Gary Waddock looked every inch the real thing as he courageously refused to duck criticism of his side's performance in their 2-1 home defeat last night, but with Gerry Taggart, Stoke's acting assistant, facing the press on behalf of indisposed manager Johan Boskamp, who faces a club meeting today to resolve a dispute with his suspended official assistant, and Waddock a caretaker for Queens Park Rangers pending resolution of Ian Holloway's gardening leave they were both relying on their permanent stars to decide a lively encounter at Loftus Road.
Waddock fancies a bit of pruning himself after Queens Park Rangers let their half-time lead slip late in the game. "The experienced lads have been excellent for me," he said, "but I will blood the young lads when I feel it's right and maybe I need to freshen it up Saturday." Rangers were certainly breezy early on, catching Stoke cold with a succession of vibrant attacks culminating in striker Marc Nygaard's opener after only seven minutes. Steve Lomas's long throw into the area fell first to Sammy Youssouf whose blocked shot ricocheted for Nygaard to poke under diving goalkeeper Steve Simonsen's body from 8 yards.
The Superhoops' momentum was barely interrupted by the introduction of Stefan Moore for Youssouf, who twisted a knee, and Dave Brammer's agricultural challenge on Luke Moore at a short corner was indicative of Stoke's illness at ease with the home side's attacking gusto. Gareth Ainsworth stepped up but could only roll the resulting spot kick tamely into Simonsen's grateful arms.
Belief suddenly drained from Rangers as they stopped to appeal incorrectly for offside, nearly costing themselves an equaliser as keeper Paul Jones bravely denied Hans Sigurdsson before Luke Chadwick's header glanced off the bar. Moments later Jones rode to the rescue again, palming away Sambegou Bangoura's header from a corner. Stable equilibrium reasserted itself until just before half-time when the excellent Lee Cook pounced on a poor Stoke clearance and drove his shot narrowly wide.
The third quarter of the match began to resemble bar football as both blue and red teams hoiked the ball around the pitch hoping for a snapshot opportunity. Stoke's defence and midfield got into the spirit by charging up and down in two strict lines as if linked by rods and the illusion was completed by Ainsworth's ambitious effort from way out on the right wing.
With twenty minutes to go Stoke brought on strikers Paul Gallagher and former Rangers triallist Mamady Sidibe for Bangoura and ex-Millwall midfielder Peter Sweeney. The change was decisive. Gallagher's first touch was a wall pass to Darel Russell who burst into the box over Danny Shittu's desperately retreating leg and won the night's second penalty. Right back Carl Hoefkens made no mistake.
Until then Shittu had been everything that Stoke captain Michael Duberry had not, an all-action leader by example, but the form that saw him recently voted in the top four defenders in the Championship abruptly deserted him as minutes later his misjudged attempt to reach a long ball let in Sigurdsson who was repelled by a Jones double save. However, Rangers didn't clear effectively and Sidibe's back post knock down gave Sigurdsson a third chance which this time he scuffed attempting a bicycle kick before the stylish Gallagher laid it back once more, Shittu slid over the ball and Sigurdsson finally tucked it away from eight yards. Rangers summoned one last attacking storm but substitute Paul Furlong's touch failed him and hesitant crossing allowed Stoke time to cover and see out the game.
"I've said to them today that the performance was unacceptable, but since I've taken over this role they've been outstanding for me," said Waddock afterwards. "It's how we bounce back, both me and the players together. It's a joint effort and we win, lose and draw together." He's taking no chances though. Ainsworth won't be on penalty duty when bottom club Crewe visit on Saturday.