Steve McClaren’s QPR have defied the odds this season to sit 8th, just outside the play-offs, at the halfway stage of the season. To work out how on earth that’s happened, we checked in with Clive from Loft For Words. You can find their Twitter account here, and website here.
How’s the season gone for you so far?
Up and down like a bride’s nightie.
We made the worst start to a season in the history of the club, with four defeats from the first four games and 13 goals conceded including seven in one game at West Brom. Steve McClaren was a divisive appointment anyway, and he was on very thin ice by the end of August.
The club then made four key signings which have turned the season around - Geoff Cameron (Stoke), Nahki Wells (Burnley) and Tomer Hemed (Brighton) came in on loan while Angel Rangel (Swansea) signed on a free. This added ability and experience to the team, toughened us up, gave us a goal threat and made us competitive. We then started to scrape a few hard-fought, narrow wins together against Wigan at home, Bolton away and of course the scrappy 1-0 at yours.
I had mixed feelings about this really. The club is trying to recover from those years of financial lunacy when we were paying hundreds of millions of pounds out on w*nkers like Joey Barton, Jose Bosingwa, Ji-Sung Park, Julio Cesar and so on. The idea was meant to be we’d bring through academy players and well-scouted prospects and sell them on for profit while maintaining a competitive team on the field as we’ve seen clubs like Burnley and Preston doing at this level in recent times.
Ian Holloway had been doing that, bringing through half a dozen from the U23s in the second half of last season while shepherding out the last of the big names and high earners, and having rewarded him for that with the sack it seemed at the end of August that we were now panicking and going back to the same old QPR blowing the budget on proven names Bertie Big Potatoes routine.
A lot of those younger players who were playing for the first team at the end of last season, and winning games, rapidly descended down the pecking order and in their place came players like Wells, Hemed and Cameron who are very good but we can never possibly hope to afford to buy permanently at the end of the season.
So it felt a little bit like we were just making expensive, short-term moves that helped Steve McClaren keep his job for another couple of weeks but didn’t help us 12-18-24 months down the line. We’ve been burnt before by giving managers whatever they want and we don’t need to be going back to that model, particularly if we’re just going to finish mid-table anyway – what’s the point?
When we last spoke, you said you didn’t think much of the job Steve McClaren was doing. How about now?
When we played at Reading in the first meeting, I was basically where that last paragraph ended. What’s the point? We spend some money loaning in players we can never possibly own, they’re good enough to scrape together enough unremarkable wins (like the one at the Madejski) to keep us in mid-table, then this time next year we’re presumably in the same position looking to cobble together enough loans to keep our head above water and the manager in a job.
Since then, you can’t really criticise anything McClaren has done. As we’ll discuss in the next question, he’s been quite happy to adapt his ideas and systems to suit the players he’s got and we’re now a really settled, effective team where everybody knows their jobs and the wild inconsistencies in team selection and performance under Ian Holloway are a thing of the past.
We’ve also progressed from nervously grinding out results, to racking up impressive performances and wins – Brentford, Villa, Ipswich, Sheff Wed, Boro and Forest have all been well beaten and out-played. We’re good to watch, we attack in numbers, we defend with commitment/violence, it’s exciting and enjoyable. The feel-good factor and atmosphere is returning to Loftus Road, bar one annoying blip against Hull where I think we got a bit full of ourselves and took them too lightly.
If we can stick a couple of wins on the board against you and Ipswich this week we’ll actually be in genuine play-off contention which few would have believed at the start of the season. If not, and we are destined for mid-table, at least we’re good to watch, we’re giving it a go, we’re committed, we’re attacking, and the players look like they know what they’re doing and enjoying it.
It remains a shame that players like Ryan Manning, Ilias Chair, Bright Osayi-Samuel and Paul Smyth who were playing regularly for the first team at the end of last season have all drifted down the pecking order, and it remains a concern what we’re going to do come next August when Rangel, Cameron, Hemed and Wells are no more and there’s no parachute payment left to try and pay for similar borrowings. Holloway kept us competitive with a strike force of Sylla, Smith and Washington and McClaren has been allowed to bring in four players his predecessor would have killed for.
But we currently have three youth team graduates starting regularly (Lumley, Furlong, Eze) which is unheard of at QPR over the last 20 years. We’re in the top half of the table after two and a half years in sixteenth. We’re good to watch. We’re winning games. I’ve been impressed with how McClaren has recovered a difficult situation and grown these little green shoots out of it.
In October you criticised the system for not suiting enough players - has that been improved on?
We evolved pretty quickly through August, September and October to hit upon a system that suited us, and it basically started in that Reading game.
We began the season trying to play an extreme version of purist football, passing everything out from the goalkeeper, splitting the centre backs, asking the defenders to make the play, midfielders dropping deep to receive and, honestly, while that’s all very worthy and I wouldn’t go in my back garden to watch Tony Pulis football… it didn’t work. It didn’t suit the goalkeeper, Matt Ingram, whose chance of making it at QPR was probably blown in the process. It didn’t suit the two centre backs, who’ve become our best players since we changed it. It didn’t suit anybody.
We then tried a 4-4-2 set-up, basically because we loaned two quality strikers (Wells and Hemed) when we only needed one and we tried to crow-bar them both in. This meant Ebere Eze and Luke Freeman had to play as conventional wingers, which suited neither of them, and it kept people like Pawel Wszolek out of the team.
McClaren bit the bullet in mid-October, recognised that only one of the strikers should be playing, that Eze should be picked at ten or not at all, that Geoff Cameron can provide great protection to the defence, and basically that our entire squad is built to play 4-2-3-1. We’ve looked very comfortable in that shape and been in play-off form ever since really.
I’d give McClaren credit for adapting – managers often become stubbornly entrenched in something that isn’t working whereas he’s been very adaptable and changed his ideas on shape and style several times in quick succession to get to a place where the set up works for the players he has available rather than an ideal he has in his mind.
Do you expect a busy January transfer window?
We’re under a transfer embargo for our historic, flagrant breaches of the rules during the Redknapp years, so no. Middlesbrough were tipped to come back for Luke Freeman who they tried for in the summer but he’s just signed a new contract. A number of our successful U23 team need some proper football so I’d expect a few loans – we’ve heard Paul Smyth who was great for the first team at the end of last season may go to Peterborough, Aremide Oteh scores for fun at U23 level so needs to be playing properly either with us or somewhere else temporarily.
Where do you expect to see QPR finish in May?
We’ve been sixteenth for two and a half years so that’ the default and, honestly, if we end up there again I wouldn’t be that surprised. Injuries are starting to chew into the squad – signing those experienced players and relying on them so heavily to play every minute of every game has already sidelined Rangel, Cameron and Hemed long-term.
Optimistically, we keep up the performance level and style of the last couple of months, keep bloodying the noses of the bigger teams on bigger budgets, and finish in the top half. Win the two winnable home games we have this week and people will start losing their sh*t.
How will the game go, and what will the score be?
The Nottingham Forest win on Saturday was a big deal for us – we’ve struggled to win away for years and had never won at The City Ground in 34 attempts over 84 years. It would be very typical of us to follow that up with a bad home defeat but we avoided that pitfall very comfortably against Ipswich on Boxing Day. We’re usually very poor in December, we haven’t won three games in the month since 2008 and we haven’t won four since 1974. The new manager syndrome adds a bit of uncertainty as well but if we play like we have done in the last three games then we’ll win.