Beaten by a head!

A RATHER tired-looking Colchester United were undone by a first-half header from QPR's giant striker, Ray Jones, in a closely-fought Championship encounter at Loftus Road yesterday afternoon.

By Carl Marston

A RATHER tired-looking Colchester United were undone by a first-half header from QPR's giant striker, Ray Jones, in a closely-fought Championship encounter at Loftus Road yesterday afternoon.

The U's had enjoyed a terrific Christmas, with back-to-back home wins over Luton and Wolves, but they could not repeat either the result or the performance in west London.

Rangers were good value for the win, which was only their second in the last nine games, although they had to withstand a terrific late onslaught from the battling U's.

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Jones grabbed what proved to be the only goal of the game in the 36th minute. The 6ft 4ins target man met Lee Cook's excellent cross with a deft header that looped beyond the reach of Dean Gerken. The 18-year-old was a real handful for the U's defence all afternoon.

Rangers were desperately close to doubling their lead early in the second-half, when Gerken performed heroics to divert Kevin Gallen's thunderbolt onto the bar.

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United weathered the storm and came back strongly during the last 20 minutes. But they never seriously threatened ex-Southend keeper Simon Royce in the QPR goal.

It was not the way that U's boss Geraint Williams would have wanted to begin 2007, after what had been a memorable 2006.

But at least they made Rangers really scrap for their precious three points. It was a big win for John Gregory's men, not least because lowly rivals Southend, Leeds and Hull all won.

The U's had to soak up some early pressure before mounting their first attack on nine minutes. Chris Barker, who was fresh from signing a new loan deal until the end of the season, exploited space down the left flank to deliver a cross that was just too strong for the lurking Richard Garcia.

In fact, Garcia was a surprise inclusion in the starting line-up. He had initially been dropped to the bench, appearing on the official team-sheet as a substitute, but Karl Duguid suffered illness in the warm-up and so had to drop out of the squad.

There was a scare for the U's in the 18th minute. Left-winger Cook switched flanks to whip over a teasing cross that only just eluded a line of three Rangers attackers on the edge of the six-yard box.

Rangers continued to press and Gerken had to make the first save of the match when diving to his left to cling onto a fierce shot from livewire Nick Ward.

United failed to even register a shot during the first half-hour and Wayne Brown did well to guide a header back to Gerken, with striker Dexter Blackstock snapping at his heels.

But the visitors finally attacked with more purpose on 32 minutes. Garcia controlled Kevin McLeod's lay-off before drilling a low 20-yarder only a foot wide of the far post.

Four minutes later and QPR grabbed the lead, thanks to Jones' pinpoint header from Cook's cross. It was the big striker's fifth league goal of the season.

The visitors tried to mount a rally before the break. Brown headed on Greg Halford's long throw into the box, but Jamie Cureton's shot on the turn was well blocked by defender Pat Kanyuka.

They were just a whisker away from netting an equaliser in the last minute of the first-half. McLeod's powerful low cross into the six-yard box only required a touch, but neither Cureton nor the onrushing Garcia could poke home from point-blank range.

A combination of Gerken and the bar prevented Rangers from doubling their lead after just 25 seconds of the second-half. Gallen pounced onto Jones' downward header and fired in a shot that looked a goal all the way. However, Gerken performed acrobatics to palm the ball onto the bar.

The U's were on the rack and Blackstock, who had scored a hat-trick against the U's a few seasons ago while on the books of Southampton, spooned a header over the bar from close-in.

Blackstock was in the spotlight again in the 52nd minute. The Rangers front-man was clean through on goal, only to be thwarted by a brave save from Gerken, who had rushed off his line to narrow the angle.

The visitors did not record their first effort on target until the 55th minute. And Cureton's long-range shot did not really trouble Royce, who smothered with ease.

A minute later and Rangers went close again. Winger Cook left Halford floundering on the deck and curled over a delightful cross for Jones, who ballooned a free header over the bar.

The U's did earn a couple of corners around the 70-minute mark, but Iwelumo nodded over from the first set piece, and Halford then headed wide from Watson's second delivery.

Cureton had not had much joy against his old club. He rarely looked like adding to his 13 goals for the season, and was frustrated to have a goal-bound shot well blocked by centre-half Michael Mancienne.

The U's best move of the match almost carved out an equaliser in the 77th minute. Substitute Hogan Ephraim and Halford exchanged a one-two and Ephraim's cross picked out fellow substitute Johnnie Jackson, who headed a couple of feet wide.

Five minutes later and United, enjoying their best spell of pressure of the whole afternoon, threatened again from another Watson corner. This time it was Chris Iwelumo who was unable to find the target with his towering header.

Ephraim was nearly crowned a hero on 88 minutes. The West Ham loanee made room for himself on the made of the penalty area, but blasted his 20-yarder wide of the far upright.

The U's played with four up front during the closing minutes, but they could not force a late equaliser.

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