Reading and QPR can’t get away from one another. Back when we first met this season, in early October, we were third and fourth respectively thanks to the impact of new(ish) managers. Fast-forward to mid-January though and the two sides are 12th and 13th respectively, level on points.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end though. While a comfortable majority of Reading fans are still happy with mid-table, it’s been a much more frustrating time for QPR supporters. Things were looking up under Michael Beale but, after flirtations with other clubs (including very public links to the Wolves job) and seemingly reassuring comments about loyalty... he headed for Rangers.
There’s no one better to unpack all of that than QPR writer Clive Whittingham from the excellent site Loft For Words. You can find him on Twitter @LoftForWords and the website right here, where Sim previewed Saturday’s match from a Reading point of view.
We last met in early October - how’s the season gone for you since then?
Off the side of a cliff.
We were playing pretty well at that point, and the victory against Reading was only the second time in 2022 we’d been able to come from behind to win a game which hinted at the growing confidence of the group. We’d already been to Watford, Sheff Utd, Millwall and Bristol City and won, and we subsequently beat Cardiff up 3-0 at home to go top of the table.
I’m not saying I expected us to stay there given our financial restrictions, but Mick Beale had been very bullish in the summer - saying he absolutely wasn’t coming here just to develop players and finish midtable, that he thought it was possible to do the development but also push for the top six – and you looked at us in those games and thought we had to have some sort of a chance.
Beale then left and I notice this is your second question so I’ll hold fire (lots of fire) for now but since then we’ve been mostly dreadful. Just one win in 11 now, failed to score in seven of those, lost four in a row at home for the first time since the war, battered at Loftus Road by Luton, dumped out of the cup by Fleetwood…
After the collapse of our promotion push in the final third of last season, that cup defeat really seems to have been a moment when a lot of patience among the support snapped. The mood at the final whistle, really for the first time during what has been a poor 12 months of results overall, was angry and ugly. It’s particularly galling when you know this team is capable of so much better, because they’ve shown it, and over at Luton their influential manager walks out exactly the same as ours and they don’t miss a beat.
The club has tried the usual PR strategy of slipping a couple of popular players out for humble, “we’re truly sorry, we do care honest” interviews this week and they haven’t gone down very well. Everybody’s pretty fed up, and there are fingers being pointed at everybody and everything from the owners down to the half-arsed half-time warm-ups.
What did you make of Michael Beale’s exit?
I mean if you guys really, desperately do want to know what went down, what we’ve learned since etc, then there’s literally 6,000 words of it here…
Brief-ish highlights… Mark Warburton was shown the door at the end of last season because not only did the promotion push collapse, but we’d spent a fair bit of money doing it, and he’d increasingly ignored the player development and youth pathways remit of the job at a cash-strapped club (like, literally ignored, wasn’t speaking to the academy coaches, wouldn’t entertain their players etc).
Beale was brought in as this supposed wonder coach who was going to turn all these youth players Warburton wouldn’t give the time of day to into a Championship team. What he actually did, what QPR allowed him to do, what QPR always allow their manager to do despite having a head of recruitment with his own department and a director of football, is bring in his own players – and we got treated to PR guff about how Mick Beale had known Kenneth Paal since he was eight, and used to read Jake Clarke-Salter a bedtime story.
The money is very tight at QPR now; the Eze money has largely been spent on getting us through Covid and ‘going for it’ a bit last season. I think the situation and the job here was a bit tougher than he perhaps thought, and the season didn’t start very well with poor results against Blackburn, Blackpool and Rotherham in the first few weeks. As it transpires, he was already meeting other clubs about their jobs at this point, just five games in. Those stories didn’t become public at the time, but a link with Wolves did after everybody had turned them down and Wolves briefed the journos on their patch that Beale had wowed them in meetings and was now their first choice, he wanted to come, it would all be done very quickly etc.
Beale ultimately decided to stick with, gave it a big chat about how “loyalty and integrity are important to me” and how he couldn’t be the first one to jump ship after persuading so many players to come and join us. He also, though, said he felt it important to turn the job down without meeting Wolves, which rang big alarm bells for me. Clubs like Wolves don’t go around telling The Athletic they want to make Mick Beale, 16 games into his managerial career, their new boss without a) meeting the guy and b) being pretty sure he’s going to come. Beale let that story drag out for a week, could have denied it at any point and didn’t. As it transpires, he met with them twice, and wowed them with his sodding presentation we hear so much about.
No surprise therefore that when the chance to go back to Glasgow Rangers as number one came up, all the “loyalty and integrity” stuff didn’t matter quite so much because it’s Glasgow Rangers and “we are the people” and all of that. The day after we lost at Birmingham, instead of going to watch our future opponents, Beale not only went to watch Rangers-Aberdeen from the directors box with the sporting director there (who he’s tight as arse cheeks with), but also plastered it all over his Instagram at a time when GVB was under big pressure there. He’d also apparently been in Rangers pubs in London watching Champions League games with their fans.
Basically he’s shafted us. He was flashing his knickers at other clubs almost from the moment he walked through the door. He lied repeatedly during his time here, and continues to lie about it all now. He’s left us with half a dozen players who came here to play for him and are now clearly pissed off. One very large torpedo straight in the side of our ship.
How’s his replacement Neil Critchley getting on?
Not brilliantly, but then he’s inherited all of that. We’re up to our maximum amount of loans and there’s no money to spend on permanent signings, so it’s a very tough gig. He’s already, in his brief time here, found that it’s a group of players capable of going to Preston, playing well and winning, and then losing 3-0 to Luton. Going toe to toe with Sheff Utd, winning but for a last-second equaliser five minutes into added time, then five days later getting done by Fleetwood. He’s got all on, and I think he’s realising that now.
What are the main strengths of this QPR side at the moment?
I think a couple of them can knock up a nice carbonara if pressed.
How about weaknesses?
Ok, sorry, we’re in a bit of dark mood this week as you can tell so let me be a little fairer to them.
One of the big frustrations at the moment is we’re not watching a bad QPR team per se. We’ve seen those, we know what they look like; we were here for Ray Harford, Zesh Rehman, George Kulscar, Steve Slade, Ugo Ukah, Armel Tchakounte, Karl Ready, Ademole Bankole and all of that fun. You would shout at those players, but you may as well howl at the moon, they’re just bad footballers.
This lot are not. We have seen this season how capable they are. When we’re on it we have two of the best attacking full backs in this league in Ethan Laird and Kenneth Paal, and two of the best attacking ‘tens’ in Chris Willock and Ilias Chair. When all four of those are playing well and Stefan Johansen is in charge of the midfield, we’ve played some lovely stuff this season – first half at Bristol City about as good as I’ve seen a QPR team in many a year. When they’re not on it, when they play as they did at Fleetwood last week, or Cardiff the week before, supporters rightly get very impatient because we know they can do it.
The weakness therefore, you conclude, is a mental one. We lack quality, goalscoring strikers as you’re always likely to lack when you’re skint, and our central midfield lacks bollocks and attacking threat. This means that when teams set up in a low block against us we’re very prone to playing slow, pedestrian, sideways and backwards football in front of them with nobody able to break the lines either with a killer pass, surging run or moment of brilliance.
It’s a slow team in every way; hopefully Jamal Lowe’s arrival might help with that. But, in a league where everybody bar the top two is much of a muchness, we have shown ourselves well capable of going up against anybody – four points from two games with Sheff Utd for example. Given the way we collapsed last season as well, and like I say Luton seem to have coped with Nathan Jones walking out on them just fine, you can’t help but conclude it’s a mentality problem with this group of players.
I know what I’d say if I were managing a team against them – they’re soft, they concede all the time from corners, they don’t want to know when the going gets difficult, so get after them.
How will the rest of the season play out for you?
We’re still well in touch if Critchley can find that recipe from October-time and get them going. Our squad depth, strikers, lack of pace, finances etc means a play-off push is ambitious, but we should still be capable of avoiding defeat to bloody Fleetwood. I said 14th at the start of the season, and I only did that because I get a bit of stick for always saying we’ll be 16th, but as it stands I think that’s where we’re going to land.
How do you see the game going on Saturday and what will the score be?
Very difficult to predict a team that turns up one week to play Preston but not the next to play Luton. Turns up the following week to play Sheff Utd, but falls in a hole at Fleetwood. I wouldn’t back us to beat anybody at the moment but they are capable. Depends which side shows up and what mood it’s in.