Rochdale prosecute QPR fringe players’ case – full match report
Wednesday, 24th Aug 2011 01:20 by Clive Whittingham
On a night when all three newly promoted Premiership sides crashed to embarrassing defeats against lower league opposition in the League Cup QPR were beaten at home by League One side Rochdale.
You’d never have guessed it on this evidence but for both QPR and Rochdale the League Cup holds memories of their finest hours. Until this evening Rochdale hadn’t been beyond the second round of the competition since the 1961/62 season when they became the first Division Four side to reach the final – eventually losing to Norwich.
To be fair they should really have won a similar tie at this stage against Birmingham last year and would have done but for a generous refereeing decision in favour of the then Premiership side which presented them with a penalty at a crucial point in the game. QPR may have been treated to a similar degree tonight, had they bothered to venture into the Rochdale penalty area for any prolonged period of time.
QPR went one better in 1967, winning the final of this competition as a Division Three team against First Division West Brom. That 3-2 victory, from two goals down, remains the club only major honour and it’s not likely to be added to any time soon on this evidence.
Former servants of both these clubs who visited Wembley in the 1960s would no doubt shake their heads in despair at what this cup has now become. Football is about trophies and medals and yet year after year clubs like QPR are throwing away their places in competitions they have half a chance of winning because of some perceived threat to their form in one they haven’t. Clubs like Rochdale meanwhile are finding these upsets easier to come by with each passing year, and the reserve team like atmosphere these games are played in undermines the significance of the achievement.
A reserve team is exactly what QPR put out here – a mixture of players who should have been busting a gut to stake a claim for a first team place and those who should be similarly committed in the hope of winning a move for first team football elsewhere. Ultimately, with the odd exception, few of them did anything to further either cause.
Warnock started with new goalkeeper Brian Murphy behind a reshaped back four of Bradley Orr, Bruno Perone, Danny Shittu and Matt Connolly. Hogan Ephraim was a somewhat unorthodox holding midfielder alongside Martin Rowlands while Lee Cook made a rare start in the attacking midfield trio behind Jay Bothroyd alongside Adel Taarabt and Bruno Andrade. Clearly the lack of pre-season action was in the manager’s thinking when he named Bothroyd and Taarabt in the line up although such was the disinterested attitude of both players they would probably have been better off with a heavy running based training session than wasting our time flouncing about in this game.
Rochdale were bottom division mainstays for 36 years before a long awaited promotion in the 2009/10 season. They performed well in League One last season as well, finishing ninth, but lost impressive manager Keith Hill to Barnsley in the summer and have struggled since. Their first round win in this competition against Chesterfield was their only victory of the season so far under new rookie boss Steve Eyre prior to this game. They returned former Sheff Wed keeper David Lucas to the number one spot – he played against Chesterfield but has sat on the bench for the league games to allow Blackburn loanee Jake Kean to start. Defender Neil Trotman’s nightmare start to life at Spotland culminated in a red card at Oldham on Saturday – his suspension created an opening for former Ipswich centre half Pim Balkestein to make a full debut after signing on loan from Brentford.
QPR moved the ball around in an almost languid style for the first three minutes and looked in the mood for a cruise but quickly received a rude awakening from the visitors. Having done nothing with their early possession Rangers then found themselves facing the first corner of the game after Nicky Adams made the most of slack defending to send the ball behind via a deflection. Rangers cleared that easily enough but remained deep and flat footed as Adams returned to the area with renewed purpose and fired a low shot which Murphy parried off to his left and then watched helplessly as former Grimsby man Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro slid the ball into the net from close range at the back post. Adams would be a pest to Rangers all night and Akpa Akpro deserves credit for the finish which I suspect wasn’t as easy as it looked.
There was a response from Rangers, but not a particularly sparkling one. Seven minutes after falling behind they won a corner of their own when Andrade accelerated away down the right and won a corner which Taarabt delivered, Bradley Orr turned goalwards and Rochdale did well to scramble away. Danny Shittu had been loitering in the vicinity of that chance and he needed no second invitation to try his luck from long range two minutes later when a neat passing move opened up some space for him in the Rochdale half – sadly memories of that 40 yard effort off the Charlton cross bar one pre-season evening remain just that and this shot was well off target.
Encouragingly the play continued to flow towards the Loft End goal behind which an embarrassingly sparse following of QPR fans had gathered. A clever through ball from Taarabt threatened to send Ephraim through into the area before Balkestein muscled him out of it and then when the ball fell to Andrade arriving late in the left channel his right footed curling shot aiming for the far corner was always missing by several feet.
And Rangers looked threatening again at the midpoint of the half when a decent ball from Bothroyd found Taarabt wide on the left and after he laid possession infield to Matt Connolly the makeshift left back was able to draw the first serious save from Lucas down in his bottom left hand corner with a low shot from range. A short corner routine from the resulting set piece gave Andrade a chance to flight a cross to the back post where Orr seemed certain to score before Lucas flapped the ball behind – little did we know at the time that this would be the last real action Lucas would be called into on the night.
Sadly Andrade was probably our best player on the night – and I say sadly because for me he’s just the latest in a long line of ‘never will bes’ to come rolling off the sorry production line of our youth set up. I’ve written this so many times before that the muscle memory in my hands can type it while I look at and think about other things but I’m nothing if not persistent so here we go again. We cannot possibly hope to bring any kind of talent through from a youth system that starts off at a disadvantage because all our neighbours have academies and then hamstrings itself further by playing an endless procession of poor quality games against the Barnets and Colchesters of this world on park pitches. This problem is then further exacerbated by the lack of a competitive reserve team to promote youngsters into.
The way we cultivate our own young players is a shambles and you can see all the same problems shining through with Andrade as we saw previously with Antonio German, Romone Rose, Josh Parker, Shabazz Baidoo and all the other ‘next big things’ we’ve brought through into our first team. Andrade was our best player this evening because unlike his team mates, and those other graduates of the system that has produced him, he didn’t seem too full of himself and actually looked like he cared about what he was doing. He was trying basically, which is more than I could say for most others.
His turn of pace and adventure was impressive and he actually looked like the only QPR player grateful of the opportunity this game presented to him. But technically, like every other player that comes through our youth team, he is woefully deficient. He has no left foot whatsoever, and even when the ball is on his right foot he executes every pass, cross and shot with the same instep of his boot which sends the ball curling on exactly the same trajectory. Only the speed of the ball varies, depending on his aim for it.
And he was our best player tonight.
Anyway having forced that repeat corner from Lucas Rangers then immediately gifted the ball back to the Dale keeper, clad in an orange kit so bright it hurt your eyes if you looked directly at it, when Shittu unceremoniously flattened him as the ball was delivered in. Shittu did a lot of that on the night – two clashes with Akpa Akpro in the second half sent shudders around the ground – but again he missed his chance to stake a claim for a first team place with a very poor all round game that included distribution of a dreadful standard even for him. Perone alongside him did little wrong, but didn’t stand out.
As Jay Bothroyd cut in from the right and dragged a shot wide from range it became apparent that Bradley Orr had a bit of a problem. He’d been stretching his calves out for several minutes prior to this but now he was signalling that he couldn’t continue and was quickly replaced by youngster Michael Harriman. To be honest I was hoping that they’d bring Gibbons on at this point – just so we could find out who on earth he was.
Having already lost the first choice right back to injury ad first choice left back to suspension in the first game of the season Rangers could now potentially be heading to Wigan this Saturday with a back four formed entirely of centre halves. Matt Connolly is a reasonably adequate replacement on the left but who on earth will play right back should Orr be out for any length of time God only knows.
To be fair Connolly had enough to worry about before facing Wigan with Rochdale’s Nicky Adams posing him plenty of problems. A former Leicester trainee who joined Rochdale from Brentford, Adams was Dale’s stand out performer on the night and won a free kick from Connolly eight minutes before half time that he delivered low and threateningly into the penalty area with no rewards.
Andrade went close to the goal he probably deserved in first half stoppage time when he cut in from the right and tried his luck with his swinging left foot for a change – Lucas looked nervous in bundling the ball away and was perhaps lucky to survive.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment from the first half was the performance of Adel Taarabt. Having spent the summer fluttering his eyelashes at Paris St Germain rather than training with his team mates he has looked a little on the heavy and rusty side so far this season and was probably sent out here with the intention of using it as an extra summer friendly fixture to gain fitness. Sadly the Moroccan treated it rather too much like a friendly and posed a team he should have been able to humiliate with his eyes closed very few problems indeed.
Perhaps this was pointed out to him a half time because he curled one shot over from wide on the left and hammered a low one wide of the post from the right channel within two minutes of the restart before skulking back into the shell from whence he came.
At the other end Rochdale’s Ashley Grimes forced a smart save from Murphy from a tight angle after being played in while the linesman was thinking about other things – he was as surprised as anybody to turn around and find that he had actually been onside in the assistant’s view.
The linesman at the School End was rather more on the ball sadly, as his flag shot straight up when a rare attractive piece of QPR play culminated in Rowlands flighting a perfect ball to the back post and Jay Bothroyd heading home what he initially thought was a well worked equaliser.
Rochdale may not have started the season well under their new manager but they certainly seemed to be very well drilled. Their shape at the start of the second half was extremely solid across the field and they never once allowed themselves to either be sucked too deep into their own area, or leave men too isolated on the counter attack.
Sadly for any neutrals watching that, and QPR’s meagre commitment to the tie, made for a second half that I hesitate to call boring only because I hate to hear commentators describe any football match as that when there is always some tiny tactical battle or piece of play to admire in even the dullest encounter. Here, to be fair, you’d have been hard pushed to find it.
A Taarabt through ball on the hour might have been the moment of magic the game begged for, but it rolled just out of Andrade’s reach and through to Lucas. A little controversy may have livened things up too but when Grimes ran onto a long, high through ball that Shittu had misjudged and then tried to whip it back over the head of the big Nigerian his penalty appeals for a perceived handball were rightly ignored by referee Oliver Langford. Whether my Langford actually knew what handball was however was open to debate as a moment later when Stephen Darby miscontrolled the ball and decided to bring it down with his hand instead in plain sight of the match official who ignored it and played on.
Lee Cook, having no positive impact on the game whatsoever, skewed a shot wide from range and Michael Harriman tried a snap shot inside the area after Andrade’s cross was cleared out to him but the ball flew straight at Lucas.
Warnock had seen enough of Cook, and Rowlands’ legs could stand no more, so with just over 20 minutes left to play Shaun Derry and Troy Hewitt came on to replace them. Hewitt was making his competitive debut for Rangers after signing from Harrow Borough last season and may have made an immediate impact when a pass from Taarabt that brought memories of that incredible Routledge goal against Coventry last season flooding back seemed to give him a sight of goal before Lucas came out and picked the ball off his toes.
Rochdale were rarely stretched by Rangers – on a rare occasion when Hogan Ephraim did get in behind his man Widdowson chopped him down and was booked – and in fact they maybe could have shown more ambition themselves in the second half. That thought seemed to dawn on them in the final 15 minutes when Akpa Akpro ran in behind Shittu and delivered a low cross through the penalty area that would have been converted had any team mate shown ambition enough to keep up with him.
Encouraged, they went on the offensive again with 12 minutes remaining through Adams who found himself one on one with Harriman in the QPR half and used the space to slip a ball through to the edge of the area for veteran midfielder Gary Jones to run onto, control and then finish delightfully with a chip that drew applause from the departing QPR fans but which Murphy should have done a lot better with in my opinion.
Immediately from the restart Adams set off towards Murphy again and fed Akpa Akpro who shot wide and the thought did cross my mind that there was still time for QPR to go for a big score but thankfully it stayed at two. Troy Hewitt turned and fired one into the Upper School End, and then saw another cleared from the line in a goal mouth scramble that at least made the four minutes of stoppage time interesting. Another looping header of his drew the first real save of the second half from Lucas but the game was over sometime before this.
Neil Warnock openly admits this competition holds no priority or significance for him as he embarks on a considerable fight to keep QPR in the Premiership. He said the same last season and his actions were justified by a 19 game unbeaten start to the league campaign achieved while rivals were slaving away on Tuesday nights in this competition as our players rested. Birmingham’s relegation after winning this trophy last season will forever be used as a stick to beat traditionalists like me, who wouldn’t mind the odd trip to Wembley, but Blackpool were relegated last year too and did absolutely nothing in either competition to undermine that argument.
In the end Warnock solved two problems for himself tonight. The first is removing the interference of awkward Tuesday night games on the league campaign through September and October. QPR are heavily reliant on a small number of players in a huge squad and could ill-afford injuries and suspensions from additional matches – already in this meagre effort we seem to have lost our one remaining fit full back for Saturday’s trip to Wigan. The second is ridding himself of the threat of any of his fringe players ever darkening his door again asking why they’re not being selected. Why is Ephraim not in the team? Why is Cook not in the team? Rowlands? Shittu? Murphy? Etc? Because they’re shit. They conclusively proved it themselves. Given a chance to stake a claim they didn’t so much pass it up as throw it back in the club’s face.
Some of the players disappointed me, few of them surprised me, and one or two of them angered me. Martin Rowlands and, especially, Lee Cook had me especially cross by the end of this debacle. Firstly neither looked fit – Cook was heavy legged and Rowlands’ body packed up on him long before the end of the game at which point he was bizarrely given a standing ovation. Perhaps had they taken their pre-season games a little more seriously, rather than swanning around at a walking pace when I saw them at St Albans, they may have been a bit sharper here.
Secondly their performances smacked of players who aren’t really bothered about playing for this club, or doing enough to earn a move elsewhere. The money those two are on is enough to make your eyes water and yet they’re clearly quite happy to just stay here and pick it up while offering nothing in return. I’m embarrassed for them, which is just as well as they’re clearly not embarrassed about it themselves. They deserve to be remembered as very fine QPR players and loyal servants to this club but they are risking being remembered as a pair of mercenaries the way they are going. No disrespect to Rochdale but Cook and Rowlands were, not so long ago, considered to be two of the better Championship players. They should have torn this game a new arse.
Would you trust any of those players with a Premiership fixture after their performance tonight? No, me neither, and that, along with the sickening amount of money we had out there tonight in the form of weekly wages, is the real tragedy this evening.
QPR: Murphy 5, Orr 5 (Harriman 31, 6), Perone 6, Shittu 5, Connolly 6, Ephraim 5, Rowlands 5 (Derry 72, 5), Andrade 6, Taarabt 4, Cook 4 (Hewitt 73, 5), Bothroyd 4
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Buzsaky, Gibbons, German
Rochdale: Lucas 7, Darby 7, Holness 7, Balkestein 8, Widdowson 7, Tutte 7, Kennedy 7, Jones 7, Adams 8, Grimes 8 (Thompson 83, -), Akpa Akpro 7
Subs Not Used: Edwards, Twaddle, Marshall, Gray
Booked: Widdowson (foul)
Goals: Akpa Akpro 5 (assisted Adams), Jones 81 (assisted Adams)
QPR Star Man – Bruno Andrade 6 Technically the boy has huge amounts to learn, and having said the same thing about people like German, Rose and Balanta only to see them stagnate at our club I can’t say I have high hopes. But he posed Rochdale some threat, looked interested in and committed to what he was doing, and was a reasonably bright spot on an otherwise starless night.
Referee: Oliver Langford (W Midlands) 6 No key decisions wrong but failed to play obvious advantages on numerous occasions and missed the most obvious handball I’ve ever seen in my life from Darby in the second half.
Attendance: 4,755 (150 Rochdale approx) A pitifully low crowd that further highlights just how low this competition is sinking. Closing vast swathes of the ground creates a horrible, reserve team atmosphere and I can’t help but feel that slashing the ticket prices to a fiver each, or even less, may be beneficial at this round of the competition in the future. The QPR fans that did turn out were in quite forgiving mood – applauding the Rochdale second goal, and the visiting team at full time. Amazing what that takeover has done for the collective blood pressure of the R’s faithful – if Briatore and Ecclestone were still in charge tonight this would have turned very ugly indeed.
Photo: Action Images
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