New Year Norwich defeat erodes QPR’s lead at the top - full match report
Sunday, 2nd Jan 2011 13:09 by Clive Whittingham
The first blot on QPR’s so far perfect Christmas came at Carrow Road on New Year’s Day as an in form Norwich City side took all three points.
Having spent most of December laying in wait ready to harpoon the first person to champion a winter break in English football I must confess that even I think we could perhaps have done without this fixture.
Thoroughly hungover, cold and miserable the trek to Norwich felt like a journey to the end of the earth and having arrived there you could clearly tell which team has had to play two games already this week, and which one has only played once. Four games in a week is excessive, even for a football freak like myself, and QPR risk seriously damaging their own title challenge if their battered and bruised squad cannot raise itself for an adequate push against Bristol City tomorrow.
To compound the fixture pile up Rangers were, for a second time this festive season, forced to play a substantial portion of this match with ten men after Matthew Connolly was sent off right at the start of the second half. He was dismissed on our last visit here two years ago, but Iain Dowie’s men still managed to scrape a victory together on that occasion thanks to a goal from Martin Rowlands. Norwich are a vastly improved outfit these days, real credible promotion candidates, but QPR were still well in this match right to the very last kick thanks to a gusty second half effort and some fine goalkeeping from Paddy Kenny. On fine margins such games are decided – Rangers felt they should have had a penalty in the second half and that Grant Holt had handled in the lead up to the red card.
Personally I couldn’t help but feel Rowlands may have been able to make the difference once again – his continued absence from first team affairs continues to mystify with Shaun Derry admitting publicly his legs felt like concrete during the Coventry game, and the likes of Leon Clarke doing little to promote their own cause for inclusion ahead of our former captain. In Warnock we trust, but I find his stance on that issue strange at best and damaging to our own chances at worst.
The intricacies of Tommy Smith’s loan deal meant the QPR manager was forced into at least one change after the victory at Coventry. Smith will finally sign permanently for Rangers when the transfer window opens bringing an end to the current farcical situation but in the meantime Warnock went with Leon Clarke in Smith’s position with further support from Jamie Mackie and Adel Taarabt behind Heidar Helguson in attack. Further back it was as you were with Shaun Derry and Alejandro Faurlin playing in front of the usual back four of Walker, Connolly, Gorkss and Hill. Paddy Kenny kept up his ever present record in goal.
Norwich were beset by injuries and suspensions for this game. Arsenal loanee Henri Lansbury was the headline absentee but Simon Lappin and Elliott Ward were also missing and Leon Barnett was serving an extended suspension for throwing the ball at a referee in the wake of his recent sending off against Portsmouth. They were able to call upon the services of Aaron Wilbraham though, the striker signed on loan from MK Dons on Friday ahead of a permanent move in January and he started in attack with Grant Holt who had given QPR a torrid time at Loftus Road earlier in the season. Further support came from Chris Martin and Wes Hoolahan, who missed a penalty in W12 in the first meeting but came into this game on the back of a hat trick against Sheffield United earlier in the week.
Fast starts to games are becoming a bit of a hallmark of Rangers’ play this season and they had two very presentable chances to take the lead in this game right from the off. Within 20 seconds Jamie Mackie had seized possession wide on the right, powered into the Norwich half and set up a four v three situation in QPR’s favour but he didn’t look before passing the ball, missed all his team mates, and the chance had gone.
Three minutes later Leon Clarke neatly turned the ball into the path of Adel Taarabt who was then brought down on the edge of the area. For once Taarabt didn’t insist on striking the ball straight into the wall himself, preferring instead to tee up Kyle Walker with a short lay off and his well struck shot was blocked away by one of the Norwich players charging out of the defensive line. Taarabt clearly wasn’t greatly impressed by this because he took over all the set piece duties from that point onwards to no positive effect whatsoever.
After such a good start it was disappointing to see QPR fall behind in the ninth minute. Chris Martin collected the ball 30 yards out from goal and after being invited to run by the QPR defence he did just that, making an arched attack with the ball at his feet that carried him right to the heart of the penalty area and although his shot was very bravely blocked by Clint Hill the ball fell straight to Russell Martin who drilled a low first time shot through Leon Clarke’s legs and into the net past an unsighted and flat footed Paddy Kenny. A third goal of the second for the former Peterborough man, his first at Carrow Road.
QPR responded immediately and John Ruddy had to be at his best to keep out a crisp volley from the edge of the area by Heidar Helguson as the R’s poured forward straight from the kick off.
Buoyed by the opening goal Norwich quickly took the game over and dominated the remainder of the half. After a quarter of an hour Wilbraham ran onto Holt’s flick in the penalty area but lifted a volleyed shot high over the bar. Then five minutes later a free kick awarded to Norwich by referee Jon Moss when Holt appeared to be the aggressor, backing into Connolly and then collapsing comically when the ball arrived, caused mass panic in the QPR penalty area. The set piece was delivered to the back post and headed down into the heart of the six yard box where carnage ensued, Paddy Kenny fumbled the ball on the line under pressure, Faurlin tried to hack it away but succeeded only in striking it against Chris Martin and the ball few into the net off him – although the whistle had long since been blown for either offside from the initial downward header, a foul on Kenny, or handball as the ball flew into the net.
Norwich kept coming though. Midway through the first half excellent skills and a nice turn of pace carried Corey Smith into space in the right channel and although Rangers did initially scramble his cross away the ball fell plum to Andrew Crofts on the edge of the area but his shot was far too high to trouble Paddy Kenny. Holt did the same with a shot on the half hour after he had cut inside and stayed on his feet for a change but despite the wayward shooting it was hard to argue that Norwich weren’t the better side at this stage.
The Canaries have been in tremendous form of late, and had their Boxing Day match at Crystal Palace postponed. They looked fresher, livelier and more alert than QPR, who played for an hour with ten men against Swansea while Norwich had their feet up and then had to come through a war of attrition at Coventry two days later.
To compound matters Leon Clarke was proving a less than adequate replacement for Tommy Smith, particularly defensively. Time and time and time again Norwich found they were able to load two, or even three players down their right side to run at an overworked and tired looking Clint Hill because Clarke’s positioning and work rate was none existent. When we had the ball Clarke was similarly ineffective. He’s like a footballing Audley Harrison really – to look at him as the teams come out of the tunnel you’d think his opponents would be in for a really rough ride against him because of his size and stature, but he simply doesn’t punch his weight. He’s got next to no footballing ability whatsoever and when you combine that with his cowardly attitude to the physical side of the game it makes for one exceptionally large waste of space. Warnock was forced into a change because of the Tommy Smith situation but I can’t imagine that Martin Rowlands, Hogan Ephraim or even the new boy Georgios Tofas who eventually came on as a second half substitute would have done any worse than Clarke.
Rangers did rally somewhat in the last ten minutes of the half. Fist Adel Taarabt performed a few tricks by the corner flag that won him a free kick which he then squared to Matt Connolly on the edge of the penalty area but his shot was high, wide and not particularly handsome. Then Clarke almost got through on goal following a tidy one two with Heidar Helguson but when that move broke down Norwich launched a swift counter attack and Clint Hill became the first man to pick up a yellow card on the day when he crudely chopped down Russell Martin in full flight. Martin was happy to shake Hill’s hand and let the left back pick him up from the turf, which is more than I would have been willing to do after copping such a crunching.
City should have doubled their lead a minute before half time. Again the home side looked swift and incisive on a counter attack and again Grant Holt was at the heart of it all. This time the big striker played Wes Hoolahan in behind the QPR defence and then advanced into the penalty area to meet the Irish winger’s pull back from the byline himself and having been left unmarked by QPR eight yards out and bang in the middle of the goal he really should have done better than screw a tame effort well wide of the post, although admittedly he did lose his footing as the ball arrived with him.
Half time came and went, with only the news of Cardiff’s latest collapse to warm the cockles of a subdued and mostly hungover gang of travelling supporters from West London.
Neil Warnock took decisive action during the break. Heidar Helguson, as we all know, is held together with elastic bands and chewing gum so three games in a week was always likely to be a big ask for him and he had tired noticeably after a bright first quarter of an hour. Patrick Agyemang came on to replace him. That wasn’t the end of the changes either – Clint Hill was replaced by Bradley Orr either through injury, tiredness or fear of him picking up a second yellow card.
The first five minutes of the second half revolved around referee Jon Moss, and three key decisions that went against QPR. First Shaun Derry was felled having clearly been caught flush in the face by a stray hand in an aerial challenge – a free kick was awarded, which Taarabt hammered high over the bar as ever, but no card was produced.
Then Patrick Agyemang had the Norwich defence backpeddling as he ran at them with the ball. After turning inside and then out again the giant striker hit the ground under an untidy challenge from Andrew Crofts. It was a clear foul, the only question being whether it was inside or outside the penalty area. Moss decreed outside, and I think he was right to do so but the QPR players erupted with rage that no penalty had been awarded – Shaun Derry spent a prolonged period of time berating the linesman in front of the away end to no avail. As usual the free kick came to nothing, Taarabt hammered it straight into the wall, and the frankly abysmal quality of our set pieces remains a major concern.
Then to compound matters Rangers found themselves reduced to nine men (Clarke can hardly count himself as one considering his lack of effect on proceedings) with a sending off entirely of their own making. In possession of the ball under little pressure 40 yards away from his own goal Kaspars Gorkss decided to play the ball back to Paddy Kenny rather than go forward. Kenny found himself confronted by Wilbraham, with the ball bobbling around on an awkward surface, and his hurried clearance barely made the halfway line and was immediately headed back in behind the QPR defence into the path of Holt. So having held controlled possession of the ball just short of the halfway line, suddenly QPR were well and truly on the back foot and under intense pressure from Holt who did what he always does – got goalside of his man, handled the ball as it came out of the sky, and then theatrically fell to the floor with his arms outstretched appealing to the referee. Moss quickly arrived on the scene, unswayed by Holt’s own admission in the press following last week’s game with Sheffield United that he isn’t afraid to engage in the game’s dark arts, and sent Connolly off – the second time this season he has been shown a red card, and the second time in as many appearances at Carrow Road he has made an enforced early departure. Irritating though the whole situation was the red card was the only option once Holt had hit the deck and QPR have only themselves to blame for creating the problem in the first place.
Chris Martin drilled over the bar just before the hour as Norwich looked to press home their numerical advantage but all eyes were on the referee again as the game entered its final third. Having supported the decisions Moss made for the Agyemang penalty appeal, and the Connolly sending off, I’m afraid I have to criticise the official for the way he refereed minutes 61 to 63. Firstly a cynical, nasty and vicious hit was put in on Adel Taarabt in front of the dugouts after he had passed the ball –so late and long after the ball had been played in fact that Moss had already turned his back but it occurred right in front of the fourth official and linesman and had everybody on the QPR bench on their feet and protesting. When play came to a stop Moss went across to speak with his colleagues and find out what had happened. I’d love to have been privy to the conversation because the frankly ludicrous outcome of it all was play on, with no further action taken.
Taarabt had every right to feel aggrieved, and within 30 seconds he was taking out his frustration on the Norwich players with immaculate control and a double drag back that carried him beyond the challenges of two home players. Michael Nelson then quite deliberately and cynically chopped Taarabt to the ground and although a free kick was forthcoming this time, no yellow card was produced. Now again I can perhaps support the official in that decision because he is known as a referee that likes to keep his cards to himself and I’ve said many times before that I don’t go to a game to see people booked and sent off and a lot of whistle blown, however when QPR wasted the free kick yet again Taarabt then fouled Hoolahan as he collected possession wide on the right and was immediately yellow carded. Now I’m sorry but that’s biased officiating. Taarabt’s foul was no different to Nelson’s in any way whatsoever, and as Hoolahan was deep in his own half with few options and going nowhere I cannot possibly see how that is a yellow card when Nelson’s trip on a forward moving and threatening Taarabt was not.
Neil Warnock had seen enough and could probably tell what was about to happen with Taarabt’s suspect temperament being tested to the maximum. He removed the Moroccan from the fray, replacing him with Cypriot Georgios Tofas on his QPR debut. This was a shame in many ways because Taarabt is a big threat to opponents, he was only removed because of the piss poor way the referee had behaved with him and it used up a final sub leaving QPR to battle on with Leon Clarke still on the pitch.
Chasing a game with a man less is always a difficult task, and although QPR set about it with tremendous positivity and application they were often exposed on the counter attack. Just after the hour Bradley Orr managed to scramble across and block a shot from Wilbraham who had received the ball in the penalty area when completely unmarked but subsequently took too long to get a shot away. Then the ever impressive Hoolahan broke down field and set up Corey Smith for a clear run on goal but Paddy Kenny made the first of a number of fine saves down at the Norwich man’s feet in a one on one situation.
Kenny was back in action again within three minutes. Kyle Walker hesitated on the ball wide on the QPR left, although seemed to be fouled when robbed of possession by Holt. Play was waved on by the officials and Holt stormed into the area and set up Hoolahan at the back post. Forced wide, the former Blackpool man was denied by Kenny who bravely rushed from his line to save at point blank range. Shorn of a centre half and having to chase the game the wide open nature of the QPR defence meant Kenny almost had to play as a sweeper, rushing from the goal line to mop up dangerous situations and facing more one on one situations with forwards in one half than he had done in the rest of the matches this season put together. The gung ho approach required suited Kenny’s maverick style down to the ground and he was magnificent in the final half an hour here, keeping QPR in with a shout right to the bitter end.
At Portsmouth earlier this season Rangers rallied from a goal down despite having Matt Connolly sent off to snatch a point. History looked like it may be set to repeat itself as Norwich started to sink deeper and deeper into their own half to the audible frustration of their own fans and visible consternation of manager Paul Lambert on the touchline. With 20 minutes left for play a weaving run from Kyle Walker was unfairly brought to an end 30 yards out from goal but Taarabt’s withdrawal made no difference to the wretched quality of our free kicks – Alejandro Faurlin drilled this one straight into the wall.
Within two minutes the R’s had crafted another excellent chance. Leon Clarke, for once, won a header at the back post and nodded it intelligently back across the face of goal to Patrick Agyemang who met the ball firmly, beat the goalkeeper with a looping header, but could only watch in mental agony as the ball shaved the outside of the post and stayed out. Had it gone in the goal would have been just rewards for Agyemang who looked powerful, dangerous and, most of all considering some of his performances over the last 18 months, interested and fully committed.
Reprieved, Norwich went in search of a game sealing second goal. Chris Martin’s deflected shot set up a couple of corners for the home side but through a succession of brave, last ditch blocks in the penalty area Rangers were able to survive. At the other end a scramble in the Norwich area looked set to fall the way of Alejandro Faurlin but he had the ball whipped off his toes just as he was about to let fly in the six yard box. Lambert introduced Matthew Gill for Aaron Wilbraham in an attempt to shore things up – I saw nothing from Wilbraham in 80 minutes of action here to change my mind that he is a very peculiar signing for a team with designs on promotion to the Premiership to be making.
The final couple of minutes of normal time, and four minutes added on for injuries and time wasting, turned into a bit of a farce where it is no exaggeration to say four goals could easily have been scored.
With two minutes left on the clock a rare good delivery from a wide area by QPR came into the near post from the boot of Shaun Derry. Agyemang got across his man and won the initial header but it was blocked in the six yard box and a scramble ensued. How’s your luck? The ball could have gone anywhere and it looked to have fallen QPR’s way when it landed back with Agyemang, now laid out on the floor in the goal mouth, but as he flicked it goalwards John Ruddy calmly claimed it with both hands.
Then a late corner, taken by Tofas who looked pretty tidy at first sight, and cleared straight back out to him, set up a chance for the Cypriot to cross to the near post where Jamie Mackie couldn’t get a clean connection and Clarke duffed a shot in the six yard area when it looked easier to score.
Rangers even had Kaspars Gorkss playing as a makeshift forward by that stage and that meant the defence at the other end was almost completely non-existent. Norwich tried to take advantage of this but found Paddy Kenny in inspired form – first saving one on one with Chris Martin, then doing likewise with Wes Hoolahan although admittedly his job was made much easier in the latter case by Hoolahan’s stupid decision to try and chip him rather than just finish the game off in a professional way. That said, few players would have deserved a goal more on the day than Hoolahan who was a constant menace to Rangers.
Even after all this action there was still time for one last free kick for QPR and hearts were in mouths all around the ground as John Ruddy fumbled in amongst a crowd of players and appeared to have dropped the ball straight onto Kaspars Gorkss’ head only to then recover himself and the ball in the nick of time.
“We did it to Leeds and we’ll do it to you,” sang the Norwich fans at the end, referring to their overhauling of Leeds’ big lead at the top of the League One table last season when they eventually won the title. Strangely though, despite defeat against a team missing several first teamers, I actually took plenty of encouragement from this game.
Despite being a goal down and a man light our attitude, effort and application was spot on. I was impressed particularly with Agyemang who has never really been my favourite player but put a really good shift in as a second half sub here and deserved a goal for his efforts. This game was decided by very fine margins – we wasted the first half with a poor display but had Tommy Smith played instead of Leon Clarke, or Kaspars Gorkss cleared his lines instead of going back to Kenny prior to the sending off, or Agyemang been half a yard inside the area when fouled rather than half a yard outside, then I feel we would have taken something from the game. Norwich will say, with some justification, that had they not been missing Barnett, Ward, Lappin, Lansbury, Surman and others then they could have won by more, and certainly only Paddy Kenny prevented that happening anyway, but then they were without a fixture on Boxing Day and whether they would have looked this fresh and vibrant had they played the number of games that we have done this week is doubtful.
Certainly I feel much more positive today than I did after the defeat at Leeds where we didn’t compete and lacked real belief when we fell behind. I hope the players aren’t too disheartened by this set back because they deserved more from it.
There are several items to be concerned about though. Clint Hill, Jamie Mackie and Heidar Helguson all looked particularly out on their feet, Shaun Derry and Alejandro Faurlin got through a bucket load of work and Matthew Connolly is now suspended with a key game at home to Bristol City to come on Monday. The continued ignorance of Martin Rowlands, who I felt would have been a real asset to us with Derry tiring, is also strange and is hindering our team. As is our thoroughly lousy delivery from all set pieces.
A victory against City, which would almost be a given at any other time of the year considering our home form and City’s record at Loftus Road, would complete a tremendous Christmas of nine points from 12 for the R’s but it will have to be achieved against considerable, mounting odds.
Norwich: Ruddy 7, R Martin 7, Nelson 6, Whitbread 6, Drury 6, Smith 7, Crofts 7, Hoolahan 8, C Martin 7, Holt 8, Wilbraham 6 (Gill 82,-)
Subs Not Used: Rudd, Jackson, Johnson, McNamee, Tudur Jones, Berthel Askou
Goals: R Martin 10 (assisted C Martin)
QPR: Kenny 8, Walker 6, Gorkss 6, Connolly 5, Hill 6 (Orr 46, 6), Derry 7, Faurlin 6, Clarke 4, Mackie 6, Taarabt 6 (Tofas 62, 6), Helguson 5 (Agyemang 46, 7)
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Rowlands, Hulse, Borrowdale
Sent Off: Connolly 51 (denying obvious goal scoring opportunity)
Booked: Hill (foul), Taarabt (foul)
QPR Star Man – Paddy Kenny 8 His poor clearance led to the Norwich goal, but he should never have received the ball from Gorkss in that circumstance. Otherwise he was his usual all action self making a string of increasingly impressive saves in the final half hour of the game to keep QPR in with a chance of taking a point. Didn’t deserve to be on a losing side.
Referee: Jon Moss (W Yorkshire) 6 Two big decisions in the game – the Agyemang penalty appeal and the Connolly red card. I felt he got both decisions correct. However I thought he was inconsistent on a number of other fronts – Taarabt in particular was booked for a much more meagre offence than one which had been committed against him just seconds earlier.
Attendance: 26,273 (1,400 QPR approx) Norwich fans were in good voice, although “On the Ball City” has to be the campest club anthem since Bristol City’s ‘red, red Robin’. I couldn’t help but break out in fits of laughter when, on cue from the public address system, they all burst into a big rendition of it prior to kick off – grown men their faces contorted in rage and passion, screaming “on the ball City” at the rather bemused QPR fans. In the away end we were sitting a few rows in front of an Irish gentleman who commentated throughout the game at great volume and was genuinely hilarious – in the second half when things weren’t going our way he simply started to commentate on the game he wished he was watching, describing brilliantly and with great enthusiasm a counter attack that ended with a fine goal from Patrick Agyemang. It was disappointing to hear we had returned tickets for a game that isn’t a million miles away from home despite being league leaders – although at £33 each plus the £3.50 booking fee imposed by QPR the cost of attending this match was an absolute fucking disgrace and something Norwich should be thoroughly ashamed of. I notice from an interview with their chief executive in the programme that home fans, particularly those aged between 60 and 65, are being forced to cough up similar ridiculous amounts for their tickets at Carrow Road which is clear extortion and is simply a club taking advantage of a group of fans that they know will turn up rain, shine or vastly over inflated ticket prices to support their team. A lousy way to reward supporters who bought season tickets in record numbers last season despite the team being relegated to League One the year before. One wonders where regular Norwich champion and critic of QPR Mick Dennis stands on the issue of a club ripping its own supporters off – although he’s probably been too busy whinging on about not being able to get a cup of tea at Loftus Road 12 years ago to notice.
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