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Illy and Willy bring strictly business back to fashion – Report
Sunday, 10th Dec 2023 22:39 by Clive Whittingham

Football being played, goals being scored, Loftus Road bouncing, and Chris Willock at the heart of it all with his little mate Ilias Chair – wind it back to 2021 and let’s pretend the last two years never happened.

There’s a little noise the modern goal nets emit when hit. As the ball enters, and stretches the fabric, the pressure momentarily lifts the weights that run along its base, holding the goal’s shape and integrity, off the ground. That frame snaps back into position almost immediately with a satisfying click, as the rain cumulated along the frame through long periods of inaction falls to earth in droplets. The greater power in the shot, the purer the strike, the more the foundation is lifted from its moorings. The more important the goal, the louder and more satisfying its snap back into position. Like Pavlov’s dog, we have come to crave the click. We salivate at its threat. There are few more satisfying moments.

Marti Cifuentes, Queens Park Rangers’ new miracle-working Spanish manager, likes to talk about ‘moments’ at lot. Using our moments: moments when we have the ball, other moments when we struggle to keep it. There haven’t been many moments any QPR fan would care to remember over a 12-month period in which only one home win was registered in 23 attempts. Pavlov’s pooch would have long since starved and been seen staggering around on some RSPCA Christmas appeal had he relied on clicks at the Loft End for a feed. Down the road, Fulham have scored more goals this week (ten) than QPR have at the home end of their ground going back 38 games here and two seasons to February 2022.

In not only producing consecutive victories on this ground for the first time since last October, but also extracting six goals from a team that didn’t look like it could find its own arse with both hands, Cifuentes is showing himself to be an adept coach. My God did this team ever need one of those. Rangers have now won three in a row and look set to climb out of a relegation zone which hitherto looked certain to swallow them whole. He is, game by game, dismantling the narrative that had built, and been promoted by his predecessor, that this is a squad of players with little hope of competing in something as apparently titanically difficult as the Championship.

Hull City were certainly a stronger proposition than the two opponents Rangers had knocked over coming into the game. Beaten by a fluke Watford goal a week ago, they’d never lost two in a row under their immaculately turned-out young manager Liam Rosenior, who’d be getting far more attention if his club were as fashionable as his clothes. While their talent is most definitely focused at the top end of the field, rather than among a mediocre collection of journeymen defenders and a ropey goalkeeper, they were the best team we’ve played on this ground so far bar Leicester and Ipswich for my money. They took 66% of the possession from a QPR team that now wants the ball again and rained down 15 shots on Asmir Begovic’s goal with six on target. What Hull did have in common with Stoke before them, however, were those ‘moments’. For a second successive QPR home game, all of the key ones went against the visitors and for the hosts.

Begovic, in by far and away his most impressive all-round game for the club so far, saved each of the on-target shots in turn. For the most part you’d have expected him to do that. Liam Delap’s fire-at-will policy drew a comfortable hold at the near post with 20 minutes gone, and then a more difficult block and parry before the half hour. In the second half, however, the threat became fiercer and the challenge more intense for the Bosnian. First, Posh Scott Twine got Delap free in the area, cutting in on his right foot towards the penalty spot to unload a low shot back towards the opposite corner, which Begovic read brilliantly and got down to save. Before being withdrawn early for his cello lesson, Twine had a go himself with a deflected shot he - and the rest of the ground - thought certain to find the net, only for Begovic to show previously unseen speed of reflex to deflect away with a shin. Then, at the death, when McLoughlin tried to bend one in from range, Begovic stretched down into his bottom right-hand corner to maintain the clean sheet. QPR’s second in two games after only three others in the first half of the season.

At other times Hull were profligate. They frequently got impressive local boy Jaden Philogene isolated with Reggie Cannon early in the game, but his first cut back went to nobody, first shot flew high over the bar, and when he did find Lewie Coyle he wasn’t barwide with his own 20 yarder. A better shot, by Tyler Morton, looked all set for the bottom corner, until it struck the recalled Steve Cook right in the ballbag. Thoughts and prayers. When Hull tried their luck on the other side, with Traore, his low cross was touched first by Begovic, then by Cannon, but no visiting player was on hand to accept the tap into an empty net. In an effort to make sure that didn’t happen again Rosenior started the second half with a front four of Philogene, Twine, Delap and substitute arrival Aaron Connolly, which looked like a long old 45 minutes of right royal pain in the arse for a home side desperately in need of points to climb out of the relegation mire they’ve worked themselves into. Philogene, another who’d be getting far more column inches if he was running round in a Sunderland, Leicester or Leeds shirt rather than this orange number, then got injured immediately and had to go off. An absolute touch. On another day, through a different set of sliding doors, moments that could easily have gone in alternate directions.

Rangers have certainly been due a bit of this. For a while there it felt like every shot we faced hit the net, and every referee in charge of our game had us down to lose on his coupon. It’s not so long ago we conceded a goal to Swansea punched in with a fist, had the most blatant penalty you’ll ever see not awarded against Coventry, and then had a goalkeeper sent off for daring to be within the same postal code as “Bam Bam’s” Fifth Violin Concerto, all within the same week of football. Referee James Bell, in charge of a game at Loftus Road for the first time, had previously given several controversial decisions against Rangers at Southampton and West Brom. Here, what green there was rubbed the other way. After just a minute of play Jake Clarke-Salter slipped, fell over, knew he was stranded, and fairly obviously felled Delap on his way down to stop him running clear – Bell waved play on. That decision was highly suspect. Later calls, particularly ruling Reggie Cannon had got the ball rather than fouled Connolly in the School End penalty box in the second half, and a later booking of Delap for diving, were correct, but they’re the sort of moments we weren’t getting earlier in the season - in general, or from this referee specifically. All of the moments, all of a sudden, all going our way.

QPR, though, are making their own luck. They’ve kept clean sheets in three of Cifuentes’ six games so far, two in a row this week for the first time since last Christmas (a sequence that also involved a win to nil at Preston). I’m sure other managers who’ve been here and failed recently will say they’d have done a good deal better in that regard too if they’d ever been able to field a defence of Cannon, Cook, Clarke-Salter and Paal in front of Begovic. But you’re also going to concede fewer goals, have fewer scares and give the referee fewer decisions to make in and around your penalty box if you try and play on the front foot, high up the field, with an effective press at the top end, with more possession, with the ball far away from your own goal as often as possible, rather than sitting in deep and tight trying to batten down the hatches to shithouse nil nil draws from games with 20% of the ball. Clarke-Salter, who as predicted will transform this team in this style of play if only he can stay fit, set the first half tone with a powerful interception and drive forwards from halfway. Cook, once again, in no nonsense mode. Cannon, on the right, up and down like a bride’s nightie. Paal even managed to deliver a decent corner, setting up Lyndon Dykes for a poke wide at the back post after a short routine in the first half. This has to be the defence whenever we can get it on the field.

Rangers are also playing a style, and in formations (4-2-3-1 here despite the success of last week’s 4-3-3), that suit the players we have to pick from, and in which they enjoy playing. If you’ve got no FFP headroom left to perform surgery on your team you have to make the best of what you have. Getting Chris Willock motivated, fit, and back in the side close to Ilias Chair, was always likely to be pinpointed as a potential area for improvement by any incoming manager. Not a marginal gain, a proper, fuck off, chunky main gain.

Willock, fresh and confident, two goals in two games after none in a year, looked much more like his old self in this game. Head up, excited about the possibilities, flicking and tricking around bamboozled opponents. It’s often, of late, looked and felt to me like Willock doesn’t trust his own body, constantly pulling back from sprints and stretches in fear of blowing his hamstring out for a potentially career ruining fourth time in two years. Here, for the first time, he let it rip, and thankfully it didn’t. Whiffs of the Willock of old and, so, when he skipped in from the left flank in first half injury time and opened that corridor to curl a 20-yarder towards the far corner, the fans, who for so long had lost faith in their former poster boy, collectively let out another noise we haven’t heard too much of in these parts of late. As a deep, guttural cry of ‘shooooooot’ echoed around the ground, so the ball set off at pace and turn from Willock’s right boot, angled perfectly around the statuesque defenders and so far wide of Allsop he’d have had to spend 45 minutes on the District Line just to get within sight of the thing. Outstanding natural beauty. Timing wise, a game-changing moment.

Moments and noise, suddenly being grabbed and made by Queens Park Rangers. It’s been so long I’d forgotten what it was like to love. Even the Swiss were clapping.

There was much more to come. The way we’re playing is not only far better to watch than what went before, it’s much more effective too. Without the ball the aggressive press and harry of an opponent trying to play out from the back with players ill-equipped to do it whipped the crowd up into a near frenzy. Rosenior’s claim that Ryan Allsop is the division’s best keeper with his feet so outlandish surely even Allsop himself thinks it a bit much. Balls blocked out for opposition throw ins deep in their half wrought cheers worthy of last minute Clive Wilson penalties in fifth round FA Cup ties against Millwall. So parched of anything remotely enjoyable for so long, these fans who continue to inexplicably pack this ground out will celebrate anything right now. The drought is over though. With the ball, QPR look like they know what they’re doing. And what they're doing is trying to score goals. Goals plural.

In many ways this was an atypical Cifuentes show. QPR had barely 30% of the ball, and attempted 332 passes with accuracy just above 70%. All the lowest under this manager’s reign, but higher than all but two of Gareth Ainsworth’s games in charge. The most notable difference in all of it is we go forwards now. We go forwards now. Reggie Cannon goes forwards, often running with the ball. Kenneth Paal goes forwards, frequently off the back of play into midfield to bulk up the ball-playing numbers. The centre backs step on and up, rather than off and deep. The goalkeeper looks for team mates, rather than the side stand. Lyndon Dykes has support, in numbers. There are men in the penalty box. QPR are looking to score goals. QPR go forwards now. Andre Dozzell was unlucky to be blocked as he strode onto a pre-planned move with a shot from the edge of the box at the start of the second half. It was actually Sam Field, reigning player of the year and previously the only midfielder we had who could hold a candle to the rest of the division, who seemed to struggle most with too much pedestrian backwards and sideways. We got forwards now Sam, adapt or die.

Ilias Chair was the centre of the universe within all of this. Perpetual motion, with and without the ball. In possession, his central position as a ‘ten’ allowed him to roam to both wings, combining with Cannon and Smyth to one side, or Willock and Paal to the other as the moment took him. Without it, one his most effective and hard-working defensive displays ever, dropping in to block passing lanes, crowd space and intercept loose balls. There couldn't possibly have only been one of him on the pitch. Begovic has taken the plaudits for his saves, command of area, and distribution, and he deserves that. Chair was the man of the match. By a street. No letters.

What it needed was the most decisive moment of all – a game-sealing, opposition-burying, ground-rocking second goal. The way it came, and the four players involved with it, epitomised all that was good about the once-more-Super Hoops on the day.

Begovic’s stride and claim through a crowded box relieved pressure at one end, and his ginormous rainbow throw past the halfway line switched play immediately to the other – this a goalkeeper under previous management who’d been distributing the ball like some mad combination of a Rob Green beer shit and Tony Roberts acid trip. Willock, full of beans and life at last, hared after it at speed, arms pumping, cheeks blowing – hamstring injury, what hamstring injury? Sinclair Armstrong, fresh from the bench to be part of the press, smelled his favourite food long before the dinner bell chimed. Seri was casual and sloppy with a bouncing back pass and Armstrong was after it before he’d even played it. Specialist subject? Smashing the goalkeeper up. Allsop, sweating like Vegas Elvis, took a liberty too far and found himself dumped into the Lower Loft. Greaves' knowledge of the offside law exposed, Willock took up the challenge and drew a composed breath. The cut back was precision measured, delivered by hand, and perfect in every possible way. Chair accepted its arrival with an emphatic, first time, low drive into the unguarded net. Four of his 30 QPR goals have been against this opponent. It’s the first time he and Willock have scored in the same game since the last time we beat Hull here. The Loft dissolved, at once, into a happy anarchy. Look how happy everybody is. Grown men, with families, and careers. Crawling all over each other. So starved, for so many months, now with a new man in our lives, discovering answers that were here all along. Silver Lining as Christmas number one.

Talk to me about that noise again. The greater power in the shot, the purer the strike, the more the foundation is lifted from its moorings. The more important the goal, the louder and more satisfying its snap back into position. The click we all crave, and the roar of near 16,000 hungry dogs heard from the other end of town. Ilias Chair, hard and low, and into the net.

Diana would have loved this.

Links >>> Photo Gallery >>> Ratings and Reports >>> Message Board Match Thread

QPR: Begovic 8; Cannon 7 (Kakay 75, 6), Cook 7, Clarke-Salter 7, Paal 7; Field 5, Dozzell 6; Willock 8 (Kelman 86, -), Chair 8 (Dixon-Bonner 85. -), Smyth 6 (Armstrong 66, 7); Dykes 6 (Larkeche 76, 6)

Subs not used: Dunne, Archer, Richards, Drewe

Goals Willock 45 (assisted Field), Chair 73 (assisted Willock)

Bookings: Dykes 70 (foul), Kelman 90 (time wasting)

Hull: Allsop 5; Christie 6, McLoughlin 5, Greaves 6, Coyle 5; Morton 6, Seri 6 (Tufan 76, 6); Traore 6 (Connolly 45, 6), Twine 6 (Vaughan 90, -), Philogene 7 (Slater 51, 6); Delap 7 (Sellars-Fleming 90, -)

Subs not used: Ingram, Docherty, Smith, Jacob

Bookings: Philogene 51 (refusing to leave the field after injury), Seri 70 (dissent), Delap 87 (diving)

QPR Star Man – Ilias Chair 8 Honestly, it’s not even close. The sort of performance that has scouts chatting.

Referee – James Bell (Sheffield) 7 Felt like we got the rub of the green here in a way we didn’t as the away side with this referee at Southampton and West Brom. Bit of a homer? The replays of the Connolly penalty appeal, which was the big decision in the game, suggest he was spot on, so a high mark for now and judgement reserved.

Attendance – 16,967 (1,387 Hull) A note on the size of that visiting support, at that sort of expense, on a day when the East Coast Mainline melted and none of them could get home. Full credit.

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UPPERLOFTNZ added 23:33 - Dec 10
Genius as always Clive. Vegas Elvis line had me in tears. Lets hope we can keep everyone fit enough to get us far enough up the table for when the inevitable collapse and 6 game losing streak happens hahahaha

BetaCam added 00:04 - Dec 11
Pure poetry.

dannyblue added 00:44 - Dec 11

extratimeR added 00:55 - Dec 11
So bloody marvellous! Thank god I was their!
Chair has run himself into the ground, and yes this style of play really suits him and Willock and Clarke Salter, Hull were good and on another day with another Manager would have taken us apart.
A real thank you to the lads and lasses who travelled to Preston, the crowd noise/ support took me back a bit, ( the fans have been amazing).

I think you deserve a game like this Clive to be able to write a match report like this!

Cheers Clive!

qprninja added 08:28 - Dec 11
"Rob Green beer shit". You've peaked Mr Whittingham.

tsbains64 added 08:57 - Dec 11
Spot on report . Just loved the atmosphere and the smiling faces around the stadium
Credit to the ref and the away fans - both deserve the plaudits
At last a positive report !
Great Crowd at LR as well

Myke added 20:17 - Dec 11
Cheers Clive. When I saw that pic of Chair and Willock running side by side after the second goal, my first thought in relation to Hull was the Sam Fender song 'Seventeen Going Under'.

Marshy added 20:20 - Dec 11
Can't remember the last time you gave 3 players 8/10 in a match report Clive. Best performance of the season by far. Well organised in defence, midfield, and attack. 110% effort from everyone. Starting to show real pace in the team, and lots of crosses into the box which we've missed. Passing and pressing is getting better. The team has definitely bought into MC's tactics . Also, so much more "togetherness" now than under Gareth. Marti is "the man" - all teams should get themselves a Spanish coach / manager. We've got ourselves a really good one!!

timcocking added 21:29 - Dec 11

No mention, though, of one of my highlights of the match; Sinclair Armstrong looking like somebody straight out of our 4x100 sprint relay team as he took ten yards off the petrified Hull fullback to almost rob him in the corner…

snanker added 23:53 - Dec 11
Very upbeat Clive & much relief as well. Some sort of transformation happening and in record time or what ! Have we got ourselves a new El Tel in charge !!?? Even good fortune is smiling on us for a change !! Been a long time coming. Big Dec. end of year fixtures looming. It could be a very merry Xmas indeed. You R'ssssssss

TacticalR added 22:43 - Dec 12
Thanks for your report.

'The way we’re playing is not only far better to watch than what went before, it’s much more effective too.' This is the irony.

All the things that we have been praying for, like Willock's return, are actually happening. The great thing about Willock was that he could score extraordinary goals, and that first goal really showed his match-winning quality.

I know you have been critical of Begović, but one thing that impressed me in this game was his ability to get down to low shots quickly.

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