In our early days in the Premier League, when Sam Allardyce ruled our relegation threatened roost, I remember the elation when on loan striker Fredi Bobic scored a hat trick in a 4 – 1 victory against fellow strugglers Ipswich.
Twelve months later, the euphoria touched an even higher plane when the blessed Jay Jay ran what seemed like the length of the field leaving the mere mortals of West Ham floundering behind him, before smashing an unstoppable shot into their net, condemning them to relegation, and preserving our status. These games remain in my failing memory more clearly than the subsequent years of mid table security.
Why then didn’t I feel the same exhilaration after this equally important win against QPR? The three points were just as important as those won a decade ago; our winning goal was a good one and it snatched victory in the final minutes of the game. The stadium announcer did his best, ‘the goal machine’s back in town’ he roared. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
The so called ‘goal machine’ never left town; Klasnic has been sat on the bench, made redundant by the change in tactics, alongside one of the players that, for a time, made the change in tactics work. Then there’s the fact that our first goal was scored by a player that I, and as far as I can tell, the vast majority of supporters believe shouldn’t be in the team. Add to these facts a generally colourless display against a poor Queens Park Rangers side and you can see why I’m not enthused. We won a battle but it’s the war that’s important.
On the other hand, perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man. Let’s try and put a more positive spin on this victory against a fellow member of the failing five, three of which are destined for relegation to the Championship. OC did get the tactics right and, almost, picked the right players. We began with Bogdan; Steinsson, Wheater, Ream, Ricketts; Miyaichi, Reo-Coker, Mark Davies, Pratley, Petrov; N’Gog. Obviously, I would rather have seen Muamba included in place of Pratley but Moo has been voicing his bewilderment at OC’s selections on Twitter and had to be content with a seat on the Naughty Boys step.
We had the best of the first half hour without producing much to enliven the fairly subdued crowd. We won a few corners and Wheater went close with a header from one of them, then N’Gog tricked his defender neatly but dragged his shot wide. Neither keeper had really been troubled until the thirty-third minute when Cissé fed Zamora who rolled his shot along the bar from a tight angle. If the visitors thought that was unlucky worse was to follow from their viewpoint. They were awarded a hotly disputed corner and when Barton slung the ball across Hill met it with a forceful header from close in. My first reaction was that Bogdan had made an incredible save as he got a hand to the ball and scooped it away but seconds later I realised that it must have been over the line, a fact confirmed repeatedly in post match analysis.
Gradually QPR came more into the game but fortunately, their finishing was poor. On one occasion when Wright-Philips ran clear, Davies made an excellent saving tackle and Ream did likewise when Zamora threatened. At the other end, N’Gog went down in the area but I couldn’t see whether claims for a penalty were valid; Mr. Atkinson awarded nothing but neither did he book N’Gog so maybe he didn’t see it either.
A few minutes before half time, we won a free kick out on the right. We had had several such opportunities previously but Petrov had blasted them against the wall. This time Miyaichi pulled the ball square to Davies, he in turn fed Petrov, then on to Ream who side footed an excellent cross into the goalmouth. Who should rise like an eagle to head it firmly past Paddy Kenny but the much-maligned Pratley? It was a well-worked goal and it was finished with aplomb, the first bit of aplomb I’ve seen from the former Swansea man, but credit where it’s due.
So, the interval came with the score, rather fortunately, in our favour. What effect would the manager’s half time talk have on the second period? Always the fairest of men, OC obviously told the players to let QPR have a goal to make up for the one they had been denied. Within three minutes of the restart, a lofted pass over our square defence sent Cissé clear and he beat Bogdan comfortably with his shot. My seat isn’t best placed to judge but it appeared that Cissé was offside; television confirmed this but without the emphasis that Hill’s ‘goal’ received.
The game reverted to the pattern of the first half hour with both side threatening more than they delivered. By now, though, it was obvious that there wasn’t going to be a feast of goals. Each Wanderers attack aroused hopes of the winner; each forward thrust by QPR threatened disaster. One mistake would probably determine the result, but either moves broke down at the vital moment or shots were blazed high and wide. The atmosphere was tense and there was little noise from theBoltonsupporters. With fifteen minutes to go OC made a characteristically positive substitution bringing on Klasnic in place of Pratley and switching to 4-4-2. He had made similar changes in previous games when protecting a point would have been a better idea; in this case, he was right. We needed to win.
The change brought an improvement in our play. Regardless of the formation, and other than his goal, Pratley had been ineffective whereas Klasnic combined well with Davies, Miyaichi and N’Gog in various moves. Before the substitution could take effect, however, theBoltongoal was under siege for what seemed like an eternity. All our defenders, at one stage or another, threw themselves in front of shots in heroic fashion and we emerged from the onslaught without Bogdan making a meaningful save. It was good to see; such defiance has not been a feature of our defending this season.
Emerging unscathed from this offensive appeared to inspire the team and with ten minutes to go, we grabbed the winner with another well-worked goal. Eagles, who had replaced Petrov, slung a ball forward to Miyaichi. The youngster went right then changed direction and fed Klasnic who was bearing down on goal. Who else would you choose to be one on one with the goalkeeper? Klas slipped the ball past Kenny and, at last, the crowd responded. It was a lovely goal and a rare snatch of excellence in a drab encounter.
There was still time for one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon. With four minutes to go Muamba came on in place of N’Gog. The crowd’s reaction was no reflection on the hard working striker; it was to let the manager know the feeling about the out of favour midfield player. We played out time without too much anxiety and the points were in the bag.
At this stage of the season, and in our position, results are what matter. An objective assessment of the game may conclude that we were lucky but we could argue that the officials made two errors that cancelled each other out. In any event, we haven’t had the best of fortune this season and perhaps it was our turn.
With regard to individuals, performances were distinctly mixed. It was Tim Ream’s home debut and, for me, the jury is still out. He has pace, he looks comfortable on the ball, he is left footed but not loath to use his weaker pin, and his cross for Pratley’s goal was better than either Petrov or Miyaichi produced all afternoon. My concerns are that he looks lightweight and I don’t think he won a single ball in the air. Kevin Davies of a couple of years ago would have had a field day against him. I am equally undecided about the other newcomer, Ryo Miyaichi. The Guardian made him the man of the match and this was an opinion shared by many. He is exciting, very quick and clearly he has abundant skill but, as yet, he doesn’t always make the best of these qualities. More than once, he gave the ball away and left us vulnerable to a counter attack. He is young and talented and he will improve. Perhaps we would benefit more from his spell with us if we played the ball inside the opposing full back now and again for Miyaichi to run on to.
For the rest Davies, Bogdan and Wheater all had decent games. N’Gog’s work rate was outstanding but unfortunately little emanated from it. Pratley had his best game in a Wanderers shirt, which isn’t saying much; he will have to do a great deal more to convince me that he is a Premier League player. Reo-Coker and the full backs were a little below par although no one could fault their effort. Petrov also worked hard but he is content to cross the ball without ever trying to find a target and his free kicks were awful.
We now have twenty-three points. Earlier in the season, I highlighted the fixtures I thought we needed to win to get thirty-nine points; we then proceeded to take points from games I hadn’t listed and throw them away in games that I had. Looking at our outstanding fixtures, we can still garner enough points to survive but we shall have to play a great deal better than we did in this game.
In the opening paragraph, I looked back at a couple of games ten years or so ago. Going back a little further, to the first match at the Reebok, most of you will remember that we had a ‘goal that wasn’t’ against Everton. At the end of the season, we were relegated and the team above us was Everton; if the ‘goal’ had stood, they would have gone down in our place. I don’t suppose Mark Hughes would agree but if we survive at QPR’s expense it would be some sort of rough justice.