Mark Warburton: ‘Losing the dressing room at QPR and all that nonsense? Not at all’

“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t get emotional about it,” says Mark Warburton, as the frustration and regret momentarily interrupt his pragmatic response to leaving Queens Park Rangers. It is at times like these when the 59-year-old likes to lean on the lessons of his old life from him as a currency trader in the City, a similarly ruthless, results-driven industry where a failure to hit targets would end in a swift dismissal. But back then, when Warburton was turning over billions of pounds on a daily basis, it was all black and white, a simple matter of profit and loss. The gray area in which football exists can often leave grievances that are open to debate and make a departure feel even more cutthroat.

“I’ve been quite clear that I thought the job was far from finished,” he says of his three seasons in charge. “The club came 19th in the season before we arrived. We came 13th in our first season, then ninth, and we were in the top-six for the vast majority of this season. We’ve got a young squad, the players are getting better and you only learn from your mistakes. The expectations and demands rise at a club [when you get closer to promotion] because of the prize, but time is a valuable commodity to achieve those goals and that opportunity has not been afforded.”

Warburton believes there is a “multitude of factors” behind the disastrous two-month spell that saw his side plummet from the play-off places to the bottom half of the table. A blip had been overdue, perhaps even inevitable, as the fatigue caught up to a thin squad that had been consistently outperforming their mid-table budget in 2021. But it was then compounded by an unprecedented spate of injuries, depriving Warburton of key players such as Chris Willock and Rob Dickie, while a tragicomedy of misfortune forced him to select a seventh-choice goalkeeper last week.

“When have you ever heard of that?” he says in disbelief. “I was reading The Damned United again and there’s Brian Clough, one of the greatest managers of all time. Those boys played 60 odd games and very often in the book they played on a Saturday and he’d say see you next Friday. We all laugh and say you could never do that these days but I said to the staff last week, are we taking enough lessons or are we ignoring history? I think we saw the cumulative loading of the last 18 months catch up and have an impact. We’ve had 72% of our time this season as three-game weeks.”

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Another knock-on effect of the pandemic is that clubs like QPR have had to be “far more financially stringent”. Out of the chaos he inherited in 2019, when the team was in disarray and in dire need of a transformation, Warburton had created a far healthier cycle of turnover, with the development of players like Eberechi Eze funding the next rebuild. But with so much riding on promotion, eight players have been left with their expiring contracts unresolved as the club delayed decisions over their futures. On Monday, Albert Adomah told fans he still had “no idea what was going on”.

“They’ve come to knock on the door and speak to me,” Warburton says. “They’re family men and want to know what’s going to happen. People say to me: well, they’ve got to be strong and professional. Yes, but they’ve got kids, they’ve got rented apartments, rented cars, so what should they be doing? I think that’s been a big factor that’s been sadly underestimated.”

In addition to that, there have been “six or seven” letters of apology from the EFL over refereeing errors that have cost QPR points.

“When all those issues come as one collective smash in the face so to speak, it’s been tough, that’s for sure,” Warburton says of the wider malaise. “I was asked after the Sheffield United game last week why they’d dominated the second half. Well, we’ve got our entire back line and five goalkeepers missing so you try and keep your temper but there’s more to it than that. You have to self-review, look back and give honest appraisals. You can’t go, ‘oh we were unlucky with injuries’, that’s not good enough. Anyone who knows me knows I’m self-critical and go back over things time and again. It haunts you but that’s how you learn.”

Warburton served as a technical director at Brentford, knows well the strained mechanisms that dictate decisions at football clubs, and insists he “respects the owner’s decision” even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with it. One point he baulks at though is the idea that he’d lost the players’ confidence or that the rot was irreversible.

“When fans in general say ‘he’s lost the dressing room’, what does that even mean? It’s utter bull,” he says. “You hear it and your heart sinks. I’d be very happy for you to speak to any of the players and ask their opinion of me as a manager. I know I have a very strong relationship with them. Many of them have phoned me man-to-man, they’ve shared private problems and personal stuff with me. For me, it’s about forming trusting relationships and I hope very much that’s the case. I look at people like Ilias Chair, Chris Willock, Rob Dickie, Sam Field, Seny Dieng. Did they respond to me? We’ve got to look at why we didn’t deliver results as a collective over the last 10 weeks but losing the dressing room and all that nonsense? Not at all.”

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The prevailing sentiment among supporters is that Warburton’s dismissal was harsh and appeared to be handled with few graces, even if a run of one win out of nine games understandably provoked widespread disappointment. They gave him a stirring ovation at his final home game at Loftus Road last Friday and there have been touching moments at the training ground too, where the tight-knit atmosphere was vastly different to the days of old.

“Environment is everything,” he says. “One person came up to me the other day, they were very emotional, and they said it was great because every morning I came in and said hello and had a laugh and a joke with them. Apparently, that’s not always been the case. The things you or I might take for granted can have a very positive impact on people. Any manager wants to leave the club in a better situation than it was when he or she arrived and, if you’ve done that, as basic or cliché as it may sound, I think you’re in a good place. I know the department is in good shape. Would I have liked to change certain things? Absolutely I would, but I wasn’t given the freedom to because it doesn’t work that way.”

And while Warburton has found it difficult to accept, he is no stranger to such a sentiment. He was told even promotion would not save his job from him at Brentford in 2015 after discovering his position from him was being advertised while the club were second in the Championship table. At Rangers, he had met the targets set out by the board but was left “furious” when the club abruptly announced his resignation midway through the season. Warburton insisted he had signed no such papers, but it didn’t stop his mobile number from being posted online, leading to hundreds of abusive messages and calls. At Nottingham Forest, he trimmed and youthed the squad as instructed but wasn’t then given time to be the architect of its rebuild. It is a cruel but not uncommon pattern in football and he approaches it all with a matter-of-fact attitude, again referring to his background in the City that never afforded him sympathies or self-indulgence.

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“It’s such a privileged position to stand on the touchline, to be able to pick the team and work with those players and staff knowing what it all means to the fans. They’ve been magnificent,” he says. “I think any manager would tell you the stresses, pressures and bad times take a toll, but the privilege of being in such a position for me will never be diluted and the fact that so few people are able to do it just highlights how lucky we are. I don’t want to sound like an old fossil but it’s so important that you recognize that responsibility because it means so much to so many. If you don’t: one you won’t do your job well; two you won’t take the club forward, and three it’s a huge shortfall in your own character.”

Eighteen months separated Warburton’s tenures at Forest and QPR and he spent much of that time in the US, accruing knowledge in MLS, and says he was “more than close” to taking two jobs there. He is still open to that possibility but there are likely to be clubs who’ve admired Warburton’s work from him at QPR and the only thing he’s certain on going ahead is that he does n’t want another extended break from the touchline.

“I’m a realist and this is a hard game and I know too many good people not working,” he says. “Someone said I should take a year off but I think these days you can be very quickly forgotten. I’m coming up to 60 this year, I’m fit and healthy, God willing, and I still enjoy it very much. Not to sound flippant about money but that’s not what it is for me. I’m lucky to be okay. I’ve paid my mortgage. But I’d be a very, very unhappy man if I was sat twiddling my thumbs or playing golf every day. I like responsibility, I like to be challenged so, if an offer came in tomorrow, as long as it was the right one, then fantastic.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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