The Sky cameras return to Kenilworth Road for a play-off battle and local derby against QPR. ORH spoke to Clive Whittingham, of LoftforWords, to get the Hoops' view ahead of Sunday's big clash...
Tell us a bit about you and your R’s supporting background…
Well I’m from Grimsby, my whole family is from that part of the world, and until I was seven or eight showed absolutely no interest in football whatsoever, so I’ve taken a slightly circuitous route to get here although, short answer, my dad made me do it.
He trained in West London in the 1970s when QPR had the magnificent Bowles, Francis, Parkes, Clement, Thomas team that ran Liverpool close for the title, and then when he moved back up north he stuck with it and travelled to the games from there, corralling an ever expanding group of mates from North Lincs to go with him. Mum hated this, hated football, and hated QPR in particular so when I came along he was forbidden from indoctrinating me unless I showed an interest myself. Initially I didn’t, and all the other little twats at school used to take the mick out of me for not liking football at all – naturally, as we were in Grimsby, all Man Utd fans. Then one New Year’s Day the family was getting very excited in the living room watch this team that looked very much like dad’s stick four through Man Utd at Old Trafford on ITV. Delighted by this turn of events ahead of my return to school the following week, I waited up for dad to get home from the game and tell me all about it. This, apparently, qualified as “showing an interest” and so three days later I was in the back of the car in a QPR scarf going all the way down to Southampton for an FA Cup third round tie there. We missed a penalty, lost 2-0, I was bored and cold, and I’ve basically been bored and cold at every QPR game ever since.
I lost my dad when I was 15 and to be honest keeping up the habit of traipsing around the country following the team is my way of maintaining that connection and feeling close to him because while I constantly wonder what he would think of what I’ve done with my life and my career and the choices I’ve made and what I write and things like that, one thing I am sure about is that if he were still with us he’d still be doing stupid things like the 7am train for a midday kick off at Blackburn.
QPR had a strong first half of the season, which has put yourselves in a strong position for a top 6 finish, despite recent form having tailed off. What is the general feeling amongst the Hoops fanbase on how the season is going?
Well you’re playing us at a good time, and asking this question at a bad one.
When we came to Luton and won last season in mid-January it was only our fifth victory. We won four games in the whole first half of 2020/21, and a couple of those were absolutely harrowing 3-2’s that could have gone the other way. We were very firmly in a relegation battle and the points at Kenilworth Road were seen more as valuable in helping us stay up than anything else. That was also Charlie Austin’s first goal on his second coming at the club and his arrival, along with Stef Johansen, Sam Field and Jordy De Wijs, really galvanised the team.
We won 15 of the last 23 games, only Watford and Norwich did more, would have made the play-offs but for the lousy start, and the feeling was if we could make the loans permanent (which we did, and added more on top) then we could have a real dig at it this season.
I predicted we’d finish fifth, and I guess that as we’re fifth now I was right. We’ve been very consistent, never out of the top six all season, we’ve been able to win regularly away from home which has been a problem for QPR for years, the football has been good to watch, it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable season. However… we’ve now hit a bit of a wall. We’ve tried to squeeze through with a small squad because of the budget constraints, we’re reliant on too many 30+ year olds in key positions (Austin up front, Johansen midfield, both wing backs) who were playing well and have now all lost form and fitness at the same time. Given the teams we’ve failed to beat recently (Barnsley, Hull, Peterborough, Cardiff) and how we’ve played in those games, versus the fixtures we’ve got coming up (Luton, Sheff Utd, Forest, Preston, Huddersfield away, Sheff Utd and Fulham at home) it’s now starting to feel like we might fall short which would be bitterly disappointing having maintained promotion form for the thick end of 14 months.
Mark Warburton has been in the hot seat for almost three years now, and has ensured steady progress from a mid-table side into one fighting for promotion. How good of a job do you think Warburton is doing?
Well, he’s getting criticism now for things like team selection, substitutions, failure to add players in January, post-match interview comments and so on – but that’s just inevitable in modern football when form dips. Overall, he’s done a superb job here. He took over a team on the bones of its arse after Steve McClaren’s dire year in charge, we’d won three games in the whole second half of the previous season and he immediately had to cut 16 members of that squad to reduce the wage bill. He did that successfully and improved results and league position in year one, then lost all of his best players all over again. Alex Smithies, Jack Robinson, Nedum Onuoha, Darnell Furlong, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Luke Freeman, Mass Luongo, Nahki Wells, Jordan Hugill, Ryan Manning and Ebere Eze have all gone out of this team over the last few years, all would have been considered absolutely key at one point or another, Eze was the best player in the whole league, and yet we’ve got better year on year.
This QPR side has seemingly found a good balance between both young talent and experienced Championship players. Who would you say are the key players to watch out for?
Now sans-parachute payment, the club loses £1.8m a month even operating in its now massively pared down state – wage bill currently around £24m p/a having been up around £80m p/a in the ruinous Harry Redknapp days. So to remain under the P&S rules, and just to operate reasonably sustainably without relying on a rich bloke writing a cheque every month, we have to develop players and sell them frequently. Our most recent accounts show a loss of ‘just’ £4.5m despite the pandemic, our best financial result for many, many years, but it was only that because we got the best part of £20m for Eze. Last summer we didn’t sell anybody, and pushed the boat out a bit to get some big earners like Austin and Johansen on board, so I suspect the wage bill has gone up again, although obviously gate revenue has returned. Basically, we need another Eze-type sale in reasonably short order and the next cabs on the rank are probably Chris Willock who plays off the main striker, Jimmy Dunne a commanding and classy centre back we picked up from Burnley, or Sam Field who holds the midfield together and would still be playing for West Brom if he could ever stay injury free. Ilias Chair I like a lot, Rob Dickie likewise, and the goalkeeper Seny Dieng could go higher, but all three are either in poor form or injured right now. Our problem is so many players have all hit a wall of form and fitness at the same time – really, nobody has played particularly well for a month and we look tired and leggy.
Since Luton’s return to the Championship we’ve been unable to get the better of QPR, with the Hoops winning 4 of the last 5 games H2H. Despite this, what have you made of the progress Luton have made this season?
I thought you’d push for the play-offs before we started, and it looks like you’re going to. It’s been an interesting journey as a support base going from moneybags QPR, “everything that’s wrong with football”, just trying to buy our way out of this league and up the next one with disastrous consequences, to now where you’ll struggle to find a support base more clued in and savvy to the P&S rules, the club’s accounts, the financial situation. We’ve been burned, received a world record fine, nearly lost our club altogether on a couple of occasions, and I think once you go through that you view and value things a little bit differently than just always moaning “sign a fucking striker” – though we still do have that element among the fanbase naturally. Derby fans will probably think twice before cracking out the “Mel’s got you all on strings” memes next time you would think/hope. In that situation, competing against clubs just flagrantly ignoring the rules altogether, or in receipt of enormous parachute payments, it can feel dispiriting and a bit of a hopeless cause. So, actually, although there’s obviously no love lost between Luton and QPR, and this is not my favourite away trip, it is always heartening to see clubs on small resources showing that it is possible, if you scout and recruit cleverly, to compete and challenge at this level.
Time for some predictions - who do you think will (i) get automatic promotion, (ii) make the playoffs, and (iii) get relegated?
Fulham and I don’t know, though I don’t fancy Bournemouth for second as much as I did at the start given their run in. Play offs – I make a point never back against a Chris Wilder team. I’m dearly hoping Forest hurry up with their hilarious annual blow out. Bottom three – sadly pretty much as it is now, with Reading and that poxy ground of theirs once again doing just enough to survive and no more.
Finally, give us your score prediction for Sunday’s game…
If we play as we have in the last half dozen games – lacking intensity, zero attacking intent, pisballing about passing the ball around at the back - we’ll be beaten quite comfortably, 2-0. If we can rediscover the performance level, spirit and confidence of the 14 months prior to that then we’ll win. Sadly, after Saturday’s collapse against Cardiff, the former feels the more likely but we travel in hope as always.
With thanks to Clive Whittingham of LoftforWords. For more from Clive, then check out @LoftforWords (Twitter) or visit www.fansnetwork.co.uk/football/queensparkrangers.