Football: A dream no longer pie in the Sky

Queen's Park Rangers 1 Manchester City 1 Kiwomya 39 Horlock 61 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 19,002
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The Independent Online
THE OLD warhorse is well used to claiming the spoils of battle. Yet, it is doubtful that even Joe Royle can believe Manchester City's transformation of fortunes. Less than a year ago, City were appearing in repertory company at the likes of Second Division Lincoln and York, still in decline and suffering the ignominy of defeat, to boot. Now the West End theatreland beckons once more for the club's former player who has made one hell of a fist out of the task that everyone said would require a Hercules rather than a football manager.

Yesterday, the "house full" signs were out as a 19,000 Loftus Road crowd witnessed two teams who in recent weeks have made losing look as though it has gone out of fashion, duly fight out a draw. Nine games now without defeat for Rangers; eight for City. It should certainly satisfy the former's manager, Gerry Francis, who, following a dismal start and managing a club still hamstrung by financial limitations, says merely that he desires an early declaration of survival after two seasons dicing with relegation.

The play-offs could yet be a plausible objective for a team, who, as they exhibited in reclaiming three goals to secure a draw at Stockport in midweek, lack nothing in spirit. Here, despite Kevin Horlock's second- half equaliser appearing the likely prelude for a City victory, it was Rangers whose late flurry nearly succeeded in felling the League leaders. "City are equipped to be a Premiership side, while we desperately need to strengthen our squad, and we have got some money available," Francis said. Nothing, though, compared with yesterday's opponents.

For Joe Royle, the Sky, as someone never fails to say at such moments of Rupert Murdoch adding to his football portfolio, is the limit. While the media magnate's pounds 5.5m investment has possibly not being greeted with euphoria by all those of a light blue inclination, it can only have added to the sense of expectation that has gripped Maine Road this season.

By any definition, the Blue Moonies have seen a remarkable transformation of fortunes, initially brought about by the pounds 1m acquisition of Manchester United's Terry Cooke, followed by a successful Wembley penalty shoot- out that followed the heart-stopping added-time goal against Gillingham. This season's further progress, with the astute purchase of players like Lee Peacock from Mansfield for pounds 500,000, is testimony to the acumen of one of the country's most able managers.

The assumption is that Murdoch's lucre will fund the purchase of another striker which is clearly a priority, particularly with Paul Dickov and Shaun Goater both injured. But Royle stressed: "It doesn't make any difference, quite honestly. If I need anything I ask the chairman and he's said `yes' every time. However, it is recognition that Manchester City are going the right way. The money won't necessarily financially benefit my side of things, but it will reduce the club's borrowing."

In the absence of City's experienced strikers there was plenty to admire in the first half about Shaun Wright-Phillips, who made the Rangers' defender Karl Ready appear precisely the opposite as he bypassed him with aplomb on one occasion. If there was something of the Ian Wright about his agility and pace, it was possibly because the former Arsenal man, now with Celtic, is his father.

For most of the first period, Royle's three centre-back rearguard comfortably restricted Rangers to a venomous drive by Ian Baraclough that narrowly cleared the bar. It was the Rangers left-back who also unwittingly set up Rangers' goal seven minutes before the interval. Another fierce drive from outside the box caught a defender in a congested area, and the ball ran obligingly for the alert Chris Kiwomya to pounce and bury in the City net before Weaver could react. It was appropriate that the striker did not labour in vain. His wife, Fay, had gone into labour an hour before the match.

Rangers withstood a mighty return of fire at the start of the second half. But, on the hour, they were finally breached. Peacock, sent into the fray along with Cooke at half-time in place of Phillips, dispatched Kevin Horlock into the area with a timely flick. The Northern Ireland international, described by Royle as "A Trojan - the best player on the pitch", beat Harper with the deftest of touches.

Horlock might have won it for City with a blistering drive before, in the final minutes, Keith Rowland dispatched the substitute Kevin Gallen's cross wide. The offender clutched his head in despair, but that would have cast a wholly inaccurate reflection on proceedings.

Mick McCarthy will not have been pleased by reports that a strained hamstring suffered by Mark Kennedy means the winger is likely to miss the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2000 play-off game against Turkey next Saturday. As for City, they march on defiantly.

The best-supported team in the land at last have Manchester United firmly in their sights once more.

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