I’m a simple soul; itt doesn’t take much to make me happy. Recently a hot dog from a portable BBQ in -15 degrees in the middle of Icelandic mountains was pretty good; but it doesn’t come close to a last-gasp Johnnie Jackson header to give us a win that could prove utterly uplifting. It was a match which before the start we would have been to take a point from and which had 0-0 written all over it, after we hit both posts in the same move in the first half and QPR failed to hit the target with their only decent created moment (we’ll come to their other moment later). But in the final 10 minutes we wanted it more than them and that ended up counting, with a couple of substitutions giving us fresh legs and momentum.
Just as the possession stats in the home game against Birmingham meant nothing, so today the fact that (according to the BBC) QPR had 66% possession was irrelevant. Far more important was their 0 for attempts on target. They didn’t come to terms with the pitch and looked like an outfit happy to give the ball to someone and expect them to do something; clearly they have players capable of making things happen, but we set up with the two banks of four in front of them and basically kept their opportunities to a minimum. Thuram-Ulien didn’t have an actual shot to save all game. That we won it was testimony to qualities that I feared might desert us with all the recent changes: heart and determination.
We began with a basic 4-4-2, with Thuram-Ulien retained in goal despite Hamer being fit (and on the bench), Wiggins returning, Wilson as the other full-back, and Dervite partnering Morrison in central defence. The experiment of Cousins wide right was correctly ditched and instead he and Poyet were the central pair, with Jackson widish left and Green getting a start on the right, while Church came back to partner Gucci up front. No place for Peter the Pole on the bench, while Ajdarevic was also among the subs. The two things that struck me about the team were first, the contrast now in terms of age/experience in central midfield compared with the start of the season, when the fear was how well Dad’s Army would hold up; and second, despite all the Duchatelet signings, only two were on the pitch (please don’t tell me that swapping Kermorgant, Stephens and Alnwick for Gucci and Thuram-Ulien has made us stronger, but we leave that for another day). Also on the bench was recent addition Tudguy.
The first half (in reality the entire game) wasn’t one to delight the neutral, with threats in either final third few and far between. A very cagy opening period set the tone, with us generally sitting back as Poyet and Cousins provided an effective shield in front of the defence but with Gucci and Church having no chance in the air against their centre-backs and our set-up pretty much leaving them to chase lost causes. QPR had a couple of shots from outside the box, but for at least one the pitch did its job with a good bobble before it arrived. Both went harmlessly wide. The only moment of real drama was at their end and should have seen us take the lead. Wiggins and Jackson resumed their combination down the left and it resulted in a decent ball to the far post. Green controlled it and laid it back for Cousins, whose shot beat Green (the other one) but came back off the post. It seemed like a tap-in for Church (I think, others said Gucci) with the rebound but instead the effort came back off the other post. Wasn’t a gimmee but should have been converted.
At the break we were nevertheless reasonably content, given our pre-match ambitions. The defence was operating well and QPR hadn’t stretched us – with the exception of one outstanding run by their centre-back, who took the ball all the way into the box before seeing the opportunity to throw himself to the ground in a truly laughable fashion. Play continued for a few minutes after, but just why the ref didn’t give him a yellow card amazed me. Perhaps he didn’t feel that his fall was worthy of being called a dive.
QPR came out for the second half with a bit more intent, presumably after a bit of a rollocking, and looked threatening for a while. They did carve out one decent chance, with their guy down the left pulling it back to someone who really should have put it away but he sliced it horribly wide. Perhaps the pitch came to our rescue again. We were creating nothing but hanging in and the game increasingly looked like ‘who scores first wins’ (just like the youth cup match last night).
Changes were made by them, with it notable that Doyle was replaced, having got nothing out of Morrison and Dervite. And around that time there was the moment when we might have gifted them the game. It was a poor back pass, difficult for Thuram-Ulien to deal with, but it very nearly became a disaster as his effort to control is saw their forward nick it from him. Fortunately he ran out of space and the ball went over the line before he could tuck it into the net or pull it back for someone else to do that.
Green and Gucci were replaced by Ajdarevic and Tudgay and the changes did make a difference. Tudgay knows his way around and he was a good deal more adept at holding the ball against bigger opponents, while Ajdarevic gave us more than we had before in their half. A rare passing move around their box ended with Jackson shooting wide. Harriott came on for Church, who as usual had worked his socks off, to provide another possibility, but with the clock running down I don’t think anyone expected the deadlock to be broken. Certainly QPR didn’t and as they seemed to settle for the point – after their guy had fluffed a chance through poor control, allowing Thuram-Ulien to grab the ball - we managed to take the initiative. Going into stoppage time Ajdarevic tried a curler from outside the box that Green (the other one) did well to turn around the post for a corner.
And what a corner it was. Curled to the far post by Ajdarevic (rather than behind the goal-line like the previous one by Jackson) and in came the skipper to get his head on the ball. From where I sit I thought it was probably into the side-netting, but glory be it was squeezed into the net. The ploy of assuming that Green (the other one) can’t deal with crosses did finally pay off. I don’t know if the entire Valley erupted, but I did.
All that was left was to see out the final minute or so; and then for Sir Chris to emerge to enjoy the plaudits with the players. On the balance of play, over 90 minutes, QPR will undoubtedly be gutted to leave with nothing. But that telling statistic again: no efforts on target. We (apparently) had only three, but two that were ‘off target’ came back off the woodwork and we had the one that counted.
What counted most for me wasn’t the win (don’t get me wrong, it’s made me very happy), but the attitude on the pitch. Exemplary. If we keep that going we will stay up.
Thuram-Ulien: 5/10. What mark do you give a keeper who hasn’t had a shot to save or dangerous crosses to deal with? His dodgy moment with the (admittedly poor) back pass nearly cost us the game.
Wilson: 8/10. The guy keeps doing what we ask him to do. Wasn’t perfect but against decent opposition put in a performance.
Wiggins: 8/10. Composed at the back and combined well with Jackson going forward. Just a class act, so glad he’s signed a new contract.
Morrison: 9/10. Outstanding.
Dervite: 9/10. Equally impressive, the pair of them gave their front two no opportunities in open play.
Green: 6/10. Struggled to make a real impact down the flanks and didn’t get in the crosses he was picked to do; but did set up Cousins well for the shot that came back off the post.
Cousins: 8/10. Pairing him with Poyet in central midfield was asking a lot of both of them and neither disappointed. As a pairing in other games we might not get a great deal going forward, but today they were just right in protecting the defence.
Poyet: 8/10. Another excellent display. Some misplaced passes, but reads the game well and consequently often appears at the right moment to break up the opposition’s play.
Jackson: 8/10. Had to get the extra mark for the goal, as it meant so much. Otherwise fair enough, but his knack of scoring at key moments, in a team which is struggling for goals, is still key.
Church: 6/10. It was a tough ask for the front two, neither being target men and likely to be outmuscled by their central defenders. If it was him who didn’t convert the rebound off the post ….
Gucci: 5/10. Looks like he’s struggling to adjust to what’s needed at this level. Comfortably contained by their defence.
Subs: Tudgay (7/10 – made a difference when he came on by being a better outlet than Gucci); Ajdarevic (8/10 – I was more critical than others of his performance against Birmingham, but there’s no question he has ability and he too made a positive difference when he came on); Harriott (7/10 – not on for long but did cause them a problem or two).