The day before Queens Park Rangers resumed rivalries with their West London neighbors Chelsea in the English Premier League, QPR manager Mark Hughes got a taste of what to expect during Friday’s pre-game press conference. In the same week when British football had to deal with the distressing report on the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, instead of some reflection on one of the worst events in British sporting history, Hughes “saw the list of questions I was likely to be asked. There were nine on the handshake and one on Hillsborough,” he said. “Ridiculous.”
Ridiculous is right. But this is the world in which we live, so it was inevitable that the controversial game between the two teams last October, where Chelsea captain John Terry would eventually be cleared by a magistrates’ court over racist comments he allegedly made to QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, dominated the entire build up. Terry still faces a Football Association racial abuse charge on September 24–charges he denies.
Whether the two men at the center of the controversy would shake hands before the game was the reason for the heightened anticipation. Hughes, a no-nonsense player for the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in the 1980s and ’90s, is similarly direct as a coach. The idea of shaking hands before kick off is, in his opinion, “fundamentally flawed” though Hughes is on board with the Respect campaign, which has done much to combat the bad blood seen in the sport by promoting a fair, safe and enjoyable environment for the game to take place in across all levels. “We fully support it,” he made clear. “It’s done fantastic work.”
As predicted, Ferdinand rejected Terry’s offer (as did QPR captain Ji-Sung Park) and Ferdinand, the younger brother of Park’s former Manchester United teammate Rio Ferdinand, also avoided Terry’s teammate Ashley Cole, presumably because the defender served as a defence witness during the trial. Sideshow over and done with, would a football match actually break out?
QPR has always regarded Chelsea as their biggest rivals, but the feeling has never been mutual, with the Blues reserving their contempt for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and West Ham (even the other main West London team, Fulham, rarely gets a look in). Walking to the stadium along South Africa Road, QPR fans at a nearby pub chanted “we hate Chelsea” with gusto, but the only audible response came once the game began as the opposition registered their support for Terry and Cole. Soon enough, Ferdinand, who has conducted himself immpecably during this entire experience, heard “there’s only one lying bastard” sung at him. The home fans evened the score by telling Cole, “you’re John Terry’s bitch.”
It’s 1-1 off the field then but goalless on the pitch at halftime. Rangers, despite a whole host of new summer signings, don’t play like Queens Park Strangers. Instead, they pass the ball around with ease. Yet they lack a cutting edge and are lucky not to concede at least one of the decent penalty claims made by Chelsea. Firstly, referee Andre Marriner gives defender Ryan Nelsen — who was otherwise magnificent — the benefit of the doubt despite it looking as if he grappled Terry — oh, the irony! – to the ground. Marriner also dismissed an even more blatant foul by former Chelsea player Shaun Wright-Phillips on Belgian superstar Eden Hazard.
In the second half, Rangers regrouped and their performance suggested that a much needed first win of the new season might not be too far off. Indeed, they probably had the best two chances of the period, with Park somehow not finding the net with a free header from eight yards and Bobby Zamora unable to capitalize on a defensive slip. But European champions Chelsea will also look to late opportunities from Victor Moses — who looked lively after making his debut as a second half sub — and Hazard, who blazed over from Moses’s cross, which parted the Rangers defence. The biggest cheer of the afternoon came when Terry pulled up, awkwardly holding his ankle. “Let him die,” chanted QPR fans (it’s hard to maintain that football was the winner on Saturday, with one unpleasant crowd comment after another).
While the 0-0 tie didn’t demand a ton of post-match analysis, there was a weary inevitability about the two managers being asked about the handshakes that never took place. “The players had discussions,” Hughes says. “I was aware that some players were going to shake hands and some would not – it was a personal decision on [Ji-Sung] Park’s part not to do so also.” His counterpart, Roberto Di Matteo, noted: “Everybody focused on the football and of course there would be high emotion but both sets of players played very professionally. As far as we are concerned, our players offered it and if the other player doesn’t want to receive it, so we move on.”
In other words, it was a day in which everyone made their point.