Another week, another London ground. I’m skittling them down like ten pins now. Not a complimentary ticket this time but a ruddy reasonably priced one for the Capital Carling Rumbelows Milk Cup third round match between QPR and Reading at Loftus Road.
It turns out this ground is the closest to my current place of residence and was a breeze to get to. The ticket prices had been appropriately lowered for this one and the £15 I paid was obviously a lot better than the £60+ they would normally charge.
Loftus Road is certainly a very compact venue and, to be honest, not very comfortable at all. I’m above average height at 6’ 4” but the legroom was ridiculously tight for anyone north of a midget. As I walked up the steps in the South Africa Road stand to my seat, the two gents either side said: ‘This is going to be a tight squeeze.’
I soon discovered what they meant, with my shins jammed against the seat in front and knees jabbing into the unfortunate chap sat in it. I was in genuine pain by the half-hour mark, a kind of extreme pins and needles, and thankfully it was an end-to-end match with plenty of opportunities to get up and stretch my legs.
It didn’t help that I’d spent the previous day jogging, cycling, swimming and hauling weights as part of a press trip to the Football Association’s shiny new St George’s Park training facility, and also that I hadn’t done any kind of stretching or warm-down as you’re meant to. My bad.
I alluded to an exciting game and that’s precisely what it was, with the rarity of two Premier League teams who genuinely wanted to advance in the competition. There were two full-strength sides and a very good atmosphere, with pockets of home fans making noise on three sides of the ground.
After 15 minutes, I was mentally congratulating myself on my choice of evening entertainment as both sides scored. QPR struck first in this ‘Battle of the Hoops’ (as the PA announcer tried to dress up a match between the bottom two sides in the top flight) when Junior Hoilett left four defenders in his slipstream with a direct run before applying a cool finish.
The celebratory music had barely faded, though, when former Ranger Kaspars Gorkiss was left loose in the box to nod in a quick equaliser. Gorkiss didn’t celebrate in respect to his old club and this was appreciated by the home fans, who clearly still regard him with affection.
Disappointingly considering the bright opening, the game then sailed into the doldrums, with the infuriatingly indifferent play of Djibril Cisse emerging as the main talking point. Mark Hughes had set up his side so Cisse was the lone frontman and his isolation wasn’t helped by his own lackadaisical attitude to finding space in the penalty area. Most of the evening’s anguished shouts from the home fans were aimed at his flamboyant head.
Half time was a chance to get the circulation flowing again and also saw some unique on-pitch entertainment. Three ‘lucky’ fans took part in a challenge which required them to sprint to the centre circle, place their forehead on the top of a pole, spin round it ten times, run back without falling over from the dizziness and then score from the edge of the box. It was hilarious, Total Wipeout-style action that had the crowd in hysterics.
The game sprung to life after the break and Cisse achieved magnificent redemption. It looked as though the clearest sight of goal had been closed down through his own unwillingness to pass, but Cisse spun and blasted a screamer into the top corner from 20 yards. It perfectly summed him up - 90 per cent apathy, ten per cent genius.
At this point, QPR looked good for a place in the fourth round and I said to the chap next to me - ‘Let’s hope they hang on to the lead this time.’ Precisely a minute later, Nicky Shorey curled a lovely free-kick in off the underside of the bar and we were back to square one. The bloke sighed loudly.
Hughes introduced Bobby Zamora as a signal of intent but it was Reading who seized the game. Jay Tabb muscled his way into the box on the left-hand side, squared for Noel Hunt to move the ball across goal and Pavel Pogrebnyak backheeled the winner. A Russian flag was raised in the away end.
QPR had nothing left and slipped meekly to defeat, though Reading tried to help them when Pogrebnyak saw his late penalty saved by Julio Cesar.
As the home fans melted into the increasingly chilly London air, all the talk was about how pivotal Monday night’s match with West Ham (or the ‘Battle of the Central Line’ as it’ll probably be called) is now. Both for Hughes and for their whole season.
Next Match: Tasty one - Fulham v Manchester City on Saturday at Craven Cottage (third visit)