QPR’s promotion hopes rest on Charlie Austin’s shoulders

Charlie Austin

Charlie Austin - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

At a damp, drizzly Dean Court, the QPR supporters were singing Charlie Austin’s name long before his 65th-minute appearance against Bournemouth. They know as well as Harry Redknapp that Rangers’ promotion hopes now rest firmly on the returning striker’s shoulders.

Austin’s first game since he suffered a shoulder injury in late January was a tonic for Redknapp, on the day his team’s hopes of automatic promotion were finally extinguished.

The trip to the south coast was another chance to apply pressure on Burnley. Victory would have narrowed the gap to seven points. It was probably their last chance, and it was wasted.

Lewis Grabban’s goal condemned Rangers to their 10th defeat of the season and left them trailing Sean Dyche’s side by 10 points. “It looks impossible now,” said Redknapp when asked if his side can make the top two. A place in the play-offs is now the realistic target.

Austin’s return provides a timely tonic. Of the 12 games he missed, QPR won just four, taking 15 points from a possible 36. The performance on Saturday was a microcosm of their season: comfortable in possession but without a cutting edge. Redknapp’s fingers will be tightly crossed that his prolific striker can stay fit for the rest of the season.

“We have to be careful with Charlie,” Redknapp said. “We have a game on Tuesday [against Blackburn Rovers] and I don’t know if I’ll chance him again.

“It will be good to have him back and firing on all cylinders, he’s the one guy who’s scoring goals for us. We’re short of goals, that’s the problem – and we don’t create enough chances.

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“We should have been a little bit cleverer, with a bit more imagination. We lacked that bit of flair to open them up. You’re looking for a bit more from your flair players; Junior [Hoilett], Ravel [Morrison], to open them up. They didn’t really do it.

“We have a lot of the play, but where’s the goal going to come from? When Charlie is out who else is going to score? We had games which were 0-0 and then Charlie would score. We’d be difficult to beat but Charlie would be the one who would score.”

QPR need a miracle to deny Burnley automatic promotion. Equally, with a 12-point advantage over struggling Nottingham Forest in seventh, only a spectacular implosion will prevent them securing their minimum target for the season.

“We shouldn’t be caught now, we should be ok,” Redknapp said. “We just have to keep going now, pick up a couple of wins and get some momentum going into the play-offs.”

Such a comfortable position does little to inspire urgency, however, and many more displays like Saturday’s could quickly see their 12-point cushion whittled away. Forest must still visit Loftus Road. QPR’s run-in also brings a trip to Leicester City - promoted on Saturday thanks to QPR’s defeat – and games against Watford and relegation battlers Millwall.

Thank goodness, then, for Austin. There were enough signs after he came on against Eddie Howe’s side to suggest that goals will not be long in coming for the 24-year-old, who scored 15 in his first 28 games. There was precious little else to celebrate for the travelling fans.

This was far from QPR’s worst performance of the season. They dominated the first half-hour and scored a fine goal through their marauding winger Armand Traore, before surrendering the initiative with poor defending for Grabban’s opportunistic winner. They might have stolen a point had Richard Dunne’s injury-time header not been cleared off the line.

It would have flattered them.

Once again their shortcomings in midfield, and particularly in attack, laid the foundations for defeat. Hoilett, scorer of the equaliser against Blackpool last weekend, was his old anonymous self. Modibo Maiga, making his first start for QPR since his debut against Burnley last month, barely gave the Bournemouth defence a nervous moment.

Morrison, roaming between the lines, was once again QPR’s brightest attacking player, but even he cannot be expected to win every game single-handedly.

These were the games that earlier in the season Austin was winning, and Redknapp knows that QPR’s hopes of reaching the Premier League rest squarely on his return to form.