Loftus Road: a cauldron of abuse, hatred and bloodlust
The outer reaches of West London are a mystery to me, being a place of cold canyons that I have traversed only on my way from the city centre to Heathrow via the A40. Its notable sites include HM Wormwood Scrubs (poor food, especially the porridge, charmless staff and room service practically non-existent), the BBC media village and, recently, the Westfield Shopping Centre.
It’s not a part of London that wildly advertises itself, having none of the edginess of the East, the history of the North or cache of the West End. [*Fftd, see last page] The tiny Loftus Road ground of Queens Park Rangers is also unprepossessing and is the smallest ground currently in the Premiership. The qualifier “currently” is due to their lowly position just outside the unholy trinity of likely “droppers”.
Recently, the magic wand that is a change of manager has been waved in the hope of ending what was becoming a worrying free fall towards oblivion. Neil Warnock trod too lightly in the job and his failure to damn his team or his tactics post-match, while giving winning opponents too much respect, was beginning to grate on the home fans. Strangely, for Warnock, he was in danger of becoming too nice! [*Fftd]
Teams making the transition to the Premier League can have a refreshing start, coming as they usually do from a good run in the Championship, and their naivety and joie de vivre can take a while for the regular incumbents of the division to get a handle on them. When they are found out, their demise is often swift and brutal and the losses have an accumulating effect until they slowly lose belief in themselves.
Cue the introduction of the “Big name” manager, whose first interview invariably includes the words: “Of course we can turn it around”. Probably with fingers crossed and exit plan signed. Mark Hughes was an outstanding player, notably for Manchester United and latterly Chelsea. His trademark scissor kick was an example of athleticism and he was much admired by fans and feared by defences.
Hughes’ role as a manager has been mixed and well-documented elsewhere. The big question today, when QPR take on Chelsea in the FA Cup fourth round, is how well can he set and motivate the home team against mighty (but faltering) opponents. Although, as this is a Cup game, he may prefer losing the match rather than players to injury.
This game could have sold out Wembley as all the fates have conspired to create a perfect footballing storm. If John Terry plays, all eyes will be on him as he steps blinking into the media glare to face his nemesis Anton Ferdinand. This rematch is as eagerly awaited as Amir Khan’s and the followers of this clash fall into two camps.
On JT’s side, we have his friends and family and Chelsea/England fans and, in the opposing camp, just about everybody else. Can the manager’s best plans keep these two apart, like old girlfriends at a wedding? Does the crowd contain a sizeable proportion of lip readers? Will Terry and Ferdinand shake hands and, if so, will JT’s legal team use this in his defence at next Wednesday’s court case?
The match has been a headline all morning as the news agencies ramped up the clash, with stories of “a bullet in the post for Ferdinand”, and we had been told to get to the ground early as the police would be searching all-comers. In the event, the away supporters are steered behind hastily erected fences to be searched individually while I join the home support and queue at the Ellerslie Road Stand, where I am asked by a steward if I have been searched. On replying “Yes” (a lie), I am simply waved on. Once through the turnstile, the lad in front says: “I’m glad they didn’t search me. I’ve got a pie in me pocket!”
Quite rightly, the FA has forewarned both clubs that no discriminatory abuse from players or fans will be tolerated, but I wonder where the dividing line between abuse and opinion lies. And should a whole section of the crowd vent its collective spleen, will the game be halted while the offenders are ejected? I am about to find out.
I am positioned within baiting distance of the Chelsea end and the taunting is already underway. “You dirty racist bastards”, etc, but the serious stuff is reserved for JT as the teams spill onto the pitch. The lyrics of “Sloop John B” are mangled for a seemingly well-rehearsed “You know what you said” repeated ad infinitum. The playground bullies are clearly enjoying themselves.
The management of both clubs, in consultation with the FA, have decided there will be few preliminaries and the customary team handshake has been abandoned. The atmosphere is electric and the sound within the stand rises to a cacophony of sheer hatred. It is easy to believe that one moment of madness from players or fans could spark something really nasty.
Within a minute, the referee whistles the game under way and I can feel the crowd desperately wanting Terry to get his first touch and, when he does, the noise ratchets all the way to 11. One quarter of the ground are cheering him and the rest are almost dribbling with hatred. If you ever wondered what an “ugly crowd” looked like, then look no further. These Londoners seem to have taken on the appearance of a Hogarth drawing and are all bulging eyes and sneering mouths.
The game, meanwhile, is tepid and only marked by a reluctance from either side to “Get stuck in”. Their instructions not to do anything that may antagonise the situation are transparent and JT’s involvement is remarkable, not just for the booing that accompanies his every touch but also for the amount of space around him. It is as if neither side wants to get too close to him.
The home crowd is unforgiving and it is apparent that they are relishing the situation. One ill-clad Chelsea fan gets the “Who’s the fat cunt in the pink” taunt and the ridiculousness of the afternoon is summed up by the lad next to me who apologises to the lady in front – “Sorry about the language, love. Pink is such an awful word”. Given that the fuss is all about the power of words, he couldn’t have put it better!
It is clear that the proximity of the fans to the pitch in this tiny stadium is affecting the reluctance of either team to go forward. By half time, Chelsea are beginning to dominate when the ref’s whistle signals a welcome respite for players and fans alike.
While taking a breath and awaiting the restart of the game, I “Google” QPR and find that they have an eclectic mix of celebrity musical fans, including Mick Jones of The Clash, Robert Smith of The Cure, Glen Matlock of the Pistols, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple and Pete Doherty. Oh, and Andrew Ridgeley gets a mention, although I’m not sure that he qualifies as a musician. Does this fan list contain the finest musical credentials of any football club? [*Fftd]
The only change at the start of the second half is that the teams have swapped ends. The booing, the dominance of the away side and the lack of commitment from both teams hasn’t changed. At the back, Chelsea simply soak up whatever comes their way, which was very little from an ineffectual two-man QPR attack.
For Chelsea, Fernando Torres shows intermittent flashes of world-class skill and Juan Mata was easily the man of the match but the game overall was poor and it took a dubious penalty to decide the outcome. On the hour, Daniel Sturridge collapsed in a heap at the feet of Clint Hill and ref Mike Dean bravely pointed towards the penalty spot. Up strode the impressive Mata and the game was all but over.
At the final whistle, I made my way through the throng toward the players’ lounge on the far side and was amused to find that the same fans who were dripping with bloodlust and ready to kill each other from the safety of opposing stands were now passing quietly within striking distance of each other.
Players’ lounge: Two small boxes set aside for the purpose, a couple of tellies and coffee and sarnies, pleasant staff, a few Wags, no players. I leave after watching a bit of the Liverpool-Man Utd game and walk out through a line of police who are guarding nothing, the crowd having long departed.
Crossing Wood Lane from the ground to the impressive Westfield Centre, with its polish and fashion, is almost as surreal as stepping from a war zone to a holiday camp. Today, I have witnessed a cross section of emotions and, as I place a “The Secret Footballer” sticker on a huge empty advertising hoarding, I reflect on basic human needs. For some, hatred and hunting; for others, grazing and shopping.
All in all, a strange day. At least nobody got shot.
NB: I have included *Fftd (Feel free to disagree) where suitable. I encourage readers to do just that