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View From The Town End: Play-Off-Chasing QPR

A QPR perspective ahead of another tough game for Reading.

Queens Park Rangers v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship - Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

Queens Park Rangers are an example of how things could look if Reading change their ways and start to get things right off the field. They were after all in a similar position to the Royals not all that long ago, beset by short-termism and a hugely inflated wage bill. Now though they’ve built on improved league performances to place themselves firmly in the mix for a play-off spot this season.

To get some more info on them we spoke to Clive Whittingham from the excellent site Loft For Words. He discussed QPR’s tactical set-up, strengths and weaknesses, also having plenty to say on the broader state of the Championship and how Reading fit into it. “I wish you guys luck, I think you’re going to need it.”

How’s this season gone for you so far?

Very well. We finished last season strongly, 15 wins through the second half of the campaign, after making some influential loan signings in January. In the end, only the rotten form through the first half of the year stopped us pushing for the play offs in 2020/21. The hope was we could start competing again at the top end of this division if we could make those loan signings permanent in the summer, and that then turned to quite lofty expectations when we not only did that but also added the likes of Jimmy Dunne and Andre Dozzell to the squad besides.

By and large those expectations are being met, and we’re currently fourth in the table with seven wins from the last 10 matches and unbeaten in the last six. We’ve rarely hit the heights of last spring performance-wise, but we were very good against West Brom last week and the results are there regardless. Seven away wins already, history tells you play-off qualification usually requires somewhere between nine and ten so we’re well in with a shout despite having a far smaller budget to most of the other clubs up there.

How do you set up tactically?

It can vary further forwards, we’ve switched between one or two strikers of late, and it’s influenced at the moment by Ilias Chair being away at AFCON because he’s usually first name on the team sheet when he’s here.

The upturn in form last season came not only with the loan signings but also a switch from a back four system that exposed our full backs, to a back three which we’ve stuck with ever since. Rob Dickie, Jimmy Dunne and Yoann Barbet as the three have proven a great combination, and Lee Wallace and Albert Adomah are enjoying great Indian summers as the wing backs.

Without Chair we’re heavily reliant on Chris Willock’s brilliance for creativity, and they’ve been trying to add either Tom Lawrence or Jamie Paterson to the squad this window to help alleviate some of that burden. It’d be nice if Stefan Johansen could just play a bit further forward a bit more often and start chipping in with the sort of goals he was scoring last season – currently his late equaliser at Reading is his only one for the year.

Reading v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Madjeski Stadium Photo by Simon Galloway/PA Images via Getty Images

What are the main strengths of this QPR side?

Like I say, the back three are playing very well. Yoann Barbet is out of contract this summer which is causing some consternation, and I’d expect to start seeing some transfer interest in Dickie and Dunne over the summer. Further forwards Chris Willock is having an outstanding season.

And weaknesses?

There hasn’t been a lot of pace in the team since Bright Osayi-Samuel left us. For a long time we found the economics of buying and owning our own strikers difficult. We’ve spent many years hacking the wage bill back from its ridiculous £80m p/a high under Harry Redknapp to a more manageable sub-£20m now, but while we were doing that you had clubs like Aston Villa and Newcastle United in this division inflating the market to a point where really, really mediocre Championship forwards were going for £8m-£12m a time (Gary Madine, Kenneth Zohore, Jonathan Kodija, Scott Hogan, Jordan Hugill etc.) We simply couldn’t compete with that, or the wages, so we relied for several season on loans, some of which went quite well (Nahki Wells) and some of which were Tomer Hemed.

We’ve been able to trade our way out of that by getting good money in for Luke Freeman and especially Ebere Eze, and reinvesting it well. We own Charlie Austin now, which would have been a pipe dream a couple of years ago; though he’s obviously long past his best he still chips in with the odd goal. Lyndon Dykes was a bit of a punt from Scotland and the jury is still out. He’s very, very raw but went on a hot streak through the end of last season and beginning of this so there’s potential there.

Andre Gray is on loan, and on international duty this weekend, and he’s a real rocks and diamonds player. All three are streets and streets ahead of what we were making do with three years ago, but whether they’re good enough to fire a promotion push we’re starting to have doubts – just one goal in regulation time in our last five home matches, and that was miles offside.

What do make of Reading at the moment?

Bin. On wheels. Going down a hill. On fire.

Whatever you or I may think of the FFP/P&S rules, pros and cons, merits and drawbacks of the system, clubs can’t just carry on and pretend like they’re not there, and don’t exist. We’ve seen it at Birmingham City, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa would have been f*cked if they didn’t win the play-off final when they did, QPR back in the day, Bristol City now it looks like as well… just clubs operating at 200%+ wages-to-turnover for prolonged periods of time, gambling that it will get them to the Premier League, and then ending up in a right state when it doesn’t.

I think one of the least forgivable parts of the Reading situation is that you actually had the sort of young talent in the building that you can get massive money for. As we’ve seen with Eze – and, unfortunately for us, at Brentford - that can then allow you to trade your way up the league sustainably. Yet, the likes of Rob Dickie, Michael Olise, Omar Richards and others have left either for a fraction of their value or sometimes nothing at all.

That’s been a colossal wasted opportunity for you guys. My opinion as an outsider, and obviously you guys will know the situation in far more detail than I do, is unless you can get £20m for somebody, I don’t really know how you escape from this spiral that quickly.

Reading v Tottenham Hotspur: Premier League 2
QPR man Rob Dickie came through at Reading
Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

I think there’s a wider point here, if you fancy indulging me for five minutes, and I’ll try and be careful how I word this… Your situation looks pretty perilous to me, and judging by their accounts Bristol City are the next cab on this unfortunate rank. I hope, though don’t expect, that Derby’s situation might alter a few mindsets among Championship support bases.

I’m hearing and seeing a lot of coverage now about how tragic the Derby situation is, how unfair it is on the fans, how terrible it would be if a massive and historic club went to the wall, #saveDerbyCounty and all of this. And, of course, it’s absolutely right. It’s always the fans that are left behind to pick up the pieces, it’s always the fans that suffer the most when some rich idiot uses their club as a chew-toy and then spits the thing out.

We’ve been there ourselves in the past, potentially you guys might now be heading in that direction too. But it was very obvious that Derby were breaking the rules, being mismanaged, creatively doctoring their accounts, chucking ridiculous money at wages and transfer fees, spending way beyond their means, for literally years now. Far from questioning, analysing, looking at the accounts, calling out things that were blatantly wrong like the sale of the ground, and ultimately protesting, Derby fans (a portion of them at least) revelled in it all, mocking Steve Gibson, mocking the EFL, “Mel’s got you all on strings” and things like that.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not in any way blaming the Derby fans, saying that any of this is their fault, saying they deserve this, or anything like that. It’s not, and they don’t. There is, in the end, only so much you can do if said rich idiot wants to take the club in a certain direction.

What I am saying is that the Championship currently exists as a chancer’s waiting room. Businessmen who cannot afford the billion quid it would cost to buy a Premier League club buy Championship clubs instead then ignore the rules, chuck some money at it in a completely unsustainable and rule-breaking way and see if they can get themselves a Premier League club through the back door. If it goes like it did for Leicester and Wolves, great. But only three teams go up each year, far more miss out, parachute payments make it doubly difficult to be one of those three, and the P&S rules say you basically get three goes at it before you’re f*cked (Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham City).

These owners have no connection to the club; if they gamble and lose they can just dump it and walk away (Derby, Wigan). Nobody cares about your club as much as you do. Supporters of Championship clubs have to start being much more savvy, much more cautious, and much more aware of who’s gambling how much of their future on this promotion pipe dream.

As we’ve seen at Derby, Wigan and elsewhere, the EFL, the FA, the Premier League… none of these people give a single f*ck. They will literally stand aside and do nothing as your club dies (Bury). Supporters, starting now, to the best of their ability and as much as they possibly can, have got to be watchdogs of their own clubs. They’ve got to stress to whoever owns the club the importance of its long-term stability, over and above wanting them to just chuck money you don’t have at a load of players to try and get promoted.

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

At the moment, particularly online, particularly on social media, supporters’ main priority, to me, seems to be transfers and signing players. I saw a Liverpool blog the other day describing their Twitter supporters as “combative, persistently pessimistic, and obsessed with transfers” and from what I can tell that applies to every club in the top two divisions.

There is this attitude, driven by social media, computer games, Sky Sports News, Jim White, countdown clocks, totalisers, ITK accounts, Fabrizio Romano and chancers like him, clickbait sites, that it’s all about signing players, all about spending more money, every team is always three players short of where they need to be, every transfer window you should be bringing in seven or eight players.

Nottingham Forest have signed the thick end of 100 players in four years, and whenever I click on the latest Twitter announcement of the next new body through the door there are zero questions being asked about this, it’s just Forest fans queuing up to say “well, that’s great, but we still need a left winger, and a right back, and another striker…”

This has to change. This mentality has to change. This “chancers’ waiting room” situation cannot continue. The priorities of fans and owners have to change. We, Championship fans, collectively, have got to look at Derby and snap out of this. The long-term stability and status of your football club, you having a football club to go and support on a Saturday 10 years from now, is far, far, far more important than being a bit short at right wing back this transfer window. If you’re spending £8m on Tom Lawrence and giving him a long-term contract on £37,000 a week in the Championship, this is not a good thing, this is not a thing to be celebrated, this does not lead you to good places.

I didn’t start writing LoftforWords because I wanted to become a financial journalist, examining sets of accounts for holding companies, I wanted to write big, long, flowery match reports that nobody reads. But QPR went through a period of gross mismanagement and overspend that threatened our future, and our mentality coming out the other side of that is much more ‘look after the bloody club please’ rather than ‘sign a f*cking striker’. I don’t know if every club has to go through similar before their mindset shifts or, hopefully, like I say, the scale of this Derby disaster might wake a few people up. But it needs to happen one way or the other because, literally, nobody else cares.

I wish you guys luck, I think you’re going to need it, and I don’t think you’ll be the last.

Where will you finish this season?

I said fifth at the start and given we’re fourth now and have kicked around there all season so far I haven’t changed my mind yet.

How will the game go and what will the score be?

Given your form and the rate you’re conceding goals, it’d be nice to think we might have a comfortable win rather than the stomach-churning nailbiters we’ve been enduring for weeks (it’s 16 matches now since QPR scored more than two goals in a game, and we’ve scored one or fewer in 12 of those, so it tends to be tight, tense and frequently settled late on). But, then, this is QPR, we’re often very charitable to teams in strife, and we’re dangerous to ourselves when we’re favourites to win a game. So, I’m nervous about it, and I’ll take any win we can possibly scrape together, in any circumstances.