QPR are champions, for a week at least, after Watford win – full match report
Sunday, 1st May 2011 16:15 by Clive Whittingham
Saturday was one of the great days in the lives of QPR supporters everywhere, as the R’s sealed the Championship title with a 2-0 win at Watford.
It was 1976 the last, and only, time QPR came close to getting their hands on the gleaming silver First Division trophy. Back then Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis, Phil Parkes et al completed their regular season, spookily with a home fixture against Leeds as will be the case next week, as the league’s leading side. They were champions for just ten days, as Liverpool squeezed a game in hand at Wolves in between UEFA Cup commitments a week and a half after the season ended and snatched it from QPR’s grasp.
The creation of the Premiership in 1992 means that the same trophy we had so cruelly snatched from us all those years ago is now the prize for winning ‘The Championship’ and all being well it’s ours at last. This Saturday thousands will pack into Loftus Road for a final fixture against Leeds that should have nothing riding on it from a QPR point of view and should end with Adel Taarabt lifting the cup - hopefully in the centre of the pitch but given our recent propensity for pitch invasions it may well be at the front of the director’s box.
That is unless it’s taken away from us again, this time by an FA hearing into the Alejandro Faurlin transfer deal ridiculously scheduled to finish a day before the final match. You’d never have guessed it from the outpouring of relief, joy and celebration on the pitch and in the stands at Vicarage Road on Saturday, but this penultimate game against Watford was played against the backdrop of a national newspaper, if The Sun can be deemed as that rather than a comic book, stating confidently that Rangers will be deducted as many as 15 points and quoting an FA source.
The Mirror has since retorted, saying the Sun’s story is wholly inaccurate and that, given the use of an FA source within the copy, Rangers may seek a further delay on the grounds that the already farcical process has been irreparably prejudiced. What can we glean from all of this? Well clearly nobody knows what on earth is going on, but you don’t very often find a journalist admitting that so they’ll trot out a piece anyway, riddled with cop out words such as “possibly” in case it turns out to be nonsense.
As pre-match distractions come The Sun’s Friday splash was a big one. But it takes more than that to put this QPR team off its stride. Throw it into a melting pot with an injury to goalkeeper and Player of the Year contender Paddy Kenny in the warm up, another knock ruling out left back Clint Hill and forcing centre half Matt Connolly to play there out of position, another injury midway through the first half to Fitz Hall forcing another reshuffle to the back four and a pitch that resembled the surface of the moon and you could perhaps have forgiven the QPR players for assuming it wasn’t their day and giving up.
Not a bit of it. Radek Cerny replaced Paddy Kenny in goal and kept a league record busting twenty fifth clean sheet of the season. Connolly, fresh from a recent spell in a padded room after some horror shows in the second half of the season, remained nice and solid at left back. And Fitz Hall’s replacement? Well, what more is there to say about Danny Shittu? He’s had a mediocre second spell with the club since signing in January, but here he was magnificent.
Neil Warnock was at least able to name his usual side further up the field after completing the reshuffled back line with Kaspars Gorkss alongside first Hall and then Shittu and Bradley Orr at right full back. Alejandro Faurlin, calmly going about his business of being the division’s outstanding midfield ball player in the face of constant spotlight and speculation, partnered Shaun Derry in the holding positions with Adel Taarabt and Wayne Routledge further forward. The attacking front three was completed by Tommy Smith, making a five hundredth career appearance and searching for a one hundredth career goal against one of his former employers. Heidar Helguson was also back on an old stomping ground in the lone striker role, he needed two goals for his own century at the start of play.
The main goal scoring threat on the pitch at kick off though seemed to be wearing yellow. Watford have been tremendously entertaining this season and started with 27 goal striker Danny Graham in attack alongside his 15 goal sidekick Marvin Sordell. Graham beat Cardiff’s Jay Bothroyd into the Championship Team of the Year despite playing for a midtable side in a season when Bothroyd’s form was so impressive he earnt an England cap as a second tier player. The Hornets won 3-1 at Loftus Road in December and were impressive in doing so. This looked a tough ask.
On a difficult playing surface Rangers immediately got to work. Tommy Smith collected possession deep in the left channel and touched it back to Adel Taarabt. The Championship Player of the Year checked back onto his right foot and delivered a superb cross into the back post that Watford keeper Scott Loach wanted nothing to do with. Heidar Helguson steamed in at the back post and bundled it into the side netting when he looked well placed to do better.
Within 60 seconds the R’s were on the attack again with Taarabt claiming a generous free kick award from referee Neil Swarbrick but then sending his delivery harmlessly through to Loach.
And the R’s kept up their ratio of an attack every minute when Matthew Connolly successfully chased what looked to be a lost cause down to the corner flag and not only kept the ball in play but delivered a dangerous, high, looping cross to the back post which again had Loach in two minds about whether to come or go and this time the keeper had to make a smart save from close range as Helguson climbed above his man and headed for goal.
When Taarabt raced through to score in the eighth minute, albeit having previously been flagged offside after the ball inadvertently rebounded into his path off Tommy Smith’s head, the travelling contingent from West London may have started to believe this was all going to be one way traffic but a first Watford attack of the afternoon that ended with a shot from Troy Deeney that flew over the bar severed as a reality check.
Watford settled down a little as the time ticked into double figures, their tactics very clearly based on those that Cardiff and Hull used against us to decent effect – namely, balls in behind the defence forcing the QPR backline to turn and face their own goal. Rangers’ defence is not the quickest, and Dave Jones and Nigel Pearson both found success, and three goals between them, in this method of playing against QPR. On the quarter hour Helguson foolishly conceded a free kick for a foul on the halfway line when Lee Hodson didn’t seem to be going anywhere at the time. That was pumped in behind Gorkss who nervously conceded a corner that came to nothing. Then the Hornets targeted Bradley Orr, who slipped chasing back to catch Lloyd Doyle giving the right back a chance to cross from the byline but his ball in was much too high for his team mates in the penalty area.
On 20 minutes Helguon redeemed himself by winning a soft free kick of his own. With the ball positioned a good 35 yards out from goal and well left of centre Taarabt decided to go for one of those low, cross shot type efforts that you often see goalkeepers caught out with. It looked initially like he’d played the ball too close to Loach but when the goalkeeper inexplicably spilled the ball out in front of him Watford were indebted to Mariappa who swooped in an knocked the loose ball behind as Helguson threatened to pounce. Loach would go on to make two very fine saves indeed in the second half but the rest of his game – command of box, handling, distribution, decision making – was woefully poor for a goalkeeper who is on the fringes of the England senior squad.
That was a real let off for Loach and Watford, and they had another one two minutes later at the midway point of the first half when Alejandro Faurlin missed an absolute sitter at the end of the best passing move of the match. Faurlin, typically, had a hand in the build up by collecting Helguson’s well timed chest pass on the halfway line and then engineering space for himself with a shoulder drop and immaculate first touch. Rangers then made light of a series of bobbles and deviations taken by the ball on the pitch as Faurlin found Smith and he in turn fed Taarabt wide on the left. The Moroccan cut in field and unselfishly (that’s right) squared the ball across the face of the goal for Faurlin, who’d arrived late and not been picked up, but the Argentinean lifted a poor shot over the bar with the goal crying out to be scored.
That move had started with Fitz Hall facing his own goal in the left channel and hooking the ball away to Helguson over his shoulder. Such moments of athleticism from Hall often come at a cost and sure enough when play stopped he slumped to the ground, clutching his porcelain hamstring once again. Hall had been an injury doubt all week and with that in mind it was hard to understand why Neil Warnock had taken a chance with him – given his lack of ability or willingness to play through the multitude of knocks, strains and pulls he seems to pick up. In the end the injury turned out to be a blessing as he was replaced by Danny Shittu who had an immense hour at the heart of the QPR defence.
It must be said it didn’t start well for Danny. Looking to make an impact on the game he immediately went up for a header he was never going to win against Sordell and came crashing down to earth with Watford able to attack a now depleted QPR back line. Deeney picked up the ball and got the wrong side of Connolly giving him time to attack the byline and produce a perfect near post cross that Danny Graham met powerfully in the air but buried just a foot or so wide of the post with Cerny well beaten.
And when Faurlin gave Shittu a suicide ball on halfway five minutes later Watford hustled him out of possession and sent Sordell through on goal for a cool finish but female assistant referee Sian Massey flagged for offside. Moments later she infuriated Watford manager Malky Mackay by failing to spot that Wayne Routledge was two yards over the touchline when he retrieved a loose ball and allowed him to play on – although in Massey’s defence Mackay’s tendency to stand right on the touchline she was trying to officiate probably didn’t help her line of vision.
The offside goals kept coming, Faurlin stabbed home Taarabt’s cross shot seven minutes before half time but was denied by the flag, and Shittu’s involvement in the game grew when he met a Taarabt corner but could only head the ball into the ground and straight at Loach.
Missed first half opportunities can come back to haunt you in the second period if you don’t score enough, as Rangers found out during an insipid second half showing against Hull last Monday. I started to wonder whether we may see something of a repeat in this game as Watford finished the first half much the stronger of the two teams. Aided by QPR’s mindblowing attitude to throw ins in their own half (hurl it down the line whether somebody is there or not and inevitably conceded possession within two touches) Watford pressed and Will Buckley hacked a wild effort into the stand behind the goal.
Then with Rangers appealing in vain for a free kick for a foul on Routledge on the halfway line Watford won a corner on the stroke of half time and Martin Taylor’s header forced a comfortable save from Radek Cerny.
Half time brought three children from each club out into the penalty area for an impromptu shootout at Watford’s large furry Hornet mascot. In most un-QPR like fashion the R’s kids safely and confidently dispatched their three spot kicks to give the visiting team the spoils, cheered to the rafters by the travelling QPR contingent that as well as the 2,000 official ticket holders behind the goal also included sizeable pockets of visitors in the home stands to our right.
The teams exchanged shots on goal in the first five minutes of the second half, though QPR went rather closer than Watford did with theirs. The home side went first, Deeney crafting space for himself on the edge of the box only to see the resulting shot deflect safely through to Cerny in goal. Then when a long Danny Shittu free kick narrowly eluded Helguson in the area and was played out for a corner Taarabt swung the ball out to the edge of the bx where Faurlin met it very well indeed and forced a fine, full stretch save from Loach to keep the scores level. A fraction higher and it was in.
That save resulted in a second corner, which was cleared by Taylor on this occasion but immediately stuck back in behind the advancing Watford defence and although Routledge read the play well and carried the ball into the area his low shot lacked the accuracy and conviction of the one he scored with from a similar position against Sheffield United at Loftus Road.
Mackay had his hand forced by injury before the hour, defender Martin Taylor left the field to be replaced by former Kettering loanee Dale Bennett. Although you would have thought the absence of giant Taylor from Watford’s set pieces would benefit QPR they were caught cold with the first Watford corner of the second half which came tinged with controversy. Firstly Cerny appeared to have done a reasonably decent job of keeping the ball in play only for the linesman on the other side of the pitch decided he’d seen enough to give a corner despite being a long way behind the play. Then although Cerny still had a ball in his hands Watford utilised their multi-ball system to get the corner taken quickly before QPR were set and the R’s were indebted to Faurlin for a clearance in the goal mouth as Mariappa arrived unchallenged to head for goal.
The argument about multi-ball is that as a defending team you should be switched on and alive to danger from the moment the ball goes out of play, not using throw ins and corners as an opportunity for a breather. On the face of it the game picks up speed, the ball is in play for longer, and there is less potential for time wasting – there’s nothing not to like – but I’m not a fan of it and neither, it seems are QPR.
On the hour a ball went out for a QPR throw in near the Watford corner flag and in stark contrast to the way the Watford players were able to have a ball in hand and be ready to play within seconds of play stopping in their favour Tommy Smith was made to wait for a ball by the Vicarage Road ball boys, allowing the home side to get their defence in order to face it.
Rangers had not coped at all well with Watford’ quick throw ins and set pieces to this point, mainly through visible lapses in concentration, and the ball boys tardiness in returning the ball to Smith gave QPR a chance to put a stop to it. Smith, Derry and other QPR players made a point of going to referee Swarbrick and asking him why Watford were being allowed to start the game within seconds of it stopping while QPR had to wait, conveniently just until the Watford defence is set, to get on with it themselves. This disagreement soon started to boil over with Taarabt and Eustace getting involved, and then an extended conference between referee and managers down on the touchline.
Multi-ball is a system that can be used to your great advantage as the home team, and it’s one Watford milk for all it’s worth. Twice in the game Watford were able to take a throw in with a QPR player who’d been involved in conceding it in the first place not yet back onto the field of play. But it’s unfair to use such a tactic, and offering a towel to a player to dry the ball with, if the same concessions are not made to the opposition team too. I remember being at Brighton’s Withdean Stadium when Matthew Rose scored a blockbuster in injury time and seeing ball boys cease their enthusiastic use of the multi-ball system as soon as Brighton were in front, only to then pick it up again when QPR equalised.
When play did finally resume, after a bumbling few moments of chaos, Shaun Derry sent a bouncing bomb shot from the edge of the area wide of the post by a good six feet with Loach happy to watch it go on its way. It now looks like Derry will finish the season without a senior goal to his name – few players at QPR deserve one more this season so maybe he’ll take a penalty next week if we get one.
Having successfully calmed everybody down after the multi-ball row Swarbrick then allowed the game to escape from his grasp momentarily. John Eustace stopped mid-move to stand on the halfway line and scream at the referee for a free kick he felt he should have had but didn’t get. Then, possibly to even things up for that, the referee allowed robust fouls on Derry and then Faurlin to go unpunished before the visitors were finally awarded a free kick for a late challenge on Gorkss. The aftermath looked like a scene from Platoon, with bodies strewn around the park and the referee relived that his momentary loss of control hadn’t resulted in a serious injury no doubt.
With a quarter of an hour left to play both managers played a card. Malky Mackay sent on Matt Wichelow for Marvin Sordell while Neil Warnock brought on Akos Buzsaky for Wayne Routledge. Buzsaky is an odd case really – it’s hard to understand why a player of such game changing ability has been used so sparingly in the second half of the season, particularly as when he started a game at Middlesbrough we won 3-0 and he played exceptionally well. Warnock has preferred to send on Patrick Agyemang or Ishmael Miller when Rangers are in need of an attacking change, but after Dave’s latest less than impressive cameo against Hull clearly the manager felt a different tact was required, and not before time in my opinion. Warnock’s substitutions have been his main weak spot this season, that and his signing of Leon Clarke, and initially here the feeling among the LFW travelling party was that he’d erred again. I’d have taken Taarabt off, others felt Smith should have gone, nobody round us really wanted to see Routledge withdrawn. A fine example of why we’re fans and Neil Warnock is a football manager was about to be delivered.
Within two minutes of Buzsaky coming on Rangers had gone into the lead. Too often on the day they’d given away silly possession from the goalkeeper by simply losing the first and second ball when Radek Cerny cleared the ball down the field – something both teams were guilty of. A frustrating passage of play developed from the restart whereby Cerny twice kicked the ball long down the field, Watford won the first header and the second loose ball and Rangers were then forced to go back to Cerny first from the head of Gorkss and then from Shittu. Frustrated and bored, Cerny then decided to kick from the floor to try and get less height and more accuracy onto his clearance, but almost danced too close to Danny Graham and was lucky to get any sort of clearance away at all. While the away fans reached for the spare pants Tommy Smith got in down the QPR left and created a magical moment in the history of our club.
Smith’s cross from the byline deflected off Dale Bennett as he attempted to get back at him and landed plum into the path of Adel Taarabt on the edge of the six yard box – he did the rest, a et side footed finish in midair past Loach and into the net to create absolute pandemonium in the stand behind the goal.
Be it the goal or the introduction of Buzsaky or both suddenly QPR found it much easier to maintain possession and move the ball around the field. After Helguson won a foul on the edge of the area Buzsaky smacked a dipping free kick over the wall that Loach did well to reach in the bottom corner and palm away. Then when Helguson chased down a through ball and teed up Taarabt on the edge of the area the resulting shot curled a fraction wide of the post with Loach well beaten. Finally, with a gut wrenching five minutes of stoppage time advertised by the fourth official, Taarabt raced away from the halfway line in a two on two situation and set Helguson up who the Icelandic striker could only drill over the bar when through on the goalkeeper. The mystery of why Buzsaky hasn’t been used more grew with every passing minute because we looked a much more composed outfit with him on the field.
Although Rangers did meakly attempt to keep the ball by the corner flag in the time honoured clock running fashion a couple of times, it’s not really in the team’s nature and didn’t go very well. A far better idea seemed to be to pile forward for a second goal against a Watford side that was clearly very tired, and obviously weakened through the middle of their team by the earlier withdrawal of Taylor.
The second goal, the one hundredth of Tommy Smith’s career, came with a minute of stoppage time left to play. Picking the ball up from Faurlin on the edge of the area Smith’s experience and ability was all too much for Bennett who was left completely for dead and could then only stand and watch as Smith drilled in the killer second goal against his former club. The celebrations in the away end after the first goal had been raucous, now with many QPR fans including myself in tears it was the turn of the players to let off some steam with a huge pile of bodies on top of Tommy Smith distracting attention away from Taarabt and Faurlin screaming with delight and wheeling their arms around in front of the fans. It was a tremendous moment to be alive.
The final whistle followed soon after, with QPR fans from all three sides of the ground pouring onto the pitch. Neil Warnock came over to the away end and celebrated in classic fashion before being absolutely mobbed by a gang of supporters – it turns out Patrick Agyemang does have his uses after all, fishing the manager out of such situations.
The Alejandro Faurlin thing has provided the QPR players with an ideal excuse for a late choke in recent weeks. With the sensationalised coverage of the affair, allied with the everyday pressure of leading a league down the home straight, it would have been easy for performances to slip, results to suffer and the league title be blown. QPR have led the table from week one, except for a brief one week spell in second place, but they’ve had to put up with so much in recent months it would have been hard to criticise them had they let it slip at the death.
It’s an excuse they passed up at Watford on Saturday – instead producing a gritty performance in which they created a succession of presentable chances and eventually enabled them to run out two goal winners. The celebrations as the second goal went in, and the final whistle was blown, will live forever in the memory. Now it’s down to the lawyers.
Kings, for one week at least.
Watford: Loach 6, Hodson 6, Taylor 7 (Bennett 54, 5), Mariappa 7, Doyley 6, Eustace 7, Cowie 6, Deeney 7, Buckley 6 (Murray 78, 6), Graham 6, Sordell 6 (Whichelow 73, 6)
Subs Not Used: Gilmartin, Mingoia, Drinkwater, Assombalonga
QPR: Cerny 6, Orr 7, Hall 6 (Shittu 23, 8), Gorkss 7, Connolly 7, Derry 7, Faurlin 7, Taarabt 7 (Ramage 90, -), Routledge 7 (Buzsaky 75, 8), Smith 7, Helguson 7
Subs Not Used: Agyemang, Hulse, Ephraim, Moen
Goals: Taarabt 77 (assisted Smith), Smith 90 (assisted Faurlin)
QPR Star Man – Danny Shittu 8 After Paddy Kenny and Clint Hill withdrew, the last thing we needed was another early change to the defence. Danny has had some good and bad games since returning to the club – very bad at Millwall and Scunthorpe – and he started a little erratically here but grew into the game. There’s a video of Neil Warnock during his Sheffield United days chastising his players for allowing a lead to slip, saying they should have stood 30 yards from their own goal and said “we’re stopping here, thou shalt not pass” and Shittu embodied that spirit here. Where we had sunk deeper and deeper against Hull, here Shittu won every header and then marched his defenders up the field to maintain a high line. He was a colossus in the second half, marking Danny Graham out of the game. Superb stuff.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire) 7 There was a five minute period in the second half where first there was an argument over the multiball system, then Taarabt got involved in a skirmish, and then the referee allowed three clear fouls to go unpunished in quick succession, that I thought he was losing control. However, for the other 85 minutes I thought he did a very good job and is becoming known to me as a bit of a safe pair of hands in this division. May well be destined for the Premiership.
Attendance: 15,538 (3,000 QPR approx) Impossible to estimate the number of QPR fans in attendance, as it was many, many more than the 2,000 who got tickets officially through the club. I was impressed that Watford actually collected all the QPR fans in the side stand up and put them in a single block at the end of the stand, rather than trying to throw them all out. However had they shown the same common sense thinking to begin with then surely Rangers would have been given the entire Vicarage Road end. It would have negated the need for QPR fans to go in the home end, boosted the attendance and made Watford a load more money. I can’t understand why they didn’t go for what is obviously a win win option. Now shoot me down, and I’m sure some will, but I’m not sure about this desire to suddenly start running on the pitch at the end of games. I know I’m a miserable northern git but we looked stupid doing it last week when we weren’t promoted, and at times here, particularly when Neil Warnock was mobbed, it looked like it could get completely out of hand. It also meant the players were not allowed to come back out and celebrate with the fans, which was a shame. I wait with interest to see what happens next week when the players will in theory be presented with the trophy on the pitch and do a lap of honour – how will they do that if the pitch is full of people? Anyway, a small moan on a wonderful day.
Photo: Action Images
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