The least shocking cup shock - report
Tuesday, 6th Jan 2015 01:06 by Clive Whittingham
QPR's annual early-round FA Cup style came against League One side Sheffield United at Loftus Road on Sunday afternoon.
Rarely has the word 'upset' been so flagrantly misused.
Sheffield United away to Queens Park Rangers, a 'David v Goliath' drama with a plot so transparent and easy to telegraph it would have made the script writers at Diagnosis Murder scoff.
Ostensibly this was a Premier League side, with a decent strength team on the field, against a League One outfit. There were 33 league positions between these two at the start of play, and the superior one on paper held home advantage.
But even a recent convert to either cause could tell you this was a rare chance to beat the bookie over the head with a fair certainty of success. QPR haven't won a tie in the FA Cup without the aid of a replay for 18 years, since Trevor Sinclair soared into the air and scissor kicked home a miraculous winner against another South Yorkshire side, Barnsley, in 1997. Since then the R's have been involved in 30 FA Cup games, drawing eight of which four replays resulted in wins, and losing 18. Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Vauxhall Motors, the old bankrupt lower-league Swansea City, Luton Town again, Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers again, Burnley, MK Dons and others have all been, seen, laughed and conquered during an abysmal run of form that continues to match and beat national and competition records to this day.
Sheffield United are, by support base and facilities at least, a weight division too low in League One. But they continue to languish in the third tier in this their fourth season since relegation from the Championship, and although the Blades currently lie sixth they're 15 points behind leaders and favourites Bristol City and with more play-off defeats than any other club in the country to their name – eight disappointments – few would place money on a successful escape this term. What they have been able to do, however, is carve a niche as a dangerous cup team. West Ham, Southampton, Aston Villa and Fulham are among the scalps claimed during a run to the FA Cup semi-final last season and the League Cup last four this.
Given that QPR face varying degrees of financial purgatory if they're relegated from the Premier League this season, and seem to be relying on a tiny handful of players, several of them ageing and injury prone, to keep them up, the choice seemed very clear here. Either commit to winning the cup tie with the best possible team playing at its maximum effort and potential; or hold hands up right from the start and blame other priorities and a crowded fixture list for resting key players, fielding youngsters and accepting the inevitable defeat.
In the end Rangers neither rested players nor won the tie. They achieved nothing from this. Nothing.
Charlie Austin, who carries much of the club's survival hopes on his shoulders, played a full 90 minutes for the fifth time in 15 days. Steven Caulker, whose continued fitness stands between QPR and a heart-stopping Richard Dunne-Rio Ferdinand centre half combination, started too. Bobby Zamora, whose presence has contributed much to an effective change in the style of play during the last two months, but who isn't fit enough to compete for 90 minutes or in more than one match a week, was forced into 45 minutes of action. Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Isla, rare beacons of genuine ability and quality in a mediocre squad, both played most of the second half. Leroy Fer – not everybody's cup of tea, nor somebody playing particularly well, but a key first team player judging by his appearance record – also played 90 minutes for the fourth time in a fortnight.
You could therefore understand why QPR manager Harry Redknapp came out after the game and said his players had been tired and lethargic, while Sheffield United had been full of life and endeavour having had two of their Christmas fixtures called off due to bad weather.
Except that, like so many of Redknapp's well-worn excuses, which almost never get challenged by a largely sycophantic media who like to subscribe to his loveable East London barrowboy-doing-his-best-in-a-world-set-against-him persona, you could easily disprove this mathematically. It wasn't quite on a level of his persistent early season claim that he'd been forced to take a travelling party of just a dozen senior players on a pre-season tour of Ireland – easily rubbished by reading the club's own official website squad list for the trip – but it wasn't far off. QPR have played 22 times this season and enjoyed three separate fortnights off for international breaks, during which time only four senior players have travelled to play for their countries. Sheffield United do not get the international breaks off, compete in one more competition than QPR, play in a division where you have eight more fixtures than the Premier League, and have reached the semi-final of a cup Rangers shuffled out of at the first hurdle. Nigel Clough's team have played 33 games this year and counting.
Swansea City - who showed enough fitness, endeavour, attitude and drive to equalise at Loftus Road in stoppage time during the last fixture here, despite being reduced to ten men – played the same number of games as QPR during Christmas, but unlike the R's and their four home matches, four of the five fixtures facing the South Wales side were away. They've been on one of their longest trips of the season to Hull, to London, and twice to Liverpool including a midweek night match. The Swans have won three, drawn one and lost one. They are into the fourth round draw. Talk to them about tiredness and sluggishness.
And while there were senior players flogged to death here, QPR also included several who have not played big minutes during the Christmas period – two thirds of the team in fact. Alex McCarthy started in goal having not played at all since October; Nedum Onuoha played in defence having sat out the previous two just like Sheff Utd; Rio Ferdinand started for only the second time since September; Armand Traore played down the left after only playing 62 minutes since November 29; Jordon Mutch has played twice in a month; Matt Phillips has had an hour at Everton and a quarter of an hour against Palace in two months; Junior Hoilett started only once during Christmas. All senior players, all far too good for a League One side on paper, and yet all apparently tired.
Redknapp's excuses irritate almost as much as the performances of his team on days like this. And yet, he may have got what he wanted from this game after all. All those fringe players given a chance, to a man under-performing alarmingly, add weight to Redknapp's constant, incessant assertions that despite the millions spent, despite the multitude of transfer deals completed, despite his two years at the club, Rangers are short of quality, short in key positions, and in need of yet more additions during this month's transfer window. He'll also have a bit of ammunition should any of those players come banging on his door looking for first team football in the coming months.
The experienced QPR manager will say this team should have been good enough to beat Sheffield United and he was let down by the players, and he's right. But the set up they were fielded in was wild. Down the left it appeared as though the back three formation Redknapp toyed with at the start of the season had made a return, with Traore pushed right on up the flank with no left winger ahead of him. But on the right, Nedum Onuoha was deep and wide right like a conventional full back. The defence was lop-sided all day as a result. In midfield Junior Hoilett played wide right, Leroy Fer leftish and Matt Phillips through the middle – if ever a Rubik's Cube needed one more twist that was it. Karl Henry as the deep-lying, ball playing centre midfielder, charged with starting moves with creative passing, was like heading to sea in a sieve.
The tormentor in chief in red and white was Jamal Campbell-Ryce, a diminutive winger of Jamaican origins who knows all about how much fun you can have against QPR when they're playing like this. Back in 2002 he scored one and made two others as Leyton Orient knocked the R's out of the League Cup and then in February 2007 he picked up another couple of assists as Southend United ran amok 5-0 against John Gregory's team. A career taking in permanent spells with Rotherham, Bristol City and Notts County as well as a series of loans at Chesterfield, Colchester and AFC Wimbledon among others suggest Campbell-Ryce isn't actually much good, but QPR have always made him look like a Lionel Messi tribute act. Here he revelled in the space afforded down the right by the home team's poxy formation. On the rare occasions Traore did get anywhere near the winger, he tricked his way back into space using the starter skills from the Big Ladybird Book of Step-overs.
Campbell-Ryce skinned Traore and crossed through the penalty box after nine minutes, then seven minutes later had Caulker at full stretch to divert another dangerous centre away into the path of Stefan Scougall but he shot over. Later Caulker challenged Mark McNulty at the near post and sent the ball bobbling just wide of his own goal after Campbell-Ryce had again delivered a devilish fizzer into the box.
You couldn't help but draw comparisons with QPR's right winger Junior Hoilett, almost a decade younger and paid at least ten times as much, who couldn't beat an egg here. Time and time again his predictable attempts to dribble past his full back ended in possession concession and when you throw in an obvious dive after two minutes trying to win a penalty kick this was another sorry afternoon for the Canadian. He was lucky to only be substituted at half time – his performance was so devoid of life they could easily have called a Catholic Priest to tend to him.
In the end United scored three times. The first, after Caulker and Fer had been caught failing to execute a one two down the field, was finished nervously, but effectively, by McNulty after a clever passing move the likes of which QPR haven't strung together for more than a month played him clean through on McCarthy.
The giant goalkeeper may think he should have done more against a timid shot, but that was nothing compared to the howler for the second. Any hope a half time bollocking and substitution may have livened QPR up were quickly extinguished by Traore conceding a sloppy corner which McCarthy inexplicably walked underneath at the near post leaving the motionless defenders at the back stick to inadvertently divert the ball to Campbell-Ryce and he could hardly miss an open net from a yard out.
That, in turn, was nothing when judged alongside a truly shambolic third goal, scored in stoppage time at the end of the match. Leroy Fer's foolish attempt to head the ball back to McCarthy from fully 35 yards wouldn't have reached the goalkeeper easily even if it had been on target. As it was, he placed the ball too wide, allowing Campbell-Ryce to collect, control, dribble into an unmanned penalty box, sit the goalkeeper down, and slide the ball into the corner. That one was truly pathetic.
The Blades are not a big, horrible, physical Second Division team in the old style. Very few of their players reach six foot and the football they played here was attractive with the ball and tireless without it. In midfield they played with a 17-year-old, Louis Reed, making just a fourth start of his professional career. The only time he looked remotely his age was when he failed to delay a run through on goal long enough to stay onside in the first half. Had he done so, when a more experienced player surely would have done, that would have been 2-0 at the time, 4-0 by the end, and no more than he and his team deserved. Roared on by 3,000 raucous travelling fans, this was a day to take nothing away from Sheffield United, however rank poor QPR might have been. They didn't bully or fluke their way through here, they comprehensively dominated and outplayed their hosts.
Rio Ferdinand, carrying himself like a retired ex-pro dragged from the television studios for a testimonial game, played a suicidal pass to Nedum Onuoha in his own area in the first half, which the former Man City trainee attempted to dribble out of trouble only for McNulty to rob him and journey right to the heart of the danger area unchecked. When QPR escaped, Karl Henry tried to run the ball clear, only for Onuoha to try and tackle him. In the second half a free kick awarded 25 yards from goal was struck by Leroy Fer, but only after he'd insisted on it being nudged to the side, allowing a charger from the wall to advance eight of the ten yards and block the shot away. There's a line from a Friends episode about wanting to push your finger through your eye, and into your brain, and whirl it around...
QPR are being propped up by their home form, or held back by their away results, depending on your outlook on life. With trips to Burnley, Sunderland and Hull on the horizon and Manchester United next up in Shepherd's Bush this, and plenty else besides, has to change. Otherwise Redknapp's steady stream of excuses will be about securing his own place on the Match of the Day sofa next season, rather than keeping his job at a Premier League club.
QPR: McCarthy 4; Onuoha 4, Ferdinand 5, Caulker 6 (Isla 61, 6), Traore 3; Hoilett 2 (Zamora 46, 5), Henry 5 (Vargas 61, 6), Mutch 4, Fer 4, Phillips 6, Austin 5
Subs not used: Furlong, Hill, Grego-Cox, Murphy
Bookings: Onuoha 65 (foul)
Sheff Utd: Howard 6; Kennedy 6, McEveley 6, Flynn 7, Harris 7; Campbell-Ryce 8, Doyle 7 (Higdon 90+2, -), Reed 8, Baxter 6 (Wallace 90, -), Scougall 7; McNulty 8 (Murphy 82, -)
Subs not used; Alcock, McGahey, Turner, Dimaio
Goals: McNulty 36 (assisted Reed), Campbell-Ryce 49 (assisted Reed), 90 (assisted Fer)
Bookings: McNulty (kicking ball away), Reed 79 (foul)
QPR Star Man – N/A
Referee – Mark Clattenburg (Durham) 8 Even QPR's lucky referee couldn't save them here. Clattenburg had little to referee but did everything to his usual high standard. Hoilett should have been booked for diving early on. McNulty's card for kicking the ball away a needless one, given that QPR could have played all night here and not threatened a comeback.
Attendance – 12, 972 (3,000 Sheff Utd approx) Given QPR's record, the daft kick off time, and the inevitability of what was to come here, I think it's amazing this crowd made it into five figures and the QPR fans who bothered deserve medals/head checks. The quality of he travelling support there for all to see, and hear.
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