McClaren suffers long term pain after short term gain – Column
Monday, 1st Apr 2019 23:55 by Clive Whittingham
Former England manager Steve McClaren lost his job as QPR boss after less than a year in charge this morning, paying the price for ignoring the remit his was given at appointment in favour of senior pros who let him down.
Steve McClaren talked in ever-glowing terms about the four senior players he was allowed to add to his squad at the end of August. In the end, and in three cases through no fault of their own, they’ve cost him his job.
Geoff Cameron arrived on loan from Stoke, Nahki Wells was borrowed from Burnley, Tomer Hemed came in temporarily from Brighton, and Angel Rangel signed on a free transfer after a glittering decade at Swansea City. As they walked across the training ground in the August sunshine to join a beleaguered squad that had, for the first time in the history of the club, lost its first four league matches of the season, McClaren proudly declared to his coaches that we now had “a team of men”.
It couldn’t be denied that the QPR squad at that point needed significant help. Rangers had only lost 1-0 at Preston on day one, and almost equalised at the end of that game, but in truth they’d been a distant second best against a team beset by long term injuries that would win only one (that one) of its first dozen games. They could, rightly, point to two poor pieces of refereeing in a 2-1 loss to a Sheffield United side that has gone on to compete for promotion, but again they didn’t offer much in the second half and deserved to a lose to a team that had lost its first two games of the season at that point. They were beaten 7-1 at West Brom, and 3-0 against Bristol City, in shambolic circumstances.
Over the summer a team that had finished sixteenth in the league the season before, and regularly embarked on long losing runs from which they struggled to escape under Ian Holloway, had lost its superb goalkeeper Alex Smithies, first choice centre backs Nedum Onuoha and Jack Robinson, and strong dressing room presences James Perch and Jamie Mackie. The team lacked quality and experience and after four games McClaren was allowed to add both – not an unreasonable request. Results improved immediately, starting with nervous single goal wins against strugglers Wigan, Bolton and Reading and building through two goal successes against Ipswich and Millwall to the point where Rangers were winning, and winning really well, against Villa, Sheff Wed, Brentford, Middlesbrough and, best of all, Nottingham Forest away for the first time ever.
McClaren smartly changed his approach several times through those early weeks of the season to suit the players he had. A total-football play-out-from-the-back strategy was modified when - no surprise - it turned out Matt Ingram, Toni Leistner, Joel Lynch and Josh Scowen couldn’t do it. You could criticise him for ever trying it at all, because you only needed to go to the pre-season friendly at Wimbledon, or spend a day watching Ingram and Lumley in the pattern of play drills at training, as LFW did back in July, to see they couldn’t do it. But managers are stubborn and often entrench themselves in these ideas, whereas McClaren changed it sharpish. Joe Lumley, untried at Championship level, came in for a more senior keeper – a bold move that worked. Credit where it’s due. A 4-4-2 designed to get both Wells and Hemed in the team was abandoned because it suited none of the players behind them, McClaren biting the bullet and admitting he couldn’t start both of his precious loans early on and to good effect. Ebere Eze was given a prominent role and regular starts. He was flexible, he was pragmatic, and right up until the early weeks of January, QPR were playing well, looking good, and at one point over Christmas just two points shy of the play-offs.
Houston, we have a problem
But there was a fundamental problem with this, and as QPR embark on yet another search for yet another new manager it’s not like we’re even saying this with hindsight. We said all of this in the match preview prior to the Wigan game in August and the Birmingham game in September. Simply put – that was not the remit Steve McClaren was given here. It was not the job he was brought here to do, and having abandoned that he needed his alternative way to go well.
The theory at the back end of last season was QPR had a good crop of promising youngsters coming through that the first team would need to rely on and the club would need to build into sellable assets to profit from in an age of FFP and diminishing parachute payments. Ian Holloway’s behaviour, outbursts and wildly fluctuating team selections were seen as detrimental to that whereas Steve McClaren still, despite all the failures through his career, maintains a reputation as an excellent coach and developer of players. McClaren was brought in to work with Ryan Manning, Ilias Chair, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Paul Smyth, Ebere Eze, Aramide Oteh and others and build them into the players the first team needed this season, and the bank manager needed thereafter. Ian Holloway had picked all of them at one point or another in the second half of last season, although he would regularly do things like drop Paul Smyth after a man of the match performance and goal against Sheff Wed on the Tuesday only to lose meekly without him against Preston on the Saturday. The kids, so the theory went, didn’t know where they stood with him, whereas McClaren would coach them, develop them, be much more consistent in his message, and not be making half a dozen changes to the team every game. That was the sales pitch.
The now-outgoing QPR manager cannot even say that he tried them and they weren’t good enough. The idea we lost those first four games with the kids playing so he had to abandon it is a myth. At Preston, Osayi-Samuel and Ryan Manning got a half each and Paul Smyth the last 20 minutes. Against Sheff Utd, again, one of them, Smyth this time, was hooked at half time – Osayi-Samuel got the second 45 minutes. They both then disappeared altogether. As did Osman Kakay, who’d started the first three games only because Darnell Furlong was injured and Rangel wasn’t ready yet. Only Ebere Eze played all four of those matches. Manning played a half and was loaned to Rotherham. Smyth got little more than an hour over two games. Chair didn’t play at all. Oteh didn’t make the bench. When a clutch of them resurfaced completely at random to play in a nonsense team selection at Blackpool, McClaren took his frustration at the inevitable defeat, and angry reaction from the away end, out in the dressing room afterwards telling the team that some of them had played their last game for the club.
Going out and spending money we don’t have on senior players we’ve all heard of was not what McClaren was brought here to do. Signings that had been lined up under the club’s much vaunted scouting system for last summer were passed over and vetoed by the new gaffer. It was another example of QPR departing from their plan and strategy to do whatever their latest flavour of the month big-name manager wanted them to do. As we know, all any manager wants his board to do is buy him a quick fix to his problems right now because he knows he’s only ever four consecutive defeats away from the sack. It’s why you have long term plans and strategies and directors of football and part of the reason why QPR got themselves into such a state in the first place. Rangers were meant to have moved beyond this, and yet here they were doing it again.
Even accepting the need for some experience, the signings were overkill – as we said at the time. We needed a striker, but not two. By signing Tomer Hemed and Nahki Wells it created a problem for a manager, and a team, that like to play with a lone front man. That problem was eased somewhat by Hemed popping off for the best part of four months with a hernia problem, but it was still gratuitous to sign both. As, despite his excellent impact around the club in general, was extending Rangel’s contract for the second half of the season once the man he’d been brought in to cover, Darnell Furlong, was fit. Again, Rangers ignoring what they’re supposed to be doing in favour of a populist option.
That’s all fine, when things are going well, which for a long time they were. But by putting the senior players, and the loans in particular, up on a pedestal McClaren was creating further problems for down the track.
Rangers got to New Year’s Day with three ever presents in their team (Bidwell, Eze and Freeman) and another two (Leistner and Lynch) who’d missed just a game each. McClaren had the opposite problem to Holloway – he didn’t change the team enough. He picked the same team every week, including for every one of the matches over Christmas when some of them - Eze in particular - were obviously tiring. Rangel had made seven appearances for Swansea last season, suddenly at 36 he was asked to play 17 times between the end of August and the start of December. Geoff Cameron played 21 times last season, but only eight times after Christmas, and was asked to play every game in the Championship. You could understand why, QPR’s record with and without the American this season is stark, but by relying so heavily on these players who are well into their 30s McClaren was running them to a standstill and storing up problems for later. You don’t need a sports science degree to tell you that taking three 30+ footballers who’ve been bit-part players in the preceding seasons and asking them to play every minute of every game in a Championship fixture list won’t end well. Even when things were going ok, McClaren’s substitutions were too few and too late. Players were being flogged.
Cameron and Rangel both broke down with long term injuries away at Leeds in December. Hemed had already turned in for the winter by then. Luke Freeman’s influence has waned as he’s been played on and on and on through a known hip flexor problem – his outstanding performance against Leeds coming after a rare game off. Eze and Wells look absolutely spent and have lost form dramatically. Derby fans who’d twice seen McClaren teams fall away from promotion pushes in the final throes of seasons under his charge exchanged knowing glances.
Month from hell
Nobody can deny that February was a unique footballing clusterfuck, very little of which was McClaren’s fault. A much needed and well received cup run for which the manager was rightly hailed created a situation where Rangers had seven games in a month, against six of the top eight in the Championship and a Premier League team. The injuries and tiredness combined with a relentless and unusually difficult run of games to start another run of defeats burning. There was some horrendous bad luck – a spirited showing against West Brom looked to have yielded a good point before Freeman broke down after all the subs had been made and Jake Livermore, who should have been sent off prior, scored with the last kick. And some dire refereeing – notably in injury time at Bristol City, which again took away a point that would have been well-won and deserved.
But by the time February gave way to March, and a much kinder run of fixtures that included two of the worst three teams in the league coming to Loftus Road, and a two week stretch without a game at all for McClaren to enjoy some of his much talked about “time on the training ground”, chickens were coming home to roost. Already tired players had been sapped of confidence by the February run, several were playing through injuries, and by relying so heavily on the senior players and loan signings the manager created a situation where the majority of his team – including the entire back four on Saturday – were taking to the field knowing that in all likelihood they won’t be at the club next season. Whether consciously or subconsciously that must have an effect, either because you’re bitter at the club for not renewing your deal, or you’re already thinking about what comes next and know that one bad injury now and that’s you going into the summer crocked and unable to get a contract elsewhere. Some players have fairly obviously put the cue on the rack – compare Joel Lynch’s performance on Saturday to his one at home to Aston Villa, Tomer Hemed v Wigan to Tomer Hemed v Bolton. They’ve repaid their manager’s unwavering faith by clocking off early. It may have looked odd when Holloway finished last season with Bidwell and Furlong at centre back, but he did it because Onuoha and Robinson knew they were leaving.
Those promising kids from the end of last season, who McClaren was supposed to be developing, who could now be coming into the team, adding fresh legs and keen to prove their worth for next term, have been scattered far and wide on loan. Paul Smyth, who you would have loved to see running at David Wheater on Saturday, is at Accrington. Ilias Chair is shelling peas at a level far beneath his standard, knocking 35-yarders in for fun at Stevenage Borough. Again, this is all fine when the much-heralded senior players are playing well and winning, but having been mismanaged to the point where they’re not and having, in several cases, downed tools as their deals come towards the end it’s left the manager who placed so much stock in them with nowhere to go.
Having been allowed to abandon his initial remit and handed four players of the experience and quality Holloway could only dream of last season, it needed to go well. Insist on a load of senior loans and then win one game out of 15 – you’re basically signing your own P45. None of them will be here next season, and we'll have less money for sticking plaster this August than we did last. If you're not even winning short term it invites the board to ask "what's the point?"
Hemed, in particular, has come to personify the problems McClaren created for himself. Pathetic, and barely bothered, in every game since he returned from injury bar an impressive cameo against West Brom, McClaren was still putting all his faith in him against Bolton at the weekend and describing him as a “warrior”. Nahki Wells hasn’t been found wanting for effort, but his form has collapsed with the team’s – sitters missed against Birmingham (even before the penalty) and Rotherham cost points that could have saved his manager. Holloway had more points and a higher league place than this while picking from Matt Smith, Idrissa Sylla and Conor Washington up front.
It’s no coincidence that Bright Osayi-Samuel has been our best player of late – young, fresh having not been used, point to prove for next season – we could have done with a couple more like him, not watching them score ridiculous goals in lower league highlights reels. But even Bright has still been in and out of the side, most ridiculously dropped at Hull after being the stand out attacker against Rotherham. McClaren’s reluctance to even pick the former Blackpool man has caused tension at boardroom level, particularly after the meek defeat up at Middlesbrough recently when senior management were less than impressed that he was benched until the second half. There was a feeling that McClaren either didn’t realise this was all he would have to work with next season, or didn’t care.
By getting rid of a manager who, for all his obvious failings, was fulfilling his remit, and then replacing him with one who very quickly abandoned his, that’s a situation the club’s owners have once more created for themselves. And one they now have to extricate themselves from yet again.
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