocre season. At QPR not only do we allow it, we make him the captain.
This has to stop, Ferdinand has to stop it. The club needs to have more self-respect than to allow this to go on. QPR is bigger, and more important, than any individual, and the individuals should act in its best interests not their own. Ferdinand has to start that ethos right away.
Redknapp is a symptom of an overall problem at this club, rather than a problem himself. When I asked him during a fans’ forum shortly after he’d arrived at the club what input he was having, or suggestions he was making, about the club’s proposed new training ground at Warren Farm he answered truthfully and said “none” because he was totally focused at that time on keeping the team in the Premier League. That task proved beyond him, and so the focus the following year was on returning the club to the Premier League. Now back, the focus is once again on keeping this team in this league this season. It’s why QPR sign Chris Samba for £12m, Onyewu, Chevanton, Yossi Benayoun for three months, Mauro Zarate on loan from West Ham. That’s not Redknapp’s fault, that’s the remit he’s given. Five games without a win and he’s tipped for the sack, relegation and the club is tipped for bankruptcy, where’s the incentive for Redknapp to plan long term?
Since Tony Fernandes arrived the club has been on one long fire-fighting mission. Problems are to be papered over with quick fixes - usually another signing – because the need to win as many of the next five matches as possible is paramount. So desperate are the board to be in the Premier League that nobody is willing to take a step back, look at the overall picture, and maybe spend a few years in the league below getting the house in order first. QPR is a brand builder and marketing expense for the Tune Group, and you don’t build many brands or market many cheap flights to Taipei playing Tuesday night home games against Rotherham United. Now in up to their nuts financially, they also can’t afford to not be in the top flight. The result is a castle built on sand.
In many ways Redknapp is the perfect manager for both the league position QPR find themselves in, and the way the board seem to want to go about running the club. His presence, however, is clearly contrary to Ferdinand’s brief and the direction he apparently wants to take and it’s no surprise to see stories leaking about the manager’s future, and deteriorating relationships with senior figures at the club. You could perhaps sympathise with Redknapp, doing the job he’s been asked to do, with the meagre facilities QPR have at their disposal, just six months after promotion, having his position undermined during a crucial run of fixtures. But then again, the ludicrous irony of Redknapp bemoaning somebody leaking stories to the press was lost on nobody, apart from the man himself. If Ferdinand is here to enact change and a long term strategy, and not just as a PR move, Redknapp will surely not survive the summer, if indeed he gets that far.
Redknapp may have described Ferdinand’s job title as “stupid” but the arrival of a football person above the manager, and a man steeped in the history and old ethos of QPR to boot, is long overdue. It should have been the first appointment Tony Fernandes made. Prior to Ferdinand’s arrival the decision to appoint a CEO with experience in events and venues, with an eye on a logistically difficult development at Old Oak Common rather than the day to day operation of the football club, was an obvious problem. Quite why the club hasn’t noticed the work being done by Mark Devlin at Griffin Park and tried to poach him back is beyond me. Partly because of all this, the upshot of the Malaysian’s reign so far is this…
Fernandes took over a newly promoted Premier League team fighting to stay in the top flight, with a sub-standard training ground, an out-dated stadium, a haphazard scouting network and a poor youth set up. Four years on he has a newly promoted Premier League team fighting to stay in the top flight, with a sub-standard training ground, an out-dated stadium, a haphazard scouting network and a poor youth set up. More than £160m of debt has been accumulated to achieve that, which is sure to rise towards £200m when the next set of accounts is published. Fernandes himself, and certainly his bank manager, would admit this cannot possibly continue. Hence, Les.
Training PlacesFernandes has been in London this week addressing QPR business and giving interviews. His mind and focus is rightly elsewhere at the moment, dealing with the bereaved families of passengers on his stricken Air Asia flight which crashed into the sea off the coast of Malaysia last month - though that hasn't stopped people badgering him about QPR on the Twitter. Another of Ferdinand’s key roles must be getting a firm hand on the tiller to negate the problems created by having a chairman who’s abroad so often.
Fernandes’ new aim is to have the Warren Farm training ground open in two years. The club are still yet to put a spade in the ground there and having initially started talking about a state of the art complex to rival any in the country – they went to look around Tottenham’s magnificent set up when Sean Hallett (bumped out during Mike Rigg’s reign of incompetence) was project managing - Fernandes and his board seem to row further and further back every time they talk about the complex. The chairman even spoke earlier this year about staying at Harlington after all, which really has to be visited to gauge just how poor it is for a team with Premier League aspirations.
This week he said: “We initially had big plans for a state-of-the-art training ground, but we as shareholders then thought ‘Is this really what is needed?’ We have looked at a number of other clubs’ facilities and seen what works well, and the end result was we scaled back on it – apart from the pitches, we want to have great pitches.” In the interview embedded above he says, on more than one occasion, that success will be achieved through having the right people, rather than the best facilities.
With that in mind it was with no small amount of jealousy and envy that I read Gary Neville’s interview with Southampton’s Les Ferdinand equivalent Les Reed this weekend, a couple of quotes I’ve pasted below by way of compare and contrast against Fernandes’ “is this really what we need?” comment and Redknapp's explanation of the Laurent departure.
On appointing new managers…
“Initially my job is to identify coaches who will buy into the club model because of the track record they’ve got and the style they play. We look for evidence that they’ve brought young players through before. So far I’ve hit the nail on the head with managers who have a very similar philosophy – and that’s what attracted them to the club. Someone’s not going to come in here and say – ‘Scrap all that, I don’t want all that, this is the way I do it.’ What we provide for a manager is everything he could possibly want. Some clubs go for a personality or a track record and the manager says – ‘If I come to you, if you’re lucky enough to have me, I want this, this, this and this.’ We would never go down that route. We will not be interviewed by a manager - we will interview them.”
On the facilities at the training ground, and scouting operation…
“The ‘black box’ is a viewing area for about half a dozen people. There’s a big consul desk for the analysts to sit on and stools at the back. It blacks out – that’s why we call it the Black Box – and the screen comes to life. We’ve pulled together all of the software that’s available off the shelf in terms of data, scouting, analysis... We took all that and designed a bespoke piece of software that brings all that into one.
“All of our pitches at the training ground have remote control cameras which come back to the Black Box. An analyst could have any training session, whether it’s under-8s right the way through to the first team. All that data is coded and analysed and it can be used for any age group of players, merged with match analysis, used as a teaching tool. So when our scouts are out doing opposition reports all that’s fed in automatically.
“In terms of recruitment, we have feeds from most of the good leagues around the world. We have analysts who chop them up and code them. When we’re looking at players we have instant access to video material or statistical analysis. It enables us to compare potential recruits with the profiles of our own players. That’s one way we can compare potential recruits with our own academy players and say – you know what, this kid meets the profile anyway. That helps all of our decision-making.
“We’ve got a fantastic group of eyes-on scouts and fantastic analysts – so the idea is that they challenge each other all the time. So when a scout says - this is the best striker in Croatia, the analysts have all the data to challenge it.”
Ice ageThe financial consequences of another relegation, and the potential Financial Fair Play complications that await in the division below, don’t really bear thinking about – all of which a direct result of the way QPR have conducted their business since Flavio Briatore first walked through the door. Business that has made us dislikeable, to neutrals and fans of other clubs first and foremost, but also more damagingly to a significant minority of our own supporters. However partisan you are, can you really read those Southampton quotes without feeling a bit embarrassed?
Redknapp, typically, says that fate will be avoided “if we can get a striker in on loan”. Always another signing. It’s still the QPR way, though hopefully not for much longer.
Les Ferdinand’s arrival is the first serious piece of action – rather than bold words and promises that never come to fruition – the new QPR have made with a nod towards long-term planning. Once again it feels like it’s only one of Rangers’ finest ever centre forwards standing between our football club and a bleak future.
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Photo: Action Images
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