Reading kick off the second half of the season on Boxing Day with a match against the second team Mark Bowen took charge against: QPR. Rangers had started the season strongly, but have dropped from the top six to mid-table since we last faced them.
The Royals will of course want to go one better than that 2-2 draw at Loftus Road, but will we manage it? We spoke to QPR fan and writer Clive Whittingham from website Loft For Words.
QPR were up in the playoff places last time we met, but have dropped down to midtable since. Why is that?
We’re a midtable team. Apart from one win at Sheff Wed who are now third, and one defeat at Barnsley who are in the drop zone, then basically whenever we play a team in the bottom half we win and whenever we play a team in the top half we lose. Coming into the Reading game we’d had a run of fixtures against the division’s poorer sides, won, and climbed into the top six. Then through November we played a lot of the better teams and dropped back down. It was really disappointing to lose at Barnsley and then draw with Charlton on the back of two successive wins because we were looking at this little run of games as a chance to climb back into contention but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Important to remember that we changed our entire squad in the summer (20 out, 16 in), cut the wage bill again for the fourth consecutive year, and were tipped to really struggle so this is still above expectations. We’re a work in progress, and we’re usually very good to watch – second best attack in the league, third worst defence.
Everyone’s been raving about Eberechi Eze this season - what should we know about him? Is he the real deal?
Yeh, he could be. Pleasure to watch at the moment, particularly when we play him with bright Osayi-Samuel which stops defenders doubling up on him. Our man of the match awards are starting to turn into ‘who was man of the match apart from Eze?’. Spurs are having a sniff so I’m sure we can look forward to Daniel Levy trying to persuade us a couple of million and a clutch of players they don’t really want and we don’t really need is a great deal for us.
He’s 21, just had his first start for England under-21s but has Nigerian parents and there’s a lot of speculation about them wanting him to play internationally for them. From Greenwich, unbelievably released by Millwall as a teenager, presumably because he wasn’t kicking it high enough in the air and far enough down the pitch.
He started last season very strongly, played every minute of every game under Steve McClaren, and basically burned out in the second half of the year. He looks stronger, and is obviously more experienced now with getting on for 100 appearances under his belt now. Ideally you want him to play ten but he floats around all over in the attack, and has improved his defensive game to the point where he can now play on the wing without exposing a full back. This year he’s been most successful drifting in off the left side with Bright hugging the right touchline to spread opponents and create space.
Who are the unsung heroes in this QPR side?
Ryan Manning, another youngster and previously a midfielder, has had a very good season at left back. Yoann Barbet, a summer signing from Brentford, was defensively erratic when he played but his injury has coincided with us struggling to play out from the back as Mark Warburton demands. I’ve been impressed with how Toni Leistner has come back from being totally bombed out in the summer to win his place back in the team, and has had some great performances at centre back, but he’s very rudimentary and prone to the odd horror. We’re also struggling to get any of our goalkeepers into any sort of form.
What do you make of Reading at the moment?
Actually haven’t seen you since the Loftus Road game which is unusual for me because I watch this drudgery and slop religiously. I thought you caught us out a bit that night, and Swift and Ejaria were the best players on the pitch, so I was a little surprised to see Swift on the bench at the weekend when I checked.
Mark Bowen isn’t popular at QPR. He was assistant to Mark Hughes in a period when we spent many hundreds of millions of pounds on scumbag players who didn’t want to be at the club and destroyed all the good that Neil Warnock had done before. When that spend lumbered us with one of the worst Premier League teams in recent memory, Hughes used to send Bowen out as a frontman.
His appearance, possibly after wine had been taken, on the Open All Rs Podcast just before they got sacked when he basically said they had no idea why it was going so wrong, nor what they were going to do about it, is still talked about to this day. That whole era was horrible, followed by the similarly ruinous Harry Redknapp reign, and we’re still trying to recover from that.
What are your expectations for the season?
I said sixteenth at the start, and was being optimistic. Now it would be disappointing if we end up that low, but I don’t see us being far away from it. In a poor league, with Eze, Hugill and Wells up front, I worry we may look back on this season as a missed opportunity, but it was always meant to be a building year so in theory success would be midtable and a squad moving in the right direction for next season.
The key thing is whether we can get some serious, James Maddison-style, money for Eze. We’ve been a bit guilty of selling players too cheaply to balance the books recently (Smithies £3m, Darnell Furlong £1.5m, Freeman £5m) and to get out of the spot we’ve worked ourselves into we need to be doing what Brentford have done and regularly be getting north of £8m for players we’ve scouted and developed. Norwich transformed their team with the Maddison money and won promotion – that’s what we should aspire to. We won’t have a talent like him for a long time; he’s English, he’s under contract… if we were to shovel him on for £6-7m and the money just dissipates into bills and FFP compliance that will be heartbreaking.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
Couple of weeks back I’d have said I fancied us for a win. The 2-0 we got at Birmingham City recently was our fifth away win of the season already which is as many as we managed in the whole of last year, and two more than we got in 2017/18. Reading are bottom half, and as said we tend to beat the bottom half and lose to the top half.
We also looked to have fixed the defensive issues with our first two clean sheets of the season against Preston and Birmingham. But a 5-3 at Barnsley was chaotic and while Charlton equalised with literally the last kick of the game at the weekend and we missed a sack load of chances we were a bit erratic there as well against a team on a bad run.
I don’t know, we can be quite dangerous on the road this season. But we’re wild. It could be anything. 2-2 seems quite a good bet if you’re gambling on QPR this season.