McClaren in, Holloway and Smithies out – making sense of QPR’s summer

After another eventful summer, QPR are preparing to start a new season.

This time it’s with Steve McClaren at the helm, with Ian Holloway having lost his job as manager after the end of last season despite arguably more than fulfilling his brief.

The Financial Fair Play saga has finally been resolved, while Alex Smithies has left Loftus Road for a fee much lower than many fans would have expected.

End of the road for Ollie

Holloway and his supporters can claim with some justification that his sacking was harsh.

Given that his brief was to instill a much-needed sense of spirit and pride in the club while bringing through youngsters and working with a reduced budget, it was surely a case of job done.

His critics often cite his perceived reluctance to play with a back four, pointing to improved results when he did so as proof that he got it wrong for most of the season.

That totally ignores the fact that Holloway was without key players for large spells of the campaign and quickly reverted to a four when they were fit.

It also ignores the importance of the midfield trio of Josh Scowen, Massimo Luongo and Luke Freeman in getting more than enough points on the board to avoid a relegation scrap.

We’ll never know how Rangers would have fared with young Osman Kakay at right-back for most of the season, with Jack Robinson or the rarely trustworthy Joel Lynch often asked to play as a right-sided central defender in a back four. But that’s what Holloway’s critics were essentially calling for.

The uneasy coalition

The root of Holloway’s sacking stems from the circumstances which led to him being given the job in the first place.

While director of football Les Ferdinand and chief executive Lee Hoos were targeting Gary Rowett, believing they could prise him away from Birmingham City, Tony Fernandes was being heavily leant on by supporters of Holloway from his first spell as manager, who still had links to Rangers, urging him to either give him the job back or appoint former R’s winger Gareth Ainsworth.

At the time, there was a disconnect between the club and fans. Fernandes, who was increasingly the target of personal criticism, was advised that the only way to fix this was to install Holloway or Ainsworth as they would lift the malaise and unite the club.

The co-chairman was persuaded, particularly after running the idea by the club’s PR department – although a suggestion in Fernandes’ book that the club’s then PR man came up with the initial idea of appointing Holloway was absurd.

Word duly went out to Ferdinand and Hoos that were they unsuccessful with Rowett, the job would be going to Holloway.

So when Rowett stayed at Birmingham, it led to the formation of an uneasy coalition of Ferdinand and Hoos on one side and Holloway and Marc Bircham, who returned as assistant boss, on the other.

Despite being former team-mates and having a good personal relationship, Ferdinand and Holloway are very different characters.

Holloway’s theatrics, which included drastic changes of mind as well as public criticism of QPR supporters and fans of other clubs, was a world away from the quiet stability Ferdinand has been keen to instil.

The uneasy coalition was unsustainable.

There was particular consternation at Holloway’s conduct on his return to his former club Millwall the night Rangers lost 1-0 there in December. A strong word was had about that. Subsequent outbursts meant the decision was taken well before the end of last season that a new manager would be coming in.

Just as at the end of his first spell as manager, Holloway’s downfall was as much about difficulties in his relationships behind the scenes as results on the pitch.

Had results and performances been better, his position would have been stronger and perhaps he would have prevailed instead.

But with the owners facing a key decision, Ferdinand’s stock seemed to have risen among many fans because of the emergence of young players brought in on his watch, whereas support for Holloway seemed lukewarm. It was felt that his time was up.

Who was made to look good?

The apparent boost to Ferdinand’s standing leads to the question of who made who look good during Holloway’s spell as manager.

Holloway presided over the emergence of a number of youngsters but had little choice over the matter in the sense that he was told to continue with an overall strategy introduced by Ferdinand. Was he fortunate to come in at a time when talented young players were waiting to make their mark?

Or was Ferdinand, who was facing increasing criticism, fortunate that Holloway and Bircham were willing and able to kick-start young players who were arguably drifting? It’s very much open to interpretation.

Are the kids all right?

Another factor in the sacking of Holloway was the belief that Rangers’ youngsters needed a steadier hand to guide them. In a sense he contributed to his own downfall in that relegation was so comfortably avoided that the younger players were able to come into a side in no serious danger. But on the flip side, there was then a concern that it could potentially be more difficult for them in August, with no points on the board and under much more pressure. Again, Holloway’s volatile personality didn’t suggest things would stay on track if the youngsters started to wobble.

Penrice stays on

A big plus for the Rangers hierarchy was that Gary Penrice, the de facto chief scout albeit not employed on a staff contract, will continue to work for the club – largely because Ferdinand was already in the process of recruiting him before Holloway’s appointment sped things up.

That offers some continuity, although Penrice does not now quite have the same influence over transfers, for the time being at least.

Understandably, given that the pair are close friends and have worked together so closely for many years, Penrice effectively decided signings during Holloway’s time as manager. His word alone was enough for Holloway to approve a signing and the likes of Ferdinand then took care of negotiations. Penrice is still very much on board, but currently in the back seat. McClaren is an experienced manager with plenty ideas of his own.

The harsh reality of the Smithies sale

Smithies, on the other hand, is no longer on board, having been sold to Cardiff in a deal that will see QPR initially bank only £3m. It was a classic case of the market itself, not opinions, determining an asset’s value.

When Cardiff, managed of course by former R’s boss Neil Warnock, played at Loftus Road in January, informal discussions with Warnock and coach Ronnie Jepson – also formerly of QPR – left Rangers officials in absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Welsh club would make an approach for Smithies were they to win promotion.

Prior to that eventual approach, despite Smithies having been linked with moves for £8m and above to the likes of Aston Villa during previous transfer windows, there was not so much as an enquiry about him from any club during his entire three years at Rangers. Nothing.

That was the stone-cold reality facing Rangers when a bid actually came in.

The question then, for a club facing FFP restrictions, and regardless of how much they believe the player to be worth, or whether the offer was for £3m, £30m or 30p, is what might happen during the two remaining years of Smithies’ contract that will increase his market value? How would higher offers come about?

There had been no other offers. Cardiff had other options. He would not have signed another contract. He is 28 and probably unlikely to better the performances he produced during the 2016-17 season, when there were no clubs asking about him. If QPR ought to have sold him for more, how?

Money makes money

It’s also the case that Rangers’ ability to demand higher transfer fees is severely hampered by the fact they have generally not developed quality players over a long period.

When clubs, for example, approach Brentford, who have banked many millions by selling several players, they know that the bar is now set high in terms of what it will take to persuade a club with a surplus of funds to part with another player. That affects the said player’s market value.

Rangers, in contrast, are not in such a strong bargaining position, partly because of FFP and expiring parachute payments.

You have to start somewhere, and the process of QPR being run on financially solid ground is still only just starting. That has been reflected in the price of their first major sale of that process.

The club’s hope would be that while Smithies went for a modest sum, they can expect more for a player like Freeman. Then if other QPR players reach a level where there is interest in them, the bar is set much higher for buying clubs because Rangers would be negotiating from a much stronger financial position.

The bigger financial picture

Another very important consideration, easily overlooked amid the angst over Smithies’ sale, is the potential future values of both Matt Ingram and Joe Lumley. Looking at the Smithies price tag alone would be short-sighted.

Smithies staying, with his contract running down and his market value decreasing, would have also affected Rangers’ potential to develop two would-be assets in Ingram and Lumley. That would make less financial sense than reluctantly accepting a disappointing fee for Smithies.

There have always been high hopes for Ingram, who is well regarded inside the game, while Lumley going up the pecking order moves his career on as well. If those two progress, the net gain for QPR in the longer term is likely to be much greater for having taken the £3m for Smithies and avoided at least one of the club’s other keepers also slipping away for much less than they ought to.

Eze does it

QPR: Ebere Eze

There is bound to be speculation about Ebere Eze’s future if he continues to impress this season. His contract is due to expire next year. There is an option enabling Rangers to extend it by a further year, although the club are looking to tie him to a long-term deal.

Ruben’s the main man

QPR co-chairman Ruben Gnanalingam

Another significant change this summer was the £22m capitalisation of shares agreed as part of the FFP settlement. That further cemented the position as majority shareholder of Ruben Gnanalingam, who for some time has been the main man at QPR and much more involved in steering the club than Fernandes, despite the latter’s public profile.