2012 opened with an explosive match against my least-favourite team from Norfolk on Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd January. At last, Amy was attending a Premier League home game AT Loftus Road (not through her computer !) to both of our joy. We enjoyed watching together as QPR took an early lead, arguably against the run of play, through Joey Barton on 11 minutes. We did not enjoy watching Norwich harass and hound Joey Barton from then on. We watched horrified as Barton imploded and committed a stupid act that, certainly at the time, looked like a well-placed, but ill-advised head-butt to Bradley Johnson which earned the R’s captain a straight red card.
And we hated the rest of the game which inevitably saw a 10-man QPR surrender that slender 1-0 lead, on 42 minutes to an Anthony Pilkington equaliser; followed by a Steve Morison winner, scored on 83 minutes. Final score: 1-2. Final thought ? The game saw the introduction of Manchester United’s Federico Macheda, who had joined us on loan in time for the match. Macheda came on as substitute on 80 minutes and, on 81 minutes he stung Ruddy’s hands in goal for what would have been a sensational start to his QPR career. However, with the benefit of hindsight, he was destined to be a complete waste of space !
The brief signs of hope that we would swim not sink in our first season back in the Premier League, which I had noticed in November, had petered out with not even a whimper. So it was with a feeling of relief that my usual travelling partners and I squeezed into the car for the relatively short journey up the M1 to Milton Keynes to face League One’s MK Dons in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup on Saturday 7th January. Unfortunately, this was not going to be the “big guns” drubbing of the “minnows” that we longed for – and if it had not been for a very late strike by Heidar Helguson (literally – on 89 minutes – we would have faced the return journey with the bitter taste of yet another early exit from a cup competition in our collective mouths
From the start, MK Dons took the game to QPR and could have scored long before Dean Bowditch did put the home side 1-0 up (on 65 minutes). We huffed and puffed, but didn’t really look like we were going to manage to equalise – let alone win – even with a host of strikers on the pitch including Macheda, Campbell and Bothroyd.
And then, probably for me, the worst moment of our season – Ale Faurlin, our captain in the absence of Barton, now suspended for 4 matches, went down clutching his knee with about 10 minutes of the game left. And everyone knew that his season was over (later to be confirmed as an ACL injury). Faurlin had been a revelation thus far – he led the stats league of completed passes by a midfielder in the Premier League as well as for tackles made; he was solid, dependable, reliable, the linchpin of our midfield. And now we had lost him to a long-term injury at a meaningless match !
QPR looked disinterested and disheartened throughout the game, if I’m honest – and, more worryingly, so did Neil Warnock. Warnock was not jumping up and down on the touchline, going mad with the world and his wife, as he usually did. Instead, he cut a lonely and despondent figure. He perked up momentarily, when Helguson bought him, and QPR, a “get out of jail free” card with his 89th minute equaliser. But it was only a temporary respite. Despite the game ending 1-1, this match was destined to be Warnock’s last game in charge of QPR.
Earlier in the week, we had all read comments on Twitter and elsewhere from Chairman Tony Fernandes that Warnock’s job was safe, but also that everyone had to accept responsibility for their actions, even Fernandes himself (which many took to mean Fernandes was about to bale !) But, in fact, it soon became clear his words meant that Warnock had to take responsibility for our poor run of form – and that meant that he had to make way for someone that Fernandes deemed more likely to keep the Club in the Premier League – Mark Hughes.
I could debate the rights and wrongs of sacking Warnock, of bringing in Hughes, of choosing mid-way through January to make the changes, of Fernandes’ promise to Warnock when he first bought QPR ! Right or wrong, the fact was that we were now to be led by a man who had previous experience – and success – at managing at Premier League level. And, if we were to have a chance of securing a second season in the so-called “best league in the world”, we would need to turn our dismal form around – and quick. And that is why all eyes were glued to Hughes’ first game in charge – Newcastle United away on 15th January.
The Sports Direct Arena was too far for me to go, so I opted to watch at home on TV with some friends, as Sky had once more chosen to televise our game as a Sunday-lunchtime kick-off. QPR played better, in parts, than in previous matches. We certainly took the game to Newcastle and looked the more likely to score in the opening exchanges. But that old chestnut – of not being able to turn chances into goals – came back to haunt us when, on 37 minutes, Leon Best scored the only goal of the game for Newcastle.
In fairness, we did have chances to equalise, possibly the biggest culprit being Jay Bothroyd, who sent the ball rocketing over the crossbar from 10 yards out, in the 2nd half; and then, a couple of minutes later, seeing a goal-bound effort well saved by Krul in the Toon goal. But, nevertheless, the rot had not stopped and we left the North-East having lost 1-0.
Next up was a return to FA Cup action with a replay against MK Dons to navigate on Tuesday 17th January. That we won, albeit merely 1-0 was, I guess, a minor miracle. We haven’t exactly got the best record in Cup games, have we ?! It took 73 minutes before we broke the deadlock, thanks to a headed Danny Gabbidon goal, but the Dons had their fair share of opportunities to take the lead before then – much as they did in the original game. My abiding memory of this game was how useless Macheda was ! I guess the manager agreed, because we weren’t subjected to him much more after that game !
In a very busy month, Hughes’ next league match was against fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic, which marked the start of what, on paper at least, was meant to be several winnable games, (but remember, football isn’t played on paper !) A resounding 3-1 victory suggested that “new manager” syndrome may have been having a positive effect at Loftus Road (two wins out of three ?!)
QPR were dominant and assured throughout and the victory was never really in doubt despite a Wigan goal against the run of play midway through the 2nd half. Helguson put us in front from the penalty spot (after a handball in the area following a Rangers corner) on 33 minutes. Then Buzsaky, back in the team at last and seemingly back to his best, doubled our advantage on the stroke of half-time with a typical Buzz free kick.
We started the 2nd half as we finished the 1st – pressing forward at every opportunity – but the next goal to be scored was for Wigan, on 66 minutes, thanks to Hugo Rodallega, whose curling shot left Kenny with no chance. We won a second penalty shortly after this, but Helguson failed to convert, with Wigan keeper Al-Habsi correctly guessing which way the Icelandic striker was going, to make the save. But Tommy Smith, on as a substitute for DJ Campbell just after half-time, secured all 3 points for the R’s – pulling us out of the relegation zone – with a beautiful strike from all of 30 yards.
The league was finished for the month – with QPR sitting 16th on 20 points – but there was still one more match to play – a 4th Round FA Cup home tie against Chelsea. At a very subdued Loftus Road (compared with the atmosphere generated back in October, that is), at lunchtime on Saturday 28th January, we endured watching Chelsea beat us 1-0 and dump us out of the Cup – yet again at such an early stage.
Neither side really looked like breaking the deadlock, if truth be told; so perhaps it was inevitable that the tie would be decided controversially instead. When, on 62 minutes, Clint Hill and Daniel Sturridge met inside the area, and Sturridge tumbled theatrically to the ground under the most minimal of contact from Hill. Mike Dean didn’t stop to think – but pointed immediately to the spot and Juan Mata stepped up to convert the penalty. (Where was Chris Foy when we needed him ?!)
Dean added an incredible 7 minutes extra time, during which time we had our best chance to equalise as a Luke Young cross was dropped by Petr Cech in a very crowded Chelsea box; but no QPR player was quick enough to grab the chance; and the game ended with Chelsea victors and QPR facing another year in the Cup wilderness. I consoled myself with the fact that we were now facing a month of those “winnable games” which would hopefully help to ensure our Premier League status for another season. Oh how wrong could I be ?!
Sandy Lerman aka @sandyhoops (also known on vitalQPR as sandyl)