Lessons from QPR’s relegation battle

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 2 April 2012

Shall we do the old-school stand-up comedian intro? OK [adjusts tie, beams perfect white smile]: Queen’s Park Rangers, eh? What’s that all about?

A quick relegation zone review: Wolves appear doomed, but 16th through 19th in the Prem — Wigan Athletic, QPR, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton — are split by just one point, at least until Blackburn kicks off against Manchester United on Monday. It’s so tight we might have to start inventing new words, such as “squeechy.” And that’s even without the possibility of Aston Villa being dragged down into the cloying mess. 

As Leo Tolstoy would have written if he hadn’t been sidetracked by the Napoleonic wars and Russian agricultural policy: Happy football clubs are all alike; every unhappy football club is unhappy in its own way. And, although the flaws apparent in Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton are well documented, there are some salutary lessons that can be drawn from QPR’s malaise for other promoted teams.

Unlike its three fellow strugglers, QPR has changed its manager this season, a not uncommon move for a newly promoted but struggling team. There’s a wider question here: Is the manager who gets a team promoted the best person to keep it up the next season? Generally, if a manager gets a team promoted, he gets first option on trying to keep the side up. Although it feels fair to let the manager try, there’s also an obvious logic: He knows the players’ qualities; they know his style; and presumably between them they’ve found a way of playing football that works to a certain extent. However — fairness aside, this being football — the challenge for each scenario is radically different. In a promotion season, the manager’s task is to take one of the stronger teams in a division into the top two or three; in a battling-relegation season, it’s basically the opposite: The team will be generally weaker, and points are to be scrapped for, not amassed.

West Bromwich Albion is the most recent example of when the decision to ditch a promotion manager makes sense. Last season, the Baggies summarily replaced Roberto Di Matteo, who had overseen promotion, with Roy Hodgson, who guided them to security. One kind of manager for being relatively good, another when you’re relatively bad; that Di Matteo has made a promising impact at Chelsea, one of the better teams in the division and in Europe, might reinforce that supposition in a tiny way.

Neil Warnock, of course, is a proven manager when it comes to getting teams out of divisions in the upward direction: He’s been promoted seven times with six clubs, twice into the Premier League. But his last crack at the top flight ended in relegation, albeit in controversial circumstances, as West Ham United was permitted to keep the points gained while playing Carlos Tevez despite having concealed the facts regarding his ownership from the FA. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, Warnock’s Sheffield United team was hardly convincing on the pitch, and QPR’s decision to sack Warnock this season was inspired by a run of two points in eight games. For all that he was personally disappointed in the decision, it made sense.

Replacing him with Mark Hughes made sense, too. Hughes is a better manager than he is sometimes given credit for — the problem being the overriding impression that he thinks he’s even better than that — and his four years at Blackburn represent a decent precedent for a club in QPR’s situation. Taking over with Rovers in 19th and some trouble in 2004, Hughes finished a safe 15th in his first season, then sixth, 10th and seventh in the next three. There was a reason he got the Manchester City job in 2008, after all, and, although he didn’t make the most of that, he would have acquired plenty of experience with those players who are, shall we say, a touch delicate around the ego. But, although Hughes has done slightly better than Warnock in one sense, with QPR taking 11 points from 11 games as opposed to his predecessor’s 17 from 20, Hughes has been disappointing in another sense: Rangers were 17th when he took over and are 18th as things stand.

There is much dispute over whether changing managers has much of a positive effect in general, but one consequence for QPR has been in the composition of the squad. On securing promotion before the start of this season, QPR followed the traditional approach to bolstering for survival — spend as much cash as you can find on Premier League experience. In cameArmand Traore, Danny Gabbidon, Kieron Dyer (no, really, he did), Shaun Wright-PhillipsJoey BartonAnton Ferdinand, plus Nedum Onuoha on loan — and, suddenly, however involved he was in the shopping, the team that Warnock was used to winning with, and that was used to winning with him, was gone.

Naturally, Hughes’ appointment inspired another round of purchasing in the January transfer window — Samba DiakiteTaye TaiwoDjibril CisseBobby Zamora — and so another tranche of players had to be integrated into the mishmash; Cisse hasn’t helped by picking up seven games in suspensions for two acts of credulity-stretching buffoonery.

QPR is also on the wrong end of precedent. Although statistics that take the creation of the Premier League in 1992 as their jumping-off point are generally symptomatic of the supine and tragic surrender of the national game to the power of money, they make sense in this context. That, after all, was the decoupling of the Premier League from the pyramid beneath, and, in the years of financial drift that have followed, only once, in the 2001-02 season, have all three promoted teams survived their first season in the EPL.

In some ways, QPR has been a little unfortunate that its co-promotees — which both finished below QPR last season — are doing quite well. Not only might you have expected one or the other to be an alternative candidate for relegation, but the ease with which Norwich and Swansea have taken to the Premier League throws a rather unflattering light on QPR, a club of significantly greater resources. Although they go about their actual football in different ways — Paul Lambert rotating his squad and adapting his tactics to opponents, Brendan Rodgers showing possession-based soccer to be his favorite fetish — they are, to the external eye at any rate, similar models of survival: stick to what you know.

Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson from Norwich and Swansea this season, along with Blackpool’s near miss last season, is that any team coming up would be better off eschewing the temptation to grab as many Premier League players as it can. In terms of talent, there might not be as much of a gap between the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League as Sky Sports would like you to believe. Norwich’s most expensive summer signing was Steve “One R” Morison from Millwall, and Swansea’s was Danny “Golden” Graham from Watford; both have had significantly more impact than, say, Shaun Wright-Phillips despite starting the season with fewer topflight appearances between them than the ex-Chelsea and Manchester City winger has England caps. It seems reasonable to assume, furthermore, that Wright-Phillips’ wages dwarf those of most Norwich and Swansea players.

It was reported this week that QPR, in its promotion season, had a wage bill of about 29.7 million pounds, which amounted to a startling 183 percent of its turnover. Although Premier League revenues are obviously larger, the addition of players on first-team Premier League wages will have increased QPR’s costs, as well, and (admittedly unsourced) rumors have been circulating that the contracts of several players don’t include the usual reduction-in-the-case-of-relegation clauses. Although the details of Tony Fernandes’ takeover of QPR mean the club’s remaining debt is considered “soft” — that is, the monies are owed to shareholders — the whole picture adds up to an expensive gamble that’s much closer to failing than succeeding, particularly given that QPR’s final 10 games include all of the top five and only two from the bottom half.

And yet, cruelly anticipating your correspondent’s plans for this piece, this Saturday, QPR beat Arsenal 2-1, a performance of coherence, commitment and capitalization on comedy defending. Two games before that, QPR profited from an outrageous and hilarious Liverpool collapse to win 3-2; two games before that, it drew 1-1 with Everton, one of the form teams of the second half of the season. Seven points, where Rangers might easily have taken none.

Indeed, were it not for Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn’s own mini-resurgences, QPR might already have bought itself a little bit of breathing space. And that perhaps might be the most worrying thing of all for Hughes, his team and his club’s owners. Because, really, the absolute best way to stay in the Premier League is to serendipitously stumble across three teams worse than you. If QPR can’t rely on that, it might be in real trouble.


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