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Faint hope, same failings, familiar faces – Report
Wednesday, 10th Apr 2024 23:51 by Clive Whittingham

QPR played well, created a string of chances, scored to take the lead, and were winning deep into Tuesday night’s trip to Plymouth – in the end their chronic problems at the extreme ends of the pitch cost them their season-ending victory.

Eight months and 44 games into this thing, the long-suffering and frequently travelling Queens Park Rangers faithful do not need reminders about why they are where they are. On Tuesday night in Plymouth, the team decided to oblige with some anyway.

QPR’s improvement, from the bereft team that lost six straight through October and was certainly destined for relegation to League One, to the one now four places and points above the dotted line with four to play, would have been impressive regardless of how it was achieved. The complete reversal of the style and numbers under Gareth Ainsworth, enacted mid-season by Marti Cifuentes, with little spare time on the training pitch and next-to-no transfer window resources in January, will definitely have caught the attention elsewhere.

To have done it with the attack he inherited, where the top goalscorers in a league season nearing its end are two players with a paltry five goals, has been miraculous. Plymouth have two players with 33 goals between them while QPR had only scored 39 collectively, and yet it was Argyle lower in the table and in the greater peril at the start of play after five home defeats on the spin without scoring and a subsequent change of manager.

All of this we know. You can swap and change them about – at Home Park it was Lyndon Dykes leading the line as the lone striker without a goal in 14, Paul Smyth preferred to Chris Willock after his poor showing against Sheff Wed – but goals will remain few and far between. The last five Rangers have scored have come from centre back Steve Cook (two), defensive central midfielder Sam Field (two) and makeshift right back Jimmy Dunne (one).

Nevertheless, in case you were new to this, Rangers decided to lay on an exhibition of lousy finishing. Ilias Chair’s touch to bring a ball out of the sky and beat a man on 27 minutes was immaculate and he got the cross just right for Smyth on the opposite flank as well. The Northern Irish international, ending his season at Plymouth just as he started it at Southampton, finished high and wild into the near side-netting, rather than going low across the goalkeeper. Chair had already fired in at the near post after more excellent approach work prior to that, while Lucas Andersen continues to be the most beautiful jigsaw that unfortunately falls apart in the box – his cross-shot through the six-yard box on the half hour turned out to be neither.

Worse was to come. Lyndon Dykes’ hard graft on the hour was the latest in a string of wins for Rangers pressing high against Plymouth’s play-out-from-the-back strategy. It set the Scotsralian away for a charge at a poorly manned penalty box with teammates in support, and he got the assist exactly right to remove the final defender from the picture and place the whole thing on a silver platter for Smyth. With all the composure of an epileptic gnat, Smyth snatched at a panicked chance which gave Brian Potter’s Big Pink Paradise in the home goal the chance to save. All four corners of the goal were available and he had so much time I’m not sure a defender would have reached him if he was still there deciding what to do now.

Chair, winning the ball in an identical position and fashion to Dykes, elected to take the shot on himself. Like Smyth in the first half, he went high and near, instead of low and far – are we sure these guys know the rules? – and, like Smyth first half, he sent it skying wide past the top corner. Andersen’s goalbound volley struck two defenders and rebounded away to safety. Smyth’s chipped cross deflected up, over Mike Cooper, down into the goal, and back out from underneath the crossbar thanks to a goalline clearance where you’d have liked Dykes to have been bundling ball, man and everything else besides into the net. Try and go five minutes without Gary Neville telling you the story about the time Les Ferdinand did that to him at Loftus Road. Chris Willock’s first impact from the bench was to flight a perfect back post cross, just far enough away from Cooper to remove him from the equation, and, although Dykes got to the ball this time, he elected to head back across goal instead of into it. School for the gifted. It’s the white, metal, rectangular thing with the net hanging off the back of it.

Chance, after chance, after chance. You stick John Spencer back in this team you could break the glass on the emergency Europa League campaign credit card.

Fortunately, and to the team’s credit, QPR were so dominant, particularly after half time, that the opportunities did indeed keep coming to miss. You’d have thought our chances snu snu’d by the Smyth chance, then the Chair chance, then the Dykes chance, THEN THE SMYTH CHANCE AGAIN. But no. Wait another few minutes and another one came along. QPR playing well, responding to Saturday’s no-show against Sheff Wed in the best possible way.

In the end the R’s couldn’t help but score, and watching the goal back it really was just that because they did their best to miss this one as well. Jimmy Dunne’s looping header from Ilias Chair’s corner, Cooper palming it up into the air, Dykes, almost on the goalline, again shooting with latitude when longitude was required, possibly over the line, scrambled out a second time, Sam Field, hands on head in disbelief, now contorting himself into a scuffed finish of his own, bouncing up and over the crowd scene and into the net right in front of a travelling mix of delirium and outright relief. It shouldn’t be this difficult, stressful, terrifying, torturous. Just score the goal for goodness sake. It’s like watching someone try to give birth to a Renault Megane.

At this point QPR are on 49 points, fifteenth in the league, six clear of the relegation zone with 12 left to play for and, to all intents and purposes, safe. Season over. Thank God.

To have done that with the goalkeeping situation Cifuentes inherited is, also, absolutely astonishing. Getting a team winning without strikers is one thing, doing it without strikers and with somebody’s ever-expanding dad in goal is manger of the season shortlist stuff. By Opta’s Stats Plymouth’s Michael Cooper has saved his team 3.3 goals this season, ranking him sixth in the Championship. He was also key to their promotion, when they accepted a heavy total of shots on their goal in return for chucking attackers, Kevin Keegan style, at an impressive 101 point season that eventually buried even Ipswich. Asmir Begovic has cost QPR 7.46, the worst record in the division bar Hull’s Ryan Allsop and Southampton’s Gavin Bazunu. No party bag for you.

All of this we know. Gareth Ainsworth was so enraptured that Asmir Begovic wanted to come and play for him and little old QPR I thought the bloke was going to cum oil. The comments at the time of the signing, and in interview with us in the summer, made it sound like Jude Bellingham had agreed to do a year at Solihul Moors as a favour to a mate. It ignored the fact Begovic had been bench sitting for four of the previous five seasons, and the one he did play (at this level for Bournemouth) he was complicit in a failed attempt to shithouse a play-off semi-final second leg aggregate lead away at Brentford. Plenty of goalkeepers have taken that career path late in their days – Carlo Cudicini, Rob Green, Scott Carson, Richard Wright, Jerzy Dudek, Willy Cabalero, even our own former hero Alex Smithies – but trying to find any club who thought it was a good idea to bring one of those guys back from the dead to be first choice, let alone captain and lauded be-all-and-end-all, is rarer. For a reason.

There were some reasonably big performances early on – away at Birmingham and Middlesbrough – and he recently made a couple of very good saves at Swansea. But this is a goalkeeper ageing years in weeks. You play Saturday, go away for a couple of days, come back Tuesday, and he’s gone from 36 to 44, in age and waist.

Here there were saves. Morgan Whittaker, January bid from Lazio rebuffed, 20 goals for the season, Kenneth Paal rather hanging onto his coattails, was frustrated into trying to buy cheap free kicks for the most part – referee Jeremy Simpson in unusually decent form to deny him. When he was presented with a dead ball wide down the side five after half time he feigned interest in a cross and then whipped it into the near post instead where Begovic was alive enough to get across and parry wide. Bali Mumba, Plymouth’s other hot property and hero of Friday’s potentially crucial away win at Rotherham, tried the same thing to the opposite corner from the other side of the field five from time and, again, Begovic parried aside.

The veteran Bosnian puts me on edge, though. Every competent action brings both a sigh of relief, but the dread that it’s moving us closer to the next clanger. The good games he does have feel like ticks off closer to him departing in the summer and a new goalkeeper being hired – any goalkeeper will do, frankly.

In the first half he bowled a routine throw out trying to start an attack, and smacked it straight into the nearest Plymouth player. I’ve seen worse LBW appeals umpire. Heart attack central. And sure enough, from that corner off Mumba’s shot, he walked out of his goal unchallenged, put two hands in the air to catch the ball, and then had some sort of anal haemorrhage that resulted in him flapping the ball down, under no pressure at all, against the knees of sub Albert Adomah, and, agonisingly, into the net for Plymouth’s first goal in six home games. Fuck me dead.

One can only be thankful that, having let Adam Randell run half the length of the field in the fifth minute of injury time before executing the tactical foul that could have killed the game yards and yards further back, Morgan Whittaker’s late free kick went tamely, without movement, straight at him, with a clear line of sight. Even then, I could barely bring myself to watch. Just as well Whittaker’s first half shot, after Plymouth had finally roped their dope with a short goalkick routine and then sprung him into the space beyond, was dragged wide.

It's the technique that gets me. If he's not as quick, not as athletic, not as sharp with his reactions etc you'd understand it, but how do you get to that shot at Leicester and elect for a double fisted punch down and back into the traffic? How do you get two hands on the cross last night and think: ‘Punch? Catch? Nah, we'll flap it down open handed’. How is a goalkeeper of his experience, who wants to run goalkeeper soccer schools in his retirement, coming up with such fundamental technique-based slop like that? You’d be better off trusting your kids to Ian Huntley Babysitting Incorporated for half term.

Look, I'm passionate about it and I'm angry. On a more considered point - our goalkeeping recruitment has been fucking dodgy for years. We had the whole Dillon Barnes debacle, where a goalkeeper who’d barely played professional football before (and on the rare occasions he had the League Two crowds who watched him said he was mostly terrible) was brought in here and paid for years while never playing for any of our B Team or youth grades, never going out on loan or, (it turned out when everybody got injured and we had to bring Keiren Westwood out of retirement) even being in our 25 man squad. He’s now at Harringay Borough. You’ve got Jordan Archer, a 30-year-old senior player with Championship experience (and, therefore, pay), who I said wasn't good enough when we signed him, and is now not even making the bench. It's landed us in this position where we've got down on our knees and handed over thick money, captain's armband and everything besides to Begovic, manager talking about what an absolute privilege it was to have him, and he's crap, with no realistic back up. Even as his biggest critic I look at it and think you can't drop him now, because there's nobody to drop him for. All you can hope is the EFL take pity and let us play the remaining games using a ball with a bell in it.

This is a problem of many years' making and it'll repeat if we recruit next year's goalkeepers in the same way - i.e. director of football/manager/CEO/head of recruitment all shrugging and going "we leave that to the goalkeeper coach".

As you can tell, the overriding emotion walking back into town from Home Park – a wonderful, atmospheric venue I was glad to return to after a decade away – was one of frustration and annoyance. We were four minutes away from basically having the season done, with another excellent result and defensive performance away from home. A big cause for celebration. Instead, we’re back to looking at fixtures, league tables, and scores elsewhere, because we’ve got a goalkeeper who can’t catch a ball and strikers who can’t score a goal. Not to be cruel but as part of Plymouth’s half-time entertainment they had a local four-year-old, Abigail, have a crack at scoring a goal past Pilgrim Pete (Caucasian, moustache, about six foot…. That’s a hell of a big moustache) and having missed wide to the right from eight yards, and again from six, they tried to let her walk it in and she somehow toe punted it back over there again. I’m pleased our scouts are, presumably, at other games otherwise she might end up with a contract.

Let’s, like the manager, finish on the positives. This was a decent performance. There were issues, particularly in the first half as Plymouth switched from side to side, Whittaker to Mumba, trying to stretch us and create space in the middle. In the first game at Loftus Road, when that space in the middle was occupied by Finn Azaz and Luke Cundle, that almost certainly would have won the game but for the red card. Here the decline in quality of their side since Steven Schumacher’s departure was evident (Azaz is scoring a beautiful goal for Boro tonight, Cundle is wasted on the what-have-I-done ruin of Schumacher’s move to Stoke) but they still needed dealing with. QPR dealt with them well.

It’s odd, having basically ignored him since he returned from injury, Cifuentes suddenly seems keen on Morgan Fox, and picked him here ahead of Jake Clarke-Salter. That’s presumably on load management grounds but he had something approaching his best game for the club. Steve Cook didn’t put much of a foot wrong. Field and Hayden were miles and miles ahead of the crap they produced on Saturday. Dykes, a little bit rudimentary, a little bit cumbersome, on his heels for big chances as ever, but twice he smashed into a centre back (booked once) which I like because it shows he’s interested. He put the chance of the night on a plate for Smyth.

Like Fox, I’m intrigued that having basically shaken hands with him and sent him off to finish his career in the B Team, Cifuentes now seems to be involving Albert Adomah again rather than Reggie Cannon. Looking at how Cannon, and Kakay, have just been abandoned, I’m tempted to say once this manager turns against you it’s pretty brutal, but Fox and Adomah have both crawled back in from the cold. Fox, on Tuesday at least, to our benefit. Albert… less so. For all my ranting about Begovic, could he not react a bit better/quicker/less own goal to that situation? Cannon really must have shit the bed.

There was a lot to like about QPR, and after half time they took the game over for a good half hour in which they created several key chances which, one hopes, next season, with a different forward line, enable them to bury the game. Cifuentes – and this is another thing I admire about him – was very calm and level-headed after the game, happy his team had played well and created chances full in the knowledge that if you do that consistently you’ll be fine, particularly when he is able to do surgery on the goalkeeper and striker positions. The response to the horror show against Sheff Wed was, all things considered, pretty creditable.

I always find the Plymouth fans chatty, friendly, and keen to reminisce about 2001-2005. The very magnanimous gentleman we met back in the bar at The Copthorne - a hotel constructed from 90% asbestos panels - was happy to shake hands on they would have won in W12 without the red card and QPR certainly should have won on Tuesday.

With a remarkable set of results in our favour on Wednesday night, and Blackburn the latest rival down there to set light to their goal difference, I’m in much more sanguine mood than I was 24 hours ago. There’s a long queue of teams in worse form than us trying to get relegated – Blackburn now finish with Leeds, Sheff Wed, Coventry and Leicester – and at least two of Birmingham, Sheff Wed and Huddersfield now need to win two out of four to go past us, assuming we lose every game we play.

It would just be nice if it was over, which it would have been but for a basic goalkeeping error and lousy finishing. The sooner it’s over, the sooner those gathered behind the goal, and this manager, can get on with the welcome business of never seeing some of these players ever again.

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

Plymouth: Cooper 7; Phillips 5 (Pleguezuelo 74, 5), Scarr 6, Gibson 6; Edwards 6 (Sorinola 59, 5), Houghton 5 (Forshaw 59, 6), Rendell 6, Mumba 7; Whittaker 6, Hardie 5 (Waine 66, 5), Wright 5 (Bundu 66, 5)

Subs not used: Miller, Devine, Hazard, Galloway

Goals: Adomah og 85 (unassisted)

QPR: Begovic 4; Dunne 6, Cook 7, Fox 7, Paal 6; Hayden 6, Field 7; Smyth 5 (Armstrong 90+3, -), Andersen 6 (Willock 63, 6), Chair 6 (Adomah 75, 5); Dykes 6

Subs not used; Clarke-Salter, Dixon-Bonner, Cannon, Hodge, Larkeche, Walsh

Goals: Field 73 (unassisted)

Yellow Cards: Dykes 42 (foul), Willock 90+6 (foul)

QPR Star Man – Sam Field 7 It’s a bit of a cheat really, he was the one who finally forced the ball over the line. I thought Cook and Fox both played well and deserved the clean sheet denied them by the wally behind them.

Referee – Jeremy Simpson (Lancashire) 7 Not a referee I have a lot of time for. In fact, given his performances in general with QPR, it’s a real eye-roll when we get him – usually for one of our long, fruitless journeys to the north west (last seen at Blackpool 6 QPR 1). A surprise to see him down here for only a second ever Plymouth game, and overall I thought he was very good. Stood for none of the early flopping about and diving from Whittaker, and that set the tone for a good, open, competitive Championship game. Nice change.

Attendance 16,928 (1,739 QPR) I’ve got through customs at Dulles Airport faster than the ridiculous overkill behind the away end on Tuesday which, 15 minutes from kick off, had a queue snaking back up half the length of the side stand. This away support has overcome a lot more than that this season and was a credit to the club once again. When the team starts playing as it did after half time, and that away end is packed like this and behind them, there’s just that hint of some togetherness coming back and something building. Much like the goal, just force it over the line in the short term and then let’s try and get excited and upbeat again about the medium and long.

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Pictures/Video - Nick Guoth

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ozexile added 00:25 - Apr 11
Top report thank you.

Match82 added 00:38 - Apr 11
Thanks Clive. Do you know if Pilgrim Pete has a contract expiring with Plymouth? Any chance we can get him in nets instead of Begovic?

Hooping_Mad added 07:58 - Apr 11
Thanks Clive, I saw the game differently but wasn't there so may be being overly harsh. Thought they looked dangerous every time they came forward and we seemed to play like a convent B team.

qprninja added 10:11 - Apr 11
Surely a Begovic assist for the Adomah goal? :)
As a Plymouth resident I desperately wanted to win this, so I'm not sure I'll ever be able to forgive Smyth and Begovic for their faux pas.
Agree about the security, what was that all about? I got frisked twice, once at the front of the ground and again at the entrance to the away end. I also got asked to show my ticket again when returning to my seat after having a halftime pee, how did they think I got in the ground in the first place?!
Overall a good performance by the lads which bodes well for next season.

Marshy67 added 11:06 - Apr 11
Re the goalkeeping situation, perhaps we should be giving this guy a ring Viktor Johansson.
Better be quick Sheff Utd are interested.

j3nesis added 11:11 - Apr 11
Possibly not coincidentally, Haringey Borough have just been relegated from the Isthmian Premier after losing quite a lot of games 4, 5 or 6-0.

mwooly75 added 02:26 - Apr 12
“…let us play the remaining games with a ball with a bell in it.”

Was my favourite line 🤣🤣🤣

TacticalR added 14:06 - Apr 13
Thanks for your report.

I thought Plymouth looked weak, perhaps due to lack of confidence (although gained a win over Leicester last night) and were there for the taking, but our inability to take our chances made this game look as though this was heading for a nil-nil draw. In the end Field somehow managed to bundle the ball over the line.

You have been a long-time critic of Begović and this game showed why. The thing I don't get is why Begović did what he did. I initially assumed he was under pressure from an opposition player or had collided with one of our players, but that wasn't the case. Why didn't he just punch the ball out if he wasn't going to catch?

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