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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Remembering Another Bad Time: When it Looked Like Things Couldn't Get Worse

After a weekend return of Ian Holloway to Loftus Road, yesterday (February 26) ironically marked the sixth anniversary of QPR's appointment of Holloway as manager. For almost exactly five years, QPR went through the Holloway era which included both good and bad times both on and off the field. It also included Holloway speeches such as this

Below is an article from the start of Holloway's coming to QPR outlining the problems QPR confronted. Until relatively recently, it looked like the bad days were coming to an end and that QPR were gradually - if painfully - were slowing emerging from the morass.

Rangers disease has fans reaching for the pills
Sean Smith/Soccernet - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

There is an American site on the internet called www.qprinstitute.org, which won't mean anything to most football fans. But in a certain corner of West London the irony of its name and what it stands for has not been lost.

The site opens with the words: 'If you came to this site because you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, please contact a counselor (sic), mental health center (sic) or emergency services.' Many fans of the West London club would be convinced that this is a kindly message of help from their own club. But in the US QPR stands for 'Question, Persuade, Refer' - in other words it's a site for Suicide Prevention Training.

In the UK these days, the same three letters bundled together stand for something very similar. And Monday's decision by QPR's board of directors to appoint Ian Holloway to replace the retiring Gerry Francis as manager had many fans wondering whether this was just another good reason to reach for the bottle of pills by the bedside table. The decision was forced on acting bosses Nick Blackburn and David Davies because the chairman, Chris Wright, is in a sulk after someone shouted at him during another humiliating home defeat.

Since relegation from the Premiership in 1996 times have been hard both on and off the Loftus Road pitch. But relegation was just another symptom of an ongoing disease which was first diagnosed when Jim Gregory - the man who made QPR what it was in the modern era - sold the club to a corporation in 1986. It took a decade for the full-blown illness to appear.

Gregory, who began a successful motor trade business selling vans outside Shepherd's Bush Market, had taken the club from Third Division (South) to the pinnacle of English football and then on into Europe. When he gave the club up he promised the fans that he would sell the club judiciously.

His instincts as a former used car salesman, though, got the better of him and as Gregory retired into obscurity Marler Estates attempted to amalgamate the club with neighbours Fulham. Although fan protests assuaged then-chairman David Bulstrode's desire to meddle with history, worse was to come.

With the death of Bulstrode from a heart attack in 1988, 24-year-old David Thompson took over the chairmanship and the systematic despoiling of the West London club began in earnest. Immediately the impact of Thompson's naivety and sometimes open contempt for the club began to take effect. The season before he arrived QPR finished fifth in the top flight yet soon mid-table obscurity became the rule of thumb until Thompson's policy of selling top players finally took effect and QPR were relegated in 1996.

In Thompson's brief reign (before he left to achieve his long-held ambition of owning a share in Leeds United) QPR had released an entire team of Premiership class players; including four England internationals (David Seaman, Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton and Paul Parker).

Thompson also chased away Gerry Francis, who transcended the mid-table obscurity with a fifth-place finish in 1993, in his first spell as boss by constantly undermining his authority - particularly when he invited Rodney Marsh onto the board without consulting his manager.

Although there had been some astute buys in the interim (Trevor Sinclair, £750,000; Gavin Peacock, £1.2m) most of the money was wasted or simply disappeared. A typical example is the £1million spent on Australian midfielder Ned Zelic on the strength of a videotape - he returned from whence he came within weeks of arriving complaining of claustrophobia in a big city.

When Chris Wright took over at the helm a new dawn looked certain. The fact that he was a rich benefactor with a 20-year affection for the club added to supporters hopes. But the man who had proved himself a tiger in the music business performed like a wounded teddy bear in the erratic football business world. His plan to amalgamate the club with a rugby club sent shivers down the spines of those fans who remembered all too vividly the constant pitch demonstrations and sit-ins Fulham Park Rangers created.

Wright's plan worked for a time as the new company, Loftus Road plc, was oversubscribed and performed well on the Altenative Investments Market (AIM). Shares rose as high as 108p when they were first floated, but inaccurate business forecasts and poor form on the pitch saw the price tumble to as low as 7 pence. They now stand a single penny higher. Fans who had dreamt of owning a share of their club had got their wish, but in reality they ended up owning a piece of nothing.

As QPR continued to suffer under Ray Wilkins, then Stewart Houston with Bruce Rioch and finally with Ray Harford as boss, Wright eventually managed his only notable achievement to date - persuading Gerry Francis to return to the club he once skippered to second in the old First Division.

But Francis was left to work with the carcass of the club he once knew. What Thompson hadn't plundered and Wright hadn't speculated away, Vinnie Jones' contract had robbed through a mixture of arrogance, ignorance and desperation. Jones was brought from Wimbledon for £500,000 to save QPR from relegation. But thanks to the kind of contract players often dream about, he was allowed to go on strike when he wasn't offered Hardford's recently vacated post and then forced the club to pay off his contract (around £1million) while he pursued his movie career. The Jones debacle sums up QPR's fiscal meltdown.

Despite Francis taking on, and mainly succeeding, in the monumental task of cutting the wage bill in half while still maintaining a respectable squad Francis neglected the fundamentals on the training pitch and the first team's form slid.

QPR finished just shy of the play-off places twice since relegation to the First Division but league form continued to be precarious and the West London club twice avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth - saved the first time thanks to a Jamie Pollock own-goal which sent Manchester City down instead in 1998 and a 6-0 win against Crystal Palace on the last day of the season the following year.

Tenth place under Gerry Francis last season seemed to signal a revival but, even with new players coming in Francis' training methods and tactical nous came into question. The first team squad picked up 26 serious injuries in a season-and-a-half, including six broken legs in six months, and picked up just one win in 19 games since September.

Francis' insistance that he would retire at the end of the season and his refusal to talk to the 18 players out of contract at the end of the season have gone a long way to unsettling a squad which showed a tendency towards brittleness. His negativity in after-match press conferences and constant complaining about the lack of money led to the unprecedented step of a rival manager, Crewe's Dario Gradi, launching a scathing attack on Francis' excuses.

But when Chris Wright stepped down as chairman at the beginning of the month and Francis announced his retirement a fortnight ago, the club suddenly looked exposed. Nobody wanted to take the club on, nobody even wanted to work for it. Coaching staff disappeared as the managerless club floated for ten days in limbo. Most notably Des Bulpin left for relegation rivals Stockport ahead of his former protegee, Ian Holloway's arrival this week.

The fans are 50/50 about the employment of Ian Holloway as the new first-team manager. Many see him as a miracle worker at Bristol Rovers, the more myopic see a man who is too young (37), little experience and was sacked for failure at a relegation-threatened Second Division club less than four weeks ago.

That said he has oodles of optimism and with little or no money likely to be available for some considerable time, Holloway's self-belief and determination to succeed might be the perfect antidote for the club.

Luck and optimism are pretty much all QPR have left to trade on. It's a desperation perhaps personified in the choice of mascot at QPR: Jude, the Stadium Cat. Jude (named after the club's original title, St Jude's) is a six-foot black cat in the spitting image of a real feline who walked into the stadium two years ago when the club was adrift at the bottom of the First Division and at its lowest ebb. The staff took him in and fed him and, low and behold, QPR climbed the table and, finished out of the relegation places come the end of May.

QPR and Jude, though, are running out of lives and with a chairman who wants out and a jittery board will there be anyone left to feed the cat if the Second Division swallows the club at the end of the season? If the board and boss do leave would the last one out please leave out a saucer of milk - it could be the club's only hope. Soccernet

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