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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 0 Watford 1
at 18:04 17 Feb 2019

I'm not sure I can remember a week like it. Three losses in a week has been standard for us for years. But not three like this. It seems particularly cruel to narrowly lose three games in which we didn't deserve to lose any of them.

1. ROCKY: I thought this was shaping up to be a bit like a Rocky movie. Sure, we'd suffered one beating, then another. But we never say die, we're still standing, clinging to the ropes with our eyes bleeding, but our heart still pumping with determination. When Smith went down in the first half and was patched up with a Steve Foster headband (one for the teenagers), I was almost convinced: What better Cup hero is there than Mathieu Smith, scoring a winner, blinking back the blood, wonky bandage no impediment to a trademark thunder bastard header? Against all odds, this was going to be it. A great underdog story before we lose 17-0 at the Etihad in a couple of weeks time. Is it more typical or less typical of QPR that this didn't happen? I don't even know anymore. Feels like my heart was ripped out on Saturday, stamped on on Tuesday and flushed down the bog last night.

But Rocky never gave up. He got mad, and he beat up Clubber and Ivan and Tommy and had that exhibition match, and became a trainer to Apollo's son. There's a lesson there for all of us. Isn't there? No, you stop writing sh!t.

2. COUSINS: Is it finally, *finally* happening? He'll never be Luke Freeman. He'll never even be Mass Luongo. But for two and a half games now he has been brilliant. The all-action vessel of energy we've been waiting for. Maybe he realised this was it - his last chance, because as things stood, unless finances meant we had no other real option, Cousins wasn't going to be here next season. But finally, he's grabbed his chance. Last night he was great - he broke up Watford so many times in the first half. Sometimes it was just giving them a throw, but that doesn't matter: he disrupted them, forced them to play hurried balls or balls they didn't want to play.

And he demanded the ball too. He wasn't hiding; didn't look scared to receive it or to take chances. He pressed high up the pitch, confident that his outstanding fitness would mean he could get back if he wanted to - plus he had Luongo, also having a good game, backing him up at every turn. I thought we were terrific in midfield, and Cousins did everything that could be asked, even going to right midfield and eventually right back. I hope he can keep this going. He's always given the impression of a great person, willing to work, humble. If he dies find some consistent form, it would be a real boost to everyone except, maybe, ratting rats.

3. WELLS: The same romantic in me that had the complicated, barely comprehensible thoughts about a Rocky story, held the hope all week that our big hero was going to be Nahki Wells - redemption after the penalty miss a week ago. But on the day he, as the match reports used to say before I gave up reading them, 'cut a forlorn figure' (a phrase only ever uttered in the context of a football match). Not much seemed to come off for him. His first touch was often uncharacteristically dodgy, he seemed to take the wrong choice a bit too often, and he missed two of our three most presentable chances. The first, after an eyebrow-raising chipped pass from the impressive Luke Freeman, he didn't quite connect well enough with and Gomes managed to flick it wide. The second, arguably better, was a great effort - a curling high shot that beat Gomes and for a brief second I thought was going to fly into the goal, but instead dropped wide.

Still, you can't be too hard on him. He never hides, he always works hard, he'll always shoot if he can. But, like quite a few of our players, he looks a little drained, a little tired, and npt sticking away these chances won't help him with that. I'd say rest him, but realistically we have no one else; Hemed looks unfit and Smith will always struggle over 90 minutes.

4. GAZZA: Have a look back at that moment in the Euro 96 semi final. Keep your eye on Gazza. He's chases a ball back to win it. Then sets off on a run into the box. Sheringham floats a ball to Shearer, he volleys it across and then, somehow, as if he foresaw the entire move, there he is, in the box, ready to get on the end of Shearer's fierce cross. It's perfect. It's a golden goal. He stretches everything, every muscle, every bone, every sinew. But his studs are a centimetre too short and somehow he doesn't connect. You know the rest.

Toni Leistner's chance had so many similarities. The ball played across the defence, Furlong volleying fiercely across the goal, suddenly, Toni's there, no one else is. He's onside, and even though it happens in less than a second, you have time to hold your breath, imagine the net bulging, gather in a great gulp of hope, ready yourself to explode for a goal we surely deserved. And unlike Gazza, he's got there! He's got there! But it's wide. And you knew it had gone. A real Gazza moment.

5. 3-5-2: We saw the pros and cons of the 3-5-2 on Friday. On the one hand, having three centre backs meant that we were able to deal with the threat of Andre Gray and the weighty Troy Deeney, who parroted some absolute nonsense about this being QPR's cup final (mate, it'd have been packed whoever the oppo was at this stage of the competition - don't flatter yourself). It also allowed us to have two strikers on the pitch and we did cause them some issues with that. However, it also meant that we never quite got the width we needed higher up the pitch on a regular basis. At times in the first half, justifiably concerned with staying in the game as long as we could, Pav was pretty much a right back and it's a big ask to get him and Bidwell to cover the entire flanks by themselves for the whole game.

Watford were also ready for us and their method of dealing with the towering Smith I thought was excellent. They pushed up very high for crosses, constantly catching him offside, and also keeping him away from their six yard box, where he has proved in recent weeks to be so dangerous. One free kick in the second half they pushed incredibly high up, leaving a huge gap between themselves and the keeper, but it worked. They trusted Gomes to deal with anything high, and even if Smith was to connect with a header from 15 yards, most keepers will fancy saving that. But then, Watford have a great defensive record this season, it's not surprising they had a plan.

6. ONE SHOT: And yet. One shot. One shot off the semi-useless Cleverley shanking a hopeful ball into the box that happens to land at the feet of bloody Capoue, the one player in their side that probably had the class to finish like that. What a blow. We did so well to limit them to just that for the entire game - it was one of Lumley's quietest games all season. But it was enough. In the end, we didn't quite have the cutting edge - due to form, due to tiredness, due to whatever - to take those chances we did have to force extra time. It would have been deserved, too. But this week, 'deserve' has had very little to do with things.

Still, at least we only lost 1-0 to a team in our own league. it could have Bees worse.
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Cannot... concentrate... on... anything...
at 11:11 15 Feb 2019

This little period is reminding me of that run after Christmas to the play-offs in 2003. Then, of course, it was a barnstorming run of games, full of wins and last minute winners at places like Cardiff and Brentford and only one defeat (away at champions Wigan) from the start of March until Cardiff in the final. Living game to game. Nothing else mattering except whether we'd be able to overcome Mansfield (nearly lost, even though they had 10 men for an hour, until Kev scored a fairly amazing looped volley last second equaliser).

Work? Just get it done. It's in the fcking way.
Lovelife? More important things going on than that, son.
Eating? Christ, if I have to, but only to keep myself alive until the next match.
Drinking. Yes. Sometimes it helps.

This time, it's losses. Constant losses. And at times we're awful, although not normally for whole games. And yet we're forgiving. Because there's something there, isn't there? Not sure what, and it's bound to be 0-3.

But still.

Cannot. Fcking. Concentrate.
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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: Bristol C 2 QPR1
at 11:26 13 Feb 2019

There are so many joyous ways to win football matches. Thrashings, narrow, hard fought single goal wins, late winning goals etc. They're all great. No win, is a bad win, even if Paul Hart once tested that belief to its limit. But the converse is also true: there are so many ways to lose games. Acceptable defeats. Unlucky defeats. Thrashings. But this week, in the space of a few days, we've lost two games in two of the most gut-wrenching ways: by missing a late penalty after a comeback for the ages and then by losing to a penalty kick, wrongly awarded by the referee. We must be about to do something amazing, because the universe needs to be dramatically re-aligned.

1. THE PENALTY: I hate blaming referees for defeats, and I hate when managers do it to deflect from their team's shortcomings. Klopp's recent verbal gymnastics where he tried to claim that being given an offside goal counted against his side at West Ham is a case in point. I just think it's very rare where you can properly blame the ref. Players make mistakes all the time - more than referees - so it's rare that you can fully blame the ref (although there are exceptions - Rob Styles, Robbie Hart...).

And I don't totally blame the ref for us losing last night. But when a ref awards a penalty so late, and it's so demonstrably not a foul, it's hard not blame him for the loss of a point. It didn't look a pen from afar, and the replays showed the decision was even worse than it originally looked. Diedhiou, who had been kept very quiet all game by our back three, had a poor first touch. Furlong, as McClaren said after the game, did the right thing and got between Diedhiou and the ball to get it back to Lumley. Diedhiou then tried to muscle past him and failed. It was, clearly, not only not a penalty, but it should have been a free kick the other way. I can't fathom what the ref even thought he saw there.

You can deconstruct the performance all you like. You can say we should have cleared our lines, or kept possession better or whatever. Fine. But this was not a penalty. We were on a run of four consecutive league defeats. They were on a fabulous run of victories. To reverse both, or to halt both, you need luck - we didn't really need it last night, because we played well, especially first half, but when we did need it, the ref failed us, and it's five in a row. Heartbreaking.

2. FORMATION: Bravely, McClaren stuck with the 3-5-2 that was so effective in the second half against Birmingham at the weekend. It was obvious from the outset, of course, and naturally, that we weren't approaching the game in the same way as we did after the break on Saturday. It was about controlling Bristol, staying compact, trying to counteract their regular switching of the play as they sought to overload on one side or another. It worked. Not only did we largely nullify them, we also created the better chances and when the goal came it wasn't really a surprise. Smith, once more, was dominant and, again, we played to his strengths without resorting to launching pointless direct balls at him from defence, which doesn't suit his game.

But perhaps the second half showed its limitations when you start to, inevitably, sit deeper. When we did have the ball, options were limited in midfield as Pav and Bidwell struggled to in that difficult wing back role to offer the width that is a bit easier when your team is on top and you can play a few yards higher up the pitch. At the same time, Eliasson found more and more space as he exploited space behind Bidwell and eventually got his reward with a fine goal.

What is encouraging is that McClaren can see the problems and is trying to fix them. He said after the game that we're conceding too many goals from crosses, so having three centre backs helps. And it did last night. But he also said you can tell we haven't practised the formation enough, which was also accurate. It seems he'll stick with it for now, so I think we'll see likely the same side again on Friday. But whatever he does, whether we somehow beat a really good Watford side or not, he needs to find a win or a draw somewhere in the league and soon before panic starts to set in.

3. SUBS: One thing I would say was that while I was pleased to see S-Mac keep attackers on the pitch as he replaced our tiring front two, I do wonder whether, in the last 20 mins, we could have gone to a 4-5-1. I know that's super defensive, but maybe Bidwell dropping back a bit might've helped, and we could have packed the midfield and been able to play a bit higher up the pitch and given our midfield more options when they did get the ball. Still, essentially the plan worked, so you can't be too critical - especially in hindsight.

4. WELLS: It's been a good season from Wells, if a little strange. He made an immediate impact when he arrived, but didn't actually score for eight games. His relief when he finally did score was evident. But then he was playing well but not scoring; now he is in a bit of a rut and is missing chances he really should score. He missed a couple of good ones on Saturday even before the penalty, and last night he again was culpable in front of goal. First, he really should've opened the scoring when he hit the post - fortunately, Smith put in the rebound. And then second half he had a real chance, which he did create himself with real tenacity, but tamely lobbed it over the bar. It's a tough period for him, but I think mentally he is tough and hopefully it won't last long.

5. SH1THOUSERY: There was a bit of a debate on here about the level of timewasting last night. My view is that when you've lost four in a row, you do whatever it takes to get that result - get yourself out of that rut and just calm things down. Having said that, criticising Furlong for taking his time with a throw, or Lumley for taking time on a goal kick, seems churlish to me. Neither were unreasonable. The ref can add on time for it. When you're under pressure you absolutely should try to slow the game down - something Birmingham failed to do on Saturday, almost to enormous cost. But there are levels. I don't think we had the trainer on at all last night, for example. No one was going down feigning injury, rolling around unreasonably. You look at Preston, when they were one and two goals up against us the other week, they had the trainer on six times and still shielded the ball in the corner at 4-1. Come on, let's be realistic, here.

6. GLASS HALF FULL: The players, the management, the fans can be forgiven for feeling pretty down after the last two games: a body blow followed by an upper cut. We've lost five league games in a row (of course, it's not 5 games in a row, we've drawn and won in that run) and you could see the players were utterly gutted after the game, for the second time in a few days. But the positives are that for a game and a half we've played well. Plans have worked. We've scored goals. Smith is in the form of his career with us with 4 in 3. And this run cannot last. It can't. They don't. The longer it goes, the closer we are to it ending. Now is the time to battle, to fight and on Friday, to put all this aside and just go for it. Defeat on Friday doesn't matter. We've had a mini cup run. It's felt great and to go further would be amazing. But defeat would not be a disaster, nor would it be a disgrace. There's no pressure there. Turn up, fans and players, be loud, and just go for it. Maybe luck will change and this time next week we'll all be smiling. And, at least, even if we do lose on Friday, the season isn't over! We have to fight relegation! Woohoo!
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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 3 Birmingham 4
at 13:50 11 Feb 2019

Like Clive, I'm not over it, and it's Monday lunchtime. It should have been QPR's third comeback from four down in under 35 years - absolutely heartbreaking that we didn't quite make it.

1. WHAT NOW?: In the end: confusion. After 90 minutes of schizophrenic action, mainly focused at an increasingly punch drunk Loft End, what did we learn? And if we did learn anything, is any of it even remotely reliable? It was a game that was in some ways a microcosm of a season that is starting to move beyond the realms of comprehension. A team that can be absolutely destroyed by a decent, if hardly all-conquering West Brom can also completely uncharacteristically deal really quite easily with the cluster bomb attacks of Middlesbrough that would usually have us surrendering quicker than a chicken mistakenly entered into a Royal Rumble for lions. A team that can quite happily wave four goals through at home to Preston is the same one that can rewrite the history books by actually winning at Forest. And the team that can fail to compete at almost any level in around 25 mins of catastrophically poor football can return, inside the same game, to the point where in the end we were unlucky not to win, let alone draw.

You half expect us to run Watford off the pitch on Friday before losing to Newport in the quarters (if Newport weren’t having to play the irresistible City).

So where are we now? All season, 4-2-3-1 was working fairly well, on the whole. Pressed into a need for change, though, S-Mac goes 4-4-2 to squeeze Matt Smith into the side, giving us much-needed height at both ends. That works against Pompey’s patched up team, but comes spectacularly undone against Watford (although not Smith’s fault at all, as we’ll see below). So, we switch to 3-5-2, which works a treat. Yet the nagging feeling is 3-5-2, much like the other formations, causes more issues than it solves. As a one-off for 45 minutes, it worked well. Furlong can certainly play as part of a back 3, Hall is comfortable with that too. But Pav is not a wing back, and was exposed there last season. Bidwell is also not a wing back. It means Eze is likely to remain on the bench, and while he certainly has needed a rest, you would want him back in the side soon.

And the fact is, last season, with similar personnel at the back, 3-5-2 saw us continually attacked and destroyed by balls in behind the wing backs, and our season was only really saved when Ollie made a long overdue switch to four at the back.

So what do we do on Tuesday? Or Friday? I have no clue (at least Bristol and Watford won't either), but as exciting as the Cup run is, we could quite easily, in 9 days time, be out the Cup and be on 6 League losses in a row going up to Middlesbrough to face Pulisball. Then again, we might win three in a week once more and all will be well with the world. Impossible to predict.

2. FIRST HALF: I’ve seen some games when the anger pours down from the stands for a poor performance, but credit to the QPR fans on Saturday for not burning down the stadium after 40 minutes. Maybe we were just all in shock. Or mourning.

I’d agree with McClaren that the first 15 minutes weren’t too bad – in fact, BOS looked dangerous with two eye-catching moment. But from there until our first goal, things were diabolical. Birmingham, for sure, pressed hard, passed very well, and exploited the spaces between our rigid lines beautifully. And they had the game’s outstanding performer Che Adams in clinical form, scoring a fantastic hat trick. But we were dreadful. Dreadful in defence, where we were weak and slow to see danger. Dreadful in midfield where we failed to close down space without the ball and failed to find any space when we did have it and totally failed to back each other up. And worst of all, we were bullied into meek submission.

We are not a bad team. At times this season we’ve been incredibly strong and resourceful. None of that was in evidence on Saturday as we failed even basic tasks like challenging and battling and winning the odd second ball. That we changed that round so incredibly after the break showed tremendous spirit – but it never should have reached that point.

3. SMITH: We all love a cliché, me more than most. So let’s run through a few here. He was immense. It was a warrior-like performance. He was a man-mountain. This was an absolute bulldozing bastard of a performance. As bad as we were first half, I would except Smith from the general haranguing the rest of them deserved, because he did work, he did try, he did win balls and, crucially, he scored, giving us the tiniest glimmer of hope.

Second half he was even better and in the end it was almost like a one-on-one fight between him and the inspired Lee Camp, who denied him on at least four occasions – two of them properly excellent saves: the header he clawed out of the top corner, and the hit from the edge of the box that flicked off a defender and looked in until somehow he tipped it over the bar.

It’s a real turnaround for Smith and gives McClaren a real problem. A month ago, with Oteh playing well against Leeds, Smith was seemingly fourth choice striker. Now, with three goals in two games (and he really deserved a hat trick on Saturday), how do you drop him? Maybe, for now, we don’t: we have to stick with what’s most effective and play to those strengths, even if we know Smith certainly won’t be able to manage four 90 minute games in 11 days, which is what this team is facing at the moment. Absolutely brilliant. Tremendous heart.

4. SUBS: This was a fascinating response from McClaren. Clive and others have talked in the past about what you do when being heavily beaten at half time. Against Liverpool, with Suarez killing us every time he got the ball, Redknapp shut up shop and kept it respectable. Against Newcastle, while accepting it was 2-0 at half time and the game was theoretically still there, we had been absolutely destroyed, and the truth was the game wasn’t there. JFH bravely went for it and was duly punished. Hard. Sometimes, if he sits down for long periods, he can still feel the wounds of that pulsing on his beleaguered backside. I imagine.

Here, McClaren was very shrewd. At 4-1, there was a tiny chance, but he wasn’t about to chuck on Eze and Hemed and just go for broke. He changed formation, he brought on a central defender for a winger who had impressed going forward, but was caught out running the other way, and swapped one defensive, combative midfielder for another. The instructions were sensible, I suspect: don’t go mad, the next goal is vital. Get it to 4-2 and we have a chance, but don’t over-commit.

It worked brilliantly. Cousins who was booed in some quarters when his name was announced was (nice, lads), apart from one blindingly bad pass, a demon in midfield – a huge improvement on the sadly off-the-pace Scowen. He won loads of it, he passed well, and he topped it by finally scoring his first goal for us – and a beauty too. If there weren’t already echoes of the Port Vale 4-4, that certainly invited the comparison, similar as it was to Andy Impey’s superb finish that day. A really difficult skill to keep that under the bar.

And Leistner, after a poor game at Wigan, returned to give an imperious, captain’s performance here, barely giving Adams a kick, and heading away ball after ball. We’ll need a dollop of that against the powerful Deeney on Friday if we stand any chance.

And then once we were back in, he brought on Pav, who returned to form simply by keeping it simple: get ball, beat man, cross ball. Even that was a brave sub – removing Furlong would have been the obvious choice, but with Lynch out of sorts, he took the decision to trust his young player, and it worked well.

Really clever management from McClaren – but many would argue that the team he put out there was wrong in the beginning. Still, he showed trust in those that performed on Tuesday, and if you don’t do that, it will be hard to get fringe players to perform for you. Leistner arguably deserved to be dropped and while it’s easy to say in hindsight that we needed his strength at the back – come on, Hall and Lynch are not exactly a pair of Little Tom Carrolls. McClaren had every right to expect them not to be bullied to that degree.

5. SECOND HALF: And yet, I’d argue that we didn’t actually play brilliantly in the second half. We played well, don’t get me wrong, but what got us back in the game was guts. It was hard work, the willingness to chase, to harry, to battle, to refuse to be beaten. We didn’t play many lovely flowing moves – we made chances through sheer force of will, to playing to Smith’s strengths and absolute bloody-mindedness. All the qualities we missed in the first half. That was admirable, because even when it had been 4-2 for a long time and we started to flag, they kept going, kept fighting, kept believing they could somehow salvage a point. In the end, a point was the least we deserved – in the end, really, we should’ve won.

6. LEE CAMP: And one of the main reasons we didn’t was down to our old boy, Lee Camp. He’s not been brilliant in the games we’ve played against him over the years, and he looked mostly awful for Sunderland as he struggled with his back or his knees or both. But without being elegant, he was superb in the second half on Saturday. At the end of the game, having kept out countless shots and headers, and a penalty, it was he the Birmingham players went to: they knew he had saved them from embarrassment.

Much has already been written about the penalty, and it wasn’t great from Wells, but any penalty save is a great one and he denied us with his own incredible fortitude and skill. To top all that, though, he still turned to the Loft at the end and saluted them. He’ll always be special to us as that 20-year-old who came in and steadied our season, then returned and performed heroics in games like Leeds away, but for him, following that ludicrous second half maelstrom, to remember his connection to the club like that, was praiseworthy. Well played, Campy.
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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 2 Portsmouth 0
at 15:52 6 Feb 2019

I had this weird dream last night. We fairly comfortably won a cup match against lower league opposition. Proper weird it was.

1. MCCLAREN: As Clive has already tweeted, for the third time this season, McClaren has found a win when he really needed one. The comparisons with Ollie don't help much really, and are unfair given the differing circumstances both had to deal with, but throughout Ollie's time with us, in both stints in fact, he did have this difficulty in digging the team out of ruts. You could argue three ruts in 6 months is too many ruts, especially with our record with ruts, but at the same time, McClaren has shown flexibility and durability to overcome them (although we do still need to find some league form again ahead of a tough month).

Last night, he showed again that while he has complete faith in his favoured XI, he will change it when things are patently going wrong. A bold switch to 4-4-2 ('Yes, Martin. How it always used to be!' (c) Alan Smith, FIFA 18) sprang a surprise on Pompey, and three new players all gave us a new dimension: Smith with his physicality; BOS with his pace and Hall with his comfort on the ball at the back. And out went almost any attempt to play the ball short from goal kicks (although actually, Pompey never pressed high from goal kicks, so this is one game it could've worked, especially with Hall playing). While this wasn't a scintillating performance by any means, it was, as SM himself said, 'professional'. Lumley had nothing to do other than claim the odd cross, pick up one or two very weak efforts, and fall down dramatically a few times towards the end in an effort to waste a bit of time. The only real question was if we would score and after some pressure, it did finally come.

McClaren admitted after the game the players had felt pressure going into this one. A disappointing loss here would have killed the season stone dead and could have been disastrous as we face tough games coming up. Instead, hopefully some confidence has been restored, some players got a rest, and we're in the actual fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since John Major was quietly eating his peas for dinner with Norma at number 10.

FREEMAN: After what was by all accounts a whole team of bad performances in our last two games, here was one with all good (if not great) performances. And yet, how might last night have gone without Luke Freeman? While we did play well, actual chances were at a premium and time and again we looked at our most dangerous from set pieces, which it must be said have been very good all season - not only because of Freeman's outstanding delivery, but also because of the movement in the box and the work done on the training ground for specific set pieces.

Last night we had Furlong's header that hit the bar - beautifully worked, that. Wells almost scored after we tried the nice low corner we did once before this season, using Eze that time I think. Luongo had a header go just wide. Then the goal, followed by the classic Freeman to Smith combo for a second. I mean, that's one man creating on his own about 5 or 6 good scoring opportunities in one game. He is vital and I worry a lot what might happen if we are forced to sell this summer. A good set piece taker used to be Bobby Robson's first priority for any team he managed. We have our best at QPR now for many years. It's not just the accuracy, it's the consistency.

Particularly enjoyed him joking with Pav (or the crowd?) just before he delivered the cross for Smith's headbanging finish. Can only assume everyone was thinking or saying the same as me: that ball could not be in a more perfect position for Freeman to put it on Smith's head. And there it is.

3. HIT THE BIG MAN: Throwback to last season, when Mathieu led our line with what I'm going to call aplomb, only he didn't have Nakhi Wells next to him then. McClaren doesn't see Smith as a long term option, or as anything other than a weapon from the bench (a fate Smith has endured at pretty much all Championship clubs he's been at), but he proved last night that he can be a genuine danger over 90 minutes. I thought he had a great game - he won a lot of the ball in both boxes, worked really hard, caused them a lot of problems and deserved his goal, which he met with such force that the ball asked for treatment afterwards.

It's a tough one for Smith. He'd likely be an absolute beast in League One, but most clubs in this league would use him as we have - sparingly and mainly from the bench. His all-round game is not quite there to be first choice, but when he plays like that McClaren must be tempted to try him a bit more often. Would Watford fancy him with Freeman whipping those balls in? Still, he'll never win you a penalty. Even having his shirt pulled up to his neck wasn't enough last night.

4. FURLONG: As the leader of the FAS (Furlong Appreciation Society), I have to admit his form has been patchy lately. That's not totally surprising - before December he hadn't played competitively for at least 5 months, and then was suddenly playing twice a week. But, still. With Rangel almost back, his place is under threat. But he was much better last night: partly because Pompey never bothered attacking the right all night, so he mostly played almost as a right midfielder at times (which he did very well - one lay-off to Freeman in the first half was lovely). He was unlucky not to score, was a real danger at set pieces and offered us an outlet down the right. Good to see him back playing better, but tougher challenges await this month.

5. HALL: Slightly surprising to see him start, but it made total sense really. Leistner has looked leggy lately, and didn't cover himself in glory at Wigan. Why not rest him and play Hall? His opponent was the decidedly awkward Hawkins, who admired Hall so much he was keen to swap shirts at almost every opportunity, but especially as the game wore on, Hall, and Lynch, soon had a firm grip on him. In the end, much like against Leeds, it was a straightforward outing for Hall and left me hoping that maybe he might, possibly, get fit enough to be a regular again. Would be a massive boost if that could happen - also gives us another option in the Cameron/Scowen role too.

6. WEMBLEY: Well, this is it, isn't it? Watford, then Brentford, then Chelsea, then City in the final. Four steps from immortality. It's that easy. It's funny, it was a great turnout, good atmosphere, I thought Portsmouth brought great numbers. And yet, at the end, there was no real outpouring of joy, partially, I suppose, because it had been a relatively straightforward win in a game that you'd hope we would win. But we're in the fifth round. There are grown-ass adults at that game who have never seen us get this far. It's miraculous. Even when it ends with Watford winning 3-0 quite comfortably, it'll still be miraculous.
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Will grigg £4m
at 15:33 1 Feb 2019

If ever there was an example of how mental fees for strikers are, this is it. Not only that, but Sunderland have been ‘learning lessons’ about their spending, then the moment they’re forced to sell their homegrown striker to Bordeaux, the money burns in the pocket and £4m goes on Grigg!
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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 1 Preston 4
at 11:55 21 Jan 2019

The problem is, if you're going to beat Preston, you need Dexter Blackstock up front.

1. FIRST GOAL: OK, let's start with a jerk that many won't agree with. First of all, I don't think Joe Lumley was at fault for this goal. There are a few reasons why, but principally, it was not a bad pass and Scowen was calling for the ball. Once he had it and was under pressure, he had two easy choices. One, simply get rid (and shout at Lumley if he thought it was too risky). And two, play it back to Lumley to get rid. Both simple things that he could easily have done. What he shouldn't have done is try to do a blind nutmeg of the onrushing attacker. His reaction said it all. Head in hands, several apologies to Lumley. Fine - it was a mistake, these things happen, Scowen is big enough to take it on the chin.

But the wider point is about playing out from the back. There's been a lot of talk on here about how we stopped playing short goal kicks after the first four games. We never did. We did it less for sure, and went for safety more often, but we never, ever stopped doing it and in fact for almost every goal kick the two centre backs have been splitting and looking for the ball. So where this notion that we stopped doing it has come from I don't get - I suppose, we were just smarter about when to do it and when not to. But it certainly never stopped being a part of our game - nor should it stop being part of our game.

The reason I believe that is that, particularly without Hemed or Cameron, we are a very short side. Our possibilities from goal kicks are not great - it's a wide ball to the right for Pav or Furlong, or Bidwell on the left. Now, on Saturday, with Preston pushing three attackers up to tightly mark Lynch, Leistner and Scowen, should we have gone for the longer option more often? Yes. But that goal was wholly avoidable, and we still should not be afraid to play the short goal kick when the option presents itself.

I completely do not buy the idea that 'we haven't got the players to do it'. Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Here's the point of playing short goal kicks - it's to try and keep possession. Every defender in this league is capable of receiving a ball and then passing it. If they weren't, they couldn't play at this level. Now, they're not John Stones, as Scowen proved; they're not able to sashay past a couple of attackers and play a sliderule ball through to our striker. But they are more than capable of doing what we need them to do, which is to pass to a midfielder.

The problem on Saturday was not playing short balls to defenders from goal kicks. It was that once the defenders received the ball, there was no one to pass to. The movement was non-existent. And I don't care who you are, if you are not given an angle for a pass, you cannot make a pass. And this, to me, was the issue on Saturday. Yes, we should have varied it more, but the root of the problem we had was that we didn't do enough to counteract Preston's pressing. We shouldn't stop passing to the LLs at the back, or to Scowen. But the rest of the side does need to be more aware of what happens next.

2. WHAT WENT WRONG?: Everything, in short. Probably once a season, and it's not an excuse, you get a game where the players don't turn up. It felt the same with the fans, actually. It was very quiet at kick off, especially compared to the relatively decent noise against Leeds. You can't even blame Preston for this, they brought down a sizeable crowd and made decent noise. But it felt like everyone was sat on their hands, feeling cold, expecting a bad game and hoping for a narrow win. Not blaming the fans, which is silly, but just noting that both players and fans seemed flat. And if you start a game like that it's very hard to up the tempo when you need to. Sometimes, a spark can happen, like a poor refereeing decision or a bad foul by the opposition, but on Saturday nothing shook us out of our torpor except, fleetingly, after Smith scored. Maybe had that goal come at 2-0, we might have found another gear. But overall, and we haven't been able to say this since the very early days of the season, we just didn't turn up. No one was rank awful, but no one - not one single player - had a 'good' game. It wasn't even, I don't think, lack of effort.

3. SH1THOUSERY: I wasn't at the Preston game earlier this season, but overall I didn't see any terrible sh!thousing from them in this game, barring the Barton-like Pearson, who had an excellent game, but was also an irritating pr!ck throughout, falling to phantom challenges and pathetically throwing himself to the floor after he and Freeman touched tits. Still, good player and we had no answer to him really. The only other thing was that once they were one-up, they had the trainer on six times (I did count) to our zero. Even allowing for the fact that we're chasing the game and bad challenges might be more likely to come from us in desperation, that's a bit ridiculous.

Having said all of this though, if the roles had been totally reversed we'd be saying how well we played, how clinical we were, how hard we worked and how we'd done so well to nullify the opposition. We can't just sit here and say we were crap. Fact is, Preston were all right in the first half, but by the end were much the better side, played very well and deserved the win. Although why on earth you'd play 'keep it in the corner' at 4-1 in the 93rd minute is a little beyond me. Come on lads.

4. SUBS: We did have subs on earlier this time - notably Smith at half time (which, to be fair to McClaren, was at least partly in answer to the problem of our goal kicks - giving us another genuine option). And for five minutes it did work. Smith one three or four in a row, Wells had two half chances which he was a little unlucky with, and it looked like we may turn a corner. Quickly though, Preston reorganised at the back and at least until he scored, dealt well with the giant.

After that, though, I felt other changes could and should have come sooner. I thought Pav was at least causing some problems and the change I would have made would have been Eze off for BOS, with Freeman going more central. I've said this before, but if Eze is struggling, SM can't be afraid to take him off. Freeman can play in that position very well and sometimes you do need to change it a bit.

However, like Clive, I'd also have preferred to see Oteh than Smith. He's confident, in form, fast and strong. He should have been on in this game, and we certainly in a game in which we were playing so poorly we should not have got as late as we did without using all three subs.

5. COUSINS: I really feel for Cousins. It often feels to me that when one player gives the ball away the crowd does little. When Cousins does it, the groan is much larger. Now no one would say he played well on Saturday, but he certainly wasn't worse than anyone else and he also didn't give away their first goal. Having said that, time is beginning to run out. He's shown signs this season that the player we hoped we were getting is there, but I'm not sure it's going to be enough. The only thing that may see us offering a new contract (and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have been offered yet) is our own financial situation - could we get someone better on similar money if we did let him go on a free in a few months? He's starting to feel a bit like Washington - not a bad player, but it's not happening for him here.

6. PITCH INVADER: I'd like to thank the pitch invader because I was so busy watching him lollop around like a pillock I missed the agony of their third goal. Which I've since watched, and it was awful, awful defending. Oh well.
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Pompey away...
at 10:34 8 Jan 2019

Never been, but an ex gf of mine lived near the ground for a bit and said it was like a warzone on matchdays. Who's been, what's it like there, are there at least some decent pubs where bricks won't come in through the windows?
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Antti's Six Knee Jerks: QPR 2 Leeds 1
at 14:29 7 Jan 2019

One of the reasons, I've heard, that Stranger Things series 3 is taking such a long time to complete, is because the writers of Stranger Things series 3 are finding it really hard to come up with things stranger than what has been going on at Loftus Road this season. From 7-1 maulings through to three-wins-in-a-week runs, to being able to keep clean sheets to winning away games - and not the usual away games at Birmingham, but proper away games at Nottingham Forest. It has the writers believing that The Upside Down, a telekinetic girl and zombie dogs just won't cut it this time. It all seems so... bland, so everyday. And after Sunday's victory, many on the production threw their hands in the air in absolute desperation. 'And now they've won an FA Cup game!' yelled one.
'A replay, though, suely?'
'No. First fking go.'
'Oh for fks sake. Well, it's the nuclear option for us: Eleven goes on holiday with Steve Bruce to the West Indies to watch some cricket and ends up coming up with a master plan to help save Sheffield Wednesday's season, just as soon as Steve and his fat belly can be arst to get back to actually take up the job.'
'Zombie owls?'
'Obvs.'

1. THE TEAM: Clive put it best in his preview. For weeks, even at the time I bought my ticket, I had been thinking: 'ok, this year, let's properly go for it in the Cup. We're not going up, we're not going down and with the amount of clubs not giving a chinchilla's anus about the competition about we could, if we were really lucky, have a proper cup run to Round 4. But then I think most of us read Clive's preview and reluctantly agreed: resting a few might not be the worst idea in the world.

In my head, though, I thought we'd go with keeping the defence together on the whole, and make more changes up front. Something like: Ingram, Kakay, BFG, Lynch, Bidwell; two out of three of Cousins, Scowen and Manning; BOS, Chair, then probably either Freeman or Pav; Oteh.

In the end, Stevie Mac surprised me by resting both centre backs and keeping two players I felt for sure would be rested (Furs, Eze) and another who I thought probably would be (Freeman). It felt, if the defence would hold and Grant Hall could walk, like quite a good compromise before the game, and looked masterful by the end. Furlong continued his good form, we still had the steel and ball-winning ability in midfield and, most importantly, we carried both established threat in the in-form Freeman and Eze and the fresh legs of BOS and Oteh.

He made changes, but good ones, necessary ones. And it didn't feel like he was treating it as a practise game. And he, and we, were rewarded. It wasn't a great game, but it was a good one, and easily the best 3rd Round game we've had for a couple of decades. Well done to Steve, well done to the club for the sensible pricing, well done to the fans that came, well done to the players for winning. Lovely day all round.

Interesting decision to make Freeman captain too, a reflection of how important he is to the side, and also, I think, just a nudge to show him how valued he is. Furlong, Hall, Bidwell and Scowen have all captained the side over the last couple of years, but Freeman leap-frogged the lot: a testament to his form, perhaps, but also his growing maturity as a player and as a team player. He's not only our main creator, he also works his balls off too - a great example.

2. OTEH: Smegma has been singing the praises of Oteh all season, even claiming he's 'better than Eze' the other day, which is high praise indeed, and finally he got a proper chance to play a full first team game again after the odd appearance last year. The signs are really good. I remember his game at home to Boro last season, where he was just monstered by Boro's enormous defence. It wasn't his fault, they were bigger, stronger, more experienced and just bullied him out of it - he was subbed at half time.

With the caveat that Leeds had far from their first choice defence, and began the second half without a single recognised centre back even on the pitch, he looks to have come a long way in a year. He looks more confident, stronger and just more sure of himself and more able to properly cause a team problems. He has good pace, he likes to run with the ball, he made some really intelligent runs and possibly the reason Halme was taken off at half time was because he was already on a yellow and with the way we were getting behind him he looked a prime candidate for a red card in the second half.

But obviously the biggest thing was the penalty, won by the wily Bidwell. I assumed Eze would probably take it (clearly Freeman doesn't fancy them for some unknown reason), but surprise at Oteh taking the ball was tempered when I remembered Smegma noting how cool Oteh has been on pens for the U23s this season. And there it was - nice and calm, sent the keeper the wrong way, goal.

Really good performance, really encouraging. Poor Matt Smith.

3. BOS: At last we also got to see a proper (almost) 90 minutes from Bright. And again it was impressive. What I particularly like about BOS is his single-mindedness. He gets the ball and his first thought, even if challenged, isn't 'let me just play this safe and lay it off' - it's 'right, I'll get past this one, then it's a shot or a cross.' Almost every time. That directness - a clever directness, mind, not a head-down-and-run kind - is invaluable to any team looking to create chances, and with his speed it's a real weapon. I don't now the stats, but he got several crosses in on Saturday, was never afraid to run at his man, defended enthusiastically, and was generally a real danger all game.

He's really showing that he is ready to step into this side when he's needed - and with Freeman's form going through the roof at the moment that might, sadly, be sooner rather than later.

4. BIDWELL: He might've expected to be rested yesterday, but maybe he insisted on playing, because he looked like he really enjoyed it. Leeds like to stay wide and overload the wings, but that didn't deter him from getting forward a lot to help Freeman/BOS down that left hand side. He was having real fun in the air against a small Leeds side, and really could easily have scored before he finally netted the winner with a superb header from yet another dangerous Freeman corner. He is now our leading FA Cup scorer at the club, with two. Well done Bids. Also, a lovely turn on the edge of the box drawing the silly lunge from the Leeds defender for the penalty. Really good game from him: his experience was needed, and like the other more senior players (in which I'd weirdly count Eze, who played really well and felt like such an established player) in the side, he really stepped up.

5. DEFENCE: We should say before praising the defence that Leeds had no recognised striker and an extremely young side out. Still, we had young players too, and I thought the defence played well. Kakay had his problems with Alioski, mainly because Leeds stay so wide and we like our full backs to be nice and compact. But still, the last game he played agaonst opponents from this league was at West Brom. He must've been nervous, but didn't show it. Played well. Darnell Furlong proved again that he will at some stage become a centre back and will also one day be Captain of QPR. That man's dad may be Paul Furlong, but it's another Rangers great, Paul Parker, who his leap most reminds me of. Grant Hall, I am contractually obliged to say, looked rusty, especially early on, yet his comfort on the ball, his ability to get himself out of tough situations with a bit of skill, served him well and it was great to see him back. With no proper striker to mark, it was a perfect game for him. Christ, if he could get properly fit again he would be (checks contract, nods) Like a New Signing. And Bidwell did well, as said above.

Which leaves us with Matt Ingram. It all started well, with one particularly good punch from a corner, but then came the goal, which he knows, I know and we all know he should have dealt with comfortably, and then came the slight delay on kicking which resulted in a block and a slightly fortuitous goal kick. Out came our goalie coach, whose name I shamefully do not know, to helpfully make the 'fingers to temples' sign to Matt, which felt a little obvious, and yet seemed to do the trick. Ingram settled down, made some routine saves and then some very decent ones in a blemish-free second half. That took real character.

You have to feel for him. Well, I say that. But how many of us do. I absolutely *guarantee* someone will reply to this saying they did not hear this happening, but if you didn't, you just weren't paying attention or were perhaps concentrating hard on the game: the next, straight forward, save he made, our fans *our fans* cheered sarcastically. Not all of them. But quite a lot. After *one* mistake. I actually brought a Leeds friend along (he was very wll behaved, don't worry) and even he turned to me with wide eyes and open mouth. I mean seriously, are we not over this? We have a decent squad all working hard for the club, a manager doing a fine job, a CEO doing a fine job, a Director of Football who loves the club and is doing a fine job, we're near the play-offs, we're in good form, young players are getting chances. And still this sort of sh!t? What do those people think? 'Ah this'll make him feel better, I'll be sarcastic when he catches one?' Christ, I despair. And you'd think, for a Cup game, this would be our core, our really core fans, who aren't total assholes. Well done Ingram for having a good second half and shoving their pathetic sneering back up their backsides.

6. YOUTH: We saw quite a lot of it last season, particularly near the end, and it was disappointing if, in retrospect, understandable, that we saw less of it this season. But I can't help feel excited. We have Lumley, Furs and Eze as regulars. Chair looks like he might be someone who could step up, as do Oteh and BOS. And that's without even mentioning Smyth and Manning who, while, like Furs is not exactly a 'youngster', still came through the system to some degree. I mean, this is really exciting isn't it? Leeds did not have their first team out by a long way, but still: Kakay, Furs, BOS, Eze and Oteh all in the side from the start and no one looked overawed or out of place.

I've been convinced for weeks that injuries / suspensions / loss of form / McClaren's propensity to manage sides that fade badly after Christmas (or all of the above) will see us revert to type and we'll finish a little tamely, but still nice after the start we had, in a position between 11th and 16th. But this keeps being defied. Everyone said we were winning because of the loanees. But one barely played, two have been injured for weeks, and none played at all yesterday. And still we won.

Must. Stop. Optimism. Rising.

Stranger Things, though.
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