By Adam Boxer
Having arrived at Loftus Road at approximately 6:30pm, parking was a far simpler task as I strode down the ghost town that was South Africa Road – a place that like any football ground seems eerily quiet on a non-match day.
Arriving at the main entrance I produced proof of invitation and was ushered into the new-look reception for the first time. A world away from the entrance to the Upper Loft there were a pair of trainers on display with the coveted crest possibly worth more than my season ticket alone.
After making my way up the stairs images of Gallen, McDonald and Shittu greeted me at every turn before being directed into the more familiar surroundings of the South Africa Road concourse. Pacing towards the end of the corridor I eventually made my way to the Platinum Bar, being greeted by the evening`s master of ceremonies, Billy Rice and invited to take seat.
Not really knowing what to expect upon entering the room it was clear that the chairs were set out in a press conference format and four seats set out infront of the cosy attendance. There were several familiar faces among the supporters in unfamiliar dress with limited blue and white in display making way for work attire.
Billy Rice got the evening underway by introducing the club representatives one by one, player/caretaker boss Gareth Ainsworth, club captain Martin Rowlands, winger Lee Cook and full back Damien Delaney.
The early discussion surrounded the players` thoughts on the season, and while Martin Rowlands and Gareth Ainsworth were happy with the progression of the club, full back Damien Delaney was brutally honest in his assessment of the campaign.
The Irishman made a point of disagreeing with the club`s captain believing that the season had been ultimately a failure. The initial hope of a playoff place was his overriding ambition and to finish where Rangers have wasn`t enough for the full back who received a round of applause for his admirable honesty.
Lee Cook divulged about his time down the road with Fulham and stated that he thought there wasn`t a great deal of difference between Rangers and their London rivals. The calibre of player was higher as you`d expect from a Premier League outfit, but he touched on one of the major talking point of the evening – the state of the pitch, both at Harlington and Loftus Road.
Players empathised with Cook`s point of view with regards to the state of the Loftus Road turf this season with all parties believing it had a say in Rangers disappointing form, as Delaney believed the players struggled to judge their touch on the bobbly surface.
Ainsworth reflected back on his earlier days in W12 as both he and the man who sat to his right, Martin Rowlands, remain Rangers longest serving players with seven years service. The caretaker boss reminisced back to the opening day of the 2004/05 season where Rangers entertained Rotherham on a pristine surface – the best state the pitch has been in for years according to Ainsworth.
Ainsworth also told of the saying surrounding the pitch at Loftus Road in that it “drains too well.” He took fans back to the time whereby he made a sliding challenge and came up with green down his arm. It became apparent that Rangers chiefs had spray-painted the turf to appear full with the game on television. The room was one in laughter when Ainsworth recounted the tale of how he was petrified with his arm turning a different colour.
Billy Rice chipped in by adding the much-heard by lesser-proved fact that there is a stream running underground of the Ellersie Road Stand, contributing to the excellent drainage at Loftus Road.
It wasn`t long before the subject of management surfaced, with the caretaker reiterating his role until the end of the campaign. The consensus among the four was that Rangers had been rigidly organised the entire campaign owing to their defensive structure, this came from the work instilled by Iain Dowie during the summer and into a hard-working pre-season.
This was a far cry from the reign of Luigi De Canio in the previous season, with the three representatives reminiscing about the simplicity of training whereby tactics took a back seat to the enjoyment of playing football. When Billy Rice prompted to Martin Rowlands as to whether he gave them a ball and told them to have a kick-around, the skipper replied: “Pretty much, you think I`m joking!”
While the players had undeniable fun under Gigi`s reign, with Lee Cook evidently envious with his team-mates. Delaney told of his new found discipline going into the new season where he was more confined to an archetypal left-back role, after ending up on the right wing on occasions under De Canio.
Talk surrounding the alleged early departure of some players at the Player of the Year evening was being voiced as the questions went to the floor with some supporters disappointed at the players` early departure.
The panel sympathised with supporters and explained that it would be the last chance for a while the players would be able to go out together and having made every effort to make themselves available to supporters for the best part of four hours they anticipated questions for which they couldn`t field answers.
Rowlands was keen to stress the fact that he stayed at the evening until quarter past 11 and defended his point vehemently and admirably in that the players had made every effort to communicate with supporters for an extended period.
Team selection then came to the fore with Gareth Ainsworth explaining the reasons as to why Paulo Sousa opted to make wholesale changes from the side that beat Preston North End then drew against Charlton Athletic.
Ainsworth told the supporters that Sousa believed he could get a result at the Valley with a weakened side and six points from the two games while keeping his squad fully fit was his priority – Ainsworth`s honesty was laid bare for all to see.
News of injuries and rehabilitation was always going to be on the agenda, with John Harbin and physiotherapist Paul Hunter working together to devise individual fitness plans for players. Lee Cook was surprised and delighted with his appearance count this season, with his left knee only half as strong with his right. Cook hopes however that a summer programme will help him in his rehabilitation for the new season.
Akos Buzsaky will be available from the start of pre-season should his schedule go to plan, along with the skipper Rowlands who should be injury free at that point and pushing for match fitness. Both are in light running and kicking a football at present which Rowlands was ultimately delighted with after the self-confessed season low against Derby County at Pride Park.
Delaney`s brutal honesty continued right until the end when players were asked to name their highs and lows, he couldn`t articulate a particular high point in the season much to the understanding amusement of the long-suffering supporters – a muttering of Kilmarnock drew a wry smile.
Home games against Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Preston North End were the fixtures of choice for Ainsworth, Rowlands and Cook respectively, with Lee Cook believing the game against the Lilywhites was the best atmosphere at Loftus Road this season.
After the formalities drew to a close the players made themselves available to sign autographs and speak to the supporters. I myself took advantage of the free buffet laid on by Queens Park Rangers desperately trying to recoup the price of my season ticket in port pies.
Ainsworth was in a particularly chatty mood and took time to thank each and every supporter that approached him, for their continued and undying support this season.
Every player spoke with great eloquence and passion with the shared goal made evident throughout the room, that Rangers make next season a memorable one.
Vital QPR would like to thank Queens Park Rangers Football Club, Gareth Ainsworth, Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook and Damien Delaney for a thoroughly enjoyable evening
Last year’s QPR shirt with signatures from Gareth Ainsworth (top left), Martin Rowlands (top right), Lee Cook (middle left) and Damien Delaney (middle right).