I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to be a Queens Park Rangers fan. Nor do I recall making any kind of decision, it was just inherently understood. Like my parents, I was born in Hammersmith, West London, just around the corner from the hallowed turf of Loftus Road, QPR’s magical little stadium. What I do remember is getting the latest shirt for Christmases and birthdays, a long line of resplendent blue-and-white hooped jerseys that I wore with pride. Brooks – Holland Fly Km – Classic FM – CSF – Compaq and Ericsson. Scattered around my bedroom were other treasures too, such as the QPR themed mirror I eventually donated to my brother when I left home.
I’d follow their games on the radio and via the BBC’s brilliantly prehistoric Ceefax service, literally staring at a dormant screen until the zero changed to a one, usually for the other team. Saturday nights were dedicated to BBC1’s flagship TV program Match of The Day, while very occasionally a game involving QPR would be broadcast live. When this did happen we invariably lost.
My first live game came in the mid-1980s. It was my dad and I, at home to West Ham. The match itself was nothing to shout about but I was immediately hooked, the pre-match build up reeling me in as much as the actual football. Pie, mash and liquor at Cooke’s in Shepherds Bush, swarms of blue and white bodies pouring out of the underground at White City. Ever hopeful, we’d loiter by the players’ entrance in the hope of catching a glimpse of a current or former star. I can still hear the clank of the turnstiles, taste the muddy 50p coffee and smell the foulness of the toilets.
After that first game I learned the names of all the players, bought the annual Panini albums and collected the associated stickers. A few friends and I used to re-enact matches in their back garden, commentating and performing crowd chants as we played. ‘‘Sinton crosses… Wegerle hits it on the volley…. it’s in!!! QPR have won it !!!” Our wild celebrations interrupted by the call for dinner.
I got an incredible amount of stick at school. All the cool kids supported Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. ‘‘QPR ha ha!’’ they’d say. ‘‘Queens Park Strangers!’’ ‘‘Queers Park Rangers!’’ ‘‘What’s the difference between QPR and a fork? A fork’s got more points!’’ But I never once wished I supported a better team; a club that won titles and got to play in Europe. Instead I was fascinated and proud of how my team consistently punched above its weight to maintain its top flight status.
Every now and then we pulled off an amazing result that had me up on cloud nine, that made all the suffering through the hard times worth it. I was in the stands when we obliterated hated rivals Chelsea 6-0 in March 1986 and watching on TV as we mauled Man United 4-1 on New Year’s Day 1992. The next morning at school, the cocky United-supporting-kid from London wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, which made the victory all the more sweeter.
The secrets to our success (if you can call it that) were cheap savvy signings from the lower leagues and producing our own players, many of whom would become big stars. Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton, Alan McDonald, Paul Parker. Kevin Gallen, Trevor Sinclair and Danny Dichio. In most cases they got too good and were sold off to the big boys. Incredibly frustrating and yet for many years this is how we ensured our very existence.
I was seventeen when the bubble burst and QPR were relegated from the Premier League. We needed to win our last game of the season to have any chance of staying up. We did it too, comfortably despatching West Ham 3-0! But other results went against us, leaving us screwed. I remember pacing back and forth across my bedroom in a state of shock. How could this have happened?
Where would we go from here?
The following years were rough. We stagnated on the pitch, while off it we’d gotten ourselves into a financial mess that hung over the club like a hangman’s noose. Still I never missed a kick, listening to every single match no matter what far-flung locale I found myself in.
In May 1999 my dad and I drove down from Scotland to see a crunch match against Crystal Palace. It was a game we needed to win to avoid another relegation. Thankfully we prevailed in style, coming out 6-0 winners. At the final whistle everyone flooded onto the pitch on a wave of high emotion. My defining memory is of then manager Gerry Francis being hoisted up into the air, surfing gleefully on the hands of the fans while my dad and I exchanged Is this really happening? looks.
I’ll never forget listening to us getting beaten by Vauxhall Motors in the first round of the F.A. cup. Prior to the game I’d never even heard of them. It was November 2002 and I was huddled over a crappy old computer in the teacher’s room of the school I worked at in Bratislava. I remember thinking This is as bad as it gets, completely oblivious to the greater horrors that lay ahead.
I was leeching off some free Wi-Fi in Yantai, China for the opening game of the 2009/10 season. It was Blackpool at home and I’d persuaded my less-than-impressed wife to cut short a night out in order to get back to our hostel and tune in. The game was dreadful, but it was all worth it when Peter Ramage struck an 86th minute equalizer to save QPR’s blushes. Forgetting that I had my headphones on, I celebrated noisily, scaring the shit out of the hostel receptionist who had been enjoying a nap. She merely glared at me as I mumbled my apologies and skulked off to bed.
By 2010 I was finally settled down in The Netherlands and able to get to more games. A memorable visit took place in March 2011 for another home match against Crystal Palace. At this time we were top of The Championship, flying high and on course for a long-awaited return to The Premier League. Meeting up with my dad and younger brother, we enjoyed a fantastic afternoon that ranks right up there with my best Loftus Road visits. First there was a behind-the-scenes stadium tour, then photographs with numerous players and manager Neil Warnock.
To top it all off the team put in a solid performance to win 2-1, with both goals coming from workhorse striker Heidar Helguson. It was such a perfect day I ended up writing an article about it for my monthly contribution to the QPR fanzine A Kick Up The R’s.
A few months later I was lucky enough to come across another QPR fan exiled in The Netherlands. Neil Rowlands and I hit it off straight away and over the next couple of years we embarked on numerous road trips to London.
This involved 6am starts from Amsterdam, driving onto the Eurostar at Calais and a pre-match beer at The Springbok outside the ground. I’d always smirk to myself each time I passed Batman Close and then we’d indulge in a grease-tastic sausage and chips at Ocean Billy’s before a wander around the ironically titled QPR superstore. Together Neil and I never saw QPR lose, our trips including a 3-1 victory against Sunderland and 1-0 wins over Chelsea and Tottenham.
Since my Amsterdam days I’ve lived in China, Cambodia and Spain, though thanks to modern technology I have no problem keeping my finger on the button. There’s live streams, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, along with the indispensable QPR World, BBC iPlayer and the brilliant Playback Media podcast Open All R’s. But even then my brother often beats them all to be the first to deliver a piece of QPR news.
Every football team has its ups and downs, but I believe few clubs can rival the utter madness of QPR. There’s been plastic pitches, relegations and promotions. We’ve gone from rags to riches, been charged with illegal transfer and, suffered the indignity of an egomaniac owner. Homegrown heroes have come and gone, as well as overpaid scumbag mercenaries and a merry-go-round of managers. Who could have predicted guns in the boardroom? Or a massive on-pitch brawl during a friendly against China? Say what you like about this football club, but it’s never been boring.
There are lots of people who don’t get football. Each to their own I suppose and I can only attempt to explain what being a QPR fan means to me. It’s not just a bunch of guys kicking a ball around, it’s an intrinsic part of who I am and where I’m from. The club’s recent history is intertwined with my own, playing out alongside my childhood and teens before serving as an audio-visual memory bank to my explorations around the world.
Like music, film, literature and travel, I know QPR will always be a huge part of my life, my daily routine. I might not have the latest jersey anymore and I’ll certainly never get the tattoo, but as the old motto goes it’s definitely a case of ‘‘QPR till I die’’.
Leighton – April 2017.