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Gareth Ainsworth relives 'amazing' 2003/04 season

RECENTLY QPR fans were treated to a #RangersRewind feast as we wound back the years to replay our memorable 2003/04 and 2010/11 seasons.

Amongst those who enjoyed watching the former was a man who starred in it himself, Gareth Ainsworth!

A pivotal part of the R’s promotion-winning side under Ian Holloway, ‘Wild Thing’ scored seven goals in his debut campaign in W12 which saw Rangers clinch second spot on the final day.

Ainsworth – who will be on our screens again this weekend as host of Saturday night’s #QPRQuizNight – was all too happy to relive it all over again.

What was it like watching that all over again, your first season at QPR?

It was awesome! The start of the season felt like a new bunch of boys getting together, it felt like there was a new energy around the club and everyone felt really together. There was only myself, Martin Rowlands and Kevin McLeod who joined in the summer but there was a real buzz around the place.

QPR had just missed out in the play-offs against Cardiff and I was at Cardiff that season. I didn’t play in the final which was probably a blessing! There was an energy about the group and immediately myself and Martin gravitated towards Kevin Gallen and Marc Bircham, and the four of us became this group. There was a lot of banter, there was a lot of energy and, mixed along with the likes of Clarke Carlisle, Danny Shittu, Steve Palmer and other boys, there were some real jokers and some really good lads.

And we had a manager in Ian Holloway who let that energy breathe. Some managers might have felt a bit threatened by it but he knew we would be playing our best stuff if this group was allowed to feed this energy. It was a great bit of management by Ollie, rather than coming down on us all if there was a bit of messing about he took it as a positive, that this team spirit would get us through some tough times and he was right.

I actually think we underperformed slightly that season which seems a crazy thing to say, but I think we could have won the title. But it was a brilliant team to play in.

Scoring twice on your QPR debut at Loftus Road in a 5-0 win against Blackpool on the opening day – you couldn’t have asked for a better start, could you?

It was nice! I’d obviously made my name going up and I was so lucky to play in the Premier League with Wimbledon but injury cut that short. That was a real regret of mine, that I never really made my mark in the Premier League because of injury. I then moved to Cardiff and again, even though we got promoted, I didn’t feel I’d made my mark like I had done at Port Vale, Lincoln and Preston in my earlier days; this winger who was scoring goals and was on his way up. So that was really important. I was 30 years old, I’d played at a good level and I wanted to make an impact.

I’ll be honest, that first goal was never mine! It was an own goal. But it was something we’d worked on in training and it was brilliant that it came off. Gino [Padula] put in another fantastic delivery and I had an attempt but it was off target but somehow the ‘keeper put it in for me. I ran off – there was no way I was going to question if it was an own goal! It was a dream on my home debut for QPR. To play in the team I played in, I was always going to get chances.

The second goal was a lay-off from Furs [Paul Furlong] and I just had a crack at goal. That was the moment I celebrated with an air guitar in front of R Block; it couldn’t have gone any better! I didn’t know R Block was the place to be, I didn’t know that was the noisiest place, but that’s where you end up as a right winger. It was awesome that I’d made my statement but, equally, I’d have given both goals up for the win anyway because it was all about the team, it really was.

I was so pleased to be able to make an impact and a contribution that season. But that Blackpool game will always be special to me.

Soon after you famously scored two of yours and QPR’s best-ever goals in an incredible eight-minute spell at Rushden. What was going through your mind that day?

That day was scorching hot, everything was perfect, there was no wind, and when it’s like that those balls fly in. I’d scored three goals in two games so I thought why not – nobody’s going to have a go at you because you’ve already scored.

To see that first one fly in was amazing, it was obviously the best goal I’ve ever scored. The funny thing about that goal is that every QPR fan I’ve ever met since then told me they were at that game. If that’s true, there should have been about 30,000 QPR fans there! So I think people were either there or wanted to be there.

Are there any other games or moments from that season that stand out?

Not really, there was just a real belief that we could win every game. I remember getting an injury in December which kept me out for a couple of months and I was gutted not being able to contribute. But the signings we made during that season, players like Tony Thorpe and Jamie Cureton, just added to this force that we were.

I’ve still got some really close friends from those days, friends for life, and I think that says a lot about that team. We had moments that you just can’t buy and they’re forever in the memory.

I was there with Rowly when he got his first Ireland call-up. Ollie had taken us to Dublin for a couple of nights to celebrate promotion. We’d had a heavy night on the Friday and on the Saturday morning we were walking down the street and Martin got a call from the Republic of Ireland manager and asked him for his first call-up. For me to witness that telephone call on the back of what he’d done in League One was just awesome. 

As we know, it all went down to the final day at Hillsborough. How special was that day?

I’ve got great memories of that day. Firstly, the teamtalk by Ollie, getting the fans to speak and leave us messages. One fan said ‘I’ve been supporting Rangers for years and we believe in you boys, but if it doesn’t happen I’m still going to be supporting Rangers. Don’t worry, just give it your best.’ Ollie said ‘that’s the one.’

We all just went out with that togetherness that we were doing it for the 8,000 QPR fans who were there, the 11 players on the pitch, the 10 lads who were injured or hadn’t been selected, and all the staff.

It was a fantastic season, one of the best of my career by a long way, and that day capped it all off.

Don't miss Gareth live on Facebook for #QPRQuizNight at 8pm on Saturday!