The 2012/13 season started with so much promise for QPR and Reading. It ended with a 0-0 draw that sent them both down…
On April 28, 2013, a little before 3.30pm, referee Kevin Friend blew his whistle to bring to a close what is almost certainly the saddest match in Premier League history.
The match was a 0-0 draw between Reading and QPR, a stalemate that relegated both teams from the Premier League. It was a match that should have been packed with intrigue, drama, tension and urgency. A match in which theoretically two clubs should have been fighting for their lives, two sets of players going at it until it was actually impossible for them to survive. Even if the game wasn’t going to be good, it should at least have been interesting.
But what actually happened was two teams barely going out with a whimper, never mind a bang, half-heartedly shuffling into the Championship at the end of a season that should have promised so much for both. Reading had won the second tier title under Brian McDermott the previous year, while QPR, after avoiding relegation under Mark Hughes, had embarked on a high-end trolley dash, recruiting a phalanx of expensive stars including three players – Jose Bosingwa, Julio Cesar and Park Ji-sung – who had pretty recently won the Champions League.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for either team. It wasn’t supposed to end with such apathy, the final whistle to be greeted with virtual silence, fans of both sides not even rousing the enthusiasm to boo until a few minutes later. It wasn’t supposed to end with the only discernible emotion on the pitch at the final whistle being cheery indifference, with Bosingwa – who had by this point established himself as the poster boy for what could go wrong when you recruit a bunch of old players on fat contracts – showing the temerity to grin as he shared a joke with compatriot Daniel Carrico as they walked down the tunnel.
Harry Redknapp cracked a gag with opposite number Nigel Adkins too, explaining in his autobiography: ‘As I held out my hand, I tried to lighten the moment for both of us. ‘Don’t worry, Nigel,’ I said, ‘it’ll never replace football.’ I didn’t see any harm in that, or what Bosingwa did. He got away with a lot worse at QPR.’ Not the best look, and you can see how easily it would have infuriated fans who had dropped significant portions of their income into following the teams that season. But the two options having witnessed the grimness of the previous 90 minutes were gallows humour or profound despair.
“It was pretty uneventful, I remember that,” says Jobi McAnuff, who was in the Reading team that day. “It reeked of two teams that kind of knew what their fate was gonna be, which was pretty much sealed before the game anyway. It was strange. As much as mathematically it wasn’t over before the game kicked off, it did feel a little bit like that when we were out on the pitch.”
There’s an unofficial contract in football, a scout’s honour that we expect the players to adhere to, that they will do their best no matter what. It’s the least they can do for being so handsomely remunerated, right? Well, probably, but you try mustering the enthusiasm to perform a task when you know basically nothing you can do will make any difference and any action is essentially pointless.
Still, it was pretty jarring to see a couple of teams, for all intents and purposes, give up in front of your eyes. To give you an idea of how gung-ho Reading were, their final substitution of the game – the last throw of the dice, one more shot at desperately clinging onto life for at least another week or so – saw Ian Harte replace Stephen Kelly at left-back. Even before the game, you could probably see how much attention anyone was actually paying to it from the tweet by Chris Samba, the QPR defender. ‘Morning people hope we get the 3points we need,’ he said on the Saturday morning. The game was on Sunday. Samba was left out, the reasons given varying between ‘knee injury’ and ‘virus.’
Morning people hope we get the 3points we need
— Christopher Samba (@c4samba) April 27, 2013
Of course, this had been coming. ‘We were doomed from a distance out,’ shrugged Redknapp in his autobiography. ‘It was the direst match, a real stinker, and it wasn’t hard to see why both teams were exiting the division.’
Redknapp had, in fairness, been given quite a task, arriving in the November of that season with QPR the proud owners of just four points and one victory, despite those big name arrivals that also included Esteban Granero, Rob Green and Stephane Mbia. Upon his arrival, Redknapp played down the idea that a significant recruitment drive was required. “You can’t just keep loading up the squad with more and more players,” he said, having discussed in the same press conference the prospect of signing David Beckham. “If things don’t go right you are going to end up in big trouble financially. So I think we are really maybe looking at one or two loans in January.”
Redknapp must have been thoroughly unimpressed with what he saw in the following two months though, because by the end of the transfer window they had signed five players on permanent deals for a total of around £25million, including Samba, Loic Remy, Jermaine Jenas and Tal Ben Haim, on top of which they loaned Andros Townsend from Tottenham. It might have been more had Peter Odwemwingie got his way, but alas for him he was left idling around South Africa Road in his car, waiting for a call that never came.
But it was the Samba deal that was the most…eye-catching. Samba arrived from Anzhi Makhachkala, who later in the year would rapidly go from lavishly-funded vanity project to ‘remember them?’ financial calamity. Perhaps that was the reason their director German Tkachenko revealed that he wept when QPR agreed to pay the £12.5million fee for Samba, sagely declaring: “In my view, QPR have lost their minds.” In the Guardian, Daniel Taylor commented that Tony Fernandes, the QPR chairman, ‘increasingly comes across as the gambler desperately trying to cover his losses with a series of wild bets.’
It’s worth noting that Redknapp, when asked about QPR’s spending with the deafening noise of what sounded like their reckoning coming from the Portsmouth area, where Redknapp’s previous club were floundering in League One without the proverbial pot, insisted it was “the chairman and shareholders decision to spend the money”, but that it was his job to ensure they didn’t “have their pants taken down.” History doesn’t record his thoughts on that matter when the final whistle blew at the Madjeski, Fernandes and the shareholders stood with slacks around ankles, bloomers on display. The thing about Redknapp back then wasn’t so much that didn’t take responsibility for his teams failing, it’s that he made sure he had washed his hands of the whole business before they even had the chance to.
Reading were at the other end of the scale. Anton Zingarevich had bought the club in the previous May, in the days when people still associated Russian ownership with instant millions and lavish spending. Instead, they recruited a batch of free transfers and bargain purchases, Adrian Mariappa and Chris Gunter representing the height of their spending.
Manager Brian McDermott, who had done such a sterling job in getting them promoted, was left with not much to work with. “We weren’t really given the ammo we probably needed to stay up,” says McAnuff.
The season started as you might expect, with a real ‘knife to a gunfight’ feel as Reading tackled the Premier League with inadequate resources, not recording a victory until Everton were beaten 2-1 in November. A run of seven defeats in a row straight after that, right in sacking season, might – probably should – have seen a change in manager, but then they lost just one of the seven after that, McDermott won the January manager of the month award and faith was kept.
Yet those wins were arguably the worst thing that could have happened to them, or at least at the worst time. They ensured McDermott stayed in his job at exactly the time a new man could’ve come in and made a difference. Instead, form reverted to its previous pattern shortly afterwards and McDermott was dismissed in March, replaced by Nigel Adkins with eight games remaining. It was a bit like replacing the captain of the Titanic post-iceberg and handing him a bucket.
“I think if it was going to happen, it needed to happen earlier,” says McAnuff. “As much as we were still trying, we knew it would be an uphill task when Nigel came in. There was a lot change, a lot of turnover in that period of time, and I think it just unsettled the club.”
All of which brought the teams to April 28. Adkins signed off his programme notes for the game, a rallying cry which assured the fans they would fight to the last, with ‘carpe diem.’ As it turned out, the diem was well and truly not carped by either team.
At the end, both sets of fans joined in a mass chorus of ‘If you’re all going to Bournemouth clap your hands,’ a now very dated reference to the plucky little south coast club, at that stage a byword for small time, who had just overachieved by getting promoted to the second tier. What QPR and Reading fans wouldn’t give for being able to visit Bournemouth now.
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