48/48 – Preview
Friday, 7th May 2021 19:43 by Clive Whittingham
QPR conclude a season that looked to be heading south for so long in very satisfactory fashion indeed, with the return fixture from the one that started the comeback in January against Luton.
QPR (18-11-16 WLWWLW 9th) v Luton (17-11-17 WWDWDD 12th)
Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday May 8, 2021 >>> Kick Off 12.30 >>> Weather – All the rain that ever fell on the world falling all over again all at once >>> Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium, Loftus Road, London, W12
Here we are then, match preview 48/48. QPR’s long-lamented aversion to progress in cup competitions, a source of much angry material for this column over the years, never more welcome for the hamstrings and ACL's in our playing squad, and what remain of my finger tips and brain cells, than it has been this season. If there’s a Rotherham equivalent of LFW out there… maybe try the Red Cross?
Before the war, I’d roll my eyes at a lot of the complaints from football managers and football players about having to play so much football. First world problems, relative to what the vast majority of people have to do every week to earn a living, make ends meet, support a family and so on. Particularly at the very top of the game, where even Jurgen Klopp lets himself down talking about how desperately awful it is that his enormous Liverpool squad with its vast resources might have to play more than two games a week, or face the occasional FA Cup replay that will keep a less well off club going for another few months.
Less so in the Championship, where there are eight more league games for smaller squads with less rotation potential to cope with, spread over a distance that stretches from Middlesbrough across to Preston, down to Swansea and across to Norwich which must be traversed by coach and train rather than in private planes and luxury hotels. I actually felt there were some decent ideas around addressing this burden contained within the Whole Game Solution plan put forward a few years back. To not only dismiss that almost before the ink was dry on it, but then try and cram that exact same schedule into a much shorter period of time at the height of a global pandemic I felt irresponsible.
The word “unprecedented” was used to describe the situation, and it was in modern times at least. Unprecedented events require radical thinking and extreme solutions, and yet football’s response was to carry on with an even more concentrated version of its already challenging normality. Rather than ask questions like ‘do we really need the League Cup and EFL Trophy this year?’ they instead insisted that both tournaments would not only go ahead, but play all of their early rounds almost immediately so as to catch up. Plymouth, who beat QPR in the first round of the former, and also had an EFL Trophy game against Norwich U23s that Tuesday (an ongoing disgrace), went from no games at all since March 7 to playing September 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 26, October 3, 6, 10, 17, 20, 24, 27, November 3, 7, 10, 16, 21, 24, 28 – 20 games in two and a half months. Brentford, who as a Championship side had already had to prepare with a pre-season half its usual length, were rewarded for a League Cup run with seven games in the first three weeks and 13 in the first seven. Perhaps little surprise that an apparent title procession derailed after Christmas, and even less shocking to see key men like Rico Henry blowing out hamstrings through pure fatigue. While all this talk of players’ mental health is fine, how about their physical wellbeing?
The EFL will hail the whole thing a triumph. It is, indeed, remarkable the season has been completed in these circumstances, without mass Covid breakouts derailing the whole thing entirely. Club’s medical teams, particularly the one at QPR who have come through with only one Covid-isolation and a very skinny injury list indeed, deserve huge credit (all credit must go to the staff). But it has done little more than fulfil an obligation to broadcasters and sponsors. As important as that is, as the main source of crowd-less income, I wonder what said channels and corporations have made of the product. The Championship has been settled, to an extent, by its schedule. Teams with the biggest parachute payments, who could still spend to strengthen their squads, and afford to hold more players in reserve, have walked it. While you could say that was always the plan with Norwich and they would have pissed it anyway, Watford came down in something of a mess and haven’t impressed while Bournemouth have been little short of crap up to six weeks ago and yet one has finished second and the other is now the play-off favourite. All three relegated teams have never bounced back all at once before, this could be the first time. Other promising squads, at Stoke and Blackburn for instance, have seen seasons collapse entirely under the weight of an injury list frequently more than a dozen names long. At the other end, already difficult tasks facing Wycombe, and particularly luckless Rotherham, have been rendered all but impossible. Matches between tired teams, often on rutted playing surfaces given no time to recover between matches with groundstaff furloughed or laid off, played in front of no crowds, have more often than not been abysmal, unwatchable rubbish. The Championship was never a pretty league, this year I’ve seen games I wouldn’t even have said were of a League Two standard. A long afternoon watching Birmingham v Luton took years off my life.
People will now be considering whether or not they’ll come back to football in the same way, as often as before, or whether in fact this has opened their eyes to more important things in life, other things they can do with their weekends and the vast amounts of money you save not shitting it out through your nose every weekend to pay what Avanti West Coast deems acceptable for an off-peak trip from London to Preston. I’m not sure serving those people abysmal slop through jerky streams, or shoving mostly terrible games out on a Tuesday tea-time voiced over by the pitifully uninformed banality and trite stories that pass for the Sky commentary these days, is going to act as much enticement. Those decisions to try and complete a normal season, really for little more than the sake of completing it and fulfilling contracts, may not look quite so triumphant when those contracts, and season tickets, come round for renewal.
QPR’s part in it all has been seriously impressive on and off the field (all credit must go to the players). Even a normal 2020/21 would have looked tough on paper for Rangers. Key players like Nedum Onuoha, Jack Robinson, Darnell Furlong, Mass Luongo, players we thought we could never possibly do without like Luke Freeman and Alex Smithies, had been leaving en masse, in enormous summer turnovers, for years. Each to be replaced by a cheaper option as the wage bill was hacked back again and again, not through tightness or lack of ambition but to stop the club haemorrhaging money and to comply with the rules of the competition post parachute payments. To then lose 45 goals and 20 assists (Eze, Wells and Hugill) from even last year’s team, which itself had been hastily and cheaply cobbled together in a crash-course summer of 16 in and 16 out, and plenty more besides that (Hall, Manning, Pugh, Bright), didn’t look like preparation for anything other than a season of real struggle.
For a while that looked like being the case. Before Christmas, when QPR played well (Bournemouth, Bristol City, Brentford) they didn’t win, and when they didn’t play well (Huddersfield, Swansea, Preston) the games weren’t even competitive. They reached the halfway stage with just four victories. If you want to be cynical about it, if you don’t like Warburton and/or Ferdinand and/or Hoos, if you think the club is badly run and lacks ambition, if you’re pessimistic about next season, you could simply say what happened next was down to signing Charlie Austin and Stefan Johansen on loan, two players we could never possibly afford to buy, who’ve artificially doped a team incapable of competing in the worst Championship in living memory, and the second they’re gone we’ll be back in the shit again.
I am, cautiously, more optimistic than that, even though I don’t see Johansen and Austin being here long term as particularly realistic. I’ve run this website, and its message board, for two decades now, and for the latter quarter of that each summer has been the same – an escalating panic. As players have left there has often been anger over the fee, a stark assessment over what an already struggling team will look like without them, and zero hope they will be replaced adequately. This was particularly prevalent around the departures of Smithies and Freeman, without whom the team could well have been relegated the season prior, and therefore logic dictated almost certainly would be the following year after they’d gone. It will be the same again over the coming months: if Austin and Johansen do indeed end their loans and not return, this will be seen as an end-of-days scenario from which the team cannot possibly recover, and as we inevitably get through June and July with only a couple of signings (as QPR and every other club do every summer) so that existential dread will grow. Offer 21st position, you will find your arm ripped from its socket.
And yet, for two years now, QPR have been getting better. This season they took a generational talent like Eze out of the side, the two main strikers in Wells and Hugill, two of last season’s three centre backs (and the captains) in Hall and Leistner, the near-ever present and very influential left sider Ryan Manning, outstanding breakthrough talent Bright Osayi-Samuel, experienced utility back up Marc Pugh and so on… and they got better. With a game to play they’re four places higher, six points better off, more home wins, more away wins, 15 fewer goals as you’d expect but offset by a defence that’s gone from conceding 76 times to 54 and six clean sheets to 14. If I’d said in this annual round up piece for the West Brom game last season that all of those players would leave, and we’d get better, you’d have thought me quite mad.
A club that used to have to wait for players to run down their contracts, or pay them off in advance, is now starting to get money for its stars. A club that used to plunder old Merlin sticker books and Kia Joorabchian’s client log for signings, is now starting to recruit with real intelligence – Chris Willock, and the LFW Player of the Season Rob Dickie, are real gems. There are academy players, plural, in the first team, and not as token members either. The team has a very distinct, ingrained style and ethos which it can sign players to, rather than the madcap, all-over-the-map tactics, style and recruitment that was caused by jumping so rapidly through such a disparate group of managers as Mark Hughes, Harry Redknapp, Chris Ramsey, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Ian Holloway and Steve McClaren.
There are blips, and things that have gone wrong. The Manning and Bright contract scenarios, and the apparently panicked handing out of lengthy contracts to less promising prospects that followed. The Mac Bonne signing, up to this point. The gap between our best and worst performances this season is vast – this is still a team that can inexplicably fall in a hole, still a manager with the potential to frustrate and puzzle. There is the possibility that Austin and Johansen have indeed propped up a team that wasn’t good enough to compete even in one of the worst Championship seasons of all time. Look in this time next year when I may well be grimly surmising that not being able to sign those two (and it will be because we’re not able, rather than because we don’t want to or are somehow incompetent and blind to their influence) were the final two slices in a prolonged death by a thousand cuts.
Another theme in this year’s final Championship league table, however, is clubs that do the right thing more often than not, and clubs that don’t. Champions Norwich are immaculately run, and have stuck with their long term plan even through periods of pain such as the 11-straight defeats and two goals scored end to their last Premier League campaign. Brentford, much as it irritates, have been doing the right thing for years, and transformed their club – they may yet be promoted. Swansea, after a rocky few years, back to a very clear ethos and strategy under Graham Potter and now Steve Cooper. Barnsley – here’s the type of player we’re going to sign, here’s the type of manager we’re going to appoint, we do not deviate from that even if we do dip down to League One – now on the verge of what would be a quite remarkable promotion. And QPR, who went on a ten game losing run, but stuck with the manager regardless, because they liked the direction of travel.
At the other end, a litany of clubs who do the wrong thing more often than not. Clubs that not only ignore the profit and sustainability rules of the league, but also the very basics of business management or building a happy and coherent team. Birmingham, Sheff Wed, Forest, Derby. Clubs that will spend many times their annual income on wages; smash through the wage structure again and again to make yet another signing; cave to the populist “SIGN A FUCKING STRIKER” over and over to try and buy themselves out of a their losing bet; layer 12, 13, 14 more players on top of an already enormous squad every summer and dispense with professional athletes, often into a ‘bomb squad’ sometimes just weeks after going all out to buy them; chop and change managers frantically, at the merest sign of trouble, often replacing with the polar opposite requiring another complete tearing up of the squad and the casting aside of yet more footballers they thought were their salvation a short time prior.
When you’re in the latter group, as QPR were, it doesn’t make any difference if you sign Loic Remy and Chris Samba in January; it doesn’t make any difference if you replace Mark Hughes with Harry Redknapp; it doesn’t make any difference if you go from scouting Europe for a defensive Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to targeting English players in the lower leagues for good old Ian Holloway to trying to loan Premier League ‘men’ for Steve McClaren… your results continue to flatline, your club continues to decline, because you’re doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Derby, after years of overspend, mismanagement, wild rotation of managers, devious tricks to avoid FFP, ground sales, botched takeovers, the whole Keogh/Lawrence/Bennett incident, the bookie-backed signing of a big name on ten times as much as everybody else… are now finding they can’t buy a win, no matter what they try.
When you’re in the former, as I’d tentatively suggest QPR are now, then it doesn’t matter if you have to sell Smithies, Freeman and Eze; it doesn’t matter if you get outbid on Nahki Wells or miss out on Ben Whiteman; it doesn’t matter if you go on a ten game winless run as long as you ride it out with the same manager because you have faith in his process; and it might not matter if you can’t break your wage structure for Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin… your club and team progresses regardless, because you’re doing the right things for the right reasons and it all comes back to you.
But then, we’ve been wrong before, pretty inevitable when you have to churn 48 of these these things out in seven months. Enjoy your summer guys.
Links >>> Paul Parker’s goal – History >>> Job well done – Interview >>> Lyndon Calling – Podcast >>> Harrington in charge – Referee >>> Luton Town official website >>> Hatters News – Blog >>> Luton Outlaws – Message Board >>> Supporters Trust
Geoff Cameron Facts No.146 – This magnificent feast here represents the last of the Geoff Cameron Facts.
Below the fold
Team News: People’s champion Todd Kane has been suspended for seven matches and fined £6,000 for calling Brentford’s Sergi Canos a “diving, foreign cunt” in 2-1 home victory against the Bees in February. Kane, Rob Dickie and QPR say this was in response to Canos calling him an “ugly, English cunt” but that testimony hasn’t been believed. We’ll let this settle and say more in Kane’s ‘end of term’ review which comes next week, but he is unavailable. Geoff Cameron is back and likely to turn out for the club for the last time after 90 appearances and two goals over three years of a spell that was meant to last for 12 months. An absolute trooper, brilliant. Again, we’ll have more on him in the End of Termers, and there’s the back story to the Geoff Cameron Facts coming on Tuesday next week as well. Little Tom Carroll, who we had down as being released early a fortnight ago, now looks like he might be involved tomorrow and get another year. We fear this may be the last QPR outings of Charlie Austin and Stefan Johansen – hopes and prayers and all that.
Luton… do you know what? Who cares.
Elsewhere: All games kicking off at 12.30 on Saturday, and all eyes on the bottom end of the table. Wycombe, bless them, still technically in the hunt, though three places, three points, and ten goals shy of fourth bottom Derby ahead of a trip to Middlesbrough. They’re done, basically, but were a lot more competitive than anybody gave them credit for pre-season – certainly both of our games against them were a pain in the arse – and you wonder what they might have been able to do in a ‘normal’ season, with the fixtures more spread out and a home crowd behind them. Tragic, in a footballing sense, that what is likely to be their only ever season at this level was played out entirely without the fans there.
Everything else all rests on Wayne Rooney’s Derby County (notice how Sky have dropped that ongoing rimjob as the situation has worsened there?) who will be safe if they win their home game against the equally hapless Sheffield Blue Stripe. Problem is, Derby have lost six in a row coming into this, as all the chickens and more come home to roost in Mel Morris’ “Championship on strings” “Melnomics”, and they look spent. If Wednesday win they join Derby on 43 points with a better goal difference and move above them. Then it all comes down to Rotherham, who were already on a sticky wicket coming up from a salary capped league into the Championship and having one of the smallest playing budgets, even before all their Covid-19 horrors took hold. Blowing multiple games in hand, extremely kind home fixtures against Coventry, Birmingham, Boro and Blackburn, would make you think they’re done. But if they were to win at Cardiff, already on the beach, tomorrow and Derby don’t beat Sheff Wed then they have a better goal difference as well and it’ll be them safe and the two supposed giants going down together.
The only other thing riding on anything is who plays who in the play-off semi-finals. Justice League leaders Spartak Hounslow have once again been undone by football’s arbitrary, backward-thinking, instance on counting actual wins rather than deserved wins, physical goals rather than expected ones, and so they’ve had to settle for third despite being the best team everybody has played all season. They’ve got Bristol City away to finish, who FiveThirtyEight.com say they’re 567% certain to beat, and Millwall goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski is willing to see even that bet saying this week: “"The last game, Bristol were gone, they looked like they wanted to go on holidays already. They didn’t care, I’m sorry. I think they were the worst team we’ve played against this season."
Behind them, Swanselona have 80 points and +19 goal difference, then Bournemouth have 77 and +29 and Barnsley have 77 and +8. The Swans are at already-promoted-but-can’t-win-the-league Watford, Bournemouth have a nice easy hit out against Stoke, and Barnsley host long-since-champions Borussia Norwich. Reading, who won seven and drew one of the first eight league games this season, get to wonder what might have been, and who will be left next season in their talented squad that costs them 207% of their turnover in wages, at home to equally hapless Sporting Huddersfield. Two big ones to watch this summer right there.
The rest of it? Well, the rest of it is just because isn’t it? Because it’s what we do, because it’s what we care about, because it’s who we are. Obviously if your team is pushing for a promotion or fighting a relegation then it’s tense, and you can’t sleep, and you long for lost loved ones who would have been in their element if they were there to see it. But if there’s nothing riding on it, you’d still be there, same pub, same people, same train, and the fact the result doesn’t matter this time is irrelevent anyway. It never matters if you’re there, because being there is the best bit. Being there with the best people in your life, doing the most important and dominant thing in your life, creating new memories and stories to tell in years to come, that’s what matters. Bringing up the rear, Blackburn v Birmingham, Coventry v Millwall and Forest v Preston. Pointless, empty, soulless, box-ticking exercises in a pointless, empty, soulless, box-ticking season. Add the fans back in, for an apparently meaningless dead rubber at West Bromwich Albion this time next year, and I’ll be there on the £6 Marylebone train with such a stonking erection I’ll be the most hung person on the sex offender’s register. Because when you're there, there's no such thing as a meaningless game. For now, without us, they complete a season that was only ever embarked upon for the sake of completing a season to satisfy soulless commercial and broadcasting contracts.
Football, without fans, remains nothing.
Referee: Pesky Championship grub Tony Harrington gets the last game, just to remind us of our place in the new world. Details.
QPR: Prior to the first game with Luton, on January 12, QPR had won four of their 24 league and cup games. They had failed to win any of the previous ten, scoring just five goals in the process and failing to score in five of those matches. We were twentieth in the Championship at that point, in danger of needing the paddles (call me when they used the paddles). The 2-0 win at Kenilworth Road that night (one of 14 clean sheets this season, up from six last) sparked a run of six wins from seven games. Charlie Austin’s goal that night the first of seven in his second spell with the club, the latest at Stoke last week, taking him to 55 QPR goals in 100 starts and nine sub appearances. Since then Rangers have won 14 games and now lie ninth, with eighth a possibility with a win tomorrow, and eleventh the worst case scenario given goal difference. They come into the Luton match on a run of eight wins and a draw from their last 13 games. They’ve won three of the last four, all of them away to pip last season’s total of away wins (seven) at the post (eight). It means that despite losing Nahki Wells, Ebere Eze, Jordan Hugill, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Ryan Manning, Marc Pugh and Grant Hall from last season’s team (63 goals, 43 assists) Rangers have won more matches (18v16), won more at home (10v9), more away (8v7), conceded fewer goals (54v76), kept more clean sheets (14v6) and will certainly finish higher than last year’s thirteenth. If they were to win tomorrow it would be the fifteeth win since the turn of the year out of 24 games, equalling the club record which was set in 1930 (15/23), 1961 (15/24), 1976 (15/22) and 2003 (15/22).
Luton: Talking of progress, when QPR drew 1-1 at Luton three games out from the end of last season it felt like the Hatters were doomed. They were second bottom, two points adrift of safety, with third bottom Hull to play away that weekend knowing a defeat would probably relegate them. They won there, and again at home to Blackburn on the last day, and survived at the expense of the Tigers and Charlton. This season, Luton are guaranteed to finish no lower than twelfth. Only six sides have won more away than Luton’s nine and they come into this game with seven wins and three draws from their last 14 games. Over the final ten games of the season only Bournemouth (21), Watford (19) and Norwich (17) can rival QPR (19) and Luton (17) for points taken. This could, should, be a great game, and any QPR fans hoping that record of 15 wins will be equalled with ease should note Luton’s recent away form – the Hatters have won five of their last eight on the road, at Birmingham, Forest, Preston, Wycombe and Bristol City. The 1-0 wins at St Andrew’s, The City Ground and Deepdale are three of eight 1-0 wins they’ve achieved away from home in league and cup this year, and ten they’ve managed overall home and away. Luton have only scored 40 goals this season, with James Collins accounting for a quarter of those (two of them penalties and three of them in one game against PNE). Only Forest (36), Birmingham (35), Derby (33), Sheff Wed (37) and Wycombe (26) have scored fewer. Luton have failed to score on 19 occasions in the league this season. This will be Luton’s highest points total at this level since they won the second tier with 88 (QPR finished fifth with 69, giggidy). It also continues Nathan Jones' record of finishing higher year-on-year in each of his five seasons in charge across two spells.
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. For the final time let’s see what last season’s champion Mase offers us this week…
“Another game with a midtable side, and while the pressure may be slightly less than usual we haven't been easing up in recent weeks. What a brilliant chance to register our first positive goal difference in yonks, if we play anything like we did last weekend at Stoke we should do just that.
“The other great excitement is the battle for the 2020-21 Prediction League title which is almost as compelling as Rangers have been since January. All the best to the many of you still in with a chance - the albatross of having to predict every match in public means my defence this year has been as convincing as Liverpool's. Keep my crown warm for a revival in 2021-22, thanks to Clive for running such a wonderful site, and happy summer to all the LFW community.”
Mase’s Prediction: QPR 3-1 Luton. Scorer – Ilias Chair
LFW’s Prediction: QPR 2-1 Luton. Scorer – Charlie Austin
Pictures – Action Images
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When Saturday Comes #9 by wessex_exile
After the complete horror-show that was U’s v Salford last Saturday, we find ourselves desperately clinging on to our away form like a drowning man to a lifebuoy…and I have no doubt Tranmere will be seriously stamping on our fingers in that regard. As a Friday night kick-off, I can look forward to the live match stream, which I was fortunately spared for the Salford game (it sounded bad enough). Swings and roundabouts though, if this hadn’t been rearranged to a Friday night, I may well have joined my Tranmere mate Chris and his family for the weekend – Prenton Park is always a good visit for an awayday, so safe travelling and good luck to Durham and the rest of the U’s faithful who make the trip.
When Saturday Comes #8 by wessex_exile
I’ve gone back through my archive, and the last football match I attended before last Saturday at the County Ground was U’s at Cheltenham on 29th February 2020 (and covered in LfW11) – In other words a 574 day wait. Others have mentioned about finding other things to do, losing their love for live football, things like that, and certainly my bank balance has appreciated the break from costly awaydays for the best (worst) part of 18 months. If I’m honest, I was slightly worried that I would go the same way, that the attraction would fade after so long, but I needn’t have been. As a result, it’ll be a slightly different format to this When Saturday Comes blog.
When Saturday Comes #7 by wessex_exile
Well that didn’t go as planned at all – after a stirring battling performance full of grit, character and togetherness with the small band of travelling supporters at Barrow, the U’s then finally returned back to the JobServe and completely failed to turn up against bogey side Crawley. They weren’t the only ones either, Hayden Mullins was absent as well, and we have since learned he has Covid-19 and will also miss tomorrow’s game at Swindon too – I know we all wish Hayden a speedy recovery. Fortunately, I won’t be missing the match, with tickets arriving last weekend – first live game for best part of 18 months, and I can’t bloody wait!
When Saturday Comes #6 by wessex_exile
After over a month of absence, the U’s finally make a welcome return to the JobServe for a home league fixture. Sutton seem to have quickly got over their Covid-19/ injury crisis/ international call-up woes, fielding a team the following Tuesday that was strong enough to push Cardiff City hard in a narrow 3-2 defeat to the Championship side. But enough of that, I haven’t seen the outcome of the EFL investigation, but I don’t doubt the decision has either already been or will be rubber-stamped. Gamesmanship – maybe, but I hope at least the EFL are now a bit more alert to the fact that some might think they can treat them like chumps when it suits their purpose? Still – it’s great to be back home isn’t it!
When Saturday Comes #5 by wessex_exile
“Well, I can tell u my son was stood nearer the back of the Holker Street end and although he couldn't see who was responsible, he was disgusted and was very clear in telling me that the 'N' word was used by someone stood directly behind the goal nearer the front. I'm sick of hearing this, no one but the player being abused heard anything so maybe he was mistaken crap. This shite still exists despite everything that the authorities try to do because unfortunately there are still racists in every, city, town, village and hamlet in this country. [SwearFilter] scum of the earth.”
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