Commentary: Holloway taps into 'player power' to fuel Rangers' rise

Queen's Park Rangers 1 - West Ham United 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online

More than a quarter into the season and it seems the Championship's inaugural sponsors should have been a Lilliput-based company. Wolves, Nottingham Forest and Coventry flounder; Leicester, Leeds and Derby stagnate; West Ham struggle with expectations. While those giants toil, Wigan, Reading and Queen's Park Rangers, with a combined average gate of 13,141, fill the top three places.

More than a quarter into the season and it seems the Championship's inaugural sponsors should have been a Lilliput-based company. Wolves, Nottingham Forest and Coventry flounder; Leicester, Leeds and Derby stagnate; West Ham struggle with expectations. While those giants toil, Wigan, Reading and Queen's Park Rangers, with a combined average gate of 13,141, fill the top three places.

The odd ones out in this upstart trio are QPR and not because only they have previously appeared in the top flight. Unlike Wigan and Reading, they are not bankrolled by a millionaire. Instead they came into the season with £1.7m in tax debts, an annual £1m bill to service the loan that helped them escape administration, and an expected £4m-plus loss on the financial year.

It is a heavy burden for any club to carry, especially a newly-promoted one. Having been unable to invest in players, Rangers, a Premiership team as recently as 1996, struggled initially this season. With an instant return to the twilight divisions looming, even the future of Ian Holloway, the club's popular manager, was in jeopardy.

Then the players took responsibility. "Player power" is a pejorative phrase at present. Sven Goran Eriksson is criticised for accommodating it; John Toshack's prospects of managing Wales may be scuppered by it; new French coach Raymond Domenech could be brought down by it. At Loftus Road, however, the dressing-room lawyers have been a force for good.

Marc Bircham, Rangers' version of Robbie Savage, said of Holloway: "He's the most honest and enthusiastic bloke you'll ever meet. Everyone trusts him with their lives and we're all behind him. When there was the ridiculous speculation about his job they said he had six games left to save it. It pulled us all together.

"We said, 'his job's on the line here' and we've pulled our finger out. He had six games, well we've won seven on the trot."

Holloway is of the "matey manager" mould. The players have nicknamed him Gollum after The Lord of the Rings character. In response he and his children mocked up a look-a-likes board at the training ground. Bircham is twinned with Donatella Versace, Danny Shittu with Shrek, and so on.

"At some clubs the relationship between the manager and players is a bit frosty," Bircham added, "a case of us and them. Here it is a pleasure to come training. We have a laugh - but we do our work."

It helps that several players used to support the club, Bircham included, and respect Holloway for the effort he gave when playing for Rangers. That ethos is mirrored in his team. West Ham attempted to play the better football but were harried and hustled, the compact nature of the ground and vibrant home support adding to their unease.

"They are in the position we were last year," admitted Bircham. "We'd go to places like Colchester and Chesterfield and it would be their big game, their cup final, their best attendance and they'd be right up for it. This year the pressure's been off us but West Ham are a big team in this league and every team are up for it against them."

Alan Pardew, West Ham's manager, knows the score. "When I was [managing] Reading we got ourselves up for the big teams. You have to have the quality to rise above that and today we didn't have that."

Last year's play-off finalists do have six players injured, including four centre-halves, but could still field four full internationals, six more with Under-21 representation, and £500,000 signing Marlon Harewood. Rangers did not even have a substitute goalkeeper. It is also unlikely they had anyone on even a third of Tomas Repka's wages.

What they did have was confidence and it was evident in Matthew Rose's well-taken 22nd-minute goal, swept in after Lee Cook had released him behind Hayden Mullins. Rangers' win was based on graft rather than craft but this was a goal Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh would have been proud of.

The Hammers sought to be true to their own traditions but though they had plenty of possession, they threatened most on the counter-attack. Indeed, they should have scored early from such a break but Nigel Reo-Coker shot wide. Justifiable penalty claims of handball for both sides involving the otherwise anonymous Bobby Zamora followed, but though the game was entertaining there was little else to worry the defences. Georges Santos was especially imperious, edging the irrepressible Bircham and classy Cook for man of the match.

Success, though, has its price, one Rangers could struggle to meet. "It's almost impossible to bring players in with our resources," said Holloway, "and if my players keep playing this well we'll have to reward them or we'll lose them. But [the board] won't mortgage the club and I understand that."

Goal: Rose (22) 1-0.

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Day; Bignot, Shittu (Padula, 89), Santos, Rose; Rowlands, Bircham (Branco, 89), Gallen, Cook; Furlong, Cureton (McLeod, 85). Substitutes not used: Edghill, Bean.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Bywater; Mullins, Repka, Ferdinand, Powell; Chadwick (Cohen, 65), Reo-Coker, Lomas, Rebrov; Harewood, Zamora (Hutchinson, 80). Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Brevett, McClenahan.

Referee: P Taylor (Hertfordshire).

Booked: QPR: Rowlands, Bircham. West Ham: Rebrov.

Man of the match: Santos.

Attendance: 18,363.

Comments