The reason Mark Warburton appealed to Queens Park Rangers can be found in another part of west London. Warburton can reel off players Brentford sold for millions having been brought in during his spells as sporting director and manager. James Tarkowski, Andre Gray, David Button, Stuart Dallas, Scott Hogan et al provide proof of what Warburton can do for a Championship club’s bank balance while also battling for promotion.
“If they overachieve in comparison to budget then teams come in for them, quite rightly,” Warburton says. “You can’t compete with 40,000 people at Leeds but you can if you get the squad, the environment, the mentality and intensity right.” A wholly positive vibe is instantly apparent at QPR’s Harlington training base.
When he was at Griffin Park, Warburton jousted with Bournemouth – underdogs who have not looked back since winning the Championship in 2015. “It’s not always about the biggest budget; that brings the biggest expectation,” Warburton says.
Warburton’s attraction to QPR when they were looking for a manager last spring had nothing to do with finances. “Frank McLintock left Arsenal for QPR and his son, Neil, was my best mate at school,” he recalls. “I used to come in and watch every home game of the famous season [1975-76] where they came second to Liverpool by a point. I was a young football fan watching Frank train the players with Dave Sexton: Gerry Francis, Don Masson, John Hollins. I know the passion of this club and how the fans wanted their team to play.”
QPR’s start to the season – Warburton is adamant they deserve to be four points better off, which would place them top of the Championship instead of seventh – endorses the sense that this is a formidable alliance. After falling foul of financial fair play regulations, QPR have endured a troubled spell. Having taken charge of the team days after the end of last season, Warburton decided upon drastic action: the majority of the first-team left and 15 new players arrived.
“We had decisions to make. Do you go softly, softly, change one or two slowly, and use a few windows? I felt we needed more than that, radical surgery. It is risky but I felt it was called for. I didn’t want to look back and think: ‘I wish I’d done that.’
“Clearly the owners here have a vision and a plan. They had been through a pretty tumultuous time and have come through the other side with a really clear vision. We are in a good position right now but we have to be astute.”
Almost 18 months passed between Warburton’s sacking by Nottingham Forest and his appointment at Loftus Road. Forest’s actions wounded him. “I was really angry about how it came about,” he says. “We were set targets and achieved every one. The size of squad was down, the average age was down.
“So that happened and I was really angry; you have to deal with that anger. It had come as a complete and utter shock.”
The 57-year-old spent time in the United States, and was approached about jobs there, before returning to his native London. Warburton insists clubs are within their rights to change managers whenever they please but the short-termism in football clearly doesn’t sit well with the former city trader.
“It’s their club; owners put the money in,” Warburton says. “They stump up the money so you have to respect that side of it but I come from a background where you hit KPI’s, you hit targets and there is a long-term plan. When the goalposts move, that’s hard to take.
“Lee Johnson had a rough time at Bristol City. The owner stuck by him, now they are doing tremendously well. Dean Smith had a tough run at Brentford and look where he has ended up. Choose your manager wisely, then stick by him. It takes time.”
Warburton was entitled to look on ruefully as Rangers, now managed by Steven Gerrard, spent £7m on Ryan Kent at the end of the transfer window. Warburton’s tenure in Glasgow was characterised by frugality as Rangers first earned promotion to the top flight before meeting the immovable, record-breaking force that was Celtic under Brendan Rodgers. Rangers claimed Warburton resigned in early 2017, however he says: “At no stage did we ever resign. You would never walk out on Glasgow Rangers.” Warburton had sensed trouble during a “heated” board meeting shortly before his exit.
Rangers’ wait for major-trophy success continues. The closest they have come since the financial chaos of 2012 was the 2016 Scottish Cup final under Warburton. “Some people say I never understood the Rangers mentality,” he says. “I’m not stupid. Of course I understood the expectation but it’s about knowing the facts of having players on three, four, five thousand pounds a week playing against a team with players on 15, 25, 30. Logic tells you the gap is too big.
“Celtic had that stellar year, broke all records, and it frustrated me that all that was looked at was the gap to Celtic. We wanted to win more than anyone but there was a plan in place and it all comes down to investment.”
In the here and now, Warburton tempers rising expectations at Loftus Road with the realities of a brutal division. “There is no gimme game,” he says. “Bottom beats top and nobody is surprised. You put together four wins and you can go from 18th to eighth. You lose three games and people think you are in a relegation fight. We will have good days and bad days – that’s what happens with a new squad.”
Which doesn’t mean Warburton and QPR cannot dream. “The aim of every Championship club has to be the Premier League,” he says. “Anyone in the top 10 come March can sniff the Premier League.” Which is a long way off but not, given Warburton’s previous, such an unlikely scenario.
The Guardian Sport