The unlikely club that made me care about football again
When you the passion for the sport you loved gets dulled, how do you rekindle the fire?
Football fans often seem on a permanent nostalgia kick, and there’s a reason for this. The sport in its current form can feel unexciting, its fans distant, with the game itself becoming more sports entertainment than sport. “The game’s gone” is a constant refrain from people disillusioned with elaborate transfer ‘reveals’ and clubs opening new ‘retail spaces’ before the actual stadium.
On a personal level, you might put my disillusionment down to my support for West Ham United, a club which followed one year of overperformance with misery and drudgery either side, all capped off with a move to a stadium which might be generously called ‘unpopular’. You might be aware of that part, at least – be it via the disgruntled fan invading the pitch and planting a corner flag in the centre circle, or the demolition of the club’s previous home as part of Dave Bautista film Final Score.
Travelling to games, when it happens, is an excuse to catch up with friends who I wouldn’t see otherwise, and highlights of the season rarely have anything to do with football. It’s an extrapolation of Mean Girls’ “On Wednesdays we wear pink” – a ritual, sure, but one whose original meaning we have long forgotten.
This wouldn’t have been a huge issue if I didn’t also write about football for a living. Perhaps it isn’t an issue at all, and the emotional distance is a benefit – but when I was offered the opportunity to write about West London underachievers Queens Park Rangers throughout the 2018/19 Championship season I treated it as work, rather than something which might bring me an emotional attachment of any kind. How wrong I was.
The site for whom I cover the club, Football.London, brought me in as an expansion of their Championship and League One coverage, and even within that framework I wouldn’t have made QPR my first choice.
I might not have had an emotional connection with any of the clubs on offer, but I live walking distance from the ground of another Championship club in Millwall, and I’d be lying if I said the potential for an early night’s sleep after midweek evening games wasn’t playing on my mind.
Millwall were unavailable, though, so QPR it was.
By the time I was ready to get out to my first game, though, there was a sense of tragicomedy around the club. They were unable to spend money on new players due to transfer restrictions following a failed legal challenge to the league’s Financial Fair Play rules and the club had just suffered its worst defeat in nearly 50 years (a blood-curdling 7-1 loss at West Brom).
At one point in the last few weeks I saw a journalist ask their fellow writer followers to name the worst sports team they had ever had the misfortune of covering, and thought I might have a new name to add to the list in the form of the hapless Hoops.
The first game I covered - a home match against Bristol City - was one which brings into focus the cruelty of football. The press section at QPR’s Loftus Road ground was packed, and there was no hiding why - almost everyone there was a hired vulture, sent along to revel in the misery of manager Steve McClaren.
McClaren is the sort of man who seems to carry misfortune around him like a bad smell he can’t shake. He peaked early in his career, being named England manager after just five years at club level, but ended up as the director of his own nightmare, as his bold decisions cost his country a place at the European Championships in 2008.
The early rise felt Faustian in retrospect: since then, he has rebuilt his reputation multiple times, only to then fall back down below where he began. He might just be the closest thing English football has to Gordon Bombay – a man cursed by opportunity but blessed with the knack of trading in hope.
“It’s looking at an unfashionable fandom you’ve always defended as genuine on instinct, and becoming able to explain why that’s true”
Little did I know at the time that this would make him the ideal man for QPR. The club has had exciting highs – two promotions to the Premier League this decade, including a last-minute Play-Off Final win against a Derby County team managed by McClaren himself in 2014 – but two relegations to go along with it.
When you live at the extremes, even boredom can be interesting, purely for providing variety. I might not have gone into my new job with high expectations, but even other people’s boredom is more exciting than your own boredom.
Considering the all-or-nothing sentiment around football, it feels like QPR’s situation is both universal and an outlier: that first Tuesday night saw them lose a ‘must-win’ game, but life went on. McClaren stuck around, even if the media who expected the game to be his last have rarely returned themselves.
Covering a team outside the Premier League gives you the chance to understand the transience of football. Only four of the 24 managers in the Championship, where QPR play, have been in their job for more than two years. The club itself was last in the Premier League in 2014/15, and just a single player from that squad remains on the books.
QPR’s form has picked up since the start of the season, but they haven’t achieved it in the way you’re supposed to. This is a bunch of cast-offs and misfits who have been thrown together and grown to live with one another and, as someone who has similarly ended up there in unlikely circumstances, I can empathise.
I’m not sure when I first caught myself involuntarily rising from my seat at a QPR chance, but it has started happening. When you’re amongst a crowd of people all willing on the same result, it’s hard not to get swept up in it for a second or two. There’s a sense of belonging, even for those who don’t technically belong, be that the loan players here for a year and a year only, or the reporters like myself who would never previously have considered Loftus Road ‘home’.
In QPR’s case, there’s plenty to care about beyond the on-pitch stuff, though: the club’s first win of the season came on the anniversary of the death of Ray Jones, one of the club’s most promising young players this century, who died in a car crash aged just days before his 19th birthday, back in 2007.
There is also the club’s proximity to the Grenfell Tower fire, and the work the club has done in supporting the community as those affected attempt to recover from the devastation.
Still, there remains a sense that – with some notable exceptions – QPR aren’t that much different from any other club. They’ve been the bad guys before, spending beyond their means and boasting unpopular players and managers in the not too distant past, and most clubs in the country have that duality of likeability and the opposite.
Am I just noticing it more due to enforced proximity? And if that is the case, does it even matter? I’m finding myself emotionally invested in a team in a way I don’t recognise in myself, and that feels…. I don’t know, meaningful somehow.
This isn’t meant to be one of those patronising pieces designed as a realisation that “football isn’t all about the Premier League”. It’s also more than just the novelty of being thrown into an unfamiliar situation. It’s looking at an unfashionable fandom you’ve always defended as genuine on instinct, and becoming able to explain why that’s true.
You quickly realise continuity can often be a myth, and the fans are – out of necessity – supporting the shirt rather than a group of players with whom they have no real affinity. If love for a band can overcome personnel changes and love for a book can incorporate an unfaithful TV adaptation, then the same can go for a football team regardless of the stage in history at which it becomes part of your life. I’ve been able to enjoy football again by finding something new which in many ways isn’t new at all.
Repetition can be draining, but I’ve been able to ditch exhausting stasis of my football fandom to learn something new about people less familiar to me. These QPR players are no longer just names I’ll glance past in match reports, not now they’re becoming a part of my week every week and, to a lesser degree, I’m becoming part of theirs.
However, like many of the players on whom I’m reporting, I have no idea whether I’m in it for the long haul or whether I’ll be shipped out elsewhere at the season’s close. Whatever the outcome, though, I’ll be able to put on my best impression of a media-trained footballer and say I’ve been grateful for the opportunity. And it’ll be true.