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End of Term Report 23/24 – Defenders
Sunday, 19th May 2024 16:55 by Clive Whittingham

Part two of our annual individual player reports for the season focuses on a defence which really came into its own under Marti Cifuentes and contains the two outstanding candidates for the club’s player of the year award.

If you want to hear the LFW panel, including stats man Jack Supple, debate the marks for this year’s report you can do so via all three subscription tiers in our Patreon. Part one, keepers and defenders, is live now.

2 – Osman Kakay E

Here we go then, declaring the LFW 2024 Seal Clubbing Season officially open with an E for local boy and academy product Osman Kakay to send him on his way after more than 16 years with the club. Whaaaaaaaaaaat a dickhead.

Kakay’s was a cause championed and pushed by Chris Ramsey and the academy coaches against the better judgement of successive sceptical managers – Ian Holloway, Steve McClaren and Mark Warburton all had strong doubts. Often when you watch him, particularly the way he positions himself defensively when playing right back in a four, you can see why they were worried. As last season at Hull, where he tried to play Aaron Connolly offside while standing 20 yards deeper than the rest of the defence with his hand in the air, so we had another horror show here on Boxing Day at Millwall with the first goal. I mean, just watch it through on this clip if you can stand it, and keep your eye on him through the move – where he goes, who he marks, the decision making process. Ye Gods. You couldn’t help but occasionally reach the conclusion, as Mark Warburton did, that quite a lot of the academy prospects being pushed by Ramsey and co were so they could big up their “30 players graduated to first team” numbers in interviews, rather than because they were actually good enough.

However, regular readers will know that I’ve often stuck up for Ozzie in these reviews against escalating, and often quite cruel, criticism of his performances, particularly on social media. Even setting aside the value and feel-good of bringing a properly local boy through from the age of eight to first team involvement in the Championship, and the hope that gives your other youth teamers, every squad needs players like this. Happy and settled at the club, not earning big money, can fill in a number of positions reasonably competently – I always thought he was better as the right centre back in a three, and frequently looked quite useful bombing forwards down the right flank as opposed to defending – and just acts as cover. A bench player, basically. Dom Ball is king of this roll – able to play anywhere across defence of midfield, great pro with terrific attitude, small wage, always available – and since he was released it’s something the squad has really lacked. Consequently, when everybody got injured (or pretended to be injured) in the collapse of 2022/23, there was an enormous gulf in quality between the first teamers and the players we had to cover them. We infamously had to bring in Chris Martin because there wasn’t anybody in the building who could even do a passable impression of Lyndon Dykes, one of the worst strikers in the league, for a few weeks. Having a few Osman Kakays around is good for business, and constantly booting them for not being up to the level of the first choice players in his position misses the point – he’s cheap cover, that’s all he is.

Until he isn’t. There were obviously many other higher priorities for last summer’s mediocre budget before you got to a new right back, and much of that spend was then hoovered up by the fee we were obligated to pay Brighton for people’s champion Taylor Richards. Still, whether it was by necessity or design, Gareth Ainsworth attempting to do a whole season with Kakay as a 46-game first choice full back in the Championship was always likely to produce the results it did. Kakay is, sadly, not up to that level, and some of his performances (Sunderland H, Coventry H, and particularly Watford A) were really quite torturous to watch. Ainsworth tried to pivot to Paul Smyth at right wing back for a while, which at least caught Cardiff pretty cold away from home, and then tried Ziyad Larkeche there at home to Blackburn, which was not a conspicuous success.

The out of window signing of Reggie Cannon was always likely to spell the end of Osman, and that was hastened by his performance in that Millwall away game. Several players basically spent their final chips with Cifuentes in that match, and Kakay has only played once for the club since (Bournemouth in the FA Cup). Perhaps slightly surprised he was bombed out so aggressively given his attitude off the pitch is, by all accounts, exemplary, but Cifuentes likes to win and he’d ruthlessly, but correctly, surmised you won’t do that much in the Championship with Kakay as a frequent starter. On the pitch we’d suffered enough. He’d have been gone in January as one of a clutch of players the club attempted to shift to free up FFP headroom for new arrivals, but didn’t want to take the loan deal that was on offer out of London with a young family at home.

God loves a trier, but everyone else would love for him to try League One.

In numbers:

19 starts, 6 sub appearances, W5 D4 L14 (21.74% win percentage)

0 goals, 0 assists

30 goals conceded (1.2 a game, goal every 52 mins), 7 clean sheets

3 yellow cards (Sunderland H foul, Swansea H foul, Leeds A foul)

0 LFW Man of the Match Awards, 0 Supporter MOTM Award

LFW Ratings — 2, 6, 6, 5, 7, 6, 6, 5, 6, 4, 3, 3, 3, 3, 6, -, 7, 5, 5, 6, 6, 5, 4, 4, 4 = 4.875

Interactive Ratings — 5.31

3 – Jimmy Dunne B/C

Jimmy Dunne’s low point for the season arguably also came at Millwall away, although his entry for Stupidest Red Card You’ve Ever Seen Before In Your Life at West Brom probably runs it a close second.

While it could be argued, very strongly, that playing immediately inside Kakay at The Den that afternoon was a hiding to nothing for whoever the centre back was, Dunne’s wild performance, which included his own part in the shambolic first goal and a foolish yellow card, gave the impression of a player running out of road at QPR. Out of contract in the summer, and in chronically bad form for 18 months, his ratings up to and including the FA Cup loss to Bournemouth were 5, 3, 4, 2, 5, 6, 4, 4, 6, 6, 5, 6, 3, 6, 3, 3 (4.375, lowest average in the squad bar Adomah and Richards). Like Rob Dickie before him it felt like a fresh start might be best for all parties – Dickie has gone on to win Bristol City’s Player of the Year awards after cratering for QPR through 22/23 – and when Blackburn were linked in January I was fairly well in the mood to wave him on his way. And I like Jimmy Dunne. The Hawthorns red card summed it up – he just couldn’t do right for doing wrong.

There followed a quite remarkable redemption arc… at right back.

With Reggie Cannon playing injured, and impressing nobody very much, a decision was taken in some desperation to try Dunne there for the away game at Bristol City a few days after another debacle and season low point at Stoke. It felt like one of the madcap ideas from the dark and twisted recesses of Gareth Ainsworth’s tactical mind, had been tried once before at West Brom the previous Easter, and initially didn’t look like one of Cifuentes’ better calls as Sam Bell started the game in hot form, targeting a toiling Dunne from the off. Robbie Earle tells a story about his time at Wimbledon and an FA Cup tie they played at Tranmere at the height of Dave Challinor’s fame for prodigious long throws. Joe Kinnear had the Dons rehearsing their defence for them all week, using rented catapults and borrowed cannons to lay siege to their penalty box on the training ground hour after hour before heading up to the Wirral for the game at the weekend. “As it turned out,” Earle says, “Challinor fell over after about five minutes and Vinnie Jones stamped on his hand so that was the end of that.” Sam Bell got injured at Ashton Gate, off after 26 minutes, and Dunne never looked back.

Of his 13 games at right back in the run in, QPR won seven – almost half of their total for the season – drew three and lost only three. He matched the rest of the full backs in the squad for assists with a downward header to tee up Steve Cook’s winner at Swansea. He scored a goal, of which more shortly, which continued QPR’s run of winning on all six occasions that Dunne has scored for them. Some of the benefits to him playing out there were obvious – his height in both boxes helped Rangers move from the worst team in the league for offensive and defensive set pieces through the first three quarters of the season, to the best in the final dozen games. (More on how that was done here from our analyst Dan Lambert). Having an outlet to hit with an out ball wide on the right was an enormous help for Steve Cook and particularly Asmir Begovic who had, at times, struggled to come to terms with Cifuentes’ preference for playing out from the back – Begovic spent most of the early months walloping the ball firmly into touch on the Ellerslie Road side of the ground.

Other benefits, however, were entirely unexpected. Dunne’s surging, purposeful runs down that flank, often ending with a Cruyff turn three miles wide, were a special thing to behold. Some of the stunts he pulled in the midweek thriller at home to West Brom were wild, and although a very different pair of remarkable goal line clearances from Darnell Furlong and Cedric Kipre (not to mention the Steve Cook bicycle kick that led to one of them) were the stand out memories, don’t forget that Sam Field’s unlikely hat trick which Kipre illegally denied was a header from a brilliant Jimmy Dunne cross, from the left side, with his left foot. From cannot do right to can do no wrong, from deleting his socials under a hail of fire to cutting around Chiswick with Lucas Andersen in classic replica gear, it really couldn’t have happened to a nicer, better, more committed player.

One of his teammates mentioned at the kit sponsor’s event that you know all about it when you play in front of him down that right side now – constantly talking, constantly demanding better, constantly driving standards and keeping his winger honest on defence. That’s particularly valuable when Chris Willock is playing down that side, without a defensive bone in his body. There’s a huge amount of love and respect for Jimmy at QPR. Now signed up for next season when at one point he seemed certain to be released, his will be an interesting test case of Cifuentes’ intentions. Was last season just pragmatically working with what he had? Will he now remould this team to his Cruyffian ideals? Or has the Spaniard assessed the Championship, decided it’s a strange beast, and adapted permanently accordingly? Whether Jimmy Dunne is at right back or not on that first team sheet of 24/25 will tell us a lot.

Of course he also scored the goal of this, or any other, season. An airborne, left-footed, half volley, from 25 yards, into the top corner, in injury time, at home to relegation rivals Birmingham City. A key moment in the relegation battle, certainly, but so much more than that to a player, fanbase, club and crowd in the ground that day that had been through so much over the prior two years. We described it thusly in our match report, and we can’t wait to see Jimmy again in August.

“And on Good Friday, we went to Loftus Road, and watched through scarcely parted fingers as just such a moment unfolded before us in absolute magisterial beauty. The sort of once-in-a-decade moment that nourishes the soul of downtrodden, long-suffering football fans and restores their faith in their life choices. The sort of I-was-there moment that will dominate history articles and retro social media accounts for decades to come, and every time you stumble across the clip you cannot help but stop what you’re doing and watch it all over again. The sort of better-than-sex moment that pops into your head at randomly for the rest of your life, while you’re sitting having a quiet beer by the roaring log fire of a country pub, or feeling the surf between your toes on some faraway beach, to bring a warm glow to your insides and a small upturn to the corner of your mouth. “What you smiling about?” a loved one will enquire, and you’ll have to make the quickfire decision about whether to lie and say something romantic, or tell the truth that actually it was that time when…

“It will never leave you, I, or anybody else who was there to see it. It is Carlton Fisk’s homerun, narrated by Robin Williams, except it’s in hooped shirts not red sox, and it’s you telling the story, to your grandkids, friends, people you’re sitting near on the tube, and anybody else who’ll listen. This is what sport can do to a person.

“Deep sighs and prayers of thanks all round as Begovic chipped away towards Dunne down the right side again. The Irishman won the header, because that was the outcome over and over and over again all afternoon. Sinclair Armstrong, on for the ineffective Michy Frey, nicely backed Sanderson into a panicky clearance. Dunne, on a continuing run, checked the blind spot over his left shoulder and pulled out into traffic.

“In April 1994, without David Bardsley through injury, a group of QPR players gathered around a free kick in an away game with Oldham Athletic. Ray Wilkins said he’d widen the angle slightly for Les Ferdinand to “have a hit at it”. The resulting 30-yard comet laid waste to most of Greater Manchester – a barnburner of such devastation the area is yet to fully recover. One the way back to the halfway line Wilkins said “I didn’t mean for you to hit it that well, but that’ll do”. And when I said QPR needed a bit of a moment to go their way and shift momentum a little bit, I’m not sure I envisaged something like this in even my wettest of dreams. But, it’ll do.

“Such brilliance has been a far cry from the sporting suffering of the last two years at Loftus Road. Jimmy Dunne, as one of those you do get the impression genuinely cares about the situation, has had it tougher than most. Here to win promotion, per his first interview when he signed, this one-time protégé of Man Utd and Burnley has cratered with the team and the club. His form, at times, has been horrific. His performance in a Christmas loss at Millwall was the sort ‘it’s not me it’s you’ disasterclass that has this manager handing you your cards – three other starters from that game have essentially never played for the club again. We’ve inflicted some right little twats on ourselves of late, Jimmy Dunne is not one of them. It’s been tough to watch.

“Recalled as an unorthodox right back with Reggie Cannon ailing under the weight of a first Championship winter, and Osman Kakay one of ‘Millwall three’, Dunne was seen as a bit of a novelty act to begin with. The Irish Cafu, we chuckled, as he performed a ‘Cruyff turn’ three miles wide and West Brom’s left back ended up somewhere out by the Hayes Bypass. Steadily, improbably, it seems he might be quite good at it. The extra height is most welcome for a team who’ve conceded more from set pieces than anyone else in the league and scored fewer than anybody else from their own. Being able to chip an out-ball his way has been heaven-sent for a centre back and goalkeeper combination struggling with Cifuentes’ preferred play-out-from-the-back method. You expect that of him. You do not expect the sort of devilish left-footed cross that almost set up Sam Field’s winning goal and hat trick in that same game with the Baggies. And if you expected what came next here, I reckon you’re lying to me.

“Off his chest with deft and craft, off the ground with poise and balance, off his left foot (left foot) with ferocious dip and accuracy, off the scale brilliance that was a goal from the moment he hit it, off with the roof of this rusting paradise. A goal with a noise before the noise. A sound of people realising something incredible is about to happen to them. Few deserve it more, than Jimmy Dunne, than us, and than QPR. After the last two years, an overwhelming rush of maybe this is going to be alright after all.

“When moments like this go your way, how can it not be?”

In numbers:

28 starts, 2 sub appearances, W9 D7 L14 (30% win percentage)

1 goal (Birmingham H), 1 assist (Swansea A)

35 goals conceded (1.12 a game, goal every 67 mins), 10 clean sheets

1 red card (WBA A 2 yellows) 5 yellow cards (WBA A re-entering field, WBA A scuffing penalty spot, Millwall A foul, Sunderland A foul, Hull A foul)

3 LFW Man of the Match Awards (Watford H, Leicester A, Birmingham H), 2 Supporter MOTM Awards (Leicester A, Birmingham H)

LFW Ratings — 5, 3, 4, 2, 5, 6, 4, 4, 6, 6, 5, 6, 3, 6, 3, 3, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, 5, 6, 8, 7, 5, 6, 3, 7, 8 = 5.433

Interactive Ratings — 5.83

5 – Steve Cook A

Steve Cook was brought here by Gareth Ainsworth primarily to guard culture, rather than his own goal. Faced with the fractured core of the post-Mick Beale meltdown, with graphite strewn around the gaff and Tyler Roberts’ “calf issue” stretching into an eighteenth month, Ainsworth prioritised experienced old heads with what remained of his budget to such an extent he was even willing to take Leon Balogun at face value just to keep him around. With Balogun’s shock return to Glasgow Rangers (can’t believe it) denying us all that dubious pleasure an alternative was sought, and my God did they find an alternative. Like swapping out what remains of Cilla Black for a night at the queefing end of Jennifer Lawrence.

To simply talk about Cook’s leadership and influence on the team would be to do him a disservice. We’d been told to take that as a given by fans at Bournemouth, where he spent a decade rising up through the leagues and played comfortably and successful in the Premier League for many years, and at Nottingham Forest, where he won another promotion to the top flight. When nobody at any of his previous clubs has a bad word to say about a player that’s a pretty good start and Cook arrived with the sort of references we’d have given Richard Dunne Pub Landlord. But, he wasn’t coming here as social secretary. QPR had conceded 71 goals the year before, the fourth time in six seasons they’d conceded 70 or more across their 46 games. Whoever was playing centre back this year was going to need to be good. He was certainly going to be busy.

When assessing players for these reports sometimes we lean heavily on moments of great brilliance or outright incompetence, games when they played particularly well or badly, points in a season where they came through for us in the nick of time or folded just when we needed them. Cook’s certainly got ticks in all those positive columns. Big goals scored at home to Birmingham and away at Swansea over Easter just as the supply from our amazing non-scoring strike force had dried up entirely are freshest in mind. If that bicycle kick had dipped in against West Brom we’d still be there now taking up squatter’s rights in the Crown & Sceptre.

With Cook though, you can boil it down to a very simple numbers game. The Joni Mitchell centre back – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. With him QPR won 15, drew 11 and lost ten – only two regular starters better his 41.667% win average (Colback, Hayden). Without him Rangers lost 11 of their 12 league and cup games. He played in 12 of the team’s 13 clean sheets, without him they conceded in every game bar one (Preston A is the anomaly in both cases). The team averaged 2.0833 goals against in the games Cook missed – a collection of fixtures that includes the season’s biblical lows away at Watford (4-0), at home to Blackburn (4-0 again) and away at Millwall (2-0). With him they conceded at less than a goal a game (0.91). With him QPR conceded a goal every 93 minutes, without they would let in one every 46.5 minutes.

Between them, once fully fit and functioning after Christmas, Cook and Jake Clarke-Salter quickly rose to be statistically the third best centre back pairing in the league. QPR went from worst to best for offensive and defensive set pieces in the final dozen games, which included Cook’s two goals. There are question marks over whether his advancing years and declining pace means the defence has to play a lot deeper than Cifuentes would ideally like and, as with the Jimmy Dunne at right back case, what the Spanish manager chooses to do with his captain-in-all-but-armband will tell us a lot about how we’re going to look over the coming year. Clarke-Salter’s own excellent year, and better ball carrying and playing skills, drew a lot of love in the Player of the Year vote. But, as we’ll show shortly, Cook’s numbers are better by a distance for 23/24 and he is therefore clear and away our top man, and only A in this year’s end of termers.

For all the grief Gareth Ainsworth has deservedly taken and will continue to get, this was a great signing and shrewd call.

In numbers:

35 starts, 1 sub appearance, W15 D11 L10 (41.677% win percentage)

2 goals (Birmingham H, Swansea A), 1 assist (Stoke H)

33 goals conceded (0.91 a game, goal every 93 mins), 12 clean sheets

4 yellow cards (Coventry H dissent, Norwich A repetitive fouling, Leicester A time wasting, PNE H delaying restart)

4 LFW Man of the Match Awards (Birmingham A, Stoke H, Plymouth H, Swansea A), 2 supporter MOTM awards (Stoke A, Swansea A)

LFW Ratings — 7, 6, 6, 7, 6, 5, 8, 4, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, -, 7, 7, 5, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6, 8, 7, 5, 5, 7, 8, 5, 7, 4, 7, 8, 7 = 6.285 (squad high)

Interactive Ratings — 6.55 (squad high)

6 – Jake Clarke-Salter A/B

Whether all of the injuries were genuine or not – four months with a calf strain Leon? four? That’s insane – clearly one of the biggest issues in 2022/23 was the availability of first team players. When you’re a non-parachute payment club with accounts that look like a bonfire fuelled with £50 notes you’re not going to be able to afford a lot of senior player depth in your squad. If your academy and development team isn’t churning out at least the occasional boy who can hold his own for a dozen Championship games a season you won’t have to scratch the surface even as far as your bench before you start running low on options. For the infamous 6-1 defeat at Blackpool Gareth Ainsworth was missing 11 first team players, and had Sam Field playing centre half.

One of Christian Nourry’s first acts having been brought in to audit and consult on the club (a LinkedIn way of saying Richard Reilly wanted to know what the fuck they’d done with his money) was to bring in a contact of his, Ben Williams, from the world of cycling to completely overhaul and sort out the club’s strength and conditioning department and try to clear up a dire injury record that had hammered the team’s chances over the prior 18 months.

Jake Clarke-Salter was one of the bigger problem children Williams inherited. When you decide to release a mainstay of your defence - who’s just done 98 consecutive starts for the first team, including several with a broken collar bone, and that memorable day against West Brom where he came back onto the pitch with a hole in his head the size of the Blackwall Tunnel and finished the job against the Daryl Dike monster who’d done it to him - you’ve got to get the replacement right. QPR replaced Yoann Barbet with Clarke-Salter who had never managed 30 starts in a league season before in his career. The contrast with the Frenchman he replaced was stark, Clarke-Salter started only 13 games. In this report last season we concluded: “If Clarke-Salter is going to do this for the duration of his chunky four year contract, then we’re going to fall out. I don’t care how fucking smooth and composed you look stepping out of defence with the ball at your feet if you’re only available to do that a dozen times a season. Could be the best player in the world, no good to us sitting in the stand every week.”

There were ominous signs for both Clarke-Salter and Williams early in 23/24. As the local children peered through the fence around the municipal swimming pool and a travelling party of eight QPR fans baked by the side of the Rohrbach village Power League pitch, Clarke-Salter lasted just ten minutes of the summer’s first friendly defeat to Slavia Prague’s third team. On at half time, one kick to the back of the calf, not exactly a mortal wound for your centre back, and that was him done until the middle of September. As usual, when he did play he was pretty good – we have him star man in his first game back away at Leeds, though he was very much the man with two hairs in the land of the bald that night – but he was about as durable as candyfloss in a jug of water. Away at Huddersfield, where he actually scored and again we ended up rating him as our best player on the day, he spent much of the first half doing these prolonged, exaggerated stretches, constant signals to the bench, ‘oooh I don’t know gaffer’. Meanwhile Williams’ publicly stated strategy of sending the team into the season deliberately underdone as they spent time building up a “slow burn” fitness that they felt would benefit them at the back end of the season wasn’t winning many friends either as the R’s started with two wins from 14 games and even in one of the victories, away at Cardiff, the team spectacularly hit the wall after an hour while leading 2-0 and put the travelling fans through a half-hour torture session as they desperately clung to the result. It was hard not to conclude QPR had been taken in by another charlatan, and that Clarke-Salter was just a bit of a tart.

If you’re signing for QPR, there’s something wrong with you — complete players command transfer fees and wages we can’t reach. The club has tried to find value in the market in recent years by signing players with chequered injury records and for a while came up trumps — Sam Field played more times this season alone than he managed in six years at West Brom. Chad Bradford throws funny. We have to take these chances. In Jake Clarke-Salter it’s starting to look like we’ve got a good one and that the decision to jettison Barbet as he moved into his 30s in favour of a younger model may be vindicated after all. If he could get fit and play regularly, there’s no way a player of this ability would be at QPR in the first place. So, you take him on, and you put medical staff around him to try and get more minutes out of him. Enter Ben Williams, and Clarke-Salter is probably his biggest success story to date.

He's still come up agonisingly short of a first ever 30 start season, but his 29 starts and four sub appearances are the most he’s managed before in his career. His performances and confidence on the pitch have ascended steeply through as he’s learnt to trust his body and finally free himself of injuries. He was always the one people at the club would stick up for off mic when I was busy coating off the likes of Laird, Balogun and Roberts for their abdication, and this season we’ve seen why. It all culminated in a centre back performance for the ages against Preston at Loftus Road where he was just absolutely monstrous, doing the work of two or three men to get Rangers a clean sheet and 1-0 win that broke the back of the survival job. I haven’t seen a defender play like that at QPR for many a year, he was everywhere – the only nine we gave a player all season. By May he and Steve Cook had become the third best centre back pairing in the division.

Only Cook (6.285) has a higher average LFW mark than JCS (6.151) and it’s the same in the interactive marks too (6.55 v 6.38). Jake does beat him by five man of the match awards to four though, and the debate around the club’s official player of the year awards was which of the two would it be. In the end they took one each, Cook voted by the supporters and Clarke-Salter by the players (always instructive who the teammates like best, I think). We’ve rated Cook marginally higher simply because those numbers with and without him in the team are so stark and while there is a difference when Clarke-Salter is missing it’s not as enormous. We lost 15 times with Clarke-Salter in the team, compared to ten with Cook. With Clarke-Salter in the team we conceded a goal every 74 minutes (93 with Cook) at an average of 1.09 a game (0.91 Cook). Without him that ‘only’ increased to 1.533 whereas when Cook was missing it ballooned to 2.083.

Clarke-Salter though, at his age and with his more modern style of play, is undoubtedly the sellable asset of the two. As summer silly season swings into action he’s the name at QPR that’s being linked with other clubs – Stoke, Celtic etc. I have to say, spending north of £5m on a centre back who’s never played 30 games in a season before just because he’s hit form for six months does sound like the most Stoke City thing I’ve ever heard. We’ll talk about this more when we get to Isaac Hayden, but QPR have got to remember how they got themselves into the state of the last two years and not make those same mistakes again. Among the many self-inflicted wounds was not cashing in on players at the optimum point of their form (Dickie, Dieng, Chair) or contract (Osayi-Samuel, Manning, Austin). Clarke-Salter is fit and available for the first time ever, he’s playing the best football of his career, he’s got two years left on his contract, and he’s 26-years-old. If he sticks around and stays fit then, sure, QPR look like they’ll have arguably the best left sided centre back in the Championship next season. But unless he signs a new contract, his value will only bleed away from here. Learn from past mistakes, cash in now if the opportunity is there, and reinvest in three or four more prospects. It’s difficult to see another way out of this for us.

In numbers:

29 starts, 4 sub appearances, W13 D5 L15 (39.394% win percentage)

1 goal (Huddersfield A), 1 assist (Leeds H)

36 goals conceded (1.09 a game, goal every 74 mins), 12 clean sheets

4 yellow cards (Blackburn H foul, Huddersfield H foul, Norwich H foul, Boro H fighting)

5 LFW Man of the Match Awards (Leeds A, Huddersfield A, Sheff Wed A, Hull A, PNE H), 2 Supporter MOTM Awards (Huddersfield A, PNE H)

LFW Ratings — 6, 6, 4, 6, 4, 6, 4, 7, 7, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6, 4, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 4, 7, 6, 8, 7, 6, 6, 7, 8, 5, 5, 9, 8 = 6.151

Interactive Ratings — 6.38

15 – Morgan Fox C/D

“The fact Morgan Fox is starting for us every week says a lot about why we are where we are.” So said one poster on Stoke City’s always entertaining Oatcake message board as they finished in the bottom half of the Championship for a fifth consecutive season since relegation (soon to become six). Fox played 43 times for the Potters as they 12 of their 23 home games, the worst record in the division along with QPR for whom a dozen home defeats in a single season was a club record. The last of those came in the penultimate game against Gareth Ainsworth’s hapless Rangers, and yet another summer overhaul under yet another manager beckoned in Staffordshire.

Here we come to one of the repeat themes of this year’s end of termers. We’ve talked about this already in Osman Kakay’s round up, and we will come onto it again when we get to Ziyad Larkeche. One of the big problems facing the three managers at Loftus Road in 22/23 was the total lack of adequate cover for the first 11. Even Mick Beale, while relatively high flying in the table, was often criticised for being slow to make changes from the bench but if we take the 2-0 loss at Coventry just before his defection as an example he was looking along a bench of Archer, Kakay, Travelman, Thomas, Shodipo, Adomah and Armstrong, Not a lot of Championship standard players there, never mind potential impact subs. Now, if you can add somebody like Morgan Fox, with ten years’ experience in the division, capable of playing a number of positions along the backline, and he’s not earning too much money (he’s not earning too much money, right?), then that’s exactly the sort of cover that can be very useful to have. After he’d recovered from an injury that ruled him out for the whole winter (the only serious injury we’ve had to a first teamer this year) that is exactly how Cifuentes used Fox and by May I’d really warmed to him quite a bit. He was useful coming on in the last ten minutes of tight games to protect advantageous positions – Leicester A, Preston H. He was handy when the management felt they needed to protect Jake Clarke-Salter’s physical loading (West Brom H), or if Kenneth Paal was getting targeted and exposed (Plymouth A). When special ops were required to deal with Luke Williams unique Swansea side – like Russell Martin but with 10,000x more crosses – he got a start in a back four made up entirely of centre halves and played really well in South Wales. He finished the campaign with a first goal for the club at Coventry, which was nice.

In that role, dozen starts a season, bench option, Morgan Fox is absolutely fine. The problem comes, as with Kakay and Larkeche, when you’re recruiting and using these guys as 40+ game starters at Championship level. Fox had never impressed me during his time at Charlton, Sheff Wed or Stoke, and bringing him in here to be one of the main men at the back was a bleak moment last summer. When you go to Watford with a back four of Kakay, Fox, Gubbins and Paal you’re attempting to fly to the moon in a Biffa bin. The only surprise that day was that the score was only 4-0 and that it took as long as 20 seconds for the hosts to take the lead. Without Clarke-Salter, and with Cook feeling his way to fitness after a truncated pre-season, Fox was required to be a week-in week-out starter to begin with and Rangers won just one of ten games before he injured his foot competing for the first header of the game at home to Coventry. He had a nasty habit of getting drawn high up the field from left centre back, losing the first contact in the air, and allowing opponents to flick on and run into the space he vacated.

And so, it’s a season, and mark, in two halves, pre- and post-injury. Morgan Fox as a regular starter at centre back in the Championship – problematic. Morgan Fox as an experienced bench option and cover for others – pretty useful.

In numbers:

14 starts, 8 sub appearances, W5 D3 L8 (31.25% win percentage)

1 goal (Coventry A), 0 assists

22 goals conceded (1 a game, goal every 52 mins), 3 clean sheets

1 yellow card (Cardiff H foul)

1 LFW Man of the Match Award (Sunderland H)

LFW Ratings — 3, 7, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 4, 5, -, -, 4, -, 7, -, 7, 5, 7, 4, -, -, 7 = 5.50

Interactive Ratings — 5.70

20 – Reggie Cannon C/D

Summer 2023 was tough for young Reginald Cannon. Locked in a long running dispute with Boavista over unpaid wages, the US full back believed he was within his rights to walk away from the Portuguese club he says paid him on time only once in three years on a free transfer – a conclusion UEFA agreed with. Boavista, needless to say, did not, and began to lawyer up.

QPR expressed an interest immediately, spying a chance to get a statistically impressive international full back in the prime of his career on a free transfer because of a political/contractual issue – there’s that ‘there’s got to be something wrong with you if you’re coming here’ thing again. Cannon took one look at the trainwreck of the club’s 22/23 and told his agent to keep looking. He spent a chunk of the pre-season with Premier League Fulham, who were keen, but when it came to signing time Boavista promptly buried the Cottage lawyers in paper and they decided they weren’t so keen after all. Please tell me it’s not only QPR left. This pattern repeated twice more, first at Burnley where Vincent Kompany liked what he saw, until the lever-arch file arrived in the airmail from Porto, and Bournemouth, who were also impressed until the paperwork arrived and they stopped answering the phone. Eventually, with transfer window closed, and 25-man squads submitted, it was, indeed, only QPR left. Even then the official announcement of the transfer, which had been widely reported, was delayed while Rangers sought the sort of indemnity insurance policy usually reserved for the purchase of a house with a large crack in a load bearing wall. Cannon described Rangers as a “super historic club” in his welcome video. If only the American education system taught sex ed as well as it does media training.

Initially you could see why he’d been so reticent. Watching Boavista’s USA international full back play in a Gareth Ainsworth team was like watching one of those promotional stunts bookmakers occasionally pull where they get Ronaldo to turn out for The Desert Rat in the Scunthorpe and District Senior League. My God, it’s an actual footballer. He looked like Bart Simpson held back in kindergarten, rushing to claim the Flintstone phone for free play while the other morons splash around in the shallow end of the sand box and smear shit round their mouths. Yabba Dabba Doo, I’m playing a crossfield pass to you.

We started him off with all 6s and 7s, and the ‘best of a bad bunch’ award in the debacle away at West Brom. Questions, though, soon started to arise. Was this guy really any good, or had we just been watching Osman Kakay for too long? The ratings started to fall away (5, 5, 5, 6, 4, 5, 5, -, 7, 6, 4, 4, 5) and for an attacking full back to finish the year with zero goals and zero assists, in a Marti Cifuentes team, at a club that grew up on David Bardsley, is concerning. Jimmy Dunne showed what was possible in that position when, in reaction to a poor show from Cannon and the team as a whole up at Stoke, Cifuentes took a third swing at solving the problem on the right side of QPR’s defence by shifting the Irish centre back out there to see what would happen. Cannon was back for a little run out in the dead rubber at Coventry, and promptly got stripped by Haji Wright for the Sky Blues’ goal.

The mitigation is plentiful. Cannon played no football at all from May 27 to October 21 and had no proper pre-season because of the dispute he was involved in with his previous club. Very early in his time here he suffered a bad groin injury, which then blew out entirely in the home game with Huddersfield leaving Aaron Drewe to face an afternoon in the company of Sorba Thomas. Ordinarily he’d have been sent for an op but, such was Cifuentes’ complete lack of faith in Kakay post-Millwall, it was decided that even Reggie Cannon hobbling about on one leg would be a better bet so they tried to nurse him through it. A full pre-season under Ben Williams’ promising regime should do him the world of good.

It'll be interesting to see what happens here. Back in the glory days when idiot scum like us were allowed to know how long the contracts were for the club reckoned they’d tricked Cannon into signing for a chunky four years. If he is around next year, and fully fit, I’m still reasonably confident we might have got a really good one here. As said, whether we’re starting next season with Jimmy Dunne at right back, or we go back to something more like Cannon, will be a big test case in whether Cifuentes’ approach to this season has been one of pragmatism and necessity, or whether this is how he thinks he needs to play here in this division.

In numbers:

16 starts, 5 sub appearances, W6 D4 L10 (30% win percentage)

0 goal, 0 assists

17 goals conceded (0.89 a game, goal every 84 mins), 8 clean sheets

1 yellow card (Cardiff H foul)

1 LFW Man of the Match Award (West Brom A)

LFW Ratings — 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5, 6, 4, 5, 5, -, 7, 6, 4, 4, 5 = 5.55

Interactive Ratings — 5.76

21 – Ziyad Larkeche D

With just five starts among his 22 appearances, and only 14 of them long enough to warrant a mark at all, we’d probably ordinarily have Ziyad Larkeche in among the ‘others’ section for this. As with Kakay and Fox, signing this sort of player to be a bench option is absolutely fine (his cameo as a sub at Preston in December was impressive) but if you’re relying on them to be a regular starter at Championship level you’re going to have a new Christer Warren on your hands (his performance, admittedly out of position at right back, in the 4-0 home loss to Blackburn was biblically awful).

He has though, weirdly having only played 367 minutes in total, been involved in two of the moments of the season both for and against.

On the negative side, in that Blackburn debacle, his role in the fourth goal really felt like the final nail going into Gareth Ainsworth’s managerial coffin/. Chosen out of position at right back, with Jack Colback babysitting Stephen Duke-McKenna in the middle of midfield, he, and we, were wholly out of our depth against a Rovers side that would end up finishing below Rangers in the table and flirted with relegation for much of the spring. The final goal saw the visitors just walk right down the middle of the field unchallenged from their own goalkeeper. When Blackburn gave the ball away to Larkeche, he inexplicably gave it straight back to them, with a suicidal low, square back pass behind his own defensive line and straight to Sammie Szmodics for a walk in fourth. It was, as we said at the time, not a goal a professional football team should be conceding.

On the positive, he played a key part in Marti Cifuentes’ first win as QPR boss. The Spaniard had started with two draws and a loss from his first three and when Stoke took a 2-1 lead at Loftus Road despite being down to ten men the size of the task facing the new manager was threatening to overwhelm him before he’d even really got his feet under the table. It was one of our hardest games to mark all season because what would turn out to be a 4-2 victory - the only time we’d scored more than two in a game in 78 matches until the Leeds hammering in April - was, for 80 minutes, one of our worst performances of the campaign. Lyndon Dykes’ classy equaliser out of the blue looked to have rescued a point but in stoppage time Larkeche made it all three instead, chasing, harrying, hassling and refusing to give up on a lost cause down by the stoke corner flag. Having won the ball back against the odds and delivered to the near post he was rewarded with an assist as Ben Pearson The Goblin Boy put through his own net for not only a vital winning goal, not only an emotional outpouring from a support base that had been through 18 months of hell, but also sweet schadenfreudian justice after so many years of shithousing at Pearson’s hands. I was having it as my goal of the season until Jimmy Dunne stepped up and Larkeche made that happen.

In numbers:

5 starts, 17 sub appearances, W3 D2 L9 (21.43% win percentage)

0 goals, 2 assists (Stoke H, Bournemouth H)

10 goals conceded (0.714 a game, goal every 36 mins), 3 clean sheets

1 yellow card (Ipswich A foul)

0 LFW Man of the Match Awards, 1 supporter MOTM award (Stoke H)

LFW Ratings – 5,-, 6, -, , 2, 4, -, 7, 6, 6, 6, 5, 6, 4, 6, -, -, 6, -, 5, -, - = 5.285

Interactive Ratings — 5.53

22 – Kenneth Paal B/C

Take a tour of the club’s shiny new Heston training ground and when it comes to the video analytics suite the guys whose job it is to clip up QPR, and their opponents, looking for that tiny little marginal gain that could prove the difference between victory and defeat, will tell you it’s Kenneth Paal who is the most diligent, proactive and attentive over sitting down with the analysists and going through his game clips and future opponents. When you watch him play against Leeds, for example, that homework is there for all to see. The Surinam international seemed to know what the visitors were going to do even before they knew themselves, constantly popping up all by himself slap bang in the middle of a passing lane Daniel Farke’s team were trying to use to get in behind, and calmly coming away with the intercepted pass. A signing very much driven by the data, analytics and recruitment side of the business, led by Andy Belk, whatever Honest Mick may say about breastfeeding him as an eight-year-old, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise.

That performance was a very obvious positive, but away from it I’ve left this review to last and found it the most difficult one to put together. Has Kenneth Paal had a good season or not? Is he underrated or overrated? Both online and among the match going fans you’ll find people on opposite sides of this debate. Four goals from left back is impressive (though should never be enough to make you third top scorer). One assist, and that highly debatable given the work Ilias Chair still had to do to score the goal at Rotherham, is poor for a supposedly ball-playing full back. Particularly as, early in the season at least, he was taking a lot of the set pieces – each corner lumped firmly and consistently straight into the face of whoever the nearest defender happened to be. There have been times when he’s looked badly exposed – yes, sometimes that was in dreadful overall team performances (Stoke A, Sheff Wed H) but also in other games where he was the weak link in an overall fairly decent show (Rotherham H, Plymouth A). But then nobody in the team won more tackles than him this season (49) and, although you could never fault Ilias Chair’s workrate, playing directly behind QPR’s most attacking player is going to inevitably open up situations where he’s a long way down the field and you’re having to deal with a two v one situation on your side.

A long and generally held belief that actually he might be able to step into midfield was finally given a trial run at Millwall on Boxing Day, encouraged in part by Ziyad Larkeche’s impressive cameo a fortnight before at Deepdale that had pushed his case for a start. It was not a conspicuous success – arguably Paal’s worst performance of the season, and certainly the team’s worst showing under Cifuentes. It hasn’t been tried again.

Overall, I’ve been happy to give him a pass, and perhaps a higher mark than either regular reader. Firstly, because I liked the signing, I like him as a player, I think he’s very quietly effective out there the vast majority of the time. Secondly because every team needs a few players like this who you know are going to be available, they’re going to start every week, they’re going to be able to consistently churn out six or seven out of ten performances over prolonged periods of time and in three game weeks, and you just don’t have to worry about that position in your team – he and Sam Field play this role for us. And thirdly, while he may well have looked a little leggy and low on energy in the closing weeks, I think it’s pretty understandable given that he’s been basically ever-present for two straight years since arriving here. He played 3,809 minutes this season, more than any other outfielder, after clocking up 3,526 last year which was second only to Field. That’s a hell of a lot of football, played during one of the most difficult times in the club’s modern history, in a failing team that was getting swamped by opponents on a regular basis. This after moving to a new country and a notoriously physically demanding league from Holland, where the fixture list is lighter and the physical intensity of the competition a lot lighter. I think that’s a pretty formidable effort personally and if he has looked a little weary of late, well, no fucking shit really.

His goal at home to Huddersfield, the last of the four he scored this season, is almost worth a mark in itself. Appearing from nowhere at the back post, as he’d already done to good damaging effect against Cardiff and Coventry, Paal improvised a finish into the top corner of the net off his knee with virtually the last kick of the game to rescue a point that had looked completely lost after Jack Rudoni scored for the visitors four minutes from time. QPR had given that relegation six pointer such an enormous build up, packed the ground and decked it out in free blue and white scarves, and then choked on the performance to such an extent that the goal barely drew a reaction from me at all. Watching from a hotel lobby in New Orleans I just sort of sat there, stupefied, bored and demoralised by the previous 95 minutes. I actually almost felt sorry for Huddersfield. They’d been by far the better team, deserved to take the lead, and QPR were certainly worthy of the defeat that seemed to inevitably be coming their way. Even the point that goal won felt like scant consolation – another chance to catch a team above us with a home victory pissed up the wall. There are times when QPR are just so bad that even when they do accidentally score it’s difficult to get too excited by the moment because you’ve just been numbed by the sludge you had to wade through to get there. As it turned out, this goal was possibly the most important of the season. Hell, it might even be up there was one of our most important in modern times. Instead of going six points ahead, Huddersfield stayed within one win’s reach, and they sacked Darren Moore (already their second manager of the season) straight afterwards. The Terriers would win only four more times, and collapsed into League One while QPR were able to climb away in some style. When you talk about moments in seasons, that one was right up there.

In numbers:

44 starts, 2 sub appearances, W14 D11 L20 (31.11% win percentage)

4 goals (Cardiff A, Sunderland H, Coventry H, Huddersfield H), 1 assist (Rotherham A)

52 goals conceded (1.13 a game, goal every 73 mins), 12 clean sheets

3 yellow cards (Plymouth H foul, Watford H foul, Coventry A foul)

1 LFW Man of the Match Award (Norwich A)

LFW Ratings – 2, 7, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6, 5, 3, 6, 4, 6, 6, 7, 6, 5, 7, 7, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 4, -, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 4, 6, 4, 8, 6, 5, 5, 6, 4, 6, 5, 8, 6 = 5.688

Interactive Ratings — 5.86

Others >>> A pre-season that culminated with the humiliating 5-0 loss at Oxford had hinted at first team chances for the likes of Trent Rendell and Dion Woodman, but both have now been released without an appearance. Henry Hawkins is invited to try again with a contract extension – strong boy, QPR family, fingers crossed he makes it.

Aaron Drewe (one start, three sub appearances) was never really at the level and the club knew that even when extending his contract by a year last summer – for the same reason Kakay ended up being the first choice right back, lack of alternatives or budget to do anything about it. Nice kid, committed to his game, he surprised everybody in the academy by making it as far as he did, but he did a better job with Sorba Thomas in that Huddersfield game when plunged into action by Cannon’s injury than most give him credit for.

Joe Gubbins got 36 starts and six sub appearances under his belt on loan at League Two Accrington (W13 D7 L22, conceded 70, 10 clean sheets) and has only six therapy lessons left for the PTSD he suffered after Watford A.

Links >>> Keepers >>> Defenders >>> Midfield >>> Attack

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It's heartening to see recognition for Aaron Drewe's dedication and commitment to his team despite challenges. His performance in critical situations, like the Huddersfield game, showcases his resilience and ability to step up when needed, which is a testament to his character and perseverance in professional football.
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