QPR back in the big time
At Vicarage Road
The bold white print on the specially designed blue T-shirts said it all - "Rangers, back in the big time."
And it was for the time being at least, true. At Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon, QPR defeated Watford to end a 15-year exodus from the top flight of English football.
A tight and edgy contest was settled by late goals from Adel Taarabt and Tommy Smith, and ensured that Neil Warnock's team will be promoted as champions.
The coaching staff embraced in the dug-out, the players hugged on the lush turf and more than a few supporters appeared unable to heed the increasingly desperate appeals for them to stay off the pitch.
Since Ray Wilkins' Rangers slipped sadly out of the top flight in 1996, the west London club has appeared to lurch from one crisis to another, often becoming a laughing stock along the way but also beset by tragedy.
There has been administration, guns in the boardroom, a spell in the third tier of English football, a steady flow of managers (with the exception of Ian Holloway's five-year spell from 2001-2006) and several owners. In May 2006 youth player Kiyan Prince was murdered and the following year promising teenager Ray Jones was killed in a car crash.
But in the spring sunshine on Saturday, Rangers returned to the division where they feel they belong and boss Warnock was quick to place the scale of the achievement into perspective.
"There are Rangers supporters who will have never seen their team in the Premier League," said Warnock, who was celebrating his seventh promotion with six different clubs.
"Coming to Loftus Road next season will not be easy, but isn't it absolutely exciting that the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United will be playing there."
Rangers' promotion is a personal triumph for the 62-year-old, who took charge of a club languishing 20th in the Championship table and reeling from six defeats in seven fixtures and has transformed them into champions in the space of 13 months.
"This is without a shadow of doubt the best job that I have done," he added.
He became the seventh permanent manager since the 2007 takeover of the club by Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone. It could be argued that Warnock's task was simplified when Briatore appeared to take a less hands-on role after his arrival, but nonetheless the manager quickly constructed a side that has proved to be superbly equipped to win promotion from a tough and demanding division.
His 4-2-3-1 system has provided Rangers with a defensive solidity that has seen them keep 25 clean sheets and concede a mere 30 goals in 45 games.
"Those statistics tell their own story of a manager who prides himself on his team's defensive unit," said holding midfielder Shaun Derry.
Warnock's decision to sign goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, left-back Clint Hill and Derry has been a brilliant success. All of them had played for Warnock at previous clubs and he obviously knew that they would provide some of the backbone and consistency that had perhaps been missing in previous Rangers teams.
What's more, although Warnock cuts a feisty and combative character on the touchline, he has shown a delicate touch with regard to his man-management of Taarabt. He made the Moroccan his captain and gave him a free role to terrorise the opposition - and the Rangers boss has been rewarded with 19 league goals plus numerous assists.
At first glance it might be an unlikely alliance, but Taarabt now talks about Warnock as some kind of father figure and the brusque Yorkshireman is the first manager to draw out of the Moroccan performances of a consistently high standard over the length of an entire season.
Whether Taarabt, who has played in every league game this season apart from away trips to Doncaster and Scunthorpe, will succeed in the Premier League will be an issue of much discussion over the summer. There is no doubt that he has the ability, but the top flight will provide a much sterner examination of his temperament and attitude. There were moments at Vicarage Road when a team-mate's failure to pick him out with a pass prompted a disproportionate gesture and a brief but nonetheless needless huff.
Warnock instructed his players never to give Taarabt the ball in their own half this season but otherwise allowed his skipper the freedom to indulge his talents. He scored the crucial opening goal at Watford but he drifted out of the game for long periods. The Rangers fans chanted "Taarabt's too good for you" but that will not be the case in many games next season and we will find out exactly whether he has all the tools to succeed at the top level.
In fact, there is little doubt that the QPR squad will need overhauling if they are to survive next season. Warnock very quickly knitted together a team to win in the second tier but he has enjoyed a good run on the injury front this season and just about every area needs strengthening ahead of a top-flight campaign. Kenny is an excellent goalkeeper but the defence in front of him arguably lacks pace and top-flight experience. At the other end of the field the club needs a proven goalscorer at Premier League level.
"Ultimately the manager will have to improve the squad," added Derry. "You cannot go into the Premier League with a Championship squad. What is important is that we manage to keep the same spirit."
Rangers have lost just five games this season in the Championship, boast the best home and away record in the division and have led the table for all but a handful of fixtures.
They have played with skill, guts and spirit. I spoke to several players after the victory at Watford and all talked about the togetherness Warnock and his backroom team had instilled at the club. In my opinion, there is no doubt that they deserve their promotion.
However, nothing at Rangers is straightforward and the shadow that hung over Saturday's celebrations was the impending Football Association hearing over alleged irregularities following the signing of Argentine Faurlin. He arrived at Loftus Road in the summer of 2009 and the FA has been investigating the case since September, when QPR asked for permission to buy out a third party that owned his economic rights.
Rangers and its chairman Gianni Paladini face seven charges and the most serious relate to an allegation that Faurlin was owned by an Argentine company for more than a year after joining Rangers in July 2009. The results of the hearing are expected to be announced on Friday 6 May, the day before Rangers end the regular season with a home fixture against Leeds.
There have been recent reports that Rangers face a points deduction. Warnock sounded irritated and frustrated as he discussed the subject after Saturday's match, hitting out at what he described as a "disgraceful" article in the Sun newspaper, which suggested QPR could be docked up to 15 points.
"We are all guessing at the moment," said the Rangers boss. "We will all have to wait until Friday but I am happy with what my barrister has told me."
As Faurlin made his way along the side of the pitch to the team coach after the match I asked him about the situation. The midfielder, a crucial part of his team's success this season, did not seem unduly concerned.
"We are confident that nothing will happen but we will have to wait and see," he said. "I had nothing to do about it; I just do my show on the pitch."
After waiting so long and enduring so much, Rangers fans must be hoping that the outcome of the FA hearing does not prevent Faurlin and his team-mates from doing their show on the pitches of the Premier League next season.