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Blackstock's late winner seals Christmas cracker for QPR
Blackstock's late winner seals Christmas cracker for QPR
Sunday, 21st Dec 2008 19:40

A late winner from Dexter Blackstock meant QPR came out on top in a five goal Loftus Road thriller against Preston on Saturday. This was a game with everything and rich entertainment for the Christmas crowd.

The holiday period often throws up games to remember, who can forget the farcical game against Wycombe in 2001 that featured two red cards, two penalties and seven goals, and this one was no exception. What it lacked in quality it more than made up for in entertainment and endeavour and nobody inside Loftus Road on Saturday can claim to be short changed by this fine spectacle.

Two teams hell bent on winning the game, ebbing and flowing from one end of the pitch to the other, separated by a fabulous late header after a manager had thrown caution to the wind and tried to win the match rather than settling for a draw. Both teams had periods where they dominated the match and with five goals scored, plenty of controversy, late drama and a great atmosphere it turned out to be a terrific advert for the Championship.

QPR came out on top because of their manager, simple as that. People raised their eyebrows at Paulo Sousa’s appointment, some said he was destined to fail because he didn’t know the league very well and while that may still turn out to be true he has shown enough already to suggest he is more than able to produce a winning team at this level. He added three more points to his CV here because, with ten minutes to go, he was brave when many others would have been cautious.

If you had asked for a show of hands around Loftus Road with ten minutes left to play I would guess that the majority would have said Preston were the favourites to go on and win. QPR had been the better team in the first half but the second belonged to the visitors and although they needed a crass piece of refereeing from Alan Wiley to get them back on level terms they looked far more likely to go on and win the game as the time ticked towards 5pm. I can count on the fingers of one hand the managers in this division that would have done what Sousa did next. Rather than try to shore things up at the back or add another body to the midfield the Portuguese sacrificed a member of his back four for an additional striker. It swung the game, QPR suddenly had a chance to score, a decent penalty shout of their own waved away and finally a winning goal scored by the man Sousa had sent on.

Big risks sometimes bring big rewards. If Preston had used the extra space at the School End created by the substitution to win the game Sousa would have looked like a gung ho fool, instead he looks like a genius to QPR fans not used to seeing such ambition and positive attitude after years of watching teams managed by De Canio, Gregory, Holloway and Francis.

Sousa went into the game with a very attacking line up to start with, though there was still no place in the starting eleven for top scorer Dexter Blackstock. Helguson partnered Agyemang in attack with Lee Cook just behind and Ephraim with Rowlands in the middle. Gavin Mahon held the midfield ahead of the usual back four Ramage, Stewart, Gorkss and Delaney. Needless to say Radek Cerny continued in goal. The most notable change was at the School End where the old light bulb scoreboard had been replaced with a new modern one - in a strange way I will miss that silly board of bulbs that regularly broke and tried to set fire to the away end.

Preston brought a team to Loftus Road lying fifth in the table and boasting possibly the biggest strike force ever seen in W12. Chris Brown and Jon ‘The Beast’ Parkin both measure well over six foot and Parkin is so big it looks like he might have eaten his predecessor rather than just replaced him in the team. Irvine’s team based their play around two good wingers, Sedgwick and Wallace, feeding crosses to the gruesome twosome up front and sniffing around for any loose balls that bounced down off Brown’s head and Parkin’s gut. Irvine was denied the services of Richard Chaplow and Stephen Elliott through illness and injury respectively.

Rangers should have gone in front with the very first attack of the game. Lee Cook beat two men on the edge of the penalty area and curled a shot towards the top corner with his left foot. Lonergan flung himself up to palm the ball away with one hand but Patrick Agyemang was then on hand two yards out from goal to complete what looked like the simple task of converting the rebound. With Brian Power already heading to the bookies to collect his first goal scorer bet Agyemang inexplicably toed the ball straight back at the stricken keeper who was able to make a save that he should never have had a sniff at. Agyemang just cannot stick one away at the moment and while his build up play is excellent and he causes teams problems he looks to be very low on confidence once in the penalty area.

Preston responded with a St Ledger header from a corner that flew wide and then moments later a cross from Wallace that flew just to high for Parkin in the box. St Ledger had another chance from a Nicholson set piece in the twelfth minute but the former Peterborough man sent his volley flying over the bar after a flick on by Parkin – it was clear already that Gorkss and Stewart were going to have a tough job dealing with the Preston front line.

QPR took the lead after a quarter of an hour, a goal that owed much to the sudden return to form of Lee Cook. A throw in down by the corner flag on the left flank was taken by Delaney and after a neat exchange with Rowlands the ball was worked to Cook who took on and beat McKenna and then whipped a truly world class ball into the six yard box with his left foot. It was undefendable, simple as that, and it presented Heidar Helguson with the simple task of heading home his second goal for the club from close range.

Preston levelled the game up just before the half hour with a soft goal from a QPR point of view. Ross Wallace faced up Damien Delaney down the Preston right and initially lost his footing altogether. Delaney did not take the opportunity to rob him of possession and once he had regained his feet and nudged the ball back to Eddie Nolan Rangers were always stretched. Nolan played a ball in behind Rowlands to McKenna in the penalty area and his low cross was headed into the bottom corner by Chris Sedgwick coming in off the other flank twelve yards out. The cross should never have been allowed to come in but Sedgwick’s finish was certainly nicely taken, planted expertly into the only spot Cerny couldn’t reach.

QPR seemed to be badly affected by the goal and a lacklustre six minutes or so followed. Preston really should have taken the lead two minutes after equalising when Nicholson’s corner was flicked on at the near post by Parkin and Mawene arrived at the back post unmarked to volley over the bar from seven yards when he really should have scored. Mawene is no stranger to goals against QPR, you may recall he was the man to score one of Preston’s numerous last minute equalisers against us at Deepdale a couple of seasons ago.

Rangers retook the lead with a goal really from nothing, Helguson’s second of the afternoon. An inswinging corner from Rowlands was met untidily at the back post by Stewart and as the ball dropped in the six yard box Helguson and Cook bundled the ball in between them from a yard out – the Bolton loan man got the final touch. It initially looked like Alan Wiley had disallowed the goal as he stood on the edge of the area shaking his head but he was merely dismissing Preston appeals for a push in the build up and Helguson was left to celebrate with Rowlands down by the corner flag.

The goal seemed to bring a new wave of confidence to the QPR side and some of the football Rangers played in the last quarter of an hour in the half was superb. Ephraim and, shockingly, Ramage both swung over terrific crosses that Preston did well to clear and twice QPR carved their visitors open with neat passing moves on the edge of the box. On the first occasion Agyemang cut the ball back from the byline but could not quite find a QPR player in the box, on the second Ephraim and Agyemang combined to try and set up Rowlands but he was crowded out without an effort being registered on goal. Still it was nice to see Rangers playing football the right way and pushing forwards for a third goal.

There was yet another case of ‘me and my big mouth’ in F Block before half time as I had just about finished a discussion about how well Alan Wiley was doing when he awarded a crazy free kick against Lee Cook on halfway that not only was a poor decision but also stopped a promising counter attack with the ball at Helguson’s feet. Wiley went rapidly downhill after this mistake. He was though right to book Chris Sedgwick for a cynical foul on Ramage down by the corner flag in first half stoppage time.

Lee Cook hit the bar with a mishit cross from the right before half time and the crowd were rightly generous with their applause at the whistle. This was about as well as QPR have played all season, and the pace and quality of play did not relent at the start of the second half. Lee Cook, turning in his best performance since returning from Fulham, hit a 25 yard volley to start with that Lonergan gathered comfortably down by his post. Two minutes later a terrific move down the QPR left ended with Helguson crossing to Agyemang on the edge of the box – he may lack confidence with seemingly simple finishes but Big Pat was certainly happy enough to try a first time volley on goal from 20 yards. He did not catch it as well as he would have liked but it carried power and direction and needed a good two handed save from the Preston keeper to keep it out.

Sadly after that QPR started to drop deep, give the ball away and try and ride their luck through to full time at 2-1. It is a trick we do time and time and time again sometimes successfully, against Wolves, mostly unsuccessfully as at Plymouth last week. If we had just continued to keep possession and play good football we would have been fine but we just got drawn deeper and deeper into our own half and Preston took the game over. Nolan volleyed high and wide from a Parkin knock down and Delaney was booked for a crude foul on Wallace. Sousa’s team was indebted to Gavin Mahon for a brave block after Parkin had laid a ball across the face of goal just out of Sedgwick’s reach, the former Rotherham winger then cut it back to Davidson whose powerful drive from the edge of the area hit Mahon straight in the gut – Mahon had a poor game apart from that though and was sensibly replaced by Leigertwood just after the hour.

By that time Preston had drawn level again. It was certainly no more than they deserved after fifteen minutes of domination at the start of the half but the goal when it came was highly controversial. The incident began like so many of Preston’s attacks, with a long ball knocked forward from deep towards the ample frame of Jon Parkin. He allowed it to drop to the floor off his belly and then bumbled about on the edge of the area for a bit before falling over, toeing the ball in behind the QPR defence as he went. St Ledger made a move for the ball but Cerny always looked the favourite and took the ball cleanly to divert it away for a corner. Wiley paused, and then scandalously awarded a penalty kick. It was an absolute joke of a decision, none of the Preston players or fans had appealed for it and the referee was immediately surrounded by the disbelieving QPR players. A decision that an elite referee really should not be getting wrong. Callum Davidson stepped up to take the penalty and drove it confidently past Cerny and into the net with great power.

Wiley further endeared himself to the home fans by ignoring the Preston strikers’ physical approach to playing against our defence while awarding the visitors a number of questionable free kicks including one for a foul on Nicholson where he initially waved advantage on only for Preston to lose the ball. I am all for playing advantage, but you can’t play it for two or three passes and then come right back just because the team eventually lost the ball. Wiley seemed to be losing the plot by this stage.

Leigertwood’s first action in the game saw him pick up a pass from Rowlands and curl a trademark long range shot a foot or so wide of the top corner with Lonergan beaten. Ephraim did likewise five minutes later when he elected to shoot after a pass from Lee Cook when perhaps a pass to Ramage on the overlap wide right would have yielded a greater return – it was hard to criticise Ephraim on the day though, his work rate was excellent and he was always busy and creative in possession while not always successful with the more ambitious passes he tried.

Parkin with his head and Brown with a bicycle kick both had efforts off target for Preston either side of the 70 minute mark, QPR were very much on the back foot by this stage.

With ten minutes to go and Preston looking the most likely side to go on and win Paulo Sousa picked up his dice and prepared to give them a final throw. When every QPR manager in living memory may have been thinking of throwing on Fitz Hall and going to five at the back or five in midfield to hold onto the point we had Sousa had other ideas and went for the win. On came Hall for Ramage to form a three man central defensive line up, Delaney went off as well and top scorer Dexter Blackstock came into a three man attack. It opened Rangers right up and it was very risky against a good team that was on top at the time, but big risks can bring big rewards and within six minutes Blackstock had done the business and sealed a win.

He could have hit the crucial goal earlier had Patrick Agyemang played him in when he had a chance. A slip by Sean St Ledger, struggling badly with a groin injury by this stage, allowed Agyemang and Blackstock to run through on goal with only Mawene for company but the former Preston man held on too long and was crowded out on the edge of the penalty area. Blackstock also had an excellent shout for a penalty waved away by Wiley – a loose ball on the byline was reached first by the QPR man who poked it away from Mawene and then hit the deck under challenge from the frizzy hared centre half. It was more of a penalty than the shambolic decision that went Preston’s way earlier in the match but Wiley shook his head much to the anger of the Loft end. Blackstock would not have to wait long for another opportunity.

Four minutes from time Wallace was penalised for a foul on Cook wide on the left. The loaned Sunderland man moaned like hell over the decision and the placing of the free kick and I cannot imagine his mood improved much when Martin Rowlands whipped a wonderful low cross in and Dexter Blackstock angled his head and powered the ball into the top corner of the net. A super goal that brought the house down and nobody looked more delighted in the entire ground than Sousa on the touchline.

Rangers could have sealed the game with a fourth in the last minute of normal time when Helguson and Blackstock played a one two on the edge of the box but the Icelandic international was denied a hat trick by Lonergan who saved down low at close range. At the other end Cerny stood tall at his near post to divert a cross shot from Sedgwick wide for a corner which is headed clear. Preston sent on Simon Whaley, often linked with a move to Loftus Road, for the four minutes of stoppage time but the Blackstock goal seemed to have flattened them by this stage and Rangers were able to see the game out with few further scares.

This was a great spectacle – a pleasing games for so many reasons. On the QPR side there was a lot to be positive about, particularly the form of Helguson and Cook. My brother and I afforded ourselves a little chuckle before the match at the programme’s assertion that Helguson was now “off and running” after his scrappy goal at Plymouth last week, he had after all missed three sitters in games prior to that, but he really looked the part on Saturday with two good striker’s goals and a great performance leading the line. He wins so much in the air and while he is still tiring early in the second half that fitness will come with games and he looks a better signing with each passing game. Cook has been poor so far this season, as I wrote about in more detail last week, but he was superb on Saturday and much more like his old self. A great cross for the first goal and a tricky performance that Preston simply couldn’t cope with. He is certainly worth £900k on that evidence.

They were not alone though, Ephraim and Agyemang both played well although the latter still seems prone to panic and losses of confidence in front of goal, and Martin Rowlands was excellent as well. I was also pleased with Ramage at right back who was solid defensively and actually put in a couple of nice crosses in into the bargain - his best performance for the club in my opinion although he could have perhaps tracked Sedgwick better for the first goal. Gorkss and Stewart coped reasonably well with the muscular Preston forward line and really only Delaney, who was murdered all afternoon by Wallace, and Mahon played poorly for Rangers.

The late winner was just rewards for a good performance and ambition showed by the coaching staff – it also provided a dramatic and exciting end to a terrific match that will live long in the memory. The problem now is Boxing Day – QPR have twice won exhilarating home games this season against Birmingham and Wolves only to go away the next match and lose without scoring at Ipswich and Sheff Wed. On Friday we face a Charlton side without a win in 14 matches who were just about the poorest team I have seen this season when I watched them last week against Derby. At the moment we are closing the gap one week with a home win then allowing it to open up again with poor performances on the road – we are long overdue a win on our travels and are a far better team than Charlton. This should be a great chance for us to push on up the table, if only we were not QPR I would have confidence in us doing just that. Time will tell.

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QPR: Cerny 6, Delaney 4 (Hall 80, 6), Stewart 7, Ramage 7 (Blackstock 80, 8), Gorkss 7, Ephraim 7, Rowlands 7, Mahon 4 (Leigertwood 62, 6), Cook 8, Agyemang 7, Helguson 8

Subs Not Used: Ledesma, Di Carmine

Booked: Delaney (foul)

Goals: Helguson 16 (assisted Cook), 34 (assisted Stewart), Blackstock 86 (assisted Rowlands)

Preston: Lonergan 6, Davidson 7, Mawene 5, St. Ledger 5, Nolan 7, Nicholson 6, Sedgwick 7 (Whaley 90, -), McKenna 7, Wallace 8, Parkin 7, Chris Brown 7

Subs Not Used: Neal, Hawley, Carter, Jones

Booked: Sedgwick (foul)

Goals: Sedgwick 28 (assisted McKenna), Davidson 60 (penalty)

QPR Star Man – Heidar Helguson 8 Between him and Cook for this for me, great to see Cookie back on top form after a poor few months. Helguson takes it because his excellent line leading display that saw him constantly beating St ledger and Mawene in the air and bringing others into play was accompanied with two poacher’s efforts that proved crucial in the final result. Looks a really good signing.

Referee: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire) 5 He is doing my head in a bit now because I rate him as one of the country’s top referees but whenever he has a QPR game he seems to lose the plot altogether. The penalty was a joke, no other word for it, and having awarded that he then waved away a more blatant spot kick at the other end when Mawene fouled Blackstock. Every 50/50 decision in the second half seemed to go Preston’s way and there were some bizarre decisions along the way, most notably a free kick awarded against Cook when he passed the ball to Helguson a Preston free kick awarded when advantage had been waved three passes earlier and an offside given against Helguson when Mawene had headed the ball back. 9/10 almost perfect first half, 2/10 absolute shambles in the second.

Attendance: 14,103 (500 Preston fans approx) Good to see the lower School End full of QPR fans thanks to the ticket promotion, and nice to hear Loftus Road build up to full voice as this compelling match reached its conclusions.

Photo: Action Images

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