Coming full squared circle - Report
Sunday, 8th May 2022 14:12 by Clive Whittingham
QPR rounded off their season, and Mark Warburton's three-year tenure as manager, with a 1-0 away win at Swansea supplied by a late Andre Gray goal on his final appearance for the club.
There was a time when results were kind, when their defence was soft, and their goal inviting. There was a time, when Stroud was blind, and the fans were in song, and the song was exciting. There was a time. Then it all went… wrong.
The sun shines now. On Swansea - which has a beach, who knew? On the Queens Park Rangers fans, still travelling in number and voice that belies a dire three months in which built up hopes were horribly crushed. And on the QPR team, barely able to buy a win for weeks but well capable of knocking one out here as a matter of routine now the pressure is off. A nice way to end the reign of a popular manager, and the stints of several of his players, but nice is all it was, and an ending this certainly is. The only certainty of what lies beyond is it won’t be as good as this again for quite some time.
Rangers were the better team for the majority of game 46 in another long league campaign. Though he was often guilty of holding onto the ball for too long, and trying too much, they had the match’s outstanding player in Ilias Chair. The visitors thought they’d scored early when Lyndon Dykes’ flick gave George Thomas a run on the goal but his improvised, bobbling shot beat Andy Fisher in goal but dribbled agonisingly wide. I’m starting to think we’ll colonise Mars before he scores for QPR. Soon Chair was dribbling 590 miles on the circuitous tour of the Welsh valleys, eventually beating two men with one flourish, but overcooking the cross. When Sam McCallum got his centre more spot on Lyndon Dykes closed in at the back post and Ryan Manning appeared to palm the ball behind doing one of those exaggerated, shithouse attempts to win a free kick for very little which we became accustomed to when he was in our colours. Referee Steve Martin, great filmography, guessed at a corner from which Albert Adomah received the ball short, picked out Yoann Barbet at the back post, and the French defender was caught on his heels so missed the chance of a goal on what is almost certainly his farewell appearance. Ilias Chair saw a shot deflected a fraction wide of the top corner from an acute angle.
The second half started with a tame Luke Amos shot straight at Fisher, finished with substitute Andre Gray’s instinctive volley on the spin being blocked on the goal line, and included a fierce drive from Andre Dozzell which Fisher did well to watch all the way and hold in two gloves.
Swansea were… strange.
I could listen to Russell Martin talk about football all day, so rare to find such a thoughtful and intelligent guy with such interesting ideas outside the norm in such a backwards and arrogant sport, but I couldn’t stand more than 90 minutes twice a season of watching his team. Across 180 minutes this season they've scored zero - against our defence. They may well go onto be a force in this division. There’s already a lively forward line of former Southampton youngster Michael Obafemi and Joel Piroe – whose 20-goal haul in a bottom-half team would surely have attracted more attention but for the astonishing returns of Fulham’s Aleksander Mitrovic. Flynn Downes is notable too, and one would presume the forthcoming transfer window will be spent once more shifting expensive dead wood and introducing more suitable players to the style and system.
But I always feel there’s an element of the emperor’s new long johns about teams like this. I know it’s progressive, and I know it makes me a troglodyte and a dinosaur, but I could no more watch this every week than a Tony Pulis team playing wheeled cannon football. It’s commonly termed “playing out from the back” but the ‘out’ bit of that is doing some heavy lifting. Mostly it’s just playing at the back. It's dull as fuck. Swansea lost 5-1 at Nottingham Forest recently with 70% of the possession. Here they spent vast, vast, ungodly swathes of the game trying to perfect a goal kick routine where Fisher passes it short to his left, and then moves beyond the first man in the press to receive the return ball. Oooooh, well done lads, prize from the middle shelf. Several times they didn’t even manage to get this bit right, because they're doing it with a goalkeeper who isn't good enough, and Lyndon Dykes was able to hound him into mistakes and nervous punts into touch. On the occasions it did go well, more often than not the Swans used the success of working the ball into midfield to simply, slowly, painfully work it all the way back to Fisher again. Enormous chunks of possession and play and time is taken up in excess of 100 yards away from the goal they're meant to be scoring into. It looks, and feels, ridiculous, because it is. And even allowing for the dead rubber, end-of-season nature of the fixture, the Swansea fans sounded less than impressed with the nonsense. It was a very Warbs-friendly opponent to finish his time with us.
Don’t get me wrong, they could have won the game regardless. QPR’s defence has been creaking for weeks, and it would surely have shipped at least one more goal here but for the surprise return in goal of Seny Dieng for the first time since Blackburn away in Ferbaury. The difference he makes was stark from the start – suddenly we were able to bring the wing backs into play high up the field again, avoiding that ball-aching pisballing around among the back three courtesy of having a goalkeeper capable of pinging and accurate 50 yard pss to either wing, with either foot. He also made three excellent saves to maintain the integrity of the deadlock.
First he denied Christie on an angle in Swansea’s first meaningful attack of the game midway through the first half – Wolf netted the rebound but, contrary to what Martin said afterwards, had gone too early and was offside. Ten before the break Dion Sanderson’s unhappy loan spell concluded with him not only giving the ball away in a lousy area, but then getting comprehensively schooled by a subsequent backheel which opened all the space up again for Congreve to shoot and Dieng to sprawl and save off to the other side. No rebound this time, nor at the start of the second half when Christie dummied around Dykes in the area with embarrassing ease and surely had to score or square for Obafemi but for Dieng’s outstanding stop with his legs – Osman Kakay, on at half time for Anderson, once again highlighting concerns about his quality at this level by senselessly stepping out to play offside when everybody else had stuck fast in the build up. He played ok apart from that mind, and I do prefer him as that right centre back in a three as opposed to wing back where his poor passing and crossing gets exposed.
The game rather died a death after the hour, a more obvious nil nil I haven’t seen since Swansea bored us all to tears in the corresponding fixture at Loftus Road. Keeper holds it, holds it… holds it. The home side took off Piroe on 61, which was jolly nice of them, and sent on Oliver Ntcham, vowel please Carol. Actually, perhaps Joel Latibeaudiere could lend him one. Jamie Paterson, another what-might-have-been from QPR’s season, stepped up for a cameo that included one blocked shot from 20 yards out. Rangers, in turn, added Andres Gray and Dozzell for Thomas and Dykes and it was here the winning goal came from ten minutes from time. Sam McCallum’s arced ball down the line split the home defence way easier than it really should have done. Chair’s charge and selfless cut back put the only goal of the game on a silver platter for Gray who could hardly miss from eight yards out. He has scored ten for the season, one every 124 minutes, the best goals-to-minute ratio in the Championship bar the ridiculous Mitrovic and his Fulham teammate Rodrigo Muniz.
This is the carousel that QPR are going to go around and around and around on over the next few months.
A lovely goal, a welcome win, a team that used to see north of sixteenth as the moon, conceding 75+ goals a season as the norm, and grateful if it could get three away wins a season, now disappointed not to make the play-offs, finishing in the top half, and with this ninth win on the road – Warburton started with an away win at Stoke, finished with one here, only four teams in the league have won more away from home than QPR this season, and Sheff Utd have made the six with one fewer. That’s been possible because we’ve now got players like the ones involved in this goal, but Sam McCallum is a 21-year-old talent, on loan from Premier League Norwich, who we cannot hope to afford and is taking up a place ahead of a player we own; and Andre Gray is on north of £50,000-a-week at Watford, only plays well when he’s interested, and is completely out of our financial league – again, taking up a place ahead of players we own. Having pushed the boat out this season, holding onto our best players and adding some hefty contracts on top of them, and not got promoted, the priority is now once again getting some Eze-style money in for at least one of our current stars, while developing the next clutch of younger players we do own off the conveyer belt. You don’t do that by padding the team with expensive loans.
But… the next crop aren’t good enough. According to anybody who watches the U23s, according to the clubs of League One and Two that don’t want them on loan, and according to Mark Warburton who refused to entertain them even as bench options. I wondered here whether Warbs may leave all the injured players, all the loan players, and all the out of contract players, and go with a team of children, lose the game, and then drop the mic on the way out. I didn’t wonder for long, because it’s Warbs - not in a disrespectful way, first contact second balls - and he’s just never going to do that. But naming a Harry Redknapp-style bench of just five players, two of them goalkeepers, and refusing right down to the last to take any Aaron Drewe types, even just along for the ride on the last day, was as close to a “fuck you” as you’ll ever get from this integrity driven coach. I was surprised the first 11 was as strong as it was, but the bench was a pointed selection make no mistake – Warburton believes he has a good first team, all credit to the players, and nothing worth considering beyond it.
As relationships have deteriorated behind the scenes between the three groups - the manager and his staff, the Les Ferdinand-Chris Ramsey-Lee Hoos trio who run the club day-to-day, and the owners - so positions have become entrenched. Stephen Duke-McKenna may not make it, but he showed more than enough in the early part of the season to suggest he could be a useful bench player. Likewise Conor Masterson previously. Dom Ball made his 99th and final appearance for the club with a very accomplished performance here in the middle of a back three – relatively cheap, versatile, committed, fit, good age, I’d certainly be looking to retain him, but he’s been criminally underused in the second half of this season while loanees Dion Sanderson and Jeff Hendrick have waltzed back into the side time and time again after poor performances and bad errors. I felt the bench selection here was a bit petty, to be honest with you, and not for the first time majority shareholder Ruben Gnanalingam spent the afternoon liking a series of other people’s Tweets to the effect. But then a released list purging the squad of all the Warburton picks, whether they’ll be useful to us moving forwards or not, is as well. So is refusing to entertain a conversation with the out of contract players until the final week of the season, then releasing them via Zoom. Likewise saying publicly “conversations are ongoing” with several players when, in reality, offers so derisory are being made that those players could never possibly accept just so the club can say an offer was made and the player rejected it. Yoann Barbet and Dom Ball got a great reception from the travelling fans at the end, as they should have been afforded at Loftus Road last week. Both should be here next season. Neither will be.
Like I say, this is going to go around and around and around. If you want to push for the play-offs, Andre Gray and Sam McCallum on loan will help you do that, Aaron Drewe and Charlie Kelman won’t. But, if you want to develop players to sell, as the accounts show very clearly we have to do (it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity) then McCallum and Gray are taking up space and clogging the ‘pathways’ we’ve heard so much about. We need Drewe, Kelman and others to be playing, whether they’re good enough or not. Charley Kendall, a prolific academy goalscorer, is now carving up non-league at Eastbourne as their player of the year and already has a league move back to Lincoln in the bag – he left, like Josh Laurent back in the day, because he didn’t believe those pathways existed. McCallum, a Premier League loanee, won the young player of the year award in a season where only Murphy Mahoney has come from the academy to make serious first team appearances, and even that only in desperation in a busted season once two 37-year-olds had been hauled out of retirement first. That’s a dreadful look for a club that needs to be developing players. But, the players we own aren’t good enough. That academy system has not produced players of the quantity and quality we need. The club has no choice but to pick them, but the manager knows the results will suffer and he’ll get the sack if we do. Round and around and around and around we go.
It's a hell of a circle to square, and it makes this now vacant managerial position a very risky one for whoever decides to take it on. If you’re Liam Manning, reputation burgeoning at MK Dons, are you going to risk torching your career by taking this, if not impossible, then certainly highly difficult situation on? Supporters who see QPR, if not as a Premier League club, then certainly one that should be challenging at the top end of this division, are not going to take kindly to going back from this season of hope and push to scratching around with the Rotherhams and Wigans of this league next season while kids of questionable quality learn on our time. The raising of season ticket prices, after this end to the campaign, amidst a cost of living crisis, will only exacerbate the toxicity of the situation at Loftus Road if it doesn’t go really well, really quickly when we return to competitive action in July. Les Ferdinand, who’s come this far without serious criticism or opposition, certainly from the match-going fans at least as opposed to the Twitterati, will be in the firing line for the first time, and like I say if you read the accounts it’s not a choice, nor his fault, it’s just the realities of the financial situation we’re in.
We had a dream our life would be, so different from this hell we’re living. So different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream, we dreamed.
Swansea: Fisher 5; Christie 7, Latibeaudiere 7 (Smith 65, 6), Naughton 6, Manning 5; Grimes 6, Downes 6; Congreve 6 (Paterson 61, 6), Piroe 6 (Ntcham 61, 6), Wolf 6; Obafemi 6
Subs not used: Fulton, Hamer, Abdulai, Cotterill
QPR: Dieng 7; Adomah 6, Sanderson 5 (Kakay 46, 6), Ball 7, Barbet 6, McCallum 7; Amos 5, Field 6, Thomas 6 (Gray 64, 7); Dykes 6 (Dozzell 64, 6), Chair 8
Subs not used: Walsh, Mahoney
Goals: Gray 80 (assisted Chair)
QPR Star Man – Ilias Chair 8 Actually a good deal of debate about this as we took in the afternoon sun around Swansea marina. Dom Ball was really excellent in the middle of the defence, and there’s great narrative there, and with Seny Dieng whose saves kept the score level and distribution made a colossal difference to us. Ilias, meanwhile, was at times guilty of hogging the ball and not playing an earlier pass or cross when it was on. But, he was the outstanding outfield player on either team, and his assist in the end put the winning goal on a plate for Gray, so it’s difficult to look too far past him.
Referee – Steve Martin (Beverly Hills) 6 End of term dead rubber, two tippy tappy teams, lots of excellent young boys, lots of academy education, I reckon I’d have been able to referee this myself - bar Ryan Manning's repertoire of attempted con jobs. Still, caught too central and too far behind play, failing to look through the game towards his linesman, he was forced to guess at a number of cor goal kick-style penalty nox decisions, with the inevitable errors that will always occur when you do that.
Attendance – 18,608 (600 QPR approximately) There was once a dream that was Rome.
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