One of the most amazing things about seeing soccer in England is that stadiums which host top-flight players in one of the world’s greatest leagues are often right in the middle of some residential neighborhood — and the fans are right on top of the pitch.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than at Loftus Road, in West London, home of Queens Park Rangers. If you’re not familiar with English football you probably haven’t heard of QPR, since they are a small club that hasn’t won much. And if you were walking around in their neighborhood you could probably pass within two blocks of Loftus Road and not even notice it.
But if you were to see a QPR home game, you would find yourself practically sitting on top of the pitch, able to hear what the players are shouting at each other; and if you were in the right end of the ground, you’d be able to make eye contact with the visiting fans. These are all among the things I love about watching soccer in England.
Loftus Road only has 18,000 seats, about the size of an NBA arena in the States, and while it desperately needs to be replaced or at least updated, I really recommend it as a unique experience in the world of English footy.
A Little About QPR
Rangers have been around since the 1880s and played at Loftus Road since 1920, but they never made it to the top (then First) division until the 60s. They expanded the ground then, won the League Cup from Division 3 in 1967 (3-2 over West Brom, after trailing 2-0 at halftime, with the winner scored by Lazarus), got relegated, and made it back up in 1972. The main thing they were known for then was being the first team, in 1981, to put in artificial surface (they took it out after five years). That season, they made the FA Cup final but lost to Spurs in a replay. But then they went back down to the Championship for 15 years. They made it up for two years, got relegated again, and then made the playoff final to get back up. (Yes, England has playoffs.)
One thing you’ll need to know about QPR is Zamora’s goal. For the fans, that’s all you have to say. But if you’re new here, let’s review. In the world of English leagues (here’s a guide) they have promotion and relegation, and if you’re not in the Premier League the ultimate dream is to get into the Premier League. That’s entirely because of money and glory. But mostly money.
In May 2014, the final spot for the Premier League came down to a one-game playoff between QPR and Derby County, at Wembley Stadium in front of 80,000+ fans – and Bobby Zamora won it, late in the game, for QPR. Here’s the moment – listen to the crowd when he scores!
Rangers spent one year in the Premier League — that’s where they were when I visited in 2014 — and have been on the Championship ever since.
Tonight’s Opponent, Aston Villa
As you might imagine, getting a ticket to see QPR can be a little tough … unless it’s a Monday night game against a crap opponent. All due respect to Villa, who have won their share of trophies, but it’s been a while. And when they came to Loftus Road on this night in 2014, they had lost four straight games and not scored a goal since early in the game before that. It takes some doing to play 440 minutes of soccer and not score a goal, but Villa had done it – yet they were ahead of QPR in the Premier League table. So there was a sense about this game of a “relegation scrap.”
Villa is one of four big clubs in Greater Birmingham, a couple hours north of London; the others are Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion (currently in the Championship) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (currently in the Premier League). Villa is one of the most successful clubs in all of England — but since the early 80s, all they’ve won is the League Cup, and that in the 90s. As of 2014 they had been in the top flight since the Premier League was founded in 1992, though it had been close the last couple of years.
(Update for 2020-21: Villa were relegated but are back in the Premier League; QPR are still in the Championship.)
David and I took the Tube to Shepherds Bush and found ourselves faced with this outrageously modern mall called Westfield. It had fancy shops and a living wall and a fountain and a rather trippy escalator with swirling blue light. I was glad to be sober when I had to deal with that thing.
We walked down the busy high street, Uxbridge Road, and observed the old rule of “follow the colors,” through a fairly nice neighborhood with large houses, until we saw the lights of Loftus Road.
Once inside, we found the place to be amazingly small – indeed, cramped. The space between stand and fence was minuscule, as was the refreshment stand, and even more so the bathrooms. When I went into the bathroom at halftime I almost had an attack of claustrophobia.
The only big thing I saw was the price on a pint of beer – and a rather funny number at that.
Our seats, like every seat in the place, were right on top of the pitch – and we were more than halfway up to the top! I bet there’s no more than 30 rows in the whole place. And since we were down in the corner near the away fans, I got the sense that things could get tense in the right kind of game.
During warmups I got some shots of Villa’s keeper, Brad Guzan, who is an American and then the #3 keeper for the national team. This was my second sighting of an American keeper in a week, after seeing Tim Howard’s Everton play at Burnley. We Americans are good at goalkeeping, I suspect because we grow up catching balls with our hands rather than kicking them.
The fans had some good crazy color, including one guy with a big blue sombrero and one of those old-timey wooden-crank things, and this dude with a blue-and-white Mohawk, which I can only hope is temporary:
The legroom (or lack thereof) was absolutely shocking, as the Brits would say. I suspect this is because the stadium used to be for standing, so they just dropped in seats when they had to, back in the 80s. Still, spending the whole game with a stranger between my knees, another stranger’s knees on my shoulders, and an elbow in each side made me think that when I’m an eccentric millionaire I’ll just buy the damn seat in front of me, as well.
Finally the teams came out, and we were ready to roll.
Once the game got going, it became clear it wouldn’t be a classic. QPR’s goal-scoring hero, Charlie Austin, got one in each half, and Villa looked like they wouldn’t score in a week of playing. They left with a five-game losing streak and 530 minutes without a goal.
Here are the official highlights, with Italian commentary no less:
The real action of this game was in the stands, where I must say there was a rougher edge than I’m used to from previous games. It wasn’t dangerous or anything, but being that close to the away fans, and with each team struggling, it felt rather personal.
There was the usual banter from the away fans about the home support being shit, and they sang “Is this a library?” When the QPR fans started their basic “Come … on … you … Rrrrrrs!,” the Villa fans clapped sarcastically, then sang “We forgot you were here.”
This is all pretty standard banter, but when you can literally see the looks on their faces and point to specific individuals, it feels different. And one guy in our section was spewing some real bile, calling them scum and degenerates and telling them to peddle their bikes back up the motorway. And this is Aston Villa! I wonder what it’s like when Chelsea or Fulham visit; they’re from the same neighborhood.
Speaking of Chelsea, QPR had one fun chant:
West London is ours,
West London is ours!
Fuck off Chelsea!
West London is ours!
When QPR scored, it really went nuts, with the “Who are ya?” and the pointing, and this one unique thing that QPR does where they all yell “Hoop!” It comes from their home kits, which have blue and white hoops. Here they are after one goal. Notice how much attention is aimed not at the pitch, but at the Villa fans. Notice also the various hand gestures, including the jacking-off one. Also, at the end, you get to see Sombrero Guy with the wooden crank thing that everybody had in the old days.
After that, it was 2-0, and the Villa fans could only resort to “You only sing when you’re winning,” but they knew it was over. QPR fans taunted them with “You might as well fuck off” and “Your city is Blue,” referring to Birmingham City FC, aka The Blues.
Such was the bitterness that I heard later some of the Villa fans got into it with some of their own team afterwards. They certainly didn’t leave in a good mood, and as it happens I will see their next game at home, against Spurs. It will be interesting to sit amongst them and see how they view the world. (They lost that one, too.)
All in all, I have to say that going to a game at QPR is something that you should do, if you’re in London to catch games. It’s got an old-fashioned feel to it, and like the other lower-league teams around London, tickets shouldn’t be too tough to get, unless they’re playing a big team.