As the sun sets on one of the most unusual seasons in footballing history, it could be said that QPR’s predicament hinged on the events of the 9th January 2021. Some might say that is overly dramatic, yet the return of the messiah changed everything.
The moment Charlie Austin walked back through the door on that very day it seemed that hope returned to Rangers. Maybe a flagging dispiriting season could be rescued after all.
Three days later he stooped to head in the opener at Kenilworth Road as Rangers beat Luton and those initial feelings of excitement and euphoria at his return started to become reality.
It is often said never go back as it will never be quite the same for time has moved on. However, when there is such a bond and an affinity to one club, such as that which Charlie Austin had built up during his previous time at QPR, then why not return, especially when your true love needs you most. That’s clearly what Charlie thought when the approach came.
It seemed as though his return galvanised and inspired everyone. It was not as though QPR had been awful and were definitely heading down to League One, but there was something missing and relegation could not be discounted. There had been some good wins and some of the new young players were beginning to fulfill some of their undoubted potential, but it was all in fits and starts and by the turn of the year there were worrying signs. No wins since late November told its own story.
There had been some grumbles and discontentment, highlighted by the protracted and unsatisfactory departures of both Ryan Manning and Bright Osayi-Samuel. For the sake of harmony and unity both were allowed to leave and in hindsight quite rightly but at the time, from the outside, it seemed a little foolhardy when both were important members of the team.
Austin’s timely return seemed to change everything. In contrast to the above duo, his passion, desire, love and enthusiasm for the club was infectious and it clearly rubbed off on his new teammates.
Doubters were doused and confidence returned. Indeed for some this injection of positivity began to curse through their veins, none more so than Lyndon Dykes. From being a misfiring misfit he was rejuvenated and by the end of the season he was scoring and assisting for fun, Austin his number one fan and revelling in his success. Austin proving to be the ultimate team man, Dykes justifying his tag as Scotland’s number nine.
The young and old became similarly inspired. Ilias Chair continued his natural progression, fully meriting his name on the back of the famous Rangers number ten shirt most recently vacated by superstar Ebere Eze, and Chris Willock, an absolute “‘baller” displaying unbelievable talent. What a find. With his brother tearing up the Premier League for Newcastle, they are some footballing family.
Seny Dieng proved the value of the loan system when returning to Rangers after a few years plying his trade in the lower leagues. When finally given his chance as Rangers number one, he proved himself to be more than up for the job and was quite brilliant on occasions. Indeed to many he is the best goalkeeper the club has had since the days of Phil Parkes and Peter Hucker, in such high regard he is held. Ditto Rob Dickie, signed for Rangers from Oxford United following a massive Mackie recommendation and he has excelled. Both are clearly destined for higher places.
The old boys, once derided and questioned, found their feet too and the gaffer Mark Warburton showed that he was right after all. He would have been mightily pleased with Lee Wallace, who came of age and showed why he was so well regarded at the other Rangers, north of the border. And then there’s Albert, oh Albert. A local boy eventually getting the chance to play for his childhood club when in his thirties. Whilst his appearances were limited, his control and exquisite finish to score the winner at Watford was a thing of beauty and his tap in, in front of an empty net, in front of an empty Loft in the final minutes of the final match summed up the season.
A moment that would made grown men cry was played out without an audience other than those dedicated followers on their laptops. So surreal. Just imagine what it would have been like had supporters been allowed in, the roof would have lifted off the Loft. Indeed, the old stadium would have shook with unbridled joy on several occasions throughout the season, none more so than when Dominic Ball’s unbelievable thirty yards left footed strike in the dying moments flew into the top corner to beat Cardiff 3-2. This was then arguably equalled by Sam Field’s smart late low finish, also in lieu of the Loft, to beat Brentford. Bragging rights for a bit. Oh for a crowd.
Field proved a smart loanee, now permanent, yet an even smarter midfield loan signing in the context of the season was Stefan Johansen. Cultured, clever and committed and although occasionally clumsy, he was a calming and creative presence in the middle of the park. He made such a difference.
The season ended on a comparative high, for a finishing position of ninth, eighth equal to some, was beyond all Rangers fans wildest beliefs back on the 8th January. Credit must also be given to the patience given by the men at the top with Amit Bhatia, Lee Hoos and Les Ferdinand all displaying admirable shows of public support for both the project and the manager. Similarly they must all be lauded for the magnificent support and platform that the club has given to the Kiyan Prince Foundation, proving that the club has the community at its heart.
The gaffer, Mark ‘Warbs’ Warburton, seems to divide opinion but that is no doubt the case for every manager at every club up and down the land. The keyboard warriors would have had him gone by Christmas but he proved that with the right tools at his disposal he could work very effectively. Not only inspired by his four winter loanees, his tactical change to three centre backs and two wing backs was a game changer. This new formation gave the team a far more solid look and enabled the players to play. A notable mention here must be given to French defender Yoann Barbet, who became the only outfield player in the Championship to play every minute of every game, which is quite an achievement. Furthermore, he seemed to get better as the season went on.
By the end of the season, with a settled and suitable set up, and with several unexpected victories under their belts both at home and on the road against the likes of the now promoted Watford and Brentford and highflying Swansea and Bournemouth, Warbs’ men proved that they could be a match for anyone.
There was no fear. The men in hoops were playing some glorious stuff and thanks to the events of the 9th of January, there was a silver lining after all. London is now calling the Rangers fans back and after this years excellent progress, the fans will want to be there too.