|Birmingham City 1 v 2 Queens Park Rangers|
Saturday, 16th December 2017 Kick-off 15:00
Unlikely Robinson double breaks QPR's away duck - Report
Sunday, 17th Dec 2017 16:04 by Clive Whittingham
QPR finally secured their first away win since February, at the eighteenth attempt, on the ground they last achieved the feat – beating Birmingham 2-1 at St Andrew’s on Saturday.
Queens Park Rangers, drowning in the sea of another six-match winless run, finally surfaced and gasped a lungfull of air at Birmingham City on Saturday.
A first maximum in seven games, and just a third in 16, this narrow 2-1 success was also QPR’s first win away from home in 18 attempts dating back to last February when they won 4-1 on the same ground. Perhaps St Andrew’s, which can be accessed on the train for a fiver and offers a bigger capacity than Loftus Road and sub-£20 rounds of drinks, could be the answer to Rangers’ ongoing search for a new home ground.
If the location for the duck breaking was perhaps predictable, the source of the goals that achieved it was not. Jack Robinson, a clear positive in a difficult season, marked his ongoing rapid progression from two years of injury hell with the first two goals of his professional career – one a header from a free kick, the other a powerful low strike from distance just as his team seemed to be losing grip on the game.
A big moment for the likeable Scouser, and for his manager who was coming under increasing pressure prior to kick off. Holloway joked afterwards he’d told the drug testers they had to pick Robinson after his match winning performance – would anything be quite as QPR as them doing exactly that and him failing it? I jest.
But the overall feeling come full time was one of palpable relief, rather than any particular joy or any great optimism that this could be the start of better things to come over the Christmas period. Saturday was about snapping another losing run by hook or by crook, and Rangers just about managed that. But I’d be amazed if they play a worse team than Birmingham City this season and yet the narrow win could easily have ended up a draw on another day. Not that anybody will, but this was not anything to get particularly carried away about.
That’s slightly unfair on Rangers’ first half performance which rewarded Holloway for a much calmer, saner team selection. In keeping with the other losing runs that have come to define Holloway’s second spell in charge of the club, Rangers had used 22 players in the previous six games in a variety of formations and systems. Players like David Wheeler, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Yeni Ngbakoto, Kazenga LuaLua and Ilias Chair have been suddenly, randomly thrown into games only to be removed just as abruptly in exactly the same way the likes of Michael Petrasso, Sean Goss and Ravel Morrison were the last time the defeats started to pile up back in April.
Holloway has been selecting his team in the manner Lionel Hutz conducts criminal defence trials -surprise witnesses, each more surprising than the last. Goss, Ngbakoto, Petrasso and even the lesser-spotted Jay Emmanuel Thomas drew interest in a pre-match pub sweepstake for Saturday’s wild inclusion. JET, of course, is too busy organising his “free entry for girls before 23.00” Swazzy Christmas/birthday party and Holloway, for once, resisted his impulses and over-thinking. Give or take the return of Grant Hall from the start this was probably what the manager would consider his strongest side with Alex Baptiste, Nedum Onuoha and Jack Robinson as a back three with Pawel Wszolek and Jake Bidwell as wing backs, the usual midfield three in position and Matt Smith up top with Conor Washington.
It’ll be difficult during a hectic Christmas period, and the mystification around Idrissa Sylla’s lack of game time will only grow after an impressive cameo from the bench here that swung the game back towards Rangers, but Holloway will be rewarded for sticking as close to that shape and that personnel as he can over the coming weeks rather than returning to the tombola machine approach.
His prize here was a half decent first half. Bar one powerful header from Jota, arriving late in the penalty box at the back post, which flashed just wide of the bottom corner with Alex Smithies beaten, Birmingham posed no threat whatsoever. The vast majority of the chances, and 110% of any football played, belonged to QPR, with Luke Freeman and Josh Scowen particularly influential and impressive in midfield. Freeman had already hit the top of the wall with a direct free kick when he swung one over for Robinson to head home at the front of a queue of players.
It should have been 2-0 when Conor Washington went clean through after a defensive calamity just before half time, but he crowned a poor individual performance with an amateurish finish off towards the corner flag, and then again straight after the break when another well-worked set piece saw Robinson steal in unmarked at a corner but head over when it seemed easier to score. Scowen had a shot deflected just wide with the keeper beaten.
Birmingham were roundly and regularly berated by a home crowd swelled by a cheap ticket promotion. That’s obviously counterproductive - draining what little confidence remains from a team that has won only eight times in the league in just over a year since the new board, in one of the stupidest decisions ever made in sport, decided to sack Gary Rowett with the team in seventh and replace him with Gianfranco Zola. But they deserved it. The fans were dead right. A year, and three managers later, they now sit bottom of the league under the comedy stylings of Steve Cotterill who spent all afternoon ordering his team to send the ball higher, longer and further towards isolated lone striker Sam Gallagher to the point that goalkeeper David Stockdale actually ended up in a stand-up row with his own bench during the second half while the game was going on.
Don’t feel too sorry for Stockdale mind. This is a goalkeeper who turned down the chance to go into the Premier League with Brighton and moved instead to a Championship club that avoided relegation to League One on the final day of last season on a lucrative three-year contract. When questioned about motives on Sky Sports earlier this season 32-year-old Stockdale cited family issues, including his daughters’ exams. Those SATs can be a bugger.
There’s examples like that all over this City side. Jota absolutely pulverised Jake Bidwell at Griffin Park last Easter when playing for Brentford. Here he barely looked arsed. Credit Bidwell, who’s improved a lot this season, for modifying his approach – engaging Jota much faster, much higher up the field, before the Spaniard had chance to turn and get at him – but my God if ever a player was obviously phoning it in it was the Birmingham winger. Save your tears for Gallagher too, who may have been flogged like a dead horse by Cotterill’s ‘tactics’ but is also on an eye-watering loan deal from Southampton that has seen Birmingham pay £1.2m to borrow him for the season, pay all of his £10,000 a week wage from his parent club, and top that up by a further £8,000 a week themselves. Throw in the £200,000 agent fee and that’s £43,000 a week to borrow a player for nine months – exactly the sort of deal we’re talking about when we explain why QPR are struggling to sign strikers at this level.
Players moving to a club that’s been a basket case for months, purely for money, abandoning all sense of professional pride and ambition, is a recipe for disaster. When it’s Harry Redknapp involved in the cooking it becomes absolutely toxic as we know only too well ourselves. Birmingham made 14 summer signings, many for big transfer fees, many on long and lucrative contracts, and the result is what you see before you. You know when you’ve been Redknapped.
And yet for all this, for all the decent QPR play, for all the dominance, for all the chances, it was only 1-0. The Washington miss, in particular, right on half time, felt like a big opportunity to bury Brum out of sight and mind. Rangers have kept just three clean sheets this season, and a paltry six in the 57 games Ian Holloway has been in charge for second time round.
Sure enough, they treated the hosts to an equaliser, though much like Robinson’s brace the source was an unusual one. Alex Smithies, so often a beacon of light in a dark time at Loftus Road, spilled a speculator from Kieftenbeld and then came up short trying to fall on the loose ball allowing Gallagher, the one Birmingham player you could reasonably say deserved a goal, to poke home. His third against QPR in as many appearances for Blackburn and Birmingham.
And from then on Rangers started to wilt. Confidence draining, legs tiring, aerial bombardment from the home team continuing, it started to look like not only would this not be the long-awaited away win, it could actually end up being another defeat. Rangers started going long and lazy to Matt Smith, reducing the impact and influence of Freeman and, particularly, Scowen who’d been brilliant in the first half but disappeared from view in the second. It quickly descended into two desperately poor teams wellying long balls backwards and forwards at big lumps up front. Talk about adverts for the Championship, there was 20 minutes of this second half that was an advert for doing absolutely anything else with your Saturday other than coming to the football – B&Q, Sainsbury’s shop, queuing on the North Circular to get into Ikea, taking your cat to the vets to be put down, anything you like.
Credit where it’s due to Ian Holloway, who turned the tide back in his favour with a substitution. For all the justified criticism of his team selections – and I guess you could argue it’s those random starting 11s that create the need for big surgery from the bench – he is proactive and often quite effective with his subs. Rangers have scored more off the bench than any other team at this level since Holloway returned and it’s often Idrissa Sylla that gets them. Here he strode on for Matt Smith, ran straight into the penalty area, met a perfect Jake Bidwell cross with a powerful header past Stockdale and was within an inch of burying a winning goal with his first touch.
On a difficult playing surface, in driving rain and freezing temperatures, the Guinean showed a deftness of touch and sharpness of decision making not usually associated with his unorthodox/barking mad playing style. Introducing that for Smith, who like the rest of his team had waned in performance level and influence after half time, swung momentum back to QPR enough for them to win the game. Freeman tracking right to left across the edge of the area teed up Robinson who had a dig from 25 yards with his left foot, beating the keeper all ends up with a crisp shot into the far corner. Freeman now leads the Championship in assists - eight this season.
Pandemonium behind the goal turned to nerves during five minutes of stoppage time as Birmingham’s style regressed from John Beck’s Cambridge to the bombing of Dresden but with Nedum Onuoha particularly commanding the R’s were able to repel a series of high balls pumped into a crowded penalty area and finally get that elusive away win under their belts.
A win’s a win in such circumstances, and that’s all this was. Here’s to you Jack Robinson, your manager loves you more than you will know.
Birmingham: Stockdale 5; Colin 5, Morrison 5, Dean 5, Grounds 5; Davis 6 (Maghoma 75, 6), Gardner 5; Jota 5 (Jutkiewicz 87, -), Kieftenbeld 5, Boga 5; Gallagher 7
Subs not used: Nsue, Bramall, Ndoye, Trueman, Gleeson
Goals: Gallagher 57 (assisted Kieftenbeld)
Bookings: Gallagher 66 (foul)
QPR: Smithies 5; Baptiste 6, Onuoha 6, Robinson 8; Wszolek 6, Bidwell 7; Freeman 7 (Hall 88, -), Luongo 6, Scowen 7; Washington 5 (Samuel 84, -), Smith 6 (Sylla 75, 7)
Subs not used: Cousins, Lumley, Chair, Wheeler
Goals: Robinson 17 (assisted Freeman), 83 (assisted Freeman)
Bookings: Scowen 45+1 (foul), Smith 68 (repetitive fouling)
QPR Star Man – Jack Robinson 8 Strong at the back and a threat going forwards, with the first two goals of his professional career winning the game for his team, makes this an obvious choice. I thought Jake Bidwell was very decent as well though, and Freeman as always chipping in with two assists. Sylla improved us off the bench.
Referee – Mike Jones (Cheshire) 8 Bit fussy at times but nothing major wrong and wasn’t unduly troubled dropping down from the Premier League to a game of such limited quality and one-dimensional play.
Attendance – 20,107 (1,136 QPR) Rangers always seem to bring a large, boisterous away following to this one and the atmosphere at the back of the away end was bouncing throughout. Crucially, pleasingly, things didn’t turn in the stands after the Birmingham equaliser when QPR seemed to be wilting in the game – noisy and supportive throughout which hasn’t always been the case. Big laughs at the three pre-pubescent, naughty little boys in the side stand getting lobbed out after an hour of making wanker signs at the away end and offering people outside.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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