THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Loftus Road has become a must-see destination for A-list celebs and reclusive billionaires, apparently – but this mysterious turn of events is yet to make much difference to facilities for fans or to the quality of the team, even if QPR are strong enough to see off promoted rivals, writes Taylor Parkes

When I was six, too young to have a team but old enough to understand, someone approached me in the playground and asked who I supported. In the late Seventies, any answer other than “Liverpool” was going to invite derision, but for once in my life I was determined to avoid the easy option. “Queens Park Rangers,” I replied, randomly, and was almost blown over by forced, hysterical laughter. “Hahahahaha – they’re rubbish!” This may have been true (they went down that year), but it struck me as somewhat ungracious coming from a six-year-old glory hunter. Ten minutes later, a stranger approached me and said: “I heard you support Queens Park Rangers.” I played along: “Yes, I do.” “Hahahahaha,” they said. “Hahahahahaha!”

These things stay with you. I never did support QPR, but thanks to that odd and instructive afternoon, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Super Hoops. So I have kept a close watch as this once-broke club passed into the hands of more mysterious strangers, alighting on English football with sackfuls of cash and glam. Who do we have here? Ber­nie Ecclestone needs no introduction. Flavio Briatore sold overpriced jumpers using images of AIDS victims and dead Bosnian soldiers, and once escaped a four-and-a-half year prison sentence for fraud by fleeing to the Virgin Islands. Lakshmi Mittal, the fourth richest man in the world, has a 20 per cent stake and a pretty impressive record: thousands of unemployed steel­workers can thank him for their newly abundant leisure time, while alleged corner-cutting in his central Asian mines once managed to kill 23 workers in a single month. Like Ecclestone, Mittal helped earn Tony Blair’s government its squeaky-clean reputation. Still, this is football, no one cares where the money comes from – right?

Wandering into the press room, it’s obvious where some of the money has gone. Stripped pine floors, tasty pasta lunch – most clubs at this level make do with a disused store cupboard filled with crisps, and a tea urn from a 1950s hospital. This is pretty swish: subtle lighting, the new club crest on the wall looking slightly tacky but terribly expensive, a huge plasma-screen for the ever-present Sky Sports. A black-and-white photograph of Rodney Marsh smirks down from the wall, while next to him the young Terry Venables looms, on his haunches, as though ready to pounce on a loose £50 note.

No one lets me near the corporate facilities, but by all accounts they’ve been refurbished as lavishly as you’d expect, now they have to play host to the likes of Naomi Campbell and, er, Tamara Beckwith. The oversized, overpriced programme even boasts a ­column by Paul Morrissey (OK, I doubt it’s the same Paul Morrissey who directed all those Andy Warhol films, but you know, it might be. Perhaps he caught a glimpse of Bernie Ecclestone and got confused?).

Anyway, these chaps aren’t made of money – the Hoops hardcore have contributed to this largesse, since top-end season tickets have almost doubled in price. Yet whatever has changed at Loftus Road, it hasn’t trickled down to the fans. The stadium is still the same old concrete and corrugated metal, and, apart from a lick of paint, nothing out there seems much different from my previous visit, more than ten years ago. Even the press box is a mess, anyone arriving or leaving having to clamber over burly hacks like in a bad cinema.

You can see the fancy seats from here, though the visit of Doncaster Rovers has somehow failed to attract the stars: Martin Keown shyly takes his place in front of me and there’s a bloke in shades and an expensive overcoat who at least acts as though everyone knows who he is, but that’s about it. The stench of money wafts from the directors’ box, but that sea of overpriced off-the-peg suits and spray-on tan looks more like an estate agent’s birthday party than the Monaco Grand Prix.

It has been a year since the tragic death of teenage striker Ray Jones, who is commemorated in the programme and on the big screen. The occasion is handled admirably – whatever’s changed at QPR in the past 12 months, the club have not lost their humanity. Unfortunately, once the game starts, it’s clear that much else remains the same. On the pitch, Rangers are still a solid Championship side, competent but not ­compelling, strong but lacking spark.

Newly promoted Doncaster have exhausted the nationwide goodwill that comes from pipping Leeds to honours and it looks like their expansive style will need some tweaking for the giddy heights of the Championship. All afternoon they attempt to play football, sometimes succeeding, but never coming close to scoring (rarely coming close to shooting). They stream forward, showing off their charming one-twos and convincing flicks, but QPR are a big side and highly adept at getting in the way. Over and over again, unable to progress, Rovers resort to laying off the ball to an overlapping full-back who wellies it into the area, where a hooped giant nuts the threat aside.

Worse, their defence are gazing at windmills on Venus: after five minutes, QPR’s loan midfielder from Real Madrid, Daniel Parejo, chips in a simple free-kick that sails over everyone’s heads and is tapped in by Dexter Blackstock, standing on his own, one inch out. Moments later, Damien Delaney strolls on to the end of another cheap chance (which, luckily for Rovers, he sends into low-Earth orbit) and it becomes clear that Doncaster will have to tighten up, and fast.

Instead, QPR settle on the lead and their stars wake up. Lee Cook is a passable left-winger who looks like Gheorghe Hagi for half an hour, skipping past ­players who ­helpfully fall over, allowing him to run four steps out of his way and pick up the ball he miscontrolled when shimmying in front of them. On 28 minutes, Mikele Leigertwood punts a quick free-kick down the pitch; Emmanuel Ledesma, another glamorous loan signing, makes a smart run and scores the second goal – his first for the club – to shut Doncaster down for good.

Energised, Ledesma goes on to spend the rest of the match jinking his way through mesmerised defenders who have only seen tricky Argentine midfielders on video, and whose trepidation gives him the extra half‑second he needs, every time. As the first half winds down, he leaps on to a poor cross and pulls off an acrobatic scissor-kick, which cannons off a lucky Neil Sullivan in the Rovers goal; QPR are less than convincing overall, but you wouldn’t have to be Stan Bowles to stick a bet on this one.

The general standard of play is no better in the second half: non-pin-up-boy Peter Ramage (who looks as shaky here as he did at Newcastle) aims a long pass at Blackstock, and puts the ball on the roof. During a lengthy stoppage, exasperated Rovers fans keep up a tribal drumbeat and engage in a shout-off with the quietest, emptiest stand in Loftus Road. The rest of the ground comes to their aid, before everyone seems to get bored simultaneously, and the entire stadium lapses into a muggy, overcast silence. There’s no drama left in the match: Ledesma bolsters national ­stereotypes by rolling around and howling after someone bumps into him from behind, while Blackstock busies himself by taking far too many touches and being knocked over repeatedly. At no point does a Doncaster comeback look any more likely than the entry of Christ into Shepherd’s Bush.

At full time, there’s much courting of the cameras from the directors’ box, thumbs aloft. Back in the press room, local journalists guzzle lukewarm left-over lasagne and kill time with Hoops-related trivia (“Andy Sinton had a company that did testing for food allergies, you know”), before the managers arrive to sit among the shiny things and jaw. Rovers boss Sean O’Driscoll speaks so quietly that he’s drowned out by my wristwatch, and looks like he’s just been told his dog has three weeks to live; Iain Dowie, conversely, is confident, expansive and authentically charming, booming his cliches and even engaging in some light banter with reporters (fans may have mixed opinions on his suitability for the job, but if he carries on like this, you won’t see too many harsh words in the press).

Since neither of QPR’s best players speaks a word of English, Dexter Blackstock shows up in a flash suit and winklepickers, to say nothing of interest whatsoever. Only when someone mentions promotion does he seem animated: “I’d love to make it into the Premier League,” he breathes, trembling with anticipation. Something tells me he’s not the only one. If it doesn’t happen, and soon, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Outside, a beaming Ledesma poses for pictures with fans, before clambering into an unfeasibly large people-carrier and speeding off past the White City estate, where a noisy party is in progress. He disappears into the unpredictable distance; grime beats, raised voices and thick clouds of barbecue smoke drift the other way down South Africa Road.

From WSC 260 October 2008

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