Passionate, barmy, charismatic, unorthodox, inspirational, outspoken, honest, eccentric; these are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Ian Holloway. A compelling case can be made in favour of each and every one of these words, however I believe that from a Q.P.R. perspective the most fitting is simply saviour. When our club was at its lowest ebb Ian Scott Holloway grabbed it firmly by the scruff of its neck, hauled it out of the depths of despair and set it securely on the road to recovery. Without his passion, desire and boundless determination there is a very distinct possibility that we would not be marvelling at the skills of Adel Taarabt, Julio Cesar or Loic Remy today.
When Gerry Francis took over as Q.P.R. manager in June 1991 he inherited an established mid-table 1st division team, however he quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to improve their work ethic to enable the team brimming with talent to fulfil their undoubted potential. This prompted him to return to his former club, Bristol Rovers, to sign a player whose infectious enthusiasm and passion could not fail to galvanise those around him. Ian Holloway was probably the best £230,000 Francis ever spent.
Holloway had been plying his trade in the lower leagues for over 10 seasons. Although he hadn’t ever given up hope of playing in the top flight of English football, he realised that this opportunity was likely to be his only chance; he grabbed it with both hands. The determined midfield terrier’s attitude was paramount in the development of Francis’ team, which, after a slow start, began to climb the table and then announced themselves to the world by demolishing title chasing Manchester United at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day 1992 in front of a live television audience in a match few of us will ever forget; neither will Dennis Bailey whose hat trick was the highlight of his career.
Another solid mid-table finish secured Q.P.R. a place in the newly formed Premiership where Francis’ team initially thrived. Holloway proved to be an energetic and dynamic powerhouse in the engine room driving the team forwards, tackling like a demon and neatly tiding up possession enabling the vast array of talented players around him to flourish. While Les Ferdinand, Ray Wilkins, Andy Sinton, David Bardsley, Clive Wilson and Simon Barker drew the plaudits, they all would readily acknowledge the value of Holloway to the team. He willingly accepted his role and equally willingly sacrificed any aspects of his play incongruent with his responsibilities, a true team player. Holloway was also the club’s changing room conscience; if he thought that anybody, regardless of their stature in the club, was not pulling their weight, he had no qualms about laying down a few home truths. The team’s hard work paid dividends as they matured into a strong contender for the second best Q.P.R. team of all time, a claim enhanced by finishing 5th in the first ever Premiership season.
The Premiership was not kind to Q.P.R. The restructured finances were designed solely in the interests of the larger clubs; smaller clubs, like Rangers, struggled to compete. The steady stream of players that were sold in order to meet the rising costs took its toll. As valiantly as Holloway and the remaining players fought, the departures over several seasons of Sinton, Peacock, Wilson and, most crucially, Ferdinand eventually led to Q.P.R.’s inevitable relegation at the end of the 1995/96 season. Holloway, who had been inspired by playing under Gerry Francis to consider a career in management, left to become player/manager at his beloved Bristol Rovers. On his arrival at Loftus Road he had initially been eyed with some suspicion by the Q.P.R. faithful but his effervescence and obvious passion soon won over all but his most ardent critics. 5 seasons and over 150 matches later his ceaseless work rate and enduring enthusiasm was still as refreshing as the day he had joined.
While Holloway was honing his managerial skills with The Pirates, Q.P.R. were lurching deeper and deeper into financial meltdown. Their attempt to buy promotion back into the Premiership fell woefully short, totally demoralised the club started to tumble down the table. Gerry Francis returned to briefly offer some hope, but the task of rejuvenating Q.P.R. proved to be beyond him. On stepping down as manager he recommend to owner Chris Wright that Ian Holloway was the man to replace him. Holloway was duly appointed but then immediately shackled; Wright could no longer support the spiralling costs and reluctantly had to enter Q.P.R. into administration. Just 8 years after finishing 5th in the inaugural season of the Premiership, we all stood and watched in horror as absolutely nothing could prevent our shattered club plummeting into the third tier of English football.
It was only now that the true pain of administration started to be felt. Holloway was instructed not to offer new deals to any of the players whose existing contracts were expiring and the administrator negotiated the release of many of the other players for a fraction of their remaining contract value to the point where the club only had 7 fit players along with 2 long term injured players; in a sickening coincidence both Clarke Carlisle and Richard Langley suffered cruciate knee ligament damage in the same match against Fulham. Although at the time his action seemed designed to drive the final nail into Q.P.R.’s coffin, with the benefit of hindsight the administrator laying bare the squad may actually have helped Holloway. Drawing strength from his personal grief at seeing the club that he had so proudly represented in the Premiership in such terrible disarray, as Holloway, operating within very, very tight guidelines, set about his task of building a squad from virtually nothing, he was free of any acrimony from the recent disasters at Loftus Road, and the prevalent losing mentality.
Steve Palmer perfectly fitted these guidelines; not because he was an experienced, dependable player, but because he was out of contract having been released by Watford and didn’t require any relocation expenses. He was followed into the club by Danny Shittu, signed on loan from Charlton. Wealthy fan Harold Winton was so impressed by Shittu’s performances that, supported by his two sons Matt and Alex, in an incredibly benevolent gesture he approached the club and bought Shittu on their behalf. Shittu’s wholehearted defending would enable him to carve his own niche in Q.P.R. folklore. As the season unfolded Holloway delighted the club’s long suffering supporters by being able to persuade Kevin Gallen to return to the club from Barnsley, a move that instantly paid dividends when Gallen scored on his second debut for Q.P.R. To his eternal credit Holloway managed to build a competitive team, instilling his enthusiasm and desire into his players. Finishing the season in 8th position was far better than any of us could have realistically expected.
In May 2002 Q.P.R. emerged from administration but were saddled with a terrifyingly punitive loan, the shackles were as unyielding as ever. This did not prevent Holloway recruiting lifelong Rangers fan Marc Bircham to the cause in another deal supported financially by the Winton family. Bircham was a player very much in Holloway’s mould, determined, passionate and a fighter, a player who would run through walls for Q.P.R., exactly the type of player Holloway was looking for. A very strong September left Q.P.R. only 1 point behind Cardiff at the top of the league before the club, solely held together by Holloway’s will power, started to unravel spectacularly.
On 26th November 2002 Q.P.R. hit rock bottom when they lost at home in their F.A. Cup first round replay against Vauxhall Motors from the Unibond League. This humiliation was swiftly followed by two heavy defeats, 4 – 0 at home against Cardiff and 3 – 0 away at Notts. County. Holloway knew that he desperately needed to find a spark to reignite the season before their slide towards another relegation became inescapable. His inspired loan signing of Watford’s Lee Cook not only helped balance his team, Cook was a natural left winger, but added another passionate Q.P.R. supporter to the team. Holloway was slowly but surely matching the passion on the pitch to that which was still very evident on the terraces. Cook made an instant impression by dancing down the wing and firing a precise cross onto Bircham’s head to open the scoring in his first match. Brentford fought back to equalise, but the slide had been arrested. Such was Cook’s impact that Q.P.R. won 8 and drew 2 of the 13 matches he played during his loan spell.
The confidence and belief the players gained from this spell continued long after Cook had returned to Watford; Loftus Road was rocking again as Rangers surged back up the table and into the end of season promotion play offs. A hard fought 1 – 1 draw against Oldham at Boundary Park in the first leg set the scene for an incredible night at Loftus Road. The tension was being ratcheted up a few more degrees with every passing minute as the match headed towards extra time when Paul Furlong latched on to Clarke Carlisle’s through ball, held off Fitz Hall and crashed his shot past Pogliacomi in the Oldham goal. Loftus Road erupted as years of frustration and desperation were swept aside and replaced with elation and hope. The party stepped up another notch when then final whistle went ten minutes later, Q.P.R. were through to the play off final against Cardiff City.
Unfortunately the players struggled to overcome the tension surrounding the final. The ceaseless efforts of Holloway and the unfaltering encouragement of the travelling 30,000 supporters, including Lee Cook in their ranks, were in vain; a single goal deep into extra time killed their promotion ambitions for that season. However Holloway’s rationale of signing players who desperately wanted to play for Q.P.R. along with a number of hardworking, determined professionals was proving successful. He had not only halted Q.P.R.’s slide, but reversed it, and managed to restore the supporters’ pride in their team who were now completely unrecognisable as the side that had been humiliated by Vauxhall Motors only 6 months before.
During the close season, and still shackled by tight guidelines, Holloway continued to rebuild Q.P.R. He moved decisively to sign two players who would become very influential at the club. Hammersmith born Martin Rowlands was a calculated gamble. Rowlands still hadn’t fully recovered from a broken leg he suffered playing for Brentford but Holloway knew that he was exactly the passionate, wholehearted performer he wanted in his team. As indeed was Gareth Ainsworth who was no longer required by Cardiff. The marauding winger was an instant hit with the Q.P.R. supporters, scoring twice on his debut and repeating the feat a few weeks later at Rushden and Diamonds with two of the best goals you could ever wish to see. His “don’t die wondering” attitude was very much at the forefront as Rangers started the season with a bang.
Circumstances dictated that Holloway was given the opportunity to demonstrate that he was more than just a blood and guts manager. He amply demonstrated his compassionate side with his sympathetic handling of Clarke Carlisle who had started to drink heavily during his lengthy layoff while he recovered from his cruciate ligament injury. As soon as Carlisle approached him ready to confront his problem, Holloway directed him towards the Sporting Chance clinic founded by Tony Adams and supported him through his rehabilitation.
Above all else Holloway, through his desire, self belief and by carefully selecting the players he signed, instilled a peerless team spirit into the club, their never-say-die attitude regularly enabled them to pick up points late in matches, they were rarely outside of the top three places in the league all season. The glorious 3 – 1 win against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough which guaranteed promotion to the Championship is often regarded as the day that Rangers started their long comeback; I would dispute that and point to the day that Ollie signed Lee Cook on loan as the first step. The team that Ollie built still remains to this day many people’s favourite ever Q.P.R. team. Their passion, desire and determination a true reflection of their manager. When has a team ever had so many players held in high regard by the supporters? Their names roll off the tongue: Gallen, Rowlands, Bircham, Furlong, Shittu, Padula and, of course, Ainsworth. The excitement levels have rarely been higher at Loftus Road, the affinity between the club and supporters rarely stronger.
Despite Ian Holloway totally transforming Q.P.R.’s fortunes on the pitch events off the field were transpiring against him. Gianni Paladini, fronting for a Monaco based consortium, had bought 22% of the club towards the end of that season and was in the process of manipulating his way to eventually become the Q.P.R. chairman. Throughout their first season back in the second tier of English football, virtually every time Q.P.R. lost there were rumours that Holloway was going to be replaced as manager, but, undaunted, he gallantly battled on, even though he was getting more and more isolated with each change in the boardroom. Despite all of the off field distractions he successfully guided the team to a satisfactory 11th place in their first season in the Championship.
Paladini disgracefully ousted Bill Power as Q.P.R. chairman in August 2005 and took on the mantle himself a month later, Holloway was now very vulnerable and his demise inevitable. In February 2006 Leicester City approached Paladini for permission to talk to Ian Holloway with a view to him becoming their next manager, which he granted. Assuming that he wasn’t wanted at Q.P.R. any more, Holloway reluctantly went up to be interviewed by the Leicester board. On his return to Loftus Road, Ian Holloway was put on “gardening leave”, along with assistants Gary Penrice and Tim Breaker. Paladini stated that “QPR have not sacked Ian, but we are concerned about recent performances and the effect the speculation about Ian joining Leicester City might have on the players”. Paladini had finally got his way, Holloway’s 5 year traumatic reign as Q.P.R.’s manager was over. The mad man was no longer running the asylum, the megalomaniac was.
For many Ian Holloway is most famous for his headline making bizarre interviews and comments. Quotes referring to picking up girls, let’s have a coffee, woof day and being as chuffed as a badger may have brought him, and the Q.P.R. revival he inspired, to the greater public’s attention, but his impassioned words, as faithfully recorded by David McIntyre, after Q.P.R.s relegation to the third tier of English football give a far truer insight into the man:
“No words can do justice to how I feel. Devastated doesn’t even start to cover it. To have played for this great club in the premier division and see it now, in the third division for the first time since the 60s. It’s a tragedy. It breaks my heart. And to think how those QPR fans will feel, having come from what we had to this, here today. I feel sick. Absolutely sick. But let me tell you this: QPR will rise again. I promise you that. Like a phoenix, it will rise again. We’ve lost everything, but everything we’ve lost we’ll get back. Trust me on that. We’ll get it all back. Whether I’ll be the manager when that happens, I don’t know. I’d like to be. I can at least get the whole thing started. Believe me, I’ll be proved right. Remember me saying this. QPR will get back there again – back to how it was a few years ago and the years before that. Mark my words. Remember them. It will happen, I’m telling you. Everything we’ve lost, we will get back.”
Ollie was true to his word, we did get it all back.
No praise can be too lavish and no accolade too overstated in describing the rescue mission Ian Holloway performed as manager of Q.P.R. The club was in terminal decline, crashing through the divisions and on the verge of going out of business. Not only did he arrest the club’s descent and then guide them back into the higher echelons of English football, but he lifted the air of despondency that hung over Loftus Road like a shroud and made the match day experience at Loftus Road enjoyable again; rather than look to leave, players wanted to come to Q.P.R. Above all he gave the supporters a team to get excited about and a club that they could be proud of again. His treatment by Paladini was absolutely disgraceful, he deserved so much more. His passion, desire and boundless determination saved our club.