Balmy sunshine greeted Queen’s Park Rangers back into the second tier of English football at Loftus Road on Saturday afternoon. One of the few benefits of the Championship is the welcome pervasion of the 3 o’clock kick-off and the buzz of being part of a healthy league programme of simultaneous games.
As expected, there was a tangible buzz in W12 as Rangers fans contemplated prospects for the season ahead in the fine weather. Pre-season had posed as many questions as it had answered as performances varied between patchy and encouraging. Prior to kick-off, Harry Redknapp faced a number of challenges, not least of all how to fashion a cohesive midfield out of a host of ‘on-paper’ talent.
The manager lived up to his reputation of pulling rabbits out of hats with his eventual selection for the season curtain-raiser. Misfit and part-time philosopher Joey Barton was to feature in a midfield four alongside Alejandro Faurlin, debutant (and Joey’s close friend) Karl Henry plus Junior Hoilett.
(Barton in the warm-up, replete with headband)
I must self-disclose at this stage of proceedings that I was not pleased to see Barton’s name on the team sheet. I am not a fan, neither of his demeanour at the Etihad in May last year nor his ‘stream of consciousness’ use of Twitter. Before kick-off I was reminded of such 140-character gems as:
“I’ll just reiterate for a lot of the buffoons tweeting me – I WILL NOT BE PLAYING IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP NEXT SEASON. Hope that clears that up!” – Joey Barton, Twitter, 14th May 2013.
Such hubris has clearly come back to bite our favourite Liverpudlian in the bottom in the absence to-date of a firm playing offer elsewhere. To my true surprise, Barton received a warm reception from the Loftus Road faithful. The fickle nature of fandom ? Or pragmatism from a knowledgeable and supportive home crowd ? Probably a bit of both, plus no-one wants to see one of their own getting a rough ride before a ball is kicked.
The rest of the line-up, whilst not as headline-grabbing, also looked strong. Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson were up-top, whilst the back-row consisted of Danny Simpson, Nedum Onuoha, Clint Hill and Armand Traore. Robert Green took the number one spot as it would appear that the future of Julio Cesar, the keeper once described by the club press as ‘legendary’, lies elsewhere.
The game itself turned out to be a scrappy, physical affair. Wednesday were manned by a group of players far from being household names. Arguably the most well-known faces on show were former Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and former Saints man David Prutton.
Rangers dominated the early minutes of the game, enjoying the good conditions and the new pitch to play some neat passing football. From the off, Hoilett looked all of the player he showed only occasional glimpses of last season. So often last term the Canadian international looked shorn of confidence, pace or interest, and at times all three.
On this occasion Hoilett started to light up the pitch and the faces of the home fans with surging runs. Dave Jones’s side hadn’t done their homework and gave the winger vast amounts of space which he greedily exploited. Hoilett fired over the bar on five minutes, and it wouldn’t be the first time he threatened the Wednesday goal.
Meanwhile on the other flank, Joey Barton was quickly shaking off the tag of pantomime villain with some assured touches and aggressive tackles. Andrew Johnson was also demonstrating his new-found fitness, linking well with the midfield to force a save from Kirkland on 8 minutes.
But the burgeoning hooped confidence was shattered on 18 minutes when 6′ 6″ Albanian/Kosovan striker Atdhe Nuhiu was allowed far too much space on the edge of the box. The Wednesday new boy, who was granted a work permit just in time to play, planted a shot just inside Green’s left-hand post. All of a sudden the unwelcome ghostly reminiscences of last season came back to haunt a stadium so used to capitulation following an early goal for the visitors.
(Wednesday celebrate their opener)
For a while, Rangers struggled while Wednesday tails were in the air and the 3,000 away fans in the School End were in fine voice. Yet the south Yorkshire club failed to capitalise on the momentum and as little as half-an-hour in were obviously time wasting.
Rangers began to wrestle back the impetus. On 28 minutes the otherwise impressive Hoilett put a fairly easy chance over the bar from a deep Barton cross. Minutes later, Zamora was denied bravely by the on-rushing Kirkland.
With six minutes left on the clock, a mad three minutes spell ensued which saw Rangers go in front. Firstly Onuoha prodded home a low drilled-in-ball from Hoilett. Kirkland atoned within moments by saving a close-range Hill header. The Wednesday stopper could do little about the R’s second goal though. Barton surged forward onto a looping ball in the box. Kirkland saved, but could only parry out to Johnson who securely lashed the ball home.
(Barton’s close range header saved, only to fall for Johnson to score)
Relief and smiles all round at the break then for Rangers fans, many of whom couldn’t believe the twist of fate which had smiled upon them. So rarely in the disaster of last season did we get any rub of the green. It could have easily have turned sour immediately after the half-time break when Faurlin played a back pass short to Green. Jermaine Johnson latched onto the ball but could only send it wide of goal.
Rangers dug in now as the game became scrappier. Wednesday pushed on looking to go level, without displaying the conviction or cohesion to make you believe that they could actually make it happen.
The R’s best chance to make it three came on 48 minutes. A pin-point ball from Barton found the scampering Hoilet who beat two men and looked a racing certainty to finish. Yet again though, the classy Kirkland kept Wednesday in the game with a superb stop.
Barton remained at the centre of an incident-filled second-half with a booking on 55 minutes following a clumsily-timed challenge on Jeremy Helan. Two minutes later, Wednesday thought that they had a penalty after Congolese substitute Jacques Maghoma went down in the box after a Barton tackle.
Home fans’ nerves were spared however when referee Mathieson produced a yellow card for simulation. Reports suggest that it was actually a penalty, and Wednesday manager Dave Jones ranted about the incident at length after the match. It was maybe poetic justice though, as a number of visiting players seemed to be taking a leaf out of the absent Mbia’s book of theatrical rolling around.
Bobby Zamora wasn’t having the best of times, not for the first time in the hoops, and was easily marshalled by Wednesday’s vice-captain Anthony Gardner. With 20 minutes left to play, he was swapped for Rangers’ latest marquee-signing Charlie Austin. The former Burnley man immediately got into the action, looking lively and robust in the best traditions of English number-nines.
(Austin on his debut appearance)
Faurlin was now dominating the midfield, doing the simple things very well and closing down very effectively. This was Faurlin back to his best, and on this sort of form it was no wonder Wednesday were struggling to come up with a meaningful response. His colleague in midfield, Karl Henry, was not faring so well. At times, the former Wolves man seemed to be off the pace and not reading the game very well.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Barton received what many thought was impossible. On his substitution for Shaun Wright-Phillips, the Loftus Road crowd pretty much universally stood to give rapturous applause – reciprocated by the exiting miscreant. Personally, I joined in this ovation. I felt a little dirty and compromised in doing so, but it seemed only fair. It was one of the few occasions that we have seen him deliver only what any fan could ask – 100%.
The game drew towards its conclusion with Rangers having yet more chances and Wednesday providing only minor scares. On the final whistle, strains of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ filled the stadium.
This had been a tough workout and a hard introduction to the rigours of Championship football. There will tougher tests ahead, Wednesday were not the most ambitious team we are likely to face at home. But after the trauma of last season it was good to know that this was at least one test we could more than match up to.
There were so many positives to take away from the match. As ever with QPR many questions remain, primarily about the high profile absentees: Adel Taarabt, Esteban Granero, Loic Remy. But in the glow of a rare victory in recent months, these questions for most could wait until another day.
Team: Green 6, Simpson 6, Onuoha 7, Hill 7, Traore 6, Faurlin 8, Barton 8 (Wright-Phillips 6), Henry 6, Hoilett 8 (Jenas), Johnson 7, Zamora 6 (Austin 7)
Subs Not Used: Murphy, Dunne, Suk-Young, Derry
QPR MOM – Hoilett. By far his best performance in the hoops and looked like a player rejuvenated. Special mention to Faurlin as well who must have been satisfied with the message sent to his manager.
Sheffield Wednesday MOM – Kirkland. Several high quality saves denied Rangers from romping home to an easy victory.
(Photos provided by Sandra Sayce and are used with permission)