On the eve of another Saturday pilgrimage to Shepherd’s Bush, my father’s Uncle Alf passed away, and with his passing a rich seam of my family’s historic connection with Rangers were severed. My father had not seen Alf since his own father’s funeral a few years before, but he visited him on the day he died - and was shocked by his fragile, wasted appearance. Having not seen him for so long, the impact of his illness and of his 85 years was severe, and must have reminded my 67-year-old father of his own mortality.
They exchanged empty but necessary pleasantries as they searched for the rapport they had shared in years gone by. I can imagine the mutual pretence that Alf would get better when both knew he was at death’s door. And I can imagine, even as someone who can barely remember his face, the animation and optimism in Uncle Alf’s features as the talk turned inevitably, and with fondly-intentioned nostalgia, to football and the Rangers.
There can’t have been much to say, of course. At 85 and at the end of a life that had become increasingly reclusive, Uncle Alf wasn’t the authority on the fortunes of the club that he once had been. And so when my father ventured that Rangers were doing well, Uncle Alf’s response of “not that bloody well” touched a chord, a nerve that connected generations. Uncle Alf had supported Rangers through the lean, under-nourished years of their early existence, yet with the supporter’s downtrodden forbearance of his team’s current station, a mid-table place in the Premier League wasn’t good enough for him.
He was born in 1908 and had attended matches from the age of six. Rangers were then in the Southern League and playing at Park Royal - and I knew he had also seen them back at the old Harvest Road ground in Kensal Rise, when they returned there with the outbreak of war after the Army commandeered the Park Royal site. The dawning of Alf’s teenage years saw Rangers finally settle at the ground that was to become their home, and also end their days as a non-league club. In 1917, the stand from the abandoned Park Royal ground was re-erected in Ellerslie Road, and in the 1920/21 season the club joined the newly formed Football League Third Division.
For the start of the 1921/22 season, the division was regionalised and Rangers remained in the Southern section until the outbreak of World War Two. These years saw the birth of my father in 1927 and his own introduction to Rangers, and also marked the years of Uncle Alf’s most vocal support for the club. He would have stood on the same Loftus Road terrace where my father and I have since stood, and kicked every ball as we have. He would have felt the same innate bond, unadorned by intellect, and tight and twisted with yearning, that we feel for the club. He would have participated in the same, famed ‘Rangers roar’, lost himself in the same simple dramas and felt the same Saturday night elation of victory. The story goes in my family that my Grandmother would know that Rangers had won if, on returning from a game, Uncle Alf and his friends threw their caps in the air as they came up the street.
His funeral was a melancholy affair for my father. It was a bitterly cold October day, punctuated by a piercing wind and lit by a watery sun. The cemetery was late Victorian and so cluttered with bodies that only those with reserved plots could be admitted. The branch of the British Legion that organised the funeral and hosted the reception was at the corner of the street in which my parents had begun married life. Many of the mourners had known my mother’s dead parents.
And despite my father’s obvious fondness for Uncle Alf, half remembered from so many discussions about Rangers over so many distant seasons, there was a lingering regret that his reclusiveness had robbed friends, relations, and perhaps even those who continued to carry his torch for the Rangers, of his company and of his memories. I hoped upon hope that among his possessions some semblance of the pattern of his lifelong support for Rangers would be revealed, and that my father and I would come to know some of it.
The wreath from his two daughters, made from blue and white flowers, spelled out ‘QPR’. His coffin was decorated with two red roses and a Rangers shirt. And on learning of these touches, I felt tears well in my eyes and knew I would cheer the Rangers that weekend with renewed conviction.
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