David Wheeler is a footballer who is clearly well aware of goings-on both inside and outside the game he plays for QPR.
Signed last summer by the R’s from League Two Exeter City, Wheeler’s career has been marked by impressive progression from non-league football to the second tier in this country but, after speaking to him recently, it would be no surprise to see things continue on an upward trajectory in the future, both on and off the field.
Focusing on this season first of all at Loftus Road, though, it’s apparent that inconsistency and a lengthy injury have dealt both player and club a campaign that could have been better:
“Obviously we’re not where we’d like to be.
“It started off quite well but the theme of the season is that we’ve struggled for consistency really. We’ve had some really good results against top teams and we’ve managed to win games in high-pressure situations where we’ve needed to win but we’ve not been able to string together a run that would push us up the table a bit more.”
Intriguingly for QPR, their home form and away form has perhaps been one of the most stark in difference in the division. The R’s have lost just four at Loftus Road in the league all year, yet they’ve won just twice on the road:
“In my experience teams generally have a way of being, I’ve been in teams that have preferred to play away and do a lot better away from home.
“I think it’s just the way our pitch and stadium is and the way we play matches up quite well. I think perhaps where we go to grounds where the pitch might be a bit bigger and we can’t force mistakes quite as often it becomes difficult.”
Indeed, only in the last two games we’ve seen QPR demonstrate their Jekyll and Hyde nature. They beat Bolton at home at the weekend before losing at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night against Sheffield United. The play-offs certainly look tough to reach this season now, then, but Wheeler refers to past experience in his career to highlight why the R’s cannot give up just yet:
“You’ve got to keep going until it is mathematically impossible really.
“Obviously it’s going to be a tough task looking at it at the moment but last season I was with Exeter where we were second from bottom in November and ended up in fifth so if you can string a run together then it becomes a lot more feasible.”
Unfortunately for the winger, he’s not going to be able to play much part in any late surge with an ankle injury ruling him out possibly until the end of the season – though he’s not giving up on a return before then yet:
“I had an operation and so it’s a three month lay-off.
“I’m out for most of the rest of the season, though I’d like to get back for the last few games. I’ll just hope for the best and do my rehab properly and hope it pays off.”
For sure, the 27-year-old has never been shy of hard-work and so it’d be no shock to see him back in blue and white before the campaign concludes in May.
A Sports Science Graduate at Brunel University as well as a footballer who’s risen through the non-league game to get to this stage, it’s fair to say he’s learned a lot to adapt to the Championship after making the step-up from League Two football:
“When I moved to Exeter I jumped up two divisions so it’s similar in that sense and a similar learning curve although I think the tools I have now are a lot more transferable than before.
“I was coming from non-league and I was quite raw and didn’t understand the game very much whereas I think I’m better equipped to adapt now than I was before.
“A lot of it at this level is that most players are physically more imposing and much fitter and you get a few players that technically are a class above.”
Is there a case, then, that spending time in non-league football perhaps makes someone more prepared as a player mentally than those coming through in academies? Certainly, Wheeler thinks it helps with believing in yourself:
“I think it probably helps with the belief side of things because coming from playing in front of 150 people and playing the lower leagues to playing in the Championship does give you the belief that if you can stick at it it can work out.
“Whereas obviously if you’re in the U23 or U18 sides and in the reserves for a number of years then I think you can become a bit disillusioned with it.”
It’s clear, then, that mentally Wheeler is in tune with what it takes to perform at Championship level as well as where he has improved and what he’s learned, whilst away from the pitch he’s also very socially aware.
A media ambassador for Make Votes Matter, the attacker is happy to talk about politics just as much as football. And, in these current times where there seems to be more political coverage than ever, I ask him whether – particularly with QPR’s work after the Grenfell Tower disaster – players and the general public are becoming more aware of what’s going on:
“I think players in a general sense are more aware of the extremes; the Donald Trump’s and Boris Johnson’s and the political characters that are easier to satire, they’re more on the radar I’d say.
“I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect between certain things like the disaster like Grenfell and politics. A lot of players and people in general are thinking ‘it’s an absolute tragedy,’ but I think a lot of the time people don’t appreciate there’s a direct connection between what happened before and why it happened and what’s happening after, as well as how it is directly linked to politics and the people who actually make those decisions.
“I think that’s something that hasn’t filtered through, but most people who say they aren’t interested in politics actually are, they just see the suits and the talking around the questions on TV rather than as people having the power to make a difference.”
With this in mind, and with a growing presence on social media from people who aren’t politicians having their say on geopolitical affairs, I ask whether there’s scope for a movement away from stereotypical MP’s and more towards people like Wheeler who perhaps have a different angle to come from:
“I don’t think so unfortunately, sadly the country’s opinion is far too dictated to by things like tabloids and certain media outlets and they peddle a certain way of thinking and a certain message.
“I mean you just have to see Jeremy Corbyn who wore a suit but perhaps not a particular smart suit and he got absolutely vilified for it. If someone just turned up in jeans and a t-shirt you can imagine how bad it might get!
George Weah, of course, has forged a successful career away from the game in politics and with it apparent voters are more open to the idea of non-politicians running countries – regardless of what you think of Trump in the States – would Wheeler consider it after hanging up his boots?
“I don’t think so, just because I think it’s an awful lot of pressure and the more successful you are the more boring your life becomes.
“You have to be doing things and thinking about what people are going to think about you. You lose a lot of freedom in that sense and I don’t think I’d necessarily want that.
“I think to a large degree it’s a popularity contest, I think you can have the best policies in the world but if you’re not interesting or good looking or dress smart then you’re not likely to get elected.
“I think there’s other ways I would like to help people.”
And it’s that last line that perhaps sums up Wheeler rather well. Of course, he’s a talented footballer playing at a very good level but he’s never lost sight of what truly matters.
In the brief, insightful, time I spent speaking to him it was clear that throughout his career he’s paid attention to his progression as a footballer as well as matters away from the field equally as keenly.
You get the impression, then, that he’s only just getting started with what he wants to achieve in the game and in life.