|Queens Park Rangers 1 v 1 Millwall|
Saturday, 7th August 2021 Kick-off 15:00
Dickie's brilliance soothes QPR's opening night nerves - Report
Sunday, 8th Aug 2021 20:36 by Clive Whittingham
QPR, caught cold by a big early opening from awkward opponent Millwall, secured a draw on the opening day of the 2021/22 season thanks to a moment of brilliance from the game's star man Rob Dickie.
If Queens Park Rangers is your team, then for much of the recent past you’ve been more baggage handler than football supporter. This is a club that comes with more strings attached than a Thunderbirds puppet.
There have been multiple periods of extreme boom and bust, from rattling buckets to keep the boat afloat to a director’s box full of some of the world’s most notoriously rich people, often in the blink of an eye. There have been promotions, relegations, administrations and more than one death. There has been innovation, cunning and craft, precedents and standards set, records broken. And there has been rank incompetence, chronic mismanagement, and criminality. Titles have been clung to through FA hearings, diplomatic incidents have blown up with the Chinese, and guns have been brandished in boardrooms necessitating a weeklong trips out to Southwark Crown Court for ourselves. It is warmly referred to as a ‘spiv club’ by its former captain and lifelong fan Marc Bircham, and it’s impossible to shake the notion that it is “always up to something”.
If you support QPR having the ability to read and decipher a set of financial accounts is more useful to you than looking at the league table, and that was even before a global pandemic locked its biggest source of income out of the ground for a year and a half. If your job is to write colour, and produce 48 mawkish match previews a season, there’s few better places to call your patch. The return of football fans to the football stadium after a prolonged, enforced lockout was always going to be the story on Saturday as the crowds came home to Shepherd’s Bush at last, but it’s amazing how seldom the narrative emanating from Loftus Road is actually anything to do with the football at all. For years now all the club would say about its aims on the pitch was it wanted to “be competitive” – so dramatically ruinous was their behaviour prior to this that we’ve spent six years fearing to set the bar any higher than not getting our arse handed to us in the Championship.
There is hope that 2021/22 might be about the bloody football after all. Only promoted Norwich and Watford have won more games at this level in 2021 so far than QPR’s 15. While a whole clutch of other Championship clubs we’d have considered miles ahead of us in the play-off stakes for the previous seasons are now paying for overreaching and underachieving with varying degrees of financial crisis, and in several cases a relegation to League One, Rangers’ house cleaning appears to be coming to a satisfactory conclusion. The four loanees so key to that electric form in the spring have all signed up permanently, with Stefan Johansen captaining the team on Saturday on his first appearance as a fully fledged Ranger. Other business has been done strong and early, at a time when other clubs are grappling transfer embargoes and a talent pool reduced by the glories of Brexit. There is no good reason this cannot be a successful season in W12.
With hope, comes expectation. Critics of the ‘be competitive’ mantra would say it encouraged a malaise, where a club of Premier League pedigree happily reduced itself to thinking finishing just above Birmingham City in sixteenth every year was some sort of achievement, but it did afford young players and risky signings a chance to breathe, establish themselves, and grow into varying levels of stardom without the vile toxicity that we saw in the second half of 2013/14, and early in Chris Ramsey’s first full season as manager. Warbs Warburton has happily admitted he’d be “stupid” to try and pretend he’s not targeting the top six this season, and is encouraging his young side to actively embrace it and build an intimidation and fear factor among the rest of the division akin to the one that grew up around Brentford over recent seasons.
The question is how a team that has been used to playing without a crowd at all, never mind one that expects them to start steamrollering opponents, copes with that and the answer to begin with on Saturday against Millwall was really not very well at all. Like the buggy ticketing system that locked thousands of fans out on Ellerslie Road long past kick off, QPR’s start to the new campaign could kindly be described as ropey. Within 44 seconds of the game starting Scott Malone had mishit a cross over the head of Seny Dieng and flush off the face of the cross bar. That could easily have been a goal. Dom Ball, everywhere and nowhere, a gallery of early hospital passes rather summing up the home team’s panicked and bumbling start to the game. Little surprise when Jed Wallace brilliantly found the top corner of the net from the edge of the area on 11 minutes sparking wild celebrations in the School End from a large contingent of visiting fans. Said it before, say it again, the extent to which Wallace is completely overlooked in transfer speculation, awards debates and team of the season selections remains a complete mystery to me. Only 27, what am I missing here? He was outstanding again, and bloody needed to be with Millwall the latest Championship club to commit faith and money to the notion that Benik Afobe can lead an attacking line at this level – more likely to see a goal from Adobe Acrobat.
Afobe apart, Millwall were good, vindicating our pre-season shout that this could easily be a play-off team. There’s an eye for detail in Gary Rowett’s management that always draws me to him – he’d picked up on all the issues regarding space in front of and behind QPR’s wing backs, and who to press and when as we try to play through Johansen in midfield, that were there in our pre-season games. They are, still, as well, a Millwall team at heart. Their three centre backs, led by Shaun Hutchinson, stood for no shit whatsoever, and neither Charlie Austin nor Lyndon Dykes got much of a kick all afternoon. When they felt it required, a tactical foul was made, often with added nastiness and bite – early leniency from referee Oliver Langford ended with a yellow card for Ballard on the quarter hour for a hack from behind, and Murray Wallace and George Saville would follow him into the book later for similar reducers.
Two things happened around the half hour to swing the game. On 27 minutes, the latest in a series of agenda-setting physical challenges from the visitors, one of which left Seny Dieng clutching his lower back, drew the ire of Jordy De Wijs. All tattoos and indignation, the Dutchman was not happy, and not having it. Initially this was a bit of an eye-roller for me, exactly what Millwall want, playing into Millwall’s hands, walking straight into their trap and wiping our feet on the doormat on the way in. Not so. We’d been second best, and perhaps bullied, to begin with, and that ended there and then. Our house. No more.
The second was Rob Dickie, the game’s outstanding player, beautifully angling his body to receive the ball on the turn and take Wallace out of play, presenting him with 40 yards of clear running space ahead. Regimented football systems often break down when you have a centre back capable of carrying the ball over the halfway line, as years of watching the comedy stylings of Dan Shittu or Nedum Onuoha’s dog-in-the-playground routine have taught us, and with the Lions at a loss on a course of action to stop Dickie trundling forward he got within range to try an absolute screamer on his right foot, always bending low and away from goalkeeper Bialkowski, and destined to find the bottom corner from the moment it left his boot. A goal so good, even the Shy Rob goal celebrations were dispensed with. Scores level, roof off, and Dickie now playing so impressively I’m starting to fret about there being three weeks of transfer window left. If there’s a centre back at this level playing better than this guy I haven’t seen him.
It was now, thankfully, QPR’s turn for 30 minutes of fun. They’d been nervous and hesitant, but the goal cleared the self doubt and got them on the front foot. Soon Charlie Austin was trying one on from 20 yards, on the end of more commanding and purposeful Dickie defending, which Bialkowski saved. Two chipped free kicks into the area sparked mini goal-mouth scrambles in quick succession. Dom Ball dragged one wide on the stroke of half time when a tempting ball fell his way on the edge of the box. At the start of the second half Chris Willock channelled Adel Taarabt with a glorious turn around a man and low shot that looked absolutely certain to find the far bottom corner but for the fingertip save of the game from Wawll’s Polish goalkeeper. He looked less certain flapping at Dykes’ downward header from a corner on the hour, but escaped.
A half hour to them, a half hour to us, and a half hour to go. Oven pre-heated, we awaited the chef’s special, but the souffle failed to rise. QPR had been robbed of key man Ilias Chair before kick off for an “illness” which the pre-game pub rumours suggested was Covid. His absence certainly stunted Rangers’ attack, with Millwall able to pay more close attention to Willock, and their three physical centre backs more than a match for the Austin and Dykes combination. To compound that, with others like Sam McCallum and Charlie Kelman also suspiciously absent from the bench having featured in pre-season, Mark Warburton didn’t have a whole lot in reserve by way of a game changer. His lack of faith in Albert Adomah continues to puzzle, and George Thomas’ introduction in the ten role was not a conspicuous success. There were a couple of chances in five minutes of injury time – Dykes blocked attacking a good cross to the near post, De Wijs almost lobbing a header over Bialkowski after a disastrous attempt to chest back to the keeper by a visiting defender almost blew up in his face – but in truth the home side posed very little threat in the final third of the game.
Millwall, for their part, made it pretty clear they were happy with a point with the usual flagrant timewasting that remains completely unchecked and unpunished at this level of the sport. Frankly, if I was one of their fans, I’d be slightly disappointed. Yes, QPR had improved and put them under stiff examination either side of half time, but Millwall had been much the better of the teams to begin with and had every bit as much chance of winning this game as Rangers had they had the ambition to go for it. Nobody drew as many as their 17 ties last season and you could see why here – the late introduction of Big Posh Matt had home fans retreating behind the sofa for narrative reasons, but what little attacking ambition they’d carried before that then wilted entirely on the forehead of De Wijs who was superb. Seny Dieng’s cool and calm, quiet and unfussy, command of his penalty box makes such an enormous difference in these situations where the opponents take to the air as well. QPR had a pre-season friendly at Gillingham fall victim to plague, and have played only three serious summer matches prior to this compared to the Lions’ six and I thought you could tell – Stefan Johansen was done after 72 minutes and he wasn’t alone.
Millwall will cause teams problems. Afobe’s a carthorse, the midfield two of Saville and Kieftenbeld are brilliant in this sort of situation but perhaps lack creativity, but I think they’ll be there or thereabouts and QPR, well below their best, will come to look back on this as a good result. Rangers will certainly improve for the return of Chair, and his combination with Willock behind a lone striker rather than the two and the sparse midfield we saw here. Without electric pace in the team, bar right wingback Moses Odubajo who impressed again and had good cause to ask why neither striker was on the end of his perfect trick and delivery on 25 minutes, breaking down teams who do what Millwall did from 60-90 here and just sit in inviting us to play through will be another point of interest.
Getting this first one out of the way without a Swansea 5-0-style disaster will also help with this season’s biggest challenge which is, in my opinion, dealing with that switch from being the sixteenth-placed side just delighted to be here, to one widely expected to be troubling the six. Aways at Hull, 4-1 winners at Preston on day one, and Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough do not immediately scream big points haul. How we approach them and the results we get will tell us more about our chances, how we and the team react if we happen to be coming back here against Barnsley in a fortnight still looking for that first league win could be more informative still.
QPR: Dieng 6; Odubajo 7, Dickie 9, De Wijs 8, Barbet 7, Wallace 6; Ball 5, Johansen 7 (Thomas 73, 5); Willock 6, Dykes 5, Austin 5 (Dozzell 68, 6)
Subs not used: Kakay, Archer, Dunne, Bettache, Adomah
Goals: Dickie 31 (unassisted)
Millwall: Bialkowski 7; McNamara 6, Ballard 7, Hutchinson 7, Wallace 7, Malone 6; Evans 6 (Mitchell 88, -), Kieftenbeld 7, Saville 7 (Leonard 68, 6); Afobe 5 (Smith 78, 5), Wallace 8
Subs not used: Long, Bradshaw, Pearce, Mahoney
Goals: Wallace 11 (unassisted)
Bookings: Ballard 15 (foul), Wallace 43 (foul), Saville 59 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Rob Dickie 9 Not a difficult decision.
Referee – Oliver Langford (West Midlands) 7 Few complaints, though it will be interesting to see how this Euros-style leniency plays in the Championship if that is the policy they’re pursuing this season. Certainly Chris Willock had plenty of cause to be aggrieved with stuff that was waved away on him.
Attendance 16,127 (2,800 Millwall approximately) For too long we’ve been talking about how the club has been getting things right everywhere except on the pitch. Now, with the team finally looking something a bit more like it, it feels like some eyes have been taken off the ball elsewhere.
First there was the Recast debacle at the Cambridge pre-season game, now with the ticketing another fancy new modern system that failed its first test. We’ve had one week, one competitive game, and two statements on the club’s website apologising for fuck ups. Even supporters who did as they were told and arrived earlier than normal in case of issues found long queues, particularly on the Ellerslie Road side of the ground, and missed kick off. Box office staff were still working late into Friday night ringing round supporters trying to sort issues with missing emails, inactivated cards, digital or not digital and so on. My personal experience was that my season ticket worked on my phone (after a longer wait than I’ve ever had to get in before in 25 years), my friend Rob followed me in the same turnstile with no issues, and then Andy tried and it refused his. No rhyme or reason, three renewed season tickets on three iPhones at the same turnstile. He one of many that, anecdotally, ended up just being waved through an open gate by a steward – which, apart from anything else, isn’t safe. Fans were still streaming into seats long after Millwall had gone 1-0 up. This rush to digital, the modern obsession with having everything on your phone, before the app that we’re meant to use for this is even ready, does not suit an ageing support base like ours, and comes just two summers after they went through a big fuss and hassle to swap all our season tickets over onto a credit card-type system.
Once inside, the place is frankly in a bit of a state. Some of it is just aesthetics, all the paint peeling off the back of the Ellerslie Road Stand for instance. Some of it is more worrying, like the speaker over the F Block kicking the bucket while we’ve been gone so we can hear precisely nothing that’s announced which would be loads of fun in an evacuation, or just the general dirt, grime, bird and fox shit around the place at a time of global pandemic when we’re meant to be focused on hygiene – one of our message board posters found a pair of gloves at his seat that he left there against Birmingham in February 2020, which doesn’t say a lot for the cleaning regime. And some of it is just basics – one working card machine in the Blue and White bar and only three people pouring drinks… £5.50 for a can of Carlsberg slowly decanted into a plastic glass in front of you… widespread short staffing.
There are always going to be teething problems with new systems, new staff, first day back after 18 months away. Staffing problems caused by so many people falling ill or having to isolate are absolutely inevitable. There's probably staff still on furlough, or only recently returned. I’m not an idiot, and I'm not unsympathetic to the difficulties, I appreciate putting on an event like this, particularly with Millwall the visitors, must be a logistical nightmare at the moment. But to not sell out this opening home game, the first one back after all that time away, a London derby, shows that some people are perhaps apprehensive about coming back, have got out of the habit, cannot afford it, and clubs should be doing absolutely everything in their power to try and attract them back and make it as easy and safe as possible for them to do that – not charging them a £3.50 booking fee to use a ticketing website that varies between temperamental and inoperable depending on your device, to sell you a ticket you may or may not get emailed depending on how the system is feeling, then may or may not work at the gate depending on what mood the turnstile is in, to sit in a dirty and understaffed stadium. Unleashing new tech and commercial partnerships on supporters without adequately stress testing whether they actually work, and adapting a sort of carefree “it’ll be alright on the night” attitude to the whole thing, isn’t good enough at the best of times, and these are not the best of time. The club’s best-in-class media and box office staff are being asked to pedal harder and work later to find quick fixes and work arounds for decisions being made over their heads.
We’ll forgive them it on day one, write it off as inevitable teething problems exacerbated by an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation. But big improvements are needed very quickly for Barnsley and Coventry later this month. We’re trying to give you our money here, stop making it so difficult.
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When Saturday Comes #9 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #8 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #7 by wessex_exile
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