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Sunderland 0 v 0 Queens Park Rangers
SkyBet Championship
Saturday, 16th March 2024 Kick-off 15:00
Sunderland stalemate keeps Rangers hanging – Report
Sunday, 17th Mar 2024 23:06 by Clive Whittingham

A point away from home on a day when nobody around QPR in the table even scored, let alone won, means Saturday was far from disastrous for the R’s, but such was the abysmal standard of the opposition you couldn’t help fear this was a huge missed opportunity.

The global market for DVD sales is in such complete collapse Disney is one of several firms no longer bothering to release its films in physical form in many territories. CNBC estimates sales declined 86% from their peak in 2006 to 2019. If you were minded to push that business over the edge, mint a few thousand copies of this one. That should be enough to kill it off once and for all.

Sunderland versus Queens Park Rangers. Two clubs with a penchant for farce and self-destruction, currently united in the hungover consequences of being taken in by Mick Beale’s “once he gets you in the room…” PowerPoint presentation. ‘Not one for the purists’ is the cliché, but I doubt even Tony Pulis would have found anything to yawp at here. Not much for the neutrals – well, I was emotionally invested, and by the time I’d stood through this I felt like I’d dragged my way through 80 Marlboro Red in an hour and a half. Ooooh that smooth, good taste… of another corner kick cleared by the defender at the near post.

These were two teams trying their best. You looked at Lucas Andersen (first half at least), Jack Colback on his Wearside return, and particularly Isaac Hayden, and thought, okay, maybe. In Sunderland red you couldn’t ask much more of Dan Neil, and later Chris Rigg who was their best player by a street off the bench. But, overall and in general, no. So much of what happened here was just so completely inept. Both teams failed, for their own reasons.

Sunderland’s mitigation was writ large all over their team sheet. Moany Towbray fired in haste, Honest Mick hired in error, the Mackems are now onto Football Manager regen Mike Dodds, who looks like that sort of nightmare dad who manages the village U9s side in an initialled tracksuit. Their list of absentees for this read like Mr Burns’ softball ringers. Three misfortunes? Possible. Seven misfortunes? There’s an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I’d like to see that. Jack Clarke may not live through the night, Luke O’Nien looking at six consecutive life sentences, Patrick Roberts seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. That damn hypnotist. Bradley Dack, I thought I told you to trim those sideburns.

In desperation, and under the threat of fielding a back four with no centre backs, they rushed Dan Ballard back early. The muscle-bound former Arsenal junior has really taken against QPR since Uncle Albert ruined his home debut here trampling all over his foot while getting up for a piss in the middle of the night. He, along with just about everybody else, scored at Loftus Road as Sunderland recorded quickfire 3-0 and 3-1 victories in the last two meetings – the Black Cats one of three teams, along with Blackburn and Coventry, who held a far better winning and scoring record in Shepherd’s Bush than QPR for the majority of 2023. Here, though, he looked well under cooked. Trailing a saline drip behind him and with hospital gown flapping in the wind, Ballard was at the centre of a succession of early defensive calamities that could, and really should, have seen QPR take the lead. Andersen’s early brilliance teeing up Colback and then Chair for a shot deflected wide, a very near miss off that corner, and then Anderson almost scoring himself when a wild back pass went straight to him on the edge of the box with goalkeeper Anthony Patterson absent on the far side of the box – the finish, agonisingly, gave the keeper just enough chance to get back and make a sprawling save. Chair shot wide from the edge of the area.

An enormous home crowd north of 40,000 people were silent in the spring sunshine for the most part, until they weren’t, and when they weren’t they were properly into their players. You could understand their frustrations. A team that made the play-offs last season and was broadly tipped to go close to doing the same this has slumped into midtable on a run of six consecutive league defeats after clear and avoidable mistakes in the hiring and firing of managers and the recruitment of players. They spent much of this game kicking the ball out of play, or deliberately handling it in front of the referee. Great plan Bart. One first half throw in from Callum Styles was so far away from coming into play it, farcically, landed on the gravel perimeter track and the officials invited him to have another go out of charity.

No support base is ever going to take losing six games in a row lightly. With 18 defeats already this season, Sunderland had lost as many as the potentially imperilled quad of Birmingham, Stoke, Blackburn and QPR before play. But with a support base of this size in a place this small, it can rather magnify every moderate problem into a giant catastrophe. Any team in the world will struggle with a dozen first team absentees. Expectations were perhaps raised a little too much by last season’s play-off qualification, which occurred ahead of schedule as a newly promoted team and was driven, at least in part, by snaring the division’s outstanding player on loan– Amad Diallo off the bench to put Man Utd into the FA Cup semi-final this afternoon. It’s been a tough campaign for sure but, neither going up nor down, Sunderland are now merely on that Mykonos Highway so many clubs in their situation get themselves on at this time of year. Attacking next season with (one would hope)lessons learned and a new manager in situ for the whole summer, they’re at least in a far better state than they were when Jason Steele was wandering around 50 yards outside his goal at Loftus Road, among other various calamities, set to a mawkish dirge for the benefit of Netflix comedy fans. Skip intro.

For now though they were, clearly, here for the taking. QPR passed up the opportunity to do so for the reason QPR so frequently do pass up opportunities on the occasions when they don’t play absolutely horribly – there isn’t a goal in this team. Marti Cifuentes has worked miracles to turn Gareth Ainsworth’s porridge into a passable breakfast, but 36 goals scored is the worst total in the division bar shot-shy Stoke and the bottom two sides Sheff Wed and Rotherham. QPR have still only scored more than twice in a game on one occasion. This was Sunderland's first clean sheet since New Year's Day.

The shape and organisation is light years ahead of what it was under Ainsworth’s rudiemtnary tutelage. Sunderland were completely shut out, without a single shot on target all day as the home team. That did require the occasional rescue act from Jack Colback, on his return to his first club; Isaac Hayden, who impressed alongside him; and Jake Clarke-Salter, who was the pick of the QPR defenders on his return to the scene of an unhappy loan spell. All three, at varying points, got involved crucially after Rangers had crafted troubles of their own making. Steve Cook, having a mad personal ten minutes in the first half, had one poor defensive header saved by Hayden charging back to tackle, and another give away requiring Colback to intervene. Kenneth Paal, caught dithering and looking for a free kick that was never going to come, meant Clarke-Salter and Hayden had to combine to create a penalty box crowd scene.

Jimmy Dunne was, again, surprisingly good with the ball at his feet at right back. Some of the football played in tight spaces was well executed. The goal threat, though? Not there. Not there enough. After that brief flurry of chances the game descended into a brutal war of attrition. Biblically low on quality. It was only really when Sinclair Armstrong was introduced that the Londoners started to offer a bit of poke again.

Somebody will have to talk me through Lyndon Dykes’ input here. With 22 minutes played Lucas Andersen was worked into space down the right, looked up, and played a low cross towards the near post. It was almost a carbon copy of a goal Rangers had scored recently at home to Norwich, when Michy Frey moved across the defender at the front stick to tap in Andersen's fine assist. Here, Hjelde was able to side foot away unchallenged - Dykes hanging around scratching his pubics in the background. That’s the difference right there. He simply does not know or understand where he’s meant to be standing, running, going or doing. An infuriating watch for the 1,001 who'd braved train cancellations and motorway closures to watch this one from 30,000 leagues over the sea.

After Armstrong’s introduction, Rangers were finally able to get at the makeshift home backline again. He had them seriously worried. A low shot on target at the near post with his first meaningful touch of the game was more than Dykes had produced in an hour. Several pacy, muscular runs, past isolated defenders and into the box, followed - including one that started near enough on the corner of his own penalty box. Cifuentes seems to have settled on Frey at home and Dykes away. I don’t question the Spaniard often, but we’re far more threatening with Sinclair up front than either. The finishing and end product often leaves something to be desired, but when he got that absolutely spot on, four minutes from time, with a perfect cut back into the centre of the area, the chance was all there and opened up for Chris Willock to win the game and… Patterson saved... well... twice. Or, rather, Patterson was given a chance to save, and took it. Willock’s got to be burying that. An away end ready and willing to explode, suddenly dumping adrenalin surges into its exhaust.

Quality wise, if you’d parachuted somebody in here blind and asked them to guess the level I suspect their call would have landed around the upper end of Conference North. Some of the decision making and execution was very odd indeed, difficult to really grasp what they were trying to achieve. I particularly enjoyed Sunderland’s “striker” of many names, Luis Hemir/Semedo, robbing Steve Cook of the ball during his personal mad ten minutes in the first half but then, instead of taking up the opportunity run through one on one with Asmir Begovic, checking back inside and heading off in the opposite direction. With forwards as basic as him and Dykes lolloping about it’s little wonder the thing finished nil nil. You wouldn’t even grade their respective performances at tier seven for fear of insulting some bloke who works in a digger factory Monday to Friday but turns out for Grantham Town on a weekend and does at least know about moving across his man to attack the fucking near post.

Football comes in many forms. In theory you and I like football, we like going to the football and watching the football, but when the football looks like this it can be a gruelling, unpleasant experience. It’s like telling a friend you’re really into stand-up comedy. In theory you and I like stand-up comedy, we like going to the stand-up comedy and watching the stand-up comedy, but when they then turn up with two tickets for Nish Kumar…

The whole thing was overseen immaculately by referee Oliver Langford. Genuinely, they couldn’t have found anybody better. Never before has a referee been better aligned and attuned to the quality and the pace of the game.

Things that were a free kick one minute (Andersen’s perfectly legitimate win on a high press that would have put three hooped attackers through on goal after 23 minutes) were not the next (Neil’s identical high press win on Jake Clarke-Salter followed by an ambitious attempt to chip Begovic from range on 24). Things that were not a yellow card in one instance (Chris Willock deliberately pulled back by his shirt crossing the halfway line in a counterattack on 79 minutes) were booked in identical circumstances within a few seconds (Willock himself carded for committing exactly the same foul he’d been victim of moments before on 84).

I used to quite like Langford as an official, but 20 years on the Championship list without ever a hint of promotion rather tells its own story. He’s one of these officials so insecure and terrified of the idea of a linesman having a wild and dangerous opinion of his own that he castrates them before the game begins and renders them little more than ornaments by insisting they look to him for direction before making even the most basic, obvious and rudimentary decisions. The result here was a catalogue of throw ins, throughout the game, given in obviously the wrong direction, often after interminable delays. One, just after half time, awarded to Sunderland after Jack Colback’s clearance downfield hit a block attempt in front of him and sheared off in the opposite direction at a right angle, no more than ten yards away from the assistant, was simply hilarious. They’re only throw ins, they didn’t lead to anything, and the incompetence evened itself out over the 90, but when you’re talking about eight… nine… ten of these mistakes in a single game, each preceded by a prolonged staring contest between referee and assistant as they frantically try to work out which way they’re going to guess, you’ve got to start questioning what the fuck we’re doing here. Who’s assessing this and thinking this is adequate? A dysfunctional League Two team of officials for a dysfunctional League Two game.

This was a match that needed a referee to give it every chance. Put the whistle away, just for five minutes, and let’s see if a game of football breaks out. Leave it alone. Leave. It. Alone. What it got was Mrs Doyle, fussing about all afternoon, intervening and interfering constantly. You want a free kick don’t you, go onnnn you’d love a free kick there, have a free kick there why don’t you, you know you want a free kick, go onnn have another free kick, let’s have a free kick here. But let’s make sure it’s in exactly the right place now. Leave. It. Alone.

Neither of these teams are much cop at set pieces, but they’d stand a better chance if every bloody corner wasn’t preceded by the referee stopping the game and fussing about in the crowded penalty box making all these terribly important and absolutely vital observations before blowing the whistle and awarding a defensive free kick as soon as the bloody thing is kicked regardless of what’s occurred anyway. Amazing that it’s never a defender sinning there isn’t it? All the people trying to prevent a goal just standing there meekly, abiding by the laws completely, while the rabid attackers aggressively and unfairly smash them about inflicting career threatening injuries on the poor, innocent centre backs. Corner, defensive free kick. Corner, defensive free kick. Corner, defensive free kick. Never corner… penalty. I suspect you’d need a high-powered electronic microscope from Cornell University just to find Oliver Langford’s bollocks – never mind a penalty, here they weren’t even big enough to let one corner come in and see what happens rather than awarding a free kick the other way immediately. Sunderland, rightly, fumed in stoppage time when Sinclair Armstrong was able to stop the play with the home team on the attack simply by sitting down and raising his leg in the air. Is this a head injury? No. Is this a serious injury? No. Are we stopping the play anyway? Yeh. Why? Because nothing, but nothing, turned Oliver Langford on more on Saturday than stopping the fucking play. Absolute vandal.

All that was left, on the long traipse down the stairs at the back of the away end, the ten-hour coach journey, the closed M1, the replacement bus service back to Newcastle station for oh so many cancelled trains… was the superfluous debate about whether it’s a good point or a bad point. The answer to this we’ll only know come May. Stay up by a point, this is the one that did it; go down on goal difference, we’ll always remember that spring afternoon where we fannied about with Sunderland’s reserves.

For now, unlike the mad Saturday where QPR won at Leicester only to find everybody else had been victorious as well, nobody south of Millwall has even scored this weekend, and so QPR gain another point on several of them. Sheff Wed have helpfully set light to their goal difference. However, Rangers’ home record, second only to Rotherham’s, means chances like this on the road are not to be spurned lightly. Cifuentes’ team is not good enough at home, or in front of goal, to be gifted a chance like this and go away talking about a point not being too bad. Ilias Chair's 20 yard curler wide in the first half isn't a good try, it's a big problem.

Moments like that Chris Willock miss are starting to stack up: Sam Field’s consecutive late scuffs at Norwich, Rotherham and Sheff Wed; Paul Smyth’s skew and that horrendous late handball penalty call at Ipswich; Steve Cook’s bicycle kick against West Brom and the handball on the line missed by the officials. Points left out there, thanks to bad luck, poor finishing, incompetence from QPR or on the part of the referee. There’ll certainly be plenty to point to as ‘the moment you knew’ if this doesn’t turn out as we want. What we need now is a big moment to hit the net for us to hold up and say 'that’s the point it all turned in our favour' – a Dexter Blackstock 30 yarder in a Tuesday night against Preston. How wonderfully timely it would be if that could come in Good Friday’s mammoth home game with Birmingham City.

In the meantime, you couldn’t help thinking Rangers will be lucky to play a team as poor as Sunderland again in the remaining eight games.

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

Sunderland: Patterson 8; Hume 5, Ballard 4, Hjelde 5, Styles 4; Neil 6, Bellingham 5; Mundle 5 (Burstow 78, 5), Aouchiche 5, Ba 4 (Rigg 58, 7); Hemir/Semedo 3 (Ekwah 57, 5)

Subs not used: Pembele, Bishop, Dack, Kelly, Jones, Bainbridge

Yellow Cards: Hume 73 (foul)

QPR: Begovic 6; Dunne 6, Cook 5, Clarke-Salter 6, Paal 5; Hayden 7 (Field 84, -), Colback 6; Chair 5 (Hodge 63, 5), Andersen 6 (Smyth 84, -), Willock 5; Dykes 4 (Armstrong 64, 7)

Subs not used: Frey Fox, Cannon, Larkeche, Walsh

Yellow Cards: Dunne 45 (foul), Willock 87 (foul)

QPR Star Man – Isaac Hayden 7 Prior to Armstrong’s introduction the best bit of QPR was the middle triangle of Colback, Hayden and Andersen. The Dane, so good in the first half, waned after half time, while Hayden made three or four really timely clear out tackles to mop up after team mates had sloppily given the ball away – notably on 27 minutes when Cook’s dire defensive header set the hosts away three on two, and on 64 after Joe Hodge had inadvertently played Sunderland in with his first touch.

Referee – Oliver Langford (West Midlands) 5 A total pain in the arse.

Attendance – 41,478 (1,001 QPR) The whole atmosphere around the place – near silent for the most part, and then increasingly aggy the longer things went on and the worse Sunderland got – really should have played into QPR’s hands. It’s another reason this is more of a missed opportunity than a point gained for me.

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Myke added 00:01 - Mar 18
Cheers Clive. Disappointing but not nearly as disastrous as Huddersfield's draw with Rotherham. That said we should have won. Willock's miss was significant although I thought Andersen's was more of a waste. I think Sinclair put a little too much on it and the ball came a little too quickly to Willock compared to Chair's goal v Leicester from a very similar position. Andersen, on the other hand had the whole goal to aim at but sent it right down the centre when another couple of feet to his right would have hit the net. You are right though 2 games now with no goal is worrying. I thought with 2 goals v Leicester, Rotherham and WBA we had cracked it but back to struggling in front of goal again. We need 3 more wins - Birmingham is huge.

Phil_i_P_Daddy added 09:01 - Mar 18
Queens Park Rangers. Looking gift horses in the mouth since (at leat) April 1986.

qprsteve007 added 08:50 - Mar 20
I agree with you Clive it's a complete mystery why Dykes is playing while Armstrong sits on the bench, he creates opportunities with his pace and power.
Marti has done very well and I am a big fan, I feel that now we look like a decent side and like you I don't want to rock the boat but with 8 games to play some thing has to be said.
Steve, Come On URRRRs.

TacticalR added 17:23 - Mar 21
Thanks for your report.

We seem to have had a lot of these boring stalemates in recent seasons. If we had scored early the game might have opened up, but after half an hour I think Sunderland settled when they realised that there wasn't that much to fear.

We didn't take our chances, in particular the Andersen chance and the Willock chance. In his heyday Willock would have put that one away.

Armstrong always going for the near post felt futile. His problem is that there is nobody to pass to, but I think he should at least try something different if he has to go on his own e.g. cutting in to improve the angle.

Wasn't the solution to Dykes not doing anything supposed to be for him to operate as an attacking midfielder? I guess for that to work you need either Frey or Armstrong on the pitch as the centre-forward, or Chair, Willock or Andersen to be racing into the box.

Hicupok added 07:50 - Apr 11
"felt like I'd dragged my way through 80 Marlboro Red in an hour and a half" - This is a funny exaggeration to describe the tediousness of the match.

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