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The season that was - Preview
Friday, 3rd May 2024 19:42 by Clive Whittingham

As QPR, unbelievably, head to Coventry on the final day safe and secure, LFW looks back at a tumultuous two years at the football club, and the lessons it must learn to make the most of the potential it now has to move forwards.

Coventry (17-13-15 LLDLDL 9th) v QPR (14-11-20 WLDLWW 17th)

Mercantile Credit Trophy >>> Saturday May 4, 2024 >>> Kick Off 12.30 >>> Weather – Drier and sunnier after soggy Friday >>> Whatever they’re calling it now, Junction 3, M6

It was a season that began, for Queens Park Rangers, with a goal conceded.

Just 20 seconds into the opening game Rangers were 1-0 down – a game they kicked off. An afternoon that began with gales of laughter from the travelling thousands, once they’d seen the starting XI selection, quickly blew out into a 4-0 half time lead for hosts Watford. It would have easily made double figures had they not called the dogs off for the second half. At full time manager Gareth Ainsworth said his team might have just played the champions elect. In fact, it was one of only six home wins the Hornets would register all season (only Rotherham have won fewer at home) and if results fall the right way on tomorrow’s final day then QPR will finish level on points with them.

It was, to a certain extent, always going to be like this. QPR had preached and promised to its support base, for years, a new era of sustainability and common sense, no longer lashing out money it didn’t have on the sort of wanker footballers and their associated hangers on that had torched their most recent, and possibly last, chance to consolidate themselves as a top flight club. Then, with a big money deal for golden goose Ebere Eze banked, they set about ignoring themselves. Four decent months buoyed by some decent loan signings, at a point when the government had locked us all in our homes and games were effectively being played in neutral venues, was enough for the club to start spending again. On transfer fees, on wages, and on players like Andre Gray, Stefan Johansen and Charlie Austin who were, however well or badly it went, dead money – expensive dead money at that. Again and again and again they chose a short term option like Lee Wallace or Jeff Hendrick over the better long term health and development of the team. A wage bill they’d fought so hard to drag down, from north of £80m p/a at its height to well under £20m, started to creep back up towards £30m again. The dreaded three letters CEO Lee Hoos had promised would never again be a problem on his watch, FFP, started to stalk the corridors of Loftus Road once more.

When the promotion they’d attempted to push for under Mark Warburton collapsed, and the manager was moved on amidst oh so many backroom arguments and decaying relationships, the situation was still recoverable. While the form of some players clubs had been interested in signing the previous summer had declined (Chair, Dickie), and the fitness of others would put off buyers (Willock, Dieng), there were still sellable assets there. Instead, blinded by the ‘get you in the room’ PowerPoint presentation of self-assured novice manager Mick Beale, they doubled down. Beale told a meeting of fan sites he’d only agreed to come on the proviso Chair, Willock and Dieng weren’t sold. If it’s true – and who can ever tell with Honest Mick? – that should have been the end of the interview. This was exactly the point we should have been selling. This was exactly the point we had to sell. Instead, we hung tight, devalued what assets we had still further, and spent a whole load more money on recruitment Beale drove – a disastrous summer of awful permanent and loan signings, of which only Kenneth Paal could be counted as any kind of moderate success. Beale fucked off to Rangers, having courted Stoke and Wolves prior, and the team downed tools without him. They were incredibly fortunate not to be relegated, at one point winning one of 23 games (half a season), saved only by miraculous wins at Burnley and Stoke in the final three games and points deductions elsewhere. Another loss in excess of £20m was recorded.

Now you really were in the shit.

You had a dysfunctional team, inadequate in every department, made up of players who didn’t want to be here, players that weren’t good enough for the level, absolute cunts, and, in some cases, a combination of all three. Major surgery was required, but the FFP headroom required to do that had been spent and, in fact, what few good players remained would have to be offloaded at whatever we could get for them to avoid a breach, a points deduction, a transfer embargo… a Reading, basically. Dickie and Dieng, once sought after Championship talents attracting serious interest from Leeds and Everton, were bombed out to Bristol City and Middlesbrough at cost.

This would have been a tough inheritance for any manager. QPR had tried to counter it with a lazy pull on the nostalgia lever, hoping the feel-good factor of Gareth Ainsworth’s return to the club, and his record of getting results with no resources and his back to the wall at Wycombe, would overcome the difficulties Rangers faced. In fact, it made things worse. It remains absolutely astonishing to me that QPR weren’t relegated in 2023, and that they were able to win not only at Burnley but Stoke the week after. With that team, and that manager, it’s a footballing miracle. The 6-1 defeat at Blackpool was much more typical, and is as bad as I’ve ever seen in 30 years of support. In a summer meeting with fan sites a week before the Watford game Ainsworth said openly to the room “there’s always one team that gets whacked four or five nil on the opening day, and I just hope it’s not us.” A week prior to that, in the annual pre-season manager interview with LFW, he’d been frank off mic about the state of what he was working with, about a constant battle to get players to buy in, about players being given second/third/fourth chances on the pre-season tour of Austria and “tossing it off”.

There is, fairly, a good deal of sympathy, at least among the older generations of the QPR support, for Ainsworth. He was well liked as a player here in a great team, it was obvious for a decade that he was desperate to come back here and manage, he left a job for life to do it and he did so at the worst possible point of QPR’s recent history. If you didn’t feel bad, watching him decay before our eyes in the weekly YouTube interviews, you’ve got the heart of the tin man. His inheritance here was bleak. Les Ferdinand, Lee Hoos and Amit Bhatia, who’d all been involved to one extent or another in making the decisions that led QPR into that insidious position, all walked away from the consequences citing variations of fan negativity, family coming first, time for change etc when the truth was they’d fucked it.

Ferdinand and Hoos, everything they stood for holed below the waterline by that 2021 overspend and double down for Beale the summer after. All their ‘development club’ bluster summed up by an academy that didn’t have one boy capable of filling in for a striker as poor as Lyndon Dykes for six weeks, so they had to go and get Chris Martin on a free instead. Neither position tenable once ownership had, not for the first time, taken the keys off them and parachuted in a manager in Ainsworth who ran so counter to what they were meant to be doing one member of staff had previously said to me “and that’s why you don’t hire Gareth Ainsworth” when explaining the whole ethos of the operation. Les, in particular, knew what was coming, what signings would be made, how the team would perform under Gareth, how the fans would react to that, and bailed. They left Ainsworth to manage an apparently unmanageable team, a product of consecutive botched transfer windows and manager appointments, and us to traipse around after it knowing full well what was coming – not even allowed 20 seconds of the first game of the season before all our worst fears started coming true.

That all said, at this level and this club, Ainsworth was a manager so far out of his depth he could have dipped his toe in the earth’s core. He’ll have earned good money from QPR, in wage and pay off, and it wasn’t much fun travelling a broken country and forking over hard earned cash to watch his team. By the end it had lost six in a row, won two of its first 14 matches, and in games at West Brom and Leeds, late in his reign, apparently abandoned all hope and idea of even crossing the halfway line, never mind scoring a goal, or winning an actual match. We spent eight hours battling storm, flood and rail collapse to get to Huddersfield and were 2-0 down after ten minutes. Afterwards Gareth said it had statistically been one of our best showings. Huddersfield were relegated with a game to spare.

The team was bad, no question at all about that, but was it really as bad as it performed in the 4-0 loss at home to Blackburn Rovers? That, another game where the scoreline could have been at least twice as bad had the opposition not spent the final half hour pisballing about. Blackburn, too, can still be relegated if results go against them tomorrow lunchtime.

Enter Marti Cifuentes, exactly as we’d predicted in our FourFourTwo season preview, in exactly the week we predicted it would happen – Rotherham away (look, when you talk as much bollocks as we do on here you’ve got to take the dick swinging opportunities when they come). I’ve seen, if not criticism, then some downplaying of the Spaniard’s impact. Ainsworth so bad, his style so extreme and unsuited to QPR, that all you had to do was come in, be a bit calmer, get the ball on the ground a bit more, get an arm around Chris Willock (who Ainsworth had ostracised) and reap the rewards. I, perhaps needless to say, do not subscribe to this school of thought. To be surviving with a game to spare, winning at Leicester, beating Leeds 4-0, is astonishing versus what the home and awayers were suffering through in the autumn. Eight of the players involved at Elland Road, where QPR set up like a League Two team just happy to have a plum cup tie and a big day out, played last Friday when Rangers absolutely dismantled Daniel Farke’s promotion chasers in one of the best performances for ten years or more.

There have been plenty of blips and mistakes along the way. An early flurry of results was derailed by too much rotation and a start for Charlie Kelman in what would turn out to be a crucial home game with Plymouth where the visitors, another who may go down tomorrow, played for an hour with ten men. That Saturday the decision to evacuate the midfield and add more centre backs to see out a lead at Sheff Wed, which would at that stage have put the Owls 12 points behind Rangers, backfired horribly and kickstarted an unlikely survival bid in South Yorkshire that for so long looked like it might come at our expense. Two lousy defeats to Danny Rohl’s side have been the difference between them staying up and going down, and they’re not the only rival struggler Cifuentes’ QPR have treated. A 1-0 loss at Stoke, who were utter garbage and all set to sack Steven Schumacher if they’d lost, was another low point that sparked a run enough to maintain their divisional status and place ours in peril. We have given at least one point, and in Sheff Wed’s case six, to every one of the seven teams below us in the table.

This was always likely, as a new manager learning about the squad of players he’d inherited mid-season and a new league he’d never been in before, but also because of the state of the team Cifuentes took over here. We were mostly willing to give Ainsworth a pass because of what he inherited, Cifuentes was presented with that plus what Ainsworth had done with it. It’s a team with, statistically, the third worst goalkeeper in the league (who Ainsworth lauded as some sort of Bosnian God) and the second worst collection of strikers behind Rotherham’s. We complete the season with Lyndon Dykes (six), Michy Frey (one) and Sinclair Armstrong (three) barely making double figures between them, against Coventry who have two centre forwards on 19 and haven’t made the play-offs. Cifuentes has found a way to get a tune out of them regardless. The performances against West Brom and Leeds did not look possible from this group of players just a few short months ago. When we played Leicester at home we got complaints that our prediction league would only go up to 10-0 – by the time we played the reverse fixture we were capable of going there and winning. Steve Cook and Jake Clarke-Salter have grown into the third best centre half pairing in the league by the numbers. We’ve gone from the worst team in the division for offensive and defensive set pieces, to the best in the last dozen games – seven of QPR’s last 11 goals have been from dead balls. Sam Field has four goals in ten games, after five in 194 across his career. Jimmy Dunne’s a right back now father. The improvement, across the board, individually and collectively, has been astonishing.

The thing that has impressed me most about Cifuentes is the pragmatism.

Both regular readers will know I bang on a hell of a lot about the importance of culture, identity and ethos in team sports. You have to know who you are, or at least who you’d like to be, before you can go anywhere. What does a QPR team look like, to you, in an ideal world? Once you know that you recruit, retain and pick your team into that. It stops you doing things like, say, going from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Ian Holloway. It stops you then taking another violent swerve in the opposite direction to Steve McClaren, and then letting him come in and tear up all your summer transfer plans in favour of loaning some proven “men” he knows. But you do have to be adaptable and nimble within that. When you entrench yourself in your philosophy to the point you’d rather lose the game than deviate from it, when you’re talking about scoring two beautiful goals and if the opposition want to beat you by scoring three scruffy ones then that’s up to them, then you become Russell Martin, who has, once again this season, taken a club and team with every possible resource and player you could ever possibly need to piss this league up the wall, and turned it into a nervous end that may yet come up completely short.

Cifuentes ascribes to Cruyffian football, and likes to play 4-3-3. QPR don’t have the players to do it. You’ve got two choices: stubbornly stick to 4-3-3 and Cruyff values, coat the players off for not being able to do it and demand the club sign you some who can; or work with what you’ve got. 4-2-3-1, Sam Field on the pitch for his impact at set pieces, Isaac Hayden on the bench, no midfield pivot, is not Cruyffian football. Jimmy Dunne at right back because your ancient goalkeeper can’t play from the back and needs a chipped ball to get him out of the shit is not Cruyffian football. A defence sitting deep to cope with Steve Cook’s lack of pace… and so on. Cifuentes, time and again, has found a solution to the problems rather than being consumed by them. Strikers who can't score? Don't worry about it, the centre backs can do that. The work he’s done here this season has been little short of superb – bar Kieran McKenna’s remarkable Ipswich story, and an even bigger rescue job of an even bigger basket case at Hillsborough by Danny Rohl, the best performance by any boss in this league this season.

There is, at last, it seems, hope to be had again in the People’s Republic of Shepherd’s Bush. It has been a dire, soul destroying two years. Fans so desperate for something, anything, to cling to, have flocked back to Loftus Road in their thousands. Yes, to support the team in an hour of need, but, also, because they can see, sense and smell something brewing with this manager. They like him, they like his football. Both feel very QPR. The sold out signs are up, home and away, week after week. I spent last summer dreading the season, despairing at how quickly the days were slipping by, how fast that Watford game was looming up on us. Now I’m quite excited and interesting about what this management, and strength/conditioning/fitness team led by Ben Williams, can do with a full summer.

The worst of the FFP situation, as long as we haven’t breached this season, is also now over and has been survived. Just as the Eze sale rolled out of our three-year calculation for this season making it difficult, so the 2021/22 overspend rolls out of next year’s freeing up more headroom. Several big earners, led by Asmir Begovic, will come off the wage bill. There is a new Sky TV deal which, while horrendous for the match going supporter, will provide a 40% increase in income relative to what we were receiving. There remains the distinct possibility that the sort of Newcastle or Tottenham type, who could easily have bought Ebere Eze from us for £20m when his talent was blatantly fucking obvious, may now pay upwards of £60m for him this summer with a sell-on rumoured at anywhere up to 20%. The cool boy with the dreadlocks saving QPR all over again. The team needs surgery, priorities in goal and up front, but unlike last summer there are some resources to do that with.

Here's the annual LFW note of caution. QPR are like an errant child. You think you’ve got them settled, they’ve gone quiet and calm for ten minutes, then you walk back into the room and the police are there. What happened? Tried to shoot the chairman. Hit someone in the bus queue with a rock. Where’s Jude gone? He’s been naughty with one of the other mummies. Who’s that? It’s Julio Cesar. Where did he come from? Uncle Tony got him for me. Did he.

QPR are a danger to themselves when they’re optimistic and self-congratulatory. It’s always just before things blow up on them. Cifuentes’ rescue job has covered up a multitude of issues at an often chaotic organisation that inflicted every single one of the problems the team has had over the last two years on itself, through mismanagement, through incompetence, through hubris, complacency, arrogance… Into that environment has stepped a 26-year-old CEO who is, to one extent or another, learning on the job. Great start, no doubt, and nice to have somebody proactive after a period of time when the incumbent had felt a little checked out, to say the least. But it’s a big job, there is much to do here, and he intends to combine the CEO and DOF roles himself as a more continental style “football focused CEO”.

The only time we’re more dangerous than when we think we’ve got it all licked, is when we’ve got money. Mule with a spinning wheel - no one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it. A big Eze sale could, once again, provide us with a warchest. Last time it did, we declared war on ourselves.

We must, must, must learn from how we got into this mess in the first place. Everybody has got their favourite scapegoat for the last two years, and we’ve had a pop at a few of them in this piece – Ferdinand, Hoos, Beale, Ainsworth, Bhatia – but the fact is the whole thing is ultimately driven by the owners, and they remain the same. They’ve shown you, several times now, that for all the talk about running the club properly and sustainably and learning from mistakes, first chance they get, every time, they’ll start feeding the social media hunger for more signings, more wages, more blood. All that long term planning and thinking goes out of the window, and Stefan Johansen gets a three-year contract. You have, with players like Colback (came good just when we needed him), Cook (player of the year by far) and Frey (just you keep applying that WD40), already started spending next year’s budget by offering them multi-year contracts with a low wage in year one to get them here in the first place.

There will be signings (it’s QPR, of course they’ll sign somebody, Dave McIntyre™) and there need to be signings. We shouldn’t let the uptick that has saved our Championship status distract us from the deficiencies of a team that has, for the second year running, come mighty close to being relegated. But the signings should be forward thinking, medium and long term, and we should absolutely not work ourselves into another position where, without a promotion we’re unlikely to get or a player sale that’s proving tough in the post-Covid market, we’re fucked all over again two seasons from now.

Chris Willock has only had to upturn to the tune of one goal (against Rotherham) in 23 matches for people to be talking about pushing the boat out to get him to stay. He’s been offered contracts by QPR at numerous points during his time here, big spending Hull were very keen to take him in January, at every turn his reps have made it clear they’re looking for the sort of highly lucrative free transfer move this summer that Ryan Manning has made a career on. You start pushing the boat out to keep players like that and we’re back at the Austin and Johansen scenario that got us here.

Likewise, while there is enormous potential under Marti Cifuentes, who as you can tell I think is brilliant, that doesn’t mean we go all in on signing whoever and however he wants. You recruit players to that style and ideal, so that when he leaves you appoint a similar manager and don’t have to tear your team up, but you don’t go out and sign a whole load of people he’s worked with before on his say so. Otherwise, again, you’re just making the mistakes we did under Warburton and Beale that got us to this point.

It's been a torturous, excruciating two seasons, with an exhilarating and exciting end. I can, at long last, see light at the end of the longest footballing tunnel. QPR’s takeaway from it all should be one of humility, humbleness, acknowledgement of just how close they came to a complete meltdown, and lessons finally learned about how and why it all happened. Optimism and excitement is understandable, fine, justified, and long overdue. We all desperately need coming to QPR to be a pleasurable, exciting experience again. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion, message and aim to take into this summer, for the club at least, should not be one of ‘everything’s fine now, clear path ahead to sunlit uplands and nothing to worry about’. It should be, very firmly, Never, Ever Again.

Links >>> Set piece improvement – Analysis >>> More Wembley heartache – Oppo profile >>> The Copa De Ibiza – History >>> Smith in charge – Referee >>> Coventry City — Official Website >>> Coventry Telegraph — Local Press >>> Sky Blues Talk — Forum >>> Sky Blues Blog — Blog >>> Sideways Sammy — Blog >>> The Lonely Season — Blog >>> Sky Blues TV - Classic Match Highlights >>> Access All Areas — Podcast

It’s customary in this bit of the final preview to say a few thankyous to those who have dragged me through this latest nine months of 16-hour days and Tuesday nights in the Premier Inn without me being dead by the end of it. It’s been a close call once or twice. Good job Stoke railway station doesn’t have a fast through line that’s all I can say.

To Alex Perry, Saffa Michail, Danny Paddox, Dan Lambert, Andrew Scherer, Jordan Foster, Dave Barton, Jack Supple and everybody who has written columns, match reports and content for us this season, or filled in for me at dreadful 3-0 defeats at Hull with such good humour and clean copy, massive thanks. We’re always looking for new contributors, if you fancy it let me know. There’s some beer money on offer, plus all the glamour, girls, groupies etc that obviously come with this gig.

To Andy and Jas who run the Patreon and edit its content so brilliantly. There will be an end of season review on there next week, and we’ve taken the possibly foolhardy decision to record the debate over what marks to give in the end of term reports which we’ll put on there as long as it’s legally sound enough to do so and hasn’t turned into the complete bloodbath of the 2019 end of season barbecue – don’t go raking over old graves. The only reason LFW still exists is that Patreon, if you subscribe know that without you I’d have packed this up long ago. If you can help out, lowest tier is £2.50 a month. Without it there is no site, the Patreon is its lifeblood. Download the app and sling us a couple of quid if you like what we do.

To Jimmy and all the staff at The Crown and Sceptre, who tolerate us in return for a full percentage point on their turnover, and to everybody who sits round those tables with me every week. The best people, in the best pub, following the best club. Love you all. Simmo, in particular, for writing the jokes people actually laugh at. James and Josh, for all those 90's footballer conspiracy theories - keep chasing those chem trails Matt.

And to you, both regular readers. Thank you for the kind comments and support throughout the most trying of seasons. I thought last week’s match report was lazy, hackneyed, tired rubbish – if short of an idea, wheel out the dead dad stuff again. It went off, and there have been so many kind comments this week it’s proved a much-needed boost at the end of a long year. Thank you for that, and your engagement throughout– though, please, understand that by the time it gets to March, the toss I give over whether Lyndon Dykes is a 6 or a 7 is so infinitesimal there hasn’t been a microscope invented or built at any point in history powerful enough to find it.

Look forward to that debate, and more, again next season, which will be my 20th doing LoftforWords. Twenty years of casual cunting. Where did it all go? The time, the beer… the hair.

Below the fold

Team News: One of the big pluses through the second half of the season has been the lack of injuries QPR have suffered to first team players – vital, given the lack of depth in the squad. Ben Williams’ comments at the start of the season about being deliberately underdone for start, a strategy that looked highly questionable when the R’s kept hitting the wall after an hour of the early games, as they built up to better long term fitness has proven true. A start here for Jake Clarke-Salter will give him 30 league starts in a season for the first time in his career, and his overall record of 30 (4) would better his previous best of 29 (2) that he managed with Coventry in 2021/22. Whether Cifuentes chooses to do that, or give a chance to some of the fringe players, remains to be seen. Pop psychology based on brief clips on YouTube suggests the manager has cultivated a good relationship with the likes of Morgan Fox, Ziyad Larkeche, Albert Adomah and Sinclair Armstrong despite not picking them regularly, and may choose to reward them with a run (and appearance fee) on the final day. The players were given time off after the win against Leeds so they could experience a day in the life of Taylor Richards.

With no wins from their last six games it feels like Coventry are running out of steam in a remarkable season that has already included 52 games. They’re also running out of centre halves with Joel Latibeaudiere (consonant please Carol) injured late in the midweek defeat at Ipswich leaving only Bobby Thomas as recognised in that position and definitely available tomorrow. Options include dropping Bean Sheaf back from midfield, bringing Luis Binks back sooner than intended, or slotting our old chugger Jake Bidwell into the left centre back position. This will likely be Liam Kelly and Callum O’Hare’s last games for the club ahead of their contract expiry this summer.

Elsewhere: Among many sliding doors moments, how high does Kenneth Paal’s 96th minute equaliser at home to Huddersfield rank? Rangers had been terrible throughout that game, deservedly gone behind with four minutes of normal time remaining, and looked certain for a defeat which would have pushed the Terriers six points ahead in the table. Instead the gap was kept to three and Darren Moore was dismissed straight after. Huddersfield have won four of 16 since and are relegated in all but name now, three points and 15 goals back from Plymouth who are fourth bottom. Their final game is at Ipswich where the hosts need just a point to seal a remarkable second consecutive promotion and return to the Premier League for the first time since 2002. Leeds continue falling apart again at home to Southampton, knowing even a win is only going to be good enough if Hudds pull off the shock of the season at Portman Road.

The final relegation place is still to be filled, with four clubs in the frame. Birmingham’s remarkable collapse from sixth under John Eustace to relegation zone with one game left to play, six managers later, sees them holding the bomb going into the last day. I for one am shocked that signing Tyler Roberts, Ethan Laird, Andre Dozzell and Dion Sanderson hasn’t produced better results for the Blues. Only a win will do for them at home to Norwich, unless Plymouth (one point and four goals better off) get battered at home to Hull. The situation complicated somewhat by Norwich and Hull both competing with West Brom for the final two play-off spots. The Canaries’ superior goal difference means they’re in barring a disaster, Hull need a win at Home Park and hope that West Brom lose at home to Preston Knob End.

Should Birmingham and Plymouth both win then that could present a problem for Sheff Wed, whose remarkable recovery has given them a three point cushion going into a very kind last day fixture at cratering Sunderland, but have also been left with a lousy goal difference by their nightmare start to the year so could become vulnerable if they lose at The Stadium of Light. If all three happen to win then Blackburn would go down should they lose at Leicester, who sealed the title at Preston on Monday and have almost certainly been on the piss with Jamie Vardy all week.

Stoke and Millwall, who like QPR looked doomed for periods of the spring, can relax at home to Bristol City and away to Swansea respectively – the Marxist Hunters have a chance to finish with five straight wins under returning boss Neil Harris.

Rotherham v Cardiff and Boro v Watford and the remaining dead rubbers. For the Millers the financial realities of the Championship overwhelmed them once more, for Boro the millstone of being LFW’s pre-season tip for automatic promotion proved too heavy to even surface as far as the play-offs. We’ll review our Season Preview predictions after the play-off final but, spoiler alert, we either got your team completely right (five teams currently exactly where they said they would be, 11 correct to within three places) or hopelessly wrong (five teams out by ten or more places).

Referee: A whole season without Keith Stroud? Completed it mate. Details.

Form

Coventry: Losing Viktor Gyokeres and Gustavo Hamer in the summer transfer window was always going to make this a season of rebuild and transition for Cov to some extent however much of that money they reinvested – 13 new signings at a cost of a round £30m, with five of those coming from abroad. In 2022/23 they made the play-offs despite winning only oen of their first ten Championship games, and for a while it looked like they might repeat that feat having pushed for sixth despite one win in the first eight (Middlesbrough the victims on both occasions) and three in the first 16.

In the end they’ve come up short – eight points shy of the top six with a game to play. A total of nine home wins well shy of the numbers posted by the four play-off teams as it stands (16, 15, 15, 14). A total of 25 goals conceded on their own patch the same as Birmingham, who are third bottom. How much of that is down to not being quite good enough, or bedding in the new look team, and how much of it is down to a fixture backlog created by an extraordinary run to the FA Cup semi-final, probably only Mark Robins and his team knows. Tomorrow is City’s 53rd game of the year, a number equalled only by Leicester, and they played eight games in April to QPR’s six. They are, perhaps not surprisingly, winless in their last six and have only one win from their final eight games, which includes that scandalous semi-final heartbreak against Man Utd. One point from the last five games, having started that sequence three points away from the play-offs with a game in hand. They have conceded three goals in a game three times in the last six, including the cup semi. Preston, Cardiff, Hull and Coventry have all won on this ground in Cov’s last six home league games, and it’s the first time they’ve lost back to back games at home this season.

City did a really good job of replacing the goals of Viktor Gyokeres with the £20m they got for him. Big money summer signings Ellis Simms and Haji Wright are both on 19 goals apiece (13 league, six cup for Simms, 16 and three for Wright) to be joint top scorers. Both did the heavy lifting towards that total in the second half of the campaign. Simms scored twice when these sides met at Loftus Road in September, but in true QPR fashion those were his only goals in Sky Blue in his first 25 appearances, and he only got three in his first 31. After scoring against Bristol City on January 30, however, the former Everton man notched 16 goals in 18 games including hat tricks in 5-0 home wins against Maidstone and Rotherham, and braces against Wolves and Huddersfield. At one point he was on a run of 14 goals in 11 league and cup games, though he hasn’t scored in his last three. Wright, meanwhile, scored six in 25 games to Christmas, and has bagged 13 in 24 since. He has eight in his last 13 outings coming into this game.

QPR: A draw in Coventry tomorrow would see QPR finish with identical home and away records – 7-6-10. Despite winning the last two games at Loftus Road to secure safety, the total of seven home wins is the lowest in the league bar Watford, Blackburn, Huddersfield (all six) and Rotherham on four. The R’s have lost 22 of their last 46 home games over the last two seasons. The 12 defeats in W12 last season was the club record, beating the total of 11 set by Steve McClaren’s R’s in 2018/19. By contrast, Rangers’ seven away wins is a better total than ten sides, including Norwich and West Brom who currently occupy the play-off spots. It’s now just one defeat in six on the road, although the season total of 17 goals scored is the lowest in the league bar Rotherham and Sheff Wed. Cifuentes’ team has secured safety winning seven of the final 13 games having only won seven of their previous 34. Only Ipswich have won more Championship games than QPR since Valentine’s Day. Rangers have won 12 of 31 games under this manager, and would be tenth if the league started on the day he arrived.

Although the official assist totals tend to differ somewhat from our own when we get round to doing the end of term reports, Ilias Chair by the EFL’s figures is now on 14 goal involvements (that’s goals or assists) for the season following his goal and two assists against Leeds last Friday. That’s the same total he finished on in both the previous two seasons. Steve Cook added another clean sheet to his impressive personal stats. With him Rangers concede goals at a rate of 1.033 a game, without him it doubles to 2.083. He has played in 12 of the team’s 13 clean sheets this season, and the team has only won one game without him – Preston away is the anomaly in both cases. This seems likely to be Chris Willock’s last game for the club (39 would be his best season of appearances so far) – Rangers have still never lost on any of the 20 occasions he’s scored, although he has only bagged once in the last 23 games (Rotherham at home) which means whatever happens tomorrow he seems destined to fall short of Wayne Fereday’s record of 22 matches in that regard. Jimmy Dunne’s last minute winner against Birmingham looks like it could be crucial for both club’s seasons – it’s the Irishman’s only goal of the year, but Rangers have won all six games in which Dunne has scored since he joined. Lyndon Dykes has gone from no goals in 16 games to two in two and is top scorer with seven (six league) but away from home he still hasn’t scored for more than a year (West Brom A, 23 games ago) and that’s his only goal in 54 away trips going back to Fulham in October 2021.

Coventry have profited from Rangers’ two-year collapse more than most. They’ve won the last three meetings scoring eight goals in the process and conceding only once. That after QPR had won all of the previous three and five of the prior six games between the sides. Rangers were the first ever visitors to this ground, losing 3-0 in August 2005. Since it opened the R’s have won three, drawn one and lost three of seven visits, with a 3-2 defeat at St Andrew’s during the lockdown thrown in for bad measure.

Prediction: A massive thank you to last season’s champion Aston for diligently filing predictions for all this season’s games. The race for that dubious privilege next season, and of course gear from our sponsor The Art of Football (sample the merch from our sponsor’s newly extended QPR collection here) is a straight shootout between perennial contender WestonsuperR and SimplyNico who are two points apart with only this game to play. Reigning champion Aston says.

“Right, one last game for us all to enjoy. Both teams on the beach, nothing but pride and maybe a league position or two to play for, let’s have a bit of fun and give the fans a big send off for the new season right? Rangers to win 5-4, Adomah to score.

Aston’s Prediction: Coventry 4-5 QPR. Scorer – Albert Adomah

LFW’s Prediction: Coventry 3-3 QPR. Scorer – Asmir Begovic

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HastingsRanger added 20:52 - May 3
Surely Dykes to score (23 away games and waiting) in a 1-1 draw.

Great read as always, especially the delightful reference Taylor-Richards.
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Tonto added 22:56 - May 3
God I feel really guilty for the message about giving Dykes a 7 for the Preston game now....
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Myke added 23:08 - May 3
Very insightful piece as always, Clive. Slightly more damning of Ferdinand Hoos than I would be, but you have far greater inside knowledge. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of a stress free game game tomorrow. You and all the faithful deserve it. Imagine a 'dead rubber' with a game to spare - he truly is a miracle worker.
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simmo added 02:10 - May 4
An absolute fúcking belter of a preview to end another year of incredibly high quality writing. The consistency is almost baffling at this point, even for a club that provides as much content as ours.

Always usually at least one line that makes me genuinely LOL too, this weeks is - "Who’s that? It’s Julio Cesar. Where did he come from? Uncle Tony got him for me. Did he."

Appreciate you mate.
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062259 added 03:10 - May 4
Excellent synopsis of where we are now and what the future might bring. I do fear however that there is a lot of downside risk moving into next season: Cook a year older and cannot repeat this season’s heroics, Clarke-Salter cannot stay injury-free, Chair cannot reverse his two-year post World Cup decline, Andersen can’t get back to the player he was when he joined the club. And that’s before the challenge of finding a keeper worth keeping and more or less completely
overhauling the forward line.

There’s only so much more juice Cifuentes can squeeze out of this stone; effective and affordable recruitment will be the key difference maker-next season, and that is not guaranteed.
1

AussieRs added 06:32 - May 4
Great preview thanks Clive and superb work throughout the whole season. Through the dark times you provided levity and sanity. Thanks. Consonant thanks Carol LOL.
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NewYorkRanger added 08:42 - May 4
I bookmarked this site many years ago when moving overseas. Always found it the best way to stay in touch with happenings at Loftus Road. It’s become essential reading. Probably my most visited site on the web 😳 and always something to look forward to.
Please keep it up Clive, the content is always of exceptionally high quality. I hope you know your efforts are appreciated by many. Enjoy the summer
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francisbowles added 10:42 - May 4
Thanks Clive. Another brilliant preview and it's been another great year of reading and posting on LFW.
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londonscottish added 11:11 - May 4
A stunning reminder of utter mentalness of the last two seasons. What a club, what a crazy and beautiful way to escape.
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tstarhoop added 11:14 - May 4
Thanks for this and all the work this year (and before) - awesome writing and analysis that captures the 'fun' of being a Rangers fan - Ive given up trying to explain why a thing is funny to my work mates, especially when it includes guns, rocks and Taylor-Richards. Now where's that link to the patreon.....
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dsw2509 added 11:37 - May 4
Thank you for your incredible work. We are lucky to have you. As another exile I rely on LFW to see what’s going on. And some is laugh out loud hilarious.
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ThGrimRanger added 11:48 - May 4
Thanks so much Clive, not sure I'd have coped without LFW during this crazy season even by QPR standards.
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TacticalR added 12:21 - May 4
Thanks for your final preview of the season.

It's been an miraculous turnaround under Cifuentes, especially given the situation he inherited and the tools (or lack of) at his disposal. Results like the 6-1 loss at Blackpool last season and the opening day defeat at Watford this season show that the era of the tub-thumping inspirational manager (the very thing we were supposed to get from Ainsworth) is long gone. 'I’ve seen, if not criticism, then some downplaying of the Spaniard’s impact.' Agree that that view is complete nonsense and effectively rewrites history by assuming that any manager could have avoided relegation.

Cifuentes' flexibility is to be applauded. Cifuentes also seems fortunate in having a trusted sounding board and adviser in Xavi Calm. Let's see what they can do with a full season.
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WestonsuperR added 18:03 - May 4
Just adding my annual gratitude for the amazing work you do here Clive. Fantastic writing, insight and opinion. Thank you.

If I have won the prediction league do let me know, would be keen to contribute towards the pre-match.

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