Sunday, 5 June 2011

The road to the title - 10 results which won QPR the league

QPR's path to the Championship title was not an easy one. From the dizzying high of the R's away drubbing of Ipswich Town in September to the unimaginable low of that defeat at Glanford Park, it has undoubtedly been a roller-coaster ride for the W12 faithful. Yet from this emotional goldmine there were 10 games, all at varying moments in the season, which ultimately proved crucial to Rangers lifting the Championship trophy aloft against Leeds United on 8 May. Thus, in chronological order, here are the '10 results which won QPR the title'. Not necessarily all victories, but looking back on the past year these scorelines were what took Neil Warnock's side from relegation fodder to the Premier League in just over a year.

1) QPR 4-0 Barnsley - 7 August 2010

What a way to start a season. There are few years which begin with such a consummate mauling, perpetrated by a QPR side which, even at this stage, clearly meant business in the Championship. Neil Warnock said the score-line "flattered" his side, which was probably fair, but with the match even featuring a veritable collector's item - only his 12th career goal - it was a special introduction to a very special year. Hall's 81st-minute strike was, incredibly, his third goal for QPR, the centre-back's hat-trick of strikes all coming against Barnsley, on the opening days of the 2008-09 and 2010-11 season. Beat that for a random statistic.

2) Derby County 2-2 QPR - 28 August 2010

This was the moment we knew 2010-11 would be a special season in the history of Queens Park Rangers Football Club. The phrase 'dead and buried' doesn't even begin to cover the hopelessness of the R's position in this match, when the Fourth Official's board went up to indicate the length of time the hosts would have to play out before being crowned match-winners. In all honesty, few QPR fans would have put money on Heidar Helguson's 62nd-minute replacement by goal-shy Patrick Agyemang making any difference whatsoever to the outcome of the match, which by then looked decided, with Derby deserved 2-0 up on the hour mark.

Even fewer would have expected Jamie Mackie, the stand out performer in those first few epic weeks, to pop up with a 95th-minute equaliser and send the R's fans who'd stayed into raptures. A host of humorous and slightly tragic stories about QPR fans who had departed early reaching the station only to find out their train was delayed and they'd missed the greatest comeback of the season did, predictably, emerge in the aftermath of the match. Yet despite their inevitable agony, they might probably have realised that Neil Warnock's men had laid down a marker, and showed this division that they could not only win comfortably, but fight back from a truly impossible position in a matter of just a few frantic minutes.

3) Ipswich Town 0-3 QPR - 14 September 2010

"We never win at Ipswich" were the immortal words I faithfully uttered to a friend of mine. Suitably convinced, he and I shelled out twenty of our hard-loaned pounds to go and watch the runaway league leaders test their mettle at a veritable bogey ground. Despite all the historical predecents, there was also the not-inconsiderable matter of the Tractor Boys having had a strong start to the season under Roy Keane, and being just two points off the R's going into the game. Imagine my surprise then, when Warnock's boys put on one of the most devastating counter-attacking displays any Championship supporter will have seen all season. Jamie Mackie and Adel Taarabt led the line with the sort of deadly precision which rocketed Rangers to the summit and most importantly kept them there. Taarabt's vision and Mackie's pace, which seemed to utterly dumbfound the Ipswich back-line, were the winners on the day, and after 42 minutes the home side were well and truly out of the game.

Despite all the positives, however, I spent all 90 minutes of this game trapped in the home end of Portman Road, whilst my fellow QPR supporters went mad in the away fans area, looking as though they were having the time of their lives. So consummate was the victory, and so exquisite Taarabt's performance, that on this day a new chant was born. It wasn't a particularly complicated composition - simply the Moroccan's surname chanted to the tune of the Pink Panther theme. Whilst the visiting R's supporters, drunk on their team's unexpected victory and probably quite a few celebratory pints at half-time, created the only notable noise inside the ground, I was left bemoaning the defensive qualities and positioning of left-winger Jaime Peters, bizarrely employed at left-back, and veteran Gareth McCauley. Safe to say my Ipswich-supporting friend was slightly annoyed by 9.45pm. Undoubtedly the most satisfying away day of the season.

4) Crystal Palace 1-2 QPR – 2 October 2010

Another late show from the R’s, this time at home to Crystal Palace, but none the less frantic and spectacular, and in the long run, crucial to the outcome of the title race. Ask me which two things I would never have expected to see that confronted me this season, and I would probably start with my club winning the trophy and being promoted to the Premier League. Yet my undoubted second choice would be witnessing former Dutch midfield dynamo Edgar Davids playing on the hallowed turf of Loftus Road. Not only did he play in this match, but he provided the opener with a lacklustre back-pass just after half-time. His mistake set up Jamie Mackie, who unselfishly squared for Adel Taarabt to slot home, but Rangers supporters thought we’d lost this when Kieron Cadogan fired past Paddy Kenny in the 89th-minute.

Yet just a couple of minutes later Heidar Helguson rose to meet Tommy Smith’s cross and head home the winner to send the visiting R’s fans into raptures. Not quite as dramatic as the Derby comeback a month earlier, but nonetheless vital in keeping Rangers six points clear of Cardiff at the top of the table. Furthermore, it was quite an emotional victory for Warnock over his old side, who certainly suffered without his guidance in a turbulent season. Heidar Helguson’s goal-scoring contribution, often entirely overlooked by commentators who preferred to focus on big names such as Grant Holt and Scott Sinclair, would prove vital throughout the most successful season in the R’s recent history.

5) QPR 2-1 Cardiff City – 27 November 2010

The first of two season-defining games involving perennial W12 enemy Cardiff City, whose enormously potent strike-force pushed the eventual title winners all the way, before falling at the final hurdle once again. Yet, as proven by this game, it was the Bluebirds’ defence which would prove fatal in their efforts to reach the Premier League at the third time of asking. Despite taking the lead in this match – Jay Bothroyd capitalising on an error from Kaspars Gorkss and playing in Craig Bellamy to score – the R’s showed their fighting spirit, and quickly levelled proceedings. Five minutes after Bellamy’s opener Gorkss made amends, heading home Tommy Smith’s floating cross.

It looked for a while as though these two title contenders (for by this stage of the season QPR were certainly in this category) would be content to take points off each other. Bothroyd could have made it 2-1 after a fine solo run but his shot was saved by Paddy Kenny, before Tom Heaton pulled off a string of fine saves, denying Alejandro Faurlin’s 25-yard pile-driver, and tipping over an effort from Jamie Mackie which looked set for the top corner. Yet he couldn’t stop the irrepressible Taarabt; the Moroccan finishing off a delightful jinking run past three Bluebirds defenders by firing past Heaton into the roof of the net, and sending the Loftus Road faithful into ecstasy.

Victories over Cardiff, as rare as they are, are always special for the W12 masses, yet this match was different. Now it wasn’t a little club from West London causing an upset against the promotion front-runners, it was the league leaders claiming a huge scalp against their biggest rivals. And what a scalp it was too. Dave Jones’ customarily bleating post-match conference – where he argued vociferously that Matthew Connolly had felled Bothroyd – just served to make the victory ever so sweeter. Jones’ demise and post-match prowess will be covered at length a little later on.

6) QPR 4-0 Swansea City – 26 December 2010

If the victory against Cardiff was tight and slightly fortunate, this was anything but. It needed to be as well, with Rangers having lost their 19 game unbeaten run in front of the Sky cameras at home to Watford, before slumping to a dismal 2-0 defeat at Elland Road against Leeds. Throughout the season, commentators and pundits constantly referred to Rangers as a ‘one-man team’, not so much built around the tremendous ability of Adel Taarabt as boasting attacking potential based solely on the temperamental Moroccan. However, if one result summed up the value of Taarabt to QPR it was this one. He was in sensational form, setting up Jamie Mackie to open the scoring early on and ease the nerves of a few R’s fans who may have thought the table-toppers could be experiencing more than just a blip.

He then did something that frustrated QPR supporters by its absence in many games this season, which was to run full-pelt at the Swans backline. They, like many other teams, simply couldn’t handle his pace and relentless energy, particularly Ashley Williams, who felled the R’s skipper in the box. Heidar Helguson stepped up to make it 2-0 from the spot, with his customary coolness, to put further daylight between the two sides. By now both were playing with ten-men, Alan Tate and Clint Hill having been sent off inside 20 minutes after an ugly challenge by Tate on Kyle Walker. With Taarabt having been instrumental in setting Rangers on their way, he went into play-making overdrive. His first goal of the day – thoroughly deserved after 70 minutes of unbridled brilliance – was rather disappointingly mundane, Dorus De Vries failing to stop Taarabt’s weak low effort squirming under his body.

Yet if the third goal was a little bit lucky, the fourth was sheer class, fit to grace any Premier League ground with its audacity and majesty. Taarabt, by now a show-boater of the highest order, knocked the ball through the legs of Swansea winger Joe Allen, who could only stand bewildered and watch as QPR’s captain curled a delicious shot into the bottom-right hand corner. Cue yet another ovation from the Loft for Taarabt, a vital three points for Rangers at a time when their title credentials were under serious scrutiny, and a clear message sent to the rest of the league. Given Swansea City’s promotion in the Play-Off Final, this result looks even more impressive upon subsequent revisits. A fantastic day, and a real Champions’ performance, engineered by a midfield thoroughbred destined for a greater stage than this.

7) Reading 0-1 QPR – 4 February 2011

It doesn’t get much more satisfying than a 1-0 away victory, particularly your first at a relatively new ground, against local rivals with whom recent history has been a little fraught. This is exactly what the R’s triumph at Reading in February constituted; it was, in a word, crucial. Wayne Routledge, surprisingly not Taarabt, was the hero of the hour for QPR, but his 82nd-minute winner was by no means the full story at the Madjeski Stadium. Failing to register a shot on target in the first half, Rangers were hardly displaying their credentials as long-time league leaders. Yet whilst the R’s have been capable of putting on the type of swashbuckling displays which often characterise champions of the Football League, a great deal of the success of Warnock’s side has been the steely determination and resilience he has been able to instil into his players in just over a year.

This hard-working tenacity was even more necessary than ever after Hogan Ephraim was shown a straight red card 40 minutes into the match. Whether the decision was fair or not, it galvanised QPR and gave them a reason to feel slightly hard done by, and an even greater willingness to win the game. Paddy Kenny was, once again, a colossus between the sticks. Rarely in the recent history of Queens Park Rangers has £800,000 been better spent on a member of the playing staff. Yet it was a rather more expensive acquisition – Alejandro Faurlin – who played a sublime pass through to Routledge, the on-loan Newcastle winger finishing it off with aplomb, leaving the R’s just ten minutes to hold out for three crucial points. They did so, and Rangers’ promotion train rolled gently on. One cannot imagine many in W12 underestimating just how vital this win was, even at the time, let alone now.

8) QPR 1-0 Leicester City – 5 March 2011

This was another narrow victory for the 2011 Championship winners, achieved even later than the Reading triumph courtesy of a player who never really settled in at Loftus Road. Ishmael Miller, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, only scored one goal in 12 appearances for the R’s, and it was even later than Routledge’s strike a few weeks’ earlier, this time after 88 minutes. The tall forward, an 86th-minute replacement for the uninspiring Adel Taarabt, didn’t look capable of winning this game on his own. Yet when he took off past Sol Bamba with two minutes to go until full-time, he showed strength and class to slot the ball past former Portuguese international ‘keeper Ricardo in front of the Loft.

Kenny once again came to the rescue with a couple of fantastic saves to deny Darius Vassell and Andy King as Rangers held firm to move eight points clear of Swansea City in second place. It should have been easy from here on in, with such an advantage, but the fact that it wasn’t is a testament to the truly unpredictable nature of the Championship, which has led to such a diverse array of results in this list. It’s not as though Leicester were easy competition either, having been drastically reassembled at monumental cost under Sven-Goran Eriksson, and this game received top billing as a result, with City chasing a Play-Off spot. However they were unable to topple the league leaders at home, a feat only Leeds and Watford were able to achieve over the course of 46 incredible games.

9) Barnsley 0-1 QPR – 12 April 2011

Two months earlier an 82nd-minute goal secured all three points for QPR at the Madjeski Stadium. A month prior to this match Miller’s strike two minutes from normal time saw off Leicester City. This time it was Adel Taarabt, netting in less than a minute at Oakwell against Barnsley. The following 89 minutes were some of the tensest and most fraught any QPR fan would have had to sit through at any point during the season. Taarabt himself could have been sent off for displaying the more petulant and questioning aspect of his game, but he remained on the pitch and in the end led by example with his early winning goal. At this point the R’s were 10 points clear with five games remaining, this win important in reversing the damage inflicted by the R’s egregious defeat at Glanford Park, 4-1 to eventually relegated Scunthorpe United.

10) Cardiff City 2-2 QPR – 23 April 2011

The second of two vital results against the Bluebirds, this was the one which truly made the difference. The R’s emphatically could not afford to lose this match, despite being eight points clear of Cardiff going into proceedings. With the match live on the BBC, and the coverage leaving much to be desired with its somewhat greater focus on the hosts and ignoring of the visiting league leaders, the omens didn’t look especially good. Lose, and Cardiff would leapfrog Norwich City into second, cutting the gap to four points. Win, and the title would be heading to West London, but this in reality was beyond Neil Warnock’s men. This became especially clear when Jay Bothroyd stepped inside Clint Hill and lashed the ball into the top corner, beyond the reach of Paddy Kenny. Cue scenes of vitriolic celebration, aimed at the visiting QPR fans, by the ‘Family Club’ of the year.

Adel Taarabt then stole the show with an exquisite lob over Stephen Bywater four minutes later, curled into the corner of the net from an extremely tight angle in the manner of Marco Van Basten (sort of). Rangers perhaps didn’t deserve their equaliser, and Cardiff could and probably should have retaken the lead earlier than they did. Bothroyd turned provider for Craig Bellamy, who profited from abysmal defending from Matt Connolly to make it 2-1. Taarabt then wrote the evening headlines with 19 minutes to go, latching on to a pass from Routledge and taking on the static Kevin McNaughton. His curled effort creeped inside the far post, past the flailing arms of Bywater, to make it 2-2.

QPR held out, however, and even managed to survive the post-match assassination by bitter Bluebirds manager Dave Jones, who claimed his side took the R’s ‘to the cleaners’, an assertion that only appears plausible if all the facts are ignored. His bitterness just shows how important a result this was; Jones knew he and City had blown it, and how right they were. A couple of months on and Cardiff remain in the Championship, with Jones at the back of the managerial dole queue. Thus, on balance, this must be one of the most important 2-2 draws secured by any recent Championship champions, and the most vital score-line in QPR’s journey from the relegation zone to the Premier League.

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