After four decades as a Queens Park Rangers supporter, Anthony Gardner finally goes to see them play. It turns out it is a strange thing to suddenly be among fellow true believers ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
My schoolmates and I were ten years old when we began to take an interest in football (ie, soccer). Seemingly overnight, collectors’ cards of famous footballers joined the conkers, rubber bands and pieces of string that filled our pockets. We became experts on the strengths and weaknesses of famous teams. Most of my friends pledged their allegiance to household names such as Manchester United; I alone plumped for Queens Park Rangers. One day, I told myself, I would be surrounded by kindred spirits. I didn’t expect I would have to wait four decades.
My reasons for choosing QPR could hardly have been more whimsical. I liked their name, which had a swashbuckling ring to it; I liked their colours (blue and white, like pirates, almost); and my imagination was caught by a player named Rodney Marsh, whose dazzling footwork I had only read about, but which apparently left the most stalwart defenders floundering in his wake.
The team also had a reputation as giant-killers. While still in the third division, they had fought their way to Wembley to win the League Cup in 1967; they then gained promotion in successive seasons to rub shin-pads with the greatest clubs in Britain. In short, they had an aura of romance about them which would be impossible to replicate in the era of billionaire football. That they were humiliatingly relegated after only one season in Division One dented the myth but not my loyalty: I had thrown my lot in with them for better or for worse.
But as for going to watch them–the chances were non-existent. That same year my family moved from London to Ireland. In any case, my father–who regarded football as the preserve of hooligans–would sooner have taken me on a picnic in the Empty Quarter than to a football match.
So I became a long-distance supporter, amassing piles of newspaper cuttings and pressing a transistor radio to my ear until the skin felt sore (televised football in those days being almost non-existent.) I didn’t have to be present at the ground to feel the tension, the thrill of victory or the desperation of defeat–though of course I longed to see my heroes in action. My frustration ran highest in the glory days of the mid-1970s, when the Rangers fielded (astonishingly) a team of 11 internationals and were beaten to the League Championship by a single point.
When I returned to London to take up my first job (working as a hospital porter for £80 a week) I found I had neither the money nor time to go to football matches. Set on becoming a novelist, I spent my Saturday afternoons sitting sternly at my desk, trying to ignore the dramas being enacted a few miles away. I still devoured the match reports, weighed up the prospects for forthcoming games and prayed that a new player would bring a change in our fortunes, But a pattern had been set: I never attended a game. What began as self-discipline became more deeply ingrained with every passing season.
Just how deeply became apparent five years ago, when I moved across London from Battersea to–of all places–Queens Park. Suddenly, Rangers were my local team; but still I didn’t go to see them play. Why on earth not?
The reason, I came to realise, was fear of disappointment. I had followed QPR for so long, imagined the blue-and-white shirts in action so often, that there seemed no prospect of the reality matching the dream.
Just as importantly, football itself had changed beyond recognition since my childhood. Players now commanded staggering salaries and teams that had once been built around local players were recruiting from all over. QPR had fared badly in this new world, separated from the plutocratic Premiership by a widening gulf and threatened with bankruptcy. I dreaded the spectacle of overpaid mercenaries trotting noncommittally around the pitch, oblivious to the privilege of playing in our colours. Nor was I reassured when the club was bought by a group of extraordinarily rich men who appeared to know nothing about football.
In the end, it was an e-mail from Milan which persuaded me to break the habit of a lifetime. My friend Mark, an expatriate Blackpool supporter, was taking his son to see them in a match against QPR on August 8th, the first day of the season; why didn’t I come along? I dithered, then said yes, I’d bring the family.
Arriving at Loftus Road on a sunny afternoon, among droves of fans wearing the familiar hooped shirts, I felt a surge of elation. I could have been Luke Skywalker entering the rebel headquarters in "Star Wars", the soundtrack of which blasted from the PA system. Here I was at last among people who shared my belief, who had rejoiced and suffered as I had, who revered as I did the names of footballers forgotten by time and the rest of the world. I went through the turnstile, climbed the steps, and caught my first glimpse of the pitch–so small and innocently green that I could hardly believe the confrontations it had seen.
The terraces too seemed extraordinarily peaceful. I had grown up in an era when violence at football matches was endemic, yet here I was surrounded by children in blue and white face paint, gaping at a jolly man dressed in a tiger outfit. Polite notices reminded adults not to swear. The pre-kick-off razzmatazz of fireworks and booming music was more evocative of a fairground than a gladiatorial arena. Then, almost before I knew it, the game was under way.
Encouragingly, most of the early action took place around the Blackpool goal at the far end. But what struck me when the play came our way was how laborious it seemed. One could almost feel the weight of the ball as it made contact with foot or head; sweeping passes and graceful feints were in short supply. Perhaps it was the heat of the afternoon, but it felt as if we were toiling at the coalface of the sport while others were enjoying its breezy uplands.
The crowd around us was surprisingly docile, applauding good moves but only occasionally trying to energise the players. Opinions were unsparing, but exchanged in conversation. In the row behind us a fan was schooling his son in the inadequacies of our right back, Peter Ramage–though Ramage was in fact playing well enough. "Ramage is the only person on the pitch who shouldn’t even be a footballer," declared the youngster dutifully.
Nevertheless, the mood was expectant. QPR were clear favourites to win; our first goal was taking a while to go in, but once it came it was bound to be followed by others. So when, after 35 minutes, Blackpool took the lead, the disbelief was seismic.
"It’s my fault," I thought. "I’ve broken the taboo. For 40 years QPR have been kept afloat by my absence; now I’ve finally come here and we’re staring into the abyss."
When Rangers were still trailing ten minutes into the second half, our manager made a double substitution. One of the newcomers was Ákos Buzsáky, a key player recovering from injury: he might have been born in Hungary rather than Shepherds Bush, but he had proved his worth. Things were bound to get better.
Shortly afterwards our captain limped off. On came our last substitute; if anyone else were injured we would be down to ten men.
The minutes slipped away, and so did our opportunities, foundering on a soft finish or failure to pass the ball. Was this what I had waited so long for–a lacklustre performance by a mediocre team? The legacy of heroes past was dying in the afternoon sun.
And then, with five minutes left, the much-maligned Ramage came thundering down the right wing. The ball he played was probably meant as a cross–it certainly looked that way; but despite his intentions it looped high over the Blackpool goalkeeper and into the corner of the net. I leapt from my seat; my feet left the ground; my hands stretched skywards, and for a moment I was at one with ten-thousand cheering, exultant fellow fans. Even the doubting chap behind me was converted. "Pass it to Ramage!" he bellowed. "The guy’s a genius!"
It was the first goal Ramage had scored in more than 100 games. The Rangers didn’t manage to score another. The whistle blew and the teams filed quietly off the pitch.
I walked away from the ground with mixed emotions. As a family outing, it had been a great success; from a fan’s point of view, we had escaped humiliation by something close to a miracle. But it was impossible not to feel disappointed. I had cashed in the lustrous gloss of my dreams for the quick-drying matte of reality, and would never know such vividness again.
But three days later, QPR won 5-0 at Exeter City. A few more games like that I thought, and perhaps, just perhaps…
Picture credit: currybet (via Flickr)
(Anthony Gardner is a writer based in London. He reviews books for Intelligent Life magazine and edits the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine RSL. His first novel "The Rivers of Heaven" is being published by Starhaven in September.)