Point for Redknapp but jeers for O'Neill as Sunderland and QPR draw blank
Sunderland 0 Queen's Park Rangers 0: “Keep them in there!” There were hand gestures to point to the corner of the pitch. “In there!” barked Harry Redknapp, pointing near the Sunderland goal.
The fourth minute of injury-time had just started. Redknapp was back as a football manager.
He had walked down the tunnel with Martin O'Neill before the game started, hands tucked in his pockets and almost slipped unnoticed into the dugout, beside the Queen's Park Rangers back-room staff; his new home, his fifth with a Premier League club. It is surely his last.
He looked distanced then. But it was a front. One that slipped as his new team showed they might give him a final hurrah, that he might be able to lift a club marooned at the foot of the table to a miraculous escape. Might. There is still heaps to do. We are heading into December and QPR have still to win a game in the Premier League.
They actually lost ground, in the relegation fight they have spent the entire season embroiled in. Aston Villa, who they face on Saturday at Loftus Road, won late last night. The gap to safety stretched a bit more, to eight points, but it felt less.
It felt like they had won. The late cries from the Sunderland support was for their side to attack. That is always good for the opposition manager to hear, a further sign that they took a moral victory back south with them. Djibril Cissé was the game's most dangerous player. Stéphane Mbia was the most powerful. The jeers were for the home side, when referee Andre Mariner finally blew his whistle.
The 375 travelling supporters from London, tucked away high in the North Stands, up in the gods, were singing loudly, believing their owners may have done something right, just in time. Redknapp took the hands that had spent most of last night tucked away in his pockets and raised them towards his new fans. He later urged them to turn Loftus Road into Fratton Park. They will need to. He promised to tell his new charges how great they are. It is an old tactic, but it has worked for him in the past. Before he left the field after picking up his point, there was a hand shake and a quick chat with Danny Rose, Sunderland's on-loan full-back from Tottenham who was his player at White Hart Lane. Players like Redknapp. His new players looked like they liked playing for him last night.
They were compact and strong. He had three central midfielders and it was from there that QPR took their control.
From the first meaningful challenge, in the third minute, the Sunderland captain, Lee Cattermole, damaged his knee. It was not even the knee he has been nursing in recent weeks. They are bad breaks. Big breaks.
The significance of last night to both managers could not be underestimated. For O'Neill these are unexpectedly troubled times. On Saturday night, a stray tweet about an unconfirmed resignation had set about a series of emphatic denials.
The narrative hidden inside the fight to justify the airing of such speculation was the level of surprise if it was true. O'Neill resigning last season would have been unthinkable. Following defeat to West Bromwich Albion at the weekend, that notion was not quite so difficult to swallow. It was, eventually rubbished but the run now for Sunderland is four wins from their last 27 Premier League games. Ellis Short spoke to his manager about stability on Saturday night when he too learned of the story. He will need to show it.
There was life from Sunderland early on, but there is a struggle to truly believe what they do will work. As the game wore on, it stopped working. Adam Johnson's return to the North-east has not yet gone as planned. In the 42nd minute his link up with Steven Fletcher for once had its desired effect, the through ball was clever and found its target and the £12m Scotland international drew a smart save from Julio Cesar.
The goalkeeper was replaced by Robert Green in the second half because of a groin injury. Green was similarly called on once to do well and in the 65th minute, when a Sebastian Larsson corner found the head of Fletcher, he produced a fine, instinctive save to his left. The reaction from O'Neill was telling, jumping too early in his technical area. Like his forwards, he is living off scraps. The grumbles from the stands grew as the game wore on. Sunderland are running out of ideas.
There were more opportunities for the visitors, especially for Cissé. In the fourth minute his far-post header was tame. In the 12th minute he drew a save from Simon Mignolet with a curling shot and seven minutes later he went for power from 25 yards, with an angled, rising drive. Mignolet did excellently to deny Jamie Mackie and Phil Bardsley blocked the shot that came on the rebound from Adel Taarabt.
Redknapp, more animated as the game wore on, was able to turn to the former England international Shaun Wright-Phillips and the former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung in the closing stages. It was a reminder that his new club have not been shy in the transfer market over the past two summers.
Wright-Phillips then had the chance to mark his, and Harry's return, in style, with just two minutes of normal time. Cutting in on the angle, from the right, his shot was driven, but Mignolet stood tall, to secure a point for his side.
A long season awaits both clubs. QPR, however, have more of a spring in their step as they prepare for the challenge.
Man of match Mbia.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands).