LONDON -- Amid the cautious rumble of prematch encouragement from the South Africa Road Stand comes one shout that reveals the low bar for expectations here at Queens Park Rangers these days: "Do better, you Hoops."
It would be hard for them to do worse. Five years ago, they were spending more on wages than Borussia Dortmund. But while Jurgen Klopp's side were recently dethroned Bundesliga champions and had just reached the final of the Champions League, QPR were relegated from the Premier League. They bounced back in 2014, but won just eight matches the following season and dropped straight back down again. After a disastrous start to this season, another relegation already looks horribly plausible.
Under new manager Steve McClaren, QPR lost all four of their opening games. There's been a 1-7 thumping from West Bromwich Albion and a 0-3 defeat to Bristol City that saw McClaren met with jeers of, "You don't know what you're doing." It is a mocking refrain with which he has become closely acquainted during his career.
The Hoops have slid far. But where did the trouble start? Speak to supporters in the Crown & Sceptre public house before the game and they'll tell you it was the sale of Les Ferdinand in 1995. In 1993, with him leading the line, they finished fifth in the inaugural Premier League and were officially the best team in London. In 1996, one year after his departure to Newcastle, they were relegated. They dropped to the third flight and administration in 2001, but were revived by former player Ian Holloway, who won promotion in 2004.
There was the chaotic reign of former owner Gianni Paladini, when a second descent into administration seemed likely. He relinquished control in 2007, when the club was bought by Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, two men better known for their involvement in motor racing.
Briatore announced a four-year plan that he declared would take the Hoops back to the top flight. It also provided the title for an extraordinary fly-on-the-wall documentary that revealed a regime no less chaotic than that led by Paladini. But Briatore was proven correct: It took seven managers (and five caretakers), but in 2011, exactly four years later, Neil Warnock led QPR back to the Premier League.
But then the ownership changed again. And shortly afterwards, so did the manager. Airline boss Tony Fernandes picked up a 66 percent stake for £35 million and began a staggeringly ill-advised period of spending. The first trolley dash, as supporter Andy Hillman puts it before the game, included the signings of Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Anton Ferdinand. And then Warnock was replaced by Mark Hughes. New players, including Samba Diakite, Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora arrived in January 2012. QPR stayed up by the skin of their teeth, memorably losing to a Sergio Aguero-inspired Manchester City on the final day, their survival secured only by results elsewhere.
Hughes promised afterwards that it wouldn't happen again. He brought in multiple new signings including Park Ji-Sung, Rob Green, Ryan Nelson and Jose Bosingwa to ensure that it wouldn't. But nothing improved and he was replaced by Harry Redknapp, who in turn signed Loic Remy, Tal Ben Haim, Chris Samba, Jermaine Jenas and Andros Townsend. And QPR were duly relegated at the end of the season.
Now they were in serious trouble. On a turnover of £38.7m, they were paying £75.4m on wages. Most of the players were locked in on lucrative, long-term deals and in most cases, the club literally couldn't give them away. No one else would be generous enough to match their contracts.
And yet somehow they were granted a second chance. In one of the most one-sided playoff finals in recent years, they snatched a cruel late winner against, oddly enough, McClaren's superior Derby side, and so they went up again in 2014. Would they learn their lesson and hold to a more sustainable transfer policy? Of course not. In came Rio Ferdinand, Mauricio Isla, Eduardo Vargas and a host of others. And again, they were relegated.
By now the club was broken internally. The dressing room was bitterly factionalised with some players reported to have taken their lunches to their car rather than sit and eat with their teammates. The gulf in wages between what remained of the old guard and the various tranches of big-money signings was to blame. One subsequent manager organised a preseason barbecue to try to repair the damage, but it was too late. Player cliques and backroom staff could scarcely bring themselves to speak to each other. The only hope was to hold steady, let the last of the big contracts expire and then rebuild.
And this was why Holloway returned in 2016. With little in the coffers, the club needed his effervescence and hard-earned wisdom. Backed by his ally Gary Penrice, who looked after scouting, and Chris Ramsey as technical director, Holloway was working under a familiar director of football, the returning hero and his former teammate, one Les Ferdinand.
Last season was not a classic, but Holloway's mix-and-match squad scrapped their way 15 points clear of relegation, having blooded young players and apparently identified a host of economically priced targets. This was an even more pressing concern this summer when QPR agreed a heavy punitive settlement with the Football League for breaching previous spending limits.
But then Ferdinand, Fernandes and the board removed Holloway in the summer and replaced him with McClaren, a man whose career has, to put it diplomatically, had more downs than ups.
"A young player is going to look up to Steve," said Ferdinand pointedly in the summer. "He has been an England manager, his CV has a glow about it. Training is probably a bit more structured, more organised. That's the biggest compliment I can give without being disrespectful to anything Ian did."
"Ian wasn't perfect," says Clive Whittingham from the QPR blog Loft For Words, "and there were many things that he did that were infuriating, but at least there was a long-term plan. I don't know what the plan is now."
Last Tuesday against Bristol City, the QPR fans suggested that McClaren didn't know the plan either, and prior to kickoff there is little hope that anything has changed. "If we lose today, I think he's gone," says Hillman on the way to the ground.
It must get wearing, lurching from one catastrophe to another. "Catastrophe?" scoffs supporter Jasmine Sandalli. "Nah, that wasn't a catastrophe, that was just a Tuesday."
There are few immediate signs of improvement from kickoff. Luke Freeman shines in a couple of ill-fated, intricate passing moves, but it is the absolutely fabulously named Joe Lumley who stars in goal, making a fine save from Josh Windass during a spell in which Wigan run riot. McClaren starts two new arrivals, the loanee striking pair of Nahki Wells and Tomer Hemed, both of whom work tirelessly. It is Hemed who breaks the deadlock, hooking the ball home from close range when Wigan fail to clear a corner.
Now the home fans are emboldened, the cautious tone morphs into something louder and more robust. Queueing for magma-filled pies at half-time, one fan suggests that the first five minutes after the break will be where the team is at their most vulnerable. But Freeman goes close to a second within 60 seconds of the restart. That's as good as it gets, though.
The rest of the half is a tense, disjointed and increasingly nervous affair. McClaren's side lose any semblance of fluency and fall back for the final onslaught. Wigan nearly equalise in the 85th minute. But QPR have enough fight and discipline to hold on for three crucial points.
"You don't enjoy management," quips McClaren afterwards. "You endure it."
Perhaps this will prove a turning point. A chance to stabilise and restart the rebuilding process that is long overdue. Perhaps, however, it is just a day that went right when it could so easily have gone wrong.
This remains a troubled club, and in a division where so many teams are still living off the enormous parachute payments that QPR had to spend servicing their debts, they have little realistic chance of chasing for promotion any time soon. But they still have their supporters, over 11,000 strong on Saturday in spite of all that they've endured. And who knows, perhaps one day they'll work their way back up to the top.