As a restless teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne during the 1970s, my sporting education seemed to take precedence over more cerebral academic pursuits. I spent many pleasant summers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and long crisp winters visiting the various stadia that staged fixtures of the country’s premier Australian Rules competition - the Victorian Football League. My friends and I were also keen on soccer, but the domestic scene held little appeal for us - and it was only through the weekly ration of The Big Match that our appreciation of ‘the round ball code’ could develop.
Emerging from the darkest recesses of late night television, the Substantially Foreheaded One presented edited highlights of recent 0-0 draws, plus ‘Your Letters’ which were seemingly always submitted by “Lee Wang, who writes from Singapore and is a fanatical Liverpool supporter. He remembers a day when…” Brian Moore and The Big Match did much to improve my understanding of soccer but it did leave two important questions unanswered. What were the crowds singing in those chants - and why did Brian Moore always sit with his hand under the desk?
Prompted by enthusiastic letters from a friend in London who had waxed lyrical about the glorious deeds of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, I decided on my first visit to England in 1979 to take in a match at Loftus Road. Queens Park Rangers - I liked the name. It sounded majestic in a poncey kind of way. And I liked the classy look of their blue and white hooped shirts. But I especially liked the way they thumped Coventry City 5-1. Mind you, any team that wears an away strip of chocolate brown deserves to be beaten 5-1. So whilst all my friends had pledged allegiance to the Arsenals and Man Uniteds of this world, I found Rangers’ display that day irresistible and have supported them ever since.
When I arrived for my fourth visit to London in August 1987 (a visit still in progress), I decided to gain as wide a view of the whole league scene as I could. Attaining membership of the ‘92 Club’ seemed an unrealistic target, but I did vow that I would visit every London ground and see as many different clubs in process.
I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at White Hart Lane on the day Erik Thorstvedt made his home debut for Tottenham against Nottingham Forest. Erik was obviously quite pumped-up for the occasion and, after exchanging enthusiastic high-fives with the back four, jogged to the Park Lane End to acknowledge the rapturous applause of the crowd. Erik’s first blunder and Forest’s first goal arrived simultaneously much to the bemusement of the Spurs fans. Given the tight angle, though, I think he did well to get it into his own net.
On the opening day of the 1988/89 season, I found my way to Plough Lane where the FA Cup sat gleaming on a table in the centre of the pitch. Prior to kick-off, I decided to visit the toilet - which is as near a fatal decision as a man can make. As I waded into that malodorous black hole, I could have sworn I heard Freddie Krueger wheezing in one of the cubicles. The next time I go to Wimbledon, I think it will be safer to pee in my pants. Arsenal won 5-1, which probably caused Bobby Gould to pee in his.
A visit to Brentford’s Griffin Park led me to conclude that that worst music in the world is played over the public address systems at football grounds. When Karen and Richard Carpenter sat down to write Calling Occupants (of Interplanetary Craft) did they, I wonder, ever dream that it would one day be played to soothe the troubled minds of the hooligani at a Brentford v Port Vale fixture? Somehow I doubt it. To be fair, though, I can recall a day at Highbury where I heard the Doors’ Light My Fire. I knew it was too good to last - just as Ray Manzarek was about to launch into his extended organ solo some philistine chimed in to announce the team changes.
A trip to Stamford Bridge can provide some fascinating insights as to what your average football supporter likes to wear to a match. There have been some bold fashion statements made at the Bridge over the years - mostly they say ‘Don’t Follow Chelsea’. How else could anybody possibly find a justifiable reason for wearing their hideous jade green or red diamond away shirt? And of course the Shed houses the finest array of earrings outside of Aspreys of Bond Street. I once made the mistake of standing with the Portsmouth supporters in the away end at Stamford Bridge. When the police finally let us out after detention, I was able to read the match report in the Sunday papers, which were already on sale outside Fulham Broadway tube station.
Not surprisingly, one of the last London grounds I visited was The Den. My friend and I, not relishing the prospect of being herded into a distant corner pen with the QPR fans, threw caution to the wind and pushed lunacy to new heights by standing in amongst the Millwall supporters. When Rangers scored, we sensibly resisted the temptation to jump in the air and merely shook our heads whilst muttering suitable obscenities. When Rangers scored again, we thought we’d been rumbled, as we hadn’t sworn as loud or long as those around us. Cascarino finally pulled one back for Millwall, at which point we cheered and clapped ecstatically - a performance that would later earn us a BAFTA nomination.
Eventually I made it to all the London grounds: to Selhurst Park, with its ‘legendary’ Sainsbury’s End; to Brisbane Road, where they sell sausage rolls from the Ming Dynasty; to Upton Park, where they were forever blowing bubbles and one-goal leads; to Craven Cottage, where the groundsman’s shorts billowed in a stiff winter breeze; and of course to Highbury, where I watched Tony Adams’ armpit for 90 minutes.
But for me, nothing compares with the East Paddock at Loftus Road on a Saturday afternoon - where you’re so close to the action you can actually smell the liniment; where you can regularly hear Ray Wilkins roar at the defence to, “Fucking push up”; where, in the interests of fostering a family atmosphere, one risks decapitation by packets of Rowntree Fruit Pastilles flung into the crowd by young kiddies before the match; where the crowds are locked in, not out; and where masochism is a way of life.
Brian Moore might not be as universally popular as he’d like to be, but I for one would welcome the chance to shake his hand for introducing me to soccer and, eventually, to Queens Park Rangers. I’d like him to wash his hands thoroughly before I do, though. You see, I now know what the crowds sing in those chants - but I never did find out what Brian Moore does with his hand under the desk. And you can’t be too careful, can you?
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