|Millwall 1 v 2 Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 21st September 2019 Kick-off 15:00
Wells fells Wawll with crisp double - Report
Sunday, 22nd Sep 2019 20:10 by Clive Whittingham
Queens Park Rangers won a fourth Championship game in a row, and a first competitive game at Millwall since 1990, thanks to a Nahki Wells double at The Den on Saturday, moving into the early play-off reckoning in the process.
The last time Queens Park Rangers scored a goal that somebody didn’t feel the need to immediately set to the Titanic music with hilarious ‘alternative commentary’ Mark Warburton was an investment banker and Les Ferdinand got the assist. But it was a different Celine Dion lyric that sprang to mind on Saturday as Rangers climbed into the Championship play-off places with a fourth consecutive league victory, and third win from four away games played, without even playing that well to achieve it. This is getting serious.
We may still be in shirt sleeves, but Rangers have already matched their total of away wins from the 2017/18 season and are only two behind last year’s tally of five. The latest success – 2-1 again, always 2-1, always the same, not at all, to some extent, very much so, don’t know – came on a ground where Rangers have never won before (four draws and two defeats from six visits) and against an opponent we haven’t beaten on their own patch since Simon Barker and Roy Wegerle scored at The Old Den back in 1990. Only one of QPR’s starting 11 on Saturday was alive at the time.
The hangover from those days at the other end of Cold Blow Lane, when attending as an away fan was to take your life into your own hands and welcoming ‘Wawll’ to your ground as an away team was a throwback to the time of the Vikings, continues to this day. There’s a shiny new stadium that’s four filled corners and a few thousand extra seats away from being a decent starting point for whatever we eventually replace Loftus Road with. The arrest figures have been dragged down to negligible by keeping away fans caged behind the away end until the locals have got bored and gone home. There’s a rather laughable faaaaaaaaaaaaaaghmily club of the year trophy in the cabinet. And yet still this fixture is talked about in the sort of hushed tones usually reserved for undercover missions behind enemy lines. The incredulous laughter that greets a group message asking who wants tickets has the sender double checking they hadn’t offered a two-week package holiday in Aleppo by mistake.
Then there’s ‘Wawll’s’ infamous style of play under the management of local hero Neil Harris. This is angry, embittered football played with a chip on both shoulders by 11 white men, mostly well above six foot in height. Free kicks, throw ins and goal kicks are taken quickly and punted long; full backs are turned and turned again by one channel ball after another; strikers are picked on physicality and work rate rather than goal records; time spent dallying on the ball is punished with gratuitous violence. It’s the sort of thing Tony Pulis thinks about when he’s knocking one out. It feels like it’s missing something, and that something is a wheeled cannon. Don’t think they haven’t asked the league if one may be permitted for special occasions. This is a football team for whom spitting on it counts as foreplay. It is a bracing watch.
Pre-match talk is always about how we’ll ever possibly cope. Can we match that brutishness? Can we stand up to the onslaught? Will our precious little boys get beaten up and bullied? How many goals will Matt Smith score against us? How many penalties will he win? But, let’s get real here for a moment. Since winning ten and drawing three of the last 15 matches of 2017/18 to almost gatecrash the play-offs having caught a division unawares as a newly promoted team, ‘Wawll’ have been absolutely abysmal. They finished fourth bottom last season, winning only seven times at this supposed cauldron. Nine teams left here with a point in 2018/19 and a further seven took all three. Only hapless Bolton and Ipswich won fewer home games than ‘Wawll’ last season and they arrived into this fixture on a winless run of five games that included a League Cup exit at Oxford United.
Long balls thumped down the field to a cumbersome striker whose limitations we know all about to head down to another whose goalscoring record since arriving in this country would make a full back (or Conor Washington) blush (22 in 111 games) is not something to be losing sleep over. Stand there, head it, kick it. Nor, really, should a few thousand people standing with their arms wide open shouting “Miiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllllllll” for 90 minutes. Not exactly a Galatassaray 'welcome to hell' message is it?
In the first half on Saturday I felt QPR maybe erred a little bit too much on the side of a coping strategy. Don’t get me wrong, they did that very well. Geoff Cameron was returned to the team after a late injury to Grant Hall, and slotted in on the right side of the recently successful back three formation seamlessly – Rangers had tried a fast one in the warm up by practising in a back four shape with Cameron in midfield, by the way. Toni Leistner relished the battle with his former team mate Smith, starting the afternoon with a brutal body slam that left the man who scored 23 times in 43 starts and 55 sub appearances for Rangers nursing heavy internal injuries. Dominic Ball stood in front of them on second balls duty and performed exemplarily. Bar one surprise shot to the near post from Shane Ferguson which Joe Lumley was alert to in the thirteenth minute it was difficult to remember ‘Wawll’ posing much of a threat at all. It took a quarter of an hour for Smith to win a header, and Leistner took that as a personal afront – he didn’t win many more after that. I’m thinking about holding another meeting… in bed.
Here’s the rub. Millwall aren’t very good. The preference of the non-scoring but hard-running Bodvarsson in attack ahead of Tom Bradshaw, a talented and reasonably prolific technician during his time at Barnsley, sums them up. Yes, yes, Miiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllll, we heard you. Yes, yes, big long ball, Matt Smith, elbows out, flick ons won, second bawl Wawll, we know. Yes, yes, old wooden piano, plinky plonkly music, let em all caghm daghn toooooooooo the Deeeeeeeeeeeeeennnnnn, fine if you like that sort of thing. But there’s nothing here of any real football merit or threat at the moment, nothing. And hasn’t been for some time.
QPR were the better team with the better players throughout but in the first half an hour, perhaps slightly perturbed by a rare change of formation from 442 enthusiast Harris into a back three, I’d like to have seen them assert themselves more. Ilias Chair and Ebere Eze were deeper than they had been in last week’s festival of football against Luton, forming a tighter, narrower midfield three with Ball. Consequently, the strikers were more isolated than they had been in that gun show, and Nahki Wells in particular saw precious little of the ball initially. They’d have scored after a quarter of an hour when Eze fed Chair to cross for Wells to head down and Hugill to stride onto but for a brave block with a suspicion of handball, but that was Rangers’ first real attack after a quarter of an hour.
It only seemed to really occur to the visitors that this was all there for them in the final ten minutes of the half. Perhaps that was the plan, quieten the crowd, deal with the initial fire and brimstone, and then go to play. If so, fair enough, worked a treat, but thereafter QPR were so clearly the more proficient technical team it only enhanced the frustration that we hadn’t just ignored the bluster and bullshit and gone for the throat to start with. Thirty eight minutes, Eze twisting and turning in the area, Chair had a shot blocked. Two minutes later it opened up for an Eze shot of his own against the club that released him for being too wonderful, but he went for a pass instead that was intercepted. Another Chair volley was blocked on the stroke of half time, which actually came at a bad time for Warburton’s team, just as they were starting to dictate.
Second half, balls out of the bath. Rangers had, at last, come to play. Manning and Kane were both a thick ten to fifteen yards further forward from wing back than they had been in the first period. Eze and Chair were also more advanced, supporting the front two and getting good ball to Hugill and Wells. Hugill wanted a penalty for being wrestled down at the back post under an early Manning free kick but referee Peter Bankes, whose hobbies and interests include awarding penalties against Queens Park Rangers, waved it away. Hugill was then booked for a monstrous foul to interrupt a Millwall counter attack. The R’s weren’t standing for any shit any more, and they took a fifty sixth minute lead when Kane adventured into the penalty box and attempted a one two with Wells which bobbled back into the path of the in form striker and was dispatched into the top corner without a second thought with sniper-like power and accuracy. Eat that and tell me you’re still hungry.
Wells then crossed deep for Kane to meet on the volley but missed the target. Later the Bermudian, with five goals in three club and country games this week already and a sixth on the way, thought he’d got Jordan Hugill in for the sort of one-yarder Hugill likes to put over the bar only for Cooper to just beat the loaned West Ham front man to the punch under the cross bar. This was better, this was proper, this was new QPR and this was working.
Which it made it especially annoying when Millwall equalised with a trademark scrambled goal from close range by centre back Hutchinson after Smith had nodded a corner down and caused chaos in the six-yard box. Not completely out of nothing – Bradshaw’s introduction as sub had immediately led to a presentable cut back taken off Smith’s toe by the much improved Yoann Barbet, and Smith had then firmly met a ball at the near post only to find Joe Lumley in exactly the right place at the right time with a solid catch. But still, a bit of a piss boiler all the same. And now the arms were outstretched again, and the Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllll was in full voice getting right up the crack of my arse again, and a long 20 minutes of hanging on for a point looked in store. 'Twas ever thus.
We interrupt this narrative to cross live now to Alexandra Palace where Nahki Wells is on a nine dart finish.
Millwall have struggled to find a Championship standard goalkeeper since returning to this division more than two years ago, and while Ipswich’s Bartosz Białkowski looked a tidy solution to that in the summer he suddenly and without warning erred badly on the edge of his area under the pressure of a hopeful, bouncing punt down the field. Wells didn’t need asking twice to glide the loose ball into the empty net and send a packed away end all limbs and things.
I thought we'd broken this boy last season, a player I'd always wanted at Rangers reduced to a costume of a man by nine months of toiling away for a notoriously difficult team to play for and succeed. How wonderful to see him like this, confident, clinical, Lego hair glistening in the afternoon light, tongue hanging out, bounding towards a riotous away end. Oh for those halcyon days of the summer when the hard of thinking battered the club on a daily basis over the lack of strikers in the squad – Rangers now have two of the Championship’s top goalscorers on five each and are joint highest scorers in the division. The Nahk is back.
There were nervous moments to come. Defensive confusion for the first time gave Jed Wallace a clear run on the goal but he skewed wide under desperate recovery efforts. A mad goal mouth scramble on 86 minutes included what looked like a stick on penalty for handball – Bankes owed us a generous no after his antics at Leeds back in December. Matt Smith’s subsequent swan dive in five torturous minutes of added time barely even deserved the acknowledgement of a shake of the head, but you never do know. Hugill could have calmed matters with a sharper finish when through one on one with the last defender on the edge of the box. Marc Pugh, once more, a classy late addition at the right time. Scowen ratted a yellow and a half out of Hutchinson for a late attempt on his life.
Rangers celebrated together in the sun at full time. They will top the Championship table next Saturday lunchtime if they win at home against West Bromwich Albion.
Match Gallery: 22 photos
Millwall: Bialkowski 4; Hutchinson 6, Pearce 6 (Mahoney 76, 5), Cooper 6; McCarthy 6 (O’Brien 88, -), Ferguson 6; Wallace 6, Molumby 5, Thompson 7; Smith 5, Bodvarsson 5 (Bradshaw 69, 6)
Subs not used: Wallace, Williams, Steele, Leonard
Goals: Hutchinson 71 (assisted Smith)
Bookings: Thompson 47 (foul), Hutchinson 85 (foul)
QPR: Lumley 6; Cameron 7, Leistner 8, Barbet 7; Kane 7, Manning 7; Chair 6 (Pugh 83, -), Ball 8, Eze 7; Wells 7 (Scowen 77, 6), Hugill 6
Subs not used: Smith, Mlakar, Masterson, Kelly, Alfa
Goals: Wells 56 (assisted Kane), 72 (unassisted)
Bookings: Cameron 33 (foul), Hugill 51 (foul), Wells 73 (overcelebrating)
QPR Star Man – Toni Leistner 8 A day for the strong men and enforcers to stand up, and both Leistner and Ball did that with determined, powerful, physical performances and risk-free football down the spine of the team. Laid a platform for the win, Leistner by reducing Smith’s impact and Ball by making sure no easy second balls dropped in dangerous areas off the front two.
Referee – Peter Bankes (Merseyside) 7 Not the referee we wanted for this game given his recent history with guys but I thought he was very good here, controlling the game adeptly, not buying any attempt to con him, and not over fussing. Felt sure he’d award the late penalty appeal on Smith just because, but it never was and he rightly waved it away. An earlier handball appeal by Millwall looked a much better shout, so marks off for not awarding that, but frankly after last season he owed us that one.
Attendance – 16,808 (1,900 QPR approx.) Miiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll…. Ah.
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Pictures – Action Images
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