Well, here we are again. Another six-pointer.

After a much needed win on the road in Rotherham on Friday night, Argyle play host to fellow relegation-battlers QPR under the lights at Home Park on Tuesday.

It’s been 20 years since the West London side became our unlikely rivals, unsuccessfully battling us all season long for the coveted crown of Division 2 Champions.

This season it’s a very different story. This time out, we’re both fighting for our lives to avoid returning to the dreaded no man’s land of the third tier. Only 2 points and 2 positions separate us.

This week I chatted with Clive Whittingham of Loft For Words about the season so far, the mini-season to come, and, of course, survival.


How would you sum up your season so far, and how has it compared to your expectations at the beginning of the season?

Well, it’s way above my expectations at the beginning of the season but that doesn’t mean it’s been in any way pleasant or enjoyable. I described it recently as a footballing colonoscopy. Fantastically unpleasant, lasting way longer than you hoped it would… every time you think the worst is over it screws you a little bit deeper and more painfully than before. And there’s a fucking horrendous video of it all for you to watch back afterwards.

If you’d seen us in pre-season under Gareth Ainsworth, losing 3-0 to Slavia Prague’s kids on a patch of grass next to a municipal swimming pool, losing 5-0 at Oxford in our final ‘warm up’ game, you’d have doubted our ability to get a point, at all, off anybody. Four nil down at half time on the opening day against Watford was very much what I expected. So, to be in with a shout with five games left is more than I dared hope at that point – it was absolute amateur hour.

That millstone of only winning two of our first 14 games under Ainsworth, two of 17 overall, has weighed us down ever since. Marti Cifuentes has brought about amazing improvements in the team, the results since he took over are basically a midtable side’s scores, our defensive record under him is second only to Leeds, but if you only put eight points on the board before the end of October that’s a significant lead weight on you for the rest of the season. Sheff Wed are finding the same under Danny Rohl: you basically have to go at play-off speed for the rest of the year to get out of trouble.

More recently the frustration is we keep having runs of form that threaten to get us to safety, then we lose a really stupid game and spiral back into it again – which looks very much like what’s just happened again on Saturday.


Do you consider yourselves to be in a relegation battle?

Absolutely, we’ve never been out of it. The first time I dared to let myself hope was when we won both our games over Easter weekend. At that stage you’re thinking one more win, probably against Sheff Wed at home, and a draw somewhere puts three or four sides down there requiring three or four wins from their final six games to catch us. Then, lo and behold, we lose at home to Sheff Wed and if we do the same again tomorrow night we’re potentially back within a point of it all with our supposedly more ‘winnable’ fixtures burnt off.


Highlight of the season so far?

After many years of being shithoused by Ben Pearson’s horrible Preston team, I thought watching him score a last-minute own goal at the Loft End to put a crucial win on the board against Stoke would take some beating. Jimmy Dunne’s ridiculous, left-footed, 20-yard, airborne, volleyed, injury time winner against rivals Birmingham on Good Friday might just have done it.


Low point?

Everything that happened under Ainsworth was bleak. Losing 2-0 at West Brom with no shots on target, one corner, 30% possession, a central midfielder attempting eight passes in the entire game, with no apparent plan of even how we were going to cross the halfway line let alone score a goal or win the game, was so desperately painful and sad to watch.

Under Cifuentes it’s the two games with Sheffield Wednesday. Twice now he’s got a team with a poor goalkeeper and no strikers playing well, with confidence, winning games, climbing away. Twice now they’ve had a game against a dire Wednesday team where a win would have opened up a ten-point gap between us and them, and really got us on the way to safety. Twice we’ve fucked it completely, narrowing the gap to four. Last time we subsequently went eight games without a win, if it has the same effect this time we’ll need snookers to survive.


Player of the season?

Veteran centre back Steve Cook.

Prior to Saturday…

With Steve Cook: W11 D10 L9, 10 clean sheets in 30 apps, 31 goals conceded at 1.033 goals per game.

Without Steve Cook: W1 D0 L11, 1 clean sheet in 12 apps, 25 goals conceded at 2.083 goals per game.


This is your ninth consecutive season in the championship. Is there any vision from your board about pushing on to return to the premier league?

I could do you a dissertation on this, or I could just say ‘lol’.

First and foremost we need to make sure it’s ten years in the Championship, and we’re not starting next season at Stockport. It’s still a distinct possibility. After winning three of our last 23 games last season and setting a club record for home defeats but surviving courtesy of a miracle win at all-conquering Burnley, then winning just two of our first 17 games this season under the most out of his depth manager I’ve ever seen… if you get through all of that without being relegated then you just need to be grateful for your good fortune.

QPR with no parachute payments and Loftus Road as their home ground will always have FFP problems. The only realistic way out of those is to recruit and retain really well, allowing you to regularly sell players for good profit. We seemed to be well on our way towards that when we had successive summers where we got money for Alex Smithies, Luke Freeman and then the golden goose Ebere Eze. But that £20m Eze haul, and a good run at the end of the previous season with some influential loans, once again just saw us go back to QPR of old chucking good money after bad at the likes of Andre Gray trying to get promoted – then, when we inevitably don’t, we’re tucked up behind the FFP eight ball for a three-year cycle again. The people who were promoting that develop to sell plan and in charge of implementing it – director of football Les Ferdinand, CEO Lee Hoos – have resigned and walked away from the consequences, but it’s down to the owners. They are benevolent, they want to spend money. When they do, and they fuck it up, they write the debt off as equity. So, it’s not a Reading situation. But they don’t know what they’re doing really.

We’re a million miles away from being a Premier League club, or having anybody at the club who understands how to become one. We’ve been passed over the last couple of decades by lower league clubs we used to play in pre-season friendlies – Brighton, Fulham, Brentford, Luton. There’s still no real indication there’s anybody at QPR who understands why that is, or how we become the next similar success story.


Marti Cifuentes took the reins from Gareth Ainsworth in November last year. How’s he done as boss since then? What’s the general fan view of a Cifuentes leadership?

Something just shy of miracle worker. Gareth was 4-0 down at Watford at half time, getting done 4-0 by Blackburn at home… up until very late in 2023 Coventry, Blackburn and Sunderland had all won more games at Loftus Road (two) and scored more goals (six, seven, six) than we had across the calendar year. And we still tried to, if not make excuses for Gareth, then at least set the context. He’d inherited a terrible team, losing for 18 months under several mangers, no FFP headroom to do anything about it. You then watch what Cifuentes has done with the same team, and you can’t help but marvel at his work and despair at what went before. This is a team with a goalkeeper who should have been long since retired, and Hellenic League-standard strikers. Cifuentes has got it competing and winning regardless. If other clubs aren’t eyeing him up, they really should be.


You haven’t got the easiest run in to the season. First 2 games against teams battling relegation, but then 4 consecutive games against top 10 sides. How do you see your final 6 games panning out?

We lost at Stoke, lost twice to Sheff Wed, took one point from two games with Huddersfield, lost at Millwall… We won at Leicester, won at Middlesbrough, should have won at Ipswich, battered West Brom, beat Hull, won at Preston, won at Cardiff, won at Bristol City. Who’s to say Coventry won’t be fatigued from their cup and play-off quests, Leeds falling apart as they often do, Preston on the Mykonos highway? Meanwhile Plymouth fighting for their lives as Sheff Wed were on Saturday. It’s just a nonsense time of year, trying to call it from one week to the next is a fool’s errand, and QPR are among the most unpredictable among that group at the bottom. I dare say after beating Birmingham and Swansea over Easter a few people had us on their coupon on Saturday at home to Sheff Wed… and look how that went.


Where do you think you can cause us some problems on Tuesday?

Chair, Andersen and Willock behind whichever clogger we’ve got up front are, in theory, our attacking threat. Our last five goals have been scored by defensive central midfielder Sam Field (two), centre back Steve Cook (two in two after none in four years) and makeshift rampaging right back Jimmy Dunne (one goal in a year). When you’re choosing between Lyndon Dykes and Michy Frey up front you have to find other sources of goals.


What about weak areas? Where should we be looking to exploit to try and get the win?

Have a shot at Begovic, see how that goes for you.


What’s your view on an away day at Plymouth Argyle right now? Must win? Could win? Should win?

I’m annoyed we wasted that chance at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, seemingly through casualness and complacency – we thought they’d be a bit of a roll over win, we thought we’d basically done enough over Easter. It’s not must win, but it’s more important and nervous than it needed to be. It’s also a very different game than it would have been ten days ago with Ian Foster in charge. I would have quite fancied us for that because our away form is really very good – one defeat in seven, wins at Bristol City, Leicester, Swansea, Blackburn. Now… well it feels like it’s going to be a long, windy night.


Score prediction?

I daren’t even think really. Losing here and winning at Hull would probably be the most QPR outcome. Or losing here, losing at Hull, losing to Preston and then… beat Leeds, landed on my wheels and pulled over next to them and said “What you worried about?”


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