Antoine Freezman bids adieu – Column
Thursday, 4th Jul 2019 00:06 by Clive Whittingham
As Luke Freeman heads to Sheff Utd after two and a half impressive seasons with QPR, LFW looks back at his exceptional service to the club, the context of the deal, how it’s been reported, and the dreaded ‘undisclosed fee’.
Good news, we’ve sold your best player
Queens Park Rangers are a bit like football’s Mr Trebus (look him up). We had all our beautiful things taken away from us in our heyday - all our Paul Parkers, all our Andy Sintons, all our Darren Peacocks, our Les Ferdinands, our Trevor Sinclairs - and now, in a somewhat older and more decrepit state, we’re paranoid about it. We want to hang onto everything, we want to hoard it all, we want to stack it high until the squad is 50 players deep and the structural integrity of the changing rooms is compromised. We’re told it’s a fire hazard, and going to kill us, and we don’t care. Whatever price is paid for our babies is too low and the thought of Alex Smithies saving penalties or Luke Freeman taking wicked corners in other colours haunts us in the dark of the night. But Luke Freeman’s move to Sheffield United, that was confirmed today, is – in theory and with several dozen caveats – good news.
While some seem wilfully ignorant of it - banging on repeatedly about non-starters like the return of Charlie Austin, gathering like slavering hyenas under a club Tweet about an incoming Irishman thinking it’s going to be Scott Hogan and then losing their shit when it turns out to be a kid from Liverpool with zero senior appearances to his name - the FFP situation the club is currently in is well known now. One more time for those at the back: the end of the parachute payments this summer means we need to continue reducing our losses to comply with the rules, but we need to do so on £12m less income than we had last season. We need to find in excess of £12m of savings just to stand still finance wise on where we were a year ago. The only two ways we can do that in our current situation with our current stadium are to continue to hack into the wage bill – hence the mass exodus of senior players at the end of their contracts – and sell players. Sell players, sell players regularly, sell players for as much money as we can get for them, every single summer. As a club and a support base, we have to get used to this, not cling to them frantically until every drop of value has drained out of them thanks to their contract situation. Read the rules of the league. Read our last set of accounts. Get used to it.
In that horrible context we’ve worked ourselves into, Luke Freeman is a roaring success story. A set of circumstances we need to repeat over and over and over again. Not something to bitch, and moan, and mourn about. Luongo will be next, and hopefully Ebere Eze after that, and Ilias Chair after that, and on and on and on it must go. Nobody is not for sale, quite the opposite, and if you’re battering Les Ferdinand for saying so then wind it in. In an ideal world we bank the Freeman money towards the FFP shortfall, bar a couple of other similar £300,000 purchases from the scouting system who we sell on for big money a couple of years later. Small outlay, big intake, small reinvestment. Over and over again. We have to do it much quicker, much more often, for much more money, admittedly. But the more of these deals we do, the less desperate we will become, and the higher the fees will be.
Freeman is a model to aspire to. Firstly, he was well scouted by a head of recruitment. He wasn’t signed by a manager who’d worked with him before, he wasn’t signed because he was somebody’s mate, he wasn’t signed because of who his dad is or who his agent is or because somebody had given somebody else a nod or a wink. Secondly, he was a player at a good age, with plenty of improvement still left in him, not some kid with his mum’s tit still burning his mouth, not somebody we’ve only laid our hands on because his knee has previously exploded, not a quick fix with zero sell on potential. Thirdly, he was being mismanaged at his previous club. Used as a bit part player and a conventional winger in a 4-4-2, Freeman was not shining at Bristol City, but if you brought him infield and allowed him to influence games as he had done at Stevenage, there was a player there, and that’s what QPR did. This is stupidly rare at our club – so often we go for shiny things, most infamously paying a cub record fee for Mike Sheron after one good season at Stoke while Charlton paid less than half for Grimsby’s consistently brilliant Clive Mendonca and we turned down Paulo Wanchope on a free despite him tearing the reserves apart while here on trial. Scouting hard for these undervalued ‘moneyball’ gems has to be our reason for being in recruitment.
Freeman ticked every box: age, fitness, price, contract status, ability, character, style, attitude. He was born to play in the QPR shirt and he looked at home from the moment he pulled it on. Rangers nicked him for £300,000 and have sold him two and a half years later for just shy of £5m. It’s the value of good scouting, it’s the value of long term vision, it’s the value of knowing when to let go, and it’s the future of our club. If, indeed, our club does have any future at all at this level of the game.
In all honesty, it’s not hard to see why Bristol City struggled to place Freeman. Trends in styles and formations and tactics come and go and come again in football and in Britain we’ve gone from a country of maverick footballers in the 1970s and early 1980s to being a country that values hard work, and grit, and determination above all else. We’ve gone from idolising Charlie George, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Tony Currie and the like, to demanding hard yards and spilt blood. We laud Terry Butcher playing on with a gaping head wound and talk fondly over lukewarm pints of shit, generic lager of Stuart Pearce screaming after successfully converting a penalty against Spain. We fetishize the two world wars and sing about the IRA at England games, and when presented with a unique talent like Adel Taarabt ripping an entire division apart with 19 goals and 21 assists to lift our club back to the Premier League after 15 years of absence we vote for the goalkeeper as the player of the year.
I often cite the example of Villarreal, a small-town team that terrorised La Liga and the major European competitions with Juan Roman Riquelme as a deep-lying, quarter-back midfielder who played the game at his own pace. In England he’d have been forced into a system, lambasted for letting players run off his shoulder. In Spain, they built a team around him, and reaped their rewards in results and entertainment. He was glorious, and in this country all we’d have remembered him for was not picking up his man at corners. Football can be art, it doesn’t have to be attritional. Luke Freeman, asked to conform at Bristol City, was just another cog in a 4-4-2 wheel. No surprise to hear he was originally turfed out of Charlton’s academy for being too small, and subsequently picked up by lowly Gillingham. Luke Freeman given freedom to express and do damage at QPR, despite lacking blinding pace or brilliant physique or prolific goalscoring, became one of the best players in the league.
Though English football is changing, led by Gareth Southgate’s youth-driven national team, in many ways Luke Freeman simply isn’t an English-style player. He’s a throw-back, and hopefully a throw-forward. His ability to take the ball on the half turn, immaculately controlling his way out of a tight, defensive space and turning it into an attacking situation with opportunities opening up in front of him, is continental. Why ‘keep it simple’ and ‘play the way you’re facing’ if simple is regressive and you’re facing your own goal? Why lament a lack of pace, that’s never going to be part of your game, if you can ghost past players regardless?
He transformed the QPR midfield from the moment he stepped into it. He wanted the ball, and not in an arrogant way as Joey Barton used to demand before finding his feet couldn’t cash the cheque his mouth had written for him, but because he knew three touches later it would be going to a better place. Sometimes the back of the net, more often into an unmissable opportunity for a teammate. After what seemed like a lifetime of watching Barton stick every set piece onto the head of the nearest defender, we’ve now had two and a half years of actually believing our corners and wide free kicks might result in something, because Luke was taking them. He made heroes of, and gave ridiculously skewed goals-per-game stats to, mediocre Championship strikers, like Idrissa Sylla, and Matt Smith. Their stats without him don’t bear thinking about, and they know it as well. Tony Pulis tried to buy him for Middlesbrough - had he succeeded, Aden Flint would now be the captain of England. Despite this I’ve seen it suggested that he was selfish, that he held onto the ball too long, that he tried to do too much. Occasionally, very occasionally, true. But honestly, if you were him, would you have passed to the wasters we played him with?
In other ways Freeman is a British as they come. This was no luxury player. Over two and half years he was ridiculously consistent. He carried a mostly shambolic team through bad times. We have won ten away games in the two and a half years he was here, but when others gave up around him on those long, cold, inevitably unsuccessful trips up north it was Luke who was still plugging away. It was Freeman who conjured an assist for Idrissa Sylla to salvage a scarcely deserved point in a hurricane at Bolton the season before last. It was Freeman still trying, still piling forward, still not giving up, and eventually scoring from outside the box in a long-since-lost game at Sheff Utd in 2017/18 – probably a big part of why Chris Wilder kept tabs on him, besides his ridiculous stats. It was Freeman bundling ball and goalkeeper into the net with the last kick of the game to get a point at Rotherham last season, celebrated manically as if he’d won the World Cup when, in actual fact, he’d just saved us from abject embarrassment. Again. The season before, he'd done the same in the last minute from 25-times the distance at Barnsley when all seemed lost. I can’t recall a player maintaining that level of performance for that length of time in circumstances as trying as they have been at QPR while he’s been with us.
You could describe him as an old-fashioned footballer. His taste in hairstyles is inexplicable. His physique isn’t Mickey Quinn, but it’s not Cristiano Ronaldo either. He waddles, let’s be honest, halfway between the bowl of his Dagenham home patch and the penguins of David Attenborough docs. He never says die, he never turns it in, and he never gives up – no surprise that the remarkable 96th minute equaliser against Brentford in a game QPR trailed by two deep into injury time was nudged over the line by him. No shock, either, that he picked the ball up and raced back to the halfway line wondering if there might be a winner in it for us. He was frequently booked when the frustration got too much for him. If he didn’t like what you said to him from the West Paddock he’d happily turn around and tell you to “fuck off”. He took rejection by Charlton and rejection by Arsenal and he worked his way back up to the Premier League through Stevenage, Bristol City and QPR. To the family that had him in digs when he was trying to make it with the Gunners, he still sends a Christmas card each year. And he travelled to QPR home games on the Central Line. QPR, a club where Patrick Agyemang used to arrive in a personalised reg Bentley.
Managers, perhaps understandably, took advantage of all of those qualities and flogged the lad to death. Steve McClaren, in particular, force fed Freeman every minute of every game, particularly in the second half of last season when things were starting to go awry for his QPR team. Sadly - for team, player and manager – Freeman’s two solid years of consistent brilliance had left him nursing a hip flexor injury, the pain of which he mostly played straight through. When it became too much at home to West Brom, a game that looked lost from the start until he forced an equaliser by himself, he staggered off with four minutes to play leaving Rangers with ten men – the Baggies won it in injury time. I’ve seen it said that any visiting scout in the final few months of last season wouldn’t have thought much of him – yes, sweetheart, that’s because he was shagged. Absolutely exhausted. Run into the ground.
When he finally succumbed to a rare weekend off for a 2-0 loss up at Middlesbrough, the results of the rest on that Tuesday were incredible. QPR, a poor team in a spiral down the Championship table, without a win since Boxing Day, faced Leeds United at home in mid-February. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Champions Elect Leeds United. Scarves in the air, Sky Sports-dominating, champions of Europe, this-is-our-year Leeds United. It was, on paper, a forgone conclusion. But Freeman wasn’t having it.
It’s a performance that will grow and exaggerate through time. People who weren’t there that night will start to claim they were, Freeman’s cleverly converted winning goal from five yards will become a 30-yard barnburner, Leeds’ team will get better, and QPR’s will get worse. Whatever version of the bible they’re worshiping in another 2,000 years’ time, this tale will probably be in it. That one about the loaves and the fish will have nothing on it. I’ve been at QPR games where goalkeepers have had ‘one of those nights’ – Juergen Sommer v Villa, Radek Cerny v Man Utd, Chris Day v Blackpool – and I’ve been at the occasional Les Ferdinand v Newcastle, Lee Cook v Crystal Palace or Akos Buszaky v Scunthorpe event. But they don’t come along often at QPR, particularly for outfield players, and Luke Freeman that night won that game by himself. Here’s what we said at the time…
On Tuesday night at Loftus Road against third-placed Leeds United, Luke Freeman decided he’d had enough. Not since Lee Cook made a team containing Zesh Rehman and Chris Barker look competitive at Championship level, leaving Crystal Palace’s Danny Butterfield nursing post traumatic stress disorder in the process, has a player picked his team up by the bollocks and physically dragged it kicking and screaming through the mud to victory as Freeman did in this match.
While those around him seemed beset with self-doubt and nerves, Freeman oozed belief and confidence. While team mates looked weary and fatigued, Freeman was perpetual motion and energy. Where others misplaced passes and fumbled loose touches, Freeman had the ball glued to his foot. Leeds tried everything they had and couldn’t lay a glove on him. He covered every blade of grass, at ridiculous speed, legs whirling around in a circular blur. It was a performance that screamed Player of the Year Award, it was a performance that won’t have escaped the notice of anybody at this level with money to spend this summer, and it was a performance that won the game for his team. I like your little beard.
Leeds so dominant, QPR so bereft, that nobody really noticed that visiting centre half Liam Cooper missed the last ten minutes of the half having a new eyeball fitted. Against ten men, Rangers managed one long range shot off target from Mass Luongo. But they hadn’t conceded early, as happened against Leeds’ fellow promotion chasers West Brom and Middlesbrough in the previous games, and in Freeman they possessed a player who’d already suggested he had more than Marcelo Bielsa’s team could reasonably handle. What danger Rangers had been able to muster in the final third had come through him – one shot wide from the edge of the area, another forceful bit of wing play that set Ebere Eze up for a deflected shot at Cassila in goal. The restart after half time was delayed while a painkiller the size of a baby’s head was rummaged for in the doctor’s bag. Fully dosed up, Freeman came out for the second time in rabid form.
He’d fired a shot across the bows from a Pawel Wszolek free kick in the first minute when Mass Luongo – a man of the match contender himself on any other day – powered to the byline and cut a low cross back for Freeman to backheel into the net for one nil. The slalomed run to lose Pontus Jansson in the six-yard box in the split second before the ball arrived every bit as sexy as the finish. Thereafter he led the visitors a merry dance - skipping, diving, jinking and driving round yellow shirts as if they weren’t even there; chased across the field by two, three, four Leeds players in Keystone Cops mode. He was the roadrunner to their Wile E. Coyote and I could have sat there and watched him play like that all night. Completely unplayable. Mesmeric, determined, relentless brilliance.
The man of the hour was removed with three minutes left to a standing ovation. He emerged again on the other side of five torturous minutes of stoppage time, beaming from ear to ear, bouncing around his team mates with hugs and congratulations. The run was over and nobody in the ground was quite as delighted about that as Luke Freeman. And then he caught the Central Line home. What a human.
If any player deserved to go on and make a success of a move, it’s Luke Freeman, who ran his blood to water for QPR. Sheff Utd have got themselves an absolute gem.
Who to trust
How much, precisely, they’ve paid for that gem is really the crux of the matter for disgruntled QPR fans. They see Bristol City selling Lloyd Kelly to Bournemouth for a reported £13m, Brentford getting £12m from the same source for Chris Mepham (who we released as a youngster), skinted Birmingham courting £15m for Che Adams, Norwich getting £11m for Josh Murphy from Cardiff, Cardiff also paying north of £10m for Bobby Reid after one good season at Bristol City… and so it goes on. And they wonder, with some justification, why we lose Alex Smithies and Luke Freeman so relatively cheaply.
Well, several facts of life first of all. Goalkeepers are undervalued, players under 25 are over-valued, strikers go for stupid money, you need more than one buyer to get a bidding war going and drive the price up, Freeman doesn’t score enough, isn’t that quick and has never played in the top flight before… And clubs know we’re desperate. Weirdly, the more players we sell like this, the less desperate we’ll become, and the more we’ll get for future transfers.
But secondly, be careful who you listen to on these transfer fees. We live in a ridiculous time where clubs are forced to report the fees they pay to agents each year, but don’t have to declare the value of the transfers they worked on – universally referring to the deals as “undisclosed”. Some clubs like that because it doesn’t show rivals how much they’ve got in the bank when they come bidding for their players, some clubs like it because it doesn’t show fans how little they’ve just sold their favourite player for, and Gianni Paladini likes it because he can fluff up a deal for an unknown Argentinean as a £3m purchase when it’s a wholly illegal nothing of the sort. Whichever way, it’s mucky, and it needs stopping with a league-wide rule.
Into that vacuum comes a mixture of journalism, guesswork and clickbait, and you really need to think about which of the three you’re believing.
A week ago West London Sport editor David McIntyre reported that QPR had rejected an offer from Sheffield United for Freeman in the region of £4m. On the same day, Sky Sports reported that Rangers were set to let Freeman go to Bramall Lane for £3m. While the hard of thinking started piling into Dave Mc on social media for guessing, attention seeking, not making sense, trolling… most seemed more than happy to go with the Sky story and start beating QPR about the head with it. Three million sheckels, for Freeman? He’s worth at least five million, me with a poor dying grandmother, Ferdinand out, etc.
Local newspapers and journalists are a sadly dying service in this country, replaced with clickbait nonsense from centralised churnalists who’ve never set foot near the borough they cover or the football team they report on. Proper journalists, doing the job as it should be done on the ground, are sadly being usurped by national papers and broadcasters that don’t give a single shit about your club if it’s not in the top six of the Premier League, and hacks churning out transcripts of videos from official club feeds under clickbait titles such as “every word Mark Warburton said on Luke Freeman” onto websites so festooned with pop-ups they’re only readable on the five fastest computers in Europe.
I’d urge you to do two things. One, get hold of a download of Luke Moore from the Football Ramble interviewing Sky Sports’ presenter Dave Jones. The conversation veers at one point towards Jones’ time on Sky Sports News, how they get their stories and what the threshold is for reporting things to you as fact. It’s depressingly, obscenely low. Jones calmly admits that should an agent of a player ring up a SSN reporter and say his client is off to Leicester City, they’ll immediately report that unchecked because, after all, the agent is a connected party to the story. No fear that the agent may be bullshitting to get a better deal for his client at his current club, or drum up interest from elsewhere. No checks, with a local Leicester reporter, who would tell them that Leicester are skint at the moment, or have five other players that play that position. No check with the selling club either. Just report it. Too good to check. It’s the opposite of journalism 1.1, and to see people taking their £3m figure as read, battering QPR and the local journalists about the head with it, has been grim.
And two, treasure the few local journalists that are left, treading the hard yards on your club to provide you with proper information. They’re not trying to con you, they’re trying to inform you. Many of them are about to be swallowed up by The Athletic, who will charge you for the privilege of their insight. And it is insight - not guesswork, or clickbait, or bullshit, or attention seeking.
Luke Freeman went for £4.9m.
48 starts, 0 sub appearances, W16 D10 L22
8 goals (Peterborough H, Bolton A, Sheff Wed H, Hull H, Villa A, West Brom H, Leeds H),
16 assists (West Brom A, Wigan H, Bolton A, Reading A, Ipswich A, Brentford H, Brentford H, Forest A, Ipswich H, Leeds H FAC, Pompey A, Pompey H, Birmingham H, Birmingham H, Swansea H, Blackburn H)
3 yellow cards (Millwall H foul, Blackburn A foul, Brentford H foul)
9 LFW MOTM Awards (Bolton A, Norwich H, Villa H, Villa A, Sheff Utd A, Pompey A, Watford H, West Brom H, Leeds H), 4 supporter MOTM awards (Villa A, Watford H, West Brom H, Leeds H)
LFW Ratings – 5, 6, 6, 3, 3, 6, 6, 7, 7, 6, 4, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, 5, 7, 5, 7, 5, 6, 8, 7, 7, 6, 8, 8, 6, 5, 7, 6, 8, 7, 6, 7, 8, 9, 5, 6, 5, 6, 5, 3, 7, 7, 5, 6 = 6.229
Interactive Ratings – 6.41
45 starts, 2 sub appearances, W16 D11 L20 (appearances of less than 10 minutes don’t count in WDL)
5 goals (Ipswich H, Barnsley A, Brentford H, Sheff Utd A, Villa A), 18 assists (Northampton H, Sheff Wed A, Hull H, Cardiff A, Millwall H, Boro A, Sunderland A, Bolton A, Villa H, Brentford H, Birmingham A, Birmingham A, Bristol City H, Burton A, Forest H, Derby H, Fulham A, Birmingham H)
10 yellow cards (foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, retaliation, foul, foul, foul)
7 LFW MOTM Awards (Sheff Wed A, Barnsley A, Bolton A, Ipswich A, Millwall A, MK Dons H, Sheff Utd A)
LFW Ratings – 8, 6, 7, 6, 6, 6, 8, 8, 6, 7, 7, 7, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7, 5, 6, 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, 8, 6, 7, 6, 7, 5, 5, 6, 5, 6, 6, 5, 7, 5, 7, 6, 7, 7, 6, 5, 5, 8, 6 = 6.38
Interactive Ratings – 6.26
12 starts, 4 sub appearances, W5 D2 L9
2 goals (Huddersfield H, Rotherham H), 4 assists (Birmingham A, Wigan H, Brighton H, Brentford A)
5 yellow cards (foul, violent conduct, foul, foul, foul), 1 red (Preston A, 2 yellows, foul, violent conduct)
3 LFW MOTM Awards (Huddersfield H, Birmingham A, Barnsley H)
LFW Ratings – 5, 7, 8, 6, 6, 8, 8, 7, 4, 7, 8, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6 = 6.5
Interactive Ratings – 6.31
3 Supporter MOTM Awards (Birmingham A, Rotherham H, Brighton H)
Pictures – Action Images
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