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Blues brothers – Preview
Thursday, 28th Mar 2024 18:48 by Clive Whittingham

It’s the home straight in a Championship relegation battle which still embroils half the teams in the competition – two of those, QPR and Birmingham, face each other on Good Friday.

QPR (10-10-18 WWWDLD 20th) v Birmingham (10-9-19 LLDLLL 21st)

Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Friday March 29, 2024 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >>> Weather – Showers >>> Loftus Road, London, W12

The Fucker, he coming. He coming to your town.

Exactly whose town that will be is still cast in a degree of some doubt. A former sub-editor of mine (imagine having that gig, having to comb this stuff for legals and punctuations, I mean look at this, brackets in the intro, what a dickhead) had a specific line in his style guide forbidding the use of “strap yourself in”. The attached reasoning, which also covered “buckle up”, was “we want the reader to be excited, but it’s not a bloody rollercoaster”. Still, I fear we may have to make an exception here.

With the final, crucial, set of international friendlies done, eight thick rounds of Mercantile Credit Trophy action remain. Two of those take place this weekend, and five by the end of next week, so answers to the questions that have been inflicting sleepless nights on the good people of Huddersfield, Sheffield and Birmingham, Plymouth, Blackburn and Stoke, Bermondsey, Shepherd’s Bush and Swansea, will start arriving rather swiftly from here on in.

A relegation battle which technically still involves half the division, and realistically at least nine sides, feels impossible to call at this point.

For instance, QPR’s remaining fixtures seem to divide neatly in half between the next fortnight in which they play the teams presently 21st, 15th, 23rd and 18th, and the remainder beyond that against 7th, 9th, 1st and 8th. For Marti Cifuentes’ team it feels like the time to piss or risk getting swallowed up by the pot is upon them. Who’s to say, however, games against Birmingham, Sheff Wed and Plymouth sides fighting for divisional status represent better opportunities for points than Preston, who might have nothing to play for by the time they visit on April 20, Leeds, who may already be fat, drunk and happy on a sealed promotion, and a tired Coventry side overwhelmed by fixtures and cup final fever? This a QPR team, you’ll recall, which lost at Stoke then won at Leicester.

You can make realistic arguments for and against every team involved in this – a point exemplified by Stoke, currently on a bi-polar run of WLLWLWL. Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe shit. One of their Easter fixtures is at Huddersfield, a team that can take points from Leeds and then a week or so later fail to beat Rotherham. Blackburn have only lost one of their last eight games – good old, reliable John Eustace, steadying the ship there. Meanwhile, Blackburn have won only one of their last nine and two of their last 20 league games – boring, droning, uninspiring John Eustace, perhaps Birmingham weren’t so daft after all.

Encouragingly/terrifyingly, on a recent Sheff Wed Podcast interviewing fans of all the clubs involved at the bottom, not a single one of them picked QPR as their tip for the drop. From eight points adrift to now two positions north of the dotted line, Marti Cifuentes’ transformation of Gareth Ainsworth’s rabble into a functional unit has caught the eye inside and outside of W12. Let’s say QPR win a, fairly conservative, three games from here, losing the other five, that would essentially mean two of the three teams below the R’s have to win half their remaining matches – a task that could be made more difficult if Rangers happen to get those wins in the games with Birmingham and Sheff Wed. Do any of those teams look like doing that at this stage? But, then, this is a QPR team with a lousy attack that has stopped scoring goals again at just the worst possible moment, and a goalkeeper who’s decided to put ‘dodgy’ back in the bag and take out ‘liability’ to have a swing with instead. Will a team that can’t score goals and may as well have a bag of sand in goal even be able to win three games?

You can torture yourself with this stuff. With a new television deal due for this division next season you can smell the desperation. Every team in the bottom half of the league has changed manager at least once – you have to get to Erol Bulut at 11th placed Cardiff and Michael Carrick at Boro in tenth before you find a manager with the same job he had in August. Three of those clubs (Huddersfield, Millwall, Birmingham) have made a change more than once, and with Plymouth going from the best home record in the country through 2023 to the worst in 2024 don’t be surprised if Neil Warnock is moving into the Home Park dugout by the time we get there a week Tuesday.

Birmingham City, who come to Loftus Road tomorrow one point and one place behind QPR, are remarkably onto a sixth different person picking their team.

One thing we have learned about the Blues over the years is they absolutely hate it when somebody gets them into play-off contention. Being sixth is a sackable offence at St Andrew’s and, having ditched Gary Rowett for achieving that in December 2016, they did exactly the same again to John Eustace this season precipitating an absolute tank down the table to their current position one place and one point outside the bottom three.

On both occasions some rich idiot decided all the other rich idiots would be much happier talking to a big name like Gianfranco from Oliena in the director’s lounge, rather than Gary from Bromsgrove. Wayne Rooney was the vanity project this time and, in Birmingham’s defence, who could ever possibly have foreseen a brains trust of Wazza, Ashley Cole and John O’Shea wasn’t the dream managerial ticket? What’s subsequently happened with Tony Mowbray, one of football’s genuinely decent fellas, is terribly sad. Birmingham, though, have brought this season on themselves – arrogance and hubris from a CEO, Garry Cook, who has made a career of both traits.

Having come full circle back to Rowett to get them out of the mess, the perception now is they’ll probably be just about fine in much the same style and manner as Neil Harris has managed back at Millwall – maybe those two should just share that job? You know exactly how Rowett is going to set them up, exactly how they’re going to play, and that’ll probably grind them the three or four wins they’ll need. Potentially starting tomorrow. That horrible day at Loftus Road where Carlos Corberan took over Steve Bruce’s shambolic West Brom side for the first time and, despite being bottom of the league, was able to put them out in a steady, settled shape and calmly execute a 1-0 win with a goal from a centre back at a set piece, against a Rangers side flying high at the top of the division at the time, feels prescient. Stoppable force v movable object, Brum Rowett their way to a 0-0 victory – only with an accidental set piece goal right at the end just to really put the tin hat on it.

It's no guarantee though. Rowett is no miracle worker, and who knows where a team that’s lost its last three games without scoring (including a gimme at home to Watford), and is onto manager number six, is mentally. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Blues aggressively plummeting down the table from play-off contention into relegation problems given a chunk of their recruitment seems to have been based around watching the bin fire that has been Queens Park Rangers FC and thinking “bloody hell, these guys are making all the right moves”. No fewer than four ex R’s form part of the squad heading our way tomorrow, and between them are some of the biggest problem children we’ve had during the horrible last two years. Birmingham have tumbled in exactly the same manner we did 12 months ago, having placed their faith in exactly the same sort of character of player. Arsonists, as arsonists so often do, returning to the scene of their crime, to behold the smouldering wreckage they helped to cause.

Dion Sanderson was at QPR on loan for the second half of the 2021/22 campaign when Mark Warburton’s Rangers went from pushing Bournemouth for second at the end of January to eleventh by May. He is best remembered for immediately following up the only clean and successful tackle he ever executed in our colours with a headbutt on the victim and red card. His performance in a calamitous 3-1 home loss to relegated Peterborough invoked a warm, nostalgic glow among those who ever saw Gus Caesar in hoops. Would you believe, Sanderson is just returning from a three-match ban.

Ethan Laird was clearly and obviously the most talented of the group, and therefore in a way the least forgivable. From that rampaging brilliance in the away win at Watford when the sun was out and the going was good to firm under Mick Beale, to him sitting down in front of the away end during a crucial relegation six pointer at Wigan and yet again waving to the bench that he was done, even with Ilias Chair marching across the pitch to plead with him to get up and carry on. It won’t surprise you at all that he’s only been available for 16 starts “but has been our best player when he has played” (do tell me more). Hold that shock and awe for a moment as I tell you Tyler Roberts has only started five times and is yet to complete a game. The last two occasions he played 90 minutes of football was away at Bristol City for QPR in October 2022, and at home to Arsenal for Leeds in December 2021 – it is now 2024.

Andre The Friendly Ghost, the ball playing midfielder with two assists in two and a half years at QPR (one of those a corner), will, we presume, be prohibited from playing tomorrow by the terms of his loan deal – although, given his input over the last couple of seasons it might have been worth inserting a clause insisting he has to start.

If he did he would, naturally, draw his boot back on one of those dog-having-a-day 30 yarders he randomly pinged into the top corner at Middlesbrough back in September, because that’s what happens to us. With Roberts yet to score for Birmingham in five starts and 11 sub outings (his last goal was over a year ago, for us at Reading) I suspect the Bush bookies will be doing brisk business in emotional insurance (he’s 10/1 for the first, 9/2 anytime). You can just see it now, down at the School End, late in the dusk of an otherwise tedious nil nil draw, the ball falling to him just right, wheeling away in celebration in front of the away fans, him and his fucking topknot. As in The Curse of the Bambino: the cast changes and liberties are taken with an ancient script, but Hamlet always dies in the end.

The optimist will tell you it’ll all be alright in the end. Maybe even two wins and a handful of draws and we’ll be out of this. Laird, Roberts et al weren’t up for the fight 12 months ago, and Birmingham will find their arse similarly lacking now. Stop worrying yourself to death. The pessimist will tell you a team with the fourth worst attack in the division, still only to score more than two goals in a game on one occasion so far, and a goalkeeper playing like somebody’s tied his feet together, is still in mortal danger. He sees Ethan Laird charging up and down that wing tomorrow, Roberts providing big impact from the bench, further heartache. Only hapless Rotherham (three) have won as few at home this year as QPR’s pathetic four – this after setting a club record for home losses (12) last season.

For both, these are simply coping mechanisms. Human beings are biologically programmed to fear the unknown – it’s a safety mechanism from the days when every strange noise in the night was probably a dinosaur coming to eat you. Whether you cope by telling yourself it’s all probably going to be fine, try to prepare yourself for what’s about to befall you by assuming the absolute worst, or just try not to think about it all, all you’re doing is coping in your own way.

That looming threat of what might be is about to be replaced by the reality of what is. The Fucker, he coming.

Links >>> Marsh’s magnificent hat trick – History >>> Christmas with Wazza – Interview >>> Smith in charge – Referee >>> Birmingham City official website >>> St Andrew’s — Ground Guide >>> Small Heath Alliance — Message Board >>> We Are Birmingham — Podcast >>> Birmingham Mail — Local Press

90s Footballer Conspiracy Theories No.34 In The Series – Deep state civil service trans-activists sabotaged Lizz Truss leadership, former Leicester City keeper Kasey Keller tells The New York Times.

Below the fold

Team News: With Cifuentes seemingly preferring Michy Frey for home games and Sinclair Armstrong as an impact sub, and with the other centre forward Lyndon Dykes away for most of the last two weeks on international duty and an away game due as soon as Monday, it almost feels like the team picks itself for this one. Frey backed by Willock, Chair and Andersen with Smyth and Armstrong to come from the bench. Hayden and Colback the likely pair in midfield with Sam Field pushing for a start. Clarke-Salter and Cook between Dunne and Paal with Begovic in goal. Rayan Kolli is the only listed absentee, though the manager has started to acknowledge the existence of Taylor Richards and his apparent calf injury, though not that the club didn’t actually include him in the 25-man squad for the second half of the season (there is space to add him should we so wish, lol).

Birmingham have doubts over more than half a dozen players going into tomorrow. Alfie Chang ruptured his ACL at the start of the season and is done for the year. Marc Roberts injured his calf in the process of losing a crucial game in hand at home to Middlesbrough before the international break and is out. It hasn’t been confirmed anywhere, but one would presume a clause in the Andre Dozzell loan deal prevents him from playing in Gary Rowett’s first game in charge. Krystian Bielek is often impressive when you can get him on the pitch, but fairly typically tore his stomach muscles on his way back from a recent six-match absence with an unrelated complaint – as we often say about some of ours, if he wasn’t like this he wouldn’t be playing his football here. Siriki Dembele (foot) and Keshi Anderson (knee) will be checked late. Lukas Jutkiewicz limped out of the defeat to Watford last time out with a knee complaint. Dion Sanderson returns from a three match ban after an appeal against his red card in a 4-3 home loss to Southampton was thrown out.

Elsewhere: Reading up from the bottom of the table, Relegated Rotherham are away at Preston Knob End in what’s as near as you get to a Championship game with nothing riding on it this long weekend.

Second bottom Sheff Wed rather torched their goal difference with a 6-0 loss at Ipswich just before the international break but return to action with an altogether more palatable home game with Swanselona. Huddersfield are also at home, to play-off chasing Coventry. Defeat for QPR and a win for either of those two will put Rangers back below the dreaded dotted line with seven to play.

A victory for Cifuentes’ team brings four teams immediately above them into sight. Stoke are one point north and have a very difficult trip to high flying Hull. Plymouth are also on 41 points and also won’t be fancied for much from their long slog over to Norwich who currently hold the coveted final play-off berth. The nauseating prospect of coming up short in the automatic promotion race and then getting punted out of the play-offs at the semi-final stage by a bitter local rival currently 20 points further back in the table looms over Ipswich. To help avoid it, a win at Blackburn in the early evening TV game would be useful, and absolute gold for us at the same time. Millwall are three points ahead on the same -14 goal difference ahead of a lunchtime game with West Brom. Wawll the only one down there in any kind of real form.

At the top, the games are spaced out across the day. Leicester have an opportunity to return to the summit with a 12.30 game at Bristol City, before Southampton have a swing at Middlesbrough at 15.00, Ipswich go up against Blackburn at 17.30 and the day finishes with current leaders Leeds away to Watford at 20.00.

Cardiff v Sunderland, there you go, that’ll be nice, chilled, and brimming with quality.

Referee: The season-long dodging of Keith Stroud continues. QPR have lost only one of seven appointments so far with young Lincolnshire referee Josh Smith. Details.


QPR: There’s a concern QPR, who already have the worst goals scored total in the league (36) bar Stoke (35), Rotherham and Sheff Wed (both 30), may have stopped scoring again at a really inopportune moment. They come into this without a goal in their last two against a decent Middlesbrough and lousy Sunderland, and the only person to score for the R’s in the last three matches is Sam Field. The 4-2 win at home to Stoke in December remains the only occasion this season Rangers have scored more than two in a game, and in fact the only time they’ve done that in 72 attempts going all the way back to October 2022 and a 3-0 home victory over Cardiff. Mind you, the R’s did beat a scratchy Arsenal side 4-0 behind closed doors during the time off with two for Michy Frey and one each for Ziyad Larkeche and Elijah Dixon Bonner. Ledesma-style t-shirts commemorating this in the club shop or we riot.

The two most recent blanks have stalled what was looking like a potential season salvaging run of five wins, three draws and just one loss in nine games, but Rangers have still only lost two of the last 11 winning five – repeat that sort of form between now and May and they’ll be fine. With home games this week against Birmingham and Sheff Wed Rangers will desperately hope their home form improves – only Rotherham (three) have won fewer home matches than QPR this season (four), and this after setting a club record 12 defeats at Loftus Road last season. Rangers have won just 12 of their last 50 games on their own patch. They’ll also need to improve a record of one win from six games against the four teams below them in the table as it stands – and that the gimme at home to Rotherham.

Steve Cook had a fairly wobbly day by his personal standards up at Sunderland, but the clean sheet contributes to his own excellent numbers across the season. Across 27 starts and one sub appearance he has played in nine of the team’s ten wins, and nine of its ten clean sheets (Preston away the anomaly in both cases, when he was on the bench). He’s lost only two of his last 15 starts and lost only eight of the 27 games he’s started. Chris Willock’s late miss at the Stadium of Light could have moved him one closer to Wayne Fereday’s QPR record of scoring in 22 games without being on the losing side – Rangers haven’t lost any of the 20 matches Willock has scored in so far (W17 D3). Unfortunately, Lyndon Dykes’ weirdly insipid efforts in the North East move his latest goalscoring drought into double figures – it’s 11 QPR games and 12 for club and country since he last netted in the 2-1 home loss to Watford in January. Dykes has scored five times in 42 appearances this season, one of them a penalty. It’s the fourth time in his almost four seasons with the club that a scoreless streak has gone into double figures (runs of 21, 14, and 13 games previously) and there are sequences of nine and two of eight in there as well.

Birmingham: When QPR drew 0-0 at St Andrew’s in front of the Sky cameras in September, Birmingham subsequently climbed into the play-off places after beating West Brom 3-1 and Huddersfield 4-1 in their next two home games. At that point John Eustace’s side had won five, drawn three and lost only two of their opening ten games, including a home win against Leeds, to justify summer optimism driven by a long-overdue takeover and recruitment drive. Five months and managers later and the Blues have added only five more league wins from 27 games played and have dropped from sixth to fourth bottom. They have lost eight and won only two of their last 11 league and cup games, and have failed to score in six of those including the last three. They arrive at Loftus Road on a run of three consecutive 1-0 defeats at Millwall and at home to Boro and Watford.

Jay Stansfield is the top Birmingham scorer with nine in the league and one in the cup, ahead of Jordan James with eight. It won’t surprise anybody who suffered through Tyler Roberts’ year at QPR to learn he’s yet to score at all for Birmingham, nor that he’s only managed five starts and 11 sub appearances and is yet to complete 90 minutes for them. His last goals were for QPR at Reading in January 2023, and his last two full 90 minutes completed were for Rangers at Bristol City in October 2022 and Leeds against Arsenal in December 2021. All of this only makes it more likely he’ll score tomorrow, of course, probably assisted by Ethan Laird who, also less than surprisingly, has only started 16 games in his debut season at St Andrew’s.

Rangers are without a win, or even a goal, against Birmingham in three matches since doing the double against the Blues in 21/22. They lost 2-0 at St Andrew’s and 1-0 at Loftus Road last season and the first meeting this term finished 0-0. A draw can often be a good bet in this fixture – five of the last 11 meetings have finished level, and that would have been six but for Lee Camp’s last-minute penalty save denying the R’s an extraordinary comeback from 4-0 down in 2018/19. Three of those draws have been 0-0.

After Friday Birmingham finish with Preston, Cardiff, Coventry and Norwich at home, Leicester, Rotherham and Huddersfield away.

Prediction: We’re once again indebted to The Art of Football for agreeing to sponsor our Prediction League and provide prizes. You can get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s newly extended QPR collection here. Reigning champion Aston says.

“Big game, plenty of former players on show who are not so popular with us, a team on dreadful form. We all know how this ends don't we? Well, it ended with victory against Rotherham. But I just can't shake the feeling of a 1-0 loss here with Tyler Roberts nodding in an Ethan Laird cross. I think we all believe, deep-down, this will happen.”

Aston’s Prediction: QPR 0-1 Birmingham. Scorer – Tyler Roberts

LFW’s Prediction: QPR 0-1 Birmingham. Scorer – Tyler Roberts

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Devonwhitewhitewhite added 20:47 - Mar 28
Great preview as always, we don't deserve you, and choosing 0-1 is obviously the only possible psychological state but, and I know this is a bit pedantic but I think Birmingham fans make a point about calling the team "Blues" not "The Blues". Can't do the accent though.

BlackCrowe added 21:15 - Mar 28
Thank god you've both predicted a me hope.

TacticalR added 21:49 - Mar 28
Thanks for your preview.

We have struggled against teams at the bottom (although as Aston pointed out at least we managed to beat Rotherham) and now, as you pointed out, we're not scoring either (otherwise we could have won at Sunderland). Let's hope that Laird and Roberts are in non-committal mode. I can see this game being a battle of nerves, so let's also hope that we can settle and find a bit of creativity and put away our chances.

Whatever happens against Birmingham, or in the other remaining games, at least Cifuentes has restored some respectability to our season.

Myke added 12:15 - Mar 29
Excellent preview as always. I know I could jinx it but expect this to be a fairly routine (I'd low quality) 2-0 win
I doubt Roberts will even be on the pitch. I expect Frey to bully Sanderson and we know thar Chair will get at Laird.

sinceApril66 added 12:26 - Mar 29
On train through Sussex downs, trying to console ourselves that reading you're preview will go some way towards compensating for a loss..? But my optimist won't shut-up about having lots of good players now, brilliantly managed, and is teasing me with a 2-0 victory, which I seem to remember being a common 70s result..?

sarahlison added 03:58 - Jun 6
We wait for the explosion. Will that become a reality

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