Austin beats QPR’s path to Wembley Way – report
Tuesday, 13th May 2014 23:08 by Clive Whittingham
Two goals from Charlie Austin helped QPR overcome a 1-0 deficit to beat Wigan 2-1 after extra time in the Championship play-off semi-final on a memorable night at Loftus Road.
To the untrained eye, the casual observer, the disgruntled neutral and the grizzled football hack, this was neither a great surprise, nor any kind of achievement.
Queens Park Rangers have gone from everybody's favourite minnow, smacking the big boys on the nose by picking off Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton and Trevor Sinclair from the lower leagues, into some sort of dark footballing overlord.
"Everything that's wrong with the game" we're told, as the billionaires come and go from the Loftus Road boardroom, changing the whole identity and ethos of a little club that used to enjoy punching above its weight but now goes out at the start of a Championship season and spends £8.5m on the two outstanding players from the division the year before. Neil Warnock described this as a "muck and nettles" club when he first arrived, but the only sting of late has come from the balance sheet which shows a £160m debt, and a wage bill higher than Atletico Madrid.
QPR are now disliked. Financially doped, it was seen by outsiders as a forgone conclusion that they would win promotion straight back to the Premier League at the first attempt, and something of an embarrassment that they have had to make do with the play-offs at all. Of course they beat Wigan Athletic. Sweet, quaint Wigan. The little engine that could. And old Dave Whelan. With his FA Cup story. Crushed like a paper cup. Never a doubt.
The QPR fans packed their tiny Loftus Road stadium to the rafters and Monday night, and rocked the place to its foundations, because they know none of that is quite the case. Yes, many would agree that the resources and players available to Harry Redknapp this season mean that fourth could be seen as something of a failure, but this has been no mean feat given the circumstances.
Had Charlie Austin and Matt Phillips – those two big-money summer signings – not gone down with long term injuries at exactly the same time as Ale Faurlin, Danny Simpson and Nedum Onuoha were laid low, then automatic promotion may well have been achieved. That it wasn't almost makes this semi-final victory more remarkable.
Play-offs are made for form and momentum – often won by a team coming home with a wet sail, flying in on a late run and taking the semi-final by storm. QPR got their fine run out of the way nice and early – no defeats in the first dozen games of the season – and have been in mid-table touch ever since, dropping well out of the running for the top two in the process. No side has won the second tier play-off from fourth since Charlton in 1996.
Wigan, meanwhile, changed managers midway through the campaign and roared up the table, and into an FA Cup semi-final, on a run of ten matches without defeat – including nine wins. A confident team, with four Wembley appearances in the last two years alone, they showed their knockout football knowhow with an FA Cup quarter final win at champions-elect Manchester City in Marcg.
Uwe Rosler, the tactically shrewd, up and coming, sharp-minded, smart-thinking brain behind the rise of first Brentford and now the Latics. Harry Redknapp, the bumbling, ageing, twitching, veteran who often gives the impression he'd rather be anywhere else but Loftus Road – most of all the parallel universe where he's standing outside a Vauxhall plant in Luton justifying his decision to leave Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Rickie Lambert at home in favour of Ashley Cole, John Terry and The Boy Crouchy.
Within eight minutes they were ahead. Danny Simpson didn't engage left back Jean Beausejour quickly enough, allowing the Chilean to feed McClean who, in turn, was given too much space by Nedum Onuoha to deliver an undefendable cross into the six yard box. Still, makeshift left back Clint Hill will reflect that he was rather flat footed at the back post, and caught cold by the fluid movement of James Perch who capped a fine display across both legs of the tie by gleefully smashing the ball into the Loft End net from no range at all.
The raucous home crowd momentarily cooled its fervour. Harry Redknapp's recent propensity for perplexing, random team selections had reared its ugly head again. After three months spent building a team around Ravel Morrison, the mercurial West Ham loanee was left out, seemingly on the basis of a poor display in the first-leg when he was played out of position as a striker in an ultra-defensive set up. Kevin Doyle, a centre forward loaned in to cover Austin's earlier injury, was started on the right wing. Clint Hill, a centre back, started left back. You'd find less square pegs at the Annual World Square Peg Collectors Trade Fair.
Rangers were in trouble. There were fortunate, first of all, that McClean is one of the game's genuine scumbags. The Irishman chose to throw himself to the ground in the twenty third minute under absolutely zero contact from Rob Green after Gary O'Neil – who's tendency to pass the ball straight to a member of the opposing side whenever he's in possession apparently knows no bounds – made three progressively worse attempts to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper. Luckier still that a referee as on his game as Mark Clattenburg was in charge and in close proximity to judge, correctly, that a yellow card should be issued for flagrant cheating.
Within a minute Wigan were in again, through a move of their own making this time, and McManaman's side footed effort from 15 yards had the pace taken off it by a block from Nedum Onuoha. The muscular centre back, known affectionately as The Chief, collapsed to the ground after taking an accidental blow to his forehead which opened up a gaping wound. As he did so his team mate Clint Hill trod all over him. Now both players were down on the floor amidst the farce. It rather summed up QPR's start to their most important match of the season.
For the umpteenth time in this fairly torturous campaign, emergency mid-match surgery was required on a team selection apparently drawn entirely at random. While Onuoha was given the full Terry Butcher treatment, Redknapp moved Doyle into the middle with Austin, Niko Kranjcar went out to the left, and Junior Hoilett swapped across to the right. Later, in the second half, Clint Hill – who really looked his age against a quick, physical visiting side – was replaced by the man in form, Yun Suk-Young. Bobby Zamora, left out altogether on Friday, came on for Doyle and played like a man possessed. Ravel Morrison was eventually added instead of Gary O'Neil, whose main contribution apart from an early volley over the bar was losing one of his back teeth in an ugly, but accidental, clash with Shaun Maloney.
It took Redknapp an hour, but slowly and surely the QPR team started to look like the one that should have started the game. No coincidence that from the moment of the Onuoha injury, they completely took the game over for the rest of normal time.
Niko Kranjcar had his best game for the club, and stung Carson's hands with a 20 yarder after Perch had slipped trying to tackle him. Twice he sent devilish balls flashing right through the six yard box begging for a killer touch. Carson flapped at one early corner, then fumbled a later one in the six yard box and was lucky to see it bobble wide. Junior Hoilett headed a cross down into the six yard box but Wigan scrambled it away. Gary O'Neil shot on the turn but dragged the ball wide. Austin lashed over after receiving the ball in space at the far post, then planted a header on target only to see it fly behind off Nedum Onuoha.
You'd have been forgiven for thinking it wasn't QPR's night. The players could have felt that way too – 250 hardy souls who made the long trip to Sheffield Wednesday earlier in the season will testify that this is not a squad afraid of just chucking the towel in when the mood suits. But here they kept going, kept the tempo up, kept believing, kept doing the right things, kept pressing, kept attacking and kept hoping.
The second period began with a flurry of QPR corners. Hill looked favourite for the first, but Wigan cleared only to immediately concede another with Gary Caldwell and Scott Carson caught messing around trying to slow the game down in open play. Now it was QPR’s turn to press high up the field to good effect.
Goal bound volleys from Niko Kranjcar and Joey Barton were blocked, and the fear that it just wasn’t going to fall Rangers’ way increased as Wigan broke clear after the latter effort and Barton was forced to haul back McManaman and take a mandatory yellow card. O’Neil followed him into the book for going in high on Jordi Gomez – a fabulous player at this level but for his insistence on pretending to die every time he’s touched only to leap up immediately after the opposing player is dealt with by the officials and demand the ball again.
An inswinging cross from Hoilett – full of running but rather too prone to miscontolling the ball and toeing it into touch – looked like it might go all the way in until Carson intervened. Later the former England goalkeeper produced an even better save away to his left as Barton cracked a fierce strike at goal from the edge of the area. And the clock ticked remorselessly on.
Niko Kranjcar followed his team mates into Clattenburg’s notebook for a wild lunge on McClean that other referees may have judged more severely. On the ball the Croatian was sublime, so he remained on the field, but off it his lack of fitness made him an increasing liability as the game wore on. Twice he was fortunate that Wigan kept the ball after poor tackles of his – enabling Clattenburg to play an advantage rather than produce a second yellow card.
Although Wigan were playing for time, a team that well equipped was always going to fashion another chance. At the midway point of the half McClean surged into the penalty area, past a despairing tackle from Richard Dunne that would have been a certain penalty and red card had it connected, and the whole tie rested on what happened next. Green made a fabulous save down at the Wigan man’s feet to begin with but it really shouldn’t have been enough to prevent a second goal as the ball fell back to the Wigan man a yard away from an open goal. Though the angle was acute, his obvious terror at having to use his right foot to tap the ball home caused him to stub it against the goal post with the outside of his left instead. An extraordinary miss.
Five minutes later that went from being a let off to a turning point. Junior Hoilett, fresh from a 20 yard volley over the top, set off from the right wing towards the penalty area on an incisive run to the heart of the Wigan defence. After a nicely executed one two with Bobby Zamora he had only Gary Caldwell between him and the goal and the advantage was with QPR as soon as that was the case. Caldwell had been booked for a cynical body check on the Canadian in the first leg and has been a total liability to Wigan for several seasons now. He wasn’t quick or composed enough to hold his own at this level of football five years ago and he certainly wasn’t here – throwing himself into a brain-dead lunge just inside the area and sending Hoilett spinning to the turf. A more obvious penalty you’ll struggle to find and Clattenburg, five yards from the incident as ever, had the whistle in his mouth and the finger outstretched before the QPR man had even come to a complete stop.
Brass balled Charlie Austin rolled home his nineteenth of the season from 12 yards.
Loftus Road exploded. Not since Clive Wilson against Millwall in the 1995 FA Cup run has a spot kick brought quite such a reaction from the long suffering support. Few even noticed that, in the aftermath, Carson, attempting to boot the ball away in frustration, actually belted Bobby Zamora straight in the knee caps. A comical moment, but one that could have had serious consequences for Rangers who had three substitutes already on the field. Zamora dusted himself down and continued to play like a man whose contract is about to expire.
The dynamic of the game changed once more. Rangers regressed slightly. Suk-Young went back to being a conventional left back, rather than an all-action left winger – he excelled in both roles and is surely quickly cementing his place as a regular next season regardless of the division.
Green made a routine save. A powerful header from Leon Barnett, on for the hapless Caldwell, struck Nedum Onuoha on the goal line. Suddenly it was Wigan’s turn to wonder if it wasn’t their night. When Bobby Zamora read a long punt superbly and positioned himself in the area to win a ball he was third favourite for it seemed like the moment had arrived but a delicate lob, which would have turned Loftus Road into a sperm bank had it dipped under the bar, landed on the roof of the net.
A late foul by Kranjcar, skating on thin ice, looked like it had written a script for Scottish midfielder Shaun Maloney, who’d scored with the last kick of a league meeting between the two sides on this ground last season from similar range but this time could only find the base of the wall.
Another half an hour would be required. Wrong week to quit amphetamines.
Now the odds seemed to favour the visitors again. Redknapp’s corrective surgery had used up all three substitutions and while the Latics were in the same boat Rangers had several players still on the field clinging to life by their fingernails. Niko Kranjcar, carrying a hamstring injury, could barely move after a herculean effort. Richard Dunne, who even the ever adoring Redknapp has admitted is “running on empty”, needed another 30 minutes of football like a kick in the crotch. The snivelling wastes of flesh from the “Ladbrokes life” advert would probably have put it all on black with luminous trim at this stage.
But the body language on the pitch said otherwise. Rosler fumed. Angrily pointing this way and that. Silent Wigan players strung out like washing along the halfway line. QPR, by contrast, huddled together as one, the eleven on the pitch, the substitutes, the coaching staff, the management, the medical team, the players not selected. They were all there. Clint Hill spoke. Joe Jordan spoke. Harry Redknapp, soaked to the skin, club suit reduced to little more than a dish cloth by the teeming rain, spoke as well. For so long this season QPR’s manager has seemed bored and uninterested, motionless on substitutes benches up and down the land with his hands stuffed into his pockets, looking forward to getting home to Sandra, Rosie and their Wii. Now he was coming into his own.
The Loftus Road faithful, who haven’t seen this sort of thing from this group of players often, sensed something was in the offing and roused themselves once more.
Now the clock, so keen to get home for Gogglebox in the first half, decided it was enjoying the spectacle and stopped altogether. QPR initially played the game quite well, holding possession and running the corners. Bobby Zamora was exceptional. But when Junior Hoilett capped a curate’s egg of an evening by giving the ball straight away from a QPR corner it set up a siege on the QPR goal lasting the best part of three and a half years.
First, in dealing with that counter attack, Kranjcar committed a foul and was fortunate that play was waved on. Nedum Onuoha got in the way of the resulting shot. Corners followed. Lots of corners, flying around in the QPR penalty box. Richard Dunne, rightly maligned for a recent dip in form, took it upon himself to win every header. His performance in the second half of extra time, after more motivational cuddling at half time, was remarkable. He was a colossus. At one point he literally kicked McClean into the air as they challenged for a ball on halfway. Not in Dunne’s house. Not tonight.
Mark Clattenburg added two minutes at the end. It was to be two minutes of hell. Nedum Onuoha shepherded more balls out for goal kicks than has been done in the last 20 years at Loftus Road. Dunne stood like a Victorian monument to the art of defending. Suk-Young and Danny Simpson full backs supreme. Joey Barton perpetual motion in midfield – composed, committed, disciplined. Do not adjust your sets. Loftus Road reverberated in support of its team. Don’t talk to me about leg room – why would you ever leave this place?
But the corners kept coming. So many corners. Scott Carson, who looked like the host of an arthritis care meeting in the first half only to suddenly start trying out for a Diamond League athletics meet once Austin’s second had gone in, committed himself to the attack. Dunne headed one clear, Onuoha another, Ravel Morrison mucked in. All hands to the pump, pumping frantically, water pouring in.
When Rob Kiernan, pressed into emergency service as a centre forward having started the night in a back three, let go with a speculative effort from 25 yards there seemed little danger. Then the ball hit Richard Dunne. The deflection was profound. It took all the pace off the ball and bent it into a curl that seemed to defy the laws of physics, past everybody in the penalty box who watched with the rest of us, past Robert Green who’d already committed himself to his left and could only pray with the rest of us that whichever God has been fucking QPR over for the last 20 years had decided that tonight, for five seconds, they deserved a break. The ball flew three millimetres past the post. For a moment, Loftus Road fell completely silent.
Not for long. When the rack could be turned no further, when the Shepherd’s Bush public could stand no more, when it was finally decreed that the QPR players had done enough and time was up, Mark Clattenburg put his whistle to his lips for a final time and three sides of Loftus Road spilled onto the field.
Queens Park Rangers are going to Wembley for the first time in 28 years.
QPR: Green 7; Simpson 7, Onuoha 8, Dunne 8, Hill 6 (Suk-Young 50, 8); Barton 8, O’Neil 6 (Morrison 69, 6), Doyle 6 (Zamora 65, 8), Kranjcar 8, Hoilett 6; Austin 8
Subs not used: Hughes, Henry, Murphy, Benayoun
Goals: Austin 73 (penalty won Hoilett), 96 (assisted Zamora)
Bookings: Barton 57 (foul), O’Neil 60 (foul), Kranjcar 63 (foul)
Wigan: Carson 7; Kiernan 7, Caldwell 5 (Barnett 74, 6), Boyce 7; Perch 7, Gomez 7, McArthur 7 (Espinosa 36, 6), Maloney 6, Bausejour 6; McClean 6, McManaman 7 (Waghorn 71, 6)
Subs not used: Crainey, Al-Habsi, Maynard, Collison
Goals: Perch 9 (assisted McClean)
Bookings: McClean 22 (cheating)
QPR Star Man – Charlie Austin 8 Little more to say. Two goals, taking him to 20 for a season in which he sat out for three months with injury. An outstanding centre forward.
Referee – Mark Clattenburg (County Durham) 10 I’ve never given a referee a top mark before, but what was there to fault here? Never more than five yards away from any decision he gave, showing amazing fitness to carry that on right through to the end of extra time, and not a single decision wrong in my mind. You could argue Scott Carson should have been penalised more for time wasting, and that Niko Kranjcar was lucky to stay on the pitch, but I thought he was absolutely exceptional and contributed to a terrific match. This is about the best refereeing display I’ve seen at Loftus Road.
Attendance 17,061 (1,500 Wigan approx) Remind me, please, why we’re so desperate to leave this place?
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