Wanderers still hunt for first league win
IT was meant to be a day of celebration at the Reebok, a day to remember the great Nat Lofthouse on the date a statue to the Wanderers legend was unveiled outside the stadium prior to kick off.
But the clash between two former Premier League sides was a tale of two modern-day front men and it was QPR’s hitman who fired the lethal blow to seal a rare Rangers victory on Bolton soil.
While new Whites forward Jermaine Beckford could not find a way to break his duck for the club in his third start, Andy Johnson returned to Harry Redknapp’s starting line-up to leave his old Crystal Palace strike partner Dougie Freedman feeling blue.
Just like many of his ilk, Johnson needed just one chance to find the winner and his 54th-minute tap-in was enough to give the west Londoners only their third win in 14 visits to Bolton in what was hardly a classic.
In contrast, while they were far from second best, Wanderers could not find that clinical touch in front of goal – how they could have done with someone like big Nat out there on the pitch on Saturday.
It must be doubly frustrating for a man like Freedman who never had a problem finding the net to see his side struggling in the final third, particularly because so much of everything else they do is good.
Defensively, they were sound and Adam Bogdan had very little to trouble him, the backline in front of the keeper protected by the outstanding Tim Ream playing at the base of a midfield diamond to shield them from the potent threats Rangers possess.
At the other end of that diamond, chosen by Freedman in the absence of the suspended Darren Pratley, Chung-Yong Lee was equally effervescent and behind much of the Whites’ good play in a first half that promised much for the hosts.
With David Ngog, risked despite a lack of training due to the illness that kept him out at Nottingham Forest, also lively the signs that the 3-0 defeat of a week earlier was behind the team were there.
Chung-Yong’s trickery earned the team an early free-kick that Jay Spearing saw deflected over and the nervousness in the visiting defence, despite its wealth of experience was evident.
Time after time, they gifted Wanderers possession and Richard Dunne was forced into a rash challenge on Beckford on halfway to halt his progress on the break.
Beckford did get chances, though, pulling a low left-footer wide on 12 minutes and then racing past Dunne to drag a shot wide of the far post minutes later when finding himself one-on-one in front of goal.
At the other end, Rangers were being kept in check and Charlie Austin had little chance to prove his £4million price tag. In fact, it was fellow new arrival Gary O’Neil who looked most likely but his deflected effort was comfortable for Bogdan.
The chances were weighted in Wanderers’ favour and Rangers needed former England stopper Rob Green to be at his best.
First, the much-maligned keeper smartly tipped over a Spearing free-kick from wide and then pulled out an even finer save, flying to his right to push another Medo piledriver onto the woodwork. Surely the Sierra Leone international will see one of those go in soon after a similar outcome against Reading.
Green kept it goalless at the break and there were few dissenting voices in the stands – in stark contrast to the display at Forest.
There was more frustration in the green away shirts from Shepherd’s Bush – booking followed booking and Johnson even aimed a sly elbow into Ream’s ribs when he became the latest target of his effective harrying.
But good players need just one sighter to pounce and as one former Everton frontman in Beckford was becoming more subdued, another grabbed the limelight and what a move it was in the build-up.
Profiting down the flanks and making the most of the gaps left by the narrow diamond in Wanderers’ midfield, QPR finally made it pay.
It started with an O’Neil free-kick in midfield and nine passes later, ending with a neat one-two between Clint Hill and Austin before a low cross to Johnson, Bogdan was beaten.
It was a blow to Freedman’s plans and he reacted quickly with three substitutions inside nine minutes – the latter of which, Rob Hall, would go close to stealing Ream’s star-man crown.
Just like in pre-season, Hall was a bundle of creative energy – something the Whites had notably lacked at times despite their good approach play.
He was incisive and delivered several teasing balls into the box, the last of which found fellow substitute Craig Davies who did everything right but saw his low drive palmed away by Green.
In a game of few chances, it was moments like that which would ultimately prove costly.
It was not all about the Whites profligacy; Redknapp’s side deserve credit for some stout defending which was robust enough on more than one occasion to earn a raft of cautions from Long Eaton referee James Adcock.
But the fact his frontline is currently misfiring, like it was for much of last season, must be a concern to Freedman.
There is no denying his playing philosophy is getting engrained in the Wanderers psyche and as he admits, in sections of the games so far this season, they have been in full flow – the first-half on Saturday was the evidence again.
But there needs to be an end product more often – and from the target men and not solely from midfield reinforcements.
They need to grasp the nettle and continue to up the conversion rate that has risen since Freedman took charge last October.
That’s what Nat did – that’s why his name is revered in these parts.
Unfortunately, Lofthouses are few and far between but if the same spirit can somehow find its way into the undisputed quality of Freedman’s forward line, all their good work may start to pay dividends in terms of victories.
That, like the new statue, would be a fitting tribute to the great man’s memory.