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WONDERS OF THE PYRAMID: QPR were the laughing stock… now they’re celebrating thanks to new boss Marti Cifuentes

It started with a 4-0 embarrassment, so it was fitting that it also ended in one. The recent history of Queens Park Rangers has been a timeline of tumult and it’s difficult to know where to begin in recapping how dark clouds of negativity slowly transformed into green shoots of optimism.

Losing 4-0 to Watford on the opening day of this season was by no means the start of mayhem, but it felt like a nadir. They fell behind just 36 seconds into the campaign and manager Gareth Ainsworth was already talking about “survival”.

QPR finished the first day of the season in the relegation zone and fans – and apparently Ainsworth too – genuinely feared the club was here to stay. A week earlier, they lost 5–0 to League One Oxford United in a pre-season friendly.

It was a meaningless match that produced a significant result. QPR were a team that went one way. Nine months earlier, they were top of the Championship under Mick Beale, but finished 20th, winning just four games after his controversial exit.

Neil Critchley, who has since returned to Blackpool, was sandwiched between Beale and Ainsworth. The former Liverpool manager publicly threw his players under the proverbial bus and the dressing room turned against him. He only lasted 12 games.

WONDERS OF THE PYRAMID: QPR were the laughing stock… now they’re celebrating thanks to new boss Marti Cifuentes

Marti Cifuentes inherited a rudderless team at QPR, but turned it around with fast, passing football and won over the fans.

QPR had started the season in embarrassment, losing 4-0 to Watford, and already the fear of relegation was looming.

QPR had started the season in embarrassment, losing 4-0 to Watford, and already the fear of relegation was looming.

Ainsworth was – and still is – a club legend from his playing days, and boasted an excellent record at his former team Wycombe. But he was a square peg in a round hole and his tenure, just five wins in 28 games, was summed up by a bizarre episode at their Heston training base.

The part-time rock singer enlisted dancers to perform the traditional Maori Haka routine. This was broadcast on the club’s social media channels and the puzzled faces of the players are memorable. The All Blacks rugby team spread fear with their Haka but QPR looked like a laughingstock.

Things weren’t any better off the field. When the club lost 4-0 to Blackburn in October – a theme was developing – chairman Amit Bhatia was busy on the golf course. Director of football Les Ferdinand had also left a few months earlier.

A source close to a former QPR manager has told Wonders of the Pyramid how they missed out on signing a top striker in 2021 because a member of the hierarchy was late for a meeting with his agent. This striker is now a prolific striker in one of the best European leagues.

There is still work to be done off the field. Bhatia has left her position and Lee Hoos now oversees day-to-day operations. Since Eberechi Eze left for Crystal Palace in 2020, they have stagnated to cash in on big assets, despite him having a 20 per cent sell-on clause.

But on the ground, things look bright. The man to thank for this is a young Catalan born right next to the great Pep Guardiola, Marti Cifuentes. He has overseen their rise from that 4-0 opening day defeat to one of the results of the season, a 4-0 win over Leeds last Friday.

This victory confirmed security. For those unaware of the chaotic mess that has occurred at Loftus Road over the past few years, QPR’s retention might come as no surprise. But when Cifuentes took over, it seemed like it would take a small miracle for him to do it.

He inherited a rudderless team, 23rd in the table after six consecutive defeats when Ainsworth was sacked. His first job was to rally fans. They were welcoming but unsure of him given his experience was limited to Spain’s fourth tier and three Scandinavian clubs.

Club legend Gareth Ainsworth had a difficult tenure and made the club a laughing stock when he brought in dancers to perform the traditional Maori Haka routine.

Club legend Gareth Ainsworth had a difficult tenure and made the club a laughing stock when he brought in dancers to perform the traditional Maori Haka routine.

Cifuentes had his doubters when he arrived, but QPR are 10th in the 31 games since his arrival

Cifuentes had his doubters when he arrived, but QPR are 10th in the 31 games since his arrival

Cifuentes’ appointment was almost as if QPR’s data analysts had asked their supercomputers to find the opposite of Ainsworth. He changed the direct and pragmatic style of play to a faster passing game. It was a risk but it paid off.

“I’m very used to being inexperienced, too young, whatever,” he said in December. “I’m just a very optimistic person. I don’t have a magic recipe. But looking at the table since his appointment – ​​QPR are 10th in this 31-game mini-league – it feels like that is the case.

Similarly, young Sheffield Wednesday boss Danny Rohl is another who seems to have the magic recipe. The Owls have won 47 of their 50 points under the 34-year-old German and are almost safe even though they looked destined for the fall and were winless when he took over in October.

Ipswich high-flyer Kieran McKenna thoroughly deserved his manager of the season gong, after leading them to a point from back-to-back promotions on a shoestring. But young Cifuentes and Rohl also deserve a heavy dose of praise for their excellent work against all odds.

Your guide to this weekend’s play-offs

LEAGUE ONE

Barnsley v Bolton, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Barnsley sacked boss Neill Collins just 11 days before the play-offs and the Tykes could be the first club in EFL history – historians, correct me if I’m wrong – to be promoted without a manager.

But two wins in the final 12 regular season games make that unlikely. Bolton manager Ian Evatt is aiming for a third promotion and a second at this club – after taking Barrow to the Football League – and they look a classy and tough team to beat.

Oxford v Peterborough, Saturday 7:45 p.m.

Oxford started the season with nine wins from the first 11 and looked like automatic promotion contenders, but young manager Liam Manning jumped ship to Bristol City. They initially stumbled under the leadership of journeyman-boss Des Buckingham, but recovered.

Buckingham, 39, began his coaching career at the Oxford academy and came full circle via the beautiful destinations of Wellington, Melbourne, Mumbai and… Stoke. They face a tough task against the experienced Darren Ferguson and EFL Trophy winners Peterborough.

Ian Evatt is aiming for a third promotion and a second with Bolton.  They face Barnsley, who are without a manager following the sacking of Neill Collins

Ian Evatt is aiming for a third promotion and a second with Bolton. They face Barnsley, who are without a manager following the sacking of Neill Collins

Peterborough United hope their play-off winning experience counts against Oxford

Peterborough United hope their play-off winning experience counts against Oxford

Crawley manager Scott Lindsay is an outside choice for the Football League manager of the season.

Crawley manager Scott Lindsay is an outside choice for the Football League manager of the season.

Doncaster qualified for the play-offs with 10 wins and a draw – despite being 20th in March

Doncaster qualified for the play-offs with 10 wins and a draw – despite being 20th in March

LEAGUE TWO

Crawley v Milton Keynes, Monday 3pm

An outside choice for Football League manager of the season would be Crawley boss Scott Lindsay. They were the bookies’ favorites for relegation this season and looked like a bit of a basket case under the ownership of crypto company WAGMI United.

They now have a chance of play-off glory, but will once again be against all odds to beat Milton Keynes. Their boss Mike Williamson took over at National League Gateshead and inherited it in 16th place. With a full season, they would be among the top three candidates.

Crewe v Doncaster, Monday 5.30pm

As documented in last week’s Wonders, Doncaster were 20th in League Two as recently as March, but finished the season with a run of 10 wins and one draw. To put it bluntly, Grant McCann’s men look like the team to beat in the play-offs.

Lee Bell’s Crewe, on the other hand, have stumbled their way into the top seven with just two wins in their last 12 games. But the Railwaymen punched above their weight and denied a small budget – the young team deserves a game – irrelevant.

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