Going up, going up, going up

One Saturday morning, almost exactly 15 years ago, my son and I took a coach ride from west London to Birmingham. The in-coach entertainment was the comedy film Dumb and Dumber, but the mood on the bus was not festive. We were football fans, about to experience the gut-wrenching misery of relegation.

Our team, Queen’s Park Rangers, had been part of the great, extravagant party that is the top football league in England over the years of my son’s childhood. We had enjoyed some heady moments: an unlikely victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford, a hilarious 6-0 thrashing of Chelsea. Today, though, would not be one of them. That afternoon we were beaten by Aston Villa, and were finally and definitively down. As we trooped miserably back to the coach, I noticed some surprisingly sympathetic glances from the home fans.

Here is a shocking truth rarely articulated in the press: football can represent the best as well as the worst in human nature. The media may feed on tales of Premiership love-rats, referee-bulliers, graceless managers, yobbish fans, strikers who say rude words into a camera after scoring a goal, but, away from the headlines and usually at a more local level, it is a sport which not only gives pleasure to millions but now and then can set an example of decent behaviour.

Maybe these are the kind of gloopily positive feelings only entertained by a fan when his team is doing well. After 15 years in the outer darkness of the lower leagues, 14 of which included moments of humiliation and embarrassment, QPR are, barring another bizarre plot twist in the soap opera of the club’s recent history, about to return to the big time.

Like the fans of other medium-sized family clubs, QPR supporters are used to being patronised and mocked. There are bigger, flasher, more glorious clubs, and I envy their fans not one bit. For them, victory is the norm – something for which their clubs have paid millions. For us, it is a treat. To be reaching the end of a season having dominated our division since the kick-off last August is a sort of miracle.

There is the pleasure; what of the decent behaviour? In every team, there are stories, mini-myths, in the making. Those of QPR over the past season have had an unusual number of happy endings. A little over a year ago, the club was the laughing-stock of professional football. Managers were hired and fired with manic frequency. There was a flamboyant, out-of-control chairman. One manager was said to have head-butted a player. The police were called to the boardroom when someone was reported to have drawn a gun. A faint whiff of dodginess attended some the club’s financial dealings.

Within months, that all changed. A veteran English manager, with a reputation for dourness and dull, effective football, was hired and transformed the club. A young Moroccan called Taarabt, utterly brilliant but too moody for the larger clubs to handle, became the undisputed star of the league, having been cleverly managed and made captain of the team. A goalkeeper whose career seemed to be in tatters after he had failed a dope test was brought into the team and performed astonishingly. Ageing, workmanlike footballers began to play out of their skins.

The manager, Neil Warnock, has behaved like a man who had been reminded, at the end of his career, that sport should above all be fun. He has encouraged flair – not seen it as a dangerous, suspiciously foreign indulgence.

Because nothing is ever straightforward at QPR, a convincing lead in the league could still count for naught if an inquiry, held by the Football Association next week into alleged irregularities surrounding a transfer in 2009, results in a deduction of points.

It would be a mind-boggling reversal, to lose a prize won so decently in such a mysterious, shady manner, but then QPR fans are used to that.

Independent, Friday, 29 April 2011