The last time I went to Villa Park was nearly twenty years ago. To be precise it was Saturday 13th August 1993, the first game of the season. It was a forgettable game and a forgettable score-line. Ron Atkinson’s side mullered us 4-1 that day. A brace from Dalian Atkinson, and goals from Dean Saunders and Steve Staunton, were met with a single reply from Les Ferdinand. The back-line that day included Tony Witter, who was visibly out of his depth.
I seem to remember that day we were housed in the North Stand. I recall being mightily impressed by the sheer noise coming from the Holte End which shook me to my core. It wasn’t quite the same feeling on Saturday with away fans in both the upper and lower decks of the Doug Ellis Stand. Villa Park is still one of the noisiest grounds in the country, and is all the better for it.
(Source: Elliott Brown)
It’s worth noting that in the 1993/94 season, QPR finished a highly creditable ninth under the stewardship of Gerry Francis. What would we give for a similar end result this season ? It’s an interesting juxtaposition that back then Rangers were an unfashionable and unfancied team. Players were brought up from the youth team and purchased from the lower leagues for peanuts. In Richard Thompson we had a chairman who was almost universally hated and seen as an asset stripper.
Spin forward to 2013 and a different landscape in English football. The buck rules the game. QPR have a chairman who remains popular in spite of possibly the worst season in living memory, a chairman who backed his managers with large amounts of cash and even larger quantities of hubris. And yet Rangers remain flat bottom of the Premier League.
(The players emerge)
I’m guessing that I’m reminiscing to avoid putting off writing about Saturday’s game, which ended up being a pretty awful experience. Harry Redknapp made just two changes from the team which picked up the morale boosting win against Sunderland the previous weekend. He dropped Robert Green from the squad entirely, with illness being the cause and Julio Cesar the replacement. Jermaine Jenas filled up the slot vacated by Junior Hoilett who was relegated to the bench.
QPR started with a 4-5-1 formation with Andros Townsend in his natural position on the left and Loic Remy lurking on the right, ready to support Bobby Zamora upfront at short notice. The game began nervously with the home team dominating the early possession.
The midfield pairing of Barry Bannan and Andreas Weimann were particularly neat and tidy. It was Weimann who put Gabby Agbonlahor in on goal after six minutes. Jose Bosingwa managed to get goal-side of the Villa man, but a communication breakdown between the Portuguese player and the R’s Brazilian keeper led to an obvious back-pass which was waved away by referee Kevin Friend. It was the beginning of an uncomfortable afternoon for Cesar and indeed contrasting fortunes for the two keepers.
However two minutes later it was Rangers who came closest to first blood. Bosingwa took a free kick from midfield which the imposing figure of Chris Samba headed goalwards in front of the Holte End. Brad Guzan pulled off a somewhat implausible fingertip save to push it wide. The ball fell at Samba’s feet soon after the resulting corner. He powered a driven shot towards the net, but that same left hand of Guzan’s once again brilliantly pushed it wide.
(Samba shoots for goal)
The game settled into long periods of Villa possession until 23 minutes when Ashley Westwood surrendered the ball into the path of Jermaine Jenas. He made a pinpoint pass to Zamora whose shot Guzan could only place into the path of Jenas who had followed in. A low finish made it 1-0 and sent the travelling 3,000 R’s fans into ecstasy.
Rangers became more confident and started to dominate proceedings. After 38 minutes, a long range shot from Remy was once again athletically saved by Guzan. On 44 minutes Bosingwa rattled the post with a rasping free kick, following a clumsy Christian Benteke foul on Samba.
Then deep into stoppage time came the turning point of the game. Villa right-back Matthew Lowton found himself in acres of space on the wing and sent a looping cross into the box. Most keepers would have gone for it and claim the ball, but Cesar chose to retreat to his line. Agbonlahor beat Bosingwa and easily headed the ball past Cesar. This was such as easy, preventable goal and it left the travelling R’s support shell-shocked as the players trudged off for half-time.
In keeping with recent outings, Zamora could only manage half a game, and was replaced at the break with Hoilett who swapped sides with Townsend. Remy took the slot up top. Redknapp got it wrong here. Whilst Zamora was clearly struggling for fitness, he was at least providing an outlet, and it felt a weaker and more negative hooped side which took to the field.
Villa, clearly buoyed by the equaliser, now looked the much better side. Benteke was seeing a lot more of the ball now, underlined by a shot on 55 minutes and a great run and cross for Weimann two minutes later which Cesar saved. Seconds later Cesar wasn’t so lucky as Weimann again shot for goal, this time drilling the ball low to Cesar’s right. Cesar got a hand on it, but he really should have done better and suddenly Villa were ahead.
Charles N’Zogbia came on for Yacouba Sylla just before the goal, and immediately looked a threat. Villa continued to dominate possession and on 65 minutes Lowton went just wide after being laid off by Benteke. Desperate measures were now called for and Rangers went three at the back as Adel Taarabt came on for Fabio da Silva. The Moroccan helped to keep hold of the ball more and played a part in Townsend’s 72nd minute equaliser, a deflected left-footed shot which just crept past Guzan.
(Taarabt on the ball)
But it was not to last. On 80 minutes the Rangers defence melted away as Weimann burst onto a through ball, got to the bye-line and cut it back for Benteke for an easy finish. Heartbreak ! Rangers then struggled to make any real further impression on the game and even an extra five minutes of stoppage time, plus sending Samba upfront, failed to make any real difference.
(Mbia sums up the mood at the final whistle)
This felt like the proverbial ‘straw which broke the camel’s back’ and appears to have condemned Rangers to playing in the second tier next season. After a great first-half we were simply not good enough to sustain it, and all three goals were poor ones to give away. Yet again this season, R’s fans left the ground with their tails between their legs, ruing what might have been.
In that season twenty years ago I talked about at the beginning of this piece, the three teams to be relegated were Oldham Athletic, Sheffield United and Swindon Town. Since that year, Sheffield United have made it back into the top flight and currently languish in the third tier. The performance of Oldham and Swindon has been yet more ignominious. A lesson from history.
Team: Cesar 5, Samba 6, Hill 6, Bosingwa 6, Fabio 7 (Taarabt 7), Park 6 (Mackie), Jenas 7, Townsend 7, Mbia 6, Remy 7, Zamora 6 (Hoilett 6)
Subs Not Used: Murphy, Onuoha, Wright-Phillips, Granero
QPR MOM – Townsend. A player with a big future and clearly committed to making the most of his loan spell.
Aston Villa MOM – Guzan. Whilst scorer Weimann was announced as the ‘official’ home choice, the American keeper produced a string of stunning saves to enable Villa to be level at the break.
Attendance: 38,594 (including 3,000 R’s fans)
(Match photos provided by Sandra Sayce and used with permission)