QPR twist again, Holloway departs - Column
Thursday, 10th May 2018 16:08 by Clive Whittingham
Ian Holloway has left QPR for the third and final time this afternoon - here we try and make sense of a complex situation and risky manoeuvre from a club that still craves change.
It’s 14 years, almost to the day, since Ian Holloway reached the pinnacle of his first spell in charge of Queens Park Rangers, winning promotion to the Championship on the final day of the season at Hillsborough. Football has changed considerably since then.
I’ve said this before, but were those five years to be repeated again in the present day, Holloway likely wouldn’t have made it through the first two of them. December 2002, QPR hadn’t won for 12 matches and had just drawn 0-0 with nine-man Luton, lost 3-0 at Notts County, 4-0 at home to Cardiff and been dumped out of the FA Cup by Vauxhall Motors in a fortnight catastrophic even by the standards of an accident prone club like ours. Do that now, in the era of short termism and social media, and you’d be sacked. No question.
QPR stuck with. Not only that, but they allowed Holloway to add a player of the quality of Lee Cook to a squad that already had a big wage bill for the level we were playing at. A draw with Brentford stopped the rot, and 18 glorious months followed in which QPR lost just ten league games in a year and a half, reaching one play-off final and then going up automatically.
Second time around Holloway has been sacked at the end of his first full season in charge. So maybe I’m wrong, maybe Holloway wouldn’t have even made it to that December. Because the season we’ve just had wasn’t at all dissimilar to that 2001/02 campaign which started well, fell away dramatically in the middle, picked up at the end and finished with a midtable finish. Granted QPR were eighth by the end, seven points shy of the play-offs, and have just finished sixteenth, but it was a division lower and the final placing flattered us somewhat – Rangers won four on the spin through April with Arsenal’s Jerome Thomas starring on loan to lift them from the bottom half of the table where they’d been kicking around since Christmas. Maybe we’d have sacked him then in the modern era – pre-Rowlands, Furlong, Ainsworth, Cook – and missed out on Oldham, Hillsborough and all the rest of it.
Football has changed, but so too has Ian Holloway. Watching those videos back from Hillsborough last week, you realise how young and happy he looked, and funny he was. He was the energy, the motivator, the driving force, with Kenny Jackett in the background as the straight man. The players did boxing and ballet. They went on riotous pre-season tours to the very far north of Scotland, where a bare-chested Danny Shittu had to be talked down from the roof of the team coach where he’d taken up post loudly demanding fried chicken, and the infamous Copa Del Ibiza. Holloway was clownish, too clownish for some, and his interviews with Billy Rice on QPR World always bordered on comedic. He was the life and soul of the party – verbose, of course, but full of life and fun, like his team.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge at QPR, and for Ian Holloway, since then. We all know his family history off the pitch, but even on it he’s been through some tough times that would have broken lesser men. Seeing his play-off contending Plymouth side broken up, relegated at Leicester, promoted to the Premier League with Blackpool of all teams only for the Oystons to syphon off all the money and leave him trying to stay up with a centre back combination of Ian Evatt and Alex Baptiste, promoted at Palace only to then have to very publicly and emotionally concede he didn’t feel he was up to the job of keeping them up, and then the chastening experience of the Millwall disaster he says he should never have gone into.
The television studio looked to be the best place for him after all of that, and as we said at the time the decision to bring him back to management was one no other club at our level would have even considered. Holloway, for his part, said it was the only job he’d have gone back in for. He’s often come across as a man on the edge – angrier, more volatile, more prone to picking arguments with players and supporters, comparing Ebere Eze to Stan Bowles one week then coating off his defensive work the next. At Millwall he apparently even fell out with Shittu, who’d been known as ‘son of Holloway’ during his Rangers days. The interviews were still as long, but often rambling, and emotional, making little sense and contradicting what had been said before. It wasn’t unusual for the post-match reaction video on the official website to feature only one or two questions and yet run to nearly ten minutes.
You wondered whether he could deliver a clear, concise message to the modern generation of iPhone obsessed footballers, and he frequently spoke about how changing rooms, and football players, had changed since his day. Problems like his team’s propensity to concede goals immediately before and after half time (28 of the 70 conceded last season came between 35 and 55), and total inability to win away from home (six wins in 38 road trips), remained unchecked and unchanged amidst waffly chat about “knowing when to press and when not” and “developing an identity”. We kept ten clean sheets in his 80 games in charge. Did the team know what he was on about, or wanted? The QPR board weren’t convinced they did.
Perhaps he cared and thought about the job, and the club, too much. He constantly gave the impression of a man over-thinking things, particularly his team selections which often showed multiple changes after sound performances and wins – Paul Smyth and Bright Osayi Samuel were both dropped the week after excellent performances against Sheff Wed and Birmingham respectively and QPR lost both the following games. It was almost as if he didn’t like being seen as the clown or the joker in the early years, or that his failures at Leicester, Palace and Millwall hung over him, and he was constantly trying to prove what a deep-thinking, tactical manager he was when actually things could have been kept a lot simpler.
He came away from our best performance of last season, at Aston Villa, furious that a consolation goal had been conceded in injury time. “Don’t worry about it, just enjoy it Ol,” said Chris Ramsey to him in the tunnel at full time.
Sadly, he rarely gave the impression he was.
Tale of the tape
So, has Ian Holloway been hard done to by being dismissed from QPR for a second time? In my opinion, yes.
If we look back to when he first arrived the general perception was the team was being held back from its true potential by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s defensive and fitness-obsessed management. Holloway would “rub off on them a bit”, play a bit more of an attacking style and everything would be just like the old days again. Well, that turned out to be like one of those all-inclusive European beach holidays where you arrive to find your hotel is over a petrol station next to a dual carriageway. He and Marc Bircham quickly found that, in actual fact, if you opened the team up even a little bit, the Championship would walk right through the middle of it – bit more difficult in the dugout than giving opinions on the podcast as it turned out. Not only that but the two best attacking players, Seb Polter and Tjaronn Chery, both had eyes fixed on January departures, one for personal reasons and the other for money.
Holloway didn’t complain about things not quite being as they were in the brochure, and instead simply reshaped the team in January. Some of the signings were poor – Kazenga LuaLua, Sean Goss, Ravel Morrison – but Matt Smith and Luke Freeman have been shrewd additions on a limited budget and backed up since by Josh Scowen, Paul Smyth and Bright Osayi-Samuel who were all unheralded at the time but look like great players.
The budget is something else Holloway rarely mentions, but is also a hindrance to trying to build a squad at QPR at the moment. The club’s parachute payments are nearly over, and have been decreasing rapidly over the past three seasons. Their wage bill has had to come with it, and is doing with another £10m knocked off it in the last set of accounts. Standing still in the Championship, not getting relegated, while trying to halve your wage bill and then halve it again, is progress of sorts, and Holloway has accomplished that.
Accomplished it while also blooding some of the club’s talented youngsters – another part of his remit that’s he’s fulfilled. Darnell Furlong, Ryan Manning, Paul Smyth and Ebere Eze have all become first team regulars under Holloway, with Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ilias Chair not far behind. Aramide Oteh was also one of five players aged 20 or under to score for the R’s last season, more than any other club in the Championship. All of them bar Furlong were given their debuts by Holloway. This at a club where the Young Player of the Year award used to be handed out to whichever pimple-faced youth had embarrassed themselves the least on loan at a Conference South club.
To a certain extent his hand has been forced into playing them, by the budget cuts and the club’s injury problems. But, again, he’s never moaned about either of those things. Losing all the club’s recognised centre backs for a prolonged period of time made last season even more difficult than it was already going to be. He’s been without Grant Hall, who the team simply couldn’t win without last season, for a year and coped with it. He also lost Nedum Onuoha at a busy period – QPR won 13, drew six and lost ten with their captain playing, winning just two, drawing five and losing ten without him. Holloway got on with the job, making a useful centre back out of Jack Robinson, one of several senior players whose games improved markedly under his management – Hall, Massimo Luongo, Freeman and Smith the others.
Football managers always make excuses. It’s never their fault. Every week Sam Allardyce, David Moyes, Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert and others drone on and one and on into the Match of the Day camera about how many injuries they’ve got, how terrible the referee was, how unlucky they were, how harshly they’re judged by the media, how unfair the fans are being, what a mess they inherited from the previous bloke. Perhaps in Holloway’s sacking we’ve seen why they do it, because by not making a fuss he’s missed the chance to point out to his critics, and the board, just what a difficult job he has had on here and they’ve taken that for granted and mistakenly concluded that actually he could be doing a lot better.
He's fulfilled the job he’s been given and been sacked midway through regardless, with a fortnight of rumour about his position stirred up by the club themselves at a time when he was grieving the loss of his mum and Ray Wilkins. Harshly done to? I would say so.
But that’s not to gloss over the failings and frustrations of the last 18 months, of which there have been many.
Senior figures at board level had the same three concerns that we all did – the away form and lack of improvement in it, the volatile and rambling public outbursts, and the wild and inconsistent team selections. The footballing people above him didn’t believe that four, five and six changes a game works or is helpful, the money men didn’t think it was helping potential assets like Smyth and Eze to be brilliant one week and dropped the next. Rightly or wrongly, there's also a belief that the improvements in the latter games (including Villa and Fulham) and Chris Ramsey's re-involvement with the first team were not coincidence. They are looking for “more consistency in approach”.
The away form, in particular, has been appalling. He clearly didn’t know why it was happening nor what he was going to do about it. As we said when That Tosser Redknapp was describing them as bonus games, you can’t just write off half your matches every season. The team selections, wildly and randomly rotating even when the team was playing well and winning, has seen the Crown and Sceptre do a roaring trade in rounds of Jaeger Bombs at 14.01 each Saturday. The long, rambling, streams of consciousness (bit rich from me I know) that never seem to go anywhere nor convey any specific meaning. The outbursts, particularly before and after the Brentford games and his behaviour at Millwall – all of which we played badly in and lost. I’ve been as wound up by this as the rest of you, and have gone into more detail in this summary of his best and worst moments.
But here’s the thing… The next guy, almost certainly Steve McClaren, is going to do stuff that annoys us as well. You, me, the board and the players. The perfect manager does not exist, even Neil Warnock sold Kaspars Gorkss and bought Bruno Perone and Anton Ferdinand.
When Ian Holloway was being criticised for “not just picking his best first 11”, nobody among the critics could actually agree on what that best 11 was. The belated switch to a back four was popular, and it allowed Darnell Furlong to make the long-overdue accession to first team regular, but forward of that Luongo, Scowen, Freeman, Eze, Osayi-Samuel, Smyth, Wszolek, Smith and Sylla do not fit into the remaining six places. If he’d picked Scowen, Luongo, Freeman, Smyth, Eze and Smith every week for six weeks people would have wanted to know where Sylla, Osayi-Samuel and Wszolek were. Whoever is in charge come August 4 is going to be leaving somebody out that you might personally prefer to see picked.
There have been some blatant missteps – the Smyth and Osayi-Samuel ditchings already cited chief among them. But it’s very easy from in front of the bar at the Crown or from behind your keyboard to moan about what a football manager should or shouldn’t have done. As already touched upon, Marc Bircham spoke very well on the QPR Podcast about what he felt was wrong with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s team, only to then lose six of his first seven games back at the club as assistant manager. Steve McClaren appeared unusually knowledgeable about the QPR players when he appeared as the Sky pundit for our game at Fulham – we should have smelt a change then - but it’s not so easy when it’s actually all on you.
We all love to play the Monday morning quarterback, talking about what footballers and managers could or should have done. It’s part of being a fan. But there are social media accounts I could point to that have, for months and months on end now, existed purely to spew criticism and hatred of Ian Holloway who, for all his failings, is QPR through and through. You can scroll back for weeks and find them talking about nothing else, day after day. They said we would definitely be relegated, and then when we weren’t they continued anyway. They criticised the team selections as soon as they were announced, and then if the game was won they quickly moved on to predicting doom in the next game. They maintained they would not return to QPR matches until some unspecified regime change occurred, and yet seemed able to live Tweet how terrible the game there weren’t at was anyway. It has spawned a weird phenomena where people who claim to be QPR fans actually seem to revel in the club’s failure because it adds weight to their argument. The response to Holloway in the ground has been good, a far cry from the despicable hounding of Chris Ramsey, but this constant drip, drip, drip of online aggression is dangerous when you have a co-chairman that clearly listens to and is affected by criticism and abuse people send him on Twitter. It perpetuates an idea that everything will be ok if we just make one more signing, or one more change of manager, when in actual fact that’s often not true, and the same people who’ve been coating Holloway off will soon be setting off on his replacement, talking about how dreadful the football is, how stupid the team selections are etc etc.
We’ve thankfully broken the cycle of mid-season change, and this is exactly the right time to be assessing who we’ve got and whether we’re confident in him for next season. That’s progress. But amidst the talk of stability, the penchant to lean towards change remains. Everybody at QPR – fans, board, players – have been burned before by believing that actually our squad is much better than it is and is being held back by the manager, that the grass really is greener on the other side. Since Warnock, none of our recent managerial changes have made massive improvements, and a couple have made things considerably worse.
Whoever the new man is will do things that annoy you, and the social media gremlins, and the board, just as much as Holloway. That’s an absolute certainty. Whether they’ll be able to cope as well as Holloway did with the problems he had here, with the added issue of several big dressing room figures all leaving the club this summer, is very much more doubtful.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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