Sunday, May 12, 2013
Hopeless Hoops hand Toon a lifeline
John Brewin, Loftus Road
"That's done now": Three words that might have haunted Alan Pardew. He uttered them on March 11 when believing his team were already safe from relegation. Newcastle United have had to wait until May 12 to finally secure that safety.
The travelling Toon Army was lower in number than usual and far less full of voice too. Anxiety can restrict the volume of the larynx. As time ticked towards the final whistle, arms were folded over black and white shirts, nervous glances were being exchanged. Newcastle were playing with ten men after 'keeper Rob Elliot had been sent off for a second bookable offence, his second being a comical handling of the ball outside his own box.
As Bobby Zamora slashed over with a minute of normal time remaining, hearts leapt into Geordie mouths. Andros Townsend brought up the 90 by booming over the bar with sub goalie Steve Harper stranded. Finally, a roar of victory could sound out. Captain Fabricio Coloccini, escorted by stewards as Rangers fans invaded the pitch, went over to give his thanks. In what looks to be his penultimate game for the club, he had led them to safety. "I'm very pleased," Pardew said. "This was a very important game for this football club."
The self-proclaimed 'loyalest' supporters have had that quality tested to breaking point by a long season that has won them little except mounting worry. A grasp on safety was secured by beating a team with even less team spirit than theirs. Fortune hardly favoured the brave but Newcastle hung on grimly enough. "Going down, going down, going down," they taunted home fans when their own fate had been decided. "We are Premier League," they reminded them.
The abyss has long beckoned for Queen's Park Rangers. The sense of guilt over their humiliating demotion is signified by the squad voting their Player of the Year as the fans, who in turn chose Clint Hill, a remnant from a previous incarnation of the club. In truth, probably the finest performer of 2012-13 was Ryan Nelsen, but he left in February for Toronto, and was last seen enlisting the services of serial relegation specialist Tal Ben Haim.
A lap of honour to wave goodbye to Loftus Road at the end of the season was always going to be a walk of shame. The post-match pitch invasion stopped it happening anyway. Fans made their way onto the playing field, pratted around for a bit, only to then be forced back off by a long crocodile of brightly tabarded security staff.
There has been little in the way of heroism to celebrate. What lies beneath in the Championship may yet be more harrowing. Cash has been thrown around like confetti in two seasons in the Premier League; the result has been the relegation that would have occurred if prudence had been observed instead. A fortune has been squandered on failure.
Harry Redknapp is here to stay, he says, though doubts remain over that. He has been in the job since November with no change in fortune resulting. Rangers have spent the season in the bottom three. Glimmers of safety have always been darkened by error after mistake after pratfall. Things were probably worse under Mark Hughes - at least they have since won matches - but Rangers are still being relegated.
If one player symbolises QPR's downfall, it is Jose Bosingwa, the hated and feted giggler of the Madejski Stadium. A year ago next Sunday, he played all 120 minutes as Chelsea won the Champions League. He will celebrate that anniversary with relegation long decided, and as the number one target of fans' ire. "Jose Bosingwa, we don't want you here," sang Rs fans. As ever, Beach Boys Sloop John B was the chosen anthem of terrace abuse.
"Harry, Harry, take 'im off," rang out too, after he had committed the second of two glaring errors. The first was the tugging of Hatem Ben Arfa's shirt, an especially silly move in the light of Lee Probert's earlier penalty award for a similar offence. Mathieu Debuchy's slight gripping of Junior Hoilett led to Loic Remy putting Rangers ahead from the spot.
Ben Arfa's powerful penalty restored Geordie spirits when their team had previously produced little of worth. "We were almost playing with a noose around our neck, very tense and very tight," Pardew admitted.
Bosingwa was soon along to soothe them once more. The slackness of his backpass to Rob Green allowed Jonas Gutierrez to block the ball into the path of Yoan Gouffran, who passed into an empty net. That Bosingwa - two years left on his contract - was subbed at half-time was perhaps the least surprising switch of the season. "It wasn't going to help anybody, was it?" Redknapp noted.
Expensive, feckless and dangerous to have around, Rangers could be stuck with the Portuguese man of poor for some time yet and there are 24 other players who remain in contract too.
"If you kept that team next season, you wouldn't finish in the top half of the Championship," Redknapp said, offering a brutal assessment of the future. "That's a fact. You have to get rid of people to get people in, and it's going to be a very difficult job."
Rob Green showed solidarity in slackness when being penalised for picking up a backpass. This time, Rangers escaped, but here was evidence that guilt should extend further than Bosingwa's narrow shoulders. No-one is truly innocent.
Rangers playing without pressure had been considered a wild card to trip up a Newcastle team bereft of confidence, but their spirits are even more brittle than their visitors'. Hoilett represented continuing danger, as did Townsend, but Coloccini led a successful rearguard fight against relegation.
In these days of regime change among even the Premier League's leading lights, Alan Pardew perhaps might be getting concerned. A team that finished fifth last season is on course to finish eighth-bottom in this. Newcastle have survived but their sole source of celebration has been safety.