"I have a strong feeling that once we start scoring, we could get a hatful. I have watched our players in training and know that they have the ability, and someone in the First Division will be on the receiving end."
Those were the words of Don Howe, in his programme notes for the visit of Luton Town to Loftus Road, in September 1990. By Howe’s standards, this was a particularly bold statement to make. He was more renowned for being a consummate organiser than talking about potential big victories. As well as being a highly respected manager for many years, he was on the coaching staff of the England teams that reached the semi-finals of both the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships. Given how much of the country was gripped with the progress on the England team at the World Cup this summer, had Howe still being around, I have no doubt numerous media outlets would have been queueing up to hear his thoughts on a national side that was emulating something he had been part of twice previously. So all things considered, such a brash statement about the prospects of that Rangers team, wasn’t really the sort of thing you would expect from such a wise figure.
Luton Town were interesting visitors. Both ourselves and the Hatters enjoyed similar fortunes for a while. Promotion in the early 1980s, and given the respective sizes of the clubs, both would punch above their weight for the remainder of the decade. And by the end of the 20th century, both clubs went into decline. In the case of Luton, that would mean falling out of the league altogether. The other important detail linking the two clubs was the artificial pitch. Luton were the visitors for the very first game on the Astroturf in August 1981. They won 2-1. When they next visited Loftus Road, two seasons later, they won 1-0. And they made it three wins in a row, with a 3-2 comeback in the 1984/85 season. Eventually, Rangers did finally manage to record victories over them - doing so in the FA Cup in 1987, and then beating them in the league the following season.
Perhaps off the back of an outstanding record in London W12 over a long period, Luton decided to get their own artificial pitch later in the 1980s. Although Rangers fans did not realise it at the time, the side from Bedfordshire were doing us a big favour. Although great progress was made on and off the pitch for the seven years the astroturf was used, Queens Park Rangers were not popular with neutral fans. And no matter how well we performed, the plastic pitch always seemed to be a ready-made excuse for why we were beating other teams. Luton, by installing their own plastic surface, took much of the spotlight away from QPR. And when the Hatters introduced an unprecedented ban on away supporters, they experienced a level of hatred usually reserved for serial trophy winners that attract glory-hunting supporters in droves. So much so that when Luton fell out of the league in 2009, there were still fans around the country who, rightly or wrongly, were glad to see the back of them.
Luton Town may have turned up that afternoon in September 1990 expecting to pick up at least the obligatory point that they were so used to doing. But Roy Wegerle had other ideas. Just minutes into the game, a Ray Wilkins through ball found Wegerle by the corner flag. It looked like he would be dispossessed when he tried to dribble his way out of a tight spot. But he was too strong for his opponent and was in sight of goal. With two more defenders in front of him, he turned one of them the wrong way and, once inside the penalty-area, his right-footed shot found the bottom corner of the net. A fine start to the game - but with no further goals before half-time, the visitors might have fancied their chances of coming back in the second-half.
Not long after half-time, Roy Wegerle was in the thick of the action again when he put David Bardsley in the clear. His right-footed cross found the head of Andy Sinton at the far post, to double the lead. Sinton turned creator minutes later, when he cut inside and another unlikely scorer of a header, Ray Wilkins on this occasion, glanced home. It was beginning to look like all of the players had taken a good look at the programme notes that afternoon.
There was a little bit of respite for the visitors when Ceri Hughes pulled one back to make it 3-1. But that was as good as it would get for them. The fourth Rangers goal of the game was also the second for Wegerle, and it was not too dissimilar to his strike earlier in the afternoon. A long ball from Paul Parker gave the Rangers number 10 a sniff of an opportunity, though once again he had to out-muscle his opponent. And just like the first goal, he managed to go past another defender before dispatching a low strike, to make it 4-1. There is a certain irony when watching the highlights of this game. One of the main criticisms I used to hear about Roy Wegerle was that he did not cope well when handling the more physical side of the game. Yet on two occasions that afternoon, he scored thanks to being stronger than the man marking him.
If the two Wegerle goals were of the finest quality, then the best was still to come. Another superb forward pass from Paul Parker found Wegerle out on the left. With time and space on his side, our million pound signing cut inside and his cross was met with a brilliant left-footed volley on the turn from Mark Falco. For many strikers, this would have been a difficult skill to execute - but it also happened to be the type of opportunity Falco thrived on. By this stage, perhaps all of our outfield players fancied their chances of getting on the scoresheet... including those who had a rather dismal record in front of goal.
The 1990/91 season was Parker’s fourth at the club. He had been outstanding. A brilliant tackler, excellent in the air, very quick - and as I have already pointed out more than once in this article, pretty decent with his distribution. But his achilles heel was goals. He had yet to find the back of the net for us. With just a few minutes left, he drove forward. With an excellent one-two from Andy Sinton, he was through on goal and, with a low shot, he finally got his name on the scoresheet for Queens Park Rangers. He was thrilled to finally rid himself of that unwanted statistic, and the supporters were equally happy for him. The newspaper headline proclaiming ‘PARKER SCORES AS RANGERS HIT SIX’ was one of the more unexpected you were ever likely to see in respect of our team.
A couple of interesting points to mention here. Although Paul Parker managing to break his duck was the end of the goalscoring, Rangers could and should have had a seventh goal. Up and coming young substitute Les Ferdinand was bought down in the area. A stonewall penalty. But perhaps having a bit of sympathy for the beaten visitors, the referee gave nothing. Alhough it made absolutely no difference to the outcome, Roy Wegerle was the club’s regular penalty-taker. That opportunity could have given him the chance to take home the match ball. He would never get the chance to score a hat-trick in a QPR shirt again.
Then there were the visiting fans. In fairness to them, as the Rangers goals kept flying in, they never stopped singing or getting behind their team. Also many Luton Town supporters would have been the first to admit that it was a source of embarrassment that they had the opportunity to follow their team around the country, yet others were prevented from doing so in return fixtures. Don Howe’s judgement could usually be relied upon - and it had taken a mere 90 minutes for the players to prove him right. Invariably, the Man of the Match was Roy Wegerle. He became QPR’s first one million pound signing. when he arrived in December 1989. During that era, Rangers supporters would often bemoan the fact that every time a former player turned out against us, they would usually score. Wegerle was proof that when the roles were reversed, sometimes opponents would suffer the same fate. His two goals and outstanding performance was doubly satisfying for our record signing, for another more unexpected reason.
Just after he left Luton for Queens Park Rangers, one Hatters director claimed Roy Wegerle wouldn’t be missed as he was not a prolific scorer. It was a tacky comment for a couple of reasons. First of all, no-one at Luton was trying to talk him down when they were trying to garner a seven-figure transfer fee. And from our own painful experience, such talk will not make supporters feel any better, when losing one of your club’s best players. Wegerle responded in the best possible manner, by ramming their words back down their throats, with two goals and two assists when the teams met in that game - almost certainly his finest performance in a blue and white hooped shirt.
Even though there were many great times to enjoy in the first half of the 1990s, six-goal performances were not a regular occurrence from QPR. You have to go all the way to the 6-0 win over Crystal Palace on the final day of the 1998/99 season to find the next occasion when a Rangers team would score that many goals in one game. Don Howe’s programme notes generally went back to the more standard fair that you would expect. Subsequently, he never made any more references about his Queens Park Rangers team being good enough to inflict a heavy defeat on someone. But even back in the 90/91 season, part of me wishes that he would have done so. Given the impeccable timing on the day Luton Town visited, maybe the players would have again responded in such spectacular style.
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