Face Wigan in Championship play-offs
9 May ~ Lately the destinies of Queens Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic have been intertwined. They suffered Premier League relegation together last season, with Wigan's late equaliser at Loftus Road widely held as the moment that sealed the Hoops' fate. Tonight, and on Monday, the clubs battle for a chance to regain a spot in the top tier. League positions and recent results suggest two evenly matched teams. The past four meetings produced three draws, and the last three the same number of goals. Anyone betting on a goalfest is likely to be sorely disappointed.
Though the two clubs' records and results are similar, their respective supporters' experiences over the past couple of seasons have differed markedly. Wigan have enjoyed FA Cup triumphs and consequent excursions around Eastern Europe. Meanwhile QPR's fans endured performances by players possessing the attitude and ambition of 18th-century aristocrats. More commitment was in evidence this year, after Harry Redknapp brought in replacements considered “the right sort”. Unfortunately there were far too many of them. Due predominately to injuries, 33 different names have featured in his starting line-ups since August.
When the club fell out of the automatic promotion places after Christmas, supporters tended to look for scapegoats — overpaid, underachieving players, chairman Tony Fernandes or the increasingly hangdog Redknapp. In truth it's hard to build team chemistry with that kind of turnover. Arguably just maintaining a play-off place has been something of an achievement.
Still it must be said that whether by necessity or managerial inclination, QPR have been tooth-achingly dull to watch for much of the season. Their system is to build play slowly, take few chances, dominate possession and always favour the wisdom of experience over the ebullience of youth. Fourth place or not it's rarely been pretty to watch, causing acrimony among many fans, particularly those raised on the virtuosity of past teams. However it's unlikely Redknapp will change much tonight, though he now has an almost entirely healthy squad to choose from.
In west London there's been an odd feeling of ambivalence surrounding the build-up to these play-offs. Some feel that a couple more years in the Championship is in order, to rebuild properly rather than in haste — again. If promotion was just a matter of waiting for a later bus, rather than taking the one that's at the stop right now, they'd be right. It's likely true that if QPR lose handily tonight, there won't be many tears shed for a season that's been exhausting more than enjoyable. But, if they win or draw, there's no doubt that Loftus Road will be packed and pulsating for the return leg on Monday. John Carter