Out of the darkness cometh light - Report
Saturday, 16th Apr 2022 17:38 by Clive Whittingham
Not many letters written home about a 2-2 draw at Huddersfield Town, but given QPR's complete and utter collapse of recent weeks their recovery from an atrocious start to a Good Friday trip north at least added some sugar to this week's gruel serving.
This was supposed to be a biggie. (That’s what she said). An away end packed with frayed nerves and fingernails whittled down to the quick. A crucial clash away to the team in third, Queens Park Rangers desperate to catch and not be caught themselves, a determined chaser rather than an intimidated chasee. The culmination of years of painstaking hard graft, a place in the play-offs, a prize of promotion, a transformative Premier League television payment. It’s nice to still have dreams at 38.
QPR are only five points shy of still achieving that – four failed attempts to beat Barnsley and Peterborough in league games stinging more and more each day closer we move to the climax of the season. But with five straight defeats, and seven losses from eight games, it’s difficult to confidently predict them accumulating five points ever again. Rangers moved past the 50-point mark in the last weekend of January, somewhere in the region of seven wins short of the totals that usually guarantee a place in the end of season knock-out. It’s only now, over the Easter weekend, three months and 15 games later, that they’ve finally ticked over into the 60s. Games we thought would decide the destiny of the team, will now determine the fate of the manager. A referendum on the future of Mark Warburton’s employment is very much live.
When the team, as they did at Sheffield United, concede straight away, from a set piece routine they’d been told about and practised against, that feels very much like them casting their vote for change. Jonathan Hogg’s nearpost run and flicked header went unchecked, which wouldn’t have been a problem had it been allowed to drift wide of the far stick and not larruped into the top corner by Yoann Barbet. A catalogue of amateurish errors that started with Andre Dozzell wasting the R’s first corner of the day, then Jimmy Dunne inexplicably turning down the opportunity to boot the ball down the field and instead letting it run behind for a Huddersfield set piece, and included Sam McCallum’s inadequate marking job before Barbet’s back post nadir. It is, once again, a long way to travel and a lot of money to spend to watch professional footballers fuck about like this. At that stage it felt like being anything the home side fancied. Soon Dunne – who looks far less comfortable playing as one of a two in a four than he ever did as the head-it-kick-it man in a three – was having an open row with Kieren Westwood requiring Barbet to step in as peacemarker. Ooooh dear.
At the point of Coventry away in January, no team in the Championship had a better defensive record from set pieces than QPR. They’d conceded just four all season off deadballs, and two of those had been penalties. That Hogg and Oli Norwood, Ryan Yates, Rheda Khadra, Marcus Forss, Jordan Shipley and who knows who else still to come have all been able to score in the manner they have from set plays since then is yet another microcosm of the macro collapse in Rangers’ season. The staggering scale of the drop off is what’s troubling the people of Shepherd’s Bush the most. How do you go from the third top scorers in the league to five shots on target in five matches? The division’s best set piece defenders to conceders of slop like this? That swashbuckling Mark Warburton team to one that passes forwards fewer times than Hull FC? It’s this stuff that makes it feel like there’s more to say, and know, and discover, than simply ‘we had a lot of injuries to key players’. Patreon interviews a decade from now will be fascinating.
What we look for now as we debate whether to stick or twist, is whether the players are still with their manager, and whether the fans are still with either of them. Finally, here, after a pathetic start, some positive signs on both counts. Sure, Sorba Thomas’ curling shot from 20 yards had Westwood beaten all ends up on the half hour had it stayed barwide, but similarly Sam Field really should have scored with a diving header from an outswinging free kick on the corner of the box. When QPR did equalise, before half time, it looked like the QPR of old – positive, front-foot, pass and move, with contributions from multiple players and everybody in motion off the ball to create space and offer options. Westwood, Barbet, Dozzell, Chair, Dykes, Thomas, Chair, McCallum, Thomas’ bum, Luke Amos into the roof of the net. Eight different players, ten separate contributions, one and two touch, positive, attractive, incisive. Curried monkfish special. Nectar. Fucking nectar. A three-month slog through a desert hotter than the fucking sun with only a Piers Morgan podcast for company and then, finally, out of nowhere, this beautiful, tall, icy cold, bottle of beer. Not a Carlsberg or any old gassy shit like that, something with a bit of bloody chest hair to it. See the condensation run down the side of the glass. Admire Luke’s knee-slide to the corner. It’s still there. They do remember. You can see it behind their eyes. Pass the ball in a forward direction, the keys to the kingdom can still be yours.
Warburton has made mistakes. He will tell you this, his supporters will happily admit to this, his critics will absolutely hammer him with them. I wonder whether a couple were really highlighted here. We have been too reliant for too long on too many senior players who have all hit a wall at the same time. We have also potentially stuck with the favoured back three formation past its sell by date, when it was clear in games weeks ago (Blackburn away immediately springs to mind) that teams were wise to us and had stopped us playing. Now, lots of that is with the benefit of hindsight, of course. Very easy to play the Monday morning quarter back sitting out here in the sun in my garden being wise after the event. The switch to the back four has helped some – Sam McCallum and Moses Odubajo both played very well here after a ropey start – but not others – Dunne and Barbet nervous, tetchy, accident prone throughout. We’re back to conceding two goals a game with it. But, we are going forwards more. We’re not overwhelmed in midfield as often as we were. There is more support for the striker.
Those elder statesman – Wallace, Adomah, Johansen, Hendrick, Austin – were all absent here and without them the team looked far more energetic, pacy, mobile, keen and threatening. Andre Dozzell may not be everybody’s cup of tea – he hasn’t got a defensive bone in his body, people run around behind him without him even acknowledging their existence, you could light a fire under that lad’s arse and he’d sit there obliviously scrolling through his Insta, he's very prone to playing a pass and then admiring it rather than moving beyond it to lend weight to an attack – but he can pass, he always looks to pass forwards, he moves QPR through the thirds better than anybody else we’ve got in that position, he’s young, we’re supposed to be developing him, we tried for ages to get him, and he's ours. Not to labour the point or be too hard but I look at that move for the first goal and I can just see Hendrick in the same position unthinkingly laying the ball straight back towards our goal into the centre backs, whereas Dozzell turns it around the corner providing good early ball to Ilias Chair in space and away we go.
George Thomas, likewise, quite a limited player, possibly not Championship standard, but woefully underused in recent months when you look at his contributions here and against Fulham – he’s quick, which we need in a slow team, he’s keen, he’s fit, he presses high, and hassles, and takes up intelligent positions and runs. His final contribution to the goal is inadvertent, but treat yourself to another watch back and just keep your eye on him throughout. Compare it to some of the stuff we've seen from others playing his position in recent weeks.
And Luke Amos, who now has five of our seven goals from central midfield this year, and continues to show the value of one of our midfielders actually pushing up to support and get beyond the strikers. Four QPR players in the opposition penalty box for that goal. Yes please.
None of them are the answer, but they might be part of an answer. I don’t begrudge paying my money and giving up my time and dragging my tattered, hungover liver to the other end of the country to watch young, energetic players that we own giving it their best like this. It’s what we’re meant to be doing, and what we’ve gone away from too much of late, in my completely unqualified opinion. It’s up there for goal of the season this one for me. Absolutely bloody lovely. One you've seen from the training ground videos.
Could Sam McCallum have got out to Ollie Turton quicker to block his cross for the second Huddersfield goal? Perhaps. He would shortly redeem himself with a spectacular goalline clearance from a twice-flicked corner as Jimmy Dunne’s personal struggles continued. Another problem of the switch to the four is our full backs are way narrower than previously, and that space does now exist. There was no stopping Harry Toffolo’s Devon White-style bullet header into the roof of the net once it had come in. Wallop. Eat that and tell me you’re still hungry.
QPR, as it turns out, were exactly that. Another good sign. Very easy to feel sorry for ourselves here, abdicate responsibility, give up, phone it in, against a team with everything to play for. Rangers did the opposite. On this evidence, these players are with their manager. Moses Odubajo, one of the few who has maintained reasonable form over recent weeks (bar Barnsley away), put a cross in from the right that will have the Huddersfield backline waking up in a pool of sweat for weeks, and when the second ball dropped Ilias Chair was on hand to execute a technically brilliant improvised finish past Lee Nicholls and in for two two. To our left, the gangly, teenage, scrotum, bastard offspring of Cosmo Smallpiece, who’d spent the whole afternoon projecting “peado” chants at a sparce away end from behind a pair of bottle-bottom glasses I thought the NHS stopped handing out in the 1970s, was put very firmly back in his place. You can fuck off mate, and I’d take your hard drive with you before somebody in some position of authority starts showing an interest.
Huddersfield had already tried some surgery on the run at half time, removing the ineffective Danny Ward for his physical polar opposite Duane Holmes. But he didn’t do much to turn any tides in midfield, and without Ward the attack lacked any presence whatsoever. Sorba Thomas, for all his obvious pacy threat and livewire nature, completed two successful passes in the entire game. Clunky to begin with, the Terriers actually fell away dramatically through the final half hour to the point where QPR – Press hall? How are you? How were you. It’s a stop. – were the better team. Ilias Chair, far more comfortable and effective coming in from the left of the new system with the youthful energy and legs of Amos, Thomas, Dozzell and Field in support, took over the match by himself and was a clear and obvious star man. He deserved to win the game, and had George Thomas converted at the back post after Chair had won the ball back and conned his way along the byline, or a better shot resulted from a beautiful click and collect that made orphans of Tom Lees’ children, or most of all Luke Amos’ late header been on target when Chair picked him out an absolute treat five minutes from time, he’d have done exactly that. Wasn’t happy with his equaliser either, picking the ball up and getting it back for a restart, zero celebration. He’s had a tough time, his win percentage has been non-existent, questions have been asked, his contribution has been slated, the frustration has boiled so much it spilled over into tears after Sheff Utd. Wonderful to see him back playing like this, and all while on a Ramadan fast and travelling separately to the team (no we weren’t brave enough to talk to him on the train, yes he really is that small in real life). Handsome boy. Brilliant footballer.
Lyndon Dykes, just out of reach, was denied by Lee Nicholls, brave going in for the loose ball. That, too, could have been a winner. QPR really deserved one. I’ll bitch and moan, I’ll whip them when I think they deserved to be whipped. But as Big Ron once said, I’m not whipping them for that. Tiny signs of life at Preston a week ago blossomed into something resembling a full on recovery here. The introduction of the older players from the bench late on didn’t help much – Charlie Austin booked immediately in a late flurry of cards that included a yellow for the sixth game in a row and a thirteenth time in 25 outings this year for Sam Field – but Town’s threat had dissipated entirely. Some absolute wrong ‘un chucking a golf ball at Kieren Westwood about as much danger as they posed him throughout the final half hour and stoppage time. Ultimately it was QPR more disappointed with the result in the end, and if you’d offered me a point at the start you’d now be carrying my child. The fans still travelling (hello, Reading thousands, how was your Bank Holiday Friday?) sang the manager’s name at the end. They’re still with him, and on this evidence so are his players.
If he sticks with this team selection, this style, these players, and they perform like this over the remaining games then, while it’s not what we wanted and hoped for and dreamed of for so long, it’s something. Something more than we had a week ago, at least.
Huddersfield: Nicholls 6; Turton 7 (Avila 89, -), Lees 6, Colwill 7, Toffolo 7; Hogg 7, Russell 6; Sinani 5 (Anjorin 75, 5), O’Brien 6, Thomas 6; Ward 5 (Holmes 46, 5)
Subs not used: Rhodes, Koroma, Blackman, Sarr
Goals: Barbet og 6 (assisted Hogg), Toffolo 53 (assisted Turton)
Bookings: O’Brien 64 (foul), Holmes 66 (foul), Thomas 90+1 (foul)
QPR: Westwood 6; Odubajo 7, Dunne 5, Barbet 5, McCallum 7; Field 7, Amos 7 (Adomah 85, -), Dozzell 6, Chair 8; Thomas 7 (Gray 83, -), Dykes 6 (Austin 83, -)
Subs not used: Johansen, Ball, Sanderson, Mahoney
Goals: Amos 43 (assisted McCallum), Chair 57 (assisted Odubajo)
Bookings: Austin 90+2 (foul), Field 90+5 (foul)
QPR Star Man – Ilias Chair 8 After a difficult few weeks for the team and him personally, it was so good to see this second half performance right back up there at the standards we know he can achieve, with a goal added in for good measure.
Referee – Leigh Doughty (Blackpool) 8 Very good.
Attendance 19,636 (600 QPR approx.) Please see previous narky remark about loyalty points.
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