Blinking into the sunlight - Column
Sunday, 10th Jul 2022 21:44 by Clive Whittingham
In what feels like a ridiculously short period of time since the end of last season, Queens Park Rangers were back in pre-season action at Crawley Town this weekend.
Almost as soon as we were gone, we were back again. From watching the sun set on Swansea Bay wondering what just happened, to baking in the heat at the end of the Gatwick Airport runway questioning whether we’re ready to do this all over anew. It feels like barely 20 minutes has passed, which given how last season ended is not nearly long enough. I’d got to the point where I never wanted to see Queens Park Rangers again, and I’m not sure that has dissipated as I watch them slink back into my life using the key to the back door I forgot I’d left them with.
July is not for football. Certainly not this early in July. There’s a natural order and rhythm to these things. The die-hards need time to recover, both will and bank accounts, and get ready to “go again” as the social media managers call it. We need time to start missing our beau - at this stage it’s still too close to last season’s chapter in the abusive relationship for us not to still think he’s actually a bit of a twat for letting us down so comprehensively once more.
Tennis. We do tennis for a bit now. Chuckling at the murderous pomposity as some “notorious rebel” turns up in a tracksuit top out of keeping with Wimbledon etiquette. Then the golf. Always the golf. Down to Maureen at the thirteenth green to whisper very, very, very quietly into the boom mic about a putt that’s up, and on its way, and travelling well, and breaking right to left just as we thought it might, and INTO THE HOLE to continue the fairytale prospect of this millionaire 24-year-old from Gated Complex, Florida, adding a major to that gold statue of a journalist’s severed head he got for winning the Saudi Invitational last month. Then, just at the point you conclude this is all “a bit shit”, it’s time for football. And not until.
Sadly, football’s latest decision to debase itself by smothering the chosen few in greasy oil/blood money and host a World Cup in a desert so hot it’s fine only to build stadiums up to and beyond the point of your own death, but certainly not to actually play in them at that temperature stupid are you mad, means we’re going to have to get used to a lot of change to our first world problems of natural order and rhythm this season. Nobody’s forcing you to go to Crawley – come on now mum, we both know that’s not true. Still, there’s strong imposter syndrome for a group of football fans shuffling onto the Thameslink with their train beers amidst the kids preparing for their big day out in Brighton by sucking a thirty second high out of a balloon, and holiday makers excitedly rushing to join the back end of a four-hour queue for security at Gatwick Airport. This is not our time or our place, we’re the twats on the train in the winter, there are summer twats here now. It’s like we’ve stumbled in from The Upside Down clutching four Peronis, and given how much money that franchise is making for Netflix don’t rule out one of these trips forming the basis for Stranger Things 17.
There’s nothing like a glamour friendly to blow away all that weary cynicism. With the bits of Crystal Palace that aren’t travelling to Australia, Wealdstone Raiders and two German teams I’d never heard of but were at a loose end still to come, summer peaks early with the game of the day at Crawley Town. We pick our way along the narrow lanes, through the hordes of tourists enjoying the characterful cobbled streets and independent off licenses of the Roman old town in this hidden Sussex gem, to reach a ground three parts football stadium to one part golf stand. The pitches over the road, literally on their doorstep, are festooned with Chelsea branding, which highlights the challenge every club that isn’t One Of Them has in the modern game. Crawley’s attempt to solve that problem is chucking their lot in with the crypto bros.
The fractured model of community assets being passed from one incompetent rich tosser to another has once more brought back into focus by the sad farce of Laurence Bassini taking time out from threatening ladyboys with a button mushroom to twiddle his micro-penis in the direction of Birmingham City. A new, different, third way would be most welcome, but with third strips only available with the purchase of a £300+ NFT/JPG, and business being conducted from America by means of a cartoon devil running Twitter polls on whether the next signing should be a goal shooter or a net minder, I can’t ever recall willing a harmless lower league club to fail quite as spectacularly as I hope this lot do. It feels important that this doesn’t work, but is that just me being a miserable old git writing off something that could be a positive change from football clubs reliant on the whims of one rich bloke? An initial “mint” claims to have raised in excess of £3m over one weekend – gamechanging stuff for any club at League Two level.
Other early signs aren’t good – recent crypto-crash and the cost of ink cartridges means they’ve only been able to print the home kit out in black and white, and there’s no change strip for the keeper either which means when he springs from his line to catch a first half cross in both gloves at the far end of the field I initially mistake it for a bold move by one of the centre backs. Still, they’ve picked up last season’s divisional top scorer Dom Telford from Newport on a handy free transfer, and a frankly ludicrous 1,300 QPR fans turning up at a tenner a time won’t hurt – might have been even more still without the slightly weird pre-match assertion that if you hadn’t bought in advance (for a pre-season friendly at Crawley?) there would only be 58 tickets left for sale on the day (for a pre-season friendly at Crawley?) which might have put off one or two.
Insert paragraph about how little you can tell from pre-season games, particularly this early in the summer, and how they’re essentially glorified fitness exercises. There’s a geezer down the terrace from me who doesn’t agree, taking it all very seriously indeed. I bet he’s fun at parties/home games.
There are no hard and fast rules for seasons bleeding into each other. Huddersfield Town finished 2020/21 so poorly, and spent that summer recruiting so weirdly, that I had them down as a relegation candidate only for them to end up one comprehensive Jon Moss bed-shitting away from promotion to the Premier League. But I’d always rather have the momentum and confidence than not – QPR flew through last summer outplaying Man Utd and Leicester having finished the previous year so strongly, and what turned out to be arguably their best performance all season was in those opening games, up at Boro. Despite a change of manager, there’s a significant risk of hangover from the disaster the season turned into not only because of the scale of the collapse from February onwards but also because good money and FFP headroom was used up on the recruitment for that team to try and push for promotion, this is threatening to be the third transfer window without a big money sale, and so there isn’t budget space to do major surgery on this team. It’s going to be much the same lads going again, with whatever demons they may or may not be carrying around having gone from the fourth best team in the division to a record worse even than Peterborough’s almost overnight.
What we’re looking for, then, is what can be changed and has been changed. Straight away it’s a back four, and although Michael Beale is currently keeping it vague about the potential to use a three, it’s very clear from everything we know about him that he prefers it like this. Jordy De Wijs has gone, Jake Clarke-Salter is clearly the new manager’s man, and that puts one of the other centre backs on notice. Rob Dickie starts here, Jimmy Dunne makes do with a second half with the second string. Like the rest of the team, Dunne’s first half to last season was considerably better than his second, and if Beale’s research to this point began and ended with “I watched the last 20 games of last season on holiday” then he’s going to have seen more of the Dunne who started doing that weird thing where he wafts his foot over the top of the ball at inopportune moments than Dunne would probably care for. Mind you, given Clarke-Salter’s injury record, perhaps this is a moot point – a mighty climb and defensive header followed by a quick land and sprint out to brilliantly block the follow up shot, then powerful charge out to the left flank to complete the recovery impresses the QPR fans behind the goal – but something pings in his knee and he hobbles through to half time. From what we know, that’s what we’ve bought.
It was noticeable that Conor Masterson was used as the CDM screen in the second half, rather than at centre back. More intriguingly, and probably more relevant to the team for day one, Sam Field was much further forward in the set up first half than he ever had been last season, and he gets the first goal of the game with a stretchy header from a corner. Mild panic on the terrace as they realise they don’t have a Sam Field song – they go with the Rob Dickie one instead, because they’re both tall boys. A more dynamic, forward-thinking Sam Field could be an exciting prospect for 2022/23.
Kenneth Paal, as small as Ilias Chair, starts at left back and really looks the part. He doesn’t position himself like many conventional left backs I’ve ever seen. Sort of three steps further in field and three steps further forward than I’m used to. It cuts off all sorts of passing lanes to overlapping runners, and when he gets the ball he can stare right the way down the channel between wingers and central midfielders, full backs and centre backs, to the far end of the field, and set off at pace through that chasm. This won’t escape opposition video review for long but could be fun while it lasts. One spiralling midfield bomb is pulled out of the air with a touch like velvet – applause.
The passing is noticeably, palpably more aggressive, attacking and forwards than it had been at the back end of last season. It’s all probing through balls in between and in behind the oppo defence. Tyler Roberts shows why he’s been signed, excelling at this. George Thomas is sent screaming through on goal for the ten thousandth time in his QPR career and we still await his first goal. Illy is here, Willy is not, both look like they’re going to enjoy this. Big Lyndon, however, is ineffective again.
Still, it’s the first game of pre-season, and it’s hotter than the sun. How long did you put this in for Lynn? Neil Banfield’s choc-ice cooler does brisk business in one of several drinks breaks. Nice to see Dickie ignoring the Madri hype and sticking with the Moretti.
At half time Crawley bring on new goalkeeper Corey Addai, once briefly in Arsenal’s academy and bigger than the planet Jupiter. About as good at football too if QPR’s second goal is anything to go by – extended, gratuitous, needless pisballing about eventually encouraging half time introduction Macauley Bonne to take the ball from him and sand-wedge it into the unguarded net. When walking contract extension Mide Shodipo teleports in from 2016 and produces a purposeful run and low cross Bonne is there for 3-0 and if he could just stop sending dick pics to Ipswich Town for two minutes and have a look around he’d see that QPR aren’t blessed with a lot of strikers, a lot of money to buy new strikers, and one of the other strikers they do have is playing like a bit of a tart. Enthusiasm for a second coming of the former Charlton man is tempered during a round of celebratory Jaffa Cakes, however, when he heads one sitter straight at the keeper and botches another one on one by needlessly running, wait for it, you’ll never believe, into an offside position.
He's one of 11 changes made at half time and is the big winner along with Shodipo. The losers make up a shambolic defence. I’ll stick up slightly for Travelman Hamalainen slightly on the first goal because having chased the ball down really well into the Crawley penalty box and then won it back fairly (at least according to the linesman three feet away) from a harassed Crawley defender who took a dive as a last resort, referee Tim Robinson took one of his typically easy and lazy get out of hard work free kick awards which Crawley promptly larruped straight into the space Hamalainen had vacated to put the pressure on. One cross and fumble about later and it was 3-1 thanks to Tilley. That felt harsh. But there’s no getting away from the fact that he got rather a chasing from one Rem Oteh, which tells you a lot, and was pretty poor in contribution to an equalising third goal from Adebowale. Is there a club in the Maldives short of a left back perhaps? In between those calamities Osman Kakay gave a ball away sloppily to further damage his own flagging cause, and Conor Masterson swooped in with a Full Barbet that allowed Tom Nichols to roll in a second from the penalty spot.
Against a team by this point made up largely of trialists, QPR had, for whatever it’s worth at this stage, collapsed from 3-0 to 3-3. Scratch the surface, and there isn’t a lot beneath our first choice 11. One for Beale to take away and chew on. “I was thankful for the 20 minutes at the end because it shows me the reality of the work we’ve got to do”. Well, quite. QPR Twitter takes it all in the calm and reasoned stride you'd expect.
He says he’s changed mum. We’ll see.
QPR: Walsh (Mahoney, 46), Paal (Travelman, 46), Clarke-Salter (Gubbins, 46), Dickie (Dunne), Adomah (Kakay, 46), Johansen (Dozzell, 46), Field (Masterson, 46), Thomas (Owens, 46), Chair (Shodipo, 46), Roberts (Kelman, 46), Dykes (Bonne 46).
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Pictures – Action Images
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