A way to win - report
Monday, 26th May 2014 23:45 by Clive Whittingham
QPR, making a first visit to Wembley Stadium in 28 years, defeated Derby County 1-0 on Saturday with a last minute goal from Bobby Zamora.
Queens Park Rangers have spoken collectively of finding a way to win football matches – a craft easily lost, difficult to learn.
In 2012/13 the method was to hand out big contracts to players who’d been reasonably good in 2005, populating the squad with ageing mercenaries looking for pension contributions, replacing the few who remained that genuinely cared about playing for the club.
That won them four football matches. Out of 38.
Demotion bought a fire sale. Players were released, sold and loaned. Club officials hid in darkened offices not answering doors until the likes of Anton Ferdinand and Jose Bosingwa took the hint. Fans complained that players shipped off to Turkey and Canada weren’t being sent far enough away.
A new plan was hatched. Cunning entrepreneurs captured it in t-shirt form and peddled their wares on the Twitter… Give the ball to Charlie Austin. Did he score? Yes? Kick off. No? Repeat. All well and good in a 24 team collection of Premier League failures and League One success stories – QPR were unbeaten for the first 12 matches of the season and kept eight clean sheets in a row. They defended deep, they held possession, and they waited for Austin to do something. At the beginning of December it looked like the title was already theirs.
But the plan was flawed because although Austin, a former brick layer, often likes to appear otherwise, he is carved from flesh and bone like the rest of the mere mortals, not a single piece of granite or oak. He’d been playing in an A-cup bra to hold his shoulders together long before they finally fell apart, in a home win against Bolton in January. He stayed on the field that night long enough to secure the win with a vintage header, scored with his arm attached to the side of his body by nerve endings alone, and was then carted off to the surgeon’s table.
It brought out the worst in QPR all over again. Always another signing. Always another player. Veteran Irish international Kevin Doyle on loan from Wolves looked a reasonable stop-gap, but Manchester United’s Will Keane was an inexperienced link-man asked to lead a team as a lone striker, and West Ham’s Mobido Maiga was so predictably dreadful it seemed preposterous to suggest that he’d ever actually seen a football before in his life.
QPR started to find ways to lose games. A 1-0 defeat at lowly Charlton, a third loss in a row, back in February sparked cocaine-fuelled violence in the away end. The atmosphere that day was nasty, like nothing I’ve experienced in 25 years, with QPR fans turning on one another. The players walked straight to the dressing room at full time unmoved by the shambles they’d served up.
A week later an improved performance at Brighton still ended in defeat when Benoit Assou-Ekotto - a player whose considerably talent is diminished significantly by a rank bad attitude to his profession and concentration levels of a brain damaged sloth - pissed around with a routine ball down the line just long enough for the home team to rob him of possession and score. He’d done something similar in a 3-1 loss to Reading a week or so before and on both occasions followed his aberration by pretending to be injured.
At Sheffield Wednesday, an early sending off for Richard Dunne was an excuse for QPR to simply give up. They put the cue on the rack, their coats on their backs, and they went and sat on the coach until the designated departure time. Sheffield Wednesday – who finished sixteenth – were more committed, more inventive, more creative, more aggressive, better to watch, faster, stronger, harder working… better. Rangers lost 3-0 and were flattered by it.
For half an hour they played against ten men at Bournemouth… and lost 2-1.
The team selections became odd, then random, and then wild. Luke Young, a right full back who has made it perfectly clear for the last two seasons that he has no interest in playing for Queens Park Rangers at any level ever again, was selected at centre half for his first start in two years in a meek 2-0 surrender at Blackburn Rovers. I’ve supported this club my entire life, I rarely miss a game and on the rare occasions I do I always listen to a commentary or find a dodgy feed to watch. That night, in the French resort of Cannes, I took my place in my hotel room to watch the game but after looking at the team Harry Redknapp had selected I put my coat on and left, stopping only to back Blackburn striker Rudy Gestede for the first goal at 9/1. It took the Frenchman ten minutes. I can never remember feeling so detached from my football club. Luke Young indeed.
QPR felt broken. One regular told me he was embarrassed to be at Ewood Park that night. Another – the finest fan of our club you’ll ever meet, born next to the ground, with Rangers in his blood – questioned whether he’d actually want to go to Wembley for the first time in 28 years to watch this group of QPR players. “It would feel hollow,” he said.
But green shoots of recovery have been seen in recent weeks, and not just because Austin – padded up like a wide receiver – has returned to the fray. A mysterious bearded man appeared in the dugout in QPR colours – sports psychologist Steve Black as it turns out. Harry Redknapp, the original team-on-the-back-of-a-cigarette-packet, throwing-the-tea-cups-around, stereotypical, wheeler dealer (fuck off) English manager, says he wishes he’d met Black years ago. Joey Barton called him the signing of the season. Rangers started to pull together once more.
At Middlesbrough, in a relatively meaningless game, in front of 20,000 empty seats, an error by the home goalkeeper in stoppage time let Bobby Zamora in for a winner in the final minute. Three days later, against a dominant Wigan outfit, victory was sourced through a defensive effort more associated with well-loved QPR teams of the past than this rabble. Zamora changed a game against Nottingham Forest in QPR’s favour in the final ten minutes. This was a man who was finished, one of the pension-plan dogs, reviled for his wage packet to output ratio, mocked for his fitness, quoted by a national newspaper (incorrectly) as not even liking football – and here he was rising from benches late in Championship fixtures to turn games in QPR’s favour. The people of Shepherd’s Bush sang his name in mocking tones to begin with, but when he turned in a magnificent cameo performance against Wigan in a play-off semi-final second leg – which included a hand in two crucial goals as the rain fell on Loftus Road – they mocked no more. A plan B had been successfully located. QPR were finding a way to win football matches again.
At Wembley on Saturday they found a way to win a football match.
Already shunned at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs, Rangers will have won few new friends with the way they went about it. To the outsider, this was good versus evil. Derby County with a team assembled over time, through canny scouting and youth development, playing exciting football in a progressive formation, scoring goals for fun, passing the air out of the football - well managed, well supported, well-liked by all outside the city of Nottingham. QPR: buying success, racking up debt, picking Joey Barton, financially bullying opponents. The Rams were the popular choice.
Initially, uncharacteristically, the Hoops stood toe to toe with their opponents in an attacking sense. Harry Redknapp wasn’t deterred by the abject failure of his starting eleven for the Wigan semi-final – which required three substitutions to correct – and picked the same side again, leaving out the likes of Ravel Morrison in the process. It looked shrewd at first, as Gary O’Neil turned in his performance of the season alongside Joey Barton in the centre of midfield and Kevin Doyle won headers for fun in attack. Derby’s passing was interrupted and their defence pinned back. Rangers were unashamedly direct, but when the ball found its way to the feet of Junior Hoilett he finally started to fulfil his undoubted potential with an attractive, eye-catching display.
Richard Dunne came close to heading an early corner home, only to have the ball taken away from him at the last second by George Thorne. Austin lashed over from 30 yards and Barton smacked a free-kick into the wall after the former Burnley striker had turned inside Richard Keogh and crashed to earth under heavy contact. Doyle had a shot blocked and Hoilett’s deflected cross from the byline passed right through an unoccupied penalty area with nobody arriving late from midfield to convert.
Derby had threatened very early. Johnny Russell hit the wall with a free kick awarded despite Gary O’Neil appearing to take the ball cleanly from Will Hughes – one of four Derby free kicks awarded in the first five minutes that suggested previous scourge of QPR Lee Mason was in belligerent mood once more. But until the midway point of the first half there was only one side in the game, and it looked resplendent in red and black hoops.
Rams boss Steve McClaren, who helped put this QPR team together back in the summer, was making his first professional Wembley return since his England team infamously crashed and burned in the pouring rain in a European Championships qualifier against Croatia in 2008. The heavens opened once more as the teams emerged onto the field and drenched McClaren, who has successfully rebuilt his reputation in this country during the last 12 months, as he waited for the national anthem. The irony won’t have been lost on him. A woman stood on the touchline under an umbrella and McClaren went a funny shade of white. His mood won’t have been improved greatly by the first 20 minutes.
But the tide started to turn. Mason waved away Niko Kranjcar’s appeal for a foul when he seemed to be clearly taken out by Thorne during another QPR attack. Kranjcar played for Croatia that fateful night, but his inclusion here turned out to be an ill-advised risk. That challenge exacerbated an existing hamstring injury and he’d left the field within ten minutes of it being made - replaced by Armand Traore, depriving QPR of a playmaker, and a substitution. Ravel Morrison remained on the bench. Redknapp had erred. Derby seemed revitalised.
They quickly won their first corner of the day which Jamie Ward took and then returned to the back post after Richard Dunne cleared – Craig Forsyth arrived late, from a tight angle, and headed off target. Then Ward whipped an inswinging free kick to the back post which Robert Green did excellently to watch all the way and save down by the post after Keogh failed to divert it with a diving header attempt. Expert goalkeeping from a man with his own England demons to exorcise.
Dunne’s work rate was increasing. He deflected a long shot from Ward wide, and committed to a fine clearance when Joey Barton had played Charlie Austin into trouble on the edge of his own area. That Austin was that far back at all summed up how deep QPR were starting to sink. Nedum Onuoha and Dunne denied County’s top scorer Chris Martin an inch to breathe in, but everywhere else space was starting to open up. Will Hughes smacked a shot over after Hendrick’s weaving run played the ball into his path. QPR had only Junior Hoilett’s purposeful running and unusually pristine control by way of a retort – twice his enterprising runs were unceremoniously halted by Jake Buxton with clean, firm tackles in the penalty box. Derby were beginning to take the game over.
Derby forced QPR back to begin with. Danny Simpson screamed “for fuck’s sake” unfortunately close to a television microphone as his rushed, hurried clearance, skewed off into touch. White shirts everywhere, swarming. Dunne headed an early Derby corner away. It took Rangers seven minutes to get the ball further than 30 yards away from their own goal.
When the London side did break though, they carried threat. Doyle found Armand Traore who played an intelligent low pass into the area and Charlie Austin’s mishit shot beat Lee Grant but bobbled wide of the post. Rangers attacked down the opposite, right, flank next time but Austin’s attempt to find the top corner with a shot on the turn carried all the necessary power and none of the accuracy. Still, they were at least trading punches.
Then, on the hour, what seemed like the key moment of the final. Nedum Onuoha, always exemplary in defence but rarely comfortable with the ball at his feet, gave possession away in a poor area. With the mobile centre half now out of position Derby were able to work Russell into clear blue water behind the R’s back four for the first time. Gary O’Neil had a decision to make.
In the split second of thinking time the former West Ham man, absolutely excellent for the first hour, elected to cynically chop his man to the ground. Russell sprawled across the sodden Wembley turf, his personal chance for glory robbed of him by illegal means. Rangers appealed, half-heartedly, that Clint Hill may have been covering around behind. Not unless he was about to be presented with a high-powered motorcycle for the last leg of the trip he wasn’t. Lee Mason whistled immediately and then, intelligently, gave himself plenty of thinking time by going across to speak to his assistant referee as the Rams massed around him screaming for retribution.
A red card, the first of O’Neil’s career, could be the only result.
It’s a moment that will be held up against QPR. The critics will say it typifies the club and the way it goes about its business. Ultimately promotion was won because Gary O’Neil, an overpaid journeyman midfielder, chopped down a younger, more talented player who was actually trying to score a goal rather than simply sit in and prevent them, and took a tactical red card for his team. There will be no mention of Derby’s poster boy Will Hughes – bright eyed academy graduate, coveted by Liverpool, supremely talented, intelligent, well brought up, educated, likeable – theatrically diving to the turf under no contact whatsoever from Richard Dunne in the first half trying to con a penalty from the referee. It was out of character, but it was cheating all the same, and it could easily have won the game 1-0 the other way.
The pattern for the final third of the game was set with the free kick. Jamie Ward – one of the other three players to be sent off in a Wembley play-off final incidentally – beat the wall with a powerful effort but found, inexplicably, Richard Dunne ambling around on the penalty spot. Dunne wasn’t in the wall, or marking Chris Martin, so you can’t help but wonder what he was doing. The ball smacked him in the gut and flew wide. When Hughes delivered the corner Dunne headed it away.
And that’s how it was. Derby attacked in steady, repetitive, waves, but every time they got near the QPR penalty area there was Dunne or Onuoha. The Rams forced 14 corners in the end – Dunne headed ten of them clear himself, and on two other occasions climbed to nod the returned ball out as well. The two of them read the game as if operating from an advanced computer programme – it wasn’t human. Dunne stood like a 100 foot tall concrete monument to the art of defending. A year ago he was finished, aged 33 and coming back from a long term injury. Three months ago he looked spent, even Harry Redknapp admitting he was running on empty. Dominant just doesn’t cover it. He was colossal. If you thought he was exceptional for the extra-time period against Wigan at Loftus Road – and he was – that was nothing compared to this. Astonishing.
Harry Redknapp knew he needed to get Karl Henry onto the field to fill the O’Neil-shaped hole in his midfield. For five minutes the former Wolves man stood on the touchline dressed and ready to go, but indecision reigned over the man to be replaced. Bobby Zamora had been introduced for Kevin Doyle just seconds before O’Neil’s dismissal and they’d have been turning over parked cars and looting shops down the Wembley High Road for the rest of the night had Charlie Austin been withdrawn, however mediocre his performance to this point. Armand Traore was also a new arrival and Joey Barton seemed key. Junior Hoilett became the obvious choice, but he’d been superb to this point.
Eventually Clint Hill, literally, put his hand up. The ageing left back asked to be replaced. When it happened, it seemed so obvious: Traore moved to left back, Henry came into the midfield, QPR added a body, and legs, and mobility to the defence, while losing none of their pace or attacking threat. Hill will make a fine manager himself one day.
Derby, knowing QPR had to stick with what they had at this point, made changes of their own, and got both of them wrong. Craig Bryson, with 16 goals, 13 assists, a Player of the Year award but a latent calf complaint to his name, was an obvious introduction and Simon Dawkins added pace, but the decision to withdraw Will Hughes seemed odd, and the removal of the threatening Russell was plain barmy. What exactly kept Chris Martin on the field, when he was so plainly out of his depth against QPR’s supreme centre back pairing, only Steve McClaren will know. What is it about the Wembley air that fries this talented manager’s brain so?
Still, he could easily have been a winning manager. Bryson immediately shot to the near post only for Green to turn the ball behind, dislocating his thumb in the process. Within 30 seconds Bryson had crossed low for Martin to shoot instinctively against the base of the post via another save from Green. Dawkins tried to seek out the far top corner with a curled shot after a loose ball fell to him in the area but he’d made his intentions too obvious and Green made a flying save. Ward struck the rebound towards goal but it deflected wide off Martin’s sizeable arse. Hendrick shot from 30 yards and on any other day the devilish deflection would have carried it wide of Green’s despairing dive – on this occasion it diverted it straight into his arms. As it had been all day, his handling was immaculate.
By the open admission of their manager, QPR were playing for a penalty shoot-out at this stage. That was still half an hour away. The Chinese used to use this sort of thing to extract confessions from their prisoners.
But do you know what? Football isn’t about making friends.
In 1982 QPR came to Wembley Stadium as a Second Division team to play mighty First Division Tottenham Hotspur. They lost their top goal scorer Clive Allen to an early injury but forced a replay. They were without influential centre back Glenn Roeder for the next game because of a suspension triggered by a nonsense sending off in a league game at Luton Town. They dominated the second game and lost anyway, to a penalty.
In 1986 they beat Nottingham Forest, Chelsea and the great Liverpool side of the era to get to a League Cup final against Oxford only to find their own manager – who’d left the U’s for Loftus Road just nine months beforehand – openly admitting he’d rather his current employers lose the game. They lost 3-0 and have never been back to this famous venue since. A whole generation of QPR support have only that abomination, and Jim Smith’s treachery, to remember Wembley by.
In 1995 a team split between daft transfers and youth team graduates led Manchester United 1-0 into the eighth minute of injury time at Loftus Road in a game they desperately needed to win to help avoid relegation. Eric Cantona scored with the last kick, during the second reading of the classified football results. If he hadn’t, referee Robbie Hart would have continued playing until he did. Rangers were, indeed, relegated. They collapsed into administration, and the Second Division.
QPR have been destitute and lost at home to Vauxhall Motors. They’ve had all the worst kind of con-artists and shady characters moving into their boardroom to try and make a fast buck. This is a football club that has been kicked, repeatedly, backwards and forwards. It’s been treated like shit. When it was on its last legs, in an eighteenth month of administration, with nowhere to turn, the Football League offered assistance by saying it wouldn’t issue a fixture list unless the club found a buyer double quick, forcing its hand into a crippling £10m loan at £1m per season interest from the ABC Corporation of Panama. For good measure, the league also imposed a transfer embargo. Thanks for that.
The one constant has been the supporters. QPR have brought 15,000 people to Loftus Road every week regardless of whether it’s been Chelsea or Hartlepool in opposition. To the few inflicted, it’s their team, their club, and it’s not their fault if Flavio Briatore pitches up and starts charging supporters £45 to get in under some nonsense premise of a “boutique football club”, it’s not their fault if Tony Fernandes wants to spend £160m of debt on Jose Bosingwa and it’s not their fault if the club tries to buy success.
All they can do is keep turning up. They can go to Wigan Athletic in the middle of November with a cake to eat on the train commemorating 12 months since the last away win. They can go all the way up to Newcastle by rail and road two days before Christmas for a 1-0 defeat only to hear afterwards that several players feigned injuries in the build-up because they didn’t fancy the flight. The flight! They can go to every match in a 38 game season when a team of players they hated won just four games, and they can respond by renewing their season tickets at a cost of £500 for the division below. Because it’s their club, and their colours, and their ground, and this lot making these decisions and turning in these abject performances will be gone eventually, and without the constant of the support, there’d be no club.
What happened next was for them: the regulars, the occasionals, the ex-pats, the long distance fans, their friends, and their families. They came together, some from far flung foreign lands, in a congealed mass of 40,000 people, in colours to a man, at Wembley Stadium. Talk to me about QPR being everything that’s wrong with football… what happened next is everything that’s right with this wretched sport. After all those years, all those setbacks, all that pain, all that money you spent, all those midweek motorway miles, all those last minute goals you saw them concede, all those bloody refereeing decisions, all those Jose Bosingwas, all those Robbie Harts, all those Eric Cantonas, those five matches when Paul Hart was the bloody manager, those penalties against Vauxhall Motors, the bloody ABC Corporation of Panama, Mick Dennis and his fucking cup of tea… After all of that, the people who have QPR in their blood deserved this, however young and wonderful and good looking and unlucky Derby bloody County are as a result. On their first trip to Wembley Stadium in 28 years, QPR deserved this.
There’d been a hint of a threat a moment before. Joey Barton seized on a loose ball on the edge of the Derby box and lashed well wide. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten there was a penalty box and a goal at that end of the field by this stage, but it just suggested that Derby’s defence had mentally clocked off due to their lack of stimulation during the previous half an hour.
As the clock ticked to 90 minutes typically good work by Junior Hoilett and Bobby Zamora (not being sarcastic) down the right wing won a valuable throw in halfway inside the Derby half. A chance to relieve pressure on Dunne and Onuoha, and little more than that, we thought. Problem was, Derby seemed to think the same. The Rams switched off as the ball was delivered by Danny Simpson. Buxton came across to meet Hoilett but, oddly, seemed more interested in nailing the QPR man than clearing the ball – he hung back, waiting for a chance to execute a physical challenge, rather than simply clearing loose possession which he seemed favourite to win. Hoilett rode the tackle and cut the ball back into the area. Caught in two minds between controlling the ball and booting it away Richard Keogh did neither, instead turning a lousy touch straight into the path of Bobby Zamora.
Zamora drew back a boot back and met the ball on the instep of his left foot. For such a clumsy player, the technique and execution was perfection. Lee Grant, so often a miracle worker against QPR, could only watch it. The ball curled exquisitely around the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
Behind the goal - pandemonium. QPR supporters who’d never met were grabbing each other, kissing each other, hugging each other, punching each other, throwing each other around, and screaming. It was like a mosh pit at a thrash mettle gig. They heard the noise back at the Crown and Sceptre in the heart of Shepherd’s Bush where the troops would decamp later in the night to drink and relive. The ground moved. It was an extraordinary outpouring. I landed – literally – five rows further down the stand from my actual seat, shirt torn, legs bleeding. I turned around to look at the people I choose to spend my Saturdays with and picked them out one by one, scattered far and wide having – just 30 seconds previously – all been sitting together. Everybody was in floods of tears. And people dare to talk today about QPR being everything that’s wrong with football.
Bobby Zamora was booked for over celebrating, because Lee Mason is an emotionless droid.
Derby sent on Patrick Bamford for three minutes of stoppage time, and the loaned Chelsea striker had half a chance as well as the ball bounced up in the penalty box. Joey Barton, who owed QPR a performance in a big game and delivered in spades, stuck his face in the way of Bamford’s boot and diverted it behind for another corner. Richard Dunne headed it away. Of course he did.
Later Barton stood in front of the 40,000 throng and told Sky Sports that it didn’t get any better. A player who didn’t want to be here, who came for the money, who treated the club like shit for two years, may have finally got it this season.
Clint Hill, who’d withdrawn himself, spoke of his red card 14 years ago on this ground, and how he’d always regretted it. He never thought he’d have a chance to make amends at the national stadium. He climbed the steps to collect the trophy just before five o’clock – only the second QPR captain to do so, the first since the late Mike Keen in 1967.
“Keep clear of Shepherd’s Bush tonight,” was the iconic line from Kenneth Wolstenholme that day, as Third Division Rangers roared back from two goals down to beat First Division West Brom 3-2. And if you want to talk about wage bills, and money, and Financial Fair Play, and who deserves what, and everything that’s wrong with football, then I suggest you do exactly that.
A magnificent football club, the love of our lives, finding a way to finally have its day in the sun.
Derby: Grant 6; Wisdom 7, Keogh 7, Buxton 8, Forsyth 7; Hendrick 6, Thorne 9, Hughes 7 (Bryson 66, 7); Russell 8 (Dawkins 67, 6), Martin 5, Ward 7 (Bamford 90+2, -)
Subs not used: Eustace, Sammon, Legzdins, Whitbread
QPR: Green 9; Simpson 7, Onuoha 7, Dunne 9, Hill 6 (Henry 66, 7); Hoilett 8, Barton 7, O’Neil 7, Kranjcar 5 (Traore 30, 7); Doyle 6 (Zamora 60, 7), Austin 6
Subs not used: Morrison, Suk-Young, Hughes, Murphy
Goals: Zamora 90 (assisted Hoilett)
Sent off: O’Neil 60 (professional foul)
Bookings: Zamora 90 (over celebrating)
QPR Star Man – Richard Dunne 9 I came away from the game thinking Robert Green was the man of the match. I’ve watched it back twice since. Richard Dunne is astonishing. Derby had 14 corners to QPR’s one and Dunne headed ten of them away by himself. A big game from a big game player, Redknapp’s faith after three months of declining form has been more than repaid during the three play-off games.
Referee – Lee Mason (Bolton Wanderers) 8 My heart sank when I saw that Mason had been given this match, because quite apart from his history with QPR I just don’t think he’s a particularly good referee. Four Derby free kicks in the first five minutes didn’t bode well, particularly the one where Gary O’Neil executed a perfect tackle on Will Hughes on the edge of the area. But he did very well here, getting the Hughes penalty right in the first half (though not going as far as he should and booking the Derby man) and then showing enough gumption to not only give himself some thinking time, but also then getting the red card decision with Gary O’Neil correct. Points off for booking Bobby Zamora for over-celebrating – joyless prick.
Attendance – 87, 348 A record Wembley attendance for a second tier play off final. The Derby fans – so loud in our pubs beforehand, so brash on our tube trains beforehand, so confident of victory on their message boards, left half a stadium empty swiftly after full time. The QPR fans, so long suffering, battered by the popular opinion, filled one half of the national stadium, bathed it in blue and white, and saluted their team. One of the great days.
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