As was mentioned in the last edition the 1986 Milk Cup Final holds a strange place in the history of Queens Park Rangers. One of the few appearances the club has made at Wembley or a major final, it ranks as one of the biggest embarrassments for any supporter who was in attendance that afternoon. Thankfully, this long-standing albatross round the neck of the club, was lifted on that memorable day in May. Whereas the events of 28 years were quickly forgotten, the 2014 Championship Play-off Final provided so many wonderful memories for Rangers supporters. Here are some of moments from that day that will also stick out for me.
First of all, I have to admit it has been a great many years since I bought a replica shirt. I don't have any particular issue about, or how often new ones come out, or the cost of the football shirts. It is simply a personal choice not to wear them, and I would rather spend the money on Queens Park Rangers related books and DVDs (even though there are too few of them to choose from, for my liking). With a fair bit of rain on the morning of the big game, I decided to take the tube to Wembley, instead of doing the walk there. Even allowing myself enough time to wander round the great arena for a while before the game, it was great to see so many R's supporters kitted out and on their way to the game. And the walk from the tube station to the ground ensured that I encountered thousands more supporters in Rangers.
It was about now that I suddenly realised that I felt somewhat out of place, without so much as a cap or scarf, to distinguish my allegiance to the R's. Inside the ground, I even bumped into my friend and former work colleague Kenny, and he bemoaned not having a Rangers shirt for the day, yet even he was in possession of a blue and white top, albeit without the club crest. Feeling like the only person without Rangers colours, I felt, to quote Family Guy's Stewie Griffin "Like a crocodile at an alligator rally!".
Thankfully, QPR souvenir t-shirts for the day were on sale, and I was only too happy to purchase one. If there was one lesson that I learned that day, it is that even after almost 35 years of watching the R's, sooner or later we all feel the need to belong, one way or another.
That a Queens Park Rangers player got sent off in the Play-off Final, shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise to any supporter. It has been a notable and unwanted feature of Rangers recent history that red cards usually feature in important matches with promotion or relegation at stake. The tradition started in the 95/96 season, when in a match that had a huge bearing on QPR holding onto their Premier League status (away to Coventry) Andy Impey got his matching orders.
Two years later in the game more famous for Manchester City's Jamie Pollock's legendary own goal, Nigel Quashie also took an early bath. Moving on, the 1998/99 season saw Rangers involved in another relegation battle and at home to Bradford City, captain Karl Ready also saw red. Richard Langley was instrumental in getting QPR to the 2003 Division Two Play-off Final, with a goal in the first leg of the semis, at Oldham. But he too would blot his copybook with a dismissal in the same match, which would rule him out of the final. Moving forward nine years, the most infamous of all the sending offs in this bracket, was of course Joey Barton's notorious rush of blood to the head at Manchester City. And in the
ill-fated 2012/13 season, even Rangers hero Bobby Zamora got in on the act, with a ridiculous challenge in that home match against Wigan Athletic, in a 1-1 draw which typified the self-destructive nature of that QPR side for the whole campaign.
When Gary O'Neil joined that list by getting sent-off for a profession foul, his departure from the pitch was greeted by a polite round of applause by most of the Rangers support around me. I say most, because a couple of other fans around me were fuming, and one of them shouted "Why the bloody hell are they clapping him"? The answer to that question was very simple. O'Neil could well have saved QPR that afternoon (which of course, he did). When you look at all of the other Rangers red cards that I have listed, what is infuriating is that they were all so unnecessary and they tended to be the result of petulance, retaliation, or just a brainless challenge, on the part of the guilty individual.
Although it became the latest in a long line of dismissal in vital games, O'Neil's red card was nothing like the others. Before the Wembley game, I've always maintained that had one of the aforementioned sending offs had being for the good of the Rangers team(regardless of whether it was deemed to be cynical or unsporting), I would have accepted the occurrence as a necessary evil. So when it happened, I too, applauded him off. On another day, Derby County's would have made the extra man count. But they didn't, and by taking one for the team, Gary O'Neil's sacrifice was vital and worthwhile. Suspect even the two critics who were sitting near me, were soon grateful enough for that.
Oh, Bobby Zamora
Prior to the Play-off Final, Mark Lazarus was the only QPR player who scored a winning goal at Wembley. The great man was before my time, but as a keen student of all things Rangers-related, I am well aware of his influence and significance in the club's history. As well as scoring the winner in the 1967 League Cup Final, uniquely, he had three spells with us. And on each occasion, he was sold for a profit. As a winger, he was a tough uncompromising individual, but also one of the games great characters (the story of him running down the wing without wearing any shorts, has gone down in R's folklore). And to this day, his 76 league goals for QPR, still sees him comfortably remaining in the top ten of the list of post-war Rangers goalscorers. In every sense, Lazarus is a Rangers legend.
Then we come to Bobby Zamora. His journey towards QPR immortality hasn't being so straightforward. The former Fulham forward's first two years with the club were a huge disappointment, as a result of form and fitness. I freely admit I wasn't a huge fan of his. In particularly, I was very critical of Mark Hughes decision to assemble a strike force of Djibril Cisse, Zamora and Andy Johnson, all of whom were over 30 - and all three had a long history of injury problems. And sure enough, both Zamora and Johnson succumbed to long-term injuries in the 2012/13 campaign. Even at the start of last season, the smart money would have being on Andy Johnson having a good season, after his goals against Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers. But despite everything, manager Harry Redknapp never lost faith in him, even though many of the supporters had. And when during the transfer window, four new strikers came to Loftus Road (Doyle, Keane, Maiga and Dellatore), he remained part of the manager's plans, and began to feature more prominently when he regained full fitness.
A series of league goals in some of the latter fixtures of the season did manage to win over many of the doubters, but the best was still yet to come. Just a few weeks earlier, Zamora's appearance from the subs bench would have been greeted with apathy. Fast forward and he had become the logical choice, if Rangers wanted to alter the course of a game. Charlie Austin's goals in the second leg of the Play-off Semi Final captured most of the glory, but Zamora's influence in the same game was enormous. A one-two with Junior Hoilett bought about the penalty which got Rangers level - and he teamed up with Austin again for the winner. Wigan manager Uwe Rossler's post-match moan that Zamora had bullied his defence was a sure sign that the QPR striker's influence on the pitch was gaining.
Then of course there was THAT goal. As a self-confessed connoisseur of great QPR goals it wasn't, say, of the same quality as Trevor Sinclair's 1997/98 Goal of the Season against Barnsley, to use an obvious example. But in terms of significance, it was almost certainly on a par with Lazarus's League Cup Final winner, in terms of historical importance. With regards to previous promotion campaigns, neither 2004 or 2011 really came down to a single goal like it did at Wembley. And Terry Venables' 1983 QPR team won the Division Two title at a canter. Zamora's winner did make the difference. And did I mention that getting promotion back to the Premier League was worth a lot of money?
When it comes to QPR, I believe in the greater good, and I'm not too proud to admit Bobby Zamora proved me wrong (especially when in early 2014, Harry Redknapp stated that the striker could still play a vital run for the seasonal run-in). Zamora's route towards becoming a Rangers legend may have being an unorthodox journey. But it was a journey that he made, nonetheless.
Under The Influence
Where I was sitting in Wembley Stadium, I had a couple of teenage lads sitting in front of me in the first-half. For the second 45 minutes, they were nowhere to be seen and another chap in his twenties was sitting in their place. Now, normally I wouldn't have given that a second thought, except for the fact that he was just sitting there with a plastic glass of lager in his hand - and he looked like he'd already had a bit to drink. Sorry, let me correct myself. He was absolutely paralytic. He sat there looking like an earthquake would fail to move him, Sure enough, when the earthquake arrived in the form of Bobby Zamora's goal, like many supporters, I celebrated the moment in a manner that I have never celebrated before. Eventually, after the euphoria died down, I noticed that the one person who was unmoved by that goal, was our friend with the drink in hand. He remained seated, only now he was still holding on to that plastic glass but was covered in its erstwhile contents.
You couldn't have made it any funnier, if you'd have attempted to write it into a comedy sketch. A last-minute winner with 10 men, was a dream come true. To add some top class hilarity meant that myself and those sitting near me were truly spoiled. But spare a thought for the intoxicated QPR fan. Most of us will never forget the moment that Bobby Zamora scored the goal that took us up into the Premier League. One poor chap has no recollection whatsoever.
Within a couple of hours of Queens Park Rangers supporters experiencing one of the most memorable and enjoyable moments in the club's history, I was for a short while at least absolutely fuming. This wasn't as a result of an incident involving the stewards or police. Nor was it an altercation with Derby County supporters. The actual cause of my ire was an online attack on QPR by a Facebook friend of mine, within minutes of the final whistle.
He described Rangers as a "horrible football club" and cited, among other things, his dislike of QPR signing so many foreign players and Flavio Briatore. Now, I should point out that I know the man who made the attack on the R's through our mutual interest in quizzes, and in truth, he is probably one of the best quiz players in the country. But he also happened to be pretty ill-informed about the current goings-on at Loftus Road. Upon seeing him actually getting 'likes' for his attack on Queens Park Rangers, I had to take him to task.
I pointed out that among QPR's Wembley starting line-up, seven of them were English, as was goalscoring hero Bobby Zamora. And of the remaining four Rangers starters, Richard Dunne and Kevin Doyle are Irish. I also made a point of nudging him in the direction of the Etihad Stadium (Joe Hart is the only regular Englishman in the Manchester City starting XI) if he has a problem with foreign players. And as for Flavio Briatore? Sure, he was an erratic and hugely controversial figure, but I suggested that he should watch the excellent documentary Four Year Plan to see that Queens Park Rangers supporters never endorsed the decisions made by the divisive Italian. And that given Briatore severed all links with the club in 2011, he isn't really that relevant. A while later, a response arrived from the Facebook attacker, and he admitted that he'd being either harsh or wrong with many of his accusations against the R's. Friendships remained intact, and I don't think he will be using the social network to slag off QPR in the near future.
It does however, pose an interesting point with regards to what non-Rangers supporters think of us. For a great many years, I always found that we were a club greatly admired by many neutrals, and lots of other supporters would freely admit they have a soft spot for QPR, or say that we were their favourite London club. That criticism of Rangers is perhaps typical of how Rangers aren't held in the same high esteem, in recent years. Now, it's up to you fellow QPR supporters, whether you actually think that it is important what other people think of us. There is in some quarters a certain amount of jealousy over Rangers recently acquired wealth and the belief that anything achieved in the last few years, was down solely to money. But various over incidents and individuals at Loftus Road, have also turned public opinion against us (and just when you thought we'd run out of reasons to dislike Mark Hughes) in the last few years. As well as securing Premier League football, it would be nice to have a season without controversy, scandal or adverse publicity, in order to portray the club in a more favourable light. A Queen Park Rangers charm offensive, is probably long overdue.
The instances that I have spoken of, were just some of the memorable moments for the big day. Other things that also come to mind, include half of Wembley swathed in blue and white (both before and after the final whistle). Clint Hill and Joey Barton jointly lifting the trophy, Barton again, carrying Tony Fernandes on his shoulders (and thankfully not repeating Tony Adams party piece at the same venue many years earlier, dropping Steve Morrow). And even the famous photo at the final whistle, with Clint Hill celebrating with Kevin Bond, whilst Harry Redknapp goes to console his friend and opposite number, Steve McClaren, was perhaps the most poignant image of the day. Heavy drinkers aside, it was a day filled with so many great memories. Hope that was the case for every Queens Park Rangers supporter that afternoon.
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