McClaren’s best and worst – Column
Monday, 1st Apr 2019 23:11 by Clive Whittingham
As another manager departs one of football’s hottest seats, we once again compile our five best and five worst moments from the QPR career of – checks notes – Steve McClaren.
Five of the best
Forest away: Steve McClaren will always be in the QPR record books as the manager who was in charge when Rangers finally broke one of the longest running hoodoos in football. Thirty four goes QPR had at winning away to Nottingham Forest across 84 years, and never once a success. Hooped teams both good and bad had gone there and lost, conceding four goals on five separate occasions and five goals twice. This season was different. QPR were stubborn at the back, creative through midfield and sharp in attack. They took the lead before half time and defended it manfully, rarely looking troubled until injury time when Joe Lumley made the save of the season to preserve the points. Everything in the garden looked rosy at this stage – the team looked well coached and settled, players knew their jobs and were doing them simply and effectively, the whole thing was functioning as a unit and looked really together and spirited. Far from being cowed by the recent history of this troubled club, they actually seemed to relish taking it on – this was a fourth away win of the season already having only won three the season before, and an eighth clean sheet which was also one more than the whole of 2017/18. They spoke about making history at Nottingham Forest in December and they did it under McClaren’s guidance, led magnificently from the back by goalscorer Toni Leistner.
Links >>> Forest 0 QPR 1 Match Report
FA Cup Another monkey was shed from the QPR back in January when QPR won an FA Cup game outright for the first time since the Trevor Sinclair bicycle kick way back in 1997. A litany of disasters have befallen Rangers in the cup since then, whether they’ve picked a weakened team or a full strength one, but they deserved to beat a scratchy Leeds side in the Third Round at Loftus Road with goals from Aramide Oteh and Jake Bidwell. A fourth round trip to Fratton Park stirred a big following from West London, but against the promotion chasing League One side and in foul conditions most travelled expecting the usual cup disappointment. Not so, Nahki Wells secured a hard won replay and Rangers did a superb job of finishing off Kenny Jackett’s side at Loftus Road with a front-foot performance that never looked like doing anything other than win the game – albeit requiring two late-ish goals to secure. A first fifth round tie since 1997 could have gone to extra time and penalties in front of a packed Loftus Road had Leistner not missed a late sitter, and although you couldn’t help but think Rangers had missed a colossal chance (Watford subsequently drew Palace to reach an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley) they’d done themselves proud over four games and lifted the mood of the club and the long suffering support.
Villa at home: QPR recovered from a dire start to the season by putting some much needed points on the board through September and October. Nervous, single-goal wins against team destined to struggle all season – Wigan, Reading and Bolton – grew into more comfortable two-goal margins – albeit against two other teams that have been down the bottom all year, Ipswich and Millwall. It wasn’t until October was turning into November that Rangers really hit their straps. The 2-0 win at Portman Road on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon bled into a Tuesday night shellacking of Sheff Wed 3-0 at Loftus Road. Bouyed by consecutive wins and clean sheets, Rangers accelerated into a televised Friday night game with Aston Villa and were superb. Pawel Wszolek scored the only goal of the game, QPR’s incessant midfield nagging stunted Ickle Jack Gwealish to manager Dean Smith’s petty frustration, and although Tammy Abraham missed a second half sitter to equalise, Rangers deserved their win. The partnership of Leistner and Lynch at the back was lauded, Geoff Cameron’s impact in holding midfield drew high praise, and optimism was starting to course through the place. A fantastic end to a great week.
Links >>> QPR 1 Villa 0 Match Report
Christmas cheer: Another little piece of “typical QPR” history was put to bed through December. Rangers never do much over the festive period and after starting December with a poor loss at home to Hull and then away at Leeds it looked like being more of the same. But Tony Pulis’ promotion chasing Middlesbrough side was beaten 2-1 at Loftus Road immediately prior to the Nottingham Forest miracle and Ipswich were seen off 3-0 at home on Boxing Day. A 0-0 draw at home to strugglers Reading was a misstep but Rangers rallied to draw 2-2 in fine style at Aston Villa on New Year’s Day. Rangers haven’t won four games in December since 1974 and this was as close as they’ve come since. It put them eighth in the table, just two points shy of the play-off places.
Leeds home: One of the reasons the team’s post New Year run of just one win from 15 games didn't draw an angry reaction and an earlier sacking was empathy from supporters around the circumstances. That cup run, welcome as it was, set up a dire set of fixtures in February that saw QPR play six of the top eight in the division and a Premier League team all inside the shortest month of the year. Quite why the postponed Leeds and West Brom games had to be crammed into this space is beyond me – I smell Shaun Harvey’s EFL at work – but it set the team up with a horrendously difficult task. Added to that, some rank bad luck and even worse refereeing. A point away to a Bristol City team that had won nine in a row prior looked to have been justifiably won before referee Tony Harrington awarded a nonsense stoppage time penalty. Rangers had been denied their own spot kick in stoppage time in a narrow defeat at Wigan just before that and then when they were awarded one against Birmingham to complete a memorable comeback from four nil down they missed it. Against West Brom they battled hard, played well, deserved their point, only to lose Luke Freeman to injury after all the subs had been made and then succumbed with ten men with the last kick of the match to a player who should have been sent off earlier in the game. You couldn’t really blame the manager for much of that, and the crowd and club were rewarded for their patience with a big night under the lights at Loftus Road against Marcelo Bielsa’s Premier League-chasing side. Luke Freeman turned in a monumental personal showing, dragging his team kicking and screaming over the line with the only goal of the game. It felt like a big relief, moving Rangers safe once and for all, and setting them up for an easier March ahead…
Links >>> QPR 1 Leeds 0 Match Report
Five of the worst
Bolton: Start at the end and work backwards shall we? The excuses, and the valid reasons, had run out. The games against the top teams in the league were over: Bolton are second bottom, have lost 23 times already this season which is the most in the division, are in a state of financial collapse and haven’t been paying their players or staff, have Josh Magennis up front, and are just all round dreadful. The fixture congestion is over: all that much-talked about time on the training ground had been available in spades over a free fortnight immediately before this game. The injuries have subsided: yes, Geoff Cameron is clearly important to this team, McClaren like Holloway before him recognising this defence needs a protective barrier in front of it, and his illness was poorly timed but everybody else was back. The drain in confidence should have been solved by the late come back at Hull, when we suddenly started looking a bit more like it again. And then this. Picking the same centre half combination that hadn’t been used since we went 4-0 down to Birmingham before half time. Leaving out Ebere Eze, just as he’d started to look more like it at Hull. Picking a team of which only four are likely to be here next season, including an entirely out of contract back four. And then the Wszolek substitution, which he’d invite you to believe was a fourth official error, but had already been made on four previous occasions this season, including when losing recently at Brentford. As we said on Sunday, it felt like the point of no return, as the crowd finally snapped, and so it transpired.
Links >>> QPR 1 Bolton 2 Match Report
Stoke and Rotherham: February went very badly, but was always likely to, for all of the reasons outlined above. A crowd that had got stuck into Chris Ramsey, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Ian Holloway for far less, sympathised, empathised and stuck with the team. We recognise effort, and bad luck, and circumstances conspiring against us. The South Koreans taking pictures of Ji Sung Park, the coked up yobbos, the drumming sycophants and the hangers on who sang songs about Loic Remy being up trees, that arrived with the money, and the Premier League, have long gone leaving a hardcore QPR support that by and large knows its shit. But March was supposed to be the month when it came reasonably good again. One home game against a Stoke City side that’s fallen flat as a witch’s tit (and went down to ten men after eight minutes), another against a Rotherham side that hasn’t won an away game at this level for three years, and then Bolton who, as discussed, should have been beaten regardless. One point was taken, two goals were scored, and Rangers looked bereft. Their weird tactic of passing the ball around in their own half, and frequently back to the goalkeeper, absolutely fine by three limited teams who were happy to stand and watch us do it and then play it forward themselves when they had it. McClaren’s team became weird to watch, completely adverse to going forwards. I thought it had bottomed out against Rotherham, I thought there was a chink of light at Hull, but that was extinguished on Saturday.
West Brom: You can’t not include our worst defeat since 1986. Losing 7-1 is a disgusting embarrassment and while you can call it a fluke, you can say McClaren moved quickly to change the system afterwards, you can say it showed the need to sign more players which we subsequently did, it didn’t do a lot for the manager in my eyes, especially when he came out afterwards and said he didn’t see it coming. I did a couple of the pre-season friendlies, I’m privileged in this position to have also watched some of the training over the summer. It was painfully clear, from the first week of July, that Matt Ingram in goal, Toni Leistner and Joel Lynch at centre back, and Josh Scowen at the base of midfield were not going to be capable of playing total football out from the back with split centre halves. Ingram, who QPR invested good money in, who has waited patiently for a chance behind the excellent Alex Smithies, was always going to have a tough time stepping up to be a Championship first choice for the first time in his career, behind an entirely reshaped defence shorn of its best two players. To ask him also to become some sort of playmaker into the bargain was unfair, and hung him out to dry. Even if we did have the players to do it, trying to do it away to a West Brom side with Matt Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle and the super Harvey Barnes playing as a flat front four was absolutely suicidal. This was a manager who was supposed to be about preparation.
Links >>> West Brom 7 QPR 1 Match Report
Blackpool Weirdly I think McClaren spent a lot of his credit in the previous round, when we played really well and comfortably saw off Bristol Rovers in exactly the sort of League Cup tie we usually lose routinely. Bright Osayi-Samuel was the man of the match that night, scoring, assisting and basically battering Rovers all night. That Saturday, away at Birmingham, he wasn't even rewarded with the last ten minutes off the bench against a crap side, in a dreadful game, destined to finish 0-0 long before it actually did. That set the McClaren stall out, that his first team, his “team of men”, were his boys, and everybody outside of that circle would have to crawl over broken glass to get in. It set up a third round tie at Blackpool, another crisis club from the division below, playing in an empty stadium, and representing an excellent, and rare, chance to go deep into a cup competition. McClaren rested the seniors, picked a scratchy team of ten changes, and lost comfortably 2-0. The furious reaction from the away end at full time seemed to catch him by surprise, and in the heat of the moment in the dressing room afterwards he said some of those involved had played their last game for the club. In his defence, you don’t expect Josh Scowen to go out there on a red card mission and have to be removed after 20 minutes for his own good. But this was Harry Redknapp stuff – signing a load of names, putting the first team players on a pedestal above everybody else, ostracising the fringe players and juniors, and then suddenly cobbing the second string in altogether, all at once, with no match practice, for a random cup game, pretending that’s some sort of opportunity and then washing your hands of them when they don’t perform. That away end reaction, and some barbed comments at a subsequent fans forum, swung Steve McClaren PR into action, talking about how it absolutely wasn’t a weakened team (ten changes), and how Steve Gibson had drummed it into him at Middlesbrough how important cup games were and never to take them lightly. It informed his decisions for the subsequent FA Cup run, but it was bollocks. And it was exacerbated by his precious, supposedly fresh, "team of men" responding to their midweek rest by phoning in a 3-0 loss at Swansea in the league on the Saturday.
Links >>> Blackpool 2 QPR 0 Match Report
Birmingham twice I sling these two games in for a couple of reasons. The away game was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, and I include funerals of family members in that list. Birmingham were awful, there for the taking, and yet for the final half an hour we played for time, ran the clock, and seemed happy to draw 0-0 – this even after he’d been allowed to sign Hemed and Wells to play up front. Bright Osayi-Samuel, so brilliant in the cup during the week, not even trusted with ten minutes off the bench at the end. This risk averse approach informed so much of McClaren’s time here – his poured-over, interminably delayed, frequently negative substitutions for one; the way his team would start clock running ridiculously early in games they weren’t even winning, including at Leeds where Joe Lumley was wasting time after 15 minutes for two. The home game, while almost turning into the greatest comeback since Port Vale, was an absolute disaster in the first half and to return to the centre back combination of Hall and Lynch which caused so many of the problems that day for the crucial home game against Bolton on Saturday was lunacy. What could he have possibly seen that afternoon when Che Adams ran amok that made him think that pairing was worth another go in a game he couldn’t afford to lose?
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