Well, after nine months of apathy and boredom, these last few weeks have been a bit special. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel once the play-offs started. I couldn’t imagine it would be as intense as last time. Those games against Oldham were at a different time and - it seems like - a different club. We had been through so much to get there and winning at Loftus Road that night was the first time most people my age had actually witnessed us get to a final. After all that’s happened since, and after really losing my passion for it all this season, I couldn’t see it being anywhere near as good.
So being all sensible, I decided not to go to the away-leg at Wigan. I had spent weeks looking at hotel prices and train tickets; and after Reading blew it on the final day of the season, I was close to pressing the ‘buy tickets’ button - but, no, I was going to be sensible, save the money and just enjoy the home leg. One moment of common sense in 38 years on this planet... and I regretted it instantly. I went from not knowing who we were playing week to week, to not being able to get the game out of my head. I was obsessed with it again; the stomach-churning nerves were back and every other thought was, ‘Why didn’t I go to Wigan?’
That Friday was the longest day ever. Seeing people on Twitter planning their journey up the M6; and sitting at my desk at work, I even had another look to see how much a train would be, last minute. My mate, Simon, was texting, saying the same thing, ‘Why are we not there!’ The number of meaningless games I’ve spent small fortunes on travelling across the country, and I decided to miss a semi-final. What a fool. I watched the first leg in The Egerton in Hammersmith instead, which was pretty busy with QPR fans. I was so nervous and excited, I could hardly breathe as the match started. That enthusiasm quickly gave way to the realisation that we’re still a bit boring to watch and a dreadfully dull game of football followed.
A game, though, that I managed not to take my eyes off once and watched extended highlights of the moment I got home that night, and again in the morning. So having seen the game three times, I should be able to write something more intelligent than neither side looked like scoring - but that’s all I can come up with. I’ve little memory of the game, much like the 1-1 draw at Oldham all those years ago.
As the final whistle went, the main talk in the pub was we’d take that, we can beat anyone at home - and thank God we didn’t spend £160 on a night in Manchester to watch that. It was then a long two days before the second-leg - and if I thought I was nervous before the first-leg that was nothing compared to what was coming. The day before the second-leg, I was at home with my son, Freddie, who seemed far more confident than me of victory.
Now, regular readers of this column (hello Mum!) might recall that Freddie wasn’t overly keen at the start of the season. When Sheffield Wednesday scored on the opening day, he asked me if he could support another team, as we always lose! I was very grateful for the turnaround that day, so he got to see us win and help plant the seeds of obsession. He’s come on leaps and bounds since then. He cheers every goal. He screams “Wake up, Rangers” at the team every week; and also sang, “He fell over” to a Yeovil player recently, as my wife gave me a very disapproving look. I don’t know where he picks these things up!
That Sunday before the play-off second-leg he spent much of the day running around the garden, playing at football commentating. All our neighbours hear nowadays is a five-year-old shouting, “It’s a goal for Charlie Austin!” He sat with me to do his handwriting homework, and off his own back wrote ‘Come on you R’s’ over and over again. My wife looked to the sky and cried: “Oh no, he’s turning into you, Dave!”
He was very confident of a win and told me: “We’re going to win, get to the final and win the trophy. We are QPR. We can beat anyone.”; before asking, “Who are we playing again?” “Wigan,” was my reply. “Oh no, they are good. We won’t beat them. Never mind.”
I laughed and told him not to worry, we’d beat Wigan; but that young mind was having the same thoughts as me. Yes, we can beat anyone at home - but Wigan are quite good and, oh no, we’re going to mess it up, aren’t we? Those words from Freddie were rattling in my head for most of the game on the Monday night. The day was again a long one. I booked a half-day at work, and spent a good few hours in the refurbished Conningham Arms catching up with friends and family, who were all as nervous and apprehensive about the game as I was. When the team news came through my heart sank. Much has been made of Harry Redknapp and his tombola team selection this season. I’ve thought all along there must be a method to his madness, and he knew what he was doing; but seeing that team, the only rational reason I could think to start that way was if he had pulled names out of a hat.
Kevin Doyle on the right-wing? I know Kevin Gallen played there in that Oldham game - but that was through necessity. What was the point of Benayoun, if we weren’t going to play him in this one; and what on earth was the point of building a team around Ravel Morrison, then dropping him for the must-win game. I was baffled by it - and that bemusement turned to pure anger as the first-half wore on. It was an awful first 20 minutes from Rangers, and we quickly called that it was going to take three changes to sort this out.
Redknapp has come across as bored at times this season - and I do wonder if he picks these random teams to give him a challenge to fix things during a game, like giving the other team in the school playground a two-goal start and still winning. That seems to be how he gets his thrills these days. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s made massive changes during a game to formation and personnel, and it usually comes off for him.
As half-time came, I couldn’t see a way back. Wigan are far too good a side to let us give them a 20-minute head start, and if James Mclean had taken a glorious chance in the second-half then all of the excellent changes eventually made by Redknapp would have had no impact at all. It’s fine lines in play-off games, though - and Rangers hung on, and with 20 minutes to go, for the first time all season, had a team out full of attacking players, all wanting to pour forward. Both full-backs were flying forward, Kranjcar was dictating things in midfield, the wide players and both forwards were also pushing non-stop for goals. It was quite good to watch - and after 47-and-a-half games, we finally stumbled onto a team worth watching.
As Junior Hoillet was brought down for the penalty, I was so nervous I could hardly move. You all know what happened next - but in the 379 times I’ve watched that penalty since, one thing stands out. Watch Ravel Morrison’s reaction. Here is a player with an apparent attitude problem, on loan to a Championship club, when a few months ago people were expecting him to be heading off to the World Cup this summer. He is unable to watch at first, then his reaction to the goal is pure joy - and excitement, punching the air with passion and joining the celebrations with his teammates. If he had blue hair, you’d have thought it was Marc Bircham. Despite my moans on Redknapp’s team selection he’s done a hell of a job to make Morrison a real team player.
After that, any doubts were gone. I was certain we were going to win - and judging by the noise around me, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. It was up there with that Oldham game for noise after the penalty went in. We really did push the team over the line that night. Once Austin got the second goal in the same end as Paul Furlong, 11 years ago, I knew we were going to Wembley. The rest of the game is a blur but we still managed to get a heart-in-the-mouth moment when that deflected shot went wide, I was right behind that and I still don’t know how it didn’t go in.
The celebrations afterwards were great - the pitch invasion and seeing what it meant to the players. Some of them might never play for us again at Loftus Road; but for that one night’s work, it was impossible to fault any of them - especially Joey Barton, Richard Dunne, Charlie Austin and Bobby Zamora. A week on and, like most QPR fans, I still hadn’t come down from the high of that night. Who knows what Wembley or next season is going to bring - but for now it’s a great time to be alive, and the players, manager and us fans have shown over the last week that Ian Holloway was right after that Oldham game... this really is a proper football club.
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