In their long history, Queens Park Rangers have only ever won one game at Old Trafford. It came on that famous occasion, New Year’s Day in 1992. As a result, hat-trick man Dennis Bailey remains an R’s hero, who can be assured a warm welcome whenever he returns to Loftus Road - as we saw when he was guest of honour at one game last season. I imagine plenty of supporters were delighted to shake his hand - and that lucky few were even able to say to him, “I was there!”
Although not quite as rare, QPR home wins over Manchester United have still been pretty scarce. The recent excursions to the Premier League brought us no joy. And despite enjoying some good times in the first half of the 1990s, victory over United proved to be somewhat elusive as well. So to find the last three-pointer over the Reds in West London, you have to go back to the previous decade. Just like on that famous day a quarter of a century ago, one man scored the goals that made the difference to the scoreline. And just like with The Dennis Bailey Show, that day the man in question played by far and away his best-ever game for Queens Park Rangers. And to top it, his goals were even more spectacular. In theory, like Dennis Bailey, this individual should be a cult figure, whose exploits are still talked about; someone who should probably be on the club’s shortlist, among the former players who come out onto the pitch at half-time, to receive the applause and gratitude of the supporters.
Well, actually, no. The player in question doesn’t fit any of this criteria. Let me explain. Early in 1989, and with a terrible injury crisis at the club, new manager Trevor Francis strengthened the squad, breaking the club transfer record to bring in Nigel Spackman, before also signing Andy Gray. Type in his name on Wikipedia, and he will be only the third footballer you will come to. The Scotland & Everton striker, turned long-standing broadcaster, and another Scot - the journeyman Forest, Sunderland and Barnsley forward - get mentioned before our very own Andy Gray. Having previously played for non-league outfits Corinthian Casuals and Dulwich Hamlet, before turning out for Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, Gray joined Queens Park Rangers early in 1989, for a fee of around £425,000. A fairly considerable sum at the time.
At a shade over six-foot tall and with a build similar to Les Ferdinand in his heyday, Gray cut something of an imposing figure on the pitch; but in the first few games he played his performances were fairly average. In the game at home to eventual champions Arsenal his direct free-kick from outside the area managed to hit and damage that old electronic scoreboard, which caused great amusement to the Gunners support. And in the same game it seemed like the same player had put the Rangers supporters in dreamland, when he tapped in from close range, after Mark Stein’s brilliant curling shot had beaten John Lukic before hitting the underside of the crossbar, Andy Gray slotting home. But the linesman’s flag was up - and the game finished goalless. Against Luton Town, Gray was having his most accomplished game in a QPR shirt, but then picked up a bad injury. He had to be helped off the pitch - and it seemed like his season was over.
But five games later, Andy Gray was back. Queens Park Rangers had climbed the table and were looking good for a top-half finish, when Manchester United were the visitors in May. Look at the record books - and it is surprising to see that this fixture attracted a crowd of just 10,017. Why weren’t there more QPR fans in attendance? Or, and I have to ask, United supporters? Well, there were a couple of reasons for that. Unusually, given that this was the pre-SKY era, the game was played on a Monday night due to United’s involvement in the FA Cup, and they were now catching up with their backlog of fixtures. And Rangers missed out on getting a much larger number coming through the turnstiles, as the game coincided with a major train strike on the day. For those who made the journey to W12, their efforts were rewarded with an absolute classic.
Manchester United took the lead after a quarter of an hour, when Steve Bruce was left unmarked from a corner and his flying diving header beat David Seaman. A few minutes later, Rangers were level. And starting a pattern that would continue the whole evening, every positive aspect from the team involved Andy Gray. First of all, he helped the R’s win the throw-in that would lead to the goal. He took it himself. Watching it again, like other recent QPR players - Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Jack Robinson - Gray had one of the longest throws I have ever seen from a Rangers player. Colin Clarke won the resulting header, and Andy Sinton’s shot was hit hard into the ground - the bounce beating Jim Leighton in the United goal.
There would be little time to celebrate as, seconds later, the visitors went up the other end of the pitch and Clayton Blackmore’s shot put United ahead once again. And this after less than half an hour of the game. This wasn’t a vintage Manchester United team - and they would actually finish below Queens Park Rangers at the end of the season. But they were certainly up for this battle. However, so too was Andy Gray. Even at 2-1 down, Gray was wreacking havoc, constantly giving full-back Lee Martin a roasting. Martin would get substituted by Alex Ferguson long before the final whistle.
Rangers got their chance to get back in the game when a goal-kick from Seaman was collected by Andy Sinton and his pass found Mark Stein. The diminutive forward was about to get his chance on goal, when Steve Bruce’s handball just inside the penalty-area, blocked a potential goalscoring opportunity. Most of the Rangers players appealed in vain for a spot-kick, as did all the home supporters. When I said most of the R’s players were calling for a penallty, one person who didn’t complain to the referee was Andy Gray.
The Manchester United clearance came to the Rangers man, about 30 yards out. Collecting the ball while he was facing the direction of the dugout, he instantly turned towards the opposing goal. United defender Martin tried to challenge Gray, but he was brushed aside with complete ease, in a manner akin to Willie Carson trying to shove Dwayne Johnson off the ball. And from a narrow angle on the right-side of the area, he unleashed a bullet of a shot that flew into the top opposite corner of the net. “How did he get such power?” asked Martin Tyler on the commentary of the game, that you can still catch on YouTube. Indeed, whilst it would be difficult to pick one Rangers goal out of all the many hundreds caught on film, scored with a powerful shot, this one would certainly make the shortlist.
Both teams went for the win, with Brian McClair heading just wide for Manchester United. Rangers then had a goal disallowed, after Colin Clarke was judged to have been offside after a tap-in from four yards. Predictably enough, Andy Gray had started the move after intercepting a clearance. It seemed like both sides had missed the opportunity to win the game - but there would be one more twist on the night. The late Ralph Milne was somewhat careless with his pass, and Gray picked up the ball in his own half. He had just one thing on his mind. He quickly saw off the presence of Clayton Blackmore, racing through the United half, before he then beat Mal Donaghy, and another powerfully-hit shot, this time from outside the area, found the bottom left-hand corner of the net. And this, incidentally, happened in the final minute of the game.
What a night the QPR man enjoyed. Two goals, one assist, a number of shots on goal, and not one, but two United full-backs tormented by him, for the whole game. Manager Trevor Francis was ecstatic, claiming that there was no more exciting player in English football than Andy Gray on this form. Rangers would end the season in ninth place, which was a most respectable effort, after finishing fifth the year before. This was also the first season that the club had an official video of all their league goals throughout the campaign. Upon purchasing it, what I looked forward to seeing more than anything else, was that brace from Gray. And even on the small screen, they didn’t disappoint.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only Rangers supporter who was looking forward to seeing him play in the following season. But prior to the start of the 1989/90 campaign, we got the bombshell that no-one was expecting. Crystal Palace had made an offer of £500,000 for our Manchester United match-winner. If the bid was a surprise, then so too was the response of Trevor Francis, who claimed that the sale of Gray represented good business on the part of the club. Sure, we were showing a slight profit on what we had paid for him. But what about all that talk of him being one of the most exciting players in the country, in the aftermath of the Manchester United game? As we would see with both Martin Allen and Nigel Spackman, Francis had the unfortunate knack of falling out with his own players.
And so this most unusual of Rangers careers had come to an abrupt end. Eleven appearances, two goals, and one match-winning performance over one of the giants of English football. With great irony, Crystal Palace were the visitors to Loftus Road on the opening day of the 1989/90 season - with Andy Gray in the line-up for the Eagles. QPR won 2-0 - and, again, somewhat acting as a mirror to the fortunes (or otherwise) of Andy Gray, both of the R’s goals were scored by Paul Wright, who would himself stay at Loftus Road for just a short while, after not settling down in W12.
Gray’s second spell at Selhurst Park would be the most successful of his career, with an FA Cup Final, almost 100 appearances and 12 goals, and helping Palace to their highest-ever league finish. But just like at QPR, there was a falling out with the management. Steve Coppell publicly criticised Gray, saying he was playing for himself and not the team. He joined Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of £750,000. It was while at White Hart Lane that he won his only England cap - playing against Poland in an important 1991/92 European Championship qualifier. Although England got the draw required to reach the Euros, it was not a happy occasion for Andy Gray. He failed to last the 90 minutes, getting substituted, and thus became the newest member of the ‘one cap wonder’ brigade.
And to add to his misfortune, a book entitled England’s Worst Footballers went on sale a few years later. This publication featured supporters choices for the poorest player at every Football League club in the country. There was also one pick for the worst-ever England international - and Gray got the nod, owing to his poor performance in that one game in Poland. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Ned Zelic got the vote for QPR; and that man Mark Hateley proved his failure at Loftus Road was no one-off, as Hull City picked him as the worst-ever player for the Tigers. I was interested in a different viewpoint towards Andy Gray, so asked my Tottenham-supporting workmate about him. His response was that, although he came to White Hart Lane at a time of upheaval and disappointment, few Spurs fans had a good word to say about him.
The unpredictable winger did nothing to endear himself to his former employers when he returned to Loftus Road during the QPR v Tottenham match towards the end of the 1991/92 season. Rangers were winning, when Gray scrambled home from a couple of yards out - and promptly carried out the most over-the-top of celebrations I think I have ever seen at our humble abode. In a bad-tempered game, in which Alan McDonald got sent off and the R’s lost 2-1, Andy Gray gestured towards the Rangers supporters at the end of the game, which also did nothing to enhance his reputation in the eyes of our fans.
With his spell in North London being largely unsuccessful, Gray’s career went on the downward curve. That consisted of a brief loan spell at Swindon, and a year at now-defunct Spanish second tier team CS Marbella. And his career concluded with a year at each of Falkirk, Bury and Millwall, before his retirement in 1998. Despite coming into the Football League at the age of 20, he managed to play with eight different league teams, and he only ever settled for any significant period of time in his two spells at Crystal Palace. He made almost 100 appearances for the Eagles each time, yet never managed 40 league appearance at any of his other clubs. And, unsurprisingly, he racked up fewer appearances for Queens Park Rangers than at any of the other teams he played for.
Which brings us nicely back to Andy Gray’s brief spell at Loftus Road. Despite being one of our most expensive buys when he joined us, his Rangers career was so short, some loanees have gone on to play more times in a blue and white hooped shirt. Yet almost 28 years later, he remains the inspiration behind the last Rangers team to beat Manchester United at Loftus Road. And let’s be honest, that run is likely to last for a few more years at least. And yet I cannot help but think about the contrasting attitudes towards Gray and our other United hero, Dennis Bailey. The latter of the two had the advantage of enjoying his finest moment in front of 10m people watching on television, along with those inside Old Trafford, whereas Andy Gray did so with just 10,000 in attendance.
And that is not the only example of how there is something of a chasm between the attitudes towards the two men. Every supporter over the age of 35 (and a fair amount below that number) know about Bailey’s Old Trafford heroics. Gray’s match-winning effort doesn’t register with nearly so many people. On the QPR Facebook pages, Dennis Bailey’s hat-trick regularly gets aired - and the obligatory ‘likes’ and compliments follow. No-one evr posts the video of Andy Gray’s spectacular goals against United. And as I said at the beginning, Bailey has already enjoyed being a guest of honour for his achievement. I doubt Gray’s name ever managed so much as a consideration.
Even though he suffered a serious injury and then a loss of form in the aftermath of his Old Trafford heroics, Dennis Bailey remained very popular with supporters. Not least for the fact that he undoubtedly was one of the nicest guys ever to put on a QPR shirt. In comparison, Andy Gray was the man who never settled at Loftus Road. Next to Bailey, he is forgotten, ignored, unliked and unloved - this probably in part due to the fact that he was something of an aloof character.
Yet despite this, I will always associate his name with that home victory over Manchester United. A feat that has become so rare, it is almost akin to being the Holy Grail of QPR wins. And he wasn’t just the last man to secure a victory over United. With a five-star performance, two outstanding goals and a dramatic finish to the game, he pretty much ticked every box you could ask for in the process.
Were I to meet Andy Gray in the pub or supermarket, or wherever, I would be happy to thank him for that memorable night 28 years ago. But at the same time, I will always be disappointed that he never stayed at Loftus Road for longer. Then perhaps he might have been remembered for more than just one match-winning performance in a Queens Park Rangers shirt - even if it did come against Manchester United, in such a grand manner.
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