Be careful what you wish for? Interview Friday, 19th Oct 2018 09:41 by Clive Whittingham
Football's learned scholars cautioned against Ipswich fans campaigning for Mick McCarthy’s removal, so after just one win in 12 for Paul Hurst are there any regrets? LFW spoke to Harry Wainwright from our sister site TWTD.
Why the poor start?
A poor start was inevitable in hindsight, given the combination of a manager lacking experience at this level putting together a brand-new team, playing a different style of football while also including a raft of lower league signings. We were always going to start quietly this season and feel our way into the campaign but, that said, some of the problems we have hurdled have been somewhat self-inflicted.
We could have foreseen an early habit of throwing away points through naivety and picking up three red cards through inexperience, but Paul Hurst’s loss of nerve with a series of odd formation changes and bizarre line-ups as he searched for a first win has unnerved many Town fans.
We are a club which has prided itself on giving managers time, but for Hurst to find himself in serious difficulty heading out to Swansea just before this international break took some doing. He has built a reputation for playing an expansive brand of high-octane football using width and industry, and built around an attacking 4-1-4-1 shape. We have only seen fleeting 20-minutes glimpses of this so far.
We switched to two up-front to accommodate the welcome but brief sojourn of Jon Walters, but fans felt that he was losing his touch when he subsequently started a home game last month against Brentford (and their wingers) with a remarkable wing-back formation. The Bees should have been out of sight by half time. It was only by reverting to our traditional shape – coupled with the Bees’ profligacy - that we rescued a point.
Hurst boldly dropped three-time player-of-the-year Bartosz Bialkowski after the Poland international keepers’ confidence appeared to wobble in early games, replacing him with the competent but inferior Dean Gerken. He has also been guilty of shoe-horning players out of position into the side. Many fans would argue that his treatment of proven senior squad players couple with the moments of tactical chaos we have witnessed may have damaged our confidence as much as that elusive first win.
We picked up our first win at Swansea two weeks' ago, but a good example of Hurst’s handiwork can be seen in their first goal. It started with Matthew Pennington (a centre-back playing out of position at right-back) being left stranded on halfway by a simple one-two. Meanwhile right-back Janoi Donacien, who was covering at left-back, was dragged into the box leaving his winger isolated and he scored an own goal when losing his angles after the ball flashed across the box and was played back in by the man he was meant to be marking. Meanwhile Jonas Knudsen, the Denmark international left-back, was sitting on the bench.
At its worst, some of us have feared that we have ended up with a management team with the tactical nous of Paul Jewell coupled with the people-skills of Roy Keane given some of the additional reports coming from club insiders, but Hurst may have blundered upon a decent attacking combination after his latest – latest – set of half-time changes when Middlesbrough were by then out of sight at Portman Road on the Tuesday before our trip to Swansea.
Freddie Sears is greatly loved by Town fans. Many feel he was hindered by Mick McCarthy’s insistence on playing him in a wide role in an attacking three when he is an off-the-shoulder striker who can play in a front two, or on his own in a give-it-and-spin role. He hasn’t featured in squads lately, let alone line ups, but he clicked with winger Gwion Edwards and midfielder Andre Dozzell in the second half against Boro. These three - with Grant Ward also out wide - then ambushed Swansea at the Liberty.
Hurst is not an inexperienced manager given his time at Grimsby and Shrewsbury, but he has shown remarkable naivety and has underestimated the complexity of managing in this division. The warning signed were initially there with the raft of experienced players he was happy to see depart, and he has also been shown up as tactically naïve time and time again in a very streetwise football league.
Any hope of improvements any time soon?
We will know soon enough if the win at Swansea was a genuine turning point or a flash in the pan. This next groups of games leading up to the November international break sees us play at Millwall and Reading as well as entertaining Preston and your good selves. We will need to see at least two wins and a pattern of us being competitive for a full 90 minutes for Hurst to show that he is building something.
The ‘competitive for 90 minutes’ point is an important one for we have failed to do this all season. We put up a terrific rear-guard action at Swansea and won the game, but opponents have known that they simply need to be patient and wait for us to switch off or lose confidence. Boro were home and hosed after 16 minutes against us after we gifted them two goals. This is how teams get relegated.
All those giving it the ‘be careful what you wish for’ stuff over Mick McCarthy will be feeling pretty smug right now. Were they right?
***Klaxon*** Funnily enough this isn’t an issue right now for the vast majority of Town fans. We were pretty divided 12 months ago but Mick managed to alienate the diehard loyalists (me included) with his obstinate reliance on functional football. You can’t build a campaign on heroic 1-0 wins with little possession and valiant ‘Horatio on the bridge’ football week-in week-out.
Mick was a very patriarchal manager and created a close-knit dressing room. We all smiled knowingly when players like Michael Chopra and JET were quietly sidelined. What we didn’t realise was that he could just as easily side-line supporters, as we witnessed with his (alleged) outburst aimed at Town fans at Carrow Road last February when we briefly took a late lead there. By the end he won the dressing room but managed to lose everyone else. This might also be why so many of his former teams have struggled after his departure.
The support base, by and large, wanted rid of McCarthy, is Hurst being given the benefit of the doubt by the faithful? Any hint of his job being on the line yet? It does take some skill to engineer a quick dismissal at Portman Road. It’s not how we have ever done things, so for Hurst to be in some jeopardy so early in his reign has been interesting to note. The win at Swansea has bought him time. Most supporters are characteristically patient and want to see if we now have some foundations in place. Hurst fashioned a huge win in similar circumstances at high-flying League One Millwall in his first season at Shrewsbury, and there may be a parallel here. He got to the January transfer window and brought in a raft of strikers on loan (including for example Freddie Ladapo from Palace). As the side moved away from the foot of the table, confidence and momentum built and Shrewsbury started to be a proper headache for promotion-chasing teams.
This thinking will clearly be in Hurst’s mind. He will try to rebalance the squad in January, but this problem will be the lack of available players at a higher level and a lack of funds if he has not gained the trust of owner Marcus Evans. As is the case in all football teams, this relationship will be the key to his fate at Portman Road.
A host of summer signings, some money spent at last, quite a few from lower divisions though, who’s impressed so far?
The most successful acquisition has been Gwion Edwards from Peterborough. Although he prefers to play on the left, Hurst has deployed him on the right wing where his pace and technique earned him a call-up into the Wales squad during the international break. For the first time this season you could see us getting inside a defences’ heads at Swansea and this was down to him and Freddie Sears.
Janoi Donacien is a really decent Championship-level up-and-down attacking right-back. He joined from Accrington and has forged a good attacking pairing with Edwards on our right. Hurst has tried sticking him in at centre-back or on the left where he is defensively suspect. He is still technically on loan while the Home Office sorts out a snag with his work permit as a St Lucia passport holder.
Striker Kayden Jackson also arrived from Accrington and his pace is his principle weapon. He is a handful against slow heart-of-oak centre-halves but has ended up isolated and dropping deep as the team has struggled to develop a tempo to our play. He is less effective out wide but could end up as a dangerous impact substitute if Sears has now nailed down the starting berth.
Aristote Nsiala is a decent (if raw) centre-half who accompanied Hurst from Shrewsbury. He is not a footballing centre-half but is a natural defender who will thunder into challenges. Having a partner of Luke Chambers’ experience alongside is helping him immensely. He is Championship standard, but the harsh red card he picked up at Hillsborough for an eager challenge typified his inexperience.
All Championship clubs must include loanees from Everton and/or Chelsea these days, so Matthew Pennington was our August addition from the Merseysiders. He’s a solid centre-half who was on loan at Leeds last season. While he can cover at right-back, he really is a centre-half out of position and fails to add the attacking dimension to that role that a natural full-back like Donacien can add.
Our Chelsea loanee is the eye-catching Trevoh Chalobah. A fellow Town fans memorably described him as “a Rolls Royce with L-plates on” and this suits him perfectly. He’s formally a holding midfielder who reads the game well, but he can drift forward and play a killer pass or cross just as readily as he can completely lose his man at a set-piece. He will get there, but this is his first competitive season.
And who’s struggled to step up?
Jon Nolan has been by far the biggest disappointment. He was Hurst’s midfield creator in his time at Shrewsbury but he has been anonymous and even hiding when played in behind the striker for us. He didn’t play at Swansea, with his role taken by Andre Dozzell who can pick a pass and anticipate space. It may be that he needs to play in a deeper midfield role, but his confidence seems to need rebuilding.
Tayo Edun is a left-back or defensive midfielder on loan from Fulham who may be suffering because of his versatility. Hurst has used him in a holding role or on the left of midfield, where his athleticism, good touch and technique have contributed to our attacking play. He picked up two first-half yellow cards against Villa for naïve challenges. I can see him playing a part this season once he finally settles on a role.
Ellis Harrison was the second striker we brought in alongside Jackson. His strength is his aerial ability and he’s a physical handful for centre-halves. He won’t feature on Saturday due to an ankle injury, but is pattern at Ipswich may follow his time at previous club Bristol Rovers, where it took a few seasons for him to blossom. Left-winger Jordan Roberts was a punt from Crawley but he has hardly featured.
Jordan Graham is a peppery winger who has returned to us on loan from Wolves. He’s a live wire who has yet to make an impact and I feat he will be one of those wingers who will be great every fifth game, much as was the case with JET. He made little impact in his previous loan spell here in 2013 under Mick and I’m not sure he’s consistent enough to blossom, even under a more sympathetic manager in Hurst who likes his wingers.
How do you see the season panning out from here?
I said in the LFW preview at the start of the season that this could be our most elegant 15th placed finish yet. While this is still an option, it feels more like as aspiration right now as we are settling into that group of the eight weakest teams who will fight in a relegation mini-league. If Hurst cannot land on a formula or continues as he has started up to Swansea, relegation will be a distinct possibility.
No fan will ever wish relegation on their own club, but this danger needs to be mirrored against the absolute mind-numbing grimness of what we descended to under Mick. Even though we are sitting in the bottom three, few of us would wish to turn the clock back.
Put it this way: in the last six or so years, QPR have had Neil Warnock, Mark Hughes, Harry Redknapp, the wealth of Croesus, Wembley, Relegation, Penury and FFP Threats, Warnock again, Ollie and Schteve McClaren. You have wasted millions going from and to a mid-table Championship position and have had a whirlwind adventure which has bordered at times on the insane.
In contrast all we have done is give the football world a polite welcome matt with the words ‘Welcome to the Championship’. We have become the equivalent of the well-meaning uncle who puts the bins out and does the recycling properly. ‘Have we paid the Council Tax this month, dear?’ Many of us are at the point where a fifth-round FA Cup game will set the pulses racing. This is why so much hope has been vested in Hurst and why many of us are quietly desperate for something – anything – to happen.
"In the last six or so years, QPR have had Neil Warnock, Mark Hughes, Harry Redknapp, the wealth of Croesus, Wembley, Relegation, Penury and FFP Threats, Warnock again, Ollie and Schteve McClaren. You have wasted millions going from and to a mid-table Championship position and have had a whirlwind adventure which has bordered at times on the insane."
It is is amazing that the above may be recognised as a "whirlwind adventure".