A half-time turnaround like few others – report
Sunday, 17th Jan 2016 20:00 by Clive Whittingham
QPR turned in one of their worst first half performances of the season, followed by one of their best 45 minutes for months, as they eventually eased to a 3-0 victory at lowly Rotherham.
Eight matches in charge without a single victory for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Queens Park Rangers threatening to drift down the league to the point where they could be considered a relegation candidate, made Saturday’s trip to Rotherham, seven points and three places below them at the start of play, a big match anyway.
Add in a larger-than-usual away following, bolstered by the new ground tickers, and the presence of Neil Warnock - invited back to a former club as a guest of honour – who many feel could and should be the QPR manager at this point and it felt like something of a footballing powder keg. The sudden announcement at lunchtime that leading scorer Charlie Austin would be joining Southampton for £4m added to a potentially explosive mix.
And initially at least it didn’t look like QPR were in any sort of frame of mind to pour oil on troubled waters. Although it was encouraging to see Alex Smithies finally starting between the sticks having shaken off an elbow injury a week ahead of schedule, and Massimo Luongo finally given the chance to show he can be our ‘other’ Ale Faurlin in midfield, the first half performance was pitifully bad. The QPR players played as if they’d never met each other – or, at least, if they had, the meeting hadn’t gone well.
Rotherham are a relegation-haunted outfit whose smart and extremely well designed new ground – where the unusually steep-sided stands offer terrific views and a chance to build an atmosphere not usually afforded by new-builds – belies the tiny budget they’re working on. Their team has cost a fraction of the eleven QPR fielded, and had lost a league-leading 16 matches already this season prior to kick off.
But they’d won seven of the remaining fixtures, the same as Rangers, and had beaten Hull, Bolton and Brighton to nil on this ground in their previous three home matches. They set about their supposedly superior opponents with real purpose and gusto, camping in the Rangers half from the first whistle and crafting numerous goalscoring opportunities.
It was clear from the first minute that Paul Konchesky was going to have his hands full at left back with Rotherham’s Spurs loanee Grant Ward. The 21 year old wriggled free with the time still measured in seconds alone and Nedum Onuoha had to swoop in with a well-timed block. Konchesky isn’t wanting for fitness at 34 years of age, but other cognitive functions have declined and not for the first time this season he was given the absolute run around here, at one stage buying a dummy from Ward to such an extent that the QPR man had to pay to get back into the ground.
Smithies saved from Matt Derbyshire after five minutes when Matt Phillips lazily conceded possession in his own half. Phillips, linked with a move away from the club himself, needs to hope the watching Bournemouth scouts have seen enough of his previous excellent performances not to judge him too harshly on his sub-standard efforts in the two away matches this week. Not since Scott Sinclair was here on loan has anybody jumped quite so high out of tackles, and offered so little help to the full back behind him on defence. Never mind not getting injured, I doubt his kit needed washing after this.
And so it continued. Karl Henry gave his fan club some more ammunition by first almost putting through his own net when caught flat footed by a low cross in the eighth minute – Smithies saved smartly – and then allowing another centre from the opposite side to fly right under his foot into the danger area when he failed with an attempt to trap it.
The knives were out for him as the half hour approached as well when he missed a challenge on Paul Green as he ran forward a curled a cute shot off the inside of Smithies’ post. Derbyshire seemed certain to tap in the rebound until Nedum Onuoha executed a fabulous last ditch block. In fact, the blame for the whole thing this time rested with Luongo, who’d taken his turn at handing possession to Rotherham in a lethal area.
The mistakes kept coming, as did the subsequent Rotherham chances, shots and corners. With Leroy Fer contributing almost as little as Phillips, and Junior Hoilett rather harming his own decent display by constantly collapsing to the ground looking for free kicks and claiming injuries, it was miraculous that the scores sat level at half time. Only Onuoha and Grant Hall, who continued his excellent season by completing a league-leading 11 interceptions in a single game here, and Seb Polter who was toiling tirelessly, thanklessly, as the lone striker could escape with any credit at all of the outfield players.
The fans, given what they’d just seen, were unusually understanding at the break. Hasselbaink, it would seem, less so. One wonders whether there’s any crockery left for the visitors’ dressing room at the New York Stadium after what happened at half time here.
Comparisons have been drawn between the Dutchman’s start to life at Loftus Road and that of Gerry Francis when he first arrived in a managerial capacity from the lower divisions in the early 1990s. Francis had club legend status on his side but, like Hasselbaink, was a bright young thing preferred to an older, more experienced man in what some considered harsh and incorrect circumstances – Don Howe filling the Neil Warnock role back then.
Francis won none of his first eight in the league, one of his first 12, and by mid-November was on a run of three straight defeats with QPR deep in the relegation zone. A Zenith Data Systems Cup match at home to Crystal Palace on the last Tuesday of the month brought things to a head as the South London side surged into a 3-0 lead before half time. A riot act was read, home truths were laid out, authority was established, and although Rangers weren’t able to complete the fightback that night despite scoring twice straight after half time the corner was turned and Francis went on to lead the R’s to fifth in the inaugural Premier League – top London club.
QPR are always too quick to declare a new Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles, Les Ferdinand or Clive Allen, and Hasselbaink has a hell of a rocky road ahead of him in W12 with none of the club connections Francis had and all of the Chelsea background fans like to throw at their latest scapegoats in Shepherds Bush. But can we hope, for a week at least, that what was surely to goodness a lively 15 minutes in that Rotherham dressing room at half time was some sort of turning point for the new manager.
Having faced a fork and gleefully turned left towards shit creek, tossing their paddles into the water as they went, QPR quickly set about paddling back upstream by hand and righting their course. They were possessed in the second half, so much of a different team from the first you couldn’t help but wonder whether it was in actual fact a completely different team.
Junior Hoilett, in particular, showed marked improvement. Having spent much of the first 45 rolling around on the floor, now he suddenly had toughness, endurance and upper body strength. Time and again he bustled, tricked or outright fought his way past a Rotherham defender – non more so than seven minutes after half time when he remained on his feet in the area despite being obviously fouled just long enough to finish precisely past our former charge Lee Camp into the far corner. Referee James Adcock indicated he would have awarded a penalty had the goal not been scored.
Picking the ball out of the net was the first thing Camp had had to do all afternoon, other than respond in kind to a warm reception from the travelling faithful after half time, and two minutes later he was doing it again. This time it was Luongo, suddenly at the heart of everything and playing the incisive through balls the team so misses whenever Faurlin is absent, setting Phillips free into the area. Camp may reflect that he guessed left rather too early, but once Kirk Broadfoot had lost his footing and allowed Phillips to turn and get a shot away a goal was always likely, and so it proved.
Later Fer and Phillips, unrecognisable from their respective first half non-events, won the ball back in the Rotherham right back area then executed a neat one two allowing Fer to curl a shot wide of the far post from the edge of the area. When Luongo later charged through the middle of the home side during another piercing attack, Man City loanee Shay Facey was booked for deliberately chopping him down just to achieve some respite. That breather was brief, as soon Grant Hall was reading the play superbly, intercepting a pass and the marauding forward deep behind enemy lines with possession at feet. He grows with every game. A shoo in for Player of the Year.
There were scares, and a late scramble which saw the ball bobble just wide of the near post provoked fears of another late horror show after six goals had been conceded in the final 15 minutes of QPR’s last five games. But Rotherham were spent in truth, and the introduction of Tjaronn Chery for Phillips and Jamie Mackie for Hoilett only pressed home the advantage further.
Rangers had been led from the back by Hall and Onuoha, and from the front by German Seb Polter who is improving with every passing match. Here, when the going was tough in the first half, he regularly did the running of other players who weren’t trying as hard – covering back into both wing roles during Rotherham counters. When Hall stormed forward in the second half, he went to fill in at centre back. When Rotherham threatened from corners, it was his headed clearance more often than not.
At full time he sank to his haunches knowing he’d nothing left to give. By then he’d been rewarded for a totally committed display of team play with a richly deserved goal. Chery fed Fer into the left channel and Polter, despite the amount of work he’d put in, was fresher than the Rotherham defenders and arrived first in the six yard box to slam home. “He should be a fucking hero,” I wrote a month ago, and judging by the reaction of QPR’s best, most understanding, loudest, most supportive travelling posse of the year it seems he might just achieve that. Three goals in four now, and he’s had a hand or an assist in at least three of the others.
And so, for the first time since the very beginning of December, QPR had a victory to celebrate. One that, on the second half at least, they deserved and fought hard for. What on earth the first half was all about, and what Hasselbaink had to say about it, we’ll probably never know unless an extra expense for some new china appears in Rotherham’s accounts for the year.
Others will follow Austin out of the door this month as QPR, having already abandoned sensible plan A in favour of foolhardy plan B, move onto plan C which has FFP at its heart and seems to involve throwing anything that isn’t screwed to the floor overboard. Get a bucket and start bailing, but enjoy this feeling of away victory first.
Rotherham: Camp 5; Facey 6, Broadfoot 5, Belaid 6, Mattock 6; G Ward 7, Green 6, Smallwood 5, Newell 6; D Ward 6 (Cklarke-Harris 55, 5), Derbyshire 5 (Ledesma 80, -)
Subs Not Used: Wood, Collins, Richardson, Cairns, Thorpe
Bookings: Facey 76 (foul)
QPR: Smithies 7; Perch 6, Onuoha 7, Hall 7, Konchesky 5; Henry 6, Luongo 7; Hoilett 7 (Mackie 87, -), Fer 6, Phillips 5 (Chery 86, -); Polter 8
Subs not used: Lumley, Angella, Tozser, Sandro, Petrasso
Goals: Hoilett 52 (unassisted), Phillips 54 (assisted Luongo), Polter 90 (assisted Fer)
QPR Star Man – Seb Polter 8 So I suppose I’m at the risk of devaluing this, giving it to Polter so often, but I honestly believe he was the outstanding QPR player across the 90 minutes both here and at Blackburn on Tuesday – the goal nudging him just ahead of Grant Hall on this occasion. Rarely in the modern game will you see a player so willing to do other people’s running – the modern attitude of rich footballers is so often ‘why should I do his work if he can’t be bothered?’. But having filled in countless times for Fer and Phillips in the first half, and won several crucial defensive headers in his own area as Rotherham laid siege with a succession of corners, he then grew into the attack in the second half, enabling Rangers to play higher up the field by occupying and bullying the centre backs. Finished with a goal he richly deserved. Looks like a great prospect at this stage.
Referee – James Adcock (Lacashire) 8 The Rotherham fans seemed very unhappy with him, with boos and ironic cheers greeting the decisions they were given, but to be honest I thought he had a really excellent game here, with great use of the advantage rule throughout – most notably for Hoilett’s goal. Only one, fully justified, card, no big decisions wrong, kept out of the way. Very decent.
Attendance – 9,594 (1,300 QPR approx) Having frequently criticised both new build grounds over the years, and the atmosphere, mood and conduct of some fans at QPR games this season, what a refreshing change this all was. Rotherham’s new ground is right in the town centre, and the welcome afforded by the place and the pubs has been reported as excellent across the board. The stadium has ridiculously steep sides, enabling atmosphere to build, and looks completely unique – as opposed to the identikit, bland messes so many supposedly bigger clubs constructed on the cheap and caused home. The atmosphere in the away end, where we were at least, even during a dreadful first half, remained upbeat and supportive and was rewarded with a chance to have a proper blast of a few songs in the second half. All in all, great day.
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