There are always recriminations when a club gets relegated but, given I left Loftus Road 16 months ago, I was a bit surprised to wake up to headlines on Thursday suggesting I was at fault for Queen’s Park Rangers going down. So, it seems, was the man who was supposed to have said this. When I woke up yesterday I had a text from Tony Fernandes calling the stories “stupid”. My old chairman has assured me the headlines didn’t reflect what he said, or believes.
Tony is obviously frustrated and disappointed, which doesn’t surprise me after the money and time he has invested in QPR, and if someone catches him at a bad time there is always the danger he says something which, with the way our media works, leads to headlines like Thursday’s. But I know he appreciates that I did the best I could in that first transfer window of his ownership and responsibility for relegation lies elsewhere.
In that window, I brought in Joey Barton, Luke Young, Armand Traoré, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Anton Ferdinand, for not much more than £5m all told. Some have not lived up to expectations, but neither have the majority of the players signed by my successor for higher fees and wages. The difference between us is that I had two weeks at the end of the window to strengthen a newly promoted squad. At that stage there are not many players left, and the available ones are only going to join a newly promoted team with a paper-thin squad if they don’t have any other options.
We tried. Scott Parker was top of my list and Tony was involved personally in trying to sign him. Had Spurs chairman Daniel Levy not gone against his usual policy of only buying youngish players with a sell-on value, we would have succeeded. When we missed out we signed Barton as we wanted a marquee player who would show we meant business and would help attract other players. Craig Bellamy was also on the list. He was set to sign until Liverpool came in for him on deadline day. So we bought Wright-Phillips instead, having already lost out on Wayne Routledge. Sébastien Bassong, now playing well in the top flight for Norwich, would have joined if only Bolton and Spurs had been able to agree a fee for Gary Cahill. So we signed Ferdinand, who started all right but, unsurprisingly, suffered a dip in form after the John Terry case.
Tony appreciated it was better to sign the second or third choices than none at all. The squad was so thin, if we had signed nobody we would have been relegated by Christmas.
Of the other two signings, Young has been unlucky with injuries and Traoré can’t have been that bad as he has played 46 Premier League games for QPR out of the 70 the club have played since he signed. The only players to have played more often are Jamie Mackie, Adel Taarabt and Wright-Phillips – all of them, incidentally, my signings.
The pity is I was not able to bring in players I needed earlier after promotion. The then owners, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, were looking to sell so did not want to invest. The takeover went on too long and I missed out on so many players – Ashley Williams, Danny Graham, Routledge, Steve Morison. Even then, Rangers had never been in the relegation zone when I was sacked but have barely been out of it since.
2. Cardiff deserve it
At the start of the season I picked out five contenders for promotion to the Premier League: the three clubs that came down (Wolves, Blackburn and Bolton), Cardiff City and Leicester City. Given how competitive the Championship is I’m quite pleased to have picked the winners, Cardiff, and with Bolton and Leicester still in the play-off mix I could get two out of three.
The struggles endured by Wolves and Blackburn have been the big shock, but their problems confirm the importance of stability. That a team could go down with 57 points shows what a tight division it is. Last season that would have been enough to finish 15 points clear.
Cardiff are worthy winners. They have attacking options and have been a solid unit. They can scrap to get a result when they are not playing well. We battered them at Elland Road – they had one shot, and won 1-0.
Malky Mackay has got a really good spirit at the club. Bellamy has not played every game but I bet his desire has been a big factor in the dressing room. With all he has done, and all the clubs he’s been at, to be so enthusiastic at this stage of his career is an example to a lot of pros. Heidar Helguson, who came up with my QPR team in 2011, is another good pro. Players like that are so important in the dressing room. Tommy Smith and Matt Connolly will also be picking up a second Championship medal in three seasons. Players like that, who have done it before, are so vital in a promotion challenge.
The surprise packages for me have been Crystal Palace, given their financial problems a few years ago, and Watford. Gianfranco Zola has been a revelation and I’m pleased for him after his experience at West Ham. Watford have manipulated the loan rules without breaking them – I don’t think it will be allowed again – but he still deserves a lot of credit. He had to find his best team from a big squad full of new players.
One was Matej Vydra, my Championship player of the season. I was told before covering their game at Leicester last week that he’s been lethargic of late but he didn’t look it in that match. He and Troy Deeney have been the best front pair.
The second promotion place is between them and Hull. Both play three at the back, but Watford look to pass the ball, Hull are more physical. Given the choice I’d rather be in Steve Bruce’s shoes as Hull have it in their own hands, but there will be a lot of nerves at the KC Stadium today because they do lack goals at the moment. Even though Cardiff have been partying all week they will still put up a fight. Watford have to beat my old club Leeds at Vicarage Road. With the pressure on, and the pitch in such a state, Leeds can upset them.
3. I hope Lampard stays put
Driving home on Thursday after doing the Footballers’ Football Show on Sky I listened to the Chelsea game. It sounded as if Frank Lampard was as influential as ever. I do hope he stays another year. To be one short of equalling the club’s goalscoring record is incredible for a midfield player. I listened on and off to both Talksport and Radio Five Live and both commentators said how “terrible” and “woeful” Torres was in the first half against Basel, and how they wouldn’t be surprised if Benitez took him off. I thought, “He’ll score now”. Lo and behold, he did, and so did Victor Moses, who was also being criticised.
4. Burton well suited to go up
The biggest game for me on Thursday was Bradford City v Burton Albion in the League Two play-offs. I went to Burton’s awards evening on Tuesday and presented a long-service award to Rex Page, who’s been covering their games as a journalist since before I managed there 30 years ago. He’s just retired. It was great to see old friends there and the current squad. I could tell from the atmosphere in the room they have that spirit and togetherness a team needs and it didn’t surprise me that they won, 3-2, in Yorkshire. They’ll know it is not over yet, it never is in the play-offs, but Burton have the best home record in the country with 17 wins in 23 league games, and to judge from the goal of the season video I saw they have some excellent finishers.
5. Time to put family first
What with the TV work, and putting the final touches to my book – which went to the publishers yesterday – it has been a busy week. I’m still unpacking and really appreciate now what Sharon has done so many times over the years when we’ve moved home. I only had to pack up my little cottage, she’s had to do entire houses with all the kids’ stuff as well.
I’ll have a break this afternoon. William’s playing cricket and we’ll all go along to watch. My mind might drift to all those Championship managers fretting on the final day of the season, but not for long.