By Richard de Winter @TLE_Sport @rgdewinter
The football fan is a fickle beast. Their opinions on players fluctuate from one extreme to another, often during the same game. It is perfectly acceptable to call for a player’s substitution and immediate expulsion from the first-team picture and praise him to the heavens within the same rant. But then again, behaviour at football grounds doesn’t follow the accepted social norms. Logical arguments are unnecessary, talking to a stranger is encouraged and, contrary to your parents’ attestations, swearing is big, clever and funny.
However, once opinions are made, it is very hard to force a football fan to change them – having seen Tom Huddlestone stroll around the centre circle controlling the game at a youth tournament in 2002, I have since insisted that England’s midfield should be built around his passing ability, despite fairly compelling evidence to the contrary, whereas following a couple of missed chances in the 2010 Champions League Final, I am still convinced that Thomas Muller is nothing more than a mediocre chancer who has fluked his way to 10 World Cup goals, and will be found out sooner or later.
Last week, QPR, with practised ease, managed to turn the relative positivity of a markedly improved performance in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool into a situation where they were once again the laughing stock of England’s football community. In response to an innocuous question concerning Adel Taarabt’s absence from the team, Harry Redknapp exasperatedly told the grateful press that the Moroccan was three stone overweight, and unfit to play. This prompted what the papers call ‘a war of words’ between the pair conducted via two of the UK’s more reasonable newspapers, The Sun and The Daily Mail, in which neither party came out looking anything other than a whinging prat, and where the intervention of Tony Fernandes (revealed on Twitter of course) was required to calm things down. Typical Rangers over the last few years – making themselves look even more ridiculous.
For any QPR fan who watched even a few games during the promotion campaign in 2010-11, Adel Taarabt could do no wrong. Yes he sulked his way through the odd game (away at Bristol City and Hull), he may have had a stinker or two (Derby at home), but in pretty much every game he did two or three things that made the crowd gasp and were worth the admission money alone. Contrary to his reputation, such showboating also had an end product and by the end of the season he had scored or provided the assist for over half QPR’s goals. His performances in the Premier League have been on the whole disappointing, sprinkled with the odd match-winning contribution, such as games against Arsenal and Spurs in 2011-12 or against Chelsea and Fulham in 2012-13, making his overall contribution all the more frustrating. However, I have long felt that he needs to be given the Matthew Le Tissier treatment as he was in that promotion-winning season – absolved of all defensive responsibility, only trusted with the ball in the opposition half and publicly feted as the team’s primary attacking threat. Yes, this makes him a luxury player, in an era where such things are as unfashionable as baggy jeans, but with his ability, he’s a luxury worth indulging.
Except, maybe Harry Redknapp does have a point. Maybe Taarabt is, as Harry said, ‘the worst professional I’ve ever worked with.’ Maybe I am going to have to swallow my pride and change my mind about a player. He is clearly incredibly high-maintenance, and whatever else Neil Warnock achieves in his managerial career, nothing will top forging a successful team marrying the unpredictable stroppiness of Taarabt with the no-nonsense straightforwardness of Shaun Derry and Clint Hill. Maybe the Moroccan is overweight – 85kg for someone who’s 5ft 11 (according to Wikipedia at least – who says TLE doesn’t bother with research) does sound a lot, especially for a footballer. I’m 5ft 9 and 75kg and, while not a chubbster, I’m certainly not slim and athletic and, while muscle we are told weighs more than fat and Taarabt is unexpectedly strong, I would expect an athlete of his height to weigh less. What is slightly less forgivable is the story of Taarabt not trying in a recent reserve game – we’ve all doubtless been in a situation where we can’t be bothered at work, but his excuse of not wanting to injure himself suggests that he considers himself to be above such demeaning things as non-first team matches. For all the talk of Redknapp and Taarabt having been reconcilied, I would be surprised if Taarabt plays for QPR again, which would be a terrible shame, but sadly understandable.
As I said earlier, the Redknapp/Taarabt kerfuffle has rather overshadowed the fact that all of a sudden Rangers have started to play rather well. They should have been out of sight by half-time against Liverpool, and three points against a pretty poor Villa team could well have greater significance come the business end of the season. Richard Dunne looks the most assured of the ageing centre-backs, and will stay in the team now that Rio Ferdinand has been suspended for being a plonker, Yun Sook-Young continues if his quest to be the new Gino Padula, his excellence making his absence at the start of the season all the more baffling, and Redknapp, judging by the fawning in the press, has come up with a new form of tactical wizardry, namely lumping it up to the big centre-forward and allowing nippy attackers to feed off the scraps. Most notable though was the fact the team finally looked to be fighting for each other, and playing with a coherent plan.
There are caveats – Rangers still lost against Liverpool, and the defeat reminded me of two home games in the 1995-96 season, against Tottenham and Newcastle, where they played excellently but ended up losing 3-2. Playing well but losing is just the sort of thing relegated teams do, and the Hoops must develop more defensive certainty to prevent that happening again. Relying on an ageing centre-forward with a dodgy hip to lay on the scoring chances isn’t great either – based on experience Bobby Zamora is bound to break down soon, and there’s no-one in the squad who could remotely replace him. Finally our next two games are against Chelsea and Manchester City, easily the two best teams in the league. Hopefully though, Redknapp, rather than seeing them as a couple of his ‘bonus games’ and sitting back hoping for nothing worse than a 2-0 defeat, will encourage the team to attack in the way they have in the last two matches, and we can see a growth of the optimism that has just slowly started to gather around Loftus Road.