Shallow end

The three smaller west London clubs have more in common than antipathy towards Chelsea. They even share some fans, says Anthony Hobbs

In footballing terms, the citizens of west London have had plenty to moan about over the years. A good number of them have become pretty adept at it, to the point of weary cynicism. With my own club, Queens Park Rangers, currently bouncing around at the bottom of the First Division and playing some staggeringly uninspiring football, this latent negativity does not need much persuading to come out into the open.

True, some of the neighbours seem to be doing all right at the moment, but for how long? Back in 1982-83, the newly arrived Ken Bates was interviewed on Football Focus. Asked how he reacted to the fact that Fulham and QPR were riding high at the top of the Second Division while his own “fashionable” be­hemoth thrashed around at the bottom, he retorted that “they’re entitled to their brief moment of glory”. While the remark summed up a patronising attitude from Chelsea which guarantees contempt for them from other west London fans, it has to be admitted that history has proved him correct.

In recent years, while Rangers have gone from European contenders to First Division strugglers, Brentford have been up and down to say the least and Fulham have only just started to enjoy themselves after years of decline. This is an area of London that has rarely been short of sizeable egos and large boasts, with Bates, Ron Noades and Mohammed Fayed currently more than living up to the standards set by Jim Gregory at Rangers and the unlamented Ernie Clay at Fulham, but too often the rhetoric has been far more impressive than the football.

One of west London’s problems is that none of its three smaller clubs has established itself over a long period of time as the most credible alternative to Chelsea. While each has a solid hard core of support, they cannot rely on the loyalty of a huge following like, say, Manchester City, who can call on 25,000 stalwarts even in the depths of the Second Division. QPR, Ful­ham, Brentford and even Chelsea themselves have had to maintain success on the field in order to get bodies through the turn­stiles, but none has been able to do so consistently. As Noades charmlessly re­marked to Brentford fans recently: “Because we’re not winning every week and playing attractive foot­ball, the gates go down to 4,000 even when we are at home to the league lead­ers.”

Perhaps that is hardly surprising, since Brentford have been largely eclipsed by their neighbours since their First Division heyday in the late 1930s. Similarly, Fulham failed to capitalise on their last spell in the First Division in the Sixties and QPR could not sustain the suc­cess of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Whe­ther it is a cause or an effect of such short bursts of prominence, it seems that a larger than average pro­portion of the local population professes a general interest in football with a leaning towards one of the local sides, rather than a fanatical devotion to a particular club. Indeed, rivalries shift ar­ound here, to the point where they can start to appear a little contrived.

From a QPR standpoint, for example, the view of the neighbours goes something like this: way back in the mists of time when we were in the Third Division South, many cited Brentford as our local rivals. As we progressed up the divisions while the Bees stayed where they were, we strove to develop a rivalry with Chel­sea who, being bigger and more successful, were largely indifferent. By the Eighties, we were regularly finishing above Chelsea, which perhaps led to a little more interest on their part. Fulham might have liked a rivalry with us at that time, but we couldn’t really be bothered. Now, while you still hear the odd anti-Chel­sea chant at Loftus Road, it’s a little bit half hearted. We’ve briefly enjoyed a bit of banter with Fulham as we have passed them on our travels in opposite directions through the divisions, but now they seem to be turning their attention towards next season’s revived confrontation with Chelsea.

With support meandering from one club to another and teams yo-yoing up and down the divisions, each of the clubs has had a real struggle to maintain support and interest in their times of crises. Rangers’ support, for example, already 3,000 down on recent years and still falling, would undoubtedly drop further should we slip into the Second Division.

One wonders whether this floating support is bigger than any of the clubs is prepared to admit. Per­haps the vehement reaction to the ill-fated “Ful­ham Park Rangers” scheme of the mid-Eighties per­suaded them that the loyal following of each club was larger than it really is. Whatever the reason, none of the people in charge appears to have reacted by at­tempting to root their club properly in the local com­munity, thereby building a solid enough base to ride out the bad times, preferring instead the rocky road of relying on rich benefactors.

I don’t want to begrudge Fulham their spot in the sunshine. After all, their hardcore of support has suffered its fair share of misery over the years. But I can’t help wondering whether the success they are enjoying is sustainable. Fayed has got a bottomless pit of cash, but if for any reason he loses interest, there seems little indication that anyone has thought of a Plan B. On a larger scale, free spending Chelsea don’t look a bad bet to be the first big name to slip off the back of the Premiership gravy train. One wonders what may become of them if they do.

In not too many years’ time, it would be no surprise to me to find talk of mergers and ground shares starting up again. At the moment, it is QPR and Brentford, as current paupers of the area, who appear to have the shortest odds on being involved. But in an area of shifting sands and shifting loyalties, a few short years could make a very big difference.

From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month