The QPR Verdict: Rangers must learn the lessons of their lucky escape
Hoops have a golden opportunity to build for the future - but they must avoid the same mistakes which plagued their season
So in the end it all came down to one swing of Jonathan Walters’ right foot.
While QPR fought to save themselves from Premier League relegation on a stupefying day in Manchester, their fate was ultimately decided 33 miles away, by mid-table Stoke City.
It was there, at the Britannia Stadium, that Stoke’s 28-year-old Republic of Ireland international Walters netted the 77th-minute penalty which denied Bolton Wanderers the required victory and ensured that it is they, rather than QPR, who will be playing Championship football next season.
All QPR’s heroism, all their courageous defending, two wonderfully-taken goals from Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie – it all ended in Sergio Aguero’s late winner and would all have counted for nothing had Walters not found the bottom corner of the net from 12 yards.
That fact alone should serve as a sobering reminder to all associated with the club just how close Tony Fernandes’ big-spending big thinkers came to an undignified drop into the Championship.
QPR’s celebrations were born out of relief. There was precious little great about this escape.
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All season long, but particularly in recent weeks, Mark Hughes and QPR’s chief executive Phil Beard have led the assertions that relegation would not derail the club’s grand plan under the new ownership, rather it would merely slow their progress.
But that was to under-estimate the impact of relegation. Key players, inevitably, would have left. Rangers would have faced a struggle to break out of England’s unforgiving second tier.
Tony Fernandes, Amit Bhatia, Beard – they were all there on Sunday, wildly hugging each other deep within the corridors of the Etihad Stadium. But amid all the back-slapping there must also be recognition of where QPR went wrong this season, and how to avoid the same mistakes in 2012-13.
Having been granted the ultimate get-out-of-jail card, it is the duty of all concerned to ensure that they are never in that position again.
This summer’s transfer business must be everything last year’s was not. It must begin early, with the focus on trimming a squad which is almost double the size it should be. The likes of Patrick Agyemang and Rowan Vine must finally be removed from the wage bill.
Akos Buzsaky, Danny Gabbidon and Radek Cerny should all find out this week if they have futures of the club. Clint Hill is believed to be in line for a new contract after his impressive form.
Hughes must decide over the future of some of his well-paid under-performers: Shaun Wright-Phillips, so desperately disappointing, Jay Bothroyd, who has barely featured since the new manager took over, and DJ Campbell, who while injured for so long may yet have more to offer.
But most importantly, there must be no overhaul of the first team, which contains the core of a side which has the quality to challenge for a mid-table position next season.
QPR paid a heavy price for the wealth of additions last summer and in January. It destroyed any sense of harmony in the team. By Hughes’s own admission, he inherited a group of players which was splintered, fragmented, playing for themselves and with morale almost at rock-bottom.
The task of bringing that side together was took four months and almost ended in total failure.
There are, of course, areas which need strengthening. It would be a surprise if Hughes does not turn his attention to signing an attacking midfielder. Creativity is one thing QPR lacked from the first day of the season to the last. Other areas – Paddy Kenny has come in for increasing scrutiny in goal – will no doubt be addressed, but realistically Hughes’s team is one which needs – at the most – two or three new faces.
The other priority must be to solve QPR’s appalling disciplinary record: nine red cards set a Premier League record and undoubtedly played a key part in their struggles.
This summer is the time for stability, simply because it is such an opportunity.
Rangers are in uncharted territory: wealthy owners ready to invest in the team and with a second shot at Premier League football. Survival could be just the beginning for QPR, if they do things right.
The fact that QPR were ultimately saved by others is not to de-value their superhuman effort at the Etihad Stadium– easily their best performance of the season - or indeed their exertions, particularly at Loftus Road, throughout a quite extraordinary final six weeks of the season.
Rangers have survived when all seemed lost. Five consecutive home wins, including logic-defying victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs, kept them afloat despite an appalling away record which yielded not a single win since November.
That armed them with belief going into Sunday’s potential decider. At 1-0 down, and with Bolton winning at Stoke, every QPR fan’s worst nightmare was coming true. To turn a 1-0 deficit against the eventual champions into a 2-1 lead going into stoppage-time underlined the character of this QPR side.
Hughes deserves enormous credit. He has instilled a discipline into QPR’s game which has added steel and structure to their style, and a maturity which was entirely absent through the dark winter months.
It was an enormous gamble for the club to sack Neil Warnock and appoint Hughes in January. For a long time it appeared the move had back-fired. But ever since the season-low of defeat to Bolton in March, there have been real signs of progress.
This week, the club announced the purchase of the Warren Farm site in Ealing, where a new training ground will be constructed for the start of the 2013/14 campaign. They will also return to academy status next season. Such promising progress off the pitch must now be matched by continuity on it.
The next steps in QPR’s journey are crucial, and if they needed any reminder of how carefully they must tread, they need only reflect on the consequences had Walters missed that penalty.
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