Harry Redknapp, assured yesterday that his job was safe, thought he had a first Queens Park Rangers win in five games to improve on the poor run that had prompted rumours to the contrary. In added time, however, an assistant referee’s flag rightly cancelled out Clint Hill’s thunderous volley and Leeds United went back up north with the point they deserved.
The visitors were therefore the more satisfied of two clubs whose financial, as well as footballing imperative, is to return to the Premier League. Neither quite looked the part in a vigorous game punctuated by too many free-kicks that only came alive in patches. One such period was early on, when Leeds dominated as Ross McCormack, the Championship’s leading scorer, missed a penalty and then scored from a free-kick.
Rangers rallied at last to equalise just before half-time but soon fell away again and as Redknapp said: “The game faded away.” He was left lamenting a new crop of injuries, but having such a deep squad was a principal reason that before the start of the season the bookmakers made his team clear favourites for the title.
This morning they sit nine points behind the two automatic places. Ever since Charlie Austin, the striker signed from promotion rivals Burnley, was injured they have taken only two points from 15, which illustrates the main problem; scoring far fewer goals (38) than almost all the other contenders.
Redknapp’s answer has been to play the loan market and at one stage yesterday Rangers had five loanees on the pitch, including the three main attackers, which is never a recipe for coherence and understanding. Joey Barton was still suspended and the manager complained: “I’ve got six or seven key, key players missing. We lost three with injuries on Friday.”
Fortunately, the owner Tony Fernandes is remaining patient, tweeting yesterday: “Some fairly stupid press reports. There is no way Harry is going to be sacked. The only person who should be sacked is me.” Which can presumably be ruled out. Leeds, meanwhile, are in another fine mess even by their standards of disarray. GFH Capital Finance, a Bahrain bank who bought the club from Ken Bates in December 2012, seem to have been trying to sell it almost ever since.
A group called “Together Leeds” had an offer rejected in November and the Italian Massimo Cellini, owner of Cagliari, has emerged as the strong favourite. The Italian is so confident that he has put in an estimated £5 million already, apparently including two months’ wages and the outstanding £1.5m owed to a sponsor who had threatened to have the club wound up. Cellini still has to pass the owners’ and directors’ test applied by the Football League, who are not due to receive a further update until 13 March.
He met supporters’ representatives on Thursday night and appears slowly to be wining them over. An online poll of some 17,000 fans last night gave him 48 per cent backing after strong opposition previously.
It is also understood to be Cellini’s money that has allowed Brian McDermott – the manager sacked and then reinstated – to bring in two England Under-21 internationals on loan in goalkeeper Jack Butland from Stoke and striker Connor Wickham from Sunderland.
Both showed up well yesterday, Wickham linking promisingly with McCormack. “It’s a calmer place, there’s no doubt about that, and it needs to be,” said McDermott. “There was a period at the end of January when a lot of stuff was going on and we weren’t talking about what was going on on the pitch. Today we’re disappointed, because we maybe could have gone in at half-time two or three up.”
That followed an impressive start in which McCormack passed up a chance for his 24th goal of the season early on, only to make amends within four minutes. The penalty awarded for Richard Dunne’s unwise tackle on him was weakly struck and Rob Green was able to save. Soon afterwards, however, McCormack took a free-kick from 25 yards out and with the slightest aid of a deflection, beamed it into the top corner.
It took Rangers more than 40 minutes to force a save from Butland. Then Jermaine Jenas headed straight at him, before playing a neat one-two with Kevin Doyle and shooting low into the corner.
Armand Traoré might have scored 20 seconds into the second half, but Rangers did not threaten again until added time, when Hill was just offside as he beat Butland.
QPR (3-4-2-1): Green; Onuoha, Dunne, Hill; Hughes, Kebe, Jenas (Carroll, 79), Traore; Hoilett (Keane, 61), Morrison (Benayoun, 84); Doyle.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Butland; Peltier, Lees, Pearce, Warnock; Kebe (Byram, 90), Murphy (Brown, 79), Austin, Stewart (Mowatt, 69); Wickham, McCormack.
Referee: Chris Foy.