The beginning of the 1980s was an exciting time for QPR supporters. Under the management of Terry Venables, the club were FA Cup finalists in 1982, won Division Two at a canter during the 1982/83 campaign, and a fifth-placed finish in their first season back in the top flight saw the team qualify for Europe. But there was trouble ahead.
Venables departed for Barcelona, with Crystal Palace manager Alan Mullery arriving for an ill-fated spell at the club. Lasting only six months, Mullery was frank in blaming the "moaning, groaning bunch of players who treated me, themselves and their profession with contempt", adding that the squad couldn't get over the loss of their previous boss.
Mullery did manage to cram in a fair bit during his time in West London, including a mad 5-5 draw with Newcastle, and away thrashings at Tottenham, Sunderland, and Leicester. But it would be QPR's European adventures that would grab the headlines during the early part of the season; sadly, not for the right reasons.
One of QPR's undoubted strengths was their familiarity with their plastic pitch, yet the artificial carpet was pulled from under their feet before the UEFA Cup commenced. Ordered to play their home matches away from Loftus Road due to their pitch, QPR chose Highbury as their alternative home, but it didn't seem to cause them any issues in the first two rounds.
A comfortable 3-0 win away against KR Reykjavik - Simon Stainrod scoring twice - was then followed up by a 4-0 romp at Highbury in front of just 6,196 people - summer signing Gary Bannister bagging a hat-trick - as Rangers easily progressed to the second round. There would be a much sterner test awaiting Mullery's men in the next round, however.
Partizan Belgrade had been champions of Yugoslavia in 1982/83, runners-up the year after, and with attacking talent in Zvonko Živkovic and Dragan Mance, Rangers would have their hands full. Before the first leg at Highbury, Mullery indicated his desire for a two-goal lead to take to Belgrade in order to "take the sting out of the tie". He would get his wish, and more, yet unfortunately for Mullery, even a four-goal lead wasn't enough to put the tie to bed.
Mullery's plan was to attack Partizan down the flanks, using wingers Wayne Fereday and Ian Stewart, and although Stewart was forced off at half-time, the approach appeared to work. In the 12th minute, Terry Fenwick's header from Stewart's corner was swept in by John Gregory, in front of the Clock End housing less than a 100 supporters, the majority of the 7,836 crowd stood on the North Bank. But any thoughts of an easy night were immediately pushed aside, as Partizan skipper Klincarski equalised within a minute, and ten minutes later the visitors took the lead through a thunderous 30-yard strike from the right foot of Mance.
The Rangers response was just as quick, with Fereday levelling the match just two minutes after Mance's strike, and when Simon Stainrod headed home a cross from Stewart just before half-time, Rangers went to the break 3-2 in front. A Warren Neill effort to compete with that of Mance extended Rangers' advantage, and two more goals from Bannister gave Rangers a 6-2 win that was probably beyond the wildest dreams of Mullery. The two away goals conceded were obviously not ideal, but Rangers could feel happy with their nights work.
There had been one tiny blemish, though. In trying to intervene in an altercation between Stainrod and Admir Smajic, Neill pushed the Yugoslav away, with the defender going to ground. "He just collapsed in a heap," Mullery said. "The Yugoslav is a good actor." Neill was sent off, and although Rangers managed to score their final goal whilst down to ten men, the absence of the full back from the second leg was a headache that Mullery could have done with out.
The match had been a very open affair, but it had also been niggly and physical throughout. Partizan manager Nenad Bjekovic was furious over a Fenwick tackle on Ljubomir Radanovic. "It was disgraceful and he should have been sent off," Bjekovic complained, with Fenwick openly ready for some retribution in the second leg. "We'll all have to take a slap in the face and just grin and bear it. We just can't afford to get involved, although they will be out to intimidate us."
Certainly the atmosphere was always going to be a factor when the second leg kicked off at 4.30pm British time, but the welcome the Rangers players received on inspecting the pitch an hour before kick off was a real eye opener. Bombarded with coins and ball bearings, in the stadium that was only half full at the time, the noise generated by the 45,000 present even shocked a seasoned professional like Mullery, as the match kicked off. "I have never seen a crowd who could generate so much electricity. It became too much for our youngsters to cope with."
The club did have previous with regards to squandering first leg advantages in the UEFA Cup. In the 1976/77 competition, QPR squeezed through on away goals against Cologne, despite winning their home leg 3-0, but they were not so lucky in Athens. Taking another 3-0 lead to Greece, Rangers lost by the same score, eventually losing the quarter final 7-6 on penalties. Mullery was cautious. "It will be a difficult match and we have to take it seriously. If we scored four goals in 45 minutes, Partizan can do the same."
Rangers made two changes to the starting XI from the first leg, with Gary Chivers making his first appearance for the club in place of Neill, and Gary Waddock appearing for the first time since breaking his ankle in April, in place of Stewart. A solid start was crucial, the hope that the partisan Partizan fans could be silenced. But on a disastrous evening for Mullery and his players, Partizan were given hope after just five minutes when Mance headed in to send the fans into raptures.
Rangers held out until the 40th minute, but a dreadful mistake from centre back Steve Wicks led to the defender bringing down Živkovic in the box, and when Dragan Kalicanin sent Peter Hucker the wrong way from the spot, the deficit had been halved. Živkovic was proving to be a right pain in the proverbial for Rangers, the centre forward terrorising the QPR defence, just five days after finishing a year of national service. Wicks, for one, must have wished the Yugoslav army could have extended Živkovic's stay.
The night went from bad to worse for Rangers, and Hucker in particular. An awful mistake led to Partizan's third in the 47th minute, as Hucker let a speculative long range effort from Miodrag Ješic bounce past him, and the impossible was now looking probable. When Živkovic headed home a free kick, the comeback was complete. It had taken just 64 minutes for Rangers to be pegged back, and although this meant the away team had plenty of time to find an away goal of their own, the stuffing had been well and truly removed from the stunned visitors. The 6-6 aggregate score saw Partizan progress on away goals.
Mullery locked the players in the dressing room for 40 minutes, appearing later to inform the press about the "worst result of my footballing life". "I don't blame any individual," Mullery continued. "We conceded four goals and Partizan were brilliant. They never let us settle or play the ball forward." But Mullery also pointed to another factor behind the defeat.
"We were beaten in Belgrade more than an hour before the match had even started. I saw the players faces change when we walked out to sample the atmosphere. It was incredible. It frightened the life out of me and I have been around a long time." Rumours have since circulated about the conduct of the players on that trip, in relation to the consumption of alcohol, before and after the match, but whatever the truth, the whole experience was a nightmare for anyone associated with QPR.
The media spotlight focused on Mullery as QPR arrived back in England. "It doesn't put me under any more pressure," he claimed, as he held a meeting with the players to try and clear the air. But it soon became apparent that Mullery was fighting a losing battle, as this very frank interview with Hucker reveals. Less than a month after the Partizan debacle, Mullery was sacked with QPR in 16th place. Under caretaker manager Frank Sibley, they would eventually finish the season one position above the relegation zone.
Partizan were knocked out in the next round to a Videoton team that went on to eliminate Manchester United on their way to the final. Losing the first leg 5-0 in Hungary didn't help their cause. Sadly for Partizan, they discovered that not everyone was as charitable as QPR.