Football: QPR's hard men have the first laugh

FOR a struggling club's manager, there is not a lot to choose between the transfer deadline in the final week of March and 24 December. Both entail a lot of panic shopping.

Ray Harford, the Queen's Park Rangers manager, had clearly decided to respond to his team's First Division plight by falling back on their traditions of crisp passing and slick movement. He signed Wimbledon's cultured midfielder, Vinnie Jones, as player coach and took Liverpool's sophisticated centre- back, Neil Ruddock, on loan.

Having the first laugh, the pair of hard men combined lethally 55 minutes into their debut at Huddersfield Town when Jones chested down Ruddock's free-kick and volleyed past Steve Harper. But Kevin Gray's header four minutes later muted Rangers delight. It stayed 1-1.

"We showed great character and strength and Jones and Ruddock did all I expected from them," Harford said.

At the happy end of the First Division, Sunderland recaptured an automatic promotion place by beating Bury 2-1 at the Stadium of Light. They had a fright, though: Bryan Small gave the Shakers a 28th-minute lead. Lee Clark equalised just before half-time and a Kevin Phillips penalty 20 minutes from the end lifted the Wearsiders above their North-east rivals Middlesbrough.

Speaking of Boro, Juninho might not have fancied First Division football but two other Brazilians are finding it to their liking. Marcelo put Sheffield United on the road to a 2-1 home win against Port Vale to keep up their play-off challenge while Edinho scored Bradford City's winner in the 2-1 defeat of struggling Manchester City.

City's manager, Joe Royle, had brought in the midfielder Ian Bishop and Shaun Goater, Bristol City's prolific goalscorer. But it was a City old boy, Jeff Whitley, he's 19 actually, whose looping header gave City an early lead. Goater missed two chances before Nigel Pepper equalised and Edinho settled matters.

Eddie McGoldrick went through the out door at Maine Road to make the short trip to Stockport but Crewe blighted his debut when Shaun Smith converted a 90th-minute penalty for a 1-0 win. Michael Johnson had a cool head too. His 90th-minute goal won the Midlands derby for Birmingham against West Brom.

Lowly Stoke City lost 3-0 at home to Tranmere Rovers. "I've run out of excuses," their manager, Chris Kamara, admitted.

In the Second Division, Fulham's grandiose plans continue to falter. Their latest addition, the former England international Peter Beardsley, couldn't prevent another setback as they lost 2-0 at play-off rivals Gillingham.

Finally, congratulations to Notts County and Barry Town. County became the first club since the Second World War to be promoted as early as March and go up from the Third Division after their 1-0 home win over Leyton Orient. Bunting out for Barry, too. Their 5-0 win over Bangor City made them League of Wales champions, and the first British team to qualify this season for the European Cup.

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