How was your Friday? - Report
Saturday, 30th Dec 2017 15:06 by Clive Whittingham
Steve Morison's first goal since the last ice age was a vintage way to decide a typical QPR away performance at Millwall on Friday night as Ian Holloway endured an unhappy return to The Den.
You’d think you’d get used to it after a while.
Failing to win? Well, QPR have won only six of 25 league games this season, 16 of 55 since Ian Holloway returned as manager and 21 out of 71 since the start of last season.
Losing away? Well, QPR have won only one of 13 away games this season, seven of 36 since the start of last season and 11 of 59 since returning to this level from the Premier League in 2015. Over the last six and a half seasons, the die hard QPR fans who follow their team around the country have seen them win just 26 of 139 away games. Their attitude to playing away from Loftus Road is almost as defeatist as their approach to cup competitions.
But there are still some defeats that really hurt, that really get to you, that make you feel hopeless and upset. Friday night’s 1-0 set back at Millwall did that to me, even though I’d gone there fully expecting it.
Partly that’s because of the time of year. Christmas can be a lonely and depressing period for some. The football can offer a welcome escape, but when QPR are playing as they are, and you’re trying to keep pace with it all running a website like this, it can only add to the misery. Sorry, yeh, strike up the world’s smallest violin and set what follows in that context.
Partly it’s sheer fatigue of sitting through so many games and getting so little in return. Just three wins in 19 now, and we had to fight unbelievably hard to get those. Each game brings with it the nasty, over the top, aggression, hyperbole and insults on social media – again, something I could relieve myself off if I didn’t rely on a website like this to pay bills at the end of the month, but I do so I can’t. No amount of ‘it’s only football’ really helps when it’s your club and it's being pumped into your phone day and night, while you’re at home, while you’re watching TV, while you’re trying to sleep.
Partly it’s the knowledge that this isn’t getting much better any time soon. There is no quick fix to this. That light at the end of the tunnel is just another train coming towards us.
Partly it’s the unique matchday experience offered by the Football League’s Family Club of the Year for 2017, which is enough to send anyone scurrying for the sleeping pills and strong whiskey. Held in a cage after the match en masse, against your will, for an inordinate amount of time, well past 22.00 in this case, in order to keep apart the small handful of troglodytes that still go to this sort of occasion looking for a tear up. An enormous police operation from an under staffed and under funded force.
Cold, frustrated, annoyed, fans were then left to literally fight each other for space on the four-carriage train Southern Rail deemed adequate to send once every 20 minutes to pick us up – so the police got their punch ups after all, on the platform, among Rangers fans, pushing and shoving and taking swings at each other with women and kids on the edge of the platform sandwiched between a heaving mass of people and the train. The most ridiculous thing about Lewisham Council’s grossly corrupt attempts to CPO land around this stadium and strangle the club within it is the idea that anybody would want to live here anyway. A glorious way to spend a Friday evening.
But mainly it was that second half, and QPR’s approach to it.
It started in another wholly unsurprising way – conceding a soft as shit goal to a striker that hasn’t scored for a million years. The Royal John Jensen/Lloyd Doyley Society for the Support of Chronically Out of Form Footballers tended to the Christmas needs of Steve Morison who bundled in from half a yard for his first goal of the season in his twenty fifth appearance after Jed Wallace cut Alex Smithies out of the game with a great cross to the back post after 55 minutes. He’d had a division high 52 shots without a goal this season prior to that. Should have put the mortgage on it, maybe we’d have been able to buy a striker of our own with the proceeds.
The response to this was the stupidest, the most dispiriting, thing I’ve seen at Rangers for quite some time. Matt Smith was immediately summoned from the bench, which in and of itself wasn’t a bad idea as he’s been able to pull us back into games previously this season, including the 2-2 draw between these sides at Loftus Road in September when Neil Harris’ side had led 2-0. But Holloway took off Pawel Wszolek to do it, removing the only semblance of a wide attacking threat from his team.
So just as Millwall decided to hold what they had, drop their defence deep, tight and narrow, crowd the space round the edge of the penalty box and try to see the game out; QPR decided to try and chase the equaliser by narrowing their attack to the width of the penalty box, slinging a load of bodies up front down the middle further crowding the space on the edge of the penalty box, and playing long ball to Matt Smith. Long ball. Against fucking Millwall. Like mansplaining GCSE science to Stephen fucking Hawking.
Rangers slung on Aramide Oteh, who’s been impressing in the under 23s and looked handy in flashes here, for Bright Osayi-Samuel, who had a decent hour and does at least offer some pace for the attack. Then later they brought on David Wheeler for Idrissa Sylla, though he, again, went up front rather than into a wide position. None of it ever went close to addressing the key issues – we were too narrow, we were too predictable, we were too easy to defend against, and you’re not going to get any change out of fucking Millwall playing long ball football. Rangers became wholly reliant on Luke Freeman for anything and everything but every time the poor little bastard looked up all he had ahead of him was half a dozen blue shirts and half a dozen hooped shirts crammed into an area the size of your average bath towel on the edge of the box.
It wasn’t like Smith, or Sylla, or Oteh, were actually winning a lot of headers. And nor would they. Headers and second balls is where Millwall eat, and they were treated to a medieval banquet of the stuff here.
On the very rare occasions the ball was finally worked into the wide open spaces down the flanks of the home team it ended up with Alex Baptiste having to attempt the crosses, with predictable results. This complete aversion to playing with width and wingers, despite having seven wingers in the squad, has been grating for sometime, and was also a problem under Ian Holloway’s predecessor Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. We, I, must be missing something.
Holloway is a guy who played at QPR with Andy Sinton, Andy Impey and Trevor Sinclair (two of whom are still at the club), with David Bardsley and Clive Wilson behind them. In his first spell he had Gareth Ainsworth, Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook, Kevin McLeod tearing it up down the flanks. Marc Bircham, his current assistant, grew up watching the first lot and played for Rangers with the latter four. How and why have we got to this point where we’re just so narrow, where our only hope of a cross is coming from a half decent but very defensive left back in Jake Bidwell and a bang average Championship centre half in Baptiste? Smith and Sylla have both shown what they can do with decent service from wide, and yet here we are shovelling it high and long down the middle. By all means go direct, try and be physical up front, put some numbers in the penalty box - but vary the service, stretch the pitch width-ways, put some crosses in for goodness sake.
Freeman’s diving header was easily saved by Jordan Archer, a low shot from Massimo Luongo (who looked tired and leggy) was spilled by the keeper but gathered before Sylla could convert, and the whole thing nearly paid dividends when Smith rose in the last minute to plant a firm header from Freeman’s corner fractionally wide of the post with the keeper beaten. Had that gone in, Holloway would have been vindicated and the chat would have been about spirit, never-say-die attitude, never giving up, fighting for the badge and so on.
But it would have masked the dumbest half an hour of football you could ever wish to see. An approach so ill conceived that it made 1-0 down with 25 minutes to play feel like 4-0 down in injury time. This felt utterly hopeless long before the end and even though Smith went close at the death, I honestly don’t think QPR would have scored if they were still there trying now. I try and hold my tongue, I've never picked a team or coached a training session in my entire life, I don't know a thing about it, I'm just a beered up fan in the stands, chucking opinions around with no experience and no chance of me ever being given a go at doing any better (which I certainly wouldn't). I also don't labour under any misapprehension that we're a change of formation or the recall of a couple of players away from massive improvement. And I accept that once they're over the white line the players do as they please, and perhaps it's not necessarily what the manager wanted. But I did not get this at all. At all.
A shame, because the first half wasn’t too bad.
Millwall’s method is clear – every ball is a forward one, every throw in is taken immediately and chucked forwards, the whole team and tactic is based around turning the opposition defence around and bullying them with two physical forwards Lee Gregory and Steve Morison. I’m not being snotty about that, it works for them and they’ve beaten three Premier League sides in cup competitions, won a Wembley play-off final and gone some way to consolidating at the higher level during a great 2017. They played well here and deserved to win by more. There’s more than one way to win a football game, this is Millwall’s way and it’s very effective. They also have a touch of quality in Jed Wallace and George Saville behind the strikers to pick up the second balls as they drop – the Lions must have won 90% of those at both ends of the pitch in the second half.
It had been too much for Rangers to cope with in the first meeting at Loftus Road before a harsh sending off turned the game back in their favour but here they managed pretty well initially. Josh Scowen’s suspension saw Jordan Cousins drop into midfield and Grant Hall came in for the poorly Jack Robinson. Not ideal on paper, given how well Scowen and Robinson have done this season, but actually it worked a little in our favour – the increased physicality and height offered by those two assisting Rangers in repelling their borders.
With the atmosphere white hot at kick off, and Millwall keen to make it a war from the off, Rangers had to survive a nervous first few minutes in which O’Brien failed to convert a reasonably simple chance at the near post. But rather than wilt, the R’s came into the game well after that, with Bidwell and Wszolek stretching the home team widthways (making the total abandonment of the wide areas in the second half even more frustrating) and creating a few chances. Bidwell, Luongo and Wszolek all had long range shots wide, and then the former Brentford full back drew a great save from Archer with a diving header arriving late at the back post. Bright Osayi-Samuel’s pace was causing a few problems and overall things didn’t look too bad – though Rangers still weren’t posing nearly enough threat with Sylla working hard but a bit all over the place and Luongo looking tired.
There was a huge spell of Millwall pressure around the half hour mark. Smithies made a great save with his legs to deny Saville, Hall blocked a subsequent effort from Gregory, then Wallace fired into the side netting when clean through on a narrow angle after Luongo had been slack picking his man up at a throw in.
Having survived that, and quietened the home crowd, it was half a job done, which made the timing of the Morison goal and the Rangers response to it all the more face-tearingly excruciating.
I’m sorry, I’ve had a bit of a rant there, probably way over the top for a game we only lost 1-0 and could have drawn had one header at the end been two feet the other way, probably a product of that stuff I mentioned at the start about the time of year, the workload, the Millwall matchday experience and so on rather than anything Rangers did particularly wrong. Probably too harsh, probably letting personal circumstances and emotion cloud judgement.
I feel obligated to throw it all in again about the finances, the FFP, the market for strikers, the situation they inherited, the circumstances they’re working under, the lack of alternatives, because I get that, I get all of that, I’ve been banging that drum all bloody season for them, my fucking drumming hand is bloodied and sore. But my mind was officially blown on Friday night. Long ball against Millwall. I’ve just been shuffling round the garden muttering it and shaking my head all morning. Long ball against Millwall. Genius.
Ian Holloway had given it the big ‘un getting off the bus in the car park before the game, and on the touchline during the warm up, in the face of fierce abuse from home fans who blame him for the relegation they’re now recovering from under Neil Harris. You’ve got to admire his stones, for fronting up to it in that way rather than rushing for cover hidden by a police escort. But a better answer would have been getting a result, and as far as I could see we were never going to do that playing as we did in the last 30 minutes here, with Luke Freeman the only one with any semblance of idea other than punting it long into a penalty box containing more people per square yard than Hong Kong.
One of those evenings where I watched the decisions made by the professionals and came away realising that I have zero understanding, I know absolutely nothing at all, nothing whatsoever, about the sport I’ve watched in some form every day of my life for the last 25 years.
Not a single thing.
Millwall: Archer 6; Romeo 7, Hutchinson 7, Cooper 7, Meredith 7; Wallace 8, Tunnicliffe 6, Saville 7, O’Brien 6 (Williams 69, 6); Morison 7, Gregory 7 (Onyedinma 81, -)
Subs not used: Craig, Thompson, Martin, Twardek, Mbulu
Goals: Morison 55 (assisted Wallace)
Bookings: Cooper 90 (foul)
QPR: Smithies 6; Baptiste 6, Onuoha 6, Hall 6; Wszolek 5 (Smith 56, 5), Bidwell 6; Luongo 5, Cousins 5, Freeman 6; Osayi-Samuel 6 (Oteh 69, 6), Sylla 5 (Wheeler 81, -)
Subs not used: Furlong, Washington, Manning, Lumley
Bookings: Wszolek 51 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Luke Freeman 6 Somebody with some semblance of idea of how to attack other than just hoisting it long onto the centre half’s head, but unfortunately with the crowd scene in front of him and the total absence of any wide options to pass to and affect the play he was about as ineffective as everybody else. Kept going to the end, and what little goal threat QPR did pose came from him.
Referee – Keith Stroud (Hampshire) 8 Really, very good. A terrifying appointment when it was announced, given his recent record with QPR and his now out dated and always frustrating method of trying to manage games with lots of early cards, but he controlled this well, only produced two wholly justified bookings and overall was very decent. Points off for allowing Jordan Archer to blatantly run the clock in the second half without so much as a warning – not that he needed to – and for an incident in the first half where he saw Steve Morison hold back Grant Hall in the area preventing him getting out to block a cross and pointed at the Millwall man telling him not to do it again but didn’t award Rangers a free kick even though the home team had the ball and were threatening a goal. Kept a lid on a tough game.
Attendance – 16,601 (1,800 QPR approx) The place was absolutely jumping at kick off and whatever you say about Millwall that’s some intimidating atmosphere for an away team to go and try to play in. I was, however, very surprised just how quickly, and how much, that subsided. I mean, not the best or most inspiring game in the world, but it was very quiet for long periods bar the first ten minutes and around the goal.
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