Queens Park Rangers’ Canadian winger Junior Hoilett on Toronto FC, relegation battles and more

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Can Hoilett help the Hoops stay in the PL?

LONDON — On a frosty morning at Queens Park Rangers’ Harlington Sports Ground in the shadows of London’s Heathrow airport, Canadian winger Junior Hoilett seemed very relaxed as planes roared off in the distance behind him.

The Toronto native, 24, has spent most of his life away from home and on the move across Europe, so having the busiest international airport in the world close by makes plenty of sense.

[ RELATED: QPR standing by Redknapp ]

Hoilett left Brampton, Ontario as a 13-year-old to sign with then-Premier League side Blackburn Rovers and stops in Germany during work permit issues helped his development as a player and person in Europe. Now the speedy winger is trying to help QPR survive in the Premier League.

But how did that journey to England at such a young age begin?

“As a kid I just loved soccer so much,” Hoilett smiled, as he so often does. “I was with a team called Oakville and we played in a tournament in Wales and I played well. I then got scouted by a lot of clubs and went to Blackburn on trial at the age of 11, for like a month. I loved it because it was just about playing soccer all day every day, you didn’t have to worry about anything else. I did that for a couple of years and at the age of 13 they invited me to come over full time and sign with the academy.”

Did Hoilett have any reservations about heading across the Atlantic to pursue his dreams as a teenager?

“First it took me a while to think about it, because you don’t want to leave home for so long,” Hoilett said. “But at the end of the day I really wanted to be a soccer player and not a lot of kids back home (had) the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. I took it. It was a big step, but as you can see, it paid off.”

Hoilett smiled as he said that. He has a slightly timid character but as time ticked on as we sat in the clubhouse overlooking QPR’s reserve pitch — the U-21 side was playing against Cardiff City — and the sun grew weary in the clear skies above the west side of England’s capital city, Hoilett smiled and laughed more frequently as his laid back demeanor shone through.

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The Canadian winger seems to be rather relaxed despite the fact that QPR are embroiled in an intense relegation battle which has nine PL teams fighting for their top-flight lives.

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Hoilett taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

“Everybody here at QPR has one goal, which is to remain in the Premier League,” Hoilett said. “Every day in training everybody is working hard so we can all improve. Whether that is working on the final ball in or defensive shape. Everybody is committed to complete the challenge and stay in the Premier League.”

[ RELATED: Akindele snubs Canada ]

The youngster is no stranger to this situation. After joining QPR from Blackburn in 2012-13, the R’s were relegated on Harry Redknapp’s watch but bounced back after winning the Championship play-off final last year. Hoilett believes this previous experience in a relegation dogfight will help QPR out.

“It is really tight this season so every game is vital,” Hoilett said. “Even if it’s only a point, it could mean a lot come the end. At home the fans are terrific and they give us the extra boost. They are like the 12th man on the pitch, they give us the extra boost to get forward and get the result that is needed. Our away form has been poor this season but we just need that one break to get a good result away from home and everything will change and the ball will keep rolling. Every game we go into the players are giving 100 percent and keeping strong minded to believe we will get a result.”

 [ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]

QPR’s away form has been abysmal. Zero points from their first 10 games on the road is the worst away record to start a season from any team in PL history and recently alleged altercations between players and fans following defeat at Burnley proved how dire the situation is getting. Hoilett put that incident down to passion and believes everyone wants to succeed. Previous experience counts for a lot in this type of situation too.

“Every bit counts.  From running the extra five or 10 yards, to winning a tackle, to staying in shape to stay compact.  If you switch off for a second,” Hoilett said, clicking his fingers loudly, “then it is in the back of your net. Especially in the Premier League. As long as we learn from the mistakes that we made at the beginning of the season we will be okay by the back end of the season.”

With an ambitious owner in Tony Fernandes — who Hoilett revealed the club and players rallied around during the recent Air Asia disaster, as Fernandes owns the airline which also acts as QPR’s club sponsor — and plans for a new stadium rumbling on, can QPR kick on in the future if they manage to stay up this season?

“I think if we can keep the status in the Premier League, then we have to set new goals each year,” Hoilett said. “I think next year would be to not be in a relegation battle and then after that to push on further and try to get into the top 10. Right now it is all about trying to beat that battle against relegation and next year we will set new goals and new standards.”

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

A world away from west London, relegation battles and the PL is where Hoilett grew up in the western suburbs of Toronto. In fact, he beams every time Toronto is mentioned, but despite being hugely proud of his Canadian heritage and his home city of Toronto, Hoilett has yet to pledge his allegiance to the Canadian national team. In fact, Jamaica is still an option for Hoilett due to his father being from the Caribbean island.

“Right now my mind is just focused on QPR and trying to beat this relegation battle,” Hoilett said. “I haven’t really thought about it. The time will come where I have to make my decision and it will be … (Hoilett paused, smirked and laughed a little) … It will be an interesting decision.”

But has Canada been in touch recently as the 2015 Gold Cup looms this summer?

“No, they haven’t been in touch with me lately,” Hoilett confirmed. “They’ve seen that I’ve been in a mix of the relegation battle with QPR, which is the main thing. Especially as I don’t have much playing time this season. So right now they told me to focus on this and when you’re ready, just give us a call.”

Pushing Hoilett hard on this subject which, so far, he has been highly reluctant to speak to many journalists about, I asked when he may make that call and if he’s under any pressure from his family to play for Canada or Jamaica.

“It has to come soon. I think so,” Hoilett said. “I’m not sure. I can’t say (when). I will see what happens. The options are open. It’s my decision. Nobody really puts pressure on me.”

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Switching back to his time at QPR, Hoilett reflected on his best moment for the Hoops so far as he’s made 80 appearances and scored seven goals for the west London club since arriving in 2012 after three-straight years in the PL with Blackburn before they were relegated. Setting up the winner for Bobby Zamora to seal promotion back to the top-flight last May at Wembley has been the high point.

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Hoilett taking instructions from QPR boss Redknapp.

“That was probably the highlight of my QPR career so far,” Hoilett said. “It’s been up and down. Getting relegated and then going back up straight away, not many teams are able to achieve it. But I will always remember that moment, going back up and fighting for that. Going to Wembley, 90,000 fans, it was a great experience.”

Hoilett calls Redknapp “an old fashioned manager” and says he’s learned a lot from him and veteran players like Rio Ferdinand, who are always giving him advice and helping him grow as a player.

As the January transfer window comes to a close, reports are linking Hoilett with a loan move away from QPR in search of regular minutes as he has played in 17 games for the R’s but has started just six times in all competitions and has yet to score.

Former QPR assistant coach Steve McLaren, now in charge of Derby County — the club QPR beat to get promotion last year and are currently joint-top of the Championship this term — has reached out about grabbing Hoilett on loan but QPR turned down their advances. German club Borussia Monchengladbach are also said to be interested and the winger told me the time he spent in Germany was “one of the best experiences” of his life.

For now, however, Hoilett is happy to stay with QPR in their fight against relegation.

“As a player you want to start so it’s been frustrating,” Hoilett admitted, as he played with the lace in his sneakers tentatively. “You just have to keep working hard. Whether that is coming off the bench for 10 minutes, 20 minutes or five minutes or hopefully I get the start. Right now I am just trying to fight for my place in the team and whatever happens will happen.”

[ RELATED: QPR react to Air Asia disaster ]

Hoilett will be hoping to get a start against Stoke City this Saturday at the Britannia Stadium as the man who gave him his chance to flourish at Blackburn Rovers and then brought him to QPR, Mark Hughes, will be in the opposition dugout. Hoilett described Hughes as having a “vital influence” in his career after training with Rovers’ first-team as a teenager before Hughes signed him for QPR.

Switching back to his homeland, when asked about Toronto FC’s huge investments in the transfer market of late and if he’d ever fancy a move to MLS to play in his hometown, Hoilett certainly left the door wide open.

“I follow Toronto FC. It is my home city. We just got Sebastian Giovinco and there’s a lot of Italians in Toronto so that will go down very well. I’m happy for him,” Hoilett smiled. “Toronto has grown as a soccer city, they have one of the biggest fanbases in MLS, so I follow Toronto FC and MLS very closely over here. The MLS is growing and everyone is getting excited. They are bringing in younger players, very talented players in. So yeah, one day, hopefully the chance will come to play for my city. That would be perfect.”

Over the past few summers, Hoilett has trained with TFC during his offseason to stay fit. His connection with the club is strong and he explains that despite admitting to loving almost every sport going — the NBA his favorite, while his grandmother always takes him to Toronto Blue Jays games whenever he is home — soccer has always been in his blood.

“From the age of four I was playing soccer,” Hoilett recalled. “They have a really good setup for the youth (in Toronto) where it’s the rep teams where you play indoor and outdoor soccer. It is really good thing for the youth because there’s a lot of good young players in Canada who have a lot of talent. But when they reached the age of 18, there was really nothing until Toronto FC came along. I think it is growing and growing. There are a lot of youngsters playing and if you look there’s a few coming through the ranks here like Michael Petrasso at QPR. It is exciting for Canada’s future. Hopefully the young’uns can keep coming through and get that European status which every Canadian probably dreams of.”

[ RELATED: 2015 MLS SuperDraft, third, fourth round picks ]

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Hoilett is eager to help QPR avoided a second relegation in three years.

Hoilett’s brother Jaineil, who has just been drafted by FC Dallas in the fourth round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, got that European status as he joined his older brother at Blackburn and at FC St. Pauli in Hamburg. The duo have also trained together with Toronto FC and QPR over the past few years to stay fit, but how much did having his brother around help Junior settle in overseas?

“To be honest, it helped me a lot,” Hoilett said, with another huge smile on his face. “Having my brother there after practice, we would go home and chill and that was one of the best things to have. We would play video games, fight each other and stuff… It is what you need to keep your mind in a happy place, especially when there’s tough times and you’re fighting and struggling in the relegation zone.”

U-20 Canadian international Jaineil is now heading to Texas to start his career in MLS and his older brother isn’t surprised he’s succeeding.

“It was great to see him make the MLS SuperDraft, it makes me proud,” Hoilett said, smiling. “Hopefully he gets that chance that he deserves because he has been working hard to try and reach some stability in his career. While he was in Germany, he did terrific. He went to Mainz and Frankfurt after that where his contract just ran out. I hope he gets that chance to show everybody what he’s made of.”

[ RELATED: QPR beat Leicester, move off the bottom in classic ]

As for Junior’s hopes for the Canadian national team, which he and his brother may well be a part of together one day, he dreams of seeing Canada at the World Cup and believes one player in particular can help lead the way.

“It would be history!” Hoilett laughed. “Canada is a massive country and I believe they have a massive fanbase. They just have to sort a few things out to reach that level. I’m sure we have the talent. The country can do it and I think they could pull it off. The youngsters are the future, players like Dylan Carreiro and then you have [Michael] Petrasso has been doing very well and getting experience over here in the lower leagues. If everyone could follow in his footsteps then there will be better players being developed who can reach the national team status.”

As one of the few Canadians to come through a Premier League academy and make his mark in England’s top-flight, would Hoilett recommend his route to any Canadian or U.S. players who are able to follow in his footsteps?

“Of course. You develop your skills in the best league in the world,” Hoilett said. “And it’s like the saying goes: ‘If you shoot for the moon, if you miss, you will still land on the stars.’ You just have to keep working  hard and believing. The main thing is, if you are having fun doing it then it will come easy.”

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

Espanyol relegated
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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.