Sinclair: QPR return a long time coming
Fifteen years is a lifetime in football, just ask any fan of Premier League new boys Queens Park Rangers. In the summer of 1996, QPR were begrudgingly preparing for life as a second-tier side having just seen their 13-year stay in the top flight ended. However, boosted by the refusal of key players to jump ship after relegation, the feeling of most around the club was that an immediate return to the Premier League was a wholly justifiable expectation.
Two wins in the opening two games of the 1996-97 season saw hopes rise further, but neither Stewart Houston - who had replaced Ray Wilkins as manager - or Ray Harford - who replaced Houston following his sacking in December - were able to engineer a sustained promotion push. An eventual ninth-place finish represented a huge disappointment but what followed was a downward spiral to rival those of troubled Libertines frontman and lifelong Hoops fan Pete Doherty.
The players who had pledged to stay with the club after Premier League relegation quickly became disillusioned with the lack of investment and began to depart; Andy Impey and Danny Dichio left in 1997, before Nigel Quashie and dreadlocked duo Rufus Brevett and Trevor Sinclair headed out the Loftus Road exit in 1998. It was to get worse; two final-day escapes secured survival in 1997 and 1998 but QPR eventually fell through the trapdoor in 2000, becoming the fourth former Premier League club - after Oldham, Swindon and Manchester City - to be demoted to English football's third tier.
Sinclair - who scored one of the FA Cup's greatest ever goals for QPR before going on to play for West Ham, Manchester City and at the 2002 World Cup for England - admits none of the players involved in the 1996 relegation could have envisaged how bad things would get for the Hoops.
"I did have reservations about the ambition of the club when we were relegated from the Premier League, but I never thought it would take QPR so long to get back up there," Sinclair told ESPNsoccernet. "A big problem was they let Les Ferdinand go to Newcastle [where he was named the 1995-96 Footballer of the Year in his first season] and I had thought he was the future of club and we could have built on that. We were doing alright in the Premier League - usually finishing in the top ten - but then things went wrong.
"We were fighting to stay up but even so I signed a new contract towards the end of that season. I thought after relegation the club would invest and go straight back up, but it didn't happen straight away and then the longer you're out of the Premier League the more difficult it is to get back. I eventually ended up leaving in 1998 because the club couldn't match my ambition."
Demotion to what is now League One saw the west Londoners at their lowest ebb but they began a slow rebuilding process and when wealthy trio Lakshmi Mittal, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone bought into the club in 2007, QPR were already established back in the Championship and looking to push onto the next level. A four-year plan was put in place to return to the Premier League and, sure enough, QPR earned their place back among the big boys after winning the Championship in May.
The Loftus Road ship is still far from settled as boardroom wrangles continue but, on the pitch, Neil Warnock has created a side that is talented, disciplined and hungry to slug it out with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. Sinclair was among the last group of QPR players to experience regular tussles with those Premier League giants and he believes that while the betting odds may place the club as relegation fodder, the influence of Warnock will stand the Hoops in good stead for the 2011-12 campaign.
"I think staying up is going to be their primary goal. Neil might have other goals, such as a top ten finish, but realistically Premier League survival is paramount. I hope they start well - they're not playing any of the big teams in the first few games so there's a great opportunity - and build on that. The fans will play an important role; Loftus Road is not the biggest stadium but it creates great atmosphere and I'm sure there are going to be some great nights and days next season. Their home form will be vital.
"Neil's often spoken about the spirit of the team and I think the more he talks about it the more togetherness the team will feel. They're coming into the season high on confidence after winning the league last time out and it's an exciting, new experience for most of the players. Neil knows the players inside out, he knows how they tick and hopefully he will have the tools to bring out the best in those players and lead them to safety."
Warnock faces an uphill task, though, as he appears to have very little financial support with which to build a team capable of competing in the top flight, a touch surprising given the chant of "1-0 to the billionaires" has often been heard resonating around Loftus Road in recent years. The QPR boss may have been resigned to losing star man Adel Taarabt - who inspired the club to Championship glory with 19 goals and 16 assists - for some time, but this week he claimed he is not expecting to see a penny of the Moroccan playmaker's proposed €12 million transfer fee from PSG. "I think we have just got to look for Bosmans and look for shrewd acquisitions, loan players etc," Warnock said wearily. "Try and do it on the smallest transfer fee outlet there's ever been. We'll be trying to survive on that and that will be another achievement."
Warnock has already made two "shrewd acquisitions" in former England and Newcastle United star Kieron Dyer and ex-Cardiff striker Jay Bothroyd, who scored 20 goals for Cardiff last season. Both arrived at the club earlier this month and Sinclair believes both players can flourish, whether the precocious Taarabt is playing alongside them or not.
"If you had asked me a few days ago how important it was to keep Taarabt I would have said it could be the difference between them staying in the league and getting relegated," Sinclair said. "But now they've signed Kieron Dyer, who could prove a fantastic addition, and Jay Bothroyd - an England international, who is full of confidence. I think he's got everything needed to be a top Premier League striker though he needs to get up and running quickly and gets a few goals under his belt. I don't think it's as important that Adel stays though obviously if you had the two of them playing together, it would worry most defences in the Premier League.
"For Kieron, the most important thing was to move to where he can play football. He's taken a massive wage cut to move to QPR, when there were other offers on the table. He's had terrible injuries and to have been out as often as he has must have been really tough. I hope he has a bit of luck and they wrap him in cotton wool and look after him to get him in the right shape for next season and he's able to show what he's got. He was a superb player for England and has shown his quality on the international stage so it's been a shame that we've not been able to see that in the last few years because of his injuries.
"There's been talk about DJ Campbell, too, and he would definitely be a good signing. He took a long time to get to top-flight football in this country but he scored a hatful of goals for Blackpool last season and I'm sure he'd love to do it again in the Premier League. I'm sure Ian [Holloway] won't want to let him go but I'm sure joining QPR would be a good move."
QPR fans may bemoan the seemingly inevitable departure of Taarabt but they will be particularly perturbed by the apparent lack of funds at Loftus Road, especially those who lapped up the lofty rhetoric of former vice-chairman Amit Bhatia last year. The son-in-law of billionaire steel magnate and QPR shareholder Lakshmi Mittal, then claimed that "the dream is to get into the Champions League" adding that "if we are promoted we will put our hands in our pockets." Those pockets appear to have been collecting lint, though, with Sinclair insisting he has always been sceptical about talk of QPR aiming for European football.
"I think there was some loose talk of the Champions League but it would take massive investment and I can't see it coming," the former West Ham winger said. "Manchester City have spent hundreds of millions to get to where they want to be so I think it was rather premature to mention QPR in the same breath as the Champions League and if anyone wants to bet on that, I will happily be the bookie!"
Trevor Sinclair was speaking at Loftus Road after receiving a Barclays plaque to welcome Queens Park Rangers FC back to the Barclays Premier League. Barclays are giving away Barclays Premier League tickets every 90 minutes throughout the 2011/12 season - visit www.barclaysticketoffice.com