It’s a rare (and kind of impressive) feat for a manager to survive his club getting relegated and then to stick around long enough to pull off a promotion. But that’s where notoriously player-friendly (read: hands off) manager Harry Redknapp finds himself in West London, having endured a round trip from hell on soccer’s Circle Line. Hats off to him.
Hired late in 2012 to clean up after Mark Hughes, who’d accomplished very little with a boatload of expensive transfers, Redknapp did little to right the ship, and then had to loan out the highly-paid likes of goalkeeper Julio Cesar and forward Loic Remy after they failed to keep QPR up. (In his memoir that offseason, Redknapp called the club that he inherited “poorly balanced, undisciplined and short of confidence,” and he promised “Jose Mourinho would not have kept QPR up.”)
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Halfway through last year’s Championship campaign Redknapp appeared to have his boys on track for an easy EPL return, but a brutal back stretch—seven wins in 19 games after January—led to a promotion playoff that, in the end, was decided in penalties, against Wigan, and then a fortuitous 90th minute goal against Derby County by 33-year-old Bobby Zamora, who could barely muster the energy to lift his arms in celebration despite having only come on late as a sub.
In other words, Redknapp and crew didn’t exactly kick down the door in returning to the EPL; they snuck in through the left-open garage, and they shouldn’t be expected to make any kind of noise now that they’re back. Reinforcing a team that was outscored last year by 10 other Championship sides with the likes of creaky center back Rio Ferdinand, and then asking him to work in tandem with another retirement home escapee, central mid Joey (yes, he’s baaaack) Barton, seems conservative with a strong chance for calamity. Cesar returns, but he could be in a fragile state after his time in Brazil.
And the goals? Last year’s leading scorer, Charlie Austin (17), will be counted on for those—at least until it becomes obvious that he’s not up to the challenge, at which point you can expect some spending, and then, if Redknapp’s lucky, another long ride on the Circle Line.
EPL storylines: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City
SI's Grant Wahl presents the top storylines coming out of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City heading into the 2014 English Premier League season.
KEY ARRIVALS: D Steven Caulker (from Cardiff City), D Rio Ferdinand (from Manchester United), MF Mauricio Isla (from Juventus), MF Jordon Mutch (from Cardiff City)
KEY DEPARTURES: MF Yossi Benayoun (to Maccabi Haifa), MF Stephane Mbia (released)
PLAYER TO WATCH: At best, Loic Remy is a poor man’s Thierry Henry. At worst, he is a terribly lazy poor man’s Thierry Henry. Back from a season loan at Newcastle, where he scored 14 goals in an abbreviated 2013-14 season, the 27-year-old French national’s name has been oft-uttered during soccer’s silly season. First he was rumored headed to Arsenal; then he made it all the way to Boston for a Liverpool physical, only to be returned, in warranty, thanks for a reported heart condition; and finally, last week, Redknapp said he expected Remy to stick around. Which would be a boon for a club that went scoreless in three of its seven preseason games, all but one of them against teams from the second division or lower.
KEY STAT: Barton’s 13 yellow cards and one red (for elbowing an opponent and then immediately talking smack to the referee during a crucial midseason tilt with Leicester City) tied for the lead in Championship discipline last year, according to WhoScored.com.
STADIUM: Loftus Park Stadium (Built in 1904; Capacity 18,439)
The smallest stadium in the EPL was also the first professional soccer stadium in England to feature artificial turf, which it had from 1981 until 1988. With no gaps between the four stands—three of which are two-tiered—Loftus Park Stadium, which hosted Fulham while Craven College underwent renovations, has a tight-knit feel.