BOTH sets of supporters left Fratton Park dumb-struck as Queens Park Rangers and Portsmouth played out a thrilling draw, as referee Gavin Ward took centre stage.
It’s rather sad that in such a pulsating encounter both sides would leave the ground discussing the referee, but unfortunately blue-eyed boy Mr Ward appears to be Stuart Atwell in the making.
Propelled through the league without so much dishing a card, the official needlessly stopped play persistently while making a string of baffling decisions, including the key incidents.
Dave Kitson will not have received the benefit of the doubt from Rangers supporters after going to ground with the slightest of touches, and owing to the position of the incident Matt Connolly saw red.
Paddy Kenny once again saved the spot-kick before Ward called the incident back for a re-take, and while he believes his justification for the decision, it brought to a head a string of appalling decisions.
When Lawrence slammed home the second-taken kick and Rangers were denied two penalty appeals for handball, it appeared this would be the game that got away.
The visitors aren’t top for nothing however and their desire to search for the equaliser despite the numerical inferiority was rewarded as ex-Pompey man Tommy Smith saw his centre handled.
Another very generous decision, but once again the culmination of some ponderous officiating, with Lawrence sent off for his protests – Smith cared little as he put home the spot kick and sent QPR home unbeaten.
There was one enforced change for Neil Warnock with Bradley Orr serving the first of a three game suspension and Clint Hill re-gaining his place in the starting line-up following an injury.
Paddy Kenny therefore lined up behind a changed back four of Kyle Walker, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Connolly and Hill – Alejandro Faurlín and Shaun Derry protecting the defence from midfield.
Jamie Mackie, Adel Taarabt and former Portsmouth forward Tommy Smith started behind the lone front-man Rob Hulse, who continues in the absence of Heidar Helguson.
Portsmouth meanwhile started with Jamie Ashdown behind a defence consisting of Greg Halford, Aaron Mokoena, Ibrahima Sonko and Carl Dickinson.
The midfield featured Liam Lawrence, Michael Brown, Hayden Mullins and John Utaka, while Nwankwo Kanu partnered Dave Kitson in attack – a star studded squad that had been underachieving.
Halford – Mokoena – Sonko – Dickinson
Lawrence – Mullins – Brown – Utaka
Kanu – Kitson
Walker – Connolly – Gorkss – Hill
Faurlín – Derry
Mackie – Taarabt (c) – Smith
Kick Off: Portsmouth v Queens Park Rangers
Much of the pre-match speculation surrounded the possible postponement of the clash despite the pitch being perfectly playable. Health and safety issues around the ground were being cited among the concerns as torrential downpours swept across the region earlier that day.
As it happens the pitch was in pristine condition, the fans were in place and preparing themselves for a game that had all the hallmarks for a cracker. The Portsmouth line-up made their plight even more ponderous as clearly they represented the best starting line-up thus far this season.
The fixture got underway and it was evident as to the hosts’ intentions as they pinned the Championship leaders back with a display of attacking flair. This was spearheaded by Nigerian international duo John Utaka and Nwankwo Kanu, two names to strike fear in Championship defences.
Utaka in particular was proving more than a handful as he continually belied his Championship billing, soaring past Kyle Walker without so much as breaking a sweat before Paddy Kenny thwarted the striker at his near post.
An early warning for Queens Park Rangers who despite their lofty billing were made to look second best by the big-earning hosts. Liam Lawrence – the player who Neil Warnock stated was too expensive for QPR – was also doing his best to get some joy out of the returning Clint Hill.
Rangers to their credit continued to battle hard, and displayed a glimpse of their potential as the ball sat up perfectly for Shaun Derry. Another ex-Portsmouth player, Derry wrapped his left-foot around the effort, but the swerve was kind to ‘keeper Ashdown who held adequately.
Without question Rangers’ key man was Argentinean midfielder Alejandro Faurlín who sprayed the passes about with effortless expertise. Indeed Smith was the beneficiary of several accurate passes as he continues to add to his growing reputation.
Portsmouth were on top with QPR predominantly content to play on the break and Utaka was causing Walker all manner of bother. He wasn’t proving to be an orthodox winger as he would cut inside to search for that incisive pass or short.
Where a Pompey move broke down, there was an expert counter to accompany, and Faurlín dug out an effort following a Taarabt centre. The midfielder seemed to get the ball stuck under his feet before slashing an effort over Ashdown’s cross bar.
More sparring continued moments later as Utaka cut inside and unleashed a thunderbolt back off the cross bar. Rangers looked to capitalise on the loose ball surging forward before having an effort blocked by what appeared to be an arm – the referee waved away the protests.
The official was certainly no stranger to QPR having overseen a frankly farcical defeat against Reading last season – Damion Stewart on that occasion was sent off for two bookable offences that were scarcely fouls before dishing out a penalty late on for the Royals – here again he raised Rangers ire.
Another strange decision saw Shaun Derry punished for a foul despite being in possession of the ball and being under pressure from behind – an instance that would pave the way for a breathtaking display of bizarre, head-scratching decisions.
QPR were struggling to offer genuine opportunities of note with Taarabt’s waning throughout the first period, but the flicker of ambition was still alive as Mackie foraged away down the right looking to get the better of full-back Carl Dickinson.
The referee brought the half to a close as the two sides and sets of supporters knew there was more to come from both sides in the second period. Two of the Championship’s big hitters were deadlocked and it would take a spark to separate the pairing.
Half Time: Portsmouth 0-0 Queens Park Rangers
If the first half served to whet the appetite, the second period would hopefully fulfil the expectation from a sizeable Fratton Park crowd. Indeed QPR were quick out of the blocks as one would come to expect from Neil Warnock and his line-up.
Walker was seemingly discontent to sit back and wait for the next Utaka onslaught, as the Tottenham Hotspur loanee ploughed forward to send in a right-footed cross. Kaspars Gorkss had stayed forward and bettered Rob Hulse and his marker to the ball, forcing Ashdown into a comfortable stop.
Still Rangers pressed in a positive opening to the half as Smith used his space down the left-flank. Cutting inside he delivered a delightfully chipped cross towards the head of Hulse but the striker fluffed his lines once more as Ashdown was able to smother away.
To his credit, Hulse was winning a great deal of the aerial battle against a sizeable rearguard but where it mattered most the former Derby front-man has been found wanting, notably against Reading – nevertheless his effort was never relenting in a good opening.
The two sides continued to trade blows with Michael Brown and Hayden Mullins the tough tackling duo on Taarabt. It allowed the lively Mackie to be free however as he gave Dickinson a torrid time with his brand of no-surrender chasing.
Utaka was the key player for Pompey, looking dangerous every time he received the ball at his feet, only his end product was lacking as the shooting dried up and the service to Kanu and Kitson cut off by Gorkss and Connolly.
Then just over halfway into the second period came the game’s major talking point to date as Kitson was left to roam free into the area. Connolly placed his hand on the forward – rather foolishly given his prior reputation against Rangers – and the striker ostensibly went down and appealed to the official.
Ward gave the spot-kick and evidently as a result gave Connolly his marching orders, the latter one of the easier decisions he would have to make given the placement of the perceived spot-kick. Liam Lawrence stepped up to his mark against Paddy Kenny.
The ‘keeper, whose heroics have delighted QPR supporters in recent weeks, saved the effort low to his left only for Mr Ward to call the penalty back for either movement or encroachment, neither is truly clear-cut as Portsmouth were given another opportunity.
This time Liam Lawrence would make no mistake, and despite Kenny doing like for like on the second kick Lawrence slammed the ball down the middle and the official inevitably gave the goal. In a game where the first would matter – QPR now had that sinking feeling.
GOAL: Portsmouth 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
The writing appeared to be on the wall and despite a string of justifiable hand ball shouts, particularly in light of the official’s decisions to date, were turned down. Notably when Derry nodded back across goal, only to be punished himself for what appeared to be a mystery to both sets of support.
Gary Borrowdale was brought on for Adel Taarabt in a re-shuffle that saw Clint Hill drop to the centre of defence. Patrick Agyemang also replaced Rob Hulse to freshen up the attack and his lively attitude certainly prompted a new-found hope in the travelling support.
Neil Warnock – sensing the nerves of the hosts as well as the pressing of the visiting side – threw on Leon Clarke at the expense of the cautioned Derry. Despite a wealth of attacking endeavour it appeared that QPR were about to leave empty-handed for the first time this campaign.
Utaka’s work was done as Nadir Ciftci took to the field – the exciting Nigerian had done all the tormenting he would do on the day. Then after a concentrated few minutes of pressure something truly remarkable occurred.
Smith foraged once more in search for an equaliser against what was his parent club, his cross appeared to be handled by Lawrence and despite being exceedingly harsh, and certainly not the better of QPR’s penalty appeals, the linesman indicated a penalty.
Furious protestations ensued from the Portsmouth players with Lawrence showing the linesman the underside of his arm-pit. Such was the ferocity of his anger Mr Ward dished out a second yellow – his first also for dissent – and Lawrence was dismissed.
The four minutes of added on time were signalled as the crowd held it’s breath. It had to be Tommy Smith against what is technically his club to step up to the fore, slam home into the bottom left hand corner and send the sizeable travelling army into raptures.
GOAL: Portsmouth 1-1 Queens Park Rangers
You could understand the muted celebrations of some – surely there would be something to deny Rangers this ‘get of jail free card,’ but this was not to be. QPR celebrated another jailbreak and in fact ploughed on for the winner.
Agyemang and Mackie looked reinvigorated and surely the Portsmouth supporters would have been thinking the worst as they had previously failed to make their numerical advantage truly pay. Suddenly it was QPR on the front foot as the two sides hit parity.
The referee – remaining the centre of attention as I’m sure was his original remit – blew his final whistle and brought down the curtain on a confusing evening’s football. QPR escaped with a point and their unbeaten record intact while Portsmouth will evidently feel victimised.
In fairness to both sides joy and despair were portioned out in equal measure by an official that wouldn’t let creative flow win the day – at various stages one man’s victim was another’s beneficiary, but the inconsistency will sadly be the talking point as the sides share the spoils.
Full Time: Portsmouth 1-1 Queens Park Rangers
Jamie Ashdown, Greg Halford (Joel Ward 26), Aaron Mokoena, Ibrahima Sonko, Carl Dickinson, Liam Lawrence (Sent Off 90), Hayden Mullins, Michael Brown, John Utaka (Nadir Ciftci 86), Nwankwo Kanu (Hermann Hreidarsson 90) Dave Kitson
Queens Park Rangers
Paddy Kenny, Kyle Walker, Matt Connolly (Sent Off 67), Kaspars Gorkss, Clint Hill, Alejandro Faurlín, Shaun Derry (Leon Clarke 80), Jamie Mackie, Adel Taarabt (Gary Borrowdale 72), Tommy Smith, Rob Hulse (Patrick Agyemang 72)