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Light at the end of a two-year tunnel - Report
Sunday, 3rd Dec 2023 22:27 by Clive Whittingham

Two wins in a week after two in six months for Queens Park Rangers, and a second half performance at Preston on Friday night that gave great hope for what's to come under Marti Cifuentes.

Faith, they say, is belief without evidence.

Queens Park Rangers have been producing so little of the latter – even by their standards – the former have waned.

If you feel like you’ve been here before then you’re right. In the Championship, it often feels like all roads and rails lead to, from, near or through Preston. Last season QPR played away games in Blackburn, Burnley, Blackpool, Fleetwood, Wigan and Preston itself. Rangers finished twentieth in the Lancashire and District Senior League. Three of those mercifully left this year’s calendar, and Fleetwood was one of our mega entertaining wet farts into a cup competition, but Bolton (who we haven’t missed) are riding high in League One, and winter nights in Deepdale are omnipresent.

These two have shared a division for eight consecutive seasons and produced approximately half an hour of watchable football across those 16, mostly ball-aching, meetings. Sky Television, having forced its subscribers to sit through a previous 0-0 here on Anthony Gordon’s birthday, presumably deciding to show the fixture again through sadism (or, more likely, ticking a couple of quota-filling boxes off for teams they know nobody wants to watch so they can spend the second half of the season getting on with the important business of screening every Leeds game). A 550 mile Friday night on the M6 perfectly acceptable in our television overlord's eyes, apparently. Look forward to their next load of guff about a 'net-zero fixture'.

The familiarity didn’t end there, nor in the timing of the fixture (bleak December once more) and conditions it was played in (get inside if you want to live). Just like our visit here 12 months ago there’s a new manager in the QPR dugout, and, just like last year, there have been lots of positive noises about the recruitment process which brought him here and the impact he’s likely to make. Neil Critchley won 1-0 on this ground in his first QPR game, with an impressive three-man midfield press led by Tim Iroegbunam behind Lyndon Dykes, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that we’d be alright without Mick Beale’s ‘you vs yourself’* journey after all. Critchley won none of his next dozen games, and was sacked after a defeat in which he played 4-4-2 with Sam Field as a right winger.

(* - ‘me looking after myself)

That’s us. That’s this club, this team, this group of players. That’s who we, and more to the point they, are. The new manager comes in and we give it all the chat about the ManagerBot3000 that identified him, we film him walking round the training ground (go get the training ground), we get the drone out for his first training session (go get the training ground), we take a load of away fans somewhere and they bother all the Christmas shoppers on the morning trains singing whatever song we’ve come up with for him… and, yeh, maybe we cough into a brief bit of life. We might win a game, against Preston or Watford for instance, we might win a few games and ride high in the formative stages of the league table, and we’ll go ridiculously over the top about all of this because we’re so starved of success, but the underlying numbers will remain poor, the fault lines still cracked deep and a revert to type is only ever just around the next turn in the fixture list. Those early morning cans of Stella and chants on the train soon enough replaced by I’m-desperate-for-everybody-around-me-to-hear-what-I’m-saying “we should have got Warnock when we had the chance bruv” or “Chris Wilder would have this team in the play-offs blud” megabantz.

This is why I feared Friday night. Why I put a 2-0 defeat as the prediction. Why I wrote the match preview in the tone that I chose. I was encouraged by what I saw at Rotherham in Marti Cifuentes’ first game, but we didn’t win the match and it’s very quickly becoming clear Rotherham are absolute pony. I thought we regressed a little bit against Bristol City, were worse still at Norwich, and 79 minutes into the Stoke game I’m not sure I had a player in our team on north of a four. All of it obviously a thousand times better than what was going on here before, but if a guy punches you in the face 100 times in a minute and then he slows down how much can that really be deemed good news? We were shocking for long periods of that Stoke match and while the outpouring over the winning goal was really something to be a part of, and getting four goals in a single game out of this team is little short of a miracle, you’ll be waiting a long time to get that many moments, bounces of the ball and refereeing decisions go your way in a game again – probably not until the next time we face a Championship team trying to play Edna Stevens and Ciaran Clark in the same defence.

What I expected us to do next is take the confidence and momentum built by the climax to that match, gather up all the optimism and feel-good it built among the support base, and piss all of that up the wall. Long way from home, freezing cold, on the TV, pitch passing a Sky Sports inspection rather than any kind of competent look which would have called the game off at lunchtime… absolutely no chance. Because this team has shown you that’s what they do. What few wins they have managed have mostly been followed by complete disasters: won at Middlesbrough, then none of the next 12; won at Cardiff, lost the next three; beat Stoke, lost at home to Bristol City; beat Watford, lost 6-1 at Blackpool and won none of the next seven; beat Preston, no wins in the next 13; beat Wigan, one point and one goal in the next six. Just seven wins in a year, and six of those followed immediately by another bad result. When you think we might finally have turned a corner, a large truck comes the other way towards us at speed.

Throw in our record in televised Friday night games away from home (nine consecutive defeats prior to the recent 0-0 at Birmingham), and this team’s record when it’s their third match in a week (12 defeats and five draws from the last 20) and I don’t think it was unfair or unreasonable of me to travel north on Friday afternoon expecting the very worst. I’ve been hurt before. My faith in this group dissipated long ago.

A total non-event of a first half did nothing for anybody. How low is too low for a resting heart rate? Through biting cold, with the lines on the pitch painted blue to make them at least halfway visible through the ice, it was difficult to shake the feeling the game should never have started in the first place. I’ve seen Sheffield Steelers play on better football fields than this. A tame low drive straight at Begovic from Ched Evans, easily saved, was the sum total of the efforts on goal – nothing worth his brother getting the mobile phone out to film there.

The key (nee only) incident from that first stanza was Lyndon Dykes smashing Andrew Hughes in the face competing for a high ball, which PNE manager Ryan Lowe felt should have been a red card rather than a yellow. I’m inclined to agree with him. I remember watching Pierluigi Collina doing a Monday Night Football once where he spoke about looking for a splayed hand or a clenched fist to tell him whether a player had gone to deliberately elbow an opponent or not, and Dykes does have his palm open, but he catches Hughes full in the face with a forearm/elbow and he’s lucky to stay on the field. Where I’m not so convinced with Lowe’s logic is the idea Ched Evans would have been sent off for the same thing. Evens is into his fourth season at Preston and across his 81 appearances for the club he’s been sent off once, for a tackle away at Wigan last August that was worth two red cards by itself. That’s his only red card in five years of football, since he was playing for Fleetwood, and he’s been booked once so far this season. Ched Evans is many things to many Andrew Tate troglodytes, but a guy getting unfairly sent off loads of times is not one of them. Still, after that horrendous run of refereeing decisions we had go against us when we played Swansea, Coventry and Leeds, this week truly has been one for the ‘they even themselves up in the end’ argument.

Second half was proper.

Last week at Carrow Road it felt like our lack of anything on the bench to change a game was a key issue for us but in the two games that have followed both have been transformed by our substitutions. Cifuentes has found impact in Ziyad Larkeche and Charlie Kelman in both matches. It’s a bold guy who looks at the Stoke match and decides to drop Steve Cook, Ilias Chair and Elijah Dixon-Bonner, but the freshness in reserve – and perhaps a little bit of needle from Chair, unhappy to be left out and keen to prove his point – was a real fillip here.

Chair went and had a wander about wide on our left, but not all who wander are lost – he was magnificent. North End had Liverpool loanee Calvin Ramsay making a first start at right back, with Duane Holmes dropping back to help out, and both quickly became overawed and found well short of the task. Paul Smyth had already come in from the far side to head a Chair cross wide, on a counter attack sparked by excellent approach work from Lyndon Dykes, when the Northern Irishman gave the Londoners the lead.

Dozzell’s brilliant, raking crossfield left footer found Paal pressed super high up the pitch to pin back Ramsay, and when Chair joined as back up the two v one situation had been crafted perfectly. You’d usually put your house on Chair to cut in and shoot from there but early releases, both of crosses into the box and clever passes to teammates, were a theme of his performance. A devilish back post ball found Hughes on his heels and was bundled in from close range by Smyth for his first goal since rejoining the club in the summer.

So much more to come as well. Chair was absolutely insatiable, clicking a nutmeg through Holmes and collecting his soul on the other side. He hit one shot straight at Freddie Woodman, and then so nearly intercepted the home keeper’s attempt to play out from the back. Woodman later needed two attempts to gather a long-range speculator from Dozzell, with Dykes loitering for a rebound. Willlock winning the ball high allowed Dozzell to tee up Dixon-Bonner for a shot wide. There was still the save of the night to come as sub Larkeche repeated his touchline foraging of Tuesday and this time set in motion a move when ended with Dixon-Bonner curling one towards the corner and drawing a one-handed stop.

With the ball QPR played as well in the second half here as they have for a very long time indeed. Dykes, perhaps buoyed by the midweek double, was superbly effective. He seems to really like playing against Preston, charging about and smashing centre backs up in exactly the way I want him to do more often. Lead the line like this, bring the supporting cast into play, I don’t care whether he scores or not. His best for several weeks. Those who’ve defended him from criticism will say this is what happens when you provide said supporting cast. QPR, hold the phone, were getting men into the penalty box. Chair, Willock and Smyth obviously, but mixtures of Dozzell, Dixon-Bonner and Paal as well. Weight of numbers, options for passes, space opening up for shots, sorcery. Getting Chair and Willock back into form and playing close together again was always likely to be a major gain for any manager inheriting this rabble, and here we really saw it for the first time. Chair’s variation, too, of sometimes passing, sometimes crossing, and not always shooting, made him, and us, a lot less predictable and more effective.

Work without the ball, though, laid the platform. This was also the first time I could really see that immediate three-man, seven-second rush to regain possession as soon as it was lost. Rangers were pressed high up the field, the defence led brilliantly by Jake Clarke-Salter, compressing the space Preston had to play in, suffocating them with a full-court press and restricting their looks at our penalty box, never mind the actual goal, to almost nothing. Frokjaer’s shot high, wide and not-very-handsome over the bar was a reasonable chance, though he’d already been erroneously flagged offside and it wouldn’t have counted. That, and a laughable free kick spaffed hopelessly wide by Holmes, was the sum total of the home team’s threat and the locals were audibly pissed off long before the end. It’s no surprise getting Reggie Cannon and Clarke-Salter fit and into the backline would improve it, something we’ve been saying for weeks, but the complete transformation in the whole outlook and where we are collectively on the pitch versus the recent away games at Leeds and West Brom was remarkable.

We didn’t need a second goal, Preston wouldn’t have scored if we’d stayed all night, but I was firmly in want territory by now and I wanted this. Larkeche’s incisive through ball a thing of beauty; Chair’s cross an open invitation; Willock second goal in a week after none in a year. Strictly business is back.

Back and coming to a town near you soon. Six goals scored in two games, as many as the team had managed in its prior 12. There’s a lot of nervous glances being cast at teams around us also picking up results, come-to-bed eyes being made at other sides coming back down the table towards us, permutations being permeated when two rivals meet, curses cursed when one of them gets a result they shouldn’t against a Leicester type. There has also been so much money placed on QPR making a run to the top six every bit as remarkable as the one that brought us in the opposite direction in 22/23 that we’re a shorter price to make the top six on the BetFair exchange than Sunderland. Wild club.

Cut through the noise, it’s always the same 42-52 points that keep you up in this league every year. Three weeks ago I’d have said we'd struggle to get half that. Play like we did in the second half here and it won’t even be an issue.

Faith and belief threatening to creep back in. What more evidence do you need than a second half performance like this?

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

PNE: Woodman 6; Ramsay 3 (Stewart 87, -), Storey 5, Lindsay 5, Hughes 4; Whiteman 6 (McCann 73, 5), Browne 5; Holmes 3, Keane 4 (Millar 46, 5), Frokjaer 5 (Woodburn 73, 4); Evans 4

Subs not used: Cunningham, Brady, Ledson, Cornell, Best

Bookings: Woodburn 90+3 (foul)

QPR: Begovic 6; Cannon 6 (Kakay 65, 6), Dunne 6, Clarke-Salter 7, Paal 7; Colback 5 (Chair 46, 8), Field 6, Dozzell 7 (Larkeche 79, 7); Willock 7 (Kelman 90+2, -), Dykes 7, Smyth 7 (Dixon-Bonner 65, 7)

Subs not used: Cook, Archer, Duke-McKenna, Drewe

Goals: Smyth 55 (assisted Chair), Willock 87 (assisted Chair)

Bookings: Dykes 22 (foul)

QPR Star Man – Ilias Chair 8 Changed the game. Perhaps that’s because we were able to bring him on fresh and maximise his impact. Maybe he was genuinely pissed off at being left out, and came on with a bit of a point to prove. The big thing for me watching him here was the variation in his game: sometimes an early release, other times taking a man on; sometimes a shot, other times a cross; sometimes to the byline, other times running infield. It made him far less predictable than he is when always cutting inside and looking for the shot, hanging onto the ball as long as it takes to get one away. Preston’s poor Liverpool loanee making a full debut at full back was no match, and Lowe might want to consider why he left Ramsay and Holmes out there getting absolutely pulverised by Chair, Paal, Willock et al for as long as he did more than what the referee may or may not have got wrong.

Referee – Josh Smith (Lincolnshire) 6 I think Dykes is fortunate to stay on the field, and I’ve no doubt I’d be screaming for that one too. Some refereeing howlers against us earlier in the season have evened up slightly this week. Other than that incident he didn’t have a lot to referee, though I very much doubt this would have gone ahead if it wasn’t on TV.

Attendance – 14,280 (476 QPR)

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062259 added 22:43 - Dec 3
Too early to count any chickens, but the transformation is remarkable and the contrast with Ainsworth, sadly, is stark.

hoops_legend added 23:52 - Dec 3
Don't want to dwell on the past but its shocking how badly our teams confidence dropped with GA while playing long ball football and minimal passes. Marti makes it look simple and trusts his professionals who are here for a reason and we seem to be playing nice football. I really enjoyed watching it

I am sure it will all go wrong in January with suitors coming knocking if Chair and Willock continue to play well but I will take some good performances over what we have seen before!

monners1969 added 09:07 - Dec 4
From the depths of feeling lucky at finding my penis for the half time wee to being bundled to the floor by a tall lad I’d only met 3 hours before …. What a top evening !! I must make more away games - top read as ever Clive - as I keep saying (to no one in particular) the club and fan base are blessed to have you, your Russian tank commanders hat and your appetite for drinking peroni

gazza1 added 09:19 - Dec 4
Yea good chat Norf. They all did a job, even our No9 where I agree with you about doing a good job and not scoring - I can have that with a few goals. Play like we did for the final 45 minutes and we will be in the top half, with these players - some of whom are decent. With a couple of new boys in the January transfer window and play like we did in the 2nd half then 'who knows' where we will end up. The manager has only been here a very short while, he has a lot of ideas, he has started very well and played a massive part in our last two matches - we may have a proper manager here.

HastingsRanger added 10:40 - Dec 4
Great report and a superb second half. The improvement in all departments is really something to embrace. Begovic commanding the penalty area, the back line, the midfield movement and up front. Chair having options but being less predictable is another example. This is a good coaching team at work, notably as none of them are 'their' players.

We can't expect everything too soon and other teams will win above (except Wayne Rooney's Birmingham) but there is some cause for optimism here. Especially using subs so freely, as this will bring on players.

Early days, of course!


extratimeR added 15:47 - Dec 4
What a great second half! Absolutely correct Clive, it's a long , long time since I have seen us do and play like this, the tight passing, the off the ball movement, ( all in such a short space of time.

Chair, Willock, Clarke Salter, Dixon Bonnar they all looked a yard faster than their counterparts.

Well done the travelling fans, great noise, great support.

Great report Clive, nailed it as usual!

Loft1979 added 15:58 - Dec 4
BEFORE this game I commented that the view from the stands SHOULD have been different. I felt uplifted simply by the first 3 performances under Marti. If Elijah or Taylor managed to squeeze shots inside the post vs Rotherham, If Field connects vs Norwich (with goal posts glaring) then we have a few more points in the bag. So I am of the mind this team (without additions) is set for a run. Caution to the faithfull.... last time we were optimistic Jeff Hendricks was the Christmas present. I would MUCH rather we stand firm and give Lakareche and Elijah, even Taylor a run. I think Sinclair and Smythe who are getting done for their National teams are also good options that we already have.

derbyhoop added 17:24 - Dec 4
I wouldn't write off the first half. It laid the foundations for what happened in the 2nd. Although it didnt make for compelling viewing.

Myke added 21:06 - Dec 4
Cheers Clive. And Smyth didn't shatter his ACL somersaulting on a frozen pitch - our luck has surely changed.

snanker added 07:39 - Dec 5
Yes Clive, it's faint and most likely a candle flame fretting on the next cross breeze but that second half effort was a performance almost forgotten re the ability of these players. Now the worries really begin knowing what this team remains capable off and praying to the football gods it doesn't vanish again into the ether. Still ultra nervous months ahead with a mountain to climb but I am seeing that the belief is now there & the side is enjoying it's football again . Hallelujah ! Injuries ?

getmehome added 12:43 - Dec 7
“ come-to-bed eyes being made at other sides coming back down the table towards us” what a line

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