The last hurrah of QPR: when an unfashionable crew from Loftus Road were London’s best team

The last hurrah of QPR: when an unfashionable crew from Loftus Road were London’s best team

When the great and good of football writing convene to honour the best amongst them, few prizes for insight are awarded for pointing out that the advent of the Premier League in 1992 begat seismic change in English football. The transformation, however, was not instantaneous. As the curtain came up on the Premier League in August 1992, the men who kicked off the new season, the stadia they played in – even as the ink dried on the Taylor Report – the formations they lined up in, and the tactics they used were all entirely familiar from the seasons of Division One football that had gone before.

The advertising promised a “whole new ball game”, but the real changes were yet to come. Even as sceptics in the press wondered aloud whether the Premier League was simply a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, their predictions for the season demonstrated something that would soon be a thing of the past, namely the perceived openness of the title race. The decline of Liverpool had opened the door for new challengers, and though George Graham’s Arsenal were hotly tipped for a third title in four years, a wide range of clubs were considered contenders. some of them remarkable from today’s perspective. Enter Queen’s Park Rangers.

The fifth place that QPR would go on to achieve in 1992/93, finishing as London’s top team, was not the bolt from the blue that the modern reader might imagine. Indeed, the football media in the summer of 1992 gave serious consideration to whether the Rs might mount a title challenge. It was not an entirely ridiculous proposition. 

Although Rangers had ended the season before in 11th place, a repeat of the mid-table finishes of preceding years, this somewhat undersold the team’s potential, and the direction of travel was upwards. The 1991/92 campaign had delivered highlights including a rollicking 4-1 win at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day, a televised encounter that seems so modern with hindsight that one struggles to believe it occurred in the old Football League. All told, it was a positive first season under new manager Gerry Francis.

A former England captain with a hairstyle that recalled a greying roadie or perhaps a friendly badger, Francis was an amiable if slightly diffident man, and by now a highly respected coach. His break into management had been fairly traditional, taking over in 1987 at Bristol Rovers where he had been a senior player. An established third-tier club at the time, Rovers under Francis became an accomplished side, winning promotion to Division Two in 1990 and finishing the next season in mid-table. Enduringly popular at QPR, where he captained the team that finished second to Liverpool in 1976, his short but solid managerial CV was enough to secure him the top job at Loftus Road.

The men who would be working for Francis were no team of stars, but they were a good fit. Stability was the key source of strength for Rangers; the core of the first team had, by 1992, been at the club for several seasons. QPR were a reliable and competitive unit, forged from a playing staff many of whom would not have expected to be playing top-flight football at this, or in some cases any other, stage of their careers. 

Typical of them was Simon Barker, a former Blackburn trainee with a distinctive blonde mop, who had held down the right flank of Rangers’ midfield in industrious fashion since 1988. His counterpart on the left, Andy Sinton, had been plucked from Brentford not long after; he was a Geordie who would play most of his career in London and the south-east. 

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Darren Peacock, a steely centre-back with heavy-metal locks to match, had fought his way up via Newport and Hereford after being released by Bristol Rovers as a teenager. Czech international goalkeeper Jan Stejskal added the sole touch of exoticism, and defender David Bardsley had played for Watford in the 1984 FA Cup final, but the side’s only real champagne player was Ray Wilkins. 

Wilkins, like Francis, was a former lynchpin of the England midfield, now playing out an extended Indian Summer in W12 but still a force to be reckoned with for his dead-ball deliveries and dependable passing; a regista before English fans knew what the word meant.

Although Francis made some additions of his own, he did little to change the balance of the side. No wheeler-dealer, he preferred to work with a small squad of men he trusted, and many of his signings were familiar faces from Bristol Rovers, who conformed to QPR’s existing ethos. By far the most important of them was Ian Holloway. 

A working-class Bristolian who had played a brief cameo role at Wimbledon before rejoining boyhood club Rovers under Francis, Holloway’s seemingly functional and one-paced style hid a sharp football brain, a quirky articulacy and a flair for leadership. He would anchor the midfield between the shuttling Sinton and Barker and the more stylish Wilkins. Other former Rovers men, Devon White and Gary Penrice, would play fewer games but make important contributions in the front line.

To Francis’ men fell one of the minor honours of Sky’s bold new era, playing the role of guests for the first televised Monday Night Football at Maine Road. Hosts Manchester City, managed by the promising Peter Reid, were an attractive side with sufficient young talent on the field – and in the dugout – to be considered outside contenders for the title. QPR thoroughly rattled their cage and emerged with a draw, a Sinton drive spectacularly cancelling out City’s first-half goal. 

Bizarrely, QPR followed this with two home games within the next five days, the first reaping a handsome 3-1 win against Southampton – only two days after the opener at Maine Road – and the second a 3-2 victory over Sheffield United. The following Wednesday, QPR travelled to Coventry and returned with a 1-0 win courtesy of an Andy Impey strike. The Premier League had announced itself in frenetic style, and after four games, Francis’ QPR topped the table.

They were not an overtly stylish side, founded as they were on defensive organisation, with little playfulness in midfield. They could score goals, though, and already there was no doubt where a good many of those goals would come from. Les Ferdinand had scored two against Southampton and followed this with one against Sheffield United, the opening salvoes of a campaign that would see him score 20 in the league, second only to Teddy Sheringham. 

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Aged 25 in August 1992, Ferdinand would be one of English football’s most feted strikers of the 1990s but was, at this stage, something of a late-blooming curiosity. Overlooked by professional clubs as a teenager, the native Londoner had cut his teeth in the knockabout of non-league with Hayes before being scouted by QPR. He played his first Football League game aged 20, in 1987, but had to clamber his way to first-team prominence over a number of seasons via loan spells at Brentford and Beşiktaş. 

The 1991/92 campaign had yielded ten League goals, a solid return for a striker who was not yet an assured first choice, but it was nonetheless to the world’s surprise that Ferdinand – handsome and personable as well as dynamic on the field – became one of the Premier League’s earliest icons. An effective and straightforward number nine, Ferdinand was not blessed with great flair, but he was quick, direct, strong, and posed a ferocious threat in the air that defied his modest 5’11” stature. 

Francis played to his strengths, with a team that emphasised dynamism on the flanks and quality of delivery to Ferdinand. True to their manager’s established style, QPR were remarkably stable in personnel and approach; the team that started at Maine Road set the pattern for the season. Stejskal lined up behind Bardsley, Peacock, left-back Clive Wilson and club veteran Alan McDonald, from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, aged 28 and already in his 11th professional season with the club. 

Similarly, the midfield – Holloway and Wilkins flanked by Barker and Sinton – provided a template for the season to come, though Andy Impey would also make frequent appearances. Ferdinand was usually partnered upfront by the subtler Bradley Allen, a highly-regarded England under-21 international and the latest scion of a London footballing dynasty that most famously included his elder brother Clive. Slight and diminutive, neither outright poacher nor true number 10, Allen would be one of the few members of this team whose career would ultimately under-shoot expectations. But 1992/93 would yield ten top-flight goals as he thrived alongside the bombastic Ferdinand.

Consistency was once again the key. Indeed, Francis had neither signed nor sold a single first-team player in the summer of 1992 and he would place trust in this predictable first XI, plus a few able deputies including Penrice, Impey, Rufus Brevett and the barrel-like White. There was little obvious need to mix things up; although QPR followed their opening assault with three goalless performances, they were developing a useful tendency to draw rather than lose games they couldn’t win, following up a 1-0 capitulation at Chelsea with stalemates against Arsenal and Ipswich, after which came a 3-3 goal-fest at home to Middlesbrough and a credible 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. 

Autumn’s form was choppy, with handsome victories over Tottenham, Wimbledon and Leeds offset by losses to fellow pace-setters Norwich, Aston Villa and Blackburn, along with the struggling Liverpool. Still, by the halfway point in early December, QPR lay seventh, with Ferdinand on eight goals ably assisted by contributions from Allen, Penrice, Bardsley and Sinton.

Form remained patchy but with nobody outside the leading pack of Manchester United, Aston Villa and Norwich able to summon any consistency, QPR remained high in the table. They continued to score goals but, despite Francis’ intuitive caution, were unable to prevent the concession of nearly as many. 

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Their most emblematic results were consecutive springtime victories – 4-3 at home against Brian Clough’s final, doomed Nottingham Forest side and 5-3 at Goodison Park. Ferdinand, recovering from a quiet mid-season, scored a hat-trick in each. Ending the season with wins against top-half sides Villa and Sheffield Wednesday, Rangers finished the season in fifth, comfortably clear on 63 points of nearest London rivals Tottenham.

In finishing in the Premier League’s inaugural top five. QPR didn’t in truth pull up any stumps. They faced a top-flight field that looks patchy even without factoring in hindsight and were, without a doubt, helped by the struggles faced by many of the more obvious contenders, particularly in coming to terms with the newly-introduced backpass rule.

They would take a step backwards in 1993/94 as several major clubs – Arsenal, Leeds and a still-stuttering Liverpool – adapted and surged past them. But 1992/93 remains a generationally important moment in the history of a club that has struggled in the quarter-century since to define its place at English football’s table.

QPR’s most obvious analogue among their contemporaries were Norwich, who outstripped them to finish the campaign third – with negative goal difference – after quite persistently threatening to win the whole thing. There are many similarities, though Norwich ultimately shone brighter but more briefly. Though they had some provenance as a competitive mid-table side like QPR, they had been in decline for some time by 1992 and were fancied by many to be one of the whipping boys of the first Premier League campaign. In 1995, only a year after a dashing UEFA Cup campaign in which they eliminated Bayern Munich, Norwich were relegated. 

QPR, by contrast, were a top-half team, or as good as, for many seasons in succession from the late 1980s. They would survive the loss of Sinton to Sheffield Wednesday and Peacock to Newcastle, and initially even the departure of Francis, who was hired by Spurs in November 1994. Under Ray Wilkins’ management, they finished 1994/95 in eighth, one better than the season before. QPR did not crash and burn. Theirs was no Icarus story.

They were, however, enormously dependent on Ferdinand. The striker followed his 20 league goals in 1992/93 with 16 in the following campaign and 24 in 1994/95. With a promising England career to boot – he was one of few internationals to do themselves justice under Graham Taylor – the wonder with hindsight is that Ferdinand stayed at Loftus Road so long. 

Aged 28 in summer 1995, he could expect to get only one big move in the remainder of his career, and few could begrudge him it when high-flying Newcastle came calling. But the effect on QPR was immediate and devastating: over the three seasons, they scored just under 1.5 goals per game, dropping to exactly one per game in 1995/96, at the end of which the club were relegated. The loss of the supply line from Wilkins, superannuated by now and moving full-time into the dugout, was a secondary factor.

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Their decline had been slow but certain and QPR have never recovered. There is no great narrative of tragedy to what has happened since; the club has simply lacked the resources to compete effectively for a long-term place in the top flight. Never a force to be reckoned with in the transfer market, QPR under Francis showed little hunger to replenish a side that began to look prosaic as rivals started to invest heavily in foreign talent. 

Francis’ one big signing of the summer of 1993, Trevor Sinclair, proved a loyal and valuable asset, but was not the dominant attacker needed to replace Ferdinand as the team’s focal point. The recruitment of Bristol Rovers centre-back Steve Yates, also in 1993, was a more telling addition, suggestive as it was of the underwhelming level of ambition at a club that had, after all, just finished fifth. Subconsciously or not, QPR were accepting that they couldn’t compete. 

In the many years since, and despite the odd Premier League foray, Rangers have been inconsistent, their spells in the top flight rarely fruitful and sometimes downright clownish. A colourful carousel of managerial personalities as diverse as Harry Redknapp, Neil Warnock and Steve McClaren has kept things entertaining for neutrals, but an unbecoming circus-like quality has at times afflicted the club.

But it was good while it lasted and the story of QPR in the early days of the Premier League remains an uplifting football tale. In part, that’s because so many of the personalities involved went on to enjoy careers that surely surpassed their every expectation. Their breakout performer, Ferdinand, attended two international tournaments and very nearly won the Premier League with Newcastle; Sinclair, the other star of that era, went on to enjoy his own Indian Summer as one of the better performers in England’s promising but unfulfilled 2002 World Cup campaign. 

Peacock, Wilson and Sinton got attractive moves and tasted football at Newcastle and Tottenham. Holloway, respected for his midfield stewardship, became an outspoken and admired manager, citing Francis as his driving inspiration. Wilkins played on longer than he could possibly have anticipated and also became a respected coach. Sadly, he was to suffer an untimely death from cardiac arrest in 2018, six years after the sudden death of McDonald, veteran of a heroic 476 league games for Rangers. 

A glance back at QPR in this era gives a revealing reminder of what was once possible for ordinary clubs, and for players who had cut their teeth outside the elite academies.

By Matt Worth @FTBLL_HPSTR

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