Life in London chapter III
Going to a football match is a religious ritual. This is not a very original statement; a lot of fans see their match day experience in very much the same light. For DHH however, the service is not restricted to the 2 x 45 minutes of action. A match day in London starts with breakfast and does not end till after midnight. The breakfast is not very healthy and neither is all the time spent in pubs. As a matter of fact, the same can very often be said about watching Queens Park Rangers play football.
Since being relegated from the Premier League in 2015, Queens Park Rangers has been playing on the second level of the English football pyramid. watching the. Myself, I came to Loftus Road stadium in West London for the first time in 1972. Now we spend large parts of the 2017/18-season living here and watching them regularly, but the excitement of a home game is still the same. Seeing the fans in the blue and white hoops filling the pubs and the local streets is very much a turn-on. So are the crowds outside the gates, the burger stands and the program sellers, the scarves and the pins and the cheers ringing thru the air. We’re The Greatest Football Team The World Has Ever Seen!
Excluding the obvious process of getting out of bed, the average home game starts with the purchase of the Saturday edition of the Times of London at my friend Yogi’s place. Yogi owns a small shop in Uxbridge Road, just a couple of doors from The Green Pub. I have known him since I started staying at the Grantly hotel across the park, at the time he was the only newsagent between the hotel and my regular breakfast cafe.
Yogi’s name is actually not Yogi, but it is the name over the door of his shop. His real name has too many letters and too many syllables for me to remember. When I enter I always find today’s issue on the low shelf to the right inside his door – unless todays delivery has been stolen before opening time, that is. The world is full of charming people, and some of them have the early morning habit of taking plastic packed newspaper bundles from outside the door of one newsagent in the hope of selling them on the cheap to another.
I know Yogi well enough to know that he has teenage kids and that he would like to sell the shop and do something else, but that potential buyers are not queuing up to take over a narrow kiosk next door to a Sainsbury’s Local. His shop is always open and he is always there himself. The Saturday Times is big and bulky. English newspaper readers have not discovered the Internet to the same extent as their Norwegian counterparts. This means that yesterday’s events are still widely available on print, and on weekends I have to use force to fold the paper to make it fit under my arm.
– How are you today, Yogi asks me with a grin. Every time.
– I always feel good … before the match… It is after the match that life can be painful and difficult, I answer him. Every time.
He grins even more. Every time. After all, he is a newsagent in Shepherd’s Bush and he has had QPR fans in his shop before. He knows who we play today and who we played last week. He knows who scores our goals and who doesn’t, but he has actually never been to a match himself.
– Not enough money, not enough time, he explains. Time is probably the biggest problem, because Yogi is always at work. Always as in «always». It costs money to take time off, it costs money to pay somebody else even if it is only for half an afternoon.
From Yogis shop I walk a couple of hundred yards along Uxbridge Road, toward the Shepherds Bush tube station. Half way there I arrive at Peri Peri, a spectacularly unspectacular little cafe with a dozen chairs and half a dozen tables. This zero-star establishment has two things to offer that no other cafe can provide; an inexpensive menu and an owner who knows exactly what I want. I have been here so often that I do not have to order anymore. I just say hello and sit down, and as by magic, my table starts filling up all by itself!
The menu that arrives is called «The Workman». That is a nice little joke of course, when served to a retired person who has not touched honest work in years, someone who sold his beautiful Swiss farmhouse home because he was too lazy to mow the lawn. The Workman consists of bacon with too much fat, sausages with too tough skin, toast with too much butter, beans with too much sauce and coffee with too much water. I love every bit of it!
By now we are approaching 11 am and the hardest choice of the day; selecting what pub to go to. The laziest option is the Wetherspoon on the first floor in the shopping centre across from Peri Peri. It opens at 11 sharp, it has enough space and it has a good row of window seats. If the idea is to meet fellow Norwegian supporters however, the obvious choice is The Green in Uxbridge Road. This pub is situated half way between the two Shepherds Bush tube stations, and it is the easiest one to find for those who do not know the area so well. A third possibility is The White Horse. This is the place for those who love sitting in dark corners enjoying the cigarette smell that entered the wallboards before smoking in English pubs was prohibited some 12 years ago.
The best option however is Crown and Sceptre, hidden in a residential area some 15 minutes away. This is not the choice for Shepherd’s Bush newcomers, you need to know your way to find it, but the walk is well worth the trouble. The match day QPR-factor is high, from the pictures on the walls to the hooped shirts filtering in from the first minute of opening time. This is the pub where Stan Bowles used to go behind the bar to serve when he felt like, and the pub where the final episode of the cult series «Boys from the Bush» was filmed around 1990.
The pub choice is important, because I only have two hours, which is only enough time for half a dozen pints. At 1 or 1.30 or so I need to move on, because the most important part of the warm-up is the very last: hanging around the stadium no less than 90 minutes before the 3 pm kick off. I need my hamburger lunch (about as healthy as The Workman) in the converted caravan outside the former Springbok pub. I need to see the home fans fill up South Africa Road and I need to have a pint or two of the very local Shepherds Bush beer.
Unfortunately, the local pub is a bit of a let-down these days. The old Springbok pub next to the stadium is under new ownership, and unfortunately this has meant that the QPR Loyal Supporters Association have lost the private cave in the basement. The first floor bar is always crammed approaching kick off, so getting the last pre-match pint is a proper pub-floor dogfight. The new owner Damien is a nice enough chap, but he has not been able to turn the pub into the local area hub that he was planning for. The place is actually closed most of the week apart from match days. He has even renamed the place «The Queens Tavern», but I am sorry to have to tell him that it will always be The Springbok to me. He does however have the QPR Norway team picture from the 2009 Oslo Supporters Cup hanging by the end of the bar, and he did give me a free beer when I told him I was the photographer!
For somebody as hooked on the pre match rituals the actual game is almost an anti-climax. Entering the stadium gates tells me that the warm up is now over, and that the time has come for the serious business. Now I am not in control anymore. I can choose which pub to go to, where to buy the Saturday newspaper and even what paper to buy, but I cannot make the players perform if they are not up to it. Will striker Matt Smith be a hit or a miss? Will central defender Joel Lynch play like the rock of Gibraltar or will he fall to earth like the Tower of Babel? Will Luke Freeman serve the strikers with the elegance of a Michelin star waiter, or will he drop the plates on the floor and make a mess?
I don’t really like the stress this kind of uncertainty brings. I am the kind of guy who enjoys a TV crime story the best when I have already googled the plot. Did the butler actually do it? Will the hero survive the ending? Will The Boy get The Girl, or will she dump him? When I know those answers I can enjoy the film, otherwise I feel to edgy for comfort.
Knowing the outcome is not an option however, when you watch a live football match. I will have to live with the uncertainty, whether I like it or not. And every now and then, miracle of all miracles, also QPR can get the Princess, half the Kingdom of all of the 3 points. I started the season of 2017/18 under the illusion that we did have a good striker (Washington) and a solid backline (Onuoha, Lynch and Perch) after 2-0 over Reading. Later in the season I reached nirvana winning 4-1 over Norwich, and I got to relive my very first Loftus Road-match when we beat Sheffield Wednesday 4-2 after leading 3-0. Exactly the same thing happened, against the same opponent, when I first came to the ground in august 1972. I have also seen the team fight tooth and nail to rescue 2-2 after going 0-2 down against both Millwall and Brentford. Worse however, all three times when the QPR Norway fan group did group tours to London during this season, we lost the match 1-2.
Naturally, the overall feeling after a match depends on the result. Still, some wins taste better than others. Nothing is better than winning in the final minutes, and nothing feels worse than losing in the final minutes. For me, watching QPR take an early lead is not so enjoyable either. Nothing makes me more nervous than having something to lose. The bladder is bursting from the pre-match beer, but the Loftus Road stands are so tight that you cannot get backstage to the loo before half time. The neighbours’ elbow is cracking my ribs and my kneecaps are squeezed against the back of the seat in front. As a middle-aged man one should get a discount prostate amputation along with the season ticket, so one could acquire a storage capacity good enough to handle at least two pints of lager until the first half was over.
Seeing the QPR score the first goal of the game is like going to the dentist. You sit there just waiting for the drill to go through the floor of the tooth and into the nerve. Locked up like a hooped fox in a cage, you sit and wait for the opposition to score, which way to often, they do.
Is QPR really The Greatest Football Team The World Has Ever Seen? To be honest no, they are not. Not really.
Being Norwegian, having adopted a football club in another country, I am of course a little different from the average local fan. It is not about lack of dedication or passion, after all, I have been coming and going for almost half a century. I have never been a regular spectator before 17/18, but I know all about the historical highs and lows. I know the big games and the great players as well as anybody who has grown up by the stadium gates.
What I still do not master however is the indigenous cynicism, the attitude that not only is our club the best in the world, but also the worst. You scream from the stands how proud you are of your club, but on the other hand nobody has midfielders as slow as ours. Nobody has attackers as toothless, defenders as fragile or a goalkeeper with more slippery hands. There is not a footballer in the Championship who runs more awkwardly than Matt Smith, who makes worse crosses than Jake Bidwell, who provides more goofers than Ned Onouha or kicks bigger holes in the air than Joel Lynch.
Our manager is a tactical shit, the football director is corrupt and the owner totally incompetent. No club is worse than ours, except all the others of course. We are completely hopeless, but the others are much worse and fortunately we are not as slimy as everyone at Chelscum. John Terry, we know what you said!
Nobody abuses and despises those they love more than football fans, and no club employs more idiots than QPR. I know it’s true, because every other English QPR-fan I talk to tell me so!
It all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Something else that makes perfect sense, to me at least, is that you do not block your fellow supporters from watching the game just because you can. The standing terraces in England’s top divisions disappeared after the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield in 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were killed. Still, English fans dream about the good old days when they did not have to sit down, and as a result, some refuse to do so.
Regularly, the «if you love Rangers stand up» battle cry rolls across the arena, and people get up and applaud for half a minute. Fair enough. This is Loftus Road, space is tight and we all have a legitimate need to stretch our legs once in a while. The problem is those who do not sit down afterwards, those who insist that they are allowed to stay on their feet just because they feel like. Yes, you can compensate by standing up yourself, but then at the expense of those even further back. And if somebody gets totally blocked because of painful hips, bad backs or short legs, then who cares. If you love Rangers, stand up!
However, and worse in my opinion, are those who jumps to their feet as soon as something exiting happens somewhere on the pitch. A scoring chance, a hard tackle, a save by the keeper, an exchange in the penalty area. In the middle of the situation he flies to his feet, and before anyone behind him understand what is about to happen, it has already happened. I have lost track of how many goals I have missed because of such behaviour.
An interesting consequence of having season tickets is that you have the same people around you at every game. This is fine when the neighbours you get to know are nice, but not quite so fine when you end up arguing. After having spent a full season in seats 175 and 176 on S-row, we have learned that we will never become bosom buddies with the chaps in seat 175 and 174, on R-row. When 174 had blocked my view every 10 minutes for the third match in a row, I had had enough. I hit him on the shoulder, telling him to stop it. No, I was probably not very calm and collected. I am one of those who hold the anger back a little too long before I react, so when I do, I am not always the best diplomat.
– I’m sure you have a great body, but that is not what I have paid to watch. Could you please do me a favour and stay seated?
The guy has half-long, greasy hair and is in his forties. He looks like a wannabe hippie who was never allowed by his wife to take the Flower-Power-look from 1968 as far as he would have liked. However, there was not much Piece-and-Love in his voice when he turned around to and responded.
– Could you please take your hand the f… off my shoulder?
– Could you please sit the f… down in your seat? I’ve paid 30 pounds to watch the football match, not the back of your coat!
– Could you please get out of here and go f… yourself?
Believe it or not, we both included the «please». All abuse aside, this is still England. The conversation did not last very long however. He did give me some more detailed advice as to how I could spend my time if I happened to have a spare minute in one of the boots in the backstage toilets. I informed him, more calmly now, that performing sexual acts upon myself was not the purpose of my visit to the stadium. I found my response both logical and polite, but it failed to improve his mood.
His buddy in seat 175 R is a gentleman of nearly 60 with a constant sour facial expression. He is one of those I have seen around Loftus Road for years without ever having talked to, and we did not really get into much small talk this time either. However, he sits down a bit more and swears a bit less than his friend, I’ll give him that much. When he also turned around, he was a little more diplomatic.
– Do you see those sitting in front of us? They rose up first, they blocked our view first, he explained.
– I see them very well, because I sit higher than you. I only tell you off when you are the first ones to rise to your feet, I replied.
Number 174 then gave me another couple of hits as to what I could do to improve my quality of life the men’s toilet, but by now our exchange was basically over. It did help however. Neither of the two guys behaved in this way again, but they did not send me any Christmas cards either.
Throughout the season QPR won 12 of their 23 home league matches. Seven of the 12 home ended with a one goal margin. This meant that there were quite a few nervous countdowns during the final minutes. There are rituals for this too, involving the mobile phone stopwatch.
We go past 90 minutes and the opponents are pushing for the equalizer. 91 minutes, and Alex Baptiste boots the ball out with some power no one thought he ever had. 92 minutes, and Bright Osayi-Samuel keeps the ball in the opposition penalty area just long enough for me to get my heart rhythm down below 150. 93 minutes and the enemy get the one big scoring chance we are all waiting for – but they miss! 94 minutes, and our goalkeeper caresses the ball like he would a sleeping baby does all the time wasting he dares to do! 95 minutes, the whistle goes, and the three of the four sides of the stadium explode in a mix of an orgasm and a heart attack. Behind the goal at The School End, where the away supporters are confined to seats even more bonecrushingly tight than those occupied by the home fans, people stare at their feet in silence as they prepare for a very, very, very long way home.
For us, living in Shepherds Bush, the trip is shorter. Win, lose or draw, we walk silently down the staircases, reflecting on our team’s ability, our points, our luck (or lack of it) and our table position. Again, it is time for making some important decisions. In what pub do we celebrate our win or drown the sorrow of our losses? Where do we go to have dinner? Win, lose or draw, at least we are again in control over what is going to happen next.
The very last item on our Saturday agenda is going home in time for BBC and Match of the Day, the best football roundup broadcast ever. Gary Lineker, still the highest scoring Englishman in the football World Cup, has been the presenter since 1999. Match of The Day is so blessedly free from heartache and defeat. After all, it is about the Premier League and QPR hasn’t lost a single match on that program since 2015 …
Match of The Day is the best imaginable end to any good – or bad – day of football. I don’t have to fight anybody, neither in the Loftus Road stands nor in front of the bar at the pub. Other than the wife that is, whenever she decides to tell me that my eleventh pint of the day is one to many.
I tell her she has no clue. I tell her she has not been counting. She tells me that neither have I. Is it really no more than eleven?
She is right, of course, but I turn away, heading for the fridge, pretending she isn’t. I tell her that eleven pints of beer is not at all what match day at QPR is about.
It is about at least twelve. And bytheway, We are The Greatest Football Team The World Has Ever Seen!
I’ll definitively drink to that. Cheers.