Sunday, 7 August 2011

back to the future?

On Saturday 13th August 2011, Queens Park Rangers will step onto English football's big stage for the first time in fifteen years. Rangers supporters will be hoping that a very conservative transfer policy and the eccentric way the club is run will not cause its return to the Premier League to be short-lived. The hope must be that the door is now firmly closed on the past - a past filled with dour struggles against unglamorous opposition up and down the back roads of the game.

But Friday's preseason friendly was very much in tune with the spirit of those fifteen long years in the wilderness. The opponents and the surroundings certainly did lack glamour; the struggle, a fruitless one in the end, was certainly a dire spectacle for the few hundred QPR fans who made the journey up to Bedfordshire.

That journey to the ground, for those who let the train take the strain, was a strange one, and did in some ways feel like a trip back in time.

Boarding the train in St. Pancras involved  running the gauntlet of a large contingent of the British Transport Police. Commuters, heading back to their suburban homes, looked bewildered at the sight of so many officers. One man wondered aloud if perhaps the police had received a tip off about a planned act of terrorism. I was pleased to allay his fears by letting him know that the heavy presence of the constabulary was almost certainly to do with the Luton Town-QPR preseason friendly match scheduled for Kenilworth Road that evening.

All along the Thameslink line, the boys and girls of the BTP were mob-handed, doubtless sweltering uncomfortably in their uniforms on what was an oppressively muggy afternoon. At West Hampstead, Elstree and St Albans the police were present in particularly large numbers. At the latter station, this is my england jumped off the train to meet a travelling companion. A mobile CCTV unit was parked on the station forecourt. There had, as yet, been no sign of other travelling QPR supporters. We were witnessing, then, a very expensive overreaction to the evening's fixture on the part of the defenders of law and order.

But perhaps someone working in a police intelligence role had paid too much attention to internet messageboards in the week before the match. We Are The Rangers Boys, for example, was the scene of dark mutterings about the wisdom of scheduling a preseason match between the two sides and about the likelihood of trouble. Over at the charmingly-named Luton Town forum, Avenue of Evil, meanwhile, I had personally been asked to describe what I'd be wearing so that a pwopa nawty encounter could be arranged. All in good fun, of course. My response was flippant. I mentioned Gucci loafers, tailored chinos, a Prada polo shirt and a pastel sweater knotted across the shoulders in case it might get chilly. I also asked about the availability of valet parking. I was astounded when everyone who responded took these remarks at face value. WHOOOOSH: That's the sound of Easyjet planes rising from left to right behind Luton Town's home end - and the sound of fairly obvious jokes passing over the heads of the residents of the Avenue of Evil.

Of course, there was no trouble on the night. Much as keyboard warriors might have wanted to make something out of long-ago incidents in Hammersmith and at St. Pancras Station, real warriors were not in evidence. All that nonsense, thankfully, seems to be in the past. Long may it remain so.

By the time we arrived in Luton itself, the police in attendance seemed to be realising that the match was to be a low-key affair with a small crowd. On previous visits, we had been photographed and frisked by Bedfordshire's finest. This time, a very friendly officer simply provided directions to Kenilworth Road and advice about which pubs we might select should we be looking to pass the time before kickoff with a pint or two.

The nearest of the hostelries thus recommended was Guildford Street's Wheelwright Arms, a tiny place that has resisted the relentless gentrification (poncing up) of pubs elsewhere. The copper's suggestion that we might want to choose this pub had led me to expect to find at least a few QPR fans inside. Not so. In fact, we still hadn't seen another Rangers follower and the kickoff was only just over an hour away. So that heavy police presence was seeming more and more wasteful.

Instead of away supporters, the Wheelwright Arms was lightly populated with what we took to be a locally-based clientele. Again, our journey seemed to have taken us from the present day and back into times gone by. Those using the jukebox, for example, eschewed any music recorded later than the mid-1970s. At one point, several lads of generous girth all broke lustily into song. They all knew the words of Out of Time and joined in as the Chris Farlowe version, a number one hit in 1966, boomed across the bar room. We were also treated to Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Younger readers would doubtless also consider this to be ancient stuff, although it is of a somewhat later vintage than Chris Farlowe's heydey. One drinker did an interesting dance to the Steve Harley number, evidence, perhaps, that the libations had already been flowing freely for some time. We approved of the jukebox. For middle-aged folk and OAPs, it's refreshing not to have a pint spoiled by the shrill, auto-tuned banalities of the whiny stuff the kids seem to enjoy these days. I can do without Rihanna plaintively and repeatedly asking "What's My Name?" (It's 'Rihanna', dear. Have you had a bump on the head?)

Looking around the room, we were minded to think that some of the local characters might possibly mix their drinks with something a little stronger. At one table, two gents sported facial tattoos of varying sizes. One of these lads was in a fairly poor state, slipping in and out of consciousness and, when conscious, nodding his head down at the tabletop in a way that suggested he might be  no stranger to the use of opiates.

At the match, there was an amusingly constant exchange of spicy barbs between the two sets of supporters. The contingent of Luton lads closest to the away end certainly seemed to be determined to try to articulate their antipathy towards their visitors from the Capital. In return, the best terrace wits that QPR could offer on the night went down the tried-and-tested route of singling out individual home fans for special treatment. One Lutonian of hefty build, accompanied to the match by his lady friend, was advised quite regularly that he was "fat" and that his "bird's a slag". He was also asked, in rather indelicate terms I thought, whether his female companion is someone who consents to anal sex. He was additionally serenaded with yet another rewording of the Duke of Mantua's canzone from Verdi's Rigoletto. "That top's too tight for you," he was told. Fashion advice from QPR's travelling supporters. Yes, really.

The spectre of possible violence, though clearly much exaggerated, was redolent of  past times, and was just one contributory factor to this match having something of a nostalgic feel. Kenilworth Road itself, of course, also added to that mood. I feel sure that during the coming season, Premier League sophisticates visiting QPR's Loftus Road will mock the place for its antiquated facilities and lack of modern comforts. Luton's ground is even more down-at-heel - crumbling, rusty and with odd higgledy-piggledy architecture. Access is gained to the away end through gates that squat under a pair of first floor apartments. As visiting fans mount the stairs into the stand, they can see right into people's bathrooms. We collected our tickets from a tressle table in what resembled a boarded up corner shop. Having taken a wrong turn and gone the long way around the ground, we reached Oak Road via a long alleyway. At one stage, our progress was blocked by a collection of discarded beds and mattresses. This all felt a million miles from the shiny arenas at which QPR will be fulfilling their away fixtures this coming season. The Emirates Stadium? Old Trafford? Kenilworth Road could not be more different.

Kenilworth Road: reached via a stack of discarded beds and mattresses
Climbing into the Oak Road stand

Another thing giving the match a nice air of past times was the pricing - at a tenner to get in, this cost only two quid more than the recent QPR Reserves friendly down in St Albans and Friday's tickets were priced at exactly the same level as at another reserves' warm up match at Boreham Wood F.C. A key difference of course, was that we were set to see QPR's first team this time. So, following  a summer of speculation about his departure, we enjoyed the reassurance of seeing star man Adel Taarabt in our colours. We also got a first look at new signings Kieron Dyer, who slotted in at right-back, Jay Bothroyd and DJ Campbell. The latter bagged a poacher's goal just seconds into the tie and Bothroyd looked as though he might be a handful for defenders in the season ahead. Dyer, thankfully, given his famously poor injury record, played for much of the match and escaped seemingly unscathed.

The match itself was forgettable - for QPR supporters at least. Lutonians would be forgiven for gaining protracted enjoyment from their side's 3-1 victory, which Sky Sports News was describing the following day, with predictably hyperbolic journalese, as a "shock win". We were decidedly not shocked. First choice players had passed the ball around well enough in the first half of the match, seemingly enjoying an undemanding run-out and doing nothing that might get anyone injured. Then, when nine substitutions were made, with only Dyer and Clint Hill remaining from the original team, we simply saw confirmation of something that most QPR fans must surely understand very well - that the squad lacks depth and that there is a gulf in class between the top men and their understudies. We've seen one messageboard post suggesting that the defeat in this warm up match at Luton was "embarrassing". We felt, though, that there was not much cause for embarrassment here. But perhaps one man who will feel embarrassed as the season unfolds is the big striker Patrick Agyemang. If he makes it onto the pitch in a Premier League fixture, it will surely only be because of injuries or suspensions across the squad. Should that happen, the glare of top flight coverage will expose a player whose lack of some basic footballing qualities is very striking. If he can control a ball, strike a ball cleanly or get in a good position on a consistent basis, none of this was in evidence on Friday night - and this can't be the first time such criticisms have been made.

Goal-mouth action at Kenilworth Road
 We trudged back to the station, glad that the small crowd and low-key atmosphere seemed to have obviated the need for the usual police ploy of boxing visiting supporters into Oak Road for 15-20 minutes after the final whistle. We headed past brighly lit shops selling a colourful wealth of Indian sweets.

Goodbye, Luton. Given your club's unfortunate (and, we think, undeserved) descent beyond the lowest reaches of the Football League, it does seem unlikely, as some Rangers fans were singing, that we will ever play you again. A shame, we feel. Overblown predictions of violent disorder notwithstanding, this particular awayday does not have to be an unpleasant one: easy access from London and a nicely unpretentious and old-school feel to the surroundings and the club. Like something from the past.

A bit of good-natured bantering aside, QPR fans would do well not to scorn Luton Town for its current plight and uncertain future. There, but for the grace of God, our own little club could have very well been. We were 'rescued', of course, from any such fate by our billionaire benefactors. But their vulgarity and insensitivity towards loyal fans, particularly around the matter of ticket prices, is well known and speaks of a future which, while brighter than the one faced by the Hatters, will not come without problems of its own.

Nothing in life is to be taken for granted. If our club's future success depends on the whims of wealthy but unpredictable men, perhaps it's not safe to assume that their interest in QPR will last forever. Who knows? Perhaps a withdrawal of their support followed by a few wrong turns could set our club into the kind of downward spiral suffered by Luton Town. We'll never play you again? Let's see.

Come on U RRRRRRRRssss


  1. EXCELLENT piece Pal.

    All the best this coming season.

    See you back in the League some time!


  2. Made me chuckle...great article !
    Quoting the old song, that is probably on that juke box...." We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when, but I'm sure we'll meet again, some sunny day " !!

    C'mon you Hatters.

  3. Found your link on Outlaws, remember reading a previous piece by you aswell.

    Good stuff, nice photos to boot.

  4. nice to see the continuance of civilised discourse on all matters relating to football. The future is for those clubs that manage to move to the supporter ownership model...
    Barcelona and Wimbledon being nice examples. Our own futures may involve us jumping past a bankrupt club in about 2020 - (don't know why I picked that year) but I hope it is, as you suggest - on the brighter fields of a future without FA masturbators who are as useful to the league as this weekends police forces were to London law and order.