When Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink replaced Gary Rowett as Burton manager less than two years ago, the foundations for success were already in place. Nonetheless, the Dutchman had no right to go on and do what he did, guiding the Brewers to the title by ramping Rowett’s 1.82 points per game average up to 2.17, then departing 13 months later, top of League One with 20 games gone.
Nigel Clough oversaw the majority of last season, so takes a sizeable share of the credit for Burton breaking further ground to secure Championship status, but even he felt compelled to admit that, for much of his first six months, he was basically doing a steering job. In sealing second spot with less than 1.7 points per game, Clough barely got his hands dirty.
Some will no doubt question what relevance any of this has on the Championship but when you consider the esteem in which Gary Rowett is now held for fashioning two successive top 10 finishes on scant resources at Birmingham, is it really stretching the imagination too much to suggest Hasselbaink can take QPR into the top six or beyond?
Rangers were 12th when he rocked up at Loftus Road with 18 games on the clock, and they were still 12th when he disappeared to take stock on a beach somewhere 28 games later. But within that six-month stagnation period were glimpses that baseline standards were being raised. In more than half of those 28 matches, QPR reached the 70-minute marker without conceding.
For a team whose work ethic has been questioned on many occasions in the past few years, that can only be a positive sign. Hasselbaink’s preferred style of play demands abundant stamina without the ball and though it wasn’t really present in the squad he inherited, it’s testimony to the force of his personality that players were willing to give it their best shot.
With a full pre-season of strength and conditioning work under their belt, the Hoops should be capable of going the distance more often. Big names like Rob Green, Clint Hill, Armond Traore, Leroy Fer and Matt Phillips have departed but at no great cost to energy or desire. Hasselbaink now has the conditions he wants to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
In truth, this might be a season too early but with Rangers available at 11/1 for promotion and 4/1 to finish in the top six, it’s worth taking a speculative punt to find out. Newcastle and Norwich are both standout contenders, while Brighton, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday should go well again. But beyond that, there isn’t much to be overly concerned about.
Last season, the total goals average in the Championship plummeted from a steady 2.66 over the previous five years to just 2.42, amid widespread talk of a cycle turning back towards counter-attacking football. If those are the conditions we should expect again, given the recent exploits of Leicester, Atletico Madrid and Portugal, then Rangers might be better equipped than most to thrive in such a tense climate.