Patched up QPR sweep aside Preston to regain top spot – full match report
Sunday, 21st Nov 2010 21:04 by Clive Whittingham
Despite a host of injuries, suspensions and unavailability QPR were still far too good for the Championship’s bottom side Preston North End at Loftus Road on Saturday.
They say the Championship is a marathon not a sprint, and if that’s the case then this game was one of the water stops. A blessed relief in a period of taxing fixtures, a chance to restock both points and confidence, a game that defied the assertion that there are no easy fixtures in the Championship.
QPR were missing ten players on Saturday who may well have started had they been available –Heidar Helguson, Lee Cook, Peter Ramage, Shaun Derry, Gavin Mahon and Bradley Orr were all absent through injury or suspension, Mikele Leigertwood and Josh Parker arrived back too late from international duty to be considered for starts, George Tofas awaits his debut while recovering from a hamstring injury and Tommy Smith was technically between loan spells as part of the strange deal we set up with Portsmouth to ensure he is available for the busy Christmas period. A goalkeeper short of a full side there, and not a bad side at that.
Preston signed three Premiership players on loan during the week and that added an extra element of uncertainty to this fixture. The world weary QPR fans have seen cock ups like this before at Loftus Road and when the Rangers starting eleven was revealed prior to kick off backsides clenched just that little bit tighter. With Cardiff to come next week the last thing Rangers needed here was an arm wrestle with a revitalised team with nothing to lose. In the end the only uncertainties were just how bad were Preston before these three players arrived, and how many more could this have been than 3-1 had QPR put a full team out and taken all the chances they created with a patched up side?
It was the type of one sided thrashing we’ve been on the end of ourselves a few times away from home, and it was hard not to sympathise with the small gaggle of visiting supporters who ignored the shambolic excuse for a football team they had come to support and sang throughout the game, and down South Africa Road after the match.
The QPR team was much changed with injuries, suspensions and Tommy Smith’s bizarre loan set up forcing Neil Warnock into a reshuffle. He gave a first start of the season to Leon Clarke down the left, Jamie Mackie returned to his more recognised role on the right of the attack after a stint at right full back last week at Nottingham Forest and Adel Taarabt provided support to Rob Hulse. Matthew Connolly returned from suspension in an unorthodox central midfield role next to Alejandro Faurlin with regular starter Shaun Derry himself suspended for this game for accumulating bookings. At the back Fitz Hall started for the first time since August alongside Gorkss, Walker and Hill played at full back with Kenny in goal.
Preston slumped to the bottom of the league with a 2-0 defeat at home to Hull City last weekend and responded by bringing in three players on loan from the Premiership, all of whom started in this game. Ritchie de Lait was borrowed by manager Darren Ferguson from his father’s Manchester United squad and lined up in defence, Michael Tonge and Danny Pugh came in from Stoke for their respective second spells with North End and started in midfield. Jon Parkin and Iain Hume, two players QPR have struggled with in the past, started in attack.
Sadly for Ferguson the new additions made little difference and it didn’t take long for QPR to go in front - four minutes to be precise. Leon Clarke had already chested down and fired the first shot of the game wide when Kyle Walker went on a typically eye catching and pacy run down the right, skinning new boy Danny Pugh before delivering a cross into the six yard box that was spilled amateurishly by keeper Andy Lonergan straight to the feet of Rob Hulse and he bundled I his first ever QPR goal from close range. He could hardly miss after the keeper had laid it on a plate for him – Lonergan once again defying the plaudits that flow his way for the rest of the season by making key mistakes against QPR as he seems to do every season. The goal was no more Hulse deserved for a much improved overall display, admittedly against meagre opposition.
To their credit the visiting team didn’t let their heads go down straight away, and rallied to cause a few nervy moments in a prolonged period of pressure just after the ten minute mark. The whole heart stopping sequence of events began with a sliced clearance from Paddy Kenny which dropped 30 yards out from his goal where Matt Connolly was penalised by referee David Phillips for trying to lever Adam Barton out of the way as the ball dropped. Michael Tonge went for goal from the set piece but found the ample frame of Leon Clarke in the way and it deflected out for a throw in. From that Iain Hume tried his luck from the edge of the area and saw his shot deflected wide and when QPR failed to clear their lines from the corner adequately Clint Hill was then penalised on the edge of the area leading to another free kick that in turn led to another scramble in the Rangers’ penalty area. When the ball was finally cleared and the home side launched a much needed counter attack that ended when Kyle Walker’s back post cross was turned behind for a corner which came to nothing.
The early goal was just what QPR needed, but the repost from Preston served to focus minds on the task in hand and between the twentieth minute and the half hour Rangers created three great chances for a second goal. Not before the most blatant piece of cheating you’re likely to see at Loftus Road this season from somebody other than Adel Taarabt though. The disgraceful act was the work of Preston centre half Sean St Ledger – once a hot property on the cusp of a big money move to Middlesbrough, now a flimsy, nervous wreck of a centre half who struggled to cope with Hulse all day and looked like a player several leagues above his true level.
It began with a simple ball knocked up towards Hulse and St Ledger midway inside the Preston half – it haad fractured skull written all over it as both players wholeheartedly set off on a collision course to try and win the initial header. The collision looked sickening from the front of F Block and I feared the worst when St ledger immediately hit the floor clutching his head and didn’t move. The referee obviously thought the same, he immediately stopped the play and summoned medical treatment and several seconds passed with a worried hush descending on Loftus Road as fans from both sides waited to see if the player was alright. Suddenly the situation changed. St Ledger, signing in at the Pearly gates one minute, leapt to his feet and angrily lunged at Hulse’s throat. Whether he was angry with the initial challenge, which was a fair one, or something Hulse had subsequently aid who can know but having pretended, and there is no other word for it, to be seriously hurt to then spring up and start a fight was absolutely disgraceful behaviour and the referee rightly showed him a yellow card. St Ledger was cheating to try and get Hulse booked, simple as that, and any sympathy I may have held for his clear, total and utter loss of form and confidence in recent weeks evaporated in that moment.
The incident seemed to fire QPR up a little bit and the chances started to come and go with encouraging regularity. First Adel Taarabt turned brilliantly on the halfway line and raced away towards the Preston goal with Connolly up in support to his left and Walker to the right. Unselfishly he tried to play in Connolly but Preston scrambled back and cut the ball off – it then flew back in the opposite direction and even though he stretched every sinew to reach it Walker could only prod the ball a yard wide of the target from 12 yards out.
br> Within five minutes it was Mackie’s turn to approach the Preston goal at pace after robbing Brown of the ball. Lonergan made a decent save one on one from the striker and only Leon Clarke will know how he failed to find the target with the rebound which he lifted high over the bar with most of the goal to aim at. Clarke did have the ball in the net ten minutes before half time but referee Phillips disallowed what would have been his first for the club for either a non-existent foul on Lonergan in the build up or handball as the ball arrived back with Clarke – the decision was an early Christmas present for the goalkeeper who had come for a ball that was never his, wildly flapped it straight to Clarke and been clinically punished.
A minute later Mackie was in again, fed by consecutive flick ons from Hulse and Clarke, but Brown covered round and took it off his toe as he prepared to shoot. The resulting corner saw Gray produce a brave block in the area, which he genuinely needed treatment to cure afterwards, and a second set piece was then headed over by Kaspars Gorkss, who would have deserved a goal for a fine performance at centre half.
Back in more familiar territory Gorkss produced two fine pieces of play in quick succession – first winning a header against the odds against Parkin as he prepared to direct an effort on goal, then muscling the giant striker out of a chance in the area and allowing Kenny to comfortably claim the loose ball. Gorkss has struggled in the past against physical centre forwards, and a couple of times in recent years up at Deepdale Parkin has crawled all over him, but he was superb on Saturday and a potential man of the match candidate.
The final five minutes of the half became a story of near misses. Adel Taarabt’s brilliant cross from the left was just out of reach of Hulse as it travelled through the corridor of uncertainty between goalkeeper and centre backs, then Kyle Walker’s opportunistic strike from distance after receiving a short free kick that Preston were expected to be hung up towards the back post missed the bottom corner by no more than a yard with Lonergan confused and reduced to prayer as it flew towards his net with him standing on the opposite side waiting for a cross to come in.
And for all that pressure and all those chances Rangers could so easily have been pegged back in first half stoppage time when Kenny uncharacteristically and inexplicably flapped at a high ball in his six yard box, sending the ball bouncing agonisingly behind him towards the goal. Connolly swooped in and ensured the sheet remained clean but Kenny left the field at half time with his head in hands, knowing he’d got away with a bad mistake.
Both goalkeepers could have done with taking a leaf from Spark the Tiger’s book – QPR’s furry mascot produced a penalty save in the half time shoot out better than any I’ve seen in the professional game for many a long month although I couldn’t help but think a certain Mr Gavin ward probably would have ordered a retake for early movement, such is the pedantic and joyless nature of that particular serial wrecker of football matches.
The sides exchanged attacks with each other at the start of the second half. Preston went on the offensive right from the kick off but again found Kenny in better touch this time with a save using his legs to deny Adam Barton, then Rob Hulse seized on a clever through ball from Taarabt but found himself flagged offside. Parkin headed the first corner of the second half wide and Kenny made a routine save from Adam Barton, one of Preston’s few impressive players on the day, before Taarabt produced some terrific tricks and flicks on the edge of the area but spurned the chance to lay in Leon Clarke for a clear sight of goal.
The rather harsh summation in F Block was “would you pass to Clarke if you were Taarabt?” but just as questions started to rumble around about Taarabt’s perceived selfishness he produced a second goal of genuine quality from absolutely nothing.
While Lonergan always seems to have a poor game against Rangers, Adel Taarabt usually excels against Preston. He scored QPR’s goal of the season in this fixture last season and was at his mesmerising best in the return fixture eat Deepdale in March. Here Rob Hulse did superbly to manoeuvre St Ledger into a position where he could beat him in the air and flick the ball down to Taarabt and after advancing on goal the Moroccan lifted a beautiful curling shot over and around Lonergan and into the top corner. A fine, fine goal in which Hulse’s contribution should not be overlooked.
Taarabt had a strange first half – he produced a fine cross that Hulse failed to convert, and laid in matt Connolly when he could easily have taken it on himself. But he also tried a number of things that didn’t come off and towards the end of the half played a wildly overhit through ball straight out for a goal kick when Mackie seemed relatively easy to find – having done that he then started throwing his arms around all over the place in a style we’ve become accustomed to with him during the last couple of years. You take the rough with the smooth with Taarabt though, and on Saturday the smooth was very enjoyable indeed.
Rangers threatened to cut loose after this. Matthew Connolly played a splendid pass in behind Gray for Taarabt to seize on and win a free kick that Clarke headed back across the face of goal to Hulse who was denied by a fine Lonergan save down in the bottom corner. Yet another corner followed, QPR managed an unprecedented 17 of these on Saturday, and Hulse was again denied by Lonergan and then Gorkss by a goal line clearance as the ball bobbled around the six yard box for what seemed like an eternity without ever quite crossing the line.
Further corners followed – Matt Connolly received one low on the edge of the box in the old Teddy Sheringham/Paul Scholes style but his shot deflected over. Then from the next delivery Clint Hill headed clean over the bar having met the ball powerfully in the six yard box. The game wasn’t much of a contest by this stage, Preston looked totally demoralised and ripe for an absolute stuffing.
That said the visitors could, and possibly should, have halved the deficit 18 minutes from time. A long throw caused confusion in the QPR box where Matt Connolly and Fitz Hall filed to communicate and challenged each other for a header leaving Jon Parkin with a shooting opportunity the home side did well to block away.
Play was quickly flowing back towards the Loft End though and Taarabt should have scored his second of the day when he ran into a penalty area loaded with QPR shirts but failed to beat Lonergan with a low shot from close range. Jamie Mackie was absolutely furious with Taarabt, demanding an explanation for the lack of a pass, but in fairness to Taarabt, who is prone to greediness as we know, when you’re on the corner of the six yard box with only the keeper to beat you shoot end of story.
Changes followed soon afterwards. Fitz Hall, a bit wild with his distribution but otherwise very solid with his defending, went off and Rob Hulse followed him after a much improved showing to be replaced by Patrick Agyemang and returning folk hero Martin Rowlands. It won’t surprise those of you who were absent to know that Rowlands got a rousing reception from the home crowd, and Hall seemed to be limping as he left the field.
Warnock later sent on youngster Bruno Andrade for his first team debut and he caught the eye with some confident runs and decent turn of pace but if anything the changes took away the shape and solidity of the QPR team and not for the first time on the day I thought we were lucky to be playing such poor opponents.
Nevertheless the game was put to bed five minutes from time when Taarabt exploded into the action once more. Picking up a ball that Leon Clarke had done well to win and turn infield with a sliding tackle by the dug outs Taarabt raced into the space he’d scored his first goal from and powered, rather than curled as he had done previously, a fierce shot into the roof of the net. Lonergan got a firm hand to the ball, but weak wrists allowed it to fly in off his gloves, once again his performance level against Rangers has to be questioned – perhaps he’s a closet Super Hoop at heart.
After such a comfortable and routine afternoon for QPR, despite the raft of absentees, it was a shame not to keep a clean sheet at the end of it all. Preston’s goal came in the last minute of normal time, a lofted free kick to the back post was missed by Gorkss and that confused Connolly directly behind him – the defender-come-central-midfielder inadvertently steered the ball into his own net without knowing too much about it. The fast diminishing visiting support barely mustered a cheer, their team didn’t deserve to score at all and the farcical nature of the consolation rather summed up their performance. One of the worst sides to visit Loftus Road in living memory.
QPR did what they had to do. There was some rustiness, particularly in the first half, and several instances where bad choices were made or communication broke down. When you consider the changes that had to be made to the team that’s perfectly understandable and while QPR did very well to battle through and dominate the game despite that, I do think we were quite fortunate to be playing a team quite as bad as Preston were. With players like Walker, Gorkss and of course Taarabt still available we had more than enough quality to win at a canter – with a full side out this could have been a far, far bigger win.
I felt Hulse was worthy of praise for his performance. He looked a bit more on his toes, a bit sharper, than he has done so far and he dominated the awful Sean St Ledger throughout. Clint Hill played well again after impressing at centre half last week, and I thought apart from some poor distribution this was the best game I’ve seen Fitz Hall have for some time alongside Gorkss who was almost faultless, albeit against poor opponents. Paddy Kenny was lucky to escape a couple of fumbles and flaps – again, better opposition may have punished us and him.
It’s hard not to finish with Taarabt though. A month ago he was at his sulky and selfish worst as we drew against Bristol City who were bottom of the table at the time. He seemed to think that because City were so poor it was an ideal opportunity for him to show off live on television and the consequences were incredibly harmful to our performance that night – we were somewhat lucky to draw and it’s the only thing close to a bad result we’ve had all season.
Since then QPR have won two and drawn three scoring eight goals in the process. Of those, Taarabt has scored four, three from outside the area, and assisted another two winning us one point against Burnley, two against Reading and two again against Preston. Without that we would currently be level on points with Swansea and only three head of inform Derby – instead we’re clear at the top of the table again.
He’s a frustrating, inconsistent pain in the arse, but he’s supremely talented, he’s a match winner, he’s incredible to watch and he’s in terrific form at the moment. In your quieter moments this week when you’re worrying about Chopra, Bellamy, Bothroyd, Whittingham and the other talented players Cardiff will bring to Shepherds Bush next week remember Taarabt, and Tommy Smith, and Jamie Mackie, and Rob Hulse, and Alejandro Faurlin. We’re a good side – to watch and to support. And we’re still unbeaten after 18 matches. And we’re top. Again.
QPR: Kenny 6, Walker 8, Hall 7 (Rowlands 81, -), Gorkss 8, Hill 7, Connolly 6, Faurlin 7, Mackie 7 (Andrade 88, -), Taarabt 8, Clarke 6, Hulse 7 (Agyemang 80, -)
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Leigertwood, Helguson, Ephraim
Goals: Hulse 4 (assisted Walker), Taarabt 56 (assisted Hulse), 84 (assisted Clarke)
Preston: Lonergan 3, Gray 5, Brown 5, St. Ledger 4, De Laet 5, Tonge 5, Barton 6, Russell 5, Pugh 4, Parkin 5, Hume 5
Subs Not Used: Arestidou, Morgan, James, Mayor, Parry, Jones, McLaughlin
Booked: St. Ledger (play acting/fighting)
Goals: Connolly 88 og (assisted Hume)
QPR Star Man – Kaspars Gorkss 8 Taarabt scored two sumptuous goals but was a little hot and cold in the first half. Gorkss was right on his game throughout, dealing brilliantly with Parkin who has caused him many problems in the past.
Referee: David Phillips (West Sussex) 8 Not much to referee, and I thought Clarke’s goal in the first half should have stood, but other than that he got very little wrong and deserves credit for acting against St ledger’s histrionics in the first half.
Attendance: 13,505 (300 Preston approx) A poor crowd considering our league position, not helped by a non-existent visiting support, and a subdued atmosphere for the most part considering the scoreline and quality of the goals. Credit to the little gang of Preston fans in their yellow away shirts who sang and celebrated throughout the game regardless of how awful their team was. I think the atmosphere suffered from everybody expecting us to just turn up and win, and the attendance from a run of five Loftus Road games between pay days which concludes with Cardiff next week – bizarrely after that we don’t have a Saturday 3pm home game until the middle of February.
Photo: Action Images
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