Warburton the latest to try and halt QPR's sad decline - Column
Wednesday, 8th May 2019 17:06 by Clive Whittingham
Former Brentford, Rangers and Forest manager Mark Warburton has been confirmed as the new boss of Queens Park Rangers this afternoon, succeeding Steve McClaren at Loftus Road.
Mark Warburton has, famously, taken an unorthodox route into football management. He was a trader with Bank of America, AIG and RBS in London and New York prior to joining Watford’s academy as a coach, using the financial security that job provided to set himself a target of making it in football within ten years. He initially financed his own journey around Europe to observe methods and training at Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Valencia, Barcelona and elsewhere.
But he did have a playing career in the game initially. He was an apprentice at Leicester under our former charge Frank McLintock and was then part of the Enfield Town side that won the 1981/82 FA Trophy. As a family friend of the McLintock's he'd watched the great QPR side of the 1970s train and he later played for Boreham Wood and in local leagues in Chicago before retiring through cruciate problems.
He was appointed academy manager at Watford in 2006 but a reshuffle saw him demoted to assistant manager of the U17 and U19 groups in 2009 and he left in 2010 citing a disagreement with other staff. He launched the NextGen U19 cup competition in August 2011 with backing from Brentford owner Matthew Benham, with Barcelona, Inter Milan, Liverpool and Spurs among the teams taking part. Warburton would later sign a number of players who impressed in the tournament for Brentford: João Carlos Teixeira and Betinho (Sporting Lisbon), Alex Pritchard (Tottenham Hotspur) and Chuba Akpom, Nico Yennaris and Jon Toral (Arsenal). The loss-making tournament ended in 2014 when Benham withdrew backing.
Warburton pitched up at Brentford, ostensibly as an assistant to interim player manager Nicky Forster through to the end of the 2010/11 season but, in reality, pulling most of the strings. Uwe Rosler got the job permanently that summer ahead of Warburton, much to his displeasure, but Warburton then stepped up to become the club’s sporting director, overseeing a restructure of the club and the opening of a new category two academy. He succeeded Rosler as manager in December 2013 and became the first Brentford manager ever to win his first six games. Having missed out via a play-off final defeat to Yeovil the year before, Brentford won promotion in second behind Kenny Jackett’s Wolves.
Brentford started 2014/15 well at the new higher level, rising to third in November with Warburton named manager of the month then, and again in January after three wins from four. The Bees would make the Championship play-offs but, bizarrely, the departure of Warburton at the end of the season had been common knowledge from February onwards when it was leaked to the press that his contract would not be renewed. Exactly who leaked it remains a bone of contention. The story went that owner Benham wanted to increase the use of data analytics in the club’s recruitment and team selection and Warburton resisted. It subsequently transpired that Warburton had used his final veto to reject a number of January transfer signings picked that way, preferring to keep the tight knit group he had (Brentford used just 24 players that season, the lowest in the league) which set them up for a difficult summer under a transfer embargo for breaching FFP regulations. Other Benham initiatives, such as the arrival of a dedicated coach for set pieces, were also resisted. Despite a highest league finish since 1934/35, and the best win percentage of any manager in the club’s history, he left at the end of his contract in May after a 5-1 aggregate play-off semi-final defeat to Middlesbrough.
Warburton was appointed Rangers manager that summer. The Scottish giants were in the midst of a climb back to the SPL from the bottom division having been demoted due to ongoing financial irregularities and Warburton secured the Scottish Championship and Scottish Challenge Cup in his first season in charge. They also beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final as a Championship side only to lose 3-2 to Hibs in the final at Hampden Park. That was all enough for a contract extension prior to the start of the 2016/17 season but with expectations of a title challenge now heightened, Celtic’s subsequent runaway success brought pressure. A weird set of circumstances after Christmas saw Warburton, his assistant David Weir, and his head of recruitment Frank McParland (who’d both followed him from Brentford) apparently openly courting Nottingham Forest who had a vacancy. Rangers claimed Warburton had resigned in February and accepted it, which he denied.
In March that season, he did indeed arrive at The City Ground. Forest were either one thing or the other at the start of 2017/18 – they won ten, lost 14, and drew only two. Highlights included a 4-0 win against QPR at The City Ground, but a run of seven defeats from 11 games culminating in a 1-0 home loss at Sunderland on New Year’s Eve saw him sacked just prior to the January transfer window opening.
His appointment was confirmed by QPR today and further statements about his backroom staff will follow.
“When I spoke to QPR they were very clear. They have a solid plan and know what they want. They have a long-term outlook and that appealed to me immediately. I like players being brave in possession, understanding the first thought is to play forward and be positive. You have to be fit as well. Work ethic, desire, hunger, passion – all those clichés are so important for us. Get that right and fingers crossed we will move in the right direction.” -Mark Warburton
“We spoke with a number of excellent candidates for the position, and Mark ticked all the boxes for us. He loves working with younger players and developing them, and has a great understanding of the game. Mark is determined to be a success and we will be giving him our full support to achieve that.” -Les Ferdinand
Queens Park Rangers have painted themselves into a real corner when it comes to appointing managers.
Even by the mental standards of modern football, there is almost zero job security for the man in big chair at Loftus Road. There have been four managers in four seasons since the club’s last Premier League relegation and one of those, Ian Holloway, was fired despite doing absolutely everything the club asked of him and fulfilling his remit. There is not only very little money to spend on players, but actually it’s even worse than that – further cuts and savings will have to be made as parachute payments end and a complicated FFP situation continues to be wrestled with. Half a dozen senior players are out of contract this summer, and three more are at the end of loan deals, and few will be able to stay on their current terms. The club is so desperate for some money for its best player, Luke Freeman, that he was left out of the final two games of the season to prevent him picking up a medical-scuppering injury. Meanwhile, a clutch of young players the club would like to hang its hat on have had a very mixed bag of loan spells in the lower league and precious little first team football at Championship level in 2018/19. It’s a dressing room which John Eustace described recently as being beset with a “loser’s mentality”. Despite all of this, expectations remain that this recent top flight club should be competing at the upper end of the Championship. There are a multitude of chiefs to report to, with a director of football and CEO running the club day to day, but two rich owners over their heads (one of them extremely vocal), and a third billionaire board member to the side of them, ostensibly as chairman. It’s a lot of masters to please, all with some say in whether you should be fired.
So you’re being handed a poor squad, riddled with flaws, with no money to do anything about it, further cuts to be made, a clutch of impatient bosses and a restless and expectant fan base. It is not the attractive proposition it once was, and it’s why the list of potential candidates resembled a rack of rusty blades with which to hack your own arm off. Tactical Tim Sherwood, Michael Appleton, Lee Bowyer, Steve Cotterill… stop the bus I want to get off.
From that list - of which the main contenders were Appleton, Gary Rowett, Sherwood and later Darren Moore - Mark Warburton doesn’t seem too bad, especially once Rowett and Sherwood turned it down. He’s had experience and success at this level before. He has been part of building something long term, both as director of football and then manager at Brentford. He’s shown some adeptness in the transfer market on a tight budget, when initially parachuted in at Rangers he was able to bring in the likes of Martyn Waghorn, James Tavernier and Wes Foderingham for very little money and with good results. He has, both at Ibrox and Nottingham Forest, worked with difficult owners and ownership structures before. He plays an attractive and very attacking style of football. He’s good at developing young players, and isn’t afraid to give them first team football. These are all boxes QPR wanted ticked. He doesn’t talk like he’s pretending to be a North London cab driver, he doesn’t have a history drug bans and thumping team mates, he doesn’t wear a gold chain and he doesn’t look like a roided up gym meathead. Better still, the appointment seems to have been the product of a proper process rather than a coronation of somebody the owners have heard of.
You’d be right to be wary of signing/appointing on the basis of success at Brentford because Brentford is a well-run club geared towards people succeeding and QPR is not. But, that said, Warburton actually got the Bees into the play-offs at this level, which is something nobody has managed since despite their oft-talked about wonderful structure – Dean Smith, taken on by Villa on the basis of his Griffin Park work, didn’t make the top six, although did walk around telling people the Bees were top of his pretend ‘Justice League’. People will also point to a perceived failure at Nottingham Forest, but they were fourteenth when they sacked him and Forest were a team that kicked around those lower midtable positions before he got there and have done since. They'd only narrowly avoided relegation the season before. They change managers all the time, without getting significantly better or worse, Warburton simply parred the course there. Rangers, likewise, have not got significantly better for firing him, still a million miles behind Celtic - a Celtic team, under Brendan Rodgers, that won 22 and drew two of its first 24 games that season Warburton was supposed to be catching them.
His record is mixed – of course it is, that’s why he’s available and willing to take this job despite everything outlined higher up.
Weirdly, one of his key weaknesses may be a strength at QPR. Everybody we spoke to at his previous three clubs, on and off the record, fans and people that worked there at the time, talked about him being a good coach, somebody who can bring a dressing room together, somebody who empowers and improves young players. Where caution has been expressed is around the people he tends to bring with him, and transfer dealings. The name of Frank McParland has cropped up repeatedly as a negative. After leaving Brentford in a row over who got the final say over players – Andrej Kramaric who went on to play in the World Cup for Croatia and join Leicester for £9m apparently one that he said no to at Griffin Park – Warburton was then the subject of scrutiny at Rangers. Following the promotion season, and with McParland as head of recruitment, a number of left field signings were made from a small group of agencies, including Key Sports where Warburton’s daughter worked as a client manager. Our own former fungus, Joey Barton, was the most high profile and most disastrous, joining after being released by Burnley who he’d joined when McParland was also director of football at Turf Moor. Again at Nottingham Forest, disagreements with the chairman occurred leading into January when Warburton turned down players he was being offered. “Good coach, possibly a great coach, but hangs around with an odd crowd,” was one comment that came back this morning.
But, in theory, at QPR, he’ll be coming in to work with an existing system under Les Ferdinand and Lee Hoos and without McParland. Whether he’ll be ok with that, having repeatedly pushed back against it before, and whether QPR will just tear it all up on the say so of another manager again, remains to be seen, and needs to be watched closely. This could become a toxic appointment, a repeat of what happened with Steve McClaren, very quickly if everybody isn’t coming in with eyes wide opened as to exactly what the job is and who’s responsible for what.
The criticisms of him on the pitch across all three jobs have remained constant. Stubbornly wedded to a single style of play, often too advanced for the players at his disposal, with no plan B – “plan B is doing plan A better,” an infamous quote. Same substitutions every week, always after 60 minutes. A fascination with short corners, and short free kick routines, which don’t work. Generic, cliched, modern-football style interview quotes that grate during runs of poor results. A strong start followed by a fall away which he’s unable to arrest. You can hear it all now, I can read the message board posts already, I can see the Tweets. We’ll probably give him a fucking hilarious nickname – Snoreburton perhaps? We’re so terribly witty. I give it until mid-October.
But here’s the thing. There’s no such thing as a perfect manager, certainly among the candidates who would consider taking on the QPR job, and even if there were, the manager is only part of the problem and solution. That Rangers have managed to work their way through Mark Hughes, Harry Redknapp, Chris Ramsey, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Ian Holloway and Steve McClaren without getting significantly better (we’ve been between 16th and 19th at this level almost constantly for three years now) suggests none of them were the only/main problem. There were some fans, vocal online, who carried on as if Ian Holloway was the worst manager in the entire world. Out he went, in came Steve McClaren, very little changed or improved, and so the process started again where some acted as if literally anybody out there would be better than McClaren. Out he has gone, will things improve significantly? Probably not, history has taught us this. Holloway did things that annoyed you, McClaren did things that annoy you and, spoiler alert, Mark Warburton is going to do things that annoy you as well.
At the moment we’re sacking a manager once a year, and changing our transfer strategy and the sort of player we’re signing every time we do it. It is, pretty obviously, not working – just look at the league table over a prolonged period of time. This idea that we keep doing it because somehow all the other managers were crap and what we need to do is keep going until we accidentally stumble on the right one is mental. Even if it were the case that every single manager appointed under the Tune Group ownership was indeed rubbish and the main problem at the club, why does it give you faith that they’ll be able to appoint the right one next time? This idea that salvation lies just another signing or managerial change away must be quashed. It’s eating us alive.
Sooner or later we’re going to have to stop this blame game and try and achieve some long term, consistent strategy and thinking – the lack of this is much more of an issue than who the manager is. Hopefully Warburton will be the one to help us achieve that.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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