It was in January 1985 when with my son Xan, who was seven at the time, I first entered the Loftus Road Stadium in west London. Neither of us had been to a proper, professional football match before, but Xan had become obsessed by our local team Queens Park Rangers and, since they played 15 minutes from our house, I agreed to take him along.
QPR v Spurs was the game.
I remember climbing the stone stairs from inside the South Africa Road Stand just before kick-off. As Xan and I emerged into the light, the noise, the sense of mass anticipation, excited and aggressive, was startling – even slightly frightening if you’ve never been in football crowd at a big game before. Not many stadiums are small and compact enough to have that pressure-cooker atmosphere on big occasions, but just now and then Loftus Road – the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium as it’s now called – is one of them.
We took our seats. Fatefully, the game was a cracker, with two goals from our favourite player Gary Bannister, ending in a 2-2 draw. We were both hooked.
It was that moment which led to over 35 years of devoted, some would say demented, support for my team. All teams, except those at the very top (and how dull that must be) test the patience of their supporters but it’s fair to say QPR are more exasperating than most.
They clung on to their place in the top division for 11 years after that game against Spurs – for Xan’s childhood years, in other words – but, from 1996 until relatively recently, their progress, on and off the pitch, has been a wild switchback ride, with more downs than ups.
There have been dodgy owners, some half-interested, some unpleasant, some distinctly dodgy (it was reported that a gun was drawn in one board meeting). Manager has followed manager. At one point the team plummetted to the third tier in the league for the first time for more than 30 years. One promising youth player was murdered, another died in a car crash. A period of wild – and, it turned out, illegal over-spending – was followed by one of brutal belt-tightening.
I met the club’s chief executive while writing a piece about QPR and found him, shall we say, unsympathetic. Away from football, I met one of the chairmen who came and went – he was a creep. In recent seasons, we have reached what seems to have become our natural position in the football league – in the middle of the Championship, the league below the Premiership. Now and then we flirt with a place in the play-offs, more often with relegation.
I’ve lost count of the times when Xan and I have agreed over the phone that our club was a lost cause, and yet somehow we hang on.
It was one of the club’s frequent rocky periods, that I began to write ‘Thank You To My Team’. The chairman, the manager at the time and some of the players were being roundly abused on social media. I was as enraged and frustrated as any fan.
I started asking myself why I put myself through this anguish and rage. When I thought of the memories it had provided me over the decades, I had my answer.
I understand that why most people find being a fan, the devotion to a group of overpaid young men you’ve never met playing a game miles away – mysterious. Some great books – Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch have explored the strange addiction.
It would pointless trying to explain to someone unfortunate enough not to support a football team why Queens Park Rangers has played such an important part in my life. Memories from the past, so vivid and momentous to me, would mean nothing. Michael Robinson’s goal from 50 yards at Stamford Bridge. The televised game from Old Trafford when we thrashed Manchester United 4-1, with hat-trick for the then-unknown (and, after a few months, unknown again) Dennis Bailey. Beating Chelsea 6-0. The speed of Fereday, the grit of Waddock and Barker and Macdonald and Clint Hill. The strange charisma of Ian Holloway. The sublime talent of Adel Taarabt. The goals of Austin, the skill and character of Faurlin. The casual brilliance of Eberechi Eze.
At times it feels like a glorious soap opera, in which one has a walk-on part. It’s all here – talented teenagers who heartbreakingly have to be sold to a bigger, grander club; or who stay and become club favourites; unglamorous journeymen who turn out to be heroes on the pitch, glamorous figures bought in with a huge fuss who never live up to their billing, the never-ending drama around the club’s very survival. Even a dull season is exciting.
Any football fan will have their version of these memories but, from my admittedly biased perspective, QPR are a fascinating club, caught between dreams of glory and the danger of decline and collapse. I like the way the club is now run, how it engages with the local community – for example, the way it responded to the Grenfell disaster which occurred nearby. I live miles away from the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium but I feel at home being a QPR fan.
None of this is easy to explain in cold print, and that is why I put it into a song – ‘Thank You To My Team’.
In the video which he created to accompany it, Xan captures some of those moments. Although I have seen it many times now, I still find it spine-tingling to watch.
And, by a nice coincidence of which neither of us was aware until after the video was completed, the first goal on the video is Gary Bannister’s against Spurs back in 1985, which is where it all started.
Thank you for the good times
The memories that somehow always last
When the players and the game are long since gone.
‘Cos when you’ve got a team
There’s always be a next time
The future will be better than the past.
And though you stumble or you fall,
The game carries on…’