Existence is futile – Preview
Friday, 30th Apr 2021 19:13 by Clive Whittingham
Forty-six games down, two to go, and QPR have a great chance to finish on a high with matches against two other sides for whom merely existing through 2020/21 represents some form of success.
Stoke (14-15-15 WLLDLD 13th) v QPR (17-11-16 LWLWWL 10th)
Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday May 1, 2021 >>> Kick Off 15.00 >>> Weather – Grey, unseasonably cold >>> Ray Winstone Dome, Stoke-on-Trent
This morning, for the fourth time during our year+ of house arrest, Channel 4’s Frasier repeats looped back to season one episode one again. The ridiculous curly mullet is back, the regrettable writer’s room decision to finally succumb and let Niles and Daphne get together is reversed, Laura Linney is a mercifully safe 11 seasons and 260-odd episodes away once more, and another four months of our existence has been completed. Other than the change in temperature and daylight hours, it’s the only way I’ve really been keeping track of the time.
When your jobs are to write about television and Championship football, you’re going to watch a lot of television and Championship football. There has been a lot of Rotherham United (my God). There has been even more Netflix. I’ve done Tiger King (kooky, three episodes too long); The Pharmacist (not bad, two episodes too long); How To Fix A Drug Scandal (good, one episode too long); The Sinner (excellent until it was one season too many); Don’t Fuck With Cats (decent if slightly exploitative); The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (appalling and extremely exploitative); Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (worth overlooking the obvious compromises in journalistic integrity and impartiality to see some of life’s worst people get what’s coming to them); Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (a retired cop’s 15-minute pub story about how he nearly caught a famous criminal one time extrapolated over four hours); Trial 4 (immaculate); Your Honor (needlessly cruel, invites you to invest ten hours in Bryan Cranston trying to protect his beautiful floppy-haired son then shits in your gob at the end); Parts Unknown (faultless); Love Victor (clever, sweet); A Teacher (Kate Mara and Nick Robinson [not the BBC political guy] shag in a Volvo for a bit which is great until it ruins their lives); The Undoing (excellent boobs unable to save the egregious wrecking of a brilliant book you should read instead); Rick & Morty (exquisitely bleak); Big Mouth (little more, little more, little more, too much take it back); Line of Duty (escape from any plot corner you may have painted yourself into by having forensics come back with an implausible family connection between two characters to a 99.9% degree of certainty, baffle the audience with acronyms in the three minutes it takes the lab to run the tests) and more.
I promise, I promise, there have been books as well. If you haven’t read The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, A Season With Verona, Moneyball, Ball Four, The Boys of Summer, Living on the Volcano, The Nowhere Men, The Beautiful Game?, Kitchen Confidential; Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself… do so immediately. Cancel things to do so. But when you’ve got the self esteem of a Romanian circus bear anyway, and your life is then reduced to that of a SeaWorld whale, some white noise is important. Therefore I am capable/reliant on watching the same things over and over again in the background and letting the sweet endorphins of familiarity wash through me and drown out a brain that likes to call me an idiot five or six times an hour. I have redone all of Friday Night Lights (four perfect seasons of television, and season two); The West Wing (and knows it); Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (horrible shouty ridiculousness of the US rack and stack actually makes you forget how quietly, profoundly excellent the UK version was); Air Crash Investigation (latter season, low-budget churn and appalling acting again spoiling some tremendous storytelling in earlier episodes); Scrubs (perfect up to somewhere in season four where it becomes a crime against humanity); ER (how many bloody episodes?); Cheers (supreme but for their lack of ability to write a lead female character that didn’t want to make you claw your face off); The Simpsons (What. Have. You. Done?)… and Frasier, which has not, and will not, ever be bettered.
But, existing is all this is. Get up in one room of the house, move to another room of the house to work/eat/drink, occasionally treat yourself to a trip to a third room to watch the big television or take a shit (these are different rooms), go down to the Dollis Valley Greenwalk and marvel at how Barnet Council’s policy of charging 100 notes to come and collect your old mattress or fridge while at the same time hacking back at all of its recycling facilities has resulted in so many old beds and white goods making their way out into the wild. I've become somebody who sits in the bath, with candles, for something to do. If “no restrictions after June 21” quietly turns into “we’d really rather you still didn’t get the train over to Bristol City, or sit in that big empty away end at Preston, or continue your decades-long quest to find a decent pub in Stoke” then I’m going to start executing hostages. Actually, I’m just going to do another four months of Frasier repeats, and maybe Friday Night Lights again, but still.
Quite what state QPR and Stoke will be in when (it better bloody be when, pointy finger) we get back there next season (it better bloody be next season, pointy finger) will be very interesting indeed (shut it, in this world the speed of your tomato plant growth year on year is ‘interesting’). For so much of the Championship, this season, like our lives, has really just been about existence. The division already had a borderline unworkable schedule, that exhausted players, frustrated managers, and reduced the quality of football played, and the pitches it is played on, to a grim slop. This year they took that schedule, made absolutely zero concessions to the once-in-a-generation circumstance, and asked them to cram it into seven months instead of nine. Almost every club in this league was already operating to a business plan one of the more deranged Apprentice candidates - only on the show to build enough profile to get on This Morning and say controversial things to Philip Schofield – would come up with. It wasn’t unusual to find a second tier club spending £1.50 in wages to wanker footballers for every £1 they brought in through the door in income, in some forlorn hope they might be one of the three (out of 24) chosen ones for promotion, from a league where three clubs start with a £120m+ advantage each year.
Take away gate money, merchandise sales, hospitality, and basically every source of income these clubs have other than what sponsorship they’ve been able to sell in a terrified market, what the owners are allowed to put in under the rules of the competition, and the Sky TV money, and for the majority of clubs it’s become a get in, get to 52 points, get out, check for a pulse in August 2021. Stoke’s hopes of escaping this reality through a promotion back to the Land of Chocolate fell foul of the schedule. The disintegration of Tyrese Campbell’s knee in early December robbed them of a wonderful young talent and is the most damaging of a dozen or more medium/long term injuries to key players they have suffered this season. Michael O’Neill, doing a very reasonable job under the circumstances, has already been charged with exactly the sort of post-Mark Hughes clean up operation we’ve spent the last six years on ourselves (check the eclectic mix of transfer ins and outs in this week’s oppo profile) and that’s only likely to get more difficult as declining parachute payments marry with FFP concerns and Covid-19. Stoke have 20 players out of contract this summer, including the mercurial Nick Powell, and currently have a dozen senior players out on loan all over the world. I’m pretty sure they won’t be top three or bottom three next season, but I wouldn’t like to hang my hat on any position in between. The manager, Powell, and Campbell are the best things about them but one isn’t a miracle worker, one might be leaving for free, and the other is only this week putting weight through a knee he blew out five months ago.
One of only two QPR games with any supporters in the ground this season was the dire 0-0 draw between these two clubs at Loftus Road in December. Offered 52 points and out at that point, after watching 90 minutes of Ilias Chair try in vain to win that game by himself as our plan A, B and C, and you’d have seen an arm snapped off with more ferocious hunger than anything since Jurassic Park (also might have been watched a few times). Now here we are, in the top half of the table, on a better run of form than everybody bar the top two, with amazing progression of the team as a whole, and a clutch of individuals not limited to Seny Dieng, Rob Dickie, Jordy De Wijs, Yoann Barbet, Lee Wallace, Chris Willock and Lyndon Dykes.
It’s breeding optimism for next season. QPR’s six years of cleaning house, just as the rest of the division stops circling the drain and heads for the financial sewer, could be a rare example of perfect timing from our club. But we were still losing the best part of £1m a month, still on the cusp of breaching FFP, even for all of that, and even with crowds in our old, small, expensive, beautiful stadium/millstone. Our improvement has been driven in large part by the arrival of two players, Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin, who we cannot afford to keep, whatever mental gymnastics are being conducted to convince ourselves otherwise. Their residual impact on players we do own, or realistically might – Dykes, Willock, Field, Thomas – might be all the legacy we have of their stay here, and that’s not the club lacking ambition, the owners being tight, or anything else you might have read on the Twittersphere, it’s just simple maths, accounts, rules of the comp and economic reality.
If there’s one thing we should take from the last couple of years, it’s how the team and the results are improving despite players we didn’t think we could ever possibly do without (Smithies, Freeman, Eze, Bright, Wells) leaving, despite us not pushing the boat out and busting wage structures to keep big name players (Bright, Manning, Wells, Luongo…. Austin?). The recruitment department, finally, is worthy of praise, respect and faith. There are clubs, Barnsley this year, doing more with less, and we have to aspire to that, otherwise what’s the point? But in these circumstances, don’t underrate or underestimate mere existence. A huge summer ahead, but not nearly as traumatic as the one facing Sheff Wed, Derby, Foret… Stoke?
Links >>> Steadying the ship – Interview >>> Change of officials – Referee >>> Winning friends and influencing Stokies – History >>> Sucking diesel – Podcast >>> Stoke City official website >>> Stoke Sentinel – Local press >>> The Oatcake – Message Board >>> The Wizards of Drivel – Podcast
Geoff Cameron Facts No.145 In The Series – Geoff thought The West Wing was crap.
Below the fold
Team news: QPR may be without manager Mark Warburton, who has had some floating bone removed from the knee he had operated on last summer and has been absent from training this week. John Eustace and Neil Banfield still take charge if he doesn’t make the trip. Geoff Cameron is back training ahead of the meeting with his former club but is likely to have to wait until next week, potentially his last match for the club, to make his first appearance since April 2. Little Tom Carroll had his first run out since January in the U23s during the week but is unlikely to feature for the first team again this season. Luke Amos is back doing individual ball work on the training ground as he continues to battle back from the ACL rupture he suffered at Bournemouth in October. Jordy De Wijs’ latest issue is a tight hamstring, which forced his early removal from the home loss to Norwich a week ago. Seny Dieng’s bad error in that game, and ongoing need for a mask to cover his broken nose, unlikely, you would think, to lead to him being dropped here, particularly as Joe Lumley and Warbs Warburton disagreed so much about at the selection last week that Lumley was dropped from the bench entirely.
Stoke’s season has been badly hindered by a catalogue of injuries, and their absentee list for this game is more befitting of an ill-advised military campaign in the jungles of a surprisingly well-armed Far Eastern police state than a season of Championship football. Promising young striker Tyrese Campbell, still second top scorer with six goals, is only now starting to put weight through the knee he blew out in the first week of December and his return is still many months away. Nathan Collins, out since Valentine’s Day, is also a long way off a return. Hairiest man in the world Joe Allen has crushed under the weight of his own bravery in March and will miss the final two games, though may be fit in time for Wales’ Euros campaign. James Chester (mood swings), Tashan Oakley-Booth (fractured spine) (no, seriously) and James McClean (away on important insurgency business) won’t play again this season. One time QPR transfer target Alfie Doughty was so focused on his recovery from a hamstring injury he’s now injured his foot as well, Jack Clarke has returned to Spurs for further investigations to check he is the same Jack Clarke that played for Leeds, Morgan Fox has torn the hamstrings in both his legs at the same time (no, seriously), Nick Powell missed last week’s draw with Forest with a sore Achilles, goalkeeper Angus Gunn is refusing to leave the house until Piers Morgan is reinstated to Good Morning Britain, Tom Ince (who was on loan at Luton) is sacking the rest of the season off and Lee Gregory has also returned from a loan spell at Derby with a far away look in his eyes. There have been lower body counts in episodes of ER.
Elsewhere: With the top two, and the play-off spots, all settled with two rounds still to play, there are a few nervous television executives around watching this weekend’s game. Borussia Norwich are up, and as they’re five points clear of Udinese B a victory at home to Reading will seal the title. They’ll likely win it regardless of their own result, with Watford facing probably their most difficult task of the season away to Justice League-leaders Spartak Hounslow, with FiveTHirtyEight.com making the likelihood of a home win somewhere in the region of 938% certain.
Bournemouth (away at Wycombe), Swanselona (at home to Wayne Rooney’s Derby County) and Barnsley (away to Preston Knob End) are all secure in the end of season knock out on 77 points each, and the remaining fixtures are all about who will play who, where and when in the semi-finals later in May.
The main intrigue now lies at the bottom of the table. Wycombe are still technically alive, though they need wins against Bournemouth home this week and from their date on the Thirteenth Annual Neil Warnock Farewell Tour next week, as well as a huge swing of the goal difference, to make up a six point, 13-goal gap on Derby. Sheffield Owls are four points behind the Rams with the same -21 goal difference, and have a chance to close that to one before anybody else has kicked off as they have the lunchtime kick off at home to Nottingham Florist’s cast of a thousand footballers. Most Forest fans probably want their side to chuck this one and keep Wednesday in with a shout down to the last day when they play Derby at Pride Park. Losing consecutive home games to poor Coventry, Birmingham and Boro sides looks to have doomed Rotherham, who have lost five in a row and scored only once in the process, but they do still have a game in hand at Luton on Tuesday and Blackburn at home is another kind fixture tomorrow. They need a minimum of two wins to get out. Derby could kill this all off with a win at Swanselona tomorrow of course, but with one win in 13 and five defeats in a row you wouldn’t be putting much money on that, even with the Swans resting players for the play-offs.
Three wins from 14 and none from the last eight hasn’t stopped Bristol City handing Nigel Pearson a three year contract. Their game at Miiiiiiiillllllllllllllllll, Birmingham v Cardiff, Luton v Boro, Sporting Huddersfield v Coventry, and our good selves, are all taking place for want of something better to do with our time.
Referee: Martin Atkinson was originally down for this fixture, his first QPR appointment since 2015 and first game at this level of football since 2017 bar last season;’s Brentford v Fulham play-off final. He’s been replaced at the eleventh hour by fellow Premier League referee Craig Pawson, who has done one Championship match this season, and also hasn’t overseen a QPR game in six years. Details.
Stoke: A season of great promise for Stoke has rather tailed off amidst a catalogue of injuries. They won 12 and drew four of their first 20 league and cup games this season to leave them fifth in the table at the start of December. They won only one of the next 13 games however, have won only six of their last 28 league games, and come into this one on a winless run of five which includes home losses to Millwall (1-2) and Coventry (2-3) and a goalless home draw with PNE. Only Millwall (17) have drawn more than Stoke’s 15. Those two started the campaign with a 0-0 at The Den, and have been involved in eight stalemates each since – more than any other team in the league. Twenty of Stoke’s 50 league and cup games so far have had one goal or fewer in them but among the remaining fixtures there have been four 3-2s, a 3-3 and a 4-3. At home, overall, they’re 9-5-8. Nick Powell is the top league scorer on 12, followed by Tyrese Campbell on six – despite Campbell not playing at all since December 8. Four goalkeepers have made senior appearances for Stoke this season.
QPR: Stoke were one of three teams QPR doubled in 2019/20, and they’ve only managed to do that to Cardiff so far this season with a chance to make it two against Luton on the final day. The 2-1 win at Stoke was on the opening day of the 2019/20 season which means it’s not far off a full two years, and one global pandemic, since Jordan Hugill and Ebere Eze secured the three points in Warbs Warburton’s first game in charge. Warbs has won 34 of 95 games in charge of the club, a win record of 35.8%, the best of any permanent QPR manager since Neil Warnock’s 39.2% a decade ago. If Rangers were to repeat the feat and win here again it would be an eighth away win of the campaign, one more than the seven they managed in 2019/20, and equal with the eight they managed in the 2013/14 promotion campaign. The last time they won more than eight on the road in a season was, again, the Warnock title win of 2010/11 when they won ten. It would also continue a reasonably good record for the R’s on this ground – Rangers have won five and drawn one of 11 visits since their first visit in 1997/98. QPR won only seven of their 57 away matches across their most recent three seasons in the Premier League, but one of those was a 3-2 win in Stoke under Neil Warnock in 2011 when Heidar Helguson scored twice and Luke Young the other. Djibril Cisse’s late winner at Loftus Road later that year made it one of only two doubles QPR completed across those three seasons – the other being West Brom (3-2 H, 4-1 A) in 2014/15. Rangers come into this latest meeting on a run of 13 wins from 21 games – only the top two Norwich and Watford have taken more points than the R’s since the turn of the year. A win here could move us to within one place and four points of Reading who by the end of October were already 20 places and 15 points ahead of us, and as late as mid-January we trailed by 15 points and 16 league places. After drawing nine of our first 22 games, Rangers are now on a run of just two draws from their last 22 games. They have won seven and lost four of the last 12 games, with the last three defeats all by a 3-1 scoreline (Rotherham A, Forest A, Norwich H). Stephen Duke-McKenna’s late substitute appearance at Middlesbrough made him the 28th player QPR have used in the league this season. Rangers used 29 players last season, 29 the year before that under Steve McClaren and 31 in Ian Holloway’s full season in charge. For comparison, in the promotion season of 2013/14, Harry Redknapp used 35 different players in league games. If Yoann Barbet starts tomorrow and the final game against Luton next week he will become only the fourth QPR player to remain ever present in a league season in the last ten years (Eze 19/20, Smithies 16/17, Onuoha 15/16), though Jake Bidwell did go 45 (1) in 2017/18. The last person to do it before that was Lee Camp in 2007/08 and before that Kevin Gallen in 2004/05.
Prediction: We’re indebted to The Art of Football for once again agreeing to sponsor our Prediction League and provide prizes. You can get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s QPR collection here. Let’s see what last season’s champion Mase offers us this week…
“Don't know what to say about this one really - it could be drab, could be good, could be something in between. One thing is for sure, it won't make any difference to either of the business ends of the table. This is a ground where we've had some good results over the years, and in thinking about my prediction I've convinced myself of all three outcomes and ended up sitting on the fence. Hopefully Joe Lumley makes the most of his probable unexpected start in what could be his final game for the club.”
Mase’s Prediction: Stoke 1-1 QPR. Scorer – Lyndon Dykes
LFW’s Prediction: Stoke 1-2 QPR. Scorer – Lyndon Dykes
Pictures – Action Images
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