City Flashback | Bluebirds defeat QPR for Play-Off glory
Ahead of our first home game of the season against Queens Park Rangers, we cast our minds back to a famous fixture that came at the end of a season.
May 2003. After a long season in the third tier, everything came down to one game: the Play-Off Final at the Millennium Stadium.
Both sides had been through a rollercoaster of a season to even reach the Play-Offs. QPR missed out on automatic promotion by a mere three points, whilst the Bluebirds booked their place in the season’s final act by securing a draw with already promoted Crewe Alexandra on the final day of the regular season.
The Semi-Finals were painstaking for fans and players alike, but fans of the Hoops and Bluebirds would revel in delight after two gruelling legs. After a draw at Boundary Park, an 82nd minute winner from Paul Furlong gave QPR a 2-1 aggregate win over Oldham Athletic.
City faced off against Bristol City, with Peter Thorne’s header sealing a 1-0 win at Ninian Park. The second leg saw Neil Alexander pull off save after save, as the Bluebirds held out for a 0-0 draw away from home to book their place in the final.
66,069 fans in blue and white packed into Wales' national stadium, both hoping to return to the second tier. QPR had only been out of the Championship for two seasons, while Lennie Lawrence’s side hadn’t graced the division for 18 long years.
The Welsh side started the better and had three early chances through Thorne, Graham Kavanagh, and Robert Earnshaw, who had scored 35 goals that season, but none of them could sneak the ball into the net.
Rangers, on the other hand, hardly tested Alexander in the City net. Kevin Gallen’s effort the closest they got to breaking the deadlock, but heading into the dressing room, the game hung in the balance.
Many had pinned the Bluebirds’ success on the shoulders of Earnshaw, but QPR centre halves Danny Shittu and Clarke Carlisle had contained the Welsh international expertly, hardly giving him a sniff on goal.
The tense and nervous nature of the game that lingered in the first half carried through into the second. Therefore, it was no surprise that it was goalless by the end of the 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, Lawrence made the decision to take off Earnshaw, replacing him with Andy Campbell.
In extra time, it certainly felt like the shackles had come off both sides, and it became more a free-flowing game. After having few clear chances all game, City fashioned out their best opportunity a minute from the end of the first period. Kavanagh’s free kick was met by the head of Spencer Prior, but Chris Day in the U’s net made a stunning one handed save to deny him.
With time ticking away, the dreaded word began to murmur around the ground, penalties. Both teams sprung into gear to make sure their fate wouldn’t be decided from 12 yards out. It was a matter of which team and which player could do something to set them apart from the rest; up stepped Andy Campbell.
The forward raced away from Shittu and executed a delicious chip over the onrushing Day to send the City supporters into raptures. All City had to do now was hold out for a handful of minutes. The Bluebirds defended for their lives for the remaining six minutes and held out they did to book their place back in the second tier. The 18-year wait was finally over.
The following season, Lawrence led City to a 13th placed finish in the second tier. There was also joy for QPR the following season, as they went up automatically. But that famous day in May 2003 will live long in the memory of any Bluebirds fan.