‘How Graft On Training Ground Put QPR On Top’

A superb article and an interesting insight that appeared in the Independent last Friday, which was written by Glenn Moore who went behind the scenes to hear Shaun Derry explain how Neil Warnock has transformed things – Steve Russell

‘There is a buzz about a training ground when a club is top of the table and so it was at Queen’s Park Rangers’ West London base yesterday. As the Championship leaders prepared to face Burnley tomorrow, passes were zipping across the turf, the banter was lively, there was a general sense of purpose. To many in football, this is long overdue. When QPR were taken over by a combination of millionaires and billionaires from Formula One and Indian Industry, their ascent to the Premier League seemed inevitable. It did not quite turn out that way as the new owners invested in managers, several each year, instead of players.

In three seasons under new ownership, Rangers have failed to finish in the Championship’s top 10. They did break the club’s 12-year-old transfer record but, as well as Alejandro Faurlin has played, his ¬£3.5m signing is not quite what supporters envisaged when Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore and Lakshmi Mittal took stakes in the club. But building a promotion-chasing team is not just about spending cash. When Rangers began the season with a flurry of goals, the focus was on the skills of Adel Taarabt, signed in the summer for ¬£1m from Tottenham, but as the leaves fall, and the nights close in, other players have come to the fore, less heralded but, in the context of a long Championship season, more significant.

When manager Neil Warnock arrived at Loftus Road in March, he was impressed by the squad’s quality, but not by its mental strength. “QPR have always had the showboaters, the flair, but I thought when the chips were down we did not have enough spine,” he said. Warnock’s solution was to recruit three former players, goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, signed from Sheffield United for ¬£750,000, and a pair of free transfers from Crystal Palace, full back Clint Hill and midfielder Shaun Derry. The trio, all aged 32, started every match as QPR established a club-record 13-match unbeaten start to the season to lead the Championship from day one.

Derry is in his third stint under Warnock, having also played for him at Sheffield United, so is well placed to access what makes the Independent’s columnist such a successful manager. A big factor is sheer force of personality, he tells me as we sit in the canteen at the club’s base near Heathrow after I had watched a two-hour training session led by coach, Keith Curle. Although Curle took the session, Warnock and his assistant manager Mick Jones observed and occasionally interjected as the players focused on forward play – a necessity as the team has scored only once in their last three games.

“When he steps onto that training field, whether 10 minutes before the end of the session, or 45 minutes, rightly or wrongly the work-rate goes up by 10-15%,” Derry says. “That’s the impact he has on players. He does not rule by an iron fist but his mere presence around the place brings people out of their shell. Everybody involved in football has looked at QPR the last few years and expected more than they delivered. I think that is the biggest thing he’s done here, changing mentalities. He has tried to instill a work ethic before anything else. All good teams work hard: look at Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, they work their socks off first so they can impose their game on the opponents. People will look at the group of players we have and say, ‘would Neil have worked with them 10 years ago (the mercurial Taarabt comes to my mind) ?’ But he has realised the game is evolving and he is evolving with it. To an extent, he is a modern-day manager and he has embraced the changes.”

Only to an extent, Derry adds: “He has mellowed, but make no bones about it, you cross that line and you have crossed that line. You’re out. I know where that line is, and I know not to cross it, but I don’t want to cross it. If you work within his boundaries and his structure you work for a successful manager, it is as simple as that. His record speaks for itself.” Derry speaks from experience. In the past he did cross that line. He admits ruefully, “People seem to think I have followed Neil around but he shipped me out of Sheffield United. I was 22 and perhaps had a bit too much to say for myself back then. Neil needed to get rid of a couple of players and I was sold to Portsmouth. It was good for me. I had to live on my own, stand on my own two feet and I grew up as a person and a player.”

However, Derry still liked to speak his mind and, having prospered under Tony Pulis and Graham Rix at Portsmouth, he fell foul of Harry Redknapp. “I perhaps had too much to say for myself again. I felt it would be the best decision to move on and Harry was very quick to make that happen.” Next stop was Crystal Palace where Derry was a key figure in the team Iain Dowie led to promotion. However, in the top flight Derry’s contribution was limited to one start and six appearances from the bench. He left for Leeds but relations with Dennis Wise turned so sour he began the 2007-08 season unable even to get a place in a squad that had been relegated to League One.

With his thirties approaching, Derry’s career seemed to be drifting into decline. Salvation came from an unlikely source. Warnock had just started a new job at Selhurst Park and felt he needed a street-wise midfielder to steer a young team away from relegation. Warnock recalls: “Shaun had been bombed out totally, he was training with the kids. I said to (then-Palace chairman) Simon Jordan, ‘We’ll have to give him a two-year contract, but it’ll be worth it because if he keeps us up this year we’ll be able to get something for him next year.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think not only would he stay the following year, but he would become a better player, so much so when I came to QPR I thought he could do a job for me here. Even then I did not expect him and Clint Hill, both, I thought , coming to the twilight of their careers, to be playing every game. I think he has surprised himself too, he is playing better than he has ever played. He has another yard of pace because his mind’s bright, it’s not hard work for him. He is a dedicated professional.”

Family life has helped. Derry has two young children, aged three and four, who take up much of his spare time. “I feel I have matured as a player,” says Derry. “People might have looked at me in the past and said, ‘he is hot-headed, a liability in certain games even’, but since I realised what this game means to me I have settled down as a person and feel I am on top of my game. I am at an age that I know what to do on the football field, and I know what is required for a person in my position. There will be mistakes along the way, but I am really enjoying playing at the minute. When people say it is the best job in the world, for me, it really is.”

“At some point the legs will go, and they will require a younger person, but I am not looking at that at the moment. I feel a young 32. Not really getting a go that season in the Premier League at Palace does drive me on. I look at certain players in the league and I feel I would love to have a proper crack at it. This year the opportunity is there. This is a topsy-turvy league and we’re not taking anything for granted – Neil wouldn’t let us – but we do have a squad capable of staying around the top echelons.”

Derry intends to move into management himself and one aspect of Warnock’s work he has studied is team building, the way the manager has blended such disparate players as Taarabt and himself into a unit. Warnock quotes Bill Shankly’s line, “football is a simple game, it is players that complicate it”, and adds, “Shaun Derry does not complicate it. Occasionally, when he is playing well, Shaun thinks he is a young whippersnapper about 20 years of age and he does something stupid, but he knows within a fraction of a second somebody will be shouting at him, so he doesn’t do it often.”

Taarabt does complicate it, and did so to Warnock’s ire last Friday at Ashton Gate, but he also has game changing abilities few Championship players have. He could, adds Derry, “be the difference in QPR getting to the Premier League, or not doing so.” But Derry adds: “Adel needs us just as much as we need Adel, and I think he is slowly coming round to that belief now. Last year both Adel and QPR, on the day, could be magnificent, or they could be abysmal. We’re trying to get him working hard, for the team as much as for himself. That goes back to getting the right people into a club and changing the mentality.” The game is about consistency and graft, as well as virtuosity and art.’

Glenn Moore – The Independent

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