Sunday 21 August 2016

Making Hard Work Of It - QPR FC Vs Swindon Town FC, League Cup 1st Round, Loftus Road (10/08/16)

It’s no longer called the Capital One, Worthington, Coca Cola or Carling Cup, this year it’s been decided to give it a snappy, abbreviated, social media friendly name, the ‘EFL Cup’, or the League Cup to you and me, and although for the first time in my lifetime it’s not named after some two bit sponsor, it’s still the one that starts early, finishes early, and no clubs really want to be in.

I must admit it’s a competition quite close to my heart, in the twenty years I have been a Spurs fan, it’s the only thing I have seen us win, the memory of the last minute Allan Nielsen diving header winner against Leicester, is one no one can take away from me. It’s effectively the middle child between the FA Cup and the EFL Trophy (Johnstone's Paint Trophy), that gets you a day at Wembley, and nine times out of ten will derail your season if you win, because everyone is like ‘banked a bit of silverware there, season over’, but your thinking, 'come on it’s mid March, we've just lost four on the bounce'.

Perhaps trying to remember all League cups previous incarnations, is the reason I’m sitting on the bus with a skull crackingly bad headache, on my way to West London. It was the same round of the competition last year, that we made the trip to South East London, and the New Den, to watch Millwall take on Barnet in what turned out to be a minor upset. So when the chance arose to tick QPR off the list, all for £15, plus a £3 booking fee for ordering on the phone and collecting from the ground, can someone please explain what that is for?, it was an easy decision, also there is maybe, a very, very remote chance of bumping into Les Ferdinand.

I’ve been to Loftus road a couple of times, most recently to see Spurs in a completely unmemorable 0 - 0 draw, when the most interesting thing that happened was Sandro ruining his knee, or the colossal panic attack I had. Other than that, I took little away from my visit, other than it is tight, snug and compact ground.

Having only visited as an away fan, I enquired on Twitter as to the best place to sit. After sifting through the expected responses of “a seat”, “the directors box”, “3.2 miles up the road” which included a map showing the way to Leyton Orient, someone sensible suggested the “upper Loft”, but wherever I go, there will be no “leg room”.

‘Come on you R’s’ high up on one side of the ground is the first thing I see once the soft female robotic voice of my bus informs me I have arrived. The superstore below already has a healthy amount of people outside, and there's still over an hour and half to kick off, not that there is expected to be bumper crowd by any stretch of the imagination, one whole side of the ground is closed, but there are a fair few Swindon Town FC (ST) fans already milling about in their red shirts, who instantly make me think about Glenn Hoddle and the 1993 documentary ‘That’s Football!’.

Damn it, Tom is here before me, so I’m unable to gloat about being early two games in a row. Such was his promptness he has already been in the club shop to get his pin, I pop my head in, but quickly scarper like a soon to be victim in a Wes Anderson film, at the sight of foam fingers and a ‘Retro Section’.

ST’s coach passes us, and with no underground, multi story car park bat cave entrance, the likes of which you get at most modern stadiums, they just pull up on the main road, which separates the ground from a very large nearby housing estate, hop off and make their way in.

There is something wonderfully romantic, about these still standing suburban grounds, which were built in the early 1900’s, and over time a community has grown around them, intertwining with them, so much so it has become part of the landscape, in some places it’s hard to differentiate between house and ground. As we take in a lap it’s only the occasional gaps in the terraced houses, and the appearance of a blue gate that makes you realise what’s just behind, oh that and the flood lights.

Less than convinced by the food on offer at the local chippy or the burger van on the pavement behind a four by four, Tom asks himself out loud “does that look like a good place to eat? the answer must be a no, because we make our way in, food-less.

“A Kick Up The R's, brand new edition” shouts the fanzine seller standing in the middle of South Africa Road in the famous QPR hooped shirt, the black and red away version mind, not the blue and white home one. With a faded green money belt around his waist, he holds the publication high above his head, calling out like a throwback from an East End market.

In my early days going to White Hart Lane, I could put my house on the fact the same guy would be standing in the same doorway selling a Spurs fanzine. On one hand it has nothing to do with the club, completely unofficial, but on the other could not be any less important, than the ground or the badge. The humble fanzine is an integral part of football culture a counter voice to the party line, necessary satire of the club and a platform for the fans to speak their mind, all hopefully safe in the knowledge that you won't be getting a letter asking you to arrange a meeting to collect your season ticket.

One home fan is being turned away as we make our way towards our turnstile, a bit too much pre match loading I think, which is more than apparent by his crab like getaway.

“That’s a nice conservatory” says Tom as we climb the exterior stairs of the stand, such is the proximity to the nearby houses, I can make out the latest edition of Horse & Hound on someone's coffee table.

I wish I had been told to bring my glow sticks, because the music playing as we walk down the long narrow concourse to our block, is frankly a bit trippy, a little bit Whirligig, imagine black lights and neon trousers.

Most already here are standing heads tilted towards the TV screens showing Sky Sports news. Tom thinks he sees a rolling yellow banner alluding to an Arsenal transfer, and is as excited as someone who thinks they has just seen a Unicorn, but he isn't certain.

We find our seats, which isn't hard, its not a big stadium, but it’s perfectly formed, with it’s four closed corners. I wouldn't say we are high up, even though we are on the upper tier, it feels like I could reach down and touch the players warming up below. A few flags hang over the balcony of the stand to our right, the one to our left is closed, no-one will be occupying any of the white seats that spell out ‘QPR’.

“Welcome to Loftus Road” announces the voice over the speakers. The same voice shares with us the starting 11's, first up the visitors, who he reels off with all the enthusiasm of someone reading out a shopping list, even when he “welcomes back” an old player, his voice doesn't peak much above monotone. With ST done, it’s now QPR’s turn, which is preceded by what I can only imagine was a nose bag of amphetamines, because his change in tone and excitement level is remarkable, it could only be drug induced, it was so quick. All to its own pumping backing track, he reads out the home team players like it's the beginning of the super bowl, which is then finished off with a blast of ‘London’s Calling’ by the Clash.

Post audio assault, and thinking it can't be healthy for a person to be that up and down in a matter of thirty seconds, and with the sun slowly disappearing picturesquely over the roof of the far stand, it really is an agreeable scene, and I am quickly falling for this ground, but we are in pain, my knees and shins have been cut to ribbons by the chair in front, and we need to stretch our legs. Tom is sitting side saddle like a Victorian lady, and I think their is more of me in the aisle than in my seat, so we, or I should say Tom, with me following, go in search of food.

“£4.20 for Mums hot dog” considers Tom, not sure who's Mum’s it is, but I’m sure it’s some kind grey haired lady who before each match passionately hand crafts the frankfurters, and It’s not a cynical marketing trick to make it sound all cozy and homely and help you forget that it’s the pulverised eyelids and hooves that it is. When Tom spots one of ‘Mum’s’ in the flesh, he is quick to flash me an ‘ABORT, ABORT, ABORT’ look, instead going for the beer in a plastic bottle and pie.

I opt for an Oasis, which tastes like a bottle of a thousand melted ice poles, and refrained from food, even one gram of fat, might mean I won’t be able to get into any of my seat.

Tom as ever, is eager, pulling the pie from it’s hot plastic wrapper, he delves in with his wooden spoon. The next couple of minutes are similar to an episode of Alan Partridge, with a meat pie instead of an apple one and a football ground instead of a petrol station. Tom is forced to contort his face in such a way as to allow him to move the brown scalding mush around his mouth to prevent further burns, all with his mouth fully open, to allow for the escape of the meaty steam. He is appalled at the way he is behaving, the combination of the imminent kick off and the heat has reduced him, in his own words to eating it like a “dog”.

Bringing your own food, that’s the way to do it, we say it every time Tom finishes something he wished he hadn't and is overcome with self loathing. The woman sitting behind us who is surreptitiously prying open bread rolls and stuffing a bit of ham in it, before handing it out to her family, should be an inspiration to us all.

The big screen at the opposite end of the ground counts down to kick off, an army of fully kitted mascots and flag bearers mill about at the mouth of the tunnel. Despite the blaring Libertines song, the ST fans can be heard over the music, and are in good voice, “we’re the red and white army”.

“Welcome to the hallowed turf” says the alleged recreational drug user announcer, as the players arrive, amongst a blur of waving flags. The choice of music is akin to a montage from Top Gear, instrumental, guitar riff heavy, and the big screen repeats ‘we are QPR’ and ‘this is Loftus Road’ like something from Clockwork Orange.

“Get behind them from the first minute to the last” he shouts, as QPR prepare for kick off, the fans around us dish out their own customary call “come on you Hoops”, “come on you R’s”. ST’s fans are less than impressed, “your support is fucking shit”.

Along with hoping to bump into Sir Les Ferdinand, he just hangs around here right? The other former Premier League striker, we are guaranteed to maybe not bump into, but at least see, is Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, “there's Jimmy” points out Tom. It’s hard to miss him, standing on the touch line in a brilliant white shirt, just itching to twat a ball at one hundred miles an hour into the top right hand corner. I bet he could, I bet he could still almost break the crossbar.

Some football fans are reluctant to praise a player who plays for other clubs, taking the ‘he don't play for us, so he's shit’ approach, short of getting a tattoo and a shirt with his name on, I will happily give credit where credit's due, and with Hasselbaink I’ll dish it out in buckets, he’s one of my all time favourites!

“Hello, hello we are the Swindon boys” sing the ST supporters who have not stopped, and it’s their team that get the first shot on target, albeit a little tame, but they certainly look the more sprightly of the two teams.

Although the fans around us offer up the occasional shout, the noisiest are the mostly standing group to our far left, who have pushed themselves against the fence separating them from the closed stand, “everywhere we go”.

The home fans eventually have something to get excited about, but I’m not sure anyone could see it properly because the setting sun is now at such a level, most people are having to shield their eyes with their hands. It was a brilliant diagonal ball that found the player perfectly flying down the wing, and his half volleyed cross causes all sorts of furor, but no goal.

QPR are growing into the game, and are slowly starting to control it, creating plenty of chances. The cross field ball from left to right is working well, and they have good pace on the wings, but look determined at times to be the “authors of their own pain” to steal a Blofeld line. When they give the ball away, one fans timing near us is impeccable, “fuck off” he shouts, as ST shot on goal, which again resulted from QPR’s sloppy play, but thankfully it’s a bit limp once again.

Midgame a mobile number appears on the screen, inviting text’s from fans who have witnessed ‘unacceptable behaviour’, Tom suggests I “get my phone out” and prepares to dictate a message, convinced the seating arrangements could well be considered unacceptable, “I can’t feel my shins right now” is his proposed memo, “it’s the most uncomfortable I have ever been”.

The sun finally disappears over the roof of the School End, and although it's a bit chilly, people are reaching for cardigans and jackets, it's still a gorgeous evening for watching football.

ST are getting opportunities, normally with an assist from the home team, only the legs of the QPR keeper can stop their latest attempt, which is finally hit with some venom. QPR are hardly blessed with a decent cup record, in any competition. The grim look on many of the fans faces around us represents that, they seem resigned to the ultimate disappointment of defeat.

Tom’s analysis on the thirty minute mark is that QPR are good at “blocking”, insightful, I guess, if not a little brief. Not long after his Paul Merson’esq observations, this skill of theirs is required again, as ST look destined to grab a goal.

With the break approaching Tom wants me to get him a “Snickers”, but he will not consider another bottle of Carlsberg because it was “horrible”. Not only is Tom a fine barber, photographer, football pundit, but he also it seems has one finger pressed firmly against the beating pulse of the world of marketing, and has noticed a glaring hole in QPR’s branding: the signs around the pitch are advertising Ginsters, but they sell Pukka pies! This is akin to when Messi was seen drinking a Coke, heads will surely roll, I can only imagine he will be firing off an email to Tony Fernandes in the morning, offering his services like Mary Portas.

The half finishes with QPR once again being caught out inside the left back. The keeper is forced to charge off his line, is easily rounded only for a player to block the certain goal on the line. The man along from us has his head in his hands, two children in front of us, have had a enough, and have fallen asleep.

On the half time whistle sandwich making behind us recommences, and I think I spot a few coconut chunks being handed out.

QPR’s mascot a large black cat does the rounds, at one point he points to a person in the stand and gestures outside, maybe they have a bit of previous, but it seems very unsavoury from a club representative, tut, tut. The half time entertainment round here, which gets you a goody bag, is the challenge of chipping a football into what I can only describe as one of those things they use to wrap your Christmas tree.

One fan coming back to their seat is optimistic, “ 3 - 1 QPR” he says. Tom returns without his desired Snickers, but impressed that they have a smoking area, if he had known before hand, he wouldn’t have had to chug on his vape cig in the loo like a crackhead.

“Welcome back your Queens Park Rangers” says Bez on the mic, still super hyped and backed by more 90’s dance music.

A big shout for a home penalty plays out right below us, it was clearly shoulder to shoulder,  and when it’s not given, all the “fucking hell ref” and hard done by noises you would expect follow, Tom quite rightly says it would have been a bit “harsh” if it had been given. Much to the relief of the tense home crowd, not long after they go ahead, the players trot off down the goal line in front of us celebrating, close enough, you could join in.

The fans are now a lot louder, “we’re the pride of West London” they decree, the cage crew are now hitting their chain link partition with extra vigour, and stick it to their neighbours “stand up if you hate Chelsea”.

Tom’s legs have completely gone to sleep, I wish Sir Les was here with his helicopter, he could airlift him to hospital, he starts to scribble a will on the back of his ticket, he is not sure if he is going to make it, his agony is not helped by the referee's insistence of continuously blowing his whistle, he seems determined not to let the game flow, “it's getting boring” he says in his array of contoured pretzel like positions.

QPR’s lead lasts all but of about fifteen minutes, although not because they had slammed their fist on the big red self destruction button, it’s a fluke, a ricochet that sends the ST attacker unopposed and bearing down on goal, he waits for the ball to bounce and then hits it on the half volley. Whereas our end is engulfed in a large sigh, the ST end has erupted “we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” they claim, “if you love Swindon, stand up” they sing, I would definitely be standing love or no love, it would be far more comfortable.

It’s all ST now, the QPR fans seem again resigned to their fate, and are getting angry, one is even looking for divine intervention when the keeper almost blows it. Trying to be tricky in the box, with a drag back or three he almost gets caught out “JESUS” he screams, from my own experience deities don’t meddle in the world of football, except if your Maradona.

Jimmy does his best from his technical area, with his ear splitting whistle, but to no avail. There is a small outbreak of fistycuffs, a full team on team jostle, but nothing major, we are going to extra time.

More jumpers go on, preparing for another thirty minutes, the sky is now jet black. People seem a little deflated, ST are a division below, and really should be on the way home, when one shouts “come on Rangers” it’s a little lackluster.

“Deh, Deh, Deh Hoops” how the mood can change in the blink of an eye, another ball across the box a shout of “hit it” from someone behind us, and the player obliges, 2 -1. It’s QPR’s turn to "ollay" the team passing the ball about, the likelihood of another goal seems certain, but the win still feels less than secure.

Quick drink, quick word from the boss, change of ends, second half of extra time, “come on Rangers” someone shouts, which sounds like more of a plea, than anything else.

The metaphorical blue and white fist of QPR has lifted itself above its head and has firmly smashed the self destruct button, in fact it's lifting it up and down, repeatedly hitting away just to make sure, 2 - 2. Eyes roll to the heavens, I told you already they can't help you up there and many cheeks are puffed in disappointment, one fan says it best “poor”.

“We’ve only got ten men, we’ve only got ten men” sing the ST fans, have you? A couple of head counts later, they are right. ST have used all their subs, and a player has gone off injured, it's just extra salt in the wound. The woman with the sleeping children, who are now awake, is upset, but has to moderate her displeasure, “that's toilet”.

In the final moments of extra time, QPR chuck the kitchen sink at ST, whose fans are now the quietest they have been all night, the home fans have one more rally “COME ON YOU R’S”, someone is banging the back of the stand, and the players respond. A shot goes just wide “ooooo” and another is flashed across the goal.

ST’s keeper in a pink jersey, a rather garish shade, not an effortlessly cool Buffon one, tries halfheartedly to waste some time, claiming an imaginary head injury, but can't live with the shame of his public display of bullshit, and gives up, but it doesn't matter, shootout here we come.

The captains are led away by the referee for the coin toss. Much to the delight of the traveling fans, the players are making their way up towards them. Both teams line up arms around each other on the halfway line, as the first taker, a ST player, makes his way for the first penalty.

QPR’s keeper is the hero, with two saves, much to the audible relief and delight of the now departing home fans, after a mixed one hundred and twenty minutes for their team, one supporter is so over joyed he breaks free of the agreed restraints of the stand and dashes across the pitch, playing his own game of 'catch' with the lumbering high viz wearing stewards, side stepping and weaving away from their attempts to catch him.

“Talk about making hard work of it”, is the sentiment of one fan as we make our way home, one of the many children who are here, are far from sympathetic for their defeated foe, “Swindon are rubbish, Swindon are out” they sing with much glee.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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