Selling Smithies is the right move at the wrong price - Column
Friday, 29th Jun 2018 07:11 by Clive Whittingham
QPR’s inspirational goalkeeper Alex Smithies has his Premier League move, joining newly promoted Cardiff City for a fee that has caused some consternation among the Rangers’ faithful.
Urgh, there he is, all tanned and handsome, on the Cardiff website doing that weird head patting thing they love. Don’t look, it’s a heartbreaker, just take it from us. Like our match reports on the QPR away games.
A Premier League move is nothing more than Alex Smithies deserves and the only surprise to the QPR fans who’ve had the privilege of watching him play for the last three seasons is it’s taken this long, and a Championship club getting promoted with a manager that prefers to work with Championship players, for it to happen. There is no love lost between QPR and Cardiff thanks to semi-recent history, but such has been Smithies’ consistency, professionalism, attitude, performance level and contribution to our cause it would be a pretty cold-hearted West Londoner to not hope that he absolutely smashes his long overdue shot at top flight football next season. At 28, things may only just be beginning.
In a Premier League-obsessed sport he was relatively unknown and unheralded when he arrived from Huddersfield immediately following QPR’s relegation in the summer of 2015, from his boyhood club for a fee in the region of £1m. The die hards who do the away games would surely have liked what they’d seen whenever he’d played against Rangers and, much like Alex McCarthy before him, it was one of those rare examples where a young, English prospect had looked good whenever we’d played him and then, somehow, miraculously, ended up in our colours.
In true QPR style, however, they marred their good fortune somewhat by continuing to pick an emotionally spent, mentally shot, chronically out of form Robert Green for the first half of 2015/16. That lead to such classic calamities as that one where he let a back pass slip under his foot and then dragged down a nearby striker turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat against Nottingham Forest, and that other one where he undid 85 minutes of hard toil for an equaliser against Hull City by immediately punching the ball into his own net off a neutrally placed attacker and then getting up and blaming Grant Hall for the whole thing. “Fuck off mate” came the response. Fuck off mate indeed. Even without Huddersfield’s sudden upturn in fortunes, Smithies must have been sitting there wondering what on earth he’d done with his career and indeed when Green’s rank shithousery led to red cards/mercy killings he seemed nervous and too keen to impress as his replacement, turning in erratic cameos against Forest as a sub and then Blackburn that Tuesday.
Green’s contract guaranteed a renewal after a certain number of appearances which meant he was finally given the boot that January, 18 months after he should have been ditched for McCarthy and six longer than he should have been in front of Alex. While he took to illustrating puff pieces with favoured journalists about how terrible it was to be watching Esher Rugby for £40,000 a week with pictures of him dressed like one of the other ones from East 17, Smithies settled in and made the number one spot his own.
He has, in the two and a half years since, made just two glaring errors. One, at Ipswich, when he got caught outside his area trying to be too clever with a clearing header that should have just gone straight back down the field; the other, in torrential rain at Birmingham, where he slipped chasing his own spill and Sam Gallagher knocked home. Why start with the mistakes? Well because two mistakes in two and a half seasons of ceaseless Championship football, 109 appearances across 34 months, is really quite something. His understudies who will now fight to replace him, Matt Ingram and Joe Lumley, look like very promising goalkeepers in their own right, but they made three mistakes between them in the final three matches of last season. Smithies’ consistency was a key strength among many attributes.
“I like to start attacks with throws and kicks,” he mused, nervously, in his first interview. And he does. From having a keeper that couldn’t reach the halfway line to one for whom no part of the Loftus Road pitch was out of reach made a colossal, immediate difference to our team. He likes to save penalties as well, particularly against Fulham – his ability to reach down into the bottom corner from a standing start without taking a step first makes him an intimidating presence between the posts for spot kick takers. He has saved just under half the penalties he has faced across his whole career. Communication and command of area, also absolutely spot on.
I’ve come to shot stopping last because, frankly, if you’re not a good shot stopper what’s the point of being a keeper? I know Fraser Forster seems to manage to make a career out of it regardless but it’s a bit like praising your baker for a decent loaf of bread isn’t it? Oooh you know what that roofer’s good at? Roofs. That said, he was obviously very good there too, making saves you had to watch back several times to work out how on earth he’d managed it. Chief among them, for me, was one against Reading on the opening day of last season which you can see again a minute into the video below. How he can even see the ball, never mind get to it and save it, I don’t know.
Paddy Kenny used to surprise and exhilarate in a similar way, although that was partly because you couldn’t believe a little fat lad could fly like that. Smithies looked the part as well. QPR’s best goalkeeper since David Seaman.
Sign of the times
All of which means he has to go. I know that seems counterintuitive, I know it’s hard, I know seeing pictures of him in Cardiff colours is like seeing that fit ex-girlfriend who got a bit dirty when she’d had a few on the arm of that prick you never liked anyway, I know in an ideal world we’d keep all our best players and add a whole load of better players to them and take over the universe/win more than three away games a season. But he needs to be sold, and others do to over time.
Copy and paste everything we’ve said before. It is all there in the club’s accounts, and the league’s Financial Fair Play rules if you’d care to sit down and trawl through them. QPR’s expenditure on wages and infrastructure, while being tackled, is too great for the income they’re able to generate as a Championship club in a tiny ageing stadium, with two rented training facilities in the most expensive part of the one of the most expensive cities in the world. Our biggest income is parachute payments and TV money, and one of those ends altogether in 12 months’ time. Our season ticket revenue doesn’t cover the cost of running the stadium and training ground before a single wage is paid. This is the reality.
To survive, never mind thrive, QPR have to become like a higher division Peterborough United, scouting smart and buying shrewd, developing and coaching the best youngsters and lower league gems they can find, and then selling them on at profit. Seeing your best players leaving is gut wrenching, but it needs to become the norm at Loftus Road. They need to do it over and over and over again, a couple a season ideally. Player leaves, money goes in bank, two more prospects arrive, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. This is the first time since Charlie Austin and Matt Phillips that anybody has actually wanted any of our players, and even their sales were complicated and reduced in value by contract situations. There was the Raheem Sterling anomaly but prior to that the last time we bought low, developed and sold for profit was when/who? Danny Shittu? Richard Langley? That’s five players in getting on for 20 years, we need to be doing three or four of these every two seasons if we can. We’re not used to it, so an outpouring of anger at the sight of the best player leaving a month before the season starts and the transfer window closes is to be expected. But it is how it has to be.
Smithies makes the most sense of anybody in the squad because we don’t need to spend any of his fee replacing him. We’ve got Matt Ingram and Joe Lumley already competing to be the new number one which means the money is free to be spent on critical areas we’re short in – most pressingly, one would presume, at centre half, where the current options available to Steve McClaren would result in a relegation to League One if we attempt to rely on them for a full Championship season. Lynch, Baptiste and Grant Hall’s elastic bands and chewing gum knees will be the death of us, figuratively and literally.
It is the model working, for the first time. We bought him, we improved him, we extended his contract, the Premier League came, we sold him for profit, we presumably/hopefully now reinvest, the replacements are already there, and we’re away.
If the price is right
But the key bit of the buy-low-sell-high model is that selling high bit. Of course we follow a sport where clubs have to declare what they’ve paid to the agent in the transfer, but not what the transfer was itself – quality that lads, another blinding bit of logical rule making – so Cardiff and QPR have been able – rather scandalously in my view – to report the fee as “undisclosed”. It is, fairly certainly, £3m potentially rising to £4m if Cardiff avoid relegation and Smithies completes a successful manned mission to Mars – don’t put it past him.
Goalkeepers are permanently, stubbornly undervalued in football. Always have been. Łukasz Fabiański, a seasoned and talented Premier League keeper and full international has only cost West Ham £7m this summer, albeit at 33 years of age. At 28, Smithies doesn’t have a single minute of Premier League football under his belt, making him an unproven risk. When you think how nervous he looked in those initial QPR games, how he’s never even played for a team competing in the big games at the top of the Championship, you think the particularly outlandish wailings about £10m are probably a bit over the top. Jordan Pickford stands as a lone example of a keeper who’s moved in this country for serious, mega-money. If you’re developing an asset to sell for profit, you wouldn’t start with a goalkeeper through choice.
And perhaps there’s something we all miss with Alex. There’s been rumoured interest here and there, from Aston Villa a year ago, but this is the first bid QPR have had for him in two and a half years, and news of it has been floating around all week and not flushed out any other interest. We can, and do, sit in the Crown and Sceptre of a Saturday and talk about how many Premier League teams are playing with inferior keepers to Smithies – half of them by my reckoning, including the Champions League finalists – but they clearly don’t think so. Not only has the door not been beaten down, it hasn’t even been knocked at once. His clean sheet record (seven in 42 last season, seven in 46 the season before) isn't good, and although we put that down to the poor quality in front of him maybe we're generous to do so. He does/did have that tick down low at his near post on his left hand side, through which several softish goals were squeezed in 2016/17, but that seemed to have been corrected to me in 2017/18. Maybe it’s that, maybe it’s something else, but the monied elite of the sport in this country are not in the habit of leaving 26/27/28 year old English talent sitting there on the Championship shelf for three seasons for no reason. Nobody’s had so much as a sniff.
But, let’s have it right, that price point is somewhere between cheap and a fucking joke. Cardiff have just been flushed through with a television deal that’ll be worth north of £160m to them, even if they only stay there for one season. They’ve just paid a fee reported at between £9m and £11m for Josh Murphy, another Championship player who’s not only unproven but actually not even rated that highly by the Norwich fans he’s left behind who used to boo and heckle him at home games. The market for goalkeepers is not great, but Middlebrough (a Championship side) paid nearly twice this for Darren Randolph a year ago, an inferior older goalkeeper who had failed in the Premier League and frankly isn’t fit to clean the scum from Smithies’ bath tub.
Perhaps there was a release clause. Perhaps we overvalue and overrate Alex and this is simply what he’s worth, even if this hyper inflated market. Perhaps QPR have panicked, knowing the squad desperately needs strengthening and that the window closes early this year. Perhaps they’ve been spooked by the lack of bids and wondered whether they’d get another if they turned this one away. Perhaps they’ve grasped onto it as something better than nothing. Perhaps the financial situation, the quest to comply with FFP, is even more dire than we thought – Rangers have sounded other Championship clubs out about potential interest in any of our players. We’ll know all of that, and whether this was a good idea, in time. Sign three players, improve the defence, Ingram/Lumley fit in seamlessly, in 12 months’ time perhaps we’ll be hailing it as a good bit of business as Smithies sits on the bench at Cardiff watching Neil Etheridge play every week.
But you have to drive a harder bargain than £3m rising don’t you? One thing Peterborough don’t do in their model is flog their best players off cheap just because a bigger club has turned up and made an offer – as we know only too well ourselves. You want one of their players, you pay for him. For this to work you have to eek out every last penny when you do sell a player – Bristol City have just brought in nearly £20m for Bobby Reid and Aiden Flint and we get £3m for Alex Smithies? Our best player, who's 28, and under contract. It feels like we’re getting screwed here at a time when the sport is absolutely awash with money and mad transfer fees.
As it stands, this looks awfully cheap to me and QPR would do well to get out in front of the supporters in the coming days and explain it.
Smithies at QPR in numbers:
42 starts, 1 sub appearance, W14 D11 L18,
61 goals conceded, 7 clean sheets
1 yellow (time wasting)
5 LFW MOTM Awards (Cardiff A, Millwall H, Villa H, Derby A, Bristol City H)
LFW Ratings – 7, 6, 7, 7, 7, 6, 7, 7, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 7, 7, 5, 8, 7, 8, 7, 6, 5, 9, 7, 6, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6, 8, 7, 6, 6, 7, 7 = 6.74
Interactive Ratings – 6.58
4 Supporter MOTM Awards (Cardiff A, Derby A, Bristol City H, Bolton H)
46 starts, 0 sub appearances, W15 D8 L23, QPR’s only ever-present in the league.
66 goals conceded, 7 clean sheets
4 LFW MOTM Awards (Reading H, Wolves H, Rotherham A, Villa H)
LFW Ratings – 6, 7, 4, 4, 7, 6, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 6, 6, 7, 7, 5, 8, 7, 6, 8, 5, 7, 6, 6, 8, 6, 8, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 6, 6, 6, 4, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 8, 5 = 6.26
Interactive Ratings – 6.69
9 Supporter MOTM Awards (Reading H, Bristol City H, Forest A, Wolves H, Fulham H, Newcastle A, Preston A, Forest H, Norwich A)
18 starts, 1 substitute appearance
24 conceded, 6 clean sheets
0 red cards, 1 yellow (dissent)
5 MOTM awards (Forest A, Ipswich H, Sheff Wed A, Middlesbrough H, Charlton H)
LFW Ratings: 6, 4, 6, 7, 7, 7, 8, 6, 6, 8, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 5, 7, 6 = 6.31
Interactive Rating: 6.76
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Pictures – Action Images
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