Leon Balogun is quietly establishing himself as one of QPR’s key players this season.
The central defender has started seven of his side’s past eight games and the only defeat came at Luton, were Balogun was forced off after just 14 minutes with an injury.
His performance in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Wigan demonstrated why he is currently keeping Rob Dickie – not long ago seen as an almost certain starter whenever fit – out of the team. In a second half in which Rangers had to withstand long spells of pressure, Balogun’s blocks, tackles, interceptions and ability to win duels were crucial in securing another big three points.
Boss Mick Beale worked with Balogun as assistant manager to Steven Gerrard at Rangers and had high praise for the defender following the victory, which kept the R’s top of the Championship, and also admitted he had been left “flabbergasted” that he was able to sign a player of Balogun’s quality when the season had already begun.
“I had no doubts that he could come into this league and be a top centre-half,” Beale said.
“It was just about could he get up to speed, because he’d had no pre-season.
“He’s a quiet leader as well, Leon. He’s not someone who bellows about, but when young academy players come over, he’s always whispering in their ear and he’s always talking quietly in the changing room to some of those younger players.
“We were so lucky because we didn’t get him until late in the window, and I’m flabbergasted that he was still available.”
Saturday’s opponents Wigan, Balogun’s former club, were one of those interested in signing him this summer and talks were held over a potential return. But when QPR’s interest became clear, under a coach he had worked with before, the 34-year-old’s mind was made up.
Balogun believes his age was a factor in the amount of time it took for him to find a new club after leaving Rangers, and says it was tough not knowing what his future held.
“It was a long summer,” Balogun admitted.
“I stayed up in Glasgow the whole time just trying to stay fit and not to lose my mind, but it was very, very challenging. I can’t lie.
“That’s the game nowadays. They see a certain number, which is the age, and they are like ‘nah’.
“That’s what I had to deal with loads in the beginning, which obviously made it even more challenging because I know what I’m still capable of. It was just a matter of who is out there that believes in it?
“When QPR really had a go at me, I was like ‘right, let’s get this over the line. Let me reunite with Mick and see if we can be as successful as possible’.”
Some will no doubt have wondered whether QPR needed to sign another central defender.
With Jake Clarke-Salter having already been added to the defensive core of Jimmy Dunne and Dickie, it looked as though there might be a danger of having too much competition in that area. Conor Masterson was also a suitable option to provide minutes as a fourth choice, if needed.
But securing Balogun is looking more and more like one of QPR’s best bits of transfer business in what the early signs suggest has been a hugely successful window for the club.
Injuries plagued them throughout the second half of last season, and Beale has already had to deal with his fair share of injury issues since taking over as head coach.
Dickie, Dunne and Clarke-Salter have all had separate spells out, and without Balogun’s quality there is no doubt that QPR’s league position would have suffered as a result.
The superb start to the season threatened to be interrupted last week when Premier League club Wolves made an approach for Beale to become their new boss following the sacking of Bruno Lage.
But after turning the opportunity down, Balogun says Beale and his squad now have the chance to achieve something special this season.
“I think he said it himself: he feels like he’s got something good here, a good project,” Balogun said.
“He’s somebody that wants to be successful. He’s driven by success and wants to achieve great things.
“And what a great thing it would be if we can continue the journey that we are on at the moment.”
Only a couple of months ago, Balogun had been left wondering if his playing days at the elite level were perhaps finished.
Now he is at the very heart of QPR’s charge towards the Premier League.