Football: Francis' hopes for Hoops

Relegated or not, QPR's manager is in for a long haul.

ENGLAND HAD not long won the World Cup, Sergeant Pepper was still to be released and The Who were on their first American tour when those other Shepherds Bush heroes Queen's Park Rangers last played in the lower divisions of English football. Thirty-two years on from Rodney Marsh, Mark Lazarus and the Morgan twins, they could be back there by tea-time tomorrow.

After five successive defeats, the less-than-super-hoops go into their final game of the season at home to Crystal Palace with only three teams below them in the First Division. Bury are behind them only on number of goals scored and have a winnable home game with Port Vale.

It is a grim state of affairs for Gerry Francis, five years after being touted as the next England manager and seven months after returning to the club that was always his first love. As a player, he had captained them to within a whisker of the 1976 championship and during his first period as a manager, Rangers finished as London's top club in 1993 - an extraordinary achievement on such limited resources. Now he faces the prospect of derbies against Brentford and Leyton Orient, ancient rivals from the Third Division South, where Rangers spent most of their first 40 years in the Football League.

An anxious couple of days ahead then, Gerry? "The most anxious time I had was making the decision to come in the first place, which took seven or eight meetings. We were bottom of the table, six points adrift and it shocked me when I studied the balance sheets.

"The one object was to keep them up. I left a very good Premiership side behind me but for four years the club's been in decline. Results don't lie. In 40 away games I think they've won three, two since I've been here.

"You've got to say the squad needs improving and that's very difficult with no money, so the job of changing QPR around is not an easy one. If we survive it'll have been a really good achievement. Sunday is our cup final, no doubt about it, but the day after that the rebuilding starts and it's going to be a long haul."

After the miserable reigns of Stewart Houston and then Ray Harford (four wins in 35 games), Francis seemed to have turned things round remarkably quickly, claiming the division's manager of the month award in November as his revitalised team won four games out of five.

Then the injuries started: the oldest excuse in the managerial book but, in this case, not without substance. There are currently 10 players unavailable, most of them defenders. The Finn Antti Heinola has started three games and ended each one in hospital.

Goalscoring - one in the last five matches - is the other problem. Mike Sheron, the leading scorer, had to be sold, and when a Premiership striker was lined up for a loan transfer on deadline day, he decided he did not fancy it and went incommunicado.

Meanwhile the share price has dropped to 8p - Francis has one million of them, now worth considerably less than what he paid - and Chris Wright, the club's owner, says: "We are losing a lot of money and I'm propping things up with personal loans, which can't go on forever."

It is Wright, rather than his manager, who sounds anxious and may not sleep well tonight. "It would feel like the end of the world if we lost," he said. "It will be an agonising afternoon." For Francis: "I'm sleeping well. It's not so much the sleeping, it's when you wake up." One way or another, a new dawn awaits Queen's Park Rangers tomorrow.

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