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Cook's wonder strike not enough to beat Brum
Cook's wonder strike not enough to beat Brum
Tuesday, 26th Dec 2006 20:40

QPR slipped to a 2-1 defeat at table toppers Birmingham City on Boxing Day despite a first league goal of the season from Lee Cook.

"Well look a bit like it lads, there's no wonder you always lose" - shouted one long suffering QPR fan as the team got off the bus this afternoon. The players were wandering around in dribs and drabs just over an hour before kick off, some with their I-pods on, most looking cold and fed up, a couple clutching worryingly feminine man bags - maybe the old guy had a point. They hardly looked like a team arriving with any determination or belief. Plenty of hair wax, not too much heart.

I don't make a point of watching the team get off the bus you understand, being a football groupie isn't really for me. However on the rare occasions I have been passing by when the team arrive there's been a fair crowd around and people have clapped the players as they bounded down the coach steps. Today there were about ten supporters, and they were only there because the stewards wouldn't let them past while the team were entering the ground. Nobody clapped, a few said hello to players they'd met before, John Gregory greeted us. There was a feeling of inevitability around the whole thing. Nobody - the players nor the fans - really seemed to believe we were capable of winning this one.

In fairness to the players for about 60 minutes the old guy who'd half heartedly had a go as they got off the bus was dead wrong. QPR really looked like they wanted it; they worked hard, closed Birmingham down in the right areas, created a few chances of their own, and competed when a lesser side would have gone under. However around that sixty minute mark Marc Bircham, the driving heart of the performance to that point, was withdrawn.

Stefan Bailey came on and had one of his nightmare episodes that he's prone to every now and again and suddenly the home side were cutting through at will.

Don't get me wrong, when Bircham was on Birmingham were still the better team, and still created enough chances to win all of their Christmas matches on one afternoon. But there was a heart and no little amount of ability about QPR with Bircham urging them on that wasn't evident as they got off the bus or on the pitch after he'd gone off.

John Gregory changed his side despite a win against Barnsley at the weekend. The team lined up in a 3-5-2 formation that seemed to switch to a flat back five or a 4-4-2 at random moments. Zesh Rehman was recalled as a makeshift right back/right wing back/right winger, Marc Bircham replaced Steve Lomas in midfield, Paul Furlong came in for Ray Jones up front, Marcus Bignot found himself back on the left after a successful return to the right at the weekend.

Birmingham fielded a team made up of former or current loaned Premiership players and big money purchases in front of a near capacity crowd - although the intimidation factor of 25,000 passionate Brummies is dented somewhat when they all clap along in time to "what's she gonna look like with a chimney on her" as the teams come out. One word - why?

As had happened at Stoke when using a similar formation Rangers found themselves hopelessly outnumbered in wide areas right from the off. With no wingers to double up and help the full backs Birmingham enjoyed the freedom of St Andrews down both flanks and in the opening five minutes could have scored twice.

First McSheffrey made Rehman look silly and cut in from the Birmingham left past Bircham before firing the ball right across the face of goal. No Birmingham player was on hand to turn the ball home that time but a moment later Nicklas Bendtner, a thorn in the defence's side all afternoon, did make contact with a cross from the opposite flank but could only head over the bar.

QPR responded in kind and crafted the best chance of the opening exchanges when Lee Cook sent a devilish low cross over from the left. Furlong was totally unmarked but just couldn't make contact at the near post, Blackstock got ahead of his man at the far stick but couldn't turn the ball home.

Cook quickly turned to the villain however when he dallied in possession on halfway and Bendtner seized the ball and ran through on goal. Simon Royce came out on top with a brilliant save one on one, the rebound hit Damion Stewart and rolled agonisingly wide of the post. This was a real let off for Cook and QPR.

Despite this Rangers seemed to have weathered the storm - the home fans were starting to quieten down after a boisterous start and the visitor's tactics of letting Birmingham have the ball in their own half and forcing them to knock it long was working a treat. Jimmy Smith curled a tame effort on goal from twenty yards and QPR seemed to be gaining confidence all the time. Therefore John Gregory must have been incredibly frustrated to lose the opening goal of the game through poor marking at a set piece.

In the 22nd minute Damion Stewart needlessly fouled DJ Campbell ten yards inside the QPR half. McSheffrey stepped up and sent over a wonderful left footed, outswinging delivery which fell plum onto the head of unmarked Matthew Upson who almost ripped the net off the goal posts with a bullet header into the top corner.

This wasn't the first, or the last, time on the day that Birmingham's centre halves were able to find five yards of space in the QPR penalty area at a set piece. Fair enough they're a big physical team, I can almost forgive being out jumped by the likes of Upson and Jaidi, but there were no QPR players close enough to even pose that challenge.

It could have been two within seconds as another ball flashed across the face of the QPR goal, this time Sadler the provider, and McSheffrey sent a diving header half a yard wide of the post with Royce beaten.

In truth Rangers were there for a point and the Birmingham goal filled me with dread. This was shaping up to be another Stoke-like debacle. Then from nothing, the R's drew level. Paul Furlong showed good strength to hold the ball on the edge of the area under pressure and square it to Cook who jinked inside and lashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner.

He doesn't score often enough considering what a fantastic player he is, but when he does hit the net it's rarely less than spectacular.

Birmingham attempted to hit straight back and a powerful shot on the turn by Campbell was tipped over the bar one handed by Royce but the final ten minutes of the half played out with few other chances.

Referee Kevin Friend took centre stage for a while, as he does so often when refereeing QPR away games. He penalised Jimmy Smith for allowing Jaidi to climb all over his back, and then pulled up Damion Stewart for crawling all over Campbell's back in the same way. He then blew for a foul by Milanese and booked him for kicking the ball away. Still he did let Stewart away with what looked like a pretty brutal body check on McSheffrey so he wasn't as totally home biased as usual.

Minutes after his booking Milanese crunched into McSheffrey and was spoken to by the referee. Friend had words with him again after half time at which point Gregory replaced him with Rowlands, presumably to save the side from going down to ten men - a shame because Milanese had a steady game apart from these indiscretions.

At ten to four Friend saw fit to add on an extra minute during which Bendtner somehow failed to convert Sadler's low cross but Rangers looked comfortable after the equaliser. Smith wasn't having a particularly good game in midfield, but Bircham alongside him was in fine form and QPR were finally achieving their aim of frustrating Birmingham as half time approached.

Birmingham were kept waiting for a good five minutes at the start of the second half, time for more orchestrated hand clapping to bizarre dance music, but their concentration remained intact and they set about QPR with renewed vigour in the second half.

Bendtner headed McSheffrey's corner over when placed to do better and then turned provider as he squared the ball past Royce to the unmarked Campbell a yard out from goal but the former Brentford man got his feet in a muddle an poked the ball straight back where it came from rather than into the empty net.

At the other end Furlong was working hard despite being manhandled by Jaidi at every opportunity with little come back from the referee. Alongside him Blackstock was quiet but he did fire over the bar from twenty yards out after working hard to win possession ahead of Upson.

Then the key moment of the match - two substitutions on the hour, one by each team. Birmingham introduced Jerome for Campbell - the former Cardiff striker scored at Loftus Road earlier in the season and posed a much bigger threat than Campbell who for all his pace, quick feet and work rate missed a hat full of chances and didn't look like he could be trusted with the proverbial barn door and football from ten yards challenge.

Gregory sent on Stefan Bailey, which was a reasonable move, for Marc Bircham, which was not. Obviously it's a fitness issue with Bircham who has sat out since the Sheffield Wednesday defeat in October and he probably had to go off but he took with him everything that was good about the QPR performance.

Suddenly the midfield which had looked reasonably organised, fully committed and totally on message with Bircham in it looked inexperienced, light weight and a bit of a hotch potch mess. Bailey, after two superb performances against Luton and Cardiff, is now struggling for form. Smith hadn't been playing well before the change but Bircham's efforts had covered for him, and Lee Cook is never going to trouble the judges at a strong man contest.

Birmingham responded with a goal within minutes. McSheffrey finally broke through the offside trap (Bendtner had been denied two one on one chances and a goal by offside decisions to this point) and squared the ball past Royce for Jerome to tap into the empty net. The euphoric celebrations on the terraces showed what an important goal this was for Birmingham, and highlighted just how nervous the hosts were starting to get.

This time there never looked likely to be a second coming from QPR. The midfield offered no protection for the defence and no supply for the attack. Ray Jones was introduced for Dexter Blackstock and Martin Rowlands for Mauro Milanese all to no avail. Jimmy Smith had a trademark half volley from twenty yards blocked almost at source by Clemence but despite lumping several free kicks and long balls into the Birmingham penalty area this was as good as it got for QPR.

At the other end Upson was left unmarked from a corner but headed over, and Jaidi missed a sitter from a free kick when left absolutely free at the back post. Whoever was supposed to be marking the home side centre halves at set pieces can no doubt expect a grilling over some video evidence at the training ground later this week. That apart Milanese, Stewart and Mancienne were all pretty impressive at centre half in my opinion.

Four minutes of time was added on at the end, the majority of which was taken up by Cameron Jerome who theatrically flung himself to the ground under minimal contact from Michael Mancienne as he looked to break through into the penalty area and then sat motionless on the turf until play was stopped. The home fans were irate that QPR didn't kick the ball out and that the referee refused to allow a physio on but such was the farcical nature of Jerome's collapse Mr Friend could be forgiven for thinking he was merely playing for time and it was something of a surprise when he had to be replaced by Muamba for the final thirty seconds.

So another defeat for QPR, six in seven games now, and no more than anybody expected really. Even the players themselves only seemed to have any belief at all when Bircham was on the field driving them on - this was definitely one of his best performances for quite some time.

Barnsley's win at home to Burnley wasn't exactly the best news to return to the car with but Hull lost when I thought they'd win and Leeds continue to have all their survival eggs in the January transfer window basket. Luton were annihilated at Colchester today and it's the Hatters QPR should have their sights on this weekend as they travel to Norwich.

The Canaries have the league's top scorer in Robert Earnshaw but not a great deal else at the moment and this is definitely a game we should be looking to take something from. A massively defensive line up is forgivable against a side as good as Birmingham but I think I'd find it hard to stomach if we try the same thing at Carrow Road on Saturday.

If the players believe, then there's something there for us.

Birmingham: Maik Taylor 7, Kelly 7, Jaidi 8, Upson 8 (Larsson 89, -), Sadler 7, Johnson 7, Nafti 6, Clemence 6, McSheffrey 8, Bendtner 8, Campbell 6 (Jerome 59, 7, (Muamba 90, -))
Subs Not Used: Doyle, Danns.
Booked: Bendtner.
Goals: Upson 22, Jerome 62.

QPR: Royce 8, Bignot 6, Mancienne 6, Rehman 5, Stewart 7, Milanese 7 (Rowlands 75, 6), Bircham 8 (Bailey 59, 4), Smith 5, Cook 6, Furlong 6, Blackstock 5 (Ray Jones 81, 5)
Subs Not Used: Cole, Ward
Booked: Milanese
Goals: Cook 31

QPR Star Man - Marc Bircham 8 - Rangers looked like they could have held on for a point and maybe even snatched a goal with him leading the side magnificently from the centre of the park. Once he'd gone off things looked less secure at the back, and flat as a witch's tit up top.

Ref: K Friend (Leicestershire) 5 - Usual series of bizarre decisions but certainly this wasn't the worst game I've ever seen him have. I'd like to know his justification for penalising Blackstock, Smith and others for backing into Jaidi when he crawled all over them while at the other end Birmingham again got the decision when Stewart crawled all over their forwards. Deserves a pat on the back for telling Jerome where to get off in injury time though.

Photo: Action Images

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