“Pwemier League Kyewpeeaaaaaah scaaaaaaahves, ownly ten paaaaaaaahnds!” hollered the seller at the Wood Lane zebra crossing as people decamped from White City tube station. Despite my black and amber shirt, he even tried to sell me one. Fucking idiot. A couple of hours later, I and two of AN’s finest were back at the same zebra crossing, and this guy had reduced the price of his scaaaaaaahves by 50 per cent.
It was nice to see him trying to flog his wares for a meagre five paaaaaaaahnds after City avoided defeat for yet another away game while a late goal elsewhere finished off Queens Park Rangers’ chances of sealing their promotion on this day. Our street vendor chum had obviously panicked and altered his demands just in case Neil Warnock’s men proceeded to really mess it up and lose their remaining two matches. They won’t of course, and it was “only” a draw, but for us it constituted what Clement and La Frenais would label a “little victory”.
Let’s not try to deny that QPR are a truly excellent side. They have pace, skill, tenacity, fitness and a spot of devilment in their play. It’s doubtful Neil Warnock has ever worked with an abler bunch of players, even allowing for his past escapades in the top flight with Notts County and Sheffield United. In Adel Taarabt they have a gallery performer, and notwithstanding the cheap fun there was to be had at his expense when a trick or flick didn’t pay off, not to mention the long memory we can all store after his hissy fit at the KC in January, he nonetheless showcased gifts that took the breath away of even the hardiest and blindest of City devotees.
But they clearly thought this game was won at half time, when the truth was it only should have been won by then. They were terrific, playing to a crowd drunk on long-awaited success who couldn’t help but count many a chicken with their attitude and songs. City were overawed in the first half and should have been left with no hope at all, but QPR hadn’t reckoned with a Tigers team that had not lost away from home since September and, having long blasted the club record for such out of the water, were now going for that of the division as a whole.
It was only 1-0 at the break and, despite the equal likelihood of a 6-0 paggering, it wasn’t unwise to suggest that Nigel Pearson could get fluids and encouragement into his players and make them turn it on for the second half, attacking the end that had the Tiger Nation crammed into its upper wing. We could never have been as good in terms of creativity, flair and forward-thinking, but for sheer hard work and spirit we are unmatched in this division. Unmatched. Look at that away record. It proves it. Not much of this run of – how many is it now? – games has been preserved via luck alone. We’ve deserved most of the wins and draws we’ve attained. And at Loftus Road it was no different at all.
Pearson (N) made three changes to the team pulverised by Middlesbrough two days before, leaving out Robert Koren and the crocked Liam Rosenior, and bringing in Tom Cairney and James Harper, as well as the return of Matt Duke in goal. The team read thus: Duke; Chester, Hobbs, Gerrard, Dawson; Garcia, Harper, Evans, Cairney; Simpson, Fryatt.
The bravado from the bloke on the Loftus Road mic, and the supporters he was whipping up, was understandable but still laughable. Didn’t they know that we are Hull City, and we don’t lose away? Jocular soundbites aside, this was the day when that superhuman sequence of defeatless trips into some of football’s less hygienic backwaters would finally come to an end. QPR are going to the Premier League and today was going to be their day.
And, for almost all of the first half, that seemed more obvious than we’d dared imagine. Taarabt, for all his ego and juvenile paddies, is something else. That he didn’t make it at Tottenham but Jermaine Jenas continues to be picked says something about either the contrasting application of the two players, or the photos of Sandra Redknapp with an ice cream shaped like a penis safely locked away on Jenas’ iPhone. Still, Taarabt might not be of the attitude for the Premier League (and let us all not enjoy the prospect of Joey Barton kicking the shit out of him next season, oh no) but he is just a wizard of a footballer at this level. I dread to think how Ian Ashbee would have fared with him if he’d stuck around.
Matt Fryatt had City’s first sniff of goal, a rarity for the first half as it would transpire, but his low cross shot was ankled away by an alert Paddy Kenny as Richard Garcia closed in. Jack Hobbs then started a move from the back which involved Jay Simpson and the ever-calm Harper, and nearly got reward for his incongruous sprint through the home defence but Harper’s ball was just a yard too far away, allowing Kenny to collect.
Decent start, if not necessarily indicative. These early moves were largely experimental as QPR settled quickly, showing little nerve and ample arrogance on the ball and City had to exercise great patience and just deal with it. As well as Taarabt, there was plentiful danger from the sheer pace of Wayne Routledge, who was fouled by a combination of Garcia and Corry Evans right next to the corner flag in one instance of his torturing the City rearguard. Taarabt ignored the first of a few satirical songs about his lack of infant sucking device from the City faithful to swing in a dangerous free kick that Heider Helguson headed inches over the bar.
It didn’t take long for the silky passing and absolute self-belief of QPR to become a proper advantage. Taarabt turned neatly on halfway and delivered a ball timely by the split second to set Routledge free and remove all City defenders from the equation. Anthony Gerrard momentarily considered an obvious red card offence as the Rangers flier got ahead of him but – in the long term, at least – was sensible in withdrawing his blocking arm. Now it was between Routledge and Duke, and the Rangers player won with confidence and style. Promotion was surely theirs! Etc!
If there was a point when QPR lost their confirmation of a Premier League place, it was after that goal. They still dominated but acted as if they had all the time in the world. Confidence is no bad thing, but it can blend with the dreaded complacency only too easily and soon it became clear to the Tiger Nation that if City could maintain some shape and discipline, a 1-0 half time deficit would be no bad thing.
The first thing required after the goal, however, was a substitute for Evans, whose injury was not immediately apparent but had seemingly come from that challenge near the corner flag on Routledge. He left the pitch and on came Hope Akpon for his first taste of football with the Tigers. This, a few steady square balls aside, would not prove to be the most inspiring of debuts, to say the least.
City nonetheless buckled down, allowed Rangers to pass neatly and artistically without really offering real opportunity to increase their lead. Simpson, who looked lively and whose touch seems to have improved drastically, had one long range effort that flew high over Kenny’s bar, prior to Cairney and Gerrard seemingly clearing a goalbound Helguson header off the line simultaneously after a mild scramble in the six yard box.
The Tigers forced two corners in succession as the half drew to a close – Cairney fluffing the first but getting a lucky second go from a skewed clearance, and this time he swung it in with more penetration, eventually leading to a Simpson shot on the turn going over. Half time then arrived and it was genuinely hard to decipher whether this was a potential draw or 2-1 win or an inevitable 6-0 cuffing. The coaching staff had much to do, but were capable of doing it.
Pearson (N) took a big decision, especially as one change had been necessitated by Evans’ injury, to switch to 4-3-3, introducing Aaron Mclean and withdrawing Cairney, who could consider himself a shade unlucky. Within 30 seconds of the game beginning again, Mclean’s ankle was booted through by the ever-brutal Shaun Derry, and it took a fair bit of treatment and the threat of a stretcher before the City sub resumed his role.
QPR slowed the game down, using slightly unnecessary delaying tactics as the half wore on, and only really coming close to scoring again when Taarabt aimed a free kick inches over Duke’s bar. City took this as a challenge. For the rest of the half they were, yet again, excellent.
Mclean got to the penalty area and aimed a cross into the danger zone that was cleared to James Chester; his deft flick back inside was headed on by Fryatt and dropped just wide of Kenny’s far post. Fryatt then sprinted on to Harper’s fine through ball – shades of his goal at Nottingham Forest – but the gangly and always committed Fitz Hall showed hitherto unseen pace to catch up the City striker and get a block in on his shot.
City then forced a corner, which Andy Dawson swung in and Mclean headed on into a perilous position, only for nobody to take the chance required and apply a finishing touch. Rangers rallied, with Taarabt doing some heel-toe magic that didn’t so much beat Hobbs as ignore him, but the final shot was into the side netting.
Pearson (N) threw the dice for the final time by taking off Simpson – again slightly unfortunately – and slinging on David Amoo, yet to show to any worthwhile extent why he is on Liverpool’s books at all. He and the tireless Garcia frequently switched flanks and Rangers genuinely needed to think and work. It didn’t do them much good, as Harper again aimed one over the top from a deep position and Amoo was the first to scamper on to it, even having time to judge Kenny’s position as two defenders closed in on him, prior to thumping a shot beyond the keeper’s glove with absolute authority and, from those in the upper tier, unexpurgated joy. Eight minutes remained and we had equalised away from home against the champions-elect.
Scores elsewhere suggested that a draw would do QPR, though that didn’t stop some of their previously cocky supporters doing the stand-up-with-your-hands-on-your-head-and-look-crestfallen-for-effect look. It could have been worse for them as until the injury time board went up, only one team looked like winning. City had possession and belief and fire in their bellies and it took all kinds of heroic defending to prevent another goal.
Patreick Agyemang, on as a late sub, struggled free of Hobbs and lobbed the onrushing Duke but put too much on the ball, and then with five minutes of added time nearly up, Rangers won a free kick that sub Alejandro Faurlin aimed for the corner with deftness and direction, only for Duke to spring across and make probably the best save of his City career.
A mighty cheer from the away end greeted the final whistle – no really, how many is it now? – while QPR fans densely invaded the pitch, despite a late goal elsewhere meaning they were still not yet officially promoted. This point would have been colossal had we not been so calamitous against Middlesbrough; as it is, we’re five off sixth place with only six points to play for. It’s not going to happen, but at least we could say that the winners of the division, as QPR still will be, didn’t achieve it on our watch. We had a reason to be there too.
Crystal Palace at the KC next week, then one more away game, and if we can exit Bristol City with at least a point then it will round off a quite extraordinary, even idiosyncratic, campaign with a fresh precedent set for for all of football to note and admire. We have not lost away from home since September and while it’s not unreasonable to make comments about our regrettable home form costing us a chance in the play-offs, somehow it no longer matters. We proved against the best team of our level that there’s something special about this new group of players at Hull City. Give them a whole season together and, well, they could well make our 2008 heroes look almost ordinary.