Frustration to thrills, disaster to delight, one extreme to another - Report
Sunday, 18th Apr 2021 18:08 by Clive Whittingham
QPR rattled through several iterations of their split personality at Middlesbrough on Saturday, at one point running away with the game, at another threatening to lose it, and finally securing a narrow victory with a dogged last-stand in the final half hour.
If you woke up on Saturday wondering which version of Queens Park Rangers was going to show up for the lunchtime kick off at Middlesbrough, then the answer turned out to be all of them.
It has been an awkward fortnight for those of us charged with trying to make sense of whatever direction the bathtub on wheels/bin on fire is going to career next. Highly entertaining, supercharged, rip-roaring 4-1 and 3-0 wins at home have been interspersed with consecutive 3-1 defeats in the World Arse v Elbow Championships on the road. This is a side capable of turning Coventry City to dust and making Nottingham Forest look like the great Dutch team of the 1970s within the space of three days. Trying to guess the form of the destructor from one game to the next is proving a fool’s errand.
With Boro and Rangers tenth and eleventh at the start of play, long since safe from relegation but now too far adrift of the play-off picture to harbour hopes of anything more than simply improving on their 2019/20 showings, this was effectively a dead rubber. Say that within earshot of Warbs Warburton and you leave yourself open to a hard stare and a lecture on integrity and respect, and QPR certainly didn’t start this match as if there was nothing riding on it. A line up with Albert Adomah at right wing back isn’t going to be anything other than extremely attacking, and in George Thomas, Stefan Johansen, Chrissy Willock and Ilias Chair, Rangers had gone for their smaller, more attacking, more technical ball players through the midfield.
The boys had come to play, and play they did. The passing and pressing with pace and purpose was back. Rangers going forwards with the ball, playing creatively and incisively through the lines of the Middlesbrough team, pulling opponents out into deep water and drowning them in two and three man overloads. When they’re on it, this QPR team is one to be really, truly proud of, playing football you could happily watch all afternoon. This is where the hope and optimism springs from – we only need to play a bit more like this a bit more often, two or three more wins and two or three fewer defeats and we are right there, right there, despite having one of the lowest budgets in the league.
The pre-match prep had obviously turned up something they liked between left centre back Paddy McNair and left wing back Marc Bola and Rangers visited there repeatedly in the opening periods of the game - Chris Willock and George Thomas foragers in chief, winning a succession of early corners. Only a desperate last-ditch block from Darnell Fisher covering across denied Willock the opening goal after a slaloming run into the penalty box.
That only delayed the inevitable, although there was nothing predictable about the opening goal when it did eventually land. One and two touch passing and movement popping off all over the show eventually released Rob Dickie into space 30 yards form goal and he decided to take one on for shits and giggles, arcing an unstoppable barnburner into the far top corner for his third goal of the season. Flying through the air like a shooting star, carrying our wishes. Absolutely ridiculous.
It was two nil within three minutes as Lyndon Dykes, tearing about in full-on Tasmanian devil mode, retrieved a deep cross from Willock at the back post and delivered perfectly for the late arrival of the recalled Lee Wallace who steamed in past a static Djed Spence to power in his first of the season. Brilliant, richly-deserved rewards for somebody whose turnaround has mirrored the team, and who has risen from the ashes of supporter criticism like nobody else at this club since Paul Furlong. From counting down the days to his departure, I suspect we may now see him stay another year, and the difference between having him in the team here as opposed to the out-of-form, low-on-confidence, Niko Hämäläinen during the week was there for all to see.
In contrast to Warbs, Neil Warnock, already making plans for his fourteenth annual farewell tour in 2021/22, had made no secret prior to the game that he considers this season done. Dael Fry, player of the season-elect in these parts, and Marcus Tavernier could have been back from injury and involved in the remaining games if there was anything riding on them but have been told to rest up and keep an eye on those Mykonos travel restrictions. Marcus Browne, Sam Morsy and walking spelling mistake Anfernee Dijksteel have also long since been ruled out of further participation and with Boro in that frame of mind and QPR playing like this it was starting to feel like any score the Londoners’ fancied might be on the cards. At one point Ilias Chair Cruyff-turned his way out of a tight spot surrounded by would-be assailants in his own penalty box. Steady on now, we’ve all had a drink. Crown and Sceptre beer garden status – lively.
Twenty-five minutes of Jekyll, however, was deemed quite enough. It was time for Hyde. Dykes perhaps a little too keen, drawn out of a defensive position and exposed with one pass; Rangers too slow out to stop Neeskens Kebano (we will call the baby… Neeskens) getting a cross in; Yannick Bolasie cleverly hanging back as the three centre halves were drawn in towards their own goal and heading home totally unmarked. Soon Bolasie, easily Boro’s best player, was skinning Osman Kakay, who found the loaned Everton winger rather too much to cope with and was a source of great joy for Boro whenever they pulled him high upfield and then knocked one in behind him. The deliberate foul was an obvious yellow card and in the very next attack after George Thomas’ sloppy give away they sprung Duncan Watmore behind a broken offside trap on that side, Seny Dieng stayed at home when he looked favourite to reach the through ball first (to the audible disgust of his team mates) and Boro somehow butchered a two v one chance with the goalkeeper as Dieng made a terrific leg save to deny Bolasie, and then Rob Dickie chased back with a heroic block as the goalkeeper laid on the turf after a catching a knee to the nose while chasing the rebound.
Dieng’s afternoon was rather a rocks and diamonds microcosm of the team as a whole, and he followed this uncomfortable moment with two very decent saves to deny Watmore an equaliser in the extended first half stoppage time cause by his injury.
From not really knowing which QPR would turn up from one game to the next through the Coventry, Forest, Sheff Wed and Rotherham games, or even one half to the next in the early season encounters with Bristol City and Brentford, now Rangers were splitting their personalities between the one period of 25 minutes and the next. From potentially winning the game by any score they fancied, Boro apparently on the beach and not bothered in the slightest, now the R’s were lucky not to be three two down at half time.
Second half started well. Nice overs to get Stefan Johansen into space for a shot wide. Wallace continuing his remarkable 2021 renaissance with a charge into the penalty area and what looked like a foul for a spot kick until the replay showed it up as one of the worst dives ever seen on a football field. Referee Matt Donohue perhaps generous not to book the Scot for that one. Lee Wallace, I expect this of some of the others, but you’re a military man.
This was Donohue’s first game with Rangers since he’d failed to send off Brentford’s Mads Sorensen for fouling Lyndon Dykes when clean through on goal at LegoLand Kew before Christmas. Donohue had contacted Rangers and apologised for that error after a promising first half faded into a 2-1 defeat. It was probably written that Rangers would lose a man to the same offence here, such is the sick and twisted way Championship football toys with our emotions, and the R’s could have few complaints at the red card shown to Dieng for hacking down Watmore as Boro sprung us in the channel behind Kakay again – Barbet, as he had been at Rotherham, guilty of playing people onside from the opposite side of the back three.
If you go back and listen to the highlights the EFL provides, without the commentary, that we’ve embedded in this piece, you can hear during the first half incident an unidentified QPR player imploring Seny to come out for the through ball, caning him when he doesn’t, and then demanding he “fucking get up” after taking the blow to the face because of the risk of conceding on the rebound. Shortest episode of Frasier ever concludes that this was clearly playing on his mind when a similar situation, this time 60/40 on Watmore’s side, occurred on the hour, and it was borderline from the moment he set off. George Thomas the unlucky man to be hooked for Joe Lumley to come on as replacement.
Come on down Queens Park Rangers Iteration 3/3 for the day. Starting to feel a bit like some of my past relationships this – just when you’re relaxing into a comfy chair with a beer suddenly she’s coming at you with a kitchen implement, just when you’re most certain she’s going to start loudly calling you a cunt on the Northern Line she takes you home for a nice sandwich and a tit wank. Mesmerically brilliant for half an hour, sloppy and slapdash for the 30 after that, now QPR were going to attempt to defend their penalty box for a third of a match. The fact they’d made lowly Rotherham United look like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, capable of scoring with every attack, not four days prior, was – in case you haven’t been paying attention - completely irrelevant. QPR more than capable of transforming from Karl Ready and Zesh Rehman on Tuesday to George Graham’s Arsenal by the Saturday. Pitch tilted from left to right, Boro throwing on fresh legs from the bench, Rangers hunkered down in and around their own penalty box, fixed eyes firmly on the clock, and hoped for the best. Fans basking in the spring sunshine and the glorious football that began the match, now left to stare at the screen like an overworked air traffic controller. Crown and Sceptre beer garden status – less talk, more drink.
How it had ever come to this was a debate for later, come to this it had and the backs to the wall effort made an inauspicious start as Lumley rather walked under a cross to the back post and Saville headed wide when it felt easier to score. Wallace then headed a similar cross behind for a corner. Johansen and Barbet were both guilty of giving away too many daft free kicks around the edge of the box and from one such occasion the ball flew up into the air off Lyndon Dykes, Adomah and Dickie rather got in each other’s way, Saville seemed certain to score and Lumley produced one of two outstanding saves in his cameo appearance to maintain the lead.
Another deep cross to the back post, Kebano unmarked, shot blocked into the side netting. Another give away, this time by Dykes, another Johansen foul, another set piece, Dickie refusing to be moved with another clearing header. The former Oxford man, another microcosm case study, looked absolutely spent after a long and largely successful first season at this level on Tuesday, here back with a-big-stonking-vengeance. Dom Ball and Sam Field came on for Willock and Adomah, solidifying the rear-guard action well but not doing a lot for QPR’s ball retention – Ilias Chair guilty on 74 of wasting a rare chance to carry good possession into the Boro half and relieve pressure. Another Barbet foul, another free kick on the right corner of the box, another scramble, another brilliant Lumley save. Lather, rinse, repeat… with sulphuric acid. Crown and Sceptre beer garden status – Joe Hylton telling everybody it’s going to be fine, everybody else telling Joe Hylton to shut up.
It actually wasn’t until young Stephen Duke-Mckenna emerged for a senior debut in the final ten minutes that Rangers started to calm down, retain possession, and move up the field. I was really impressed with several very intelligent little touches, passes, gives and leaves – confident enough to take the ball into his care, hopelessly outnumbered, in tight areas, and look after it well. He became clock runner in chief, teasing and frustrating Middlesbrough with exactly the sort of possession we’d be crying out for since the red card. A nice start for the kid, and he was a big reason why five minutes of stoppage time was slightly less torturous than it felt like it might have been. Lumley crowned a fine individual performance with a brave, clean claim from a low dangerous cross into heavy traffic at the near post. Round of applause, but no airborne beer – beer is for drinking.
Lumley’s response to being dropped from the side at the start of the season has been exemplary. There’s been no bitching and moaning – in fact he’s been a loud and passionate supporter of the team from the sideline, celebrating the wins every bit as much as he would if he’d been involved with them. He’s been willing to go out and do a couple of one-week dog loans in League One just to play some football without complaint, quite a comedown for a previous Championship number one, and he stepped in here seamlessly. With contract up, and a chequered recent history with the QPR fans, you’d have maybe forgiven him for having a face on, and more than one eye on the exit door, but there’s been no sign of that and he was brilliant here for half an hour. Speaks well of his character, and if he is to leave this summer he’ll now probably go with all manner of kind sentiments, good wishes and benefit of the doubt that he could have done with in more difficult moments. In this market, he could be a brilliant free transfer pick up for somebody.
Rangers have done one double this season (Cardiff) and been doubled themselves only by Huddersfield and Barnsley with Swansea to potentially come on Tuesday. They've won one and lost one against eight sides, and won one and drawn one against six others including Boro. Is it infuriating that QPR’s class of 2021 can go from being so good to so ropey, against the same opponent, in the same week, often in the same game? Of course. You’d never have said that shambolic defence at the New York Stadium during the week would be able to come here and repel all boarders for half an hour with ten men against a much better team. This turned into something of a training session – 10v11, 30 minutes, defend the flag, and we did it well and effectively, as opposed to four days prior when we made Freddie Ladapo look like Tony Yeboah. Rob Dickie on Tuesday v Rob Dickie on Saturday.
The nature of this year’s fixture list, the tiredness and fatigue that will bring, and the number of young and/or inexperienced players at this level QPR are having to rely on, is all inevitably going to breed a little bit of inconsistency. Don’t forget as well that the squad was completely torn apart and started over again in Warbs’ first summer, and had major surgery again last close season, in which all of what would be considered the team’s best players have left, and replacements have had to be sought on a budget. None of that helps with continuity.
All we (I) can do is try and look at the bigger picture and not get too carried away or frustrated when the performances veer towards one side of the yawning gap between our best and worst or the other. This victory moves Rangers into the top ten and beyond the points total they managed last season, despite the loss of Ebere Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Nahki Wells, Jordan Hugill and others. It’s a fine achievement.
They’re maddening, they’re inexplicable, but they’re human, as Warbs always reminds us. And they're travelling in the right direction.
Boro: Archer 6; Fisher 6 (Johnson 55, 6), Hall 6, McNair 6; Spence 5 (Coulson 63, 5), Saville 7, Howson 6, Bola 5; Kebano 6, Watmore 7, Bolasie 8 (Assombalonga 82, -)
Subs not used: Bettinelli, Akpom, Fletcher, Hackney, Coburn, Malley
Goals: Bolasie 28 (assisted Kebano)
QPR: Dieng 6; Kakay 5, Dickie 8, Barbet 6; Adomah 6 (Ball 74, 7), Thomas 6 (Lumley 60, 8), Johansen 6, Chair 6 (Duke-McKenna 86, -), Wallace 8; Willock 7 (Field 74, 6), Dykes 7
Subs not used: Kane, Bonne, Bettache, Hämäläinen, Kelman
Goals: Dickie 15 (assisted Dykes), Wallace 18 (assisted Dykes)
Red Cards: Dieng 58 (denying obvious goalscoring opp)
Yellow Cards: Kakay 31 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Rob Dickie 8 A 30-yard screamer, an incredible block to deny a seemingly certain equaliser, and a strong showing in a backs-to-the-wall effort with ten men for the last half hour. Just when it seemed he may be lagging a little after a fantastic first season at this level, with a below par showing at Rotherham on Tuesday, he comes roaring back with one of his best displays for the club.
Referee – Matt Donohue (Manchester) 7 Somewhat ironic that in the first game with this referee since he incorrectly bottled a red card for a professional foul in our defeat at Brentford we should then have a man sent off for the same thing, but you couldn’t argue with Dieng’s red card, nor much of anything else he did in a game of several big decisions. Probably should have booked Wallace for his second half dive in the penalty area.
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Pictures – Action Images
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