by Phil Hay
Consistently average was how Cardiff City came to be regarded last season. And as the final Championship table showed, consistently average was good enough; good enough for promotion and good enough for the title.
They left the league behind in May but Queens Park Rangers are here in their stead, getting by, pinching wins and leading the field from the front. QPR’s blueprint is a replica of Cardiff’s and they won a game on Saturday which Leeds United could have shaded with sufficient guile in all the right areas. But Leeds are not so spoilt as the club from Loftus Road.
There was, by a rough and reasonable estimate, a difference of £20m between the cost of the squads at Elland Road. The respective wage bills of Leeds and QPR are also incomparable. But while United’s limitations prevented them from winning a match with little about it, their first defeat of the season was not a consequence of Rangers’ limitless resources. It was the cost of a poorly-conceded goal 15 minutes from time.
Brian McDermott saw the result in those terms afterwards “Did we deserve to win? Probably not,” he said. “Did we deserve to lose? Probably not. We got done by a set-play. And to get done like that is disappointing to say the least.”
The timing of Clint Hill’s tap-in pole-axed Leeds but McDermott was more upset by the simplicity of his goal in a match which made hard work of yielding one. Joey Barton’s dipping free-kick from midway inside United’s half was all it took to bring havoc and a fumbled parry from Paddy Kenny, popping the ball up to Hill at the back post. Not even the left-back – without a goal to his name since 2011 – could miss from a few yards out.
QPR were throwing their weight about by then, pushed into their strongest period of the game by the appearance of Junior Hoilett on 62 minutes, a substitution which shared the burden of invention otherwise carried by Shaun Wright-Phillips.
It was hardly the equivalent of flicking a switch but the change allowed Harry Redknapp’s side to knock on the door more regularly than they had.
Barton, the source of rhythm in their line-up, finally forced it ajar. Rangers’ coach Kevin Bond, who stepped in for Redknapp during the post-match media rounds, said he was “pleased with the result” while saying less about the football. It was tepid in the main, a game that Leeds should not have lost. McDermott knew that but was careful not to talk out of turn at the end of a month in which only one of United’s seven fixtures inflicted defeat.
“You’re never happy when you’re sat here after losing a game,” he said. “But generally I’m happy with the month we’ve had. I’m disappointed with the result but I won’t be disappointed for long. You get setbacks.
“We never looked like losing but we didn’t do enough with the ball either. That’s the big thing I said to the players afterwards – you have to get on the ball and make things happen.
“In a game like that you want people to try something. Have a few more touches of the ball, have the confidence to play. We needed something a little bit different but we’re evolving all the time. What we’ve got here is good spirit, good desire. Now we need the other bits.”
Other bits translates in part as new players and the hours before tonight’s transfer deadline will either deliver for McDermott or not. They need to deliver if matches like Saturday’s are to turn United’s way more often than they go begging.
Leeds were tactically sound in one respect, managing QPR’s performance capably for all but a couple of anxious moments, but they did little to unhinge the Rangers’ goalkeeper, Robert Green. Ross McCormack said later that Leeds had “created nothing” and called the fixture “one of those games.” It felt that way when the full-time came.
McDermott found himself short of width and pace, an observation which treads over very old ground after three months of an open transfer window. It is on weekends like that just gone when Leeds’ biggest weaknesses come into play and flair is conspicuous by its absence. With the exception of Noel Hunt in the first half and Stephen Warnock in an extremely wayward second, most of his players stood up to the Championship’s overwhelming favourites without a problem. It is still true on reflection that only one team was ever likely to conjure a win. QPR did so without bothering to call Bobby Zamora from the bench or using Jermaine Jenas for more than a couple of minutes. They are truly a club without excuses. For them, Saturday’s result was a third 1-0 victory in a row. Cardiff used to do this too. “QPR will be there or thereabouts,” McDermott said. “I saw their game at Bolton when they won 1-0 and that’s the kind of performance you need in the Championship, to make sure you’re there or thereabouts. You need clean sheets too and they’re getting them.
“We were playing against a team that was put together for an awful lot of money and they had a lot of experience out there. They’d regard that, as a good away victory. I would if I was Harry Redknapp.” Bond was complimentary of United, saying he expected the club to be somewhere in the vicinity of the play-offs. He was certainly not in a position to say that QPR had run the show at Elland Road, despite the scoreline.
Rangers were unlucky to see a flag raised in the eighth minute when Barton ran from an onside position to dink Gary O’Neil’s pass over Kenny but there were strong suspicions of handball in the 53rd as McCormack’s header hit Karl Henry inside the visitors’ box. Stuart Attwell, the referee, made a poor job of making friends and gave Henry the benefit of the doubt. McDermott thought his side were worth a penalty but did not deny that Barton’s goal should have stood. “It’s one of those things,” he said.
There was nothing so much as a meaningful effort either side of Barton’s disallowed goal in the first half. Early in the second, a heavy backpass from Warnock played Jason Pearce into trouble but Kenny closed the angle on Charlie Austin and turned his shot behind. Dominic Poleon stepped off the bench soon after and shook things up but the goal when it came was cheap and nasty. It was destined to be so.
Even after Hill hooked the ball into the roof of Kenny’s net, the game remained lodged outside both boxes. With Jason Pearce committed to United’s attack in injury-time, Hoilett flashed an effort wide on the break before Rodolph Austin clipped the top of Green’s crossbar with football’s version of a Hail Mary Pass from 40 yards.
Reassurance for McDermott came from QPR’s players and staff admitting how hard his team had been to beat. “Elland Road’s a ridiculously difficult place to win,” said Bond. “This is a massive result for us.” And one which told McDermott what he already knows – his squad as it stands might only take Leeds so far.