Holloway’s best and worst – Column
Thursday, 10th May 2018 16:09 by Clive Whittingham
As Ian Holloway departs QPR for the third, and surely final, time, LFW looks back at the highs and lows of his second spell as manager at Loftus Road.
Happy New Year: After starting his second spell with one win and then six consecutive defeats, Holloway desperately needed to turn things around over the Christmas period in 2016. Rangers hadn’t scored for four matches, including a 1-0 loss at the division’s whipping boys Rotherham. When the team sheet landed for the New Year’s Eve clash at Wolves it looked strongly like he’d written it off and was putting all his eggs in the Bank Holiday Monday game against Ipswich at Loftus Road – a midfield pairing of Sandro and debutant Ryan Manning on debut didn’t excite anybody other than the Brazilian’s surgeon. But Jamie Mackie returned from injury to great effect and goals from Idrissa Sylla and Pawel Wszolek sealed an unlikely win. Two days later, Ipswich were beaten by the same scoreline and a 1-0 televised win at Reading followed the week after. Nine points posted, pressure off, relief all round.
Top two downed: After a run of disappointing draws against the division’s basement dwellers, QPR went out in true QPR style and beat the top two in the Championship in four memorable days at the end of October last year. Wolves’ lavishly furnished squad of Jorge Mendes clients would finish the season as champions, with 99 points and only seven defeats in 46 games, but lost 2-1 at Loftus Road thanks to goals from Conor Washington (like a solar eclipse) and Matt Smith. Rangers deserved it too, this was no smash and grab. Four days later they repeated the trick against Sheff Utd, who’d gone top of the league themselves thanks to the Wolves result at the weekend. There was more luck about this, with the goal coming early thanks to a monumental cock up by visiting goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, but Holloway deserved credit for a shrewd switch after half time, bringing on Darnell Furlong and switching to a back four to take United’s young star David Brooks out of the game just as his influence was growing. This may have been the pinnacle, but QPR’s home results and most of their performances were very decent in 2017/18 and their final record of 12-5-6 was better than half a dozen teams above them in the table and identical to Derby who made the play-offs. It does make you wonder why it took so long to move to a back four, with Furlong in it, permanently though.
A win away: The away form, as we’ll come onto shortly, has been appalling throughout Holloway’s second spell in charge and is one of three chief concerns among board members that have led to his departure. But for one glorious week in March it looked like we’d finally cracked it. Consecutive trips to the division’s two form teams, with them gunning for promotion and us rather going through the end of season motions, looked about as appetising as an episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories on paper. But Rangers had been niggled by the way Aston Villa had postponed the original meeting between the sides, insisting a game that was never likely to take place amidst heavy snow was still going ahead and forcing Rangers to spend six-hours on a treacherous motorway and a night in a Birmingham hotel for no reason. That was one factor in a much-improved performance from the R’s while Villa had their eye off the ball following a thumping weekend win against champions-elect Wolves. QPR were excellent throughout, winning 3-1 with goals from Ryan Manning, Jake Bidwell and Luke Freeman. Big Racist John was comprehensively outplayed and out fought by Matt Smith who had his best game for the club, giving a small but vocal away support the wonderful experience of mocking the former Chelsea man to his face in an otherwise emptying and silent stadium. Better still, he heard it and hated it, gesturing repeatedly to the away end in the final ten minutes, including the bizarre spectacle of him lifting an imaginary trophy while the game went on around him – perhaps one he invented to award to himself? Better still, despite going 2-0 down to Fulham that weekend, Rangers played well again and came roaring back to draw 2-2 and almost snatch a win at the death. The switch to the back four, the reintroduction of Furlong and Manning, things really started to look like they were coming together…
Luke Freeman (and Josh Scowen): In QPR’s new, more frugal times, Holloway has spoken frequently about the importance of getting the recruitment right, doing due diligence on players (Mark Hughes) and overall this has been a success during his second spell. Picking up Luke Freeman for a few hundred thousand towards the end of his Bristol City contract was a masterstroke which Olly credited to Gary Penrice. He was my Player of the Season in 2017/18, narrowly ahead of Josh Scowen who was a completely unheralded free transfer from Barnsley last summer but has been a vital cog in the machine this season. A huge part of Holloway’s success first time around was the recruitment policy, with players like Martin Rowlands, Paul Furlong, Gareth Ainsworth, Danny Shittu, Lee Cook, Lee Camp and others coming through the door. Mel Johnson, the head scout at the time, is back at the club and Penrice has been working as head of recruitment to good effect. The club say that scouting structure will remain despite Holloway’s departure but that remains to be seen – with Penrice and Holloway very close friends and a new manager inevitably favouring his own men and wanting his own signings. If this baby is thrown out with the bath water, that would be a shame, because I like what I’m seeing and hearing on scouting.
The kids are alright: Since Holloway has returned, Darnell Furlong, Ryan Manning, Ebere Eze and Paul Smyth have become regular first teamers, with Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ilias Chair not far behind. Aramide Oteh was one of five players aged 20 or younger to score for Rangers this season, the most in the Championship. Joe Lumley has enjoyed another fantastic season on loan in League One. Now you can justifiably say that this has been done out of financial necessity, and less fairly point out that these lads have often come from Galway, Linfield, Spurs, Millwall – as if it matters that they didn’t come out of the womb in a QPR shirt. But there has been undeniable progress and player development there, with Eze in particular sensibly managed with a loan at Wycombe and then progress into our first team in the second half of the season. QPR used to give their Young Player of the Season award to whichever kid hadn’t completely embarrassed himself on loan in Conference South, now there’s a clutch of important first teamers competing for the award. Mass Luongo, Grant Hall, Luke Freeman, Matt Smith and Jack Robinson have all notably improved under Holloway as well. That has all been tempered by his penchant for taking them out of the team after good performances – something Eze, Smyth and Osayi-Samuel have all been victim of at one time or another. Those confused messages to the young players – he managed to compare Ebere Eze to Stan Bowles and then slag him off for not defending properly within five days – are another of the club’s concerns.
Rub off on them a bit: The original pitch was that QPR’ squad was better than it was being allowed to show under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s overly defensive, fitness-based approach. Fans craved a bit more excitement, a bit more attacking flair, a bit more caution to the wind. That was Holloway’s brief, and he came in full of the usual soundbites and bluster about how he was going to “work with what we’ve got, rub off on them a bit” and couldn’t wait to tell Conor Washington how many goals he was going to score in this new team. The first game, at home to Norwich, featured a QPR penalty after ten seconds and two fine goals before half time which hinted at happier, less tedious times to come. But Rangers nearly blew that lead against ten men and quickly lost six games on the spin, scoring in just one of them. As Hasselbaink had feared, open the team up even a little bit and the rest of the league would plough right through the middle of it. By January, all the talk about “happy feet” and “chasing paper bags” had evaporated into another mad trolley dash with six players going out and another six coming in. Once more a plan and a budget had been set and spent, and then completely ripped up halfway through the season.
Big Fat Ravel: To be fair, that transfer window did seem to arrest QPR’s slide quite well. Luke Freeman and Matt Smith came in and played well, leading to a great March of four wins which lifted the team safely into midtable with six weeks of the season to go. What happened next finished Holloway off in the eyes of his harshest critics. There’s experimenting with the team, and there’s drawing it out of a hat at random, and when things like Sean Goss’ brief 45-minute cameo at Brentford, Michael Petrasso’s rapid rotation through three different positions in the first half against Sheff Wed, and Ravel Morrison’s farcical start in central midfield against Brighton when the fat waster hadn’t even been turning up to training on time start happening you’re veering dangerously close to the latter. Rangers lost six in a row again, necessitating a nervous 2-0 home win against Nottingham Forest at the end of the season to stop it turning into the most unlikely slide into relegation since Millwall went from top at Christmas to bottom in May in the 1990s. Just to put the tin hat on it, Rangers then lost the final match 4-0 at Norwich to finish with seven dire defeats from the final eight games. While never quite dipping to those depths again, Holloway’s wild team selections and inconsistency of thinking is one of the issues that have made the board think it’s time for a change. More recently we’ve seen Paul Smyth rip into Sheff Wed and score a great goal, only to be dropped to the bench for the next match against Preston which we lost. To do that once is a bit daft, to do it twice – as happened to Bright Osayi-Samuel after the Birmingham match – is demented. The idea that Holloway can’t leave well alone, that he fiddles about with the team too much, that he’s constantly trying to show what a deep thinking and clever tactical manager he is, has plenty of evidence to support it and is a big part of the reason he’s lost his job.
The Brentford rant: Another concern for the club’s decision makers has been the weird and wonderful outbursts he’s come out with publicly. Now I didn’t mind his post-Brentford TV meltdown as much as some did. Football fans can be very precious, happy to sit there and slag him and his team off within his earshot when he’s trying to work and they’re supposed to be supporting him but then getting all huffy about it if he turns around and gives it a bit back. And that was a very emotional situation, with two goals right at the death in a televised derby game with Brentford arrogantly taunting him from the School End all second half. Adrenalin pumping, a camera got stuck in his face immediately afterwards, and he erupted. Of more concern to me was his odd attempts to try and stir up some sort of rivalry and animosity with Brentford, and to a lesser extent Fulham, while repeatedly getting out played by them. His behaviour prior to the Millwall game over New Year was, at best, ill-advised and, at worst, potentially dangerous for those of us attending as away fans – whipping up an already hostile situation. Again, crucially, he lost the game anyway, spending the second half pumping long balls up to Matt Smith against the division’s most direct and physical team. I didn’t like his repeated barbs about Idrissa Sylla (“the French lads need to run about a bit more”, in particular, was crass) and more recently Josh Scowen post-Hull. He’d regularly take the edge off a win by trotting out rambling notions about how many changes he’d need to make for the next game. And on half a dozen occasions he’s come out bitching and moaning about comments made by opposition fans behind the dugout – suck it up, we’re not at the tennis. To some extent it’s his schtick, but it’s sad that it’s now so angry, emotional and morose compared to the bouncy, happy, comedy of his first spell, and it was frequently non-sensical and unhelpful. You couldn’t help but wonder how he got his message across to the players, when he struggled to explain it to us so much – particularly his ongoing comments about “when to press and when not to press” and “building an identity” which didn’t really mean anything.
Travel sickness: Reason three of three is the away results – 14 defeats in 23 league games this season and only three wins, just six wins from 38 games on the road since he came back. Bar one week when we beat Villa and nearly did the same to Fulham, we’ve never once looked like we know why it’s happening or what we’re going to do about it. Those two games were promptly followed up by four more away defeats one after the other, scoring only once in the process and keeping Reading in the league into the bargain. Even the six wins have been mostly scraped in matches against poor teams (Birmingham twice, Burton, Wolves when Wolves were crap and Jaap Stam’s dire Reading). The loss at Bristol City, who played for an hour with ten men, was particularly galling. We don’t look like we’re going to score, and we’re too easy to score against, and most importantly of all there are precious few signs that this is going to change and improve. The performances and results against Leeds, Brentford and Hull to end this season were every bit as dire as the ones against Brentford, Bristol City and Norwich 12 months ago. There is no sign of improvement there at all.
Forest woes: QPR’s two worst performances of last season both came against a distinctly average, struggling Nottingham Forest team who banged in nine goals across 180 minutes, almost 20% of all the goals they scored in the entire season. The 4-0 loss at The City Ground extended an infamous winless run there to 34 matches, but more importantly punctured the optimism that was flowing after the Wolves and Sheff Utd wins and seemed to set the team back confidence wise – from beating the top two inside four days we then went on another six-match winless streak. The 5-2 loss at home actually turned into a positive as it saw the much maligned and tired looking wing back system, which had long since been figured out by the rest of the division, abandoned for a back four which brought some improvements, but sticking with it to the point that a team as bad as that could run five through us at home only added more fuel to the critics’ fire.
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