Around the start of 2003, when I was planning the matches I would attend for the remainder of the season, Loftus Road was not a ground that I was desperate to visit. However, I wanted to make a trip to the stadium before the end of the 2002/03 season as I knew that two visits would be necessary in order to take in Fulham and Queens Park Rangers home matches.
My initial lack of enthusiasm wore off and the more I read about the ground and the more pictures I saw of the stadium, its appeal grew on me. As I left home on the Saturday morning I was in good spirits and looking forward to the day ahead. The match itself was a very attractive fixture, with both teams in the top six - and whilst Crewe were looking favourites for automatic promotion, QPR still had an outside chance of finishing in the top two.
I drove down to Crewe, where I caught a train to Reading. A large number of Crewe fans were piling onto coaches near the station, whilst a number were also gathered on the station platform, waiting for the London Euston train. The train to Reading reached its destination slightly late but I was able to catch a connecting train to London Paddington straight away. From Paddington, a short tube journey to Shepherds Bush on the Hammersmith & City line took me to within a 10-minute walk of Loftus Road, the floodlights visible behind the BBC Television Centre from the tube.
I can’t think of many grounds with as many places to eat in the immediate vicinity as there are around Loftus Road. By the time I’d grabbed some lunch it was close to 1.00pm. As I reached the ground, there were already a large number of supporters milling around the players entrance and lining South Africa Road, getting autographs from the players as they made their way into the stadium. After the umpteen security checks that fans were subjected to at Feethams, it was good to be able to walk through the Loftus Road turnstiles unchallenged.
My pre-booked ticket was for the upper tier of the South Africa Road stand. The toilet facilities in this stand were surprisingly good considering the structure was quite dated. The catering outlets were poorly stocked, however, and the pies far from ‘Pukka’. Stewards checked tickets as they headed into the seating area, directing supporters to where their seats were located.
As the Loftus Road pitch came into view, I was instantly impressed by the wonderfully claustrophobic stadium. The ground was in the middle of a residential area and the limited space around Loftus Road was mirrored by the cramped interior of the venue. In many ways, this is what gave the ground a real appeal, although the greatly restricted leg-room was a negative point. My seat was near the front of the upper tier, towards the Loftus Road end of the stadium. Whilst I had a clear view to my left, a large post obstructed the view to the near side of the goal on my right.
Whilst the South Africa Road Stand did have limitations in the amount of comfort afforded to spectators, there was no arguing with the fact that Loftus Road was a genuinely unique football stadium, with a terrific character. Three sides of the ground were double-decker affairs, although not one was a mirror image of the other. All were the same height, however, and quite small in size considering they included two tiers.
The George Wimpey stand, on the opposite side to the South Africa Road stand, was the only single-tiered affair, although this was also equal in height to the other sides, giving the ground a balanced look. The roofs on most of the stands all had a considerable overhang at the front - and the overhang of the George Wimpey Stand was adorned with the club crests of Queens Park Rangers and Fulham.
The Loftus Road end appeared to offer the best vantage point within the ground. It was noticeable that many seats were crammed into the corners of the stadium, with some blocks of seats positioned overlooking other stands rather than the pitch! The views from some of these seats must be appalling.
The blue seats in Loftus Road helped brighten up a stadium that was showing its age but did not look tired as I had imagined. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the appearance of Loftus Road.
The QPR and Crewe supporters both gave their players warm applause as they came out to warm up, with the Crewe squad in particular given a rapturous welcome by the travelling fans. As the QPR players jogged from one side of the pitch to the other, fans in the South Africa and George Wimpey stands clapped the players as they ran towards the respective sides of the pitch.
By 2:50pm, most supporters were in the stadium which appeared to be close to capacity. Crewe fans were packed into the lower tier of the School End stand, with the upper section above used as an overflow area for QPR supporters.
It was only in this section that empty seats were visible. The noise from both sets of fans in the 10 minutes before kick-off was fantastic, with the noise from the home support so deafening that there was little chance for the Crewe followers to make themselves heard.
Although the QPR chants mainly started in the Loftus Road end of the George Wimpey Stand, the songs spread around all the home areas quickly and the ground seemed like one of very few football venues where every stand is a cauldron of noise and atmosphere. The PA announcer and club mascot did their bit to encourage the supporters - and the sequence of music played before the emergence of the teams also played a key part in the pre-match experience.
The sound of Perfecto Allstars and Reach Up greeted the players, with the home fans clapping along to the music and chanting “Hoops” at appropriate moments in the instrumental track. The noise around the ground made the build-up to kick-off memorable and gave a fantastic advert for Second Division football before the game had even got underway.
Despite there being relatively few chances, the first-half was still entertaining to watch. The referee upset the home fans with a number of contentious decisions and was booed off at half-time, although the half-time scores on the scoreboard distracted some fans from his departure. However, just two minutes into the second-half, bedlam erupted as the match official took centre stage. A QPR goal was disallowed for a push on the Crewe goalkeeper, with the QPR player involved sent off the pitch. As the red card was shown the home fans went berserk, with programmes and ticket stubs some of the items hurled down onto the pitch from fans around me in the South Africa Road stand.
The boos and jeers didn’t let up as every decision went Crewe’s way and fouls from the visiting team went unpunished. The atmosphere in the first-half had been superb but with the home supporters angered by the injustice of the referee’s decisions, the noise became deafening, with the fans getting right behind the QPR team as well as shouting their disapproval at the match officials.
The mood turned ugly, however, as a second home player was controversially sent off. The QPR bench went ballistic and a fan ran onto the pitch to try and confront the referee. The home supporters gave him a standing ovation as he was escorted out of the ground by the police. As the second player was sent off, an eerie silence and air of disbelief briefly fell over the stadium, but once the departing player had been given a rousing reception as he headed for the tunnel, more vitriol was aimed at the match officials.
As the Crewe goalkeeper went towards the home fans to retrieve the ball, something appeared to be thrown at him from the crowd and he fell to the ground. The referee had words with the ground safety officer and soon a line of stewards were kneeling, barely a metre apart, all way round the pitch, with riot police in the corner of the stadium between the George Wimpey and School End stands. A loud chant of “Stand up if you hate the ref” had virtually every QPR fan in the stadium on their feet!
Despite the two-man advantage, Crewe couldn’t find the net, hitting the crossbar and having a goal disallowed. The referee also turned down penalty appeals - given the trouble he’d caused already, this was probably a very wise decision! Crewe seemed nervous and squandered a few clear chances but other results went their way meaning they were promoted. The 1,200 travelling fans celebrated after the match as news of the scores around the country came through.
As the final whistle sounded, large numbers of QPR fans ignored the earlier requests to stay off the pitch and poured onto the playing surface. Many headed straight for the referee, who only just managed to escape down the tunnel in time. A line of riot police prevented the home fans from getting to the Crewe supporters who stayed in the School End Stand to celebrate their promotion.
The QPR fans were on a par with the supporters of Dundee United and Manchester City as the most remarkable and passionate supporters I have seen on my travels. The rest of the matchday experience at Loftus Road was excellent at most other levels but it was the volume of noise generated by the fans in the ground that made the trip to West London one that I will remember for a long time. In the two years I have spent travelling the country, I can’t recall a day packed with incidents quite like the trip to Loftus Road.
There are negative points to the stadium - the leg-room is very restricted and makes it uncomfortable to watch the match, whilst a large number of seats appeared to offer extremely poor views of the pitch. However, the stadium is completely different to any other ground I have visited. Almost entirely enclosed, the character and surprising grace of Loftus Road hit me instantly as I emerged from the concourse.
The QPR fans were magnificent and the atmosphere something else. Fulham may be playing two divisions above Queens Park Rangers but they will have to go some way to beat the matchday experience offered by their landlords. The QPR fans have had to put up with a lot both on and off the pitch in recent years but the passion for their club seems stronger than ever. I hope the manager and players can bring them the success they deserve. Whatever division the club are in next season, I am certain that a trip to Loftus Road will remain a unique and hugely enjoyable experience.
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