A matter of routine - Report
Monday, 3rd May 2021 12:37 by Clive Whittingham
QPR made it eight away wins for the season, and sealed a top half finish, with a comfortable 2-0 win at Stoke City on Saturday.
John Eustace has been in charge of Queens Park Rangers before. One win in 15 league games over four months, consecutive home defeats by bottom two Rotherham and Bolton, had put paid to Steve McClaren’s brief time in charge, leaving his assistant to pick up the pieces as caretaker for the remainder of 2018/19 starting with a trip to runaway league leaders Norwich. Rangers were three nil down by half time, lost by four, and Eustace spoke after the game, and again in the summer when briefing Warbs Warburton on the mess he was inheriting, about a “losing mentality” within the group. If you think we’ve come a long way since January, check the ground covered since May 2019.
On Saturday, with Warbs taking his troublesome knee back under the knife for a second time, Eustace, and Neil Banfield’s deckchair rental empire, were left to mind the shop once more. Their task: an away game at Stoke. Stereotypes about cold, wet, windy, inhospitable Tuesday nights rather diminished by the lack of a crowd, the glare from the Saturday afternoon sunshine, and a pitch that looked like a snooker table, but not an easy game by any means. The result: a comfortable victory. An eighth away win of the season, the same as promoted Watford, the same as our promoted team of 2013/14 and as many as we’ve managed since then, only two shy of the ten Neil Warnock’s all-conquering 2010/11 team posted.
The QPR support base carries a flag with it on the road that says “we never win away”. And we don’t. Five that year under McClaren, including one added by Eustace at Sheff Wed on the final day; just three under Ian Holloway the year before; six in 16/17; four in 15/16; two, two and three across three long, arduous Premier League campaigns in which the manager himself admitted we treating them as “bonus games”. The best part of seven years and half a dozen managers to win 20-odd away matches – Norwich have 15 in the last seven months. It’s basically become little more than a drinking club, with the same 900-or-so die-hards rattling around the country on the train, getting tanked up in a different place each week, watching a team so abysmal on the road we’ve got a whole repertoire of black humour, songs and flags for it, and then home to the loved ones ready to do it all over again in a fortnight. That 4-0 loss at Norwich suffered in Eustace’s first game in caretaker charge has become the norm to such an extent it isn’t even our only 4-0 loss at Norwich in recent years.
Now though, new normal. An end of season dead rubber, following a very satisfactory second half of 2020/21 for QPR indeed, was never going to carry with it the coiled, nausea-inducing, panic stricken tension the savage amusement of watching Rangers ordinarily inflicts on the team’s adoring/exasperated public, but the sheer routine nature of the victory, the relaxed atmosphere in the garden at the Crown and Sceptre, the sort of carefree, blasé reaction to it all really shows how far we’ve come. Before Christmas, even the few home wins we managed to scrape together against the likes of Rotherham and Cardiff felt like trying to shit out a snooker table, now we win 2-0 at Stoke in third gear. A fifteenth win of 2021, from 24 games played, at home to Luton next week will equal the club record for the start of a calendar year – (15 from 24 in 1961, 23 in 1930, 22 in 1976 and 2003 – hat tip Jack Supple).
There was real intent about QPR from the beginning in this game. The management took Grandpa Simpson’s “you should have fired into the air, she would have run off” and turned it into a team selection. Both strikers, Charlie Austin and in form Lyndon Dykes, were in from the start, but alongside rather than instead of both Chrissy Willock and Ilias Chair. Stefan Johansen was as near as we came to a defensive presence in the midfield. It was a starting 11 with plenty of chest hair. Stoke’s have been hamstrung by a biblical list of absentees, more body count than injury list, all season long, an early play-off push disintegrating in exactly the opposite manner and direction QPR’s campaign has gone. Their joy at having mercurial Nick Powell back for the final two matches lasted precisely 13 minutes before he returned to a treatment room with more footballers than beds. Even the writers on ER would think this ‘a bit much’. You could get 2/1 on a QPR win before kick off, and that was like buying money.
Lyndon Dykes had already roughed up Adam Davies – one of four goalkeepers used by the Potters this season – under a looping, deflected Ilias Chair cross as the time ticked into double figures. The Scottish international, now seven goals and three assists in nine QPR appearances, then caught the giant Harry Souttar lumbering out from the back in possession, immediately returned it to the sizeable gap he’d left behind, and Charlie Austin took a touch to set himself before arrowing one into the far bottom corner from 20 yards. Much like the team as a whole, something very difficult made to look an easy matter of routine by somebody on top of his game.
The nearest Stoke had to an equivalent was Rabbi Matondo, on loan from Schalke who once paid Man City £9.6m for his services. He volleyed one chance over the advancing Dieng but wide of the far top corner, drew a deliberate foul and obvious yellow card from Yoann Barbet, then after half time skinned Lee Wallace alive before marauding into the penalty box and shooting high into the side netting. Other than that, and a low cross from Powell’s replacement Joel Thompson which wasn’t a million miles away from finding Steven Fletcher in the middle, there was little threat and Seny Dieng escaped the afternoon without a serious save to make.
QPR were the better team, without ever really exerting it, and the game started to have quite a sloppy, end-of-season feel to it. Johansen charged across to brilliantly end one Stoke counter on 35, and the second half began with brilliant rear-guard defence from Rob Dickie and, particularly, Jordy De Wijs as the home team tried to rally and chase the game. Thompson curled a very well placed free kick a foot wide of the top corner after a foul by Willock. When QPR did get the ball down and play the looked superbly slick, such as a flowing move ten before half time which Willock finished with a curling shot at the goalkeeper. Chair’s click and collect round a man on 53 was delightfully impish, leading to a corner off a good Osman Kakay effort and a chance for Austin, somehow completely unmarked, which Davies did brilliantly to save up and over the bar with a desperate, outstretched leg.
You couldn’t really sum up the pattern of play, and QPR’s role in that, any better than with the second goal. Seny Dieng had only just moments before survived a terrifying moment where he almost nutmegged himself with a piece of miscontrol, and it looked like another disaster might be on the cards when De Wijs and Dickie momentarily left a through ball to each other and Tymon threatened to go through on goal, but De Wijs got back with a wonderful tackle and from then on the fun started. A move involving sub Sam Field twice, Yoann Barbet, Lee Wallace twice, Ilias Chair, Chris Willock, and final Stefan Johansen ended up worked into the path of Osman Kakay to finish precisely across the goalkeeper and in for his first league goal of the campaign, and second for the club following a September effort at Plymouth in the League Cup. Sheff Utd preparing a £13m bid as we speak. A goal not entirely dissimilar from the glorious Ebere Eze strike we registered on this ground last year – perhaps investing in a pitch of this quality for us to play this sort of football on might be as high as new players on Warbs’ summer wishlist.
Ilias Chair hit decent Kakay service wide, and Stoke sub Sam Vokes missed a similar chance from even closer in when he had to score, as the game drifted away into a comfortable away win that rarely looked in much doubt. Dieng’s nervy parry, rescued by Yoann Barbet on the rebound, an unusual moment of worry at the back.
Stoke’s injuries are not the only sizeable, unwanted list looming before them. There are 20 players out of contract here this summer, including the mercurial Powell, and the club currently has a dozen, mostly very high earning players, out on loan in all four corners of the globe as it embarks on exactly the sort of post-Mark Hughes clean up we’re currently six years deep into. FFP concerns were escalating with each declining parachute payment, even prior to a prolonged Covid-19 lockout of fans, and the government using the weekend of a sport-wide boycott of social media to quietly slip into today’s Times that “no restrictions after June 21” actually means “no restrictions after June 21 unless you’re going to a football match” will have come as even less welcome news in these parts than it has elsewhere. Their summer squad rebuild looks every bit as dramatic, and traumatic, as the one we were facing in 2019.
If they complete it half as well as Warbs, Eustace, Ferdinand, Hoos, Belk and everybody else involved with this QPR turnaround, they’ll have done very well indeed.
Stoke: Davies 7; Smith 5 (Vokes 76, 5), Batth 6, Souttar 5, Norrington-Davis 6; Obi Mikel 5; Matondo 7, Clucas 6, Powell – (Thompson 13, 6), Tymon 5, Fletcher 5 (Brown 56, 6)
Subs not used: Cousins, Forrester, Noukeu, Coates, Norton, Jones
Bookings: Brown 86 (foul)
QPR: Dieng 6; Dickie 7, De Wijs 7, Barbet 7; Kakay 7, Johansen 8 (Bettache 83, -), Chair 7 (Thomas 75, 6), Willock 7 (Bonne 82, -), Wallace 7; Dykes 7, Austin 7 (Field 63, 6)
Subs not used: Kane, Carroll, Hämäläinen, Walsh, Adomah
Goals: Austin 17 (assisted Dykes), Kakay 70 (assisted Johansen)
Bookings: Barbet 28 (foul), Bonne 90 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Stefan Johansen 8 Class apart again, culminating in the defence splitting assist for Osman Kakay’s goal.
Referee – Craig Pawson (Sheffield) 7 End of season dead rubber so far within the capabilities of a Premier League referee he probably could have done this one in his sleep, although I did wonder whether Brown’s needless, frustrated late smash through Rob Dickie might have been worth more than a yellow. One of those in between ones.
Pictures – Action Images
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