This was a season that began with indifference before a ball was even kicked, started disastrously, saw a miraculous recovery then faded badly. This is arguably a microcosm of Queens Park Rangers Football Club as a whole, yet distilled into one single season.
The season started off with a new manager, in the shape of former England supremo Steve McClaren, yet ended without one as the merry go round continues on this one big roller coaster ride. That is QPR for you. It is likely that supporters of many other clubs could say the same about their club but at QPR there really is never a dull moment.
After the final ball had been kicked, the Sky Bet Championship table shows that the team finished in 19th place with 51 points having won 14 , lost 23 and drawn 9 matches. It is often said the table does not lie and this is probably a fair reflection of QPR’s overall season performances, 11 points off relegation but a million miles from promotion and the playoffs.
It could be argued that this is about right for a club of QPR’s size, history and current financial standing, especially after being hit with the punishments of the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations. Whilst every now and again there are glory times for clubs like QPR, evidenced by two recent dalliances in the Premier League, on the whole this could be considered to be the natural order and QPR’s rightful position in the football pyramid.
Yet the owners and supporters always want more, the players too. Dare to dream has been the club’s mantra in recent times and why not, for what is football or indeed life without hope ? However, such dreaming in QPR’s case must be caveated with huge dollops of reality check. The club is what it is, despite what anyone says.
The summer of 2018 saw the appointment of McClaren after the slightly contentious removal of QPR legend, Ian Holloway. The ‘wally with the brolly’ tag will never leave McClaren and his appointment was treated with indifference by the Rangers faithful. This was certainly not helped by a terrible start in which McClaren’s total football concept was proved to be totally inappropriate for a team without the skill required to play in that way. Four defeats from the opening four matches hinted at disaster.
Yet from this perilous position, remarkably there emerged hope with two excellent winning runs coming before Christmas propelling the team to the heady heights of 8th position.
This was aided by some decent loan signings, especially the experience of Nahki Wells and Geoff Cameron to lighten the load on the youngsters, about whom much had been hoped and expected.
Home victories were regular and expected. There were wins away at the likes of Nottingham Forest breaking an 84 year hoodoo and after a very spirited 2-2 draw at Aston Villa on New Years Day with stunning strikes from Rangers most naturally talented ball players, Luke Freeman and Ebere Eze, Rangers looked like a really proper and competitive football team.
Then the wheels came off. A few narrow defeats and any faint chances of promotion vanished. An unusually successful FA Cup campaign which had included victories over both Leeds and Portsmouth, league leaders of their respective divisions at the time, was unfortunately and unluckily brought to an end by Watford in front of the BBC TV cameras on a Friday night and that was about that.
The season had effectively ended. There was nothing left to play for as all hope had been extinguished. The players knew it and the supporters sensed their feelings. All real motivation and desire had gone, whatever anyone might say. The players roused themselves for the visit of Leeds, when a Freeman masterclass brought Loftus Road to its feet, but this could be contrasted with terribly lethargic home defeats to the likes of Bolton and Rotherham.
McClaren could not arrest the decline and this led to his ultimate dismissal. Performance levels dropped alarmingly and the fight and spirit of earlier in the season was sadly missing. Furthermore, it was disappointing that some of the young bucks, who McClaren had arguably been charged with developing, had been loaned out just when this was an ideal opportunity to give them valuable game time without the pressure.
Bright Osayi-Samuel was retained and he really benefitted from the exposure and was arguably Rangers’ best performing player in the final couple of months. However, the likes of Paul Smythe, Ilias Chair and Aramide Oteh were plying their trade on loan in the lower leagues and, in the case of Chair especially and Smythe, they performed exceptionally well. Hopefully their return will be harnessed successfully next season.
There were positives in the emergence of Joe Lumley as a promising young keeper; the general solidity and leadership of German club captain Toni Leistner whose value was arguably most evident when he was not playing; the charisma and character of Angel Rangel; the skill and poise of both Eze and Freeman at various stages of the season; the promise of Osayi-Samuel, the goalscoring quality of Wells (penalty kicks excluded) and the enduring battling qualities and goal scoring of the much maligned Matt Smith.
Yet amongst the cameos and highlights, there were a lot of very average and mediocre performances with huge inconsistency. Few will be lamenting the release of Lynch, Baptiste and Cousins and whilst Wszolek and Bidwell had a far stronger case to be retained. Rangers are having to operate on a limited budget and there are enough young wingers and full backs within the squad who should be able to adequately fill their roles at a fraction of the cost. Furthermore, reinforcements will be needed if Rangers are to maintain their status in this league.
On the managerial front, Rangers yet again chopped and changed. Whilst McClaren was eventually ousted, it must be said that once he worked out a style of play that suited the players at his disposal, he did achieve some notable successes. At various stages of the season, on the back of some excellent away performance and cup runs, there was a rare confidence and swagger about the club and Rangers not only looked a decent attacking force but became difficult to beat.
However, the decline once Rangers exited the FA Cup was extremely disappointing and whilst some may say that McClaren’s sacking was harsh, there was clearly a motivational issue that needed addressing. Rangers had been desperately unlucky too with the number of injury time goals conceded but this does not regularly happen to the better teams. Football is about so much more than luck.
John Eustace, a likeable and honest man who was McClaren’s deputy, stepped into the breach and arrested the decline with a couple of good wins to re-inject some hope and pride back into the club. Indeed Matt Smith’s stunning volley in added time to win at Hillsborough, the scene of one of Rangers’ finest hours back in May 2004 when they gained automatic promotion to Division One, was as unexpected as it was ironic after all that had gone before. It certainly brought a smile to the Rangers players and supporters after another topsy turvy campaign.
So, looking back on the season as a whole, it really was a sense of falling, rising and falling for Rangers. At times there was excitement and promise yet there were too many dark hours too. At least Championship survival was achieved yet more is expected from its ambitious owners and ever hopeful supporters.
Another new manager , Mark Warburton, has been installed and yet another chapter begins in the colourful story of Queens Park Rangers. Can he bring success back to Loftus Road and see Rangers rise again ?