Sunderland Preview: The view from West London as the Black Cats head to Loftus Road

We get the lowdown on QPR from the excellent LoftForWords lads

We spoke to Clive Whittingham, from QPR website LoftforWords, ahead of Sunderland’s away trip to Loftus Road at the weekend.

WMS: QPR will be looking for a positive result after the home defeat to Sunderland last season. But, what is the sense among the fanbase around Gareth Ainsworth’s appointment, his style of play and where QPR will finish this campaign?

CW: When you’re top in October and you nearly end up relegated, two wins from 28 matches at one point, there are going to be a few contenders for lowest ebb. The Sunderland home game certainly makes the long list. Some of the things that went on that night from a QPR point of view were despicable, and I certainly won’t be forgetting the involvement of several players in that in a hurry.

Whatever grief, stick or criticism Gareth Ainsworth gets, it must always be placed in the context of that inheritance. A broken squad, bereft of anything and everything you need to be competitive in professional football, sulking and phoning it in because their precious Mick Beale had walked out on them, phoning it in to the summer so they can get their precious sideways move somewhere else and start leeching somebody else’s pound while sitting out for five months with a calf strain, or dropping the ball in the net, or marking Jordan Hugill so abysmally he looks like Eusebio.

Gareth’s wholehearted, effective, attacking contributions to a wonderful time in our lives – Ian Holloway’s QPR resurrection 2001-2005 – mean he’ll always be held in high regard here, and meant he was often a candidate for our job when it came up.

I didn’t want him to get it because I couldn’t bear a Loftus Road crowd turning on a guy I remember so fondly, but also because I watched his Wycombe teams a few times and that was a few too many. When he came here initially it felt like the first problem would be occurring even faster than I’d feared because of the second – he was trying to make us Wycombe Mk II.

WMS: It’s understood that the shape set up during your pre season was abandoned after the first game. What has been the typical preferred formation since in the last few games?

CW: Our pre-season was, frankly, a joke. Substandard opposition and venues, culminating in our final warm up game ending in a 5-0 shellacking at Oxford. We did a round table with Gareth at the training ground and when your manager is actually saying “there’s always one team that blows out 4,0, 5-0 on the opening day and I just pray that’s not us” you know you’re deep in the shit. We were 4-0 down at Watford by half time and had they not called the dogs off that would have gone to double figures. It’s the worst QPR team I’ve ever seen in 30 years of home and away support.

The story goes that while he was tearing into them after the game a player or players stood up and said that however hard he tried, we couldn’t be a new Wycombe, we’re different players, we suit different styles, if you keep trying to force this on us we’re doomed.

They went away that week, tore the whole thing up, started all over again, and we came back in game two with a totally different style, shape, selection, formation, attitude, ethos. Everything. From thinking we weren’t going to win a game at all, we won 2-1 at Cardiff and deserved to do it.

We’ve since played very well and been incredibly unfortunate to lose to good Ipswich and Southampton teams, and then fairly well pumped Middlesbrough at theirs last time out. It’s been a remarkable turn around, and the mood around the place is now completely different.

WMS: Do you think Gareth Ainsworth will likely tinker with this formation against Sunderland for any reason?

CW: Lyndon Dykes is fit again so will almost certainly come back in. Kenneth Paal has been playing away to Grenada and Cuba (nice work if you can get it) this week so Ziyad Larkeche may get a first start at left wing back. I wouldn’t expect to see us deviate too much from what’s been working of late.

WMS: What do you think QPR’s likely starting XI will be? 

CW: In addition, I think Steve Cook is injured. So let’s say something along the lines of Begovic; Kakay, Fox, Clarke-Salter; Smyth, Colback, Field, Dozzell, Larkeche; Chair/Dykes/Armstrong

WMS: Who are QPR’s current key and in form players?

CW: The improvements have been driven by a hybrid system where Paul Smyth plays right back in a 5-4-1 out of possession and right wing in a 4-2-3-1 without it – I’ve been tired just watching him – and Sinclair Armstrong stretches teams in behind with electric pace.

WMS: Early days into the season but who do you think is QPR’s best signing of the summer so far?

CW: We’re always going to be in a tight FFP spot because of the size, age and capacity of our ground. The club overspends on all sorts of things, particularly wages, and loses money hand over fist – £2m a month at the last set of accounts.

This summer has been particularly bad because the £20m Ebere Eze (God I miss that boy) sale has rolled out of the three year rolling reporting period, while the £25m we lost trying to get promoted in 21/22 remains in.

You saw how bad we were at Loftus Road last season, that squad needed ripping apart and starting again. Not the summer to have zero FFP headroom to be doing surgery with. No surprise that Gareth has spent what little budget he did have adding experience, voice and grown ups to the shambolic centre of our defence – Begovic, Cook, Fox, Colback, nice thick coagulant for a part of the pitch Sunderland walked through in February. He’s also managed to add some pace by giving Armstrong a go and bringing Smyth back from Orient. We’ve actually looked pretty decent last four games.

WMS: Which Sunderland player do you think QPR will be worried about most? 

CW: Jack Clarke has clearly taken against us after we made him sit on the bench for six months and watch Marc Pugh chug about. Can’t say I blame him.

Luke O’Nien is so QPR, and has played for so many clubs we have links with, I can’t believe he isn’t turning out in Hoops this weekend. I hate him, and because of that I love him. Every team needs one, we’ve lacked one for years, and he’s really good at it, and he’s nice, and has immaculate hair, and saves drowning dogs. So, yeah, another 90 minutes at that little bastard’s hands I’m going to need to be drunk for.

WMS: Which QPR player do you think Sunderland should be worried about most?

CW: When we’ve been good, our green pen has been Smyth piling on down the right and Armstrong terrifying clumpy Championship defenders with pace and power. The more we get those two running with the ball, at players isolated one v one, the better chance we’ve got.

WMS: Where do you think Sunderland will finish in the league? 

CW: We’ve got enough problems, mate, without worrying about anybody else.

WMS: Score prediction for Saturday?

CW: It’s difficult to have much faith in a team that has won 1/17 at home, has failed to score in ten of those, hasn’t scored in six of its last seven at home, scored five goals at the Loft End all season (two penalties), is approaching the year anniversary of the last time it scored more than two in a game anywhere, is approaching the year anniversary of the last time it scored three times at home… but we’ve been a lot better in the last four games.

Having torn everything up post Watford and started again we’ve basically had no effective pre-season, and the team has often been baggage after an hour. With an international break to serve as a pseudo-second pre-season I’m really hoping we can come out this week and stick four points on the board from two home games and keep the improvement in mood ticking upwards. 0-3 again then 😉

Clive Whittingham runs the popular and very entertaining LoftForWords site, and you may recall this incredible write-up from last season’s game at Loftus Road, which is well worth a second or third read. You can follow LoftForWords on Twitter/X