‘There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here.’ Mark Hughes’ assertion following QPR’s unlikely escape from relegation last season was prescient in two ways. Firstly, because Hughes would not last long enough to ensure his team would avoid such a situation; and secondly, because, partly thanks to him, QPR will not be in a situation to avoid relegation on the final day of the season. They have, instead, already been relegated.
In order to decipher what has gone wrong at QPR, let us go back to the summer of 2010. Nigel de Jong was acknowledged as a kung-fu master, Matthew Upson was England’s most recent goalscorer, and Neil Warnock was embarking on his first summer as QPR manager. Understandably, Warnock tended to prefer players he had worked with before, bringing in Shaun Derry, Clint Hill and Paddy Kenny, whilst also signing Jamie Mackie from recently relegated Plymouth, second-tier stalwart Bradley Orr from Bristol City, and crucially Adel Taarabt from Spurs at the ridiculously low price of £600,000 (plus numerous clauses and add-ons). Many of these signings were seen as underwhelming by the R’s fans – indeed the Loft For Words website greeted Derry’s arrival with the words ‘the anti-footballer signs,’ but as the season started, it became clear that Warnock had created an extremely well-balanced side.
In many ways, the QPR side that won promotion in 2010-11 took advantage of a perfect storm. The Championship was weak that year, with three poor sides (Hull, Burnley and a financially-crippled Portsmouth) having been relegated from the Premier League the previous season, and crucially all the new signings contributed to an excellent start (Rangers were unbeaten until December), including an improbable 2-2 draw away to Derby County, where Patrick Agyemang and Mackie both scored in stoppage time to salvage a point, underling the resilience of this rebuilt team.
In truth, that QPR team were probably not quite good enough to go up. They had two outstanding performers (Taarabt and Kenny), and the rest of the team were anything between very good and excellent. However, Warnock appreciated that in order to compete in the top flight he would have to strengthen the squad, especially in defence. Instead, thanks to Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore’s thriftiness (they were in the process of selling their shares to Tony Fernandes, and as such reluctant to speculate on anything they wouldn’t see a return for), Rangers started the 2011-12 season with an injection of Premier League cast-offs (DJ Campbell, Danny Gabbidon, Kieron Dyer), Championship stalwarts (Jay Bothroyd) and plain rubbish (Bruno Perone, Brian Murphy).
When the takeover occurred, just before the end of the transfer window, it is arguable that Warnock panicked. He suddenly had all this spending potential, a squad that had already been exposed as lacking Premier League quality (a 4-0 opening-day home defeat to Bolton had shown that), and very little time to find a remedy. At the time it seemed as though Warnock had made good use of these sudden riches – Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Armand Traore, Luke Young and Anton Ferdinand all had Premier League experience – but they were all let go of their clubs for a reason, and in retrospect it looks as if he just searched Championship Manager-style for available players who had played in the Premier League.
Despite initial promising signs (Wright-Phillips was outstanding on his debut against Newcastle, Barton in the 3-0 win at Wolves), Warnock was sacked in January with QPR just outside the relegation zone, the season’s best player Alejandro Faurlin out for the season, and rumours of dressing-room disharmony abounding. Players such as Hill, Derry and Mackie, who had been instrumental in Rangers’ promotion, were understandably miffed to have been discarded in favour of higher-paid, underperforming players, while Joey Barton was up to his usual trick of falling out with a teammate (this time the admittedly exasperating Taarabt, who he had usurped as captain).
So, Mark Hughes arrived, and added another batch of highly-paid players, many of whom were not used to the pressure of a relegation dog-fight. However, he also recalled Derry and Hill to his first-choice team, crucially adding some fight and experience. Hill, in fact, was so impressive he was voted Player of the Year, despite starting only 19 League matches. Despite a lamentable disciplinary record (6 red cards after Hughes took over), QPR somehow survived due to a variety of factors. First of all, the goalscoring form of Djibril Cisse, one of the January acquisitions; secondly, the sudden upsurge in home form (Rangers won their last 5 home games); thirdly the fact that Wolves, Blackburn and Bolton were even more crap; and finally the help of Agent Peter Crouch, a boyhood QPR fan who missed a sitter in the dying minutes for Stoke which, had it gone in, would have left Rangers needing to beat Man City on the last day of the season, and then dived to win Stoke an equalising penalty against Bolton. Phew, we all thought, that was close, time to put all that behind us, and prepare for a summer of sensible signings.
To be fair to Hughes, most QPR fans were reasonably pleased with the initial summer deals. True, he seemed to be trying to put together a title-challenging side from 2007, but convincing Junior Hoilett to join was seen as a coup, while Park Ji-Sung had been Alex Ferguson’s go-to man for the big games. ‘Had’ is the crucial word in that sentence – Ferguson rarely lets a player go prematurely (Jaap Stam being a notable exception), and it soon became apparent that without his stamina Park is a deeply mediocre player. It has since come to light that he was only signed as a shirt-selling brand-promoting exercise, a saddening indication of the priorities in modern football.
As Warnock had done the previous summer, Hughes appeared to be buying players on reputation, rather than trying to build a team. Esteban Granero has a lovely touch, and excellent vision, but he has proved wanting when the pressure is on, and is just a marginally less good-looking Alejandro Faurlin. Stephane Mbia, who has it must be said improved as the season has progressed, was signed to play central defence (a position where Rangers have been lacking for years), and proved instead to be a mildly unhinged defensive midfielder, exactly the same as Samba Diakite. Signing Julio Cesar just after signing Rob Green made sense, given Cesar’s quality, and Green’s ropey start to the season, but why then insist that this had been the plan all along, when, given Green’s comments in the press, he had been signed as the number one ‘keeper. Hughes then seemed bemused that this collection of individuals failed to make a coherent team.
Hughes did have some bad luck. After the atrocious 5-0 home defeat against Swansea, and an inferior performance against Norwich which somehow ended in a 1-1 draw, QPR played excellently against Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs, probably deserving 7 points, but only gaining 1. A victory in any of those games may have galvanised the players, and taken the pressure off, but instead performances steadily deteriorated, the nadir being the pathetic 3-1 defeat at home to Southampton, which eventually proved to be Hughes’ last game in charge. He claimed to have meticulously prepared for each game, but played a lightweight midfield against West Ham, and watched nonplussed as Mo Diame ran riot.
And so St Harry of Dagenham appeared, forcing QPR’s hand by pretending to be interested in the Ukraine manager’s job. Rangers have improved since his arrival, winning at Chelsea and Southampton, and running Manchester City close, but his record of 4 wins in 22 games is inferior to Hughes, and recent performances have been that of a team who gave up long ago. And, of course, Redknapp has wheeled and dealed like he always does, adding yet another layer of players to a squad so bloated, you could dress it in a check shirt and bum bag, and call it an American.
Now that relegation has been confirmed, what does Harry do now? The sensible answer would be resign, retire to his luxury home in Sandbanks, and spend some time with the lovely Sandra, Darren Bent’s nemesis. He still may, but recent quotes suggest he is looking forward to the challenge, comparing it to the job he did with Portsmouth. His biggest challenge will be to create some sort of dressing room harmony, something he has recently acknowledged. Following the 0-0 draw with Reading that confirmed relegation, Joey Barton blamed the club’s failure on the fact there are ‘too many wankers in the dressing room.’ That may be a bit like a pot sitting in a glasshouse calling a kettle black whilst throwing stones, but he has a point. QPR haven’t played like a team at all in the last two seasons. It’s unreasonable to expect players to care as much about a club as the fans, but the lack of effort put in by a large number of players this season is horrendous. Most of the players signed over the past two years have been the wrong side of 30, have already made their reputations, and therefore know that QPR will provide them with their last decent contract. Professional pride doesn’t come into it – they’ve never had to scrap in a relegation battle before, possibly don’t have the strength of character to do so, and have no reason to push themselves as they’re getting paid well, and their reputation is already made. Will Park be remembered more for his miserable performances this season, or for his contribution to a highly successful Manchester United side over a number of years? Similarly, Jose Bosingwa has been rotten this season, but he surely will be remembered for his time at Chelsea.
According to Barton, these ‘wankers’ were all brought in by Hughes, and presumably are all on nice long-term contracts, with no clause to reduce the terms in the event of relegation. In recent years both Newcastle and Portsmouth have gone down with a squad full of big names and high earners, and next season the R’s could feasibly follow either path. If they stay, Remy, Taraabt, Zamora, Cisse, Onuoha, Granero and Faurlin are far too good not to thrive at Championship level. On the other hand, without an influx of players with what Redknapp has called ‘the right character’ we could see another season of apathy.
At least the purchase of a site, and the reception of planning permission for a new training ground is a step in the right direction – at the moment QPR train at a college field in the shadow of Heathrow, but within a couple of years a new facility at Warren Farm in Ealing should be ready (albeit at the reported cost of £25, or 2 and a bit Chris Sambas). Hopefully this will also go some way to addressing the pathetic lack of youth team players to make it into the first team on a long-term basis. The last player to do so was probably Richard Langley (who made his debut in 1997) – since then there has been a long list of players trumpeted as the next big thing, but who have turned out to be crap, including (deep breath) Dennis Oli, Richard Pacquette, Marcus Bean, Scott Donnelly, Antonio German, Angelo Balanta, Bruno Andrade and Max Ehmer. Sadly the most promising youth-team graduate in the last 15 years, Ray Jones, died just after he turned 19.
One of the most frustrating things about the last two seasons is that QPR have gone from being a well-liked club to a highly-disliked one. Before, when I told people I was a QPR fan, I may have got a patronising smile or an encouraging ‘really?’ in response. Now I get open laughter and a sneering comment about money not buying success. The thing is, if I weren’t a QPR fan, I’d hate us. I really hope that Redknapp can perform the same miracles as he did at Portsmouth (first time round anyway, look where they are now), but I don’t see it. Who is going to take the high earners off the club’s hands? What is another summer of complete overhaul going to do to team morale? And has Tony Fernandes really learnt his lesson, as his Twitter account constantly claims, or will he continue to authorise the signings of high-profile, past-it players, who can help promote his AirAsia brand? I very much fear for the club’s future.