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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 09/08/04, 7.45pm
Queens Park Rangers
Local Derby Lite
By Ian Grant

Ah, this is the stuff. It's a local derby lite, ninety percent of the passion and drama and pantomime villainy...and no unhealthy additives. And it's bleedin' marvellous.

Of course, the timing helps plenty. Even on a Monday night, there's an edge around one club's first home match and another's first away trip. People are up for this, much more than when it becomes a weekly habit later on in the season, and even the unseasonal weather (because you knew that I'd start complaining as soon as it wasn't hot) and the new, absurdly overblown pre-match build-up can't dampen the spirits. Whatever the campaign will bring in due course, it begins with a bristling, seething energy that's matched, and ultimately exceeded, by the frantic activity on the pitch.

It's terrific. It's not the local derby, clearly...but right here, it has all of the positives - including one very obvious, very significant difference from the norm - with none of the negatives. The ground's full-ish, with a healthy number of noisy and defiant visiting fans in the Vic Road end. The atmosphere is boisterous, with a mixture of support for the team and self-righteous condemnation of the opposition. That opposition includes an improbable number of former players, so much so that it's sometimes difficult to keep track of who we're supposed to be applauding and who we're supposed to be booing - at one point, Paul Furlong (polite applause) and Lee Cook (angry boos) are warming up on the touchline, leading to a comically rapid alternation of abuse and gratitude. And finally, there's the game itself, fuelled by the circumstances and immediately a thrilling, absurdly frantic frenzy.

This isn't - and never will be - a rivalry in the traditional sense, simply because it doesn't have a traditional sense. But encounters with Luton have become so thoroughly distasteful, hijacked by meatheads on both sides, that most of us are just grateful for their continuing failure to win promotion from Division Three. Having QPR around, on the other hand, offers an opportunity for a bit of local competition without too much of the baggage, and a cracking match with it. A surrogate rival, if you like. A reminder that these kind of fixtures don't always have to be shrouded in back-street violence and intimidation.

And that they don't always have to end in humiliating defeat.

Quite the reverse, in fact. My feelings about the depth of the squad won't change, by their very nature, with one brilliant result, but that's hardly the point. At this moment, it's all about momentum, confidence, insulation for what might be a tough winter...and sensible, level-headed stuff aside, it's about one of the most breathtakingly callous, merciless victories that Vicarage Road has seen in the last few years. Man, this was evil.

It's much too early to say what it really means, of course. But if the Luca Vialli era, with its misguided attempts at calming the tempestuous waters of Second Division football by playing at a slower, more methodical tempo, was effectively brought to an end by the somewhat desperate scrapping of the last couple of seasons, something brand new was born here. No accident here, no pragmatic make-do-and-mend. This performance had an agenda, as if Ray Lewington is finally able to define his team by what it is rather than what it isn't. Some people, inexplicably, have suggested that he's a negative, cautious manager. Yeah, right...try telling that to QPR.

Because this was absolutely bloody ferocious. Faced with a very up-for-it Rangers side, who perhaps had marginally the better of some insane, speed-metal opening exchanges, we simply kept pressing the accelerator. Faster, harder, louder...until our opponents could no longer deal with the sheer pace at which we were playing, confronting them at every turn and even managing to put together occasional glorious blurs of one touch passing and jagged movement. Eventually, QPR just fell away...and sure, they looked dreadful, but I would very strongly argue that this was a thrashing of our own creation, and completely different from, say, the four-nil victory over Franchise last season.

Here, little or nothing came from basic mistakes and defensive lapses. Didn't need it, not bothered...much too busy finding fresh ways of releasing Danny Webber, an lightning streak across the QPR radar that they were unable to locate and track at any point. Much too busy battering them out of the way in midfield, where Richard Johnson, whose career has given me as much pleasure as that of any Watford player, was eventually out-gunned and out-played. It wasn't about forcing errors, somehow...and while the constant harassment of our opponents did indeed cause them to lose the ball often, it was more a matter of getting lost in an impenetrable dust-storm than any particular, isolated mistakes. All too much for our poor visitors...especially their defence, which was dizzy with confusion by mid-way through the first half. Only erratic finishing prevented the scoreline from accurately reflecting the utter rout....

The tempo was insane. It was frantic from the start, both sides piling into the match as demanded by vociferous support from all around. Tackles flying everywhere, passes whizzing hither and thither to shirts of either colour, and the referee apparently unwilling to risk being a peacekeeper...even choosing to allow play to continue when Brynjar Gunnarsson was chopped down by a late tackle. Cracking action, really. A reminder of why the national team always looks a little crude and clumsy in international tournaments, unable to retain possession for more than a few seconds, and a reminder of why we care nowt about that when we're caught up in the passionate, end-to-end spectacle of our domestic game. Elemental football, this. Raw and splendid.

As discussed, we accepted the challenge. You want a high tempo game? You really want a high tempo game? What, like this? Or this? Or this? Early passes to pacy forwards; speedy pressing in every area of the pitch; hard, bruising tackling, one straight through the back of an opponent that earned a yellow card for Gavin Mahon, while another from the highly impressive James Chambers offset the risk of an early bath with confidence in perfect timing. A ridiculous, comical pace...and yet we always seemed to have control over it all, even when it appeared that nobody could possibly play constructive football without slowing down just a little. A performance of composure and hardcore commitment. Quite something.

And far too good, very quickly. Twelve minutes, in fact. Then we broke quickly and Neal Ardley, much as he did in the first half on Saturday, clipped an exquisite, casual first-time ball into the space behind the QPR defence for Danny Webber to hurtle clear. Too fast for everyone, including Chris Day...and even though he didn't strike his angled finish particularly cleanly, the last-ditch slide of a defender on a wet pitch only succeeded in carrying the ball over the line. One-nil, and nearly two within sixty seconds as Bruce Dyer dummied Gavin Mahon's pass and Webber turned on a six-pence before excitedly blazing wide with his left foot. Suddenly, confidence was inspiring us, and we were flicking the ball rapidly down the left wing before Bruce Dyer's long leg set up Webber again, Day tumbling down to save the shot.

Since when, eh? Since bloody when? 'Cause there were worse opponents than this at Vicarage Road last season, much worse. Nobody got this kind of treatment. Even after a mid-half advert break, during which Sean Dyche got treatment for an injury before everyone milled around for a bit waiting for the Sky director's shout of "Aaaaaaannnnnd ACTION!", we picked it right up again. Immediately, we magicked up the best move of the entire match, a wonderful cascade of pass-and-move down the left that was only let down by Bruce Dyer's heavy touch at the vital moment - otherwise, goal of the season. To say that we had the momentum would be inaccurate. No, we were the momentum, and a clouted free kick over the bar from Rowlands, QPR's only proper goal attempt of the whole ninety minutes, did nothing to change matters.

The referee's leniency towards Richard Lee undeniably helped, though. While he was nudged by Gallen as he jumped to claim a cross from the right, and while that kind of contact usually results in a whistle, the fact that he dropped the ball had little to do with the alleged foul. He just let it squirm free as he hit the ground, losing it to the striker's feet in front of an empty net. Lucky, then, that the referee saw fit to award a free kick rather than allow the goal...for, although I suspect that we would've continued to steamroller our opponents, an equaliser might've changed the course of the match considerably. We'll never know...and I find Ian Holloway's outrage rather exaggerated, bearing in mind that his team was comprehensively out-played for the vast majority of the contest. This was not a matter of small margins.

By injury time, after a slight scare as Gallen's low cross-shot was kept out of Thorpe's reach by strong defending from James Chambers, we'd put forward a persuasive case against Holloway's perceived injustice. That is, we'd demonstrated that we could score more goals - several more goals, if necessary - than our opponents, and therefore that they'd need our keeper to drop several more crosses to stand any chance at all. In injury time, another of those weighted, measured, and perfectly timed Neal Ardley through-balls released Danny Webber again, and only a fine save from Day denied him.

And then, right at the end, the Lingham's chilli sauce in the cheese sandwich. Neal Ardley and Paul Devlin putting their heads together over a corner. A Devlin touch to Ardley. An Ardley amble and pass to Mahon. A quick look and a pass back to Devlin, advancing into the right of the penalty area. An instant lofted cross into Bruce Dyer, all on his own in the six yard box. A diving header to force the ball past Day. Ping-ping-ping-ping-goal. Offside? Well, possibly...but I dare say that the linesman was as confused as the QPR defence, who protested little. Besides, you know what? I don't care. Carve such intricate, devastating patterns into a defence, and you deserve the benefit of the doubt.

And a standing ovation too.

And an encore, despite the visitors' attempts to mount a revival at the start of the second half, with two substitutions and a bit of early pressure. It got no better than a Gnohere header from a corner, deflected into the side netting by a defender, and much, much later, a free kick from the right that narrowly missed the far post. Oh, and a couple of desperate penalty appeals. There'll be more impressive attacking displays this season, but that shouldn't detract too much from a commanding defensive performance from all concerned, including the recently-jittery Paul Mayo, the sprightly James Chambers, and, of course, the thunderous Sean Dyche. Seriously competitive, ball left uncontested, no opponent left without a bruise or two for their troubles.

To the other end, then. Where Day's poor kick was returned quickly, and Danny Webber was yet again clear of the QPR backline, darting around the keeper, stumbling and playing a neat one-two with the post before steering his second goal past the defenders on the line. Comparisons with Luther Blissett on the train home, and not unjustified either...aside from the rather unconventional finish, just the sheer, unstoppable pace and directness. And the slamming, gun-slinging confidence of a predatory striker in full flow...later pouncing on an errant backpass to shoot across the face of goal...then, later still, instinctively heading a loose ball on into the six yard box and bringing a smothering save from Day. There was a hat-trick and more here, and that's a little bit like Luther too....

When he departed to a vast ovation, he left the QPR defence splintered and broken...and then we brought on some real pace, in the shape of Hameur Bouazza. On a cautious note, it's worth remembering that Danny Webber has done this once before - in the single-handed demolition of Coventry during his second loan spell - and that turned out to be something of a false dawn. Still, I'm optimistic. He's fit, fresh...and, in Bruce Dyer, he has a partner who's able and willing to play the straight man, providing a firm focal point for the rest of the side. Suddenly, they look like a natural, perfect pairing...and it's hard to believe that they were knocking around for the whole of last season too.

As for the rest, our sheer hunger avoided any anticlimax. We sensed more goals, we demanded more goals...and we damn nearly got them, as Day touched Heidar Helguson's skidding half-volley wide of his near post and Hameur Bouazza shot enthusiastically wide after a wonderful arcing pass from Ashley Young. No respite, even in injury time; no slowing of the pace...and another sublime ball from Young released Bouazza, who should've scored when Paul Devlin returned his low cross into the danger area, but mis-timed his header instead. A snarling, aggressive, irrepressible performance, right to the very end.

Which brings us to the last, obvious talking point, the treatment of Lee Cook. Booed and taunted throughout, he had a hard time...not least when he actually made it onto the pitch, appearing caught in headlights whenever he did receive the ball. Which wasn't often. At one point, he was unceremoniously mugged by Paul Devlin, then immediately conceded a free kick as he tracked back in an attempt to retrieve possession...and you could almost see the tears of frustration welling up.

And you know what I think? That dishing out some stick to former players is one of football's long-standing traditions, regardless of logic, perspective or whatever. It's not fair, generally. But it's not especially real either, and much of the appeal of football is that it allows for such black-and-white pantomime nonsense. No harm in it, really...and yet, for all that his Watford career (and the endless arguments about his Watford career) often drove me to distraction, I truly hope that Lee Cook prospers at his new home.

And you know what I really think? That Lee Cook is completely bloody irrelevant. As irrelevant, in fact, as everything else about QPR last night. Not important. Not worth your time.

For once, you don't need distractions....