Sitting pretty in 13th-place of the Championship table, six points off the top-six and on the back of a six game unbeaten run, Mark Warburton has placed Queens Park Rangers in the play-off mix – and the source of the inspiration dates back to a brisk February night in South Wales.
QPR were tipped for relegation this season. Warburton arrived knowing that he’d have very little to work with and yet, a year-to-the-month after the ex-Brentford boss was appointed, we’re looking at QPR as dark horses for a top-six finish. But go back three months, and it seemed as though Warburton would prove the pundits right.
Three consecutive Championship defeats was capped by a lifeless 2-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town in early February and after that loss, QPR sat nine points above the drop zone with 15 games of the season remaining. That number wouldn’t have been so daunting if the bottom clubs were all picking up unprecedented results at the time, and it made a lot of QPR fans fearful of League One football next season.
But the following game, Warburton, after chopping and changing his side throughout, finally seemed to land on that perfect balance of youth and experience that he’d been searching for all season. QPR headed to South Wales to face a Swansea City side who’d been equally as inconsistent in results, but they would’ve been expecting something routine.
Instead, QPR gave a polarising display to their previous at Huddersfield, and returned to the capital with a very credible point after a 0-0 draw. As underwhelming as a goalless draw on a cold Welsh night sounds, that game was very much the turning point in QPR’s season, and the fixture that finally defined Warburton’s QPR.
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Yoann Barbet came back into the side that night after nearly three months sidelined. He as many QPR fans will tell you, has been a revelation since his return. That ‘left-sided balance’ that Warburton had kept drilling into interviews turned out to be a defining factor, but the Frenchman wasn’t the only unlikely hero to emerge that night.
Angel Rangel came back into the side against his former club and even at 37-years-old, he’s proving to be one of the best right-backs in the league. The pace has obviously declined somewhat but it’s not needed when he’s as experienced as he is – he’s one of the hardest players to beat.
Also stepping in was Marc Pugh, and Geoff Cameron. Pugh had been making an impact of the bench prior, but hadn’t really had a sniff at the first-team all season. He slotted in on the left-side of midfield allowing Ebere Eze to come into the middle, and Pugh has since started every game.
Meanwhile, Cameron came back into the side to face Swansea after a two match suspension. Both he and Pugh have been berated by fans at times this season but their experience – Pugh winning promotion from the Championship with Bournemouth and Cameron having played in a World Cup – compliments the juvenile likes of Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel, and Ilias Chair, who lost his starting spot to Pugh, but has scored twice from the bench since.
The draw at Swansea marked the start of a six game unbeaten run for QPR. It was capped back in March when Warburton’s side put on perhaps their best second-half display of the season to seal a 3-1 comeback win at Preston, all with one less player on the pitch. But that night in Swansea has proved the turning point for QPR. As bland as that result might look on the history books, those who witnessed it will remember it as the night that Warburton cracked the code, and finally introduced his true Queens Park Rangers to the world.