Warnock’s defensive gamble pays off against Ipswich – full match report
Wednesday, 23rd Feb 2011 23:19 by Clive Whittingham
Neil Warnock’s QPR reign so far has been littered with brave decisions, and on Tuesday night against Ipswich fortune certainly favoured him.
Dusko Tosic will be nothing more than an obscure QPR quiz question in years to come. Which QPR player missed out on selection for the 2010 World Cup in the final round of cuts from the Slovenian national side? For instance. But back in the summer there were considerable mumblings of discontent that Tosic, who had impressed on loan from Portsmouth at the end of last season and was available for nothing, was shunned by Neil Warnock in favour of his old war horse Clint Hill from Crystal Palace. Older, more injury prone and clearly not as talented as Tosic, Hill was a less than popular addition to the side with most fearing that if players like him, and his fellow Palace veteran Shaun Derry, were going to be playing regularly for us this season then a bloody long season it could well turn out to be.
Derry is now in the running for QPR’s Player of the Year award which was advertised on the big screen at half time in this tight and tense encounter with Ipswich which was ultimately decided by the rarely seen attacking prowess of Hill that perfectly complimented another solid defensive display to make him a clear man of the match.
He needed to be good too. Ipswich came into this match on a run of six unbeaten league games, clearly revelling in the positive atmosphere being fostered by Paul Jewell after the dark cloud of Roy Keane was belatedly lifted from Portman Road. Town enjoyed much the better of the first half, stretching a shapeless QPR side this way and that with larger than life character Jimmy Bullard sitting at the base of their midfield and spraying the ball around as if he had it under remote control. That they didn’t threaten Paddy Kenny seriously until just before the hour mark, by which time QPR had upped their game sufficiently to go on and win the match, was mainly down to Hill, Derry and another of Warnock’s brave decisions come good.
They say you can prove anything with statistics and QPR’s defensive record certainly supports that. With just 20 goals conceded all season and 17 clean sheets kept prior to this game it is, by some distance, the best rearguard in the league and yet those who watch the team regularly will tell you that the standards of centre backs Matthew Connolly and Kaspars Gorkss have been visibly slipping in recent weeks. Too many bouncing balls, too many mix ups, too many gilt edged chances gifted that better strikers in better leagues would take advantage of. After a second half at Preston where they were pulled apart by Nathan Ellington, so far declined from the dominant forward we saw at Wigan that he’s become a laughing stock in the game, Warnock had seen enough.
Centre half is an area of the team, more than any other, where consistency of selection is of paramount importance and managers want to tinker with their line up as little as possible. Jim Magilton repeatedly found out to his cost that constant chopping and changing in that area of the pitch does not yield good results – and an extra problem with doing it at QPR is that any change usually sees Fitz Hall come in, and that tends to means that another change is necessary within a game and a half when he pulls his calf/hamstring/big toe/pubic hair.
Nevertheless Warnock swung the axe, bringing in both Hall and Danny Shittu for a first appearance of his second spell at the club. Masterstroke doesn’t do it justice. Both players were outstanding – Hall playing as well as he has ever done in a QPR shirt and Shittu battering on through sheer adrenaline by the end of the game. In changing both centre backs he spared Connolly and Gorkss individual blame, by including Shittu he lifted the mood around Loftus Road which has become thick with tension and nervousness lately – it turned out to be a startlingly good piece of management and by the end of the evening Shittu was the last to leave the pitch, kissing his badge as he went, in celebration of a win and a clean sheet.
Bradley Orr made up the rest of the back four in front of Paddy Kenny with Alejandro Faurlin partnering Derry as per usual in the holding midfield positions. Heidar Helguson started as the lone attacker with Ishmael Miller wide right of the three man supporting cast, Adel Taarabt mainly wide left and Wayne Routledge through the middle. If that front three sounds a bit of a hotch potch mess of players not quite in their correct positions, that’s exactly what it played like.
Ipswich recalled Bullard to their starting line up after a weekend draw against Hull where he was forbidden from playing under the terms of his loan agreement from the Tigers. He played between the Ipswich midfield and defensive banks of four with Jason Scotland up front by himself and Connor Wickham wide on the left. Bullard has a four year contract at the KC Stadium at £40,000 a week, most of which Hull are still paying while he plays for Ipswich. The reasons they offered him this deal in the first place, and the reasons why it was a bloody stupid thing to do, were both on show here.
In the first half Bullard was afforded the freedom of Loftus Road to pretty much do as he liked. Like a Rugby League full back he would loiter ten yards or so behind the play, waiting for his opportunity to inject himself into the action before withdrawing again. On the ball he was like a retired quarter back at a family open day, throwing the ball down the field for children whose parents had paid five bucks for them to catch. The opposition was that flimsy, the passes flew that easily. This was never likely to be allowed to continue and in the second half Wayne Routledge was detailed to pressure him more and where once Bullard would have mucked in, fought back and found a new way to exert influence his body now fails him and he was as ineffective after half time as he was brilliant before the break. By the end, well beaten, he was hobbling around like an old woman on a knee held together with bits of old parcel string.
You’ll notice we’re a thousand words in already and the game hasn’t even started yet and I make no apologies for that. LFW match report notes are diligently taken during the game with a bookies pen on the back of a racing form and by half time they can often run to two sides. On Tuesday night they barely covered half a page by the time referee Kevin Wright drew the half to a close. QPR offered next to nothing, Ipswich held all of the ball but failed to make any inroads into the in form Rangers backline.
I can tell you, seen as we’ve mentioned him, that Kevin Wright awarded Ipswich a throw incorrectly after hedging a total guess after a couple of minutes. Then within a minute a clearance down the line by Orr flew into touch off Wickham only to again be awarded as a throw in to the visitors. Fitz Hall had the home fans groaning early on as well as he drew his foot back and planted a 50 yard pass straight into touch on the Ellerslie Road side of the ground. Both Wright and Hall would improve considerably as the night went on.
Rangers forced the first half chances of the game. After three minutes Wayne Routledge worked hard to win the first corner of the match which was swung over by Taarabt and headed off target by Danny Shittu - the return of the weekly 33/1 for Shittu to score first bet in the LFW Betting Column is surely imminent. Then Routledge got on the end of a flick on by Helguson after a monster kick from Paddy Kenny but Gareth McAuley came across and cleared the ball behind – this corner was headed into the School End by Fitz Hall.
QPR often looked for that direct route to Helguson in the first half, hoping that the Icelandic forward could provide the hold and link service he has worked so well so far this season. However it was a plan doomed to failure. Ipswich had Damien Delaney at centre half, keen to impress on his return to Loftus Road, and while QPR fans will remember that Delaney is a severely limited footballer he is also bloody strong in the air and a monotonous routine of long ball followed by a Delaney headed clearance soon suffocated QPR’s attacking intent.
In a tight and tense encounter Ipswich started to dominate the possession but had only two shots from Grant Leadbitter that were almost an insult to the talent of the goalkeeper they were, vaguely, aimed at and a 30 yard drive from Bullard that flew comfortably over the cross bar to show for it.
While he may have endangered the corner flags more than the scoreboard with his initial efforts, they seemed to help Leadbitter find his range and Rangers were indebted to Hall for a superb block at the exact midpoint of the half. For the first time in the game Ipswich took their passing football and turned it into an incisive move in the final third with Jason Scotland receiving a ball to feet in the area and then turning it perfectly into the path of Leadbitter who has scored against QPR before in his Sunderland days and would have done so again here had Hall not put his normally fragile body on the line and blocked the ball away for a corner. Clint Hill, as he so often does, headed clear the resulting set piece.
The Loftus Road faithful have become rather cynical about and critical of Fitz Hall in recent times, with some justification too. His fitness record allied with his status as one of the club’s top earners deserves to attract criticism. But the supporters were grateful for his bravery in the first instance here and then buoyed by that he strode confidently out of the back line to bring a shuddering, comprehensive halt to a promising looking drive forward from Wickham that had already carried him past two players. Wickham, despite his age, is built like an oil rig and while Portsmouth enjoyed some reward targeting Bradley Orr with a striker a couple of weeks ago it seemed strange that Wickham was kept in wide areas, especially with Hill in such good form, while Scotland laboured and ultimately failed against Hall and Shittu. The youngster gave an indication of what he was capable of with a low shot from an impossible angle that Kenny palmed out for a corner at the near post.
The sides exchanged dangerous corners ten minutes before half time. Ipswich went first with Bullard who picked up a clearance from his own delivery and sent a devilish cross back into the area which Gareth McAuley headed wide at full stoop. Then Danny Shittu got on the end of another Taarabt delivery but his powerful header was blocked by accident in the six yard box and Ipswich were able to scramble the ball away – this was the first time either goal had been seriously threatened.
Rangers sent the big guns up for another corner two minutes later and although Taarabt’s initial delivery posed little danger it was returned to him by Hall who then hung back to receive a superb cut back from the Moroccan. Hall found himself crowded out so he teed up Routledge for a blocked shot and scramble which Ipswich survived. At least QPR were now spending some quality time in the Ipswich penalty area.
Ipswich were then forced into a change with Colin Healy leaving the field through injury and Adam Drury coming on to replace him.
Right on the stroke of half time a counter attack with the otherwise anonymous Ishmael Miller at its heart almost broke the deadlock. Lee Martin had been flagged offside from an Ipswich free kick at the other end by referee Wright played on as Miller accelerated into the Town half and found Helguson. Miller then accelerated to get onto the end of the cross into the box and headed it down towards Routledge but Fulop raced from his line and claimed the ball first.
And that was pretty much that. They played Play Your Cards Right on the big screen at half time (higher than an Ale Faurlin you say….) and the QPR pack was certainly in need of some shuffling if Rangers were to set up in a more solid shape, retain possession of the ball, put Ipswich under any kind of pressure and restrict the influence of Bullard on the game. The value of an experienced manager in charge was shown by QPR doing all of those things in the second half.
The R’s had two glorious opportunities to take the lead within three minutes of the restart. Ipswich would have had good cause for complaint had they counted, as Wayne Routledge appeared to trip Carlos Edwards on his way to the byline before pulling a great ball back into the danger area for Miller who saw his first ever QPR goal snatched away from him by a last ditch block in the six yard area. From the corner Danny Shittu headed down Adel Taarabt’s delivery and Heidar Helguson somehow guided the ball over the bar with a diving header from no more than three yards out. It seemed easier to score.
A rare moment of liveliness from Jason Scotland saw him streak through on goal at the other end after a slip by Shittu, but the former Swansea man had needed to illegally break the offside trap to do it and was hauled back to the audible relief of all inside Loftus Road.
QPR had posed Ipswich most problems when taking corners. After a frustrating mid season period of striking the first defender at the near post with every delivery Taarabt has improved markedly of late resulting in a goal for Clint Hill against Portsmouth and near misses in recent game for Gorkss, Orr and others. There was a little sign of things to come ten minutes into the half when Fulop flapped at a delivery, Hall turned it back into the six yard area and Miller swung, missed and struck out.
Things were starting to get going a bit now with QPR finding their feet in the game and restricting Bullard’s influence – he’ll get a seven at the end of this report by the way, eight for the first half and six for the second. The only real sight of goal Jason Scotland had all night came just before the hour mark when he appeared to handle on the edge of the area, not the first blatant handball from both sides missed by the referee, but was allowed to continue and got a shot away that Fitz Hall once again flung himself in the way of. Scotland, cheekily, appealed for handball by Hall but referee Wright waved the play on and Ishmael Miller stormed down field in a rare moment of effective play from him. Miller pushed the ball past Kennedy, probably too far, but the Irishman gave the referee an easy decision to make with a crude foul that drew the only yellow card of the game.
The free kick from Taarabt was cleared behind by Delaney and although Shittu yet again won the ball from the corner Ipswich were able to clear their lines. That’s the value of Taarabt in an opposition half, the risk he poses in his own was quickly exposed when an ambitious and, with hindsight, foolish pass towards Helguson in traffic conceded possession in a bad area setting up an Ipswich counter that ended with Martin drilling a low shot that Kenny needed two attempts at saving down in his bottom corner. That was Kenny’s first, and last, serious test of the evening although he could easily have been facing a penalty two minutes later when Fitz Hall thrust up an arm and palmed the ball away deep inside the area but Wright ruled there had been a push on him first. That was a lucky escape, as was Kenny’s rush of blood a few minutes later when he charged out of his area, appeared to pole axe Jason Scotland, and was then somehow awarded a free kick for his troubles while the Ipswich man lay motionless on the ground.
Needless to say a sizeable following from Suffolk in the upper school end, pound for pound the best away support we’ve had this season for noise in my opinion, was not amused by either decision.
That brought up the hour mark – the witching hour for QPR this season who have scored 26 goals in the final third of games.
I’ve praised Fitz Hall so much in this report that I’ve had to check my reflection with the picture on my driving license to make sure I’m still the same person. Allow me to momentarily revert to type when I discuss his long throw. Rory Delap has a long throw. Andy Legg had a long throw. Dave Challinor had a bloody long throw. Fitz Hall does not have a long throw and furthermore, as a centre back, Hall is not well equipped to deal with the ball when it is inevitably cleared back to him by the first defender either, as happened in the sixty eighth minute here. His attempt at a cross was laughable, but not quite as bad as Taarabt’s platoon style dive on the other end of it presumably attempting to win a penalty but even a referee with a brown envelope stuffed with cash and a ‘From QPR with compliments’ slip inside it wouldn’t have given that.
Taarabt was still pealing himself off the floor when Clint Hill showed a previously unseen eye for a precision 40 yard pass that played Danny Shittu of all people into space in the right channel but his shot was blocked away by McAuley and when he once again climbed highest to win the resulting corner his header was blocked in the six yard box.
Paul Jewell responded by taking off the largely ineffective Jason Scotland for Tamas Priskin, a man for whom the word ineffective could have been invented. For one horrible moment I wondered if some horrific script had been written whereby Priskin would return to Loftus Road and score a crucial winning goal against us – then the play restarted and I remembered just how God awful he really is.
The flowing football that QPR have produced at times this season had been sadly lacking to this point but it reared it’s beautiful head briefly 15 minutes from time when Miller got going down the right and fed Routledge who touched it off to Faurlin and he laid Taarabt into space in the area but the one touch passing move didn’t end with a goal as Taarabt’s first time shot flew straight at Fulop. Still, the brief interchange of slick passes was like a Glade plug in for a smoke logged room and lifted the mood somewhat. As did the return of Akos Buzsaky, on for Ishmael Miller who appeared to pull his hamstring when running down Damien Delaney who cheated to win a soft free kick that all referees give but they really shouldn’t.
Buzsaky looked trim and right up to speed from the moment he came on, a relief as it’s often taken him ten games to feel his way back in after previous injuries by which time he’s usually been injured again. His introduction improved our play immeasurably, although he had little to do with the opening goal of the game that came two minutes after his introduction – predictably, from a corner kick.
As he had done earlier in the half Fulop nervously flapped at Taarabt’s whipped delivery under pressure from Hill and although Shittu failed to direct a header goalwards the ball dollied up invitingly in front of Hill once more who sent it flying into the roof of the net via a desperate attempt at a clearance from Delaney on the goal line. Loftus Road erupted.
Ipswich responded by sending in a near post cross that for one horrifying, heart stopping, diarrhoea inducing moment looked like it was going to be turned into his own net at the near post by Fitz Hall which would have just about summed his QPR career up – an evening of top notch centre half play ruined by one goal costing disaster. Kenny gathered, everybody breathed, nine minutes left.
The term ‘cold day in hell’ sprung to mind as Priskin “let fly” from the thick end of 25 yards and sent a predictably tame shot well wide of the post but the introduction of Buzsaky and the relaxing effects of the opening goal galvanised QPR. Some terrific football down the QPR left between Faurlin and Taarabt had the latter racing into clear space towards the penalty area – his low cross produced a fresh air shot from Buzsaky in the centre of the goal but Routledge made decent connection at the back post and Fulop had to change direction smartly and produce a fine save.
The pressure remained on though and told when Clint Hill of all people seized on a gorgeous Faurlin pass in the area, spun his man, reached the byline and chipped a perfect cross to the back post where Heidar Helguson, as only Heidar Helguson can, did his very best to miss from four yards but sent his trademark downward header into the ground, up into the air and just about into the roof of the net past Fulop and a man on the line. Game won, relief all round, and just rewards for the five minutes of football we’d finally produced if not the rest of the performance.
Referee Wright added three minutes to the end of the game in which time Shittu, who’d taken a heavy blow to the face and was stretching muscles in his legs I didn’t even know existed, was replaced by Connolly. Priskin got in down the right channel but saw a low shot saved by Kenny with his legs from a tight angle. Dramatic late goals against Norwich, Leeds and Forest added to the mood as the general public went off into the damp Shepherd’s Bush air.
This was almost a carbon copy of our recent home match against Portsmouth that also finished 2-0. QPR were a long way from their best that night, as they were here, and were posed problems by their opposition for prolonged periods during the game. It would be fair to say Portsmouth created more chances than Ipswich despite having less of the ball than the Tractor Boys enjoyed on Tuesday – for all the good things Paul Jewell has clearly done with this team his persistence with a single ineffective striker up front against two dominant centre backs while the giant and in form Connor Wickham was stuck on the wing was mystifying. But then so was our own persistence with Ishmael Miller wide while Heidar Helguson was being repeatedly beaten in the air down the middle.
QPR were better in the second half, but only in so much as they turned the screw. They kept the ball in Ipswich’s final third better, put improved quality into the box and played a decent percentage game but pnly in the final ten minutes did Rangers play the football they’re capable of. That perhaps betrays a nervousness which flowed out of the side after they had taken the lead. The marks, heavily weighted in favour of three of our defenders who were superb on the night, tell their own story. Had Ipswich had more firepower they would have caused us problems, had we had a different back four we would have been in trouble regardless.
Another tick on the calendar, another game played, another step closer.
QPR: Kenny 7, Orr 6, Hall 8, Shittu 8 (Connolly 90, -), Hill 8, Derry 7, Faurlin 7, Routledge 6, Taarabt 6, Miller 6 (Buzsaky 75, 7), Helguson 6
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Gorkss, Hulse, Moen, Chimbonda
Goals: Hill 77 (assisted Taarabt), Helguson 83 (assisted Hill)
Ipswich: Fulop 5, Edwards 6, Delaney 7, McAuley 7, Kennedy 6, Bullard 7, Leadbitter 6, Healy 6 (Drury 40, 6), Martin 6 (Civelli 84, -), Wickham 7, Scotland 5 (Priskin 71, 5)
Subs Not Used: Lee-Barrett, Peters, Smith, O'Dea
Booked: Kennedy (foul)
Man of the Match – Clint Hill 8 There was a moment in the second half where Hill was running back onto a ball played over his head, facing his own goal with Kenny ready to receive a back pass and Scotland showing a vague interest in the chase. Hill took no risks, turned 90 degrees and stuck the ball out for a throw in. Most other players would have chanced the back pass, but Hill went for safety first. I highlight that because although it’s the goal and the assist that have finally pushed him over the boundary and into a long overdue man of the match award, it’s that kind of no nonsense defending and experience that have made him such a solid signing for us this season. Vulnerable to pace, but a player on top of his game at the moment.
Referee: Kevin Wright (Cambridgeshire) 7 Not too bad at all. There were three or four really obvious handballs that he missed, although they weren’t exactly key decisions, and a couple of early throw ins he got wrong. Ipswich will rightly be aggrieved over the Scotland and Kenny clash but I thought he called the Hall handball penalty appeal correctly.
Attendance: 16,587 (2,400 Ipswich approx) Much like the time the home crowd was quiet and nervous for the most part, only really picking up after the goal had gone in. Ipswich travelled in good numbers and made plenty of noise throughout, probably the best travelling support we’ve had at Rangers so far along with Forest.
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Photo: Action Images
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