Each more surprising than the last – Report
Tuesday, 2nd Jan 2018 22:46 by Clive Whittingham
It turned out to be a debut to remember for Northern Irish striker Paul Smyth who scored the winning goal in a Man of the Match display for QPR against Cardiff at Loftus Road on New Year’s Day.
And then they reel you back in again don’t they? Bastards.
I’ve felt lower during 25 years of following Queens Park Rangers around the country than I did at Millwall on Friday night, but not much. Seeing your team lose, seeing your team play poorly, seeing your team go about their mission in such an inept and nonsensical way, that’s always hard to take. Marry it up with being criminalised simply for attending a football match, kettled into a roofless cage on a cold, dark and wet night and forcibly held their against your will for 45 minutes before being frogmarched into a potentially lethal situation on a railway platform where 1,400 people were being forced into a four carriage train… well, that’s the perfect shit storm isn’t it? Being so ridiculously emotionally invested in a football team can drain a lot of the pleasure out of watching them play at the best of times, replaced with stress and anxiety, but this is still meant to be a hobby, a pastime, something we do for fun. Friday night was a tumour.
For the first hour against Cardiff City on New Year’s Day, it didn’t feel like it was about to get a lot better any time soon either. This fixture often feels like one too many over the festive period for a variety of reasons, and 60 minutes of a Cardiff side who’ve suddenly hit the wall and lost three on the bounce against a QPR team clearly low on confidence played out in front of a silent crowd shivering through their hangovers did nothing to dispel that notion. It quickly boiled down to two tired looking teams trading long throws – QPR’s Jack Robinson and Cardiff’s Callum Paterson getting good distance for no reward.
Rangers did hit the post through Matt Smith when he flicked on Luke Freeman’s straight free kick, but that was more to do with shaky goalkeeping from former R’s reserve Brian Murphy than anything else. Alex Smithies also made an unorthodox save to stop Rhys Healey scoring from a tricky angle. Kenneth Zohore powered one over after Junior Hoilett - one of three former QPR players returning to Loftus Road and the only one booed which should tell the lazy little sod something - had flicked on into his path then moved for a return.
Two Nedum Onuoha moments rather summed it up. The first when he got caught in possession carrying the ball out from the back – not the only QPR player who surrendered the ball like this waiting for movement ahead that never came – and was rescued by Alex Baptiste swooping in on Hoilett. Then six minutes later he planted a free header from a Freeman corner high and wide into the School End. The groans all we had to break up the silence.
By half time you’d rather have been anywhere else in the world (apart from South Bermondsey) and the start of the second half only deepened the depression. The sides had traded half chances – Jordan Cousins, looking decent down the right until given a sight of the goal, miscontrolled a chance from close range; then Onuoha produced a vital block in his own six-yard box to steer a goalbound Zohore shot round the post. But in truth it felt like a game heading for a 0-0 draw until referee Tim Robinson intervened.
Seven minutes after half time, cross to the back post, Bidwell turns to follow it, Paterson collapses to the ground, penalty given. Total bollocks. Insufferable bullshit.
It reminded me of a spot kick given in almost exactly the same spot many years ago by David Ellery against Karl Ready when we were playing Spurs. That night a deep cross was sailing well past the goalmouth and out to the far side and as Ready turned to follow it out there Teddy Sheringham embarrassingly threw himself over the back of the defender. Ellery obliged, Spurs scored, Rangers from 2-0 up lost 3-2. This, too, from Paterson, was a flagrant dive. Cheating. A man whose frame suggests he didn’t so much indulge in too much Christmas shortbread as buy a metric ton of the stuff and try to eat himself to death, apparently absolutely poleaxed and sent crashing to earth by the most minimal of contact from Bidwell. A load of rubbish from a crap referee, who’d already waved away a more convincing penalty appeal by the visitors in the eleventh minute and later said no to an actual push by Alex Baptiste that prevented a goal and was an absolute stone waller. Robinson marrying the usual pedantry, pickiness and endless terminal discussions with players about nothing very much at all that we’ve come to expect from him with rank incompetence throughout this match.
Joe Ralls, Cardiff’s best player, converted. Maybe we shouldn’t have made such a big deal of Alex Smithies’ penalty exploits a year ago – he hasn’t got near any of the last five he’s faced now.
Shortly after that Cardiff were forced to remove Lee Peltier because of injury. The former Huddersfield full back’s odyssey from the centre circle to the touchline included a handshake with the referee, and two of his team mates, and a wave to the crowd, and the swapping of the captain’s arm band. At one stage I thought he was going to embark on a full lap of honour and sign autographs, which rather suggested Cardiff were going to try and snap their losing streak by grinding this one out. You couldn’t blame them for that but if it had continued for any length of time, with confidence already low among the QPR players, the atmosphere non-existent, an absolute joystick refereeing and goals hard to come by then it’s pretty easy to imagine that frustration would have festered and another game would have drifted away.
Luckily Rangers equalised very quickly, although even Matt Smith’s highly basic leveller - heading straight in from one of Robinson’s long throws - did little to stir anything much more than apathy. How a Cardiff side with Bruno Manga, Sol Bamba, Matt Connolly, shortbread enthusiast Paterson and Kenneth Zohore in it lost a header all afternoon, never mind conceded a goal from one, is beyond me but there it was, credit to Smith for a good finish and Robinson for a monster throw in. One one, the first a dreadful bit of refereeing, the second Championship 1.1.
And then a hero comes along.
Paul Smyth’s first appearance for QPR since a summer move from Linfield was the most surprising of all Ian Holloway’s recent surprise witnesses. Not least because he’d seemed to decide that Aramide Oteh was the Under 23 striker he fancied most, giving him a debut at The Den last week only to then jump Smyth ahead of him in the queue and straight in from the start here. However, the parade of the usual suspects on social media panning the team selection before the team had even taken the field, not for the first time, look very daft this morning.
To be fair, as the teams emerged it looked even more ridiculous. Smyth, weighing about six stone, looked like a pale little boy on his first day at the big school, ripe for Bamba, Manga and Connolly the playground bullies. A more physically imposing and experienced Championship back three you’d struggle to find anywhere in the division this season. Bamba looks like a man who left the coathanger in his shirt, Smyth looked like something he might have for his elevenses. But it says much for Smyth’s spiky approach to the task, and the quality of the refereeing, that the debutant was repeatedly warned for niggling, annoying, needling and bullying the world’s biggest human being. Fearless little git as it turns out, all done with a happy expression of angelic innocence.
First impressions – he’s quick. Early on he took Manga out into some deep water wide on the QPR right and drowned him in pace, rounding the man and delivering a cross which Matt Connolly almost stuck through his own goal. Connors was later booked for deliberately hauling him down on the counter attack - a sign they already feared his jet heels. More impressive though was the instinctive movement, particularly the way he would peel off and run into the channels. That’s the sort of basic intelligence missing from Jamie Mackie’s game, and particularly from Idrissa Sylla and Conor Washington. Just that instinctive, knowing where to be and where to run. Confident boy as well, a perpetual pain in the land of the giants, never giving any of them a moment of peace. A first half chance skied over the bar after he’d hung back on the edge of the area and received a cut back luckily didn’t dent that.
Score equalised, crowd back in the game, Cardiff tiring and rocking, Smyth really started to make hay, right and left of Smith in the wide open channels between Cardiff’s wing backs and centre halves. One run set up Cousins for a low shot that Smith almost helped past Murphy on its way in. Similar brilliance from Freeman down the left crossed into the near post where Cousins, again, couldn’t bundle home. A shot of his own from Freeman hit Bamba, bursting the ball in the process, and flopped off the top of the bar. Rangers were motoring now though.
Then it happened. Ball down the line, Smith with an i flicks on, Smyth with a y sets off. He’s in behind Manga again, and he’s running away from him, and he’s still going, Christ he’s quick, and you think he’s going to the byline to cut a cross back, but he’s not he’s going straight towards the target no messing about, and he’s got the legs on all of them, and he’s in, and he’s shooting and it’s flicking slightly off Bamba and it’s going into the net. And the place is going absolutely berserk. Debut goal. Two fecking summersaults, perfectly executed. Smile so bright with teeth so white they could probably see it back in Belfast. Andy Sinton in tears. Have that.
To make it the winning goal, Rangers had 20 minutes to survive. And that’s what it inevitably would be for a team that is yet to score more than twice in a game this season. Cardiff, predictably, switched Bamba into the attack and he was soon volleying right through the goal and out the other side, somehow not finding the far corner nor getting a flick into the net off anybody else. There were scrambles, a massive block on a goalbound shot from Jordan Cousins, another one skidding all the way along the goalline but not going in, and the penalty appeal against Baptiste which really should have brought a second spot kick. Baptiste was excellent all game though.
And there was the equaliser that wasn’t too. Hoilett would have loved nothing more than his eighty-third-minute shot under Smithies and into the net to have counted, but a late linesman flag, and Smithies tapping him on his shoulder, interrupted a dance under the jubilant away fans. Referee Tim Robinson came across and spoke with his assistant for what seemed like an age about whether the ball had actually been played into Hoilett’s path by Josh Scowen, which it had, although Scowen had pretty obviously been fouled anyway. So it was either a goal, or a QPR free kick on the edge of the area. In keeping with everything else he’d done since 15.00, the referee got it wrong, and disallowed it for offside after all. Neil Warnock fumed so hard he crashed into the dugout on his way off at full time while haranguing the officials.
Ian Holloway made intelligent changes. When Smyth could run no further and left the field to a standing ovation the manager reached for Oteh rather than Sylla, and his pace and channel running really hampered Cardiff’s efforts to lay siege to the QPR goal. He’d have scored in injury time too had Scowen’s pass to him in a three v one situation not been so lousy – he got the shot off anyway but Murphy saved. QPR, flying forwards with two strikers from their Under 23s. As Manga also joined Bamba in a final throw of the Cardiff dice, so Joel Lynch was summoned from the bench after his annual Christmas sabbatical, looking tanned and well fed, to win three crucial headers in the stoppage time.
Good stuff from Holloway, who described the selection of Smyth as one of the biggest risks of his career after the match. A year ago, similarly desperate, he randomly called up another young prospect from across the Irish Sea and was similarly rewarded with Ryan Manning’s man of the match display in a win at Wolves. His lack of minutes this season is a real shame, and stand as a stark warning that we mustn’t get carried away with Smyth like we do whenever something like this happens, so desperate are we all to see a player emerge from the ranks and make a serious go of it.
But for me, it’s not that much of a risk at all. Continuing to labour with players who’ve been given ample chance and not done it for us is the risky strategy. I’m not saying play all of the kids and I’m not saying play them all of the time but QPR have chugged and sweated and huffed and puffed along with a basic bunch of hard working but limited senior players this season and last. Smyth, Oteh and Manning before them have shown that thanks to the hard work of Chris Ramsey, Les Ferdinand and others over the past four years there are now some decent prospects waiting below decks to step up.
Furlong should be getting more minutes, Manning should be, Oseyi-Samuel should be. Ian Holloway has given the younger boys more chance than any of his predecessors, but I hope he’s as good as his word at full time that there will be more of this in the second half of the season. The extra pace, the enthusiasm, the desperation to do well and prove themselves, the confidence undiminished by being part of recent first team losing runs – all that’s taken as given, but they actually don’t look bad players. The Championship is a basic bitch, not some far off galaxy of footballing level unattainable to all but a very select few. Paul Smyth, in his first go at it, man of the match through pace, hard work, effort, endeavour, no little skill, knowing where to be and where to run, and showing no fear or respect. And that against a centre back that Warnock said, as only Warnock could, he wouldn’t swap for £75m Virgil Van Dyke.
There are few better feelings as a football fan than seeing a young kid do that on his debut, and you couldn’t clear the smile off his face for the rest of the night. Back in the Crown, life felt a whole lot better. Perhaps after Friday whoever is in charge of these things decided to throw us a bone, and for that we thank them.
Happy New Year after all.
QPR: Smithies 7; Baptiste 8, Onuoha 6, Robinson 7; Cousins 7, Bidwell 6 (Lynch 84, -); Scowen 6, Luongo 6, Freeman 7; Smyth 8 (Oteh 77, 7), Smith 6
Subs not used: Wszolek, Lumley, Chair, Oseyi-Samuel, Sylla
Goals: Smith 62 (assisted Robinson), Smyth 72 (assisted Smith)
Yellows: Smyth 70 (repetitive fouling), Freeman 90+3 (foul)
Cardiff: Murphy 5; Manga 6, Bamba 6, Connolly 5; Peltier 6 (Damour 58, 6), Paterson 6, Ralls 7, Bennett 6; Healey 6 (Mendez-Laing 67, 6), Hoilett 7, Zohore 6
Subs not used: Richards, Tomlin, Pilkington, Halford, Etheridge
Goals: Ralls 54 (penalty – won Paterson)
Yellows: Connolly 18 (foul), Peltier 50 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Paul Smyth 8 MESSIAH.
Referee – Tim Robinson (West Sussex) 3 Not a referee I’ve ever particularly got on with – the pedantry, the long drawn out conversations with players, the fetish for awarding free kicks to the defending team under every set piece, the heavy card count and more besides all contribute to bitty, stop-start, niggly games which are dreadful to watch and seemingly very frustrating to play in. There was all of that here, as usual, but this time he married it up with a series of dreadful calls with the big decision. The Cardiff penalty is a joke, an obvious dive under minimal contact, a clear and successful attempt to con the officials. Worse still, later in the game with QPR hanging on Alex Baptiste did actually shove his man in the area just as he looked set to make it 2-2 from close range and nothing was given. The Cardiff disallowed goal could have been waved off for a foul on Scowen, but not for offside (which is what they eventually gave) as it was Scowen that played the ball. Just about the only thing he did get right all afternoon was the late offside free kick which Cardiff took in the QPR half to much protest from the South Africa Road stand – new rule this year kids, if you retreat from an offside position the free kick is taken from where you touch the ball not where you start. Overall, bit of a catastrophe.
Attendance – 13,801 (1,427 Cardiff) Always a pretty dire atmosphere at this one and the thick heads were not aided by a first hour which was essentially just two tired teams cobbing long throws at each other. The final half hour was packed full of incident though, and the crowd responded in kind.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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