The international break provided us all with time to reflect, how would you summarise QPR’s start so far?
Encouraging. Better than expected. Optimistic. Worried. These are all words that come to mind initially when thinking of the answer to that question. Look, it's been well documented the struggles that QPR might face this season…bottom of everyone’s predictions, not spent a penny and no one has given us a chance…really.
And, after our first game of the season at Watford it looked a correct outlook for us. But after that humiliating defeat, Gareth took himself into a dark room, played some rock music and had a word with himself about how something needs to change if he or we are to survive.
The output of that has seen us change shape, sign a few older heads and not play so direct and rigid. The QPR world is now a brighter place, as fickle as football fans are, we look like a team that can do more than just compete here and there in this league.
Since Watford, we deservedly beat Cardiff away, were the better side for 65 mins v’s Ipswich and Southampton, but lost both in the last 15 mins mainly due to squad depth and injuries.
Then before the international break beat Middlesborough away 2-0 and were fairly comfortable. The worry stated above is that outside of our core 15/16 players we are extremely light, with only youth players to call upon.
With our terrible recent injury record, any anticipated reoccurrence would be tough for Ainsworth to handle, especially with the 3 games a week now kicking in (we have 3 in 6 days this week).
To summarise, 2 wins in the first 5 games I would have taken, with 4 of those being away from home.
Once interviewed by Sunderland during our League One tenure, Gareth Ainsworth has endured a difficult start in charge of QPR, how would you describe his popularity with fans?
It’s certainly growing, though last season wasn’t his fault he didn’t help himself; poor performances, crazy pre/post-match interviews and strange team selections all meant a big question mark over his head going into this one. Then you lose your first game 4-0 and look like they have never seen each other never mind had a preseason.
However, since then I think fans know the constraints the club are under financially and that Ainsworth is probably the man we need right now. To be fair to him the team look like they are coming round to his way of thinking and are buying into what he is selling with the culture within the club improving and changing week by week.
Which it had to, last season was an incredible top-to-bottom story. He also wasn’t helped with our pitch not being ready and having 4 difficult-looking games away from the first 5 games. With the home game being a team who hadn’t lost in 25 games or something and were top (at that point).
The jury is still out with some, no doubt, and football fans are extremely fickle with a couple of wins/defeats changing EVERYTHING. I think patience is needed with him, we are going to lose a fair few but it looks like he has a plan and we just need to stick with it and we will be fine. Injuries to this squad could be a massive issue and we need to sort out this home form as we can’t sustain our recent away form (4 wins in 6).
All in all, I think generally the fans are behind him and everyone wants him to do well, it’s just a case of getting through this season and the FFP cycle.
During his time at Wycombe, his side were known for their physicality, directness and underdog mentality, how would you describe your current style of play?
Like I’ve said it has changed over the last few weeks. Ainsworth wanted us to be very rigid and organised, big lads up top and pace on the wings. Very 4-4-2, in different variations with and without the ball.
That went out the window with the 90’s how-to-play football handbook after the Watford defeat. We have moved to a 352/541 formation. With the emergence of Armstrong and keeping Chair and Willock meant his previous vision wouldn’t be possible.
Since this change the team have been much more fluid, using Chair, Colback and Dozzell to create. We have some pace now so that has been evidently used in recent weeks. You won't see us playing you off the park, that’s for sure, and we will more than likely hit you on the break where possible. But we have the players and formations now to do something with the ball when we have it… which we haven’t been doing in the last 5-6 months (yep that long).
There is an issue that the team burn out after 60-65 minutes, because they have ‘given everything on the pitch’ - as Ainsworth likes to put it. There is a chance that might happen, but I think we are a bit fitter now and have a few options off the bench.
Looking at your recruitment, ex-Sunderland midfielder Jack Colback appears to have started well with two goals, what does he bring to the side?
He has been an excellent signing so far and just what we needed in the CM. We lost CM battles most weeks and teams cut through us like butter towards the end of last season.
You guys know what he brings to the table; he is a seasoned pro now, knows when to do certain things and ensures any team we play knows they have a battle in there now.
As you say he scored 2 in 2 which no one expected. Class finishes too. I’m sure he will quickly become a fan favourite.
Elsewhere, the likes of Asmir Begovic, Steve Cook and Morgan Fox all came in - would you say it was a positive window for QPR?
It’s been as good as it could have been with FFP putting a massive collar around our necks. We are in our 3rd year of FFP which means we really can’t lose much if we are to avoid going over the 30 odd million limit.
We moved quite a bit of the deadwood on, which is good and necessary. We sold Rob Dickie and Seny Dieng for around 2/3 million, which is fine. Managed to keep hold of Chair and Willock who have been linked to every club in the league at one point, which again is good for us, though I think the club were banking on money coming into the club to help invest in certain areas.
Can't say a bad word about Asmir Begovic, Steve Cook or Morgan Fox…they have been excellent and bring much-needed experience. Cook especially has made a huge difference.
Little Paul Smyth has been class since coming in at RWB, away from home he is going to cause problems for teams. As mentioned Jack Colbeck has been very good since getting fit (scored 2 in 2!), and alongside Sam Field in the centre feels half decent at this level.
We are light in areas and I think we are looking to bring in one or 2 frees in the coming weeks.
I’m always intrigued to know how ex-Sunderland heads Jimmy Dunne and Jake Clarke-Salter are doing, have they kicked on at all in 2023?
Both have been injured this season, so far. JCS came on at Boro as a sub, so will be in the squad Saturday (I think, you never know with him).
Jimmy. I have a lot of love for him, he is what he says on the tin. Old school Irish centre half who just gets stuck in, wins most balls in the air and will always give 100%. Technically not great, getting better mind, and isn’t the quickest which gets him in sticky situations more often than it should at this level. Depends on the game, but hopefully he will be back soon.
JCS. The phantom that is. The thing with him is he could easily develop into the best CB in this league and has displayed that on occasions with us. When we were top, I know it feels like a lifetime ago, he was one big reason why. However, injuries have hampered his development and fans are losing patience with him. He disappears for weeks on end but he is now back fit and might play depending on Cook availability, so let's see how we go.
One player that caught my eye is Ireland striker Sinclair Armstrong, who seems to be getting regular minutes this year - is he seen as a great prospect?
Yes! There aren’t many youth players that come through and have that instant, ‘wow ok, we really have someone here who can go right to the top’. Ebere Eze the last player, beyond that….?
He has everything you would want in a striker if you could pick attributes. He is lightning quick, he is built like an 80’s centre half and he can score. Not just that he has no fear and confidence isn’t an issue - he has been bashing seasoned centre backs and keepers all over the place since coming in.
The challenge with him has been to control his enthusiasm a little, it resembles a kid at school just running around the playground who bought in the ball. That approach meant he couldn’t last more than 30 minutes without blowing up or getting a knock.
This season Ainsworth seems to have managed to get more minutes in him and he has benefited hugely. He got his first goal and assist at Cardiff and now doesn’t look out of place in a championship game. After the Southampton and Ipswich games, I had friends messaging asking who this Armstrong lad is. One actually said to me ‘ he stared at me and I S@@y myself’. Sky is the limit for this boy, but he is young and patience is still required.
Aside from the above-mentioned players, who do you think will cause Sunderland problems?
As mentioned we managed to keep Ilias Chair this window and he is as good as any number 10 in this league and now, with the window shut, can hopefully concentrate on getting back to full form and focus. If he has a good game the team tends to follow suit and we stand a much better chance of winning.
Andre Dozzell has been moved further forward and scored a wonder goal against Boro, if he continues his form he could be a handful. Lyndon Dykes is back fully fit now so he will no doubt be trying to get in amongst your CBs causing problems.
Chris Willock is still here too, won't start, but again with the window now shut he will need to knuckle down and start actually doing something. On his day he is actually better than most in this league but those days look few and very far between at the minute.
Which eleven players do you think Ainsworth will select?
I expect him to keep the same team that beat Boro before the break, but Steve Cook did go off injured and Lyndon Dykes is back fit. Surprisingly we had 9/10 players on international duty, so hopefully they come back okay.
Sinclair Armstrong has to play for me but he could be just as useful coming off the bench – I wouldn’t want to be a CB with him coming on in the last 20-30 minutes.
My guess would be; Asmir Begovic, Paul Smyth, Osman Kakay, Steve Cook, Morgan Fox, Ken Paal, Sam Field, Jack Colback, Andre Dozzell, Ilias Chair and Lyndon Dykes.
Sunderland took 4 points from QPR last season, what is your prediction for the final score?
Our home form has been so poor that it could easily be 0-3, however, the team seem to have got going and the tide at home has to turn soon, just by the laws of football and pure luck, I’m going 2-1.
Wow, being this optimistic feels strange, I don’t like it.