Best laid plans – Report
Sunday, 27th Aug 2017 18:54 by Dave Thomas and John Brownhill
A combination of A Kick Up The R’s editor Dave Thomas and his helpful assistant John Brownhill report on Saturday’s narrow defeat at early league-leaders Cardiff City.
Before I launch in to a comprehensive report of this all too predictable defeat, an admission: As I type this, sitting at home in what I laughingly refer to as my office (a cluttered box room, in reality), I am around 200 miles away from Stadiwm Dinas Caerdydd. It is the nearest and, as it happens, simultaneously the furthest I have been to the stadium all day. The day of the match, to be clear.
Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a problem. At least, not to anyone else. However, when I twice responded in the affirmative when asked by Clive if I was going to Cardiff, and if so would I oblige with a match report, I did so in the belief that I would be spending my Saturday in South Wales and would use the train journey back to Lancashire scribbling down the draft of a report that I would, conscientious as ever, crawl out of bed early on Sunday morning to type up in full, and email over to Clive forthwith. At least, that was the plan.
It was the plan for the full two weeks after Clive had initially asked me to fill in for him, work commitments dictating that he would be several times over further away from Cardiff than myself on that particular day. It was the plan that still stood when I travelled down to Loftus Road twice in three days, for the Hull and Brentford games, both offering ample opportunity to visit the box office and purchase a match ticket for Cardiff - opportunities I spurned for no other reason of not thinking, and certainly not planning ahead.
Now, having already admitted I wasn't actually at the game (as opposed to bluffing it that I was; after all, no-one would be any the wiser that I wasn't), you could be forgiven for thinking that my not even setting off, let alone not arriving, was something to do with the chaos on the railways, with major engineering works taking place across the entire network over the Bank Holiday weekend. True, my planned journey would have involved changing on to a coach at Newport for the last leg of the journey, and the reverse on my way home, but my decision to drive to Cardiff instead was more to do with bad planning on my part than any aversion to bus travel.
Nowadays, I tend to drive to games, rather than letting the train take the strain. Keen, though, to keep the miles off my car and fancying a change anyway, I went on-line to check train times and the cost of getting from Manchester to Cardiff. Plenty of options, time-wise, even with the anticipated disruptions. The cost, though, was off-putting. Even totting up various split-ticketing options, it was still cheaper by far to drive. I had just about made up my mind when I realised that - joy of joys - I could slash one-third off these ticket prices (even the bargain ones) on account of being a senior citizen. That amounted to a fair old saving, whatever ticket or combination of tickets I travelled under. The trouble is, although I could apply for a railcard on-line, it wouldn't be valid instantly. For that, I'd have to visit any ticket office and buy one in person.
Which is how, late on Friday evening before the game, and the plan (Remember the plan? Good.) still in place, I found myself at the ticket office at Horwich Parkway in the shadow of the imposing Macron Stadium, home to fellow Championship side Bolton Wanderers. Ten minutes from my house, as it happens. I was a bit miffed that the booking clerk, who otherwise had little to do that day on account of no trains at all running on the Bolton-Preston line for several days due to a burst water main, all too readily accepted that this youthful looking figure in front of him wasn't in fact trying to pull a fast one in his request for a railcard, and it was duly handed over without so much as a cursory glance at the driving licence I kept brandishing at him, in a hopeful attempt at having my ego massaged.
Barring the method of transportation to Cardiff, the plan (go to Cardiff, watch the game, write about it afterwards) still stood right up to the Saturday morning of the game. In fact, it was very much about to be put into action from the moment my alarm went off. Still nothing had changed with it as I had my Weetabix, showered and generally got ready to brave the various motorways between Bolton and Cardiff. Those amongst you still awake at this juncture might also be alert enough to recall that I'd passed over the opportunity to purchase a match ticket for the Cardiff game; and as I prepared to close the front door behind me, I was still without a ticket. Best, I suppose, I call Cardiff City and double-check that I could simply buy one at the stadium, once there. Ten minutes listening to lift music and I was informed, pleasantly but unequivocally, that no, no tickets would be available to any away fan. In the words of one of our most famous fans, should I stay or should I go? Chances are that I'd get in somehow, probably via a spare from someone. But was it worth the risk, report or no report to compile? I decided that the M6/M5 on a Saturday Bank Holiday weekend in August was chancing my arm in the first place. Travelling without a ticket, or a guarantee of one at the other end, was just too risky. I opted for a day at home instead.
Now, I have absolutely no-one else to blame but myself for this foolish oversight. I had assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that with only a small away support making the trip, away tickets would be on sale on the day. Which brings me to a bugbear of mine - and a platform to share it. Time and time again, we are informed that a game is all-ticket and warned not to travel without one. Yet at the ground itself it's a different story. Swansea is a good example of this left hand, right hand scenario. Hull is another. A few seasons back, a fair few QPR fans of my acquaintance declined to travel to Humberside after learning that strictly and under no circumstances would anyone without a ticket be able to gain access to the KC Stadium. On the day, one lonely turnstile operative, perfectly happy to accept cash on the gate for admission, was troubled only once - an exiled family of four QPR fans entering the ground via this method. Other than that the turnstile remained steadfastly unclicked. Consistent and correct information, especially for fans having to travel a long distance and from various directions, is so vital as to be a given really. Frequently it is misleading or just plain wrong.
Here's another thing, why aren't unsold tickets routinely sold on the day, especially at our level? Is it to prevent hordes of ne'er do wells spontaneously descending on a stadium in order to cause mayhem? It can't be to prevent home fans infiltrating the away section for much the same reason, surely? Perhaps it's the police who dictate these things? Again, for what valid reason? To those fans who can't simply stroll down to Loftus Road to buy in person, or are at work when the box office is open, or object to paying the extortionate booking fee that goes with a telephone or on-line booking, not always being able to buy a ticket on the day is a pain - especially when, as here, there are only 640 Rangers fans inside the ground and many more empty seats than occupied one. Perhaps I'll learn later that it WAS possible to buy a ticket on the day... in which case, I rest my case.
Either way, I now had a problem. How to write a match report that I hadn't been within 200 miles of, let alone watched on television even. As someone who goes to almost every game, home and away, I hadn't given much thought to this new scheme, whereby if you live anywhere in the world other than the UK, you can watch every single minute of every league game. If you happen to be a QPR fan living in the UK, you can jolly well go and bury your head in a pile of manure. I know it's all about broadcasting rights, and so on, and it's not that I'd want to deny any overseas supporters this manna from heaven, but... well, it just seems intrinsically wrong on so many levels. I'm sure the club would agree.
So, what to do? As I say, I'm too honest to bluff it and pretend I was there. The official post-match footage on the club's Twitter feed, showing the players walking out the tunnel two hours before kick-off and looking around an empty stadium, wasn't much to go on in painting a scene to begin the bluff - and besides I'd rather given the game away by using the same social media channel to ask if anyone had or knew of a spare ticket. Only one real option - text someone who I knew was there and get them to help. So step forward John Brownhill, someone whose reading of the game and opinion I always value, and someone who would give a validity to the ratings. John goes home and away with QPR from his home in that veritable hot-bed of QPR support - Altrincham in Cheshire. Yes, yes, another northern monkey. Get over it.
The game itself then. The big question was which Rangers would turn up? The one who had outplayed Sheffield Wednesday, only to concede an equaliser through a defensive error? Or the one that had lost rather too easily at Norwich, courtesy of some slack defending? It was unlikely to be the one that had capitulated in the League Cup ties against Brentford, conceding three goals before half-time and looking all over the place at the back? To steal a line from a previous essay for Loft for Words, can you see a pattern emerging here? As if the fact we make far too many simple errors at the back is news to anyone.
John quickly reported back that Caulker was starting. I knew that would divide opinion straightaway amongst our support. Obviously the player's issue have been well documented but this time last year he was starting regularly, playing well and looking like the player who can list Tottenham on his CV and will one day show an England cap to his grandchildren. Earlier in the week, Caulker's body language suggested he'd rather be anywhere else than being humiliated once again by Brentford, as our defence lost shape and discipline over and over again in a torrid first-half. In theory, he should be first choice at the back. In reality, and speaking purely from the perspective of a paying punter, it's a risk selecting him.
Aside from one long-throw from Gunnarsson causing early panic in the QPR box nothing much happened early on, which away to a side that had won all four league games so far this season was something of a result for QPR. So far, so good.
Three minutes later and things got even better. A Washington header had found its way out to Freeman, whose 'exquisite' chip was nodded home by Matt Smith, doing what Matt Smith does best. Hopes of another win at a ground we tend to do quite well on lasted all of eight minutes - the time it took Caulker to get caught in possession, Onuoha to further hamper the situation with a bad back pass, and the ball to fly into the net off Smithies’ helpless clearance via our old charge Junior Hoilett. 'Calamitous' John described it as; 'Typical' was my reply. And typical it was, of course. A player who had stolen a living at Rangers now benefiting from yet another careless mistake at the back. Smithies, who is rarely at fault, must despair at times. Hoilett, it seems, with selective memory loss and showing no humility or respect (regardless of any abuse that he may or may not have received from the away end), gave it 'both barrels' to the Rangers fans.
Sadly the phrase 'Caulker's performance is sadly Bob Malcolm revisited' was borne out several minutes later when, with the first-half drawing to a close, from a Hoilett corner following a superb save from Smithies, Bamba easily outjumped the leaden-footed Caulker to head Cardiff into a half-time lead. All this after Rangers might well have restored their lead, with Luongo having a goalbound shot cleared, and Mackie striking the outside of the post with a long-range shot.
Secoond half was much of the same. Cardiff had goal disallowed with our centre-halves all over the place, then hit the bar from six-yards out. The introduction of Sylla for Mackie, Wzsolek for Caulker, and N'Gbakoto for Washington seemed to galvanise Rangers into a renewed effort, while all the while continuing to look vulnerable at the back. Onuoha was shaky after the equaliser and his indecision created a further opening for the home side – Smithies saved excellently at his near post. Afterwards Neil Warnock wondered aloud why no Premier League team had picked up QPR’s excellent goalkeeper. Scowen blazed over from 20 yards, Ngbakoto seemed certain to score late on but the ball bobbled wide. Cardiff were denied a third from similar penalty box carnage late on.
The whistle now blown for full-time and a win that keeps Cardiff and Neil Warnock top of the Championship with maximum points from five games. For QPR, seven points from five games is not the worst return, and only three weeks of the season in it remains far too early to make judgement calls on what might happen over the remaining thirty-six or so.
All the same, with goals in us and a midfield that is performing reasonably well, along with managing to keep hold of Smithies, it is clear already where our problems lie. In a game of fine margins, no team (least of all ours) can afford to concede goals as cheaply and as regularly as we have done so far. Tighten up at the back (and that's probably easier said than done, with the personnel available) and we might get back some of the positivity of the opening day, and which has taken a bit of a knock in the past few days, first by Brentford and now here by Cardiff. Keep making the same errors and we'll only be going in one direction.
Cardiff: Etheridge; Peltier, Morrison, Bamba, Bennett; Gunnarsson, Ralls; Mendez-Laing, Damour (Ward 82), Hoilett (Manga 82); Zohore
Subs not used: Richards, Tomlin, Halford, Murphy, Bogle
Goals: Hoilett 22 (unassisted), Bamba 45+1 (assisted Hoilett)
QPR: Smithies 7, Furlong 7, Caulker 3 (Wszolek 72, 6), Onuoha 5, Bidwell 6, Mackie 6 (Sylla 61, 6), Luongo 7. Scowen 7, Freeman 8, Smith 6, Washington 5 (Ngbakoto 70, 5)
Subs not used: Lua Lua, Baptiste, Robinson, Ingram
Goals: Smith 15 (assisted Freeman)
Bookings: Furlong 38 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Alex Smithies 7 Must be growing slightly weary of playing behind such an accident-prone backline.
Referee – Simon Hooper (Wiltshire) 7 Continuing a slightly disconcerting trend at the start of this season for calm, competent, assured refereeing with few cards. It’ll never last.
Attendance 18,520 (640 QPR approx) Modest in numbers, but not helped by it being all ticket and the problems on the railway. The M4 isn't the best motorway to get anywhere on a Saturday in August when the trains aren't running. Deserve enormous credit for a dignified tribute to Ray Jones in the 31st minutes. Ten years since the news came through that the young Rangers striker had lost his life in road traffic accident, and it feels like only yesterday. If that doesn't add much-needed perspective to a mere football result than nothing ever will.
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