In the first of our Long Reads series, club captain Stefan Johansen wasn’t shy when choosing the adjective he’d use to ultimately describe Queens Park Rangers’ season of 2021/22.
While financial fair play rules now dictate that the R’s cannot compete with the division’s big hitters in terms of financial muscle, it was a campaign that promised so much and, in the end, delivered some way short of that in the shape of an eleventh-placed finish.
After a tough period of rebuild following relegation from the Premier League in 2014/15, Rangers had finally turned themselves into contenders last term – that after adopting an improved method of player recruitment, and an entertaining style of football under Mark Warburton following his appointment in the summer of 2019.
Stefan’s Johansen’s QPR story began in January 2021. Rangers – now minus the goals of Ebere Eze, Nahki Wells and Jordan Hugill – needed a lift following a difficult start to the campaign. The likes of former Norway skipper Johansen and returning hero Charlie Austin were able to provide it.
Johansen – a wily but technically-gifted professional – offered QPR real nous in particular, and his arrival, on loan from Fulham, was part of an amalgamation of happenings that turned the Hoops into one of the division’s form teams for a whole calendar year.
A barnstorming second half of the ‘20/21 campaign raised expectations, and Johansen, Austin, Sam Field and Jordy de Wijs all saw their loans turned into more permanent arrangements come the summer.
Added to that Seny Dieng’s rise to prominence in goal, the growing relationship between Ilias Chair and Chris Willock in attack, and the likes of ball-playing defender Rob Dickie progressing nicely ahead of the 2021/22 season, confidence was high going into it – in the stands and on the pitch – and it showed.
For the first half of the campaign at least, Rangers were mainstays in the top six. By the time we had thumped Reading 4-0 at Loftus Road at the end of January, few would have foreseen a run of form that meant dreams of a trip to Wembley were long gone by May.
“It was disappointing,” Johansen told www.qpr.co.uk. “In the end, there were big expectations – both in terms of the team and for the likes of me, individually.
“I didn’t have the best season of my career. I am the first one to admit that. I didn’t feel like I was playing my best football and I didn’t ever feel like I got into a rhythm to enable me to find my best football.
“It was disappointing but I’ve been in the game long enough to know and understand that’s how football is.
“Last year, I didn’t have a full pre-season going into it. That’s not an excuse, but you have to reflect on what didn’t go well and do something about it – both from an individual perspective and a team perspective.
“I’ve never been one to make excuses, but a full pre-season certainly helps. I had a little injury and that’s never ideal.
“That being said, as a team we started off well. But from January onwards, I personally didn’t feel like I played the football I am capable of.”
With Warburton departing come May, new head coach Michael Beale is the man now tasked with building on the good work over the former’s three-year tenure.
Upon his appointment, Beale commented that while he was impressed with the heights that QPR’s players hit during the opening half of the 2020/21 campaign, he would be asking them to be open about just what went wrong during the final months of the season.
Injuries certainly played their part – not to mention Rangers fielding no less than five different goalkeepers throughout the season, missing four full-backs at one time and losing talisman Chris Willock towards the end of the campaign.
But there is no hiding from the team’s stark contrast in results, with only relegated Barnsley offering poorer form than the R’s after January.
“We had conversations and I think they’ve been very helpful,” Stef said. “He’s (Beale) pointed out a few things that were quite essential in us not doing well.
“He feels that we were too open, sometimes, and that it was too easy to score against us.
“That was just one of a few things and I obviously won’t go into all the detail. But, from the first day of pre-season and even when I spoke to him before that, he has clear thoughts about his style of play and I think that will suit this group.
“It’s a very young group, a very hungry group and I think his style will suit it absolutely perfectly.
“He has been sure to point out his thoughts about why we didn’t do well during the second half of last season. Let’s be honest, we were flying before Christmas but, after it, we were one of the worst teams in the division.
“That shouldn’t have happened and we have certainly been discussing that.”
Despite the aforementioned flaws of the ‘21/22 season, few can question the improvement made by Rangers in more recent years.
On a bottom-half budget in terms of the Championship as a whole, QPR have developed into a team capable of challenging the top six while playing an entertaining brand of football.
While the table doesn’t lie ultimately, Rangers showed during the first half of last season just why they are now capable of mixing it with the division’s best.
Looking ahead, Johansen said: “Of course we can improve on last season.
“I think you can always improve. I’ve said my piece on my own performances last season – I didn’t play to the level I am capable of and can take it up a level.
“If every player thinks that way, we can improve.
“But also, as a team, what the manager here is big on is that it’s a team game. We work as a team on the pitch – we don’t work as individuals. That’s the most-important thing.
“How we work on that, how we get everyone together and on the same page will obviously be important for when we head back out onto the pitch again.
“The last few days with the manager have been brilliant. Everyone is learning new things every day and you just get interested every time he speaks.
At Heston for the first time ahead of QPR’s new training complex being fully completed for the 2023/24 campaign, the majority of players returned for pre-season just under a fortnight ago.
“Pre-season has been good,” Johansen continued. “The gaffer has come in and it’s clear to see that he’s worked at a high level.
“You can see the detail – the way he shows us how he wants to play is very detailed.
“I must admit that I am very excited by it all, even though I am one of the older players. There is still room for me to learn and he has come in and shown that he has worked at a high level, as I said, which I think is going to benefit the team.
“I’m obviously aware of the players and coaches that he’s worked with, the latest being Steven Gerrard. They did incredibly well at Glasgow Rangers together.
“I played for Celtic and obviously kept a close eye on the job he did at Rangers as a result, before he went to Aston Villa.
“So he has been working at a high, high level with some incredibly talented players – and I knew that he’d have something about him as a result. You don’t reach those levels with clubs unless you’re a good coach.”
Beale has four more weeks to work with his new players before the ‘22/23 campaign kicks off in earnest.
Can skipper Johansen lead the team to success, displaying the kind of form that saw Rangers fans baying for his signature this time last summer?
“I’m very keen for that to happen,” Stef explained. “That’s what you play football for – to be the best that you can be and to help the team achieve.
“To get back to playing my best football is a process we’re all going through now. Pre-season is important for getting to know how the manager wants to play, it’s important in terms of getting fitter and fitter – staying injury-free and also getting game time in your legs. That’s the main aim.
“But as I’ve said many times during this interview, it’s very exciting to work under this gaffer and I think that he’s also come in and shown that he’s hungry to help us to improve and achieve as a team, as individuals.
“He cares a lot about the individuals and is very clear about how he wants to play, with and without the ball.
“It’s not always exciting to keep possession without making progress. There is a way we’ll play and there is a reason why we’ll play that way. What we want to do is wear down the opposition and make things happen going forward.
“His style of play will suit a lot of players in our team, I’m sure of that.”