Reminiscent of the title winning season in 2010-11, Queens Park Rangers seem to have settled back into life in the Championship with a steely determination, that has been missing since the days of Sir Neil Warnock.
How much of this new hard to beat mentality can be attributed to Harry Redknapp is up for debate. Redknapp talks of bringing the ‘right sort’ into Loftus Road. However, Danny Simpson arrived with a colourful reputation, Richard Dunne is past his best and has had his troubles and Karl Henry has a tendency to spend time in the stands. Couple this with the already toxic personalities and questionable commitment of recently departed Stephane Mbia, Junior Hoillett and Shaun Wright Phillips, and the squad still has a culpable air around it.
However, there does seem to be a glue that appears to be holding all these supposed misfits together during games (aside from the usual Mr Reliable Clint Hill) and that comes in the form of a sweet and tender hooligan named Joseph Barton. I am first to admit that I was hugely critical of Barton in his previous stint at the club. Under performing, criticism of a manager that had won the league the previous season, and an attitude that seemed to suggest he just didn’t want to be at the football club. I don’t believe players intend to perform badly, but his first half display against Liverpool two years ago, was nothing short of abysmal.
Barton only let the club down twice in terms of on field discipline, once when Bradley Johnson made the most of an attempted snog on the halfway line, and then on that ill-fated and climactic day at the Etihad. I felt at the time, the ban was harsh, however his attitude towards the club after that was a disgrace. He had played in a side that had avoided relegation on goal difference and yet seemed to believe he was above criticism and above working to improve the next year. There’s no doubt he was part of a collective that let the club down, led by the incompetent and dishonest Ma*k Hug*es.
But I also strongly believe in forgiveness and living in the present. If Rickie Lambert had been judged on his past, he would never have got the chance to play and score for England. And if the QPR fans were as judgemental and unforgiving as their West London counterparts, Joey Barton would not have got the rapturous reception he did when he returned. And how he’s responded.
Starting wide right against Sheffield Wednesday, he began to dictate, and galvanised the team after falling behind, goals from Nedum Onouha and Andy Johnson giving rangers the victory. A hard fought draw at Huddersfield (a phrase I’d never thought I would utter again) was followed by a last minute victory over Ipswich at Loftus Road thanks to super Tommy Hitchcock. This game saw Barton line up in central midfield alongside his arch nemesis Karl Henry.
No one really knows what goes off on a training ground, but they seem to be getting on just fine. Henry is the perfect caveat to Barton, a little like a more mobile Shaun Derry, taking the heat off the Liverpudlian with his tough tackling screening of the back four. This has allowed Barton to dictate games, often being the linchpin around which QPRs attacks are built.
Alongside this, outstanding performances from Nedum Onouha, Robert Green and a more mobile attacking unit with Andy Johnson and Charlie Austin, has meant rangers spine has been almost impenetrable.
Rangers have started solidly, without blowing teams or the fans away, the excellent goal at Bolton hopefully the spark that sets the team off.
Nevertheless, it’s the hope that kills you. And being a QPR fan all my life, I have no doubt something is lurking around the corner.
The future of Barton could be key to this season, if he stays and continues as he’s started, QPR have half a chance of being right up there.
Written by Paul Mitchell, We Are Going Up’s Queens Park Rangers blogger
Paul tweets at @MitchtheMod