Monsieur Salut says: stand by for a sharp, literate analysis of all that is wrong and the bits that are right about Saturday’s opponents, QPR, and what has gone awry for Sunderland. At least half a dozen headline-worthy phrases leap from Clive Whittingham‘s* answers. Clive, a business and sports journalist, is the editor of a QPR fan site, Loft For Words. I loved his one-line assessment of his club: ‘not big, or that good, but we’ve had some lovely players’.
Of players linked to both clubs, he admires the current but injured captain, Nedum Onuaha – remembered fondly for his wonder goal vs Chelsea for us but not, apparently, a favourite of all Hoops fans – but came close to adding Anton Ferdinand to his ‘worst players’ answer. As for us, he likes Simon Grayson but suspects we’ll end up firing him as the season progresses. Perhaps the kindest way of interpreting his remarks is that he thinks we’re a basket case …
Salut! Sunderland QPR have had a moderate start to the season, if rather better than our calamitous one. Are there signs you can move up the table and what is your expectation for the season?
Clive Whittingham: it is a better start to the season than many anticipated. QPR lost seven of their last eight matches last season and the financial situation we’re in – of which more later – meant it was a very quiet summer signings wise so optimism was thin on the ground by the time the first game came around.
We had a really good August, playing well and picking up three wins from a tough looking set of fixtures against two of last season’s playoff teams, two of this season’s promotion favourites and one of the relegated Premier League teams. September was supposed to be the month we recovered from a bad August with much more favourable games against Ipswich, Burton, Millwall, Barnsley and Fulham but we’ve sadly tailed off a bit, coinciding with all our central defenders getting injured at once. We’re 16th now and that’s about where I thought we’d finish before a ball was kicked, but there have been some worrying signs in the last few weeks, again I’ll expand on those as we go along.
Clive reckons 1-1 for Saturday, so that’s an official entry in the Guess the Score competition. Plenty of other possible scorelines, and loads of improbable ones, still available. Have a go, whoever you support, at https://safc.blog/2017/10/safc-vs-qpr-guess-the-score-quick-points-required-but-holloways-confident/
Has Ian Holloway’s return been a good or bad thing for your club?
Time will tell. He absolutely loves the club and had great times here as a player and a manager previously. I do worry what it will do to him if this doesn’t work out – he’s clearly an emotional bloke and he looked very badly affected by what happened at Palace and Millwall so I’m praying it goes well for his well being if nothing else.
He’s come into a difficult situation where the club is trying to halve its wage bill and then halve it again. The squad is mostly contracted up, and we’ve got one of the biggest squads in the league, so there’s not a lot of money or salary space around to make new signings. If he can get through to next summer a lot of our top earners come out of contract so that’ll free up some space to trade.
When he arrived the general consensus was we had a better team than Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s overly cautious approach was allowing them to show. Holloway was brought in to “rub off on them a bit” and be a bit more adventurous. He promptly lost six of his first seven games and spent January doing the standard QPR six players out and six players in transfer window. There have been signs through February, March and August that he might get us going, playing a nice quality of football through three ball players in midfield. But equally there have been periods of wild team selections and long losing runs.
And what is your assessment of the present ownership structure and its ability (and Holloway’s) to get you back up and keep[ you up?
The club is owned by The Tune Group, for whom Tony Fernandes is the front man. Sadly having provided us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to cement our place at the top table they absolutely blew it, throwing good money after bad with first Mark Hughes and then Harry Redknapp.
All the Premier League money from three seasons up there, all the TV money, all the prize money, all the money that Tune put in, was all spent on s*** footballers and their slimy agents. QPR spent £300m and now have nothing to show for it – a creaking old stadium, a substandard rented training ground, a makeshift rented academy set up. Zero investment in infrastructure, and the fancy big name players turned out to be awful, both as footballers and human beings. We went from being sort of everybody’s second favourite club, a club of Stan Bowles and the like, to being “everything that’s wrong with football” and we have absolutely nothing to show for it long term.
We’re now in a position where we have to take our medicine. We’ve breached FFP once and await the arbitration verdict on that punishment. To avoid breaching it again we’re trying to get under the £39m loss over three years barrier – in year one with the maximum parachute payment, £4m from selling Charlie Austin and £10m from Raheem Sterling’s Man City move we lost £11m so it’s going to be tight. We’ve nicked Burnley’s excellent CEO Lee Hoos to oversee it and he’s great. I personally think Les Ferdinand is doing a good job as director of football – something we desperately needed between our chancer managers and naïve board when Hughes and Redknapp were chucking our money away on Kia Joorabchian and Willie McKay clients. But he’s copping stick from supporters who’ve become used to this big-spending QPR always making a raft of signings – despite the fact that never worked for us.
I am concerned that going for Holloway is us going back to a “what the manager wants the manager gets” model which just doesn’t work in the modern game, but he’s already made a couple of very good, cheap, additions in Luke Freeman and Josh Scowen and brought in a very astute and experienced scouting team.
Looking at your squad reminds me how much we’re having to learn about Championship players, our own parade of new recruits included. Who is capable of doing a lot of damage to us and where are you weak?
The best bit of the team is the midfield three of Massimo Luongo, Josh Scowen and Luke Freeman – although Luongo has been away with Australia this week and often doesn’t play on the Saturday after those long trips. We also have arguably the division’s best goalkeeper Alex Smithies, who was briefly and half-heartedly linked with Sunderland in the summer and frankly how he’s still with us nobody is quite sure.
We’re weak up front where our biggest goal threat, Idrissa Sylla, doesn’t conform to Holloway’s defend from the front, high-press style as much as the manager would like and therefore doesn’t play as often as he should. Conor Washington has struggled for goals since moving up from Peterborough, Jamie Mackie is tireless but is never going to be prolific, Matt Smith can be a threat in the air but we don’t really play with wingers so we don’t service him correctly and when he does play we’re far too keen to just punt it long to him, cutting out our excellent midfield.
We’re not too clever in defence either. Nedum Onuoha is injured long term. Joel Lynch specialises in getting too tight to opposition strikers, getting rolled, then screaming at Jake Bidwell when they score. Grant Hall is decent but always injured. Jack Robinson is playing well but always injured. Alex Baptiste I’ve always considered a bit of a clogger but he’s come in and done well for us so far.
Of course, one QPR man has a special place in our hearts – Nedum Onuaha for his great goal at Chelsea when we unbelievably won 3-0 in 2010 only about 10 months after losing 7-2 there and feeling we’d got off lightly. What’s he like for you and as captain?
I like him, many don’t. There’s this school of thought that’s grown up and somehow become fact that Onuoha doesn’t talk enough to be the captain. How people would know that, not having ever played or trained with him, I don’t know. The players themselves say it’s nonsense but the sort of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing football supporter every club has among its fan base, who thinks not only that the captaincy is vitally important but also that you’re not fulfilling the role correctly unless you’re bleeding from a head wound and screaming in somebody’s face, say he’s not a “pwopah leadah”. Good Championship defender, intelligent guy, excellent captain and representative of the club in my opinion. But his hamstring has exploded so he’s out until Christmas.
Best moments as a QPR supporter and worst?
Best moments, beating Oldham in the playoff semi-final at Loftus Road when Ian Holloway’s first team was in the midst of fighting its way back up the leagues. Finally sealing that promotion a year later at Sheffield Wednesday. Beating Liverpool 3-2 having trailed 2-0 with 14 minutes left. The whole Warnock promotion season was a managerial masterclass.
The Bobby Zamora goal in the last minute of the playoff final was probably the greatest single day as a QPR fan, but it was soured slightly by the money spent, the manager and the players involved. QPR spent the thick end of £100m on a Championship team, and squeezed up by the skin of their teeth with their only shot of the final. They promptly wasted all the Premier League money again (for the third time) and came straight back down with Redknapp (who’d said he was “thinking of what golf club to get a membership at” during the final when he thought we were going to lose) proclaiming that all our away games were “bonus matches” and losing the first 12 of them. The first one after he left, at Sunderland, we won.
I found that whole period under Hughes and Redknapp really tough. I hated the managers, most of the players, and everything the club was coming to stand for. I stopped going to England games when I realised I actively hated nine of the starting 11 and to feel like that about my own club was really disheartening. We’re having tough times on the field at the moment, but the players are trying their best, the manager’s a good fella and we’re trying to get back to doing things in a way that works for us when we get it right.
Best players you’ve seen in the hoops?
So many. We’re not big, or that good, but we’ve had some lovely players, even in my 25 years following them. David Bardsley and Clive Wilson the full backs, Andy Sinton/Trevor Sinclair and Andy Impey the wingers, feeding crosses in for Les Ferdinand was an amazing set up. Roy Wegerle, Adel Taarabt, Alejandro Faurlin, superb technical footballers. There’s also special love for a lot of Ian Holloway’s first team, which was assembled on the cheap after administration and got us promoted out of the Second Division – Chris Day, Steve Palmer, Danny Shittu, Lee Cook, Martin Rowlands, Gareth Ainsworth, Paul Furlong, Marc Bircham, Kevin Gallen. A really great team. As was Warnock’s side with the likes of Helguson, Derry, Hill, Routledge.
And anyone who should have been allowed nowhere near Loftus Road?
Basically everybody signed by Hughes and Redknapp between 2012 and 2015 – and those two shouldn’t have been near the place either. Special mentions for Jose Bosingwa, Shaun Wright-Phillips (signed by Warnock full disclosure) and Lord C*ntleroy himself Joey Barton.
Links between our clubs include, without looking anything up, Clive Walker, Peter Reid, Tommy Smith, Anton Ferdinand. Any quick thoughts on any of them and who shopuld I have mentioned?
Anton Ferdinand nearly made the previous question. Absolutely f****** useless. Typical of QPR at that time to get rid of a better centre back on a quarter the salary (Kaspars Gorkss) and replace him with that absolute weapon. Peter Reid played central midfield for us with Ray Wilkins – probably the slowest central midfield ever fielded in the world game, somehow it worked beautifully for a couple of months. Tommy Smith an underrated player, good lad for us, important goals in the Warnock promotion season, again discarded swiftly when we get all Bertie Big Potatoes with the money and replaced by somebody earning ten times as much and trying half as hard. Clive Walker, shame his willy kept falling out of his trousers like that.
Djibril Cisse played for both. He looked amazing when he first signed for us, scoring seven goals in nine games and getting sent off for raw lunacy in the other two. Sadly lost interest pretty quickly the following season.
Bring us up to date on the Linford Christie stadium – and what it would take for QPR to fill it.
QPR would like to build a stadium in the Old Oak Common development which is being billed as like a new Canary Wharf/Docklands type project with all manner of high rise housing/businesses, railway stations, HS2 etc etc a couple of miles away. But it’s a complicated site with lots of players, and whether they’ll want valuable land taken up by a football ground anyway… That’s the big one for our Asian owners you feel, and probably why they’re still around. The Linford Christie Stadium is the dishevelled athletics ground for Thames Valley Harriers about half a mile north of where we are now. Again, hugely complicated site as it’s metropolitan open land, protected by its own act of parliament, and access conflicts with a prison and, more importantly, a hospital.
QPR will be at Loftus Road for the foreseeable. Just to come back to the earlier FFP problem – QPR costs £9m to operate before a single salary is paid. That’s upkeep of Loftus Road, policing, drainage, rent of the training ground, rent of the youth facilities. Loftus Road brings in £5.6m in season ticket sales, so you see our problem straight away. Loftus Road is on a four and a half acre site, the CEO says when they’re looking at sites for a new stadium they consider 12 acres “tight” so you can also see the problems our current home presents.
I love it though. If I had to go to the Ricoh Arena or St Mary’s or Pride Park every week I just wouldn’t bother.
Any thought on Sunderland – club, fans, city & region, Simon Grayson?
I think you’ve got a very good manager in Simon Grayson and I was pleased somebody had noticed what a great job he was doing at Preston. But my impression is you’re a club that’s been circling the drain for sometime, and actually surviving by the skin of your teeth so often allowed problems to manifest and grow, papered over by Premier League status. I didn’t expect either you or Hull to do anything in this league this season and it looks like I’m going to be right. You’ve had a lot of managers, of varying quality and style, who’ve had success elsewhere, and they’ve all failed equally dramatically with you – that tells me there’s something much more deeply wrong than simply having the wrong manager or making a couple of poor signings.
Where will each of our clubs finish?
I think (hope) we’ll be able to hold the position we’re currently in or higher. I fear we might slide a bit further. Sunderland will be somewhere in the bottom half and probably change the manager again half way through.
Your impressions of the quality of football in the Championship?
Absolute pits, but I much prefer it to the over-hyped, over-exposed, over-rated Premier League. I was disappointed the so-called “whole game solution” didn’t get off the ground with Football League clubs. It would have seen the size of the leagues and the number of fixtures cut down which personally I think would be a good thing. At the moment there are too many games, and the league’s bizarre insistence on placing your longest away trips on Tuesday nights exacerbates the problem. It encourages attritional, risk-averse, basic football. Just dig in and grind the results out. How many teams that have won promotion from this league have actually been really good to watch? Tigana’s Fulham, Warnock’s QPR, arguably Rodgers’s Swansea though I found them dull as hell.
It’s a grind. Every year somebody will tell you it’s the toughest Championship ever and it never is, it’s just the same mediocre mush as the previous years.
And refereeing (our lot are whingeing already)?
Surprisingly good for us this season. Apart from the Millwall game which Premier League referee Roger East made a complete pig’s ear of, our games have been calmly and sensibly officiated by a decent bunch of Championship referees.
Is diving a dead issue or is it still worth trying to stamp out along with other forms of cheating?
You can only keep doing what they’re doing and booking players for it where possible. I think referees have got to be more willing to award penalties when players don’t go down, but there’s still an offence – part of the problem is if you’re fouled but don’t go down you never get a penalty awarded. But it’s basically players cheating isn’t it, trying to con each other and the referee, bit much to be blaming officials for that. This retrospective punishment idea is nice in theory but to see how it won’t work in practice you need only to look at Marcus Rashford’s clear and obvious dive for a penalty against Swansea last season. Absolutely blatant cheating and yet during the half time analysis you had Michael Owen and A N Other in the studio both saying it was a penalty because he’s moved his feet to avoid getting hurt (total nonsense). If they’d been on the retrospective punishment panel he’d presumably have been found not guilty, when he obviously was.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
First one I’m missing this season, thanks to an annual work trip. Usually there home and away. I’ll say 1-1.
* Clive Whittingham on himself:
Third generation QPR fan despite being born in Grimsby. Season ticket holder and home and away attender for 25 years. Edited the LoftforWords website for 11 seasons. Day job is news editing a television business magazine, and covering football for The Daily Telegraph.
Interview: Colin Randall