The hope drained out of QPR, spilling away through the cut inflicted by Shaun Maloney 36 seconds into the fourth and final minute of added time at Loftus Road. QPR were hanging on to the type of victory that can transform a struggling team’s season.
Down to 10 men for three-quarters of the game after Bobby Zamora was sent off they had snatched the lead with a brilliant 85th-minute goal by Loïc Rémy and seemed destined to move within five points of safety.
Then Stephane Mbia blundered into Maloney on the edge of the box. The Scot fell to the ground, but got up to curl a free-kick under Julio Cesar’s bar. As 340 visiting fans danced in the away end Loftus Road was hushed with horror.
On Twitter Adel Taarabt was blamed for turning his head aside to avoid being hit, à la Samir Nasri, who happens to be a friend of his. “You have to take one for the team” tweeted Phil Neville. Exiled QPR loanee Joey Barton, who was frequently at odds with Taarabt when the pair played together for QPR, was similarly critical tweeting from France. Harry Redknapp, though, refused to blame the Moroccan, who did more than anyone to lift QPR into the top flight but has disappointed since. “He didn’t duck, he jumped,” Redknapp said.
With fixtures against Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool to come relegation seems inevitable for QPR. Even the ebullient Redknapp, looking understandably drained, admitted it would be “very tough” to survive now. The late goal, he said, was as cruel a blow as he had suffered in his management career.
“The players are low, same as I am,” he said. “To get three points with 10 men would have given us a massive lift. We deserved to win. What have they done to deserve to win? They passed the ball in front of us. We had opportunities, we scored a great goal.
“I think he [referee Phil Dowd] was desperate to give a free-kick around the edge of the box but we had a great opportunity to run it away in the corner at the other end. Then we clear one free-kick and you think, ‘game over’, but we commit another foul.”
Redknapp had no complaints about the dismissal. QPR regularly incurred red cards under Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes but this was the first under Redknapp. As Jordi Gomez stooped to return a throw-in to Maloney, Zamora caught the side of his head with a raised boot. Initially Dowd waved play on but once he had stopped play, and Gomez had had lengthy treatment, Dowd took advice and then sent a nonplussed Zamora off. There was no malice in the challenge, but it was foolish and dangerous.
Martinez said Zamora’s exit disadvantaged his team as they were unable to cope with the pressure of expectation it created. “The players were pedestrian, they did not enjoy the game,” he said.
Nor, for a long time, would have any viewers. Until the late drama neither the Premier League’s most notable overachievers and underachievers achieved anything of note. Following Zamora’s dismissal QPR withdrew to the edge of the box and allowed Wigan possession. They had 67 per cent of it, but most of the time did not do much more than pass square.
There was a lack of width and urgency, as if they felt a point was enough, though the draw would leave them still in the bottom three.
Julio Cesar had to turn aside a deflected 42nd-minute shot from James McCarthy but was otherwise untroubled until Wigan finally got to the byline and Gomez delivered a cross the unmarked James McArthur headed straight at Cesar from point-blank range.
The miss looked costly when, five minutes later, a poorly executed Wigan free-kick led to a storming break by Mbia who ran 60 yards then released Rémy. The Frenchman, who had struck the post in a bright opening by QPR, whipped a stunning strike inside the far post.
Wigan, belatedly, were injected with a sense of urgency and pressed forward. As the seconds ticked away QPR held on. Then Maloney lined up the fateful free-kick.
“You don’t always get what you deserve in football,” lamented Redknapp, “that’s life.”
Bookings: QPR Remy, Samba. Wigan McCarthy, Alcaraz, Figueroa.
Sent off: Zamora (21).
Man of the match Townsend.
Match rating 5/10.
Possession: QPR 32%. Wigan 68%.
Attempts on target: QPR 1. Wigan 7.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Attendance 16, 658.
Great escape route: Key fixtures
14: Newcastle v Sunderland
A first win for Paolo Di Canio at their bitter rivals could be a timely boost for Sunderland’s survival attempt.
20: QPR v Stoke
27: Stoke v Norwich
Stoke have two relegation battles in a row, and could be out of trouble while dropping others in the mire.
28: Reading v QPR
29: Aston Villa v Sunderland
Villa will see this as winnable despite performing better away from home.
4: Norwich v Aston Villa
4: Sunderland v Stoke
The battle between the two sides who have slowly been roped into relegation contention.
12: Sunderland v Southampton
19: Southampton v Stoke
19: Wigan v Aston Villa
Neck and neck for the past month, both clubs will hope to avoid a last day decider.