We are now facing the moment of truth – two games left ! One is a home game on Saturday 6th May against gritty Stoke. The other is the little matter of an away trip, on Sunday 13th May, to title hopefuls Manchester City. Will we have enough in the locker so that, as the 2011/12 Premier League season ends at 5.00pm on 13th May, we are still a Premier League team for 2012/13 ? Those were the only thoughts whizzing through my head as May 6th beckoned – and not just me, but every single QPR fan around the globe as Twitter and the internet sites attested.
The home game against Stoke was a very nervy affair when Cameron Jerome nearly opened the scoring after only 4 minutes, I think my heart actually stopped ! I screeched with delight as, shortly afterwards, Thomas Sorensen spilled a Taarabt free kick into the path of the oncoming Joey Barton – then screeched with frustration as Barton shot into the side netting when he should have crossed for Zamora !
There were a few more chances for us in the 1st half, the most notable again from Barton after about half-an-hour, but he curled his effort over the bar. And the nerves weren’t helped by hearing that Bolton Wanderers, the team whose result we had to match or better to be safe from relegation, and who were playing West Bromwich Albion at home, were 1-0 up at half-time courtesy of a Martin Petrov penalty on 24 minutes !
Stoke started the 2nd half brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but, thankfully, the ball was out of Jerome’s reach inside the area. Taarabt then lost the ball a little too easily to Ricardo Fuller, who sent a shot whizzing past our upright – my heart couldn’t take much more ! We had a few half-hearted attempts ourselves, mainly from Taarabt, but Sorensen was playing brilliantly in goal for the Potters – he seemed to be over 7 foot tall and 7 foot wide ! And then news filtered through that Billy Jones had put through his own net, putting Bolton 2-1 up against West Brom !
West Brom managed to pull a goal back, thanks to Chris Brunt on 75 minutes, and Amy and I were now screaming for West Brom to equalise as loudly as we were trying to encourage the R’s ! Cisse had come on as a substitute for Buzsaky on 51 minutes – and I remembered how we had noted that he had either scored – or been sent off – in every game in which he featured for the R’s since his signing in January. I prayed he wouldn’t break the streak this game – but as the clock ticked down, my natural optimism evaporated; I turned to Amy, hugged her and told her that we were destined to be back in the Championship.
Then….Cisse popped up and sent Loftus Road wild on 89 minutes. We had won a corner which Adel Taarabt took. Anton Ferdinand rose highest to flick the ball back towards the far post – and who should come stealing in ? None other than Djibril Cisse to tap the ball home from a mere two yards out – cue hysterical pandemonium which only became more hysterical when we all heard that West Brom had equalised at Bolton on 90 minutes – take a bow, James Morrison !
We were now two points clear of the relegation zone and in the driving seat ! But we had just beaten Bolton’s opponents in their final game – Stoke – so why couldn’t Bolton ? And we had to face Manchester City ! So I didn’t head north with too much of my usual optimism that final Sunday.
The atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium was amazing although we had been warned by City fans, as we headed out of the station, that we wouldn’t live should QPR manage the unthinkable and prevent City from winning the League ! That was cheerful ! From the first minute, nobody sat in their seats – and no stewards made us sit down for a pleasant change ! Our support was vocal and constant, but we couldn’t help going silent like mice when, eventually and inevitably, City took the lead on 39 minutes thanks to Pablo Zabaleta. Questions had to be asked of Paddy Kenny, who seemed to spill Zabaleta’s effort onto the post and this ensured that the ball ended up in the net. He made amends a few moments later, however, saving well from Sergio Aguero. We had been doing so well up till then – holding our shape (and our nerve) and leaving City with no option other than to try shooting from distance.
All R’s fans had one eye and ear out for news of Stoke v Bolton and, when Jon Walters put Stoke 1-0 up on 13 minutes, we erupted – dancing and hugging each other as if QPR themselves had scored ! However, our joy was short-lived because Bolton equalised, through Kevin Davies on 39 minutes, just as City had taken the lead against us. And then, on 45 minutes, Bolton had the cheek to take the lead against Stoke, courtesy of that man Davies again. We were devastated and during half-time there were rumours running around frightened QPR fans that Stoke had equalised. They hadn’t and the only thing that mattered now was the next 45 minutes.
Aguero tested Kenny soon after the 2nd half began, but, once more, our keeper was up to the challenge, making a great point-blank save. But, on 48 minutes, the amazing happened. Joleon Lescott misjudged a long ball sent hopefully forward by Shaun Wright-Phillips and Cisse found himself clean through on goal. I stared in amazement and, I admit, disbelief – we had a clear cut chance ! What were we going to do with it ? Could we equalise ? Well, it was Cisse and, keeping up his statistics, he kept his cool and unleashed an unstoppable shot which flew past Joe Hart and nestled in the back of the City net. Cue delirium – grown men hugging strangers (there’s been a lot of that going on during the season !!!) – and this was just the equaliser ! My travelling mate was greeted with a huge kiss from an unknown R’s fan (to his horror! ).City fans were silenced !
But then, suddenly, everything went horribly wrong. As City tried to set up an attack, Joey Barton set up an attack of his own. Having been muscled off the ball, unfairly in his opinion by Carlos Tevez, Barton swung a stupid arm at Tevez who went down like a sack of potatoes. The linesman spotted the fracas and the referee brought proceedings to a temporary halt to issue a straight red card to the R’s skipper. But Barton wasn’t finished ! Instead of leaving the pitch graciously, he tried to take a few City players out – something that would come back to haunt him (and us) later as the FA deemed his behaviour worthy of a 12-match ban in total. But it was only 55 minutes and we were, once again, down to 10 men ! All I could think was that Barton had probably single-handedly sent us down – and that is the polite version !
Armand Traore (a 59th minute substitute for Cisse), however, had different ideas when, on 66 minutes, he bombed down the wing and sent in a pin-point cross which was met by the oncoming Jamie Mackie. My jaw hit the floor as I watched, incredulous, as Mackie rose to meet the ball whilst still running towards the goal. He had acres of space and made no mistake as he sent the ball flying into the net, past Hart, and now City fans stared in disbelief, we all erupted in true party-style fashion, jumping up and down and on top of each other, shrieking with hysterical joy and wiping tears from eyes. Amy and I hugged and hugged – each other and everyone else – and then clasped hands as, the clock ticking down towards the all-important 90 we seemed to be clinging on to a most unlikely victory.
On 77 minutes, we heard that Jon Walters had equalised for Stoke (through a dubious penalty apparently), which meant that, so long as things stayed as they were then, we were definitely and easily safe. City attacked and we defended – wave after wave after wave – as Nasri, Tevez and Dzeko all went close and Kenny was a very busy keeper.
Then the board went up – 5 minutes extra time, 5 minutes ! That was all that was left of our season ! Could we hang on though ? City seemed to wake up to the realisation that their season also came down to these 5 little minutes and it spurred them on. They attacked relentlessly and, in the 2nd minute of extra time, Edin Dzeko headed home from a David Silva corner. 2-2 – still good enough for us to be safe !
Suddenly, news galloped around QPR fans that the final whistle had been blown at Stoke – Bolton had drawn which meant that, irrespective of our result, we were safe ! We went berserk – crazy – we weren’t watching the pitch just celebrating safety and another year in the Premier League with each other. Forget any other type of celebration – THIS was the big one ! And, apparently, our partying reached the ears of some of the players and certainly the bench !
But not everyone on the pitch knew what was happening and it was not surprising when, on 94 minutes on the clock, when Aguero stuck the ball into the back of the net following a melee that saw QPR players literally throwing themselves at the ball, players, grass – anywhere to prevent Mario Balotelli’s pass being converted – that some Rangers’ players then lay prone on the pitch devastated. They thought it was all over for us – but when the referee blew for time – they quickly learnt that we were, indeed, safe.
We had lost 2-3 in the end, but I was not the only QPR fan who felt that the result was irrelevant. The manner of our loss was far more important – and, particularly, the matter of Bolton failing to beat Stoke ! We had challenged and fought and, after Barton’s sending off, played so bravely. And now, our season having come to a close, we knew our fate – we remained a Premier League club and 2012/2013 would see us competing with the best in the land. But when Mark Hughes said, in an interview after the game, that he never wanted us to be in the position of going to the last game of the season to secure our league status ever again – I cheered loudly in agreement. This certainly was a season to remember – but not always for the right reasons !
We beat Chelsea – we beat Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham in an incredible end-of-season display of heart – we had the most number of men sent off in the league. But none of that matters now. We are QPR and we are Premier League !
Sandy Lerman aka @sandyhoops (also known on vitalQPR as sandyl)