I had to suppress a smile when I read Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s stern response to QPR’s economic and social impact report into a potential move of the club from Loftus Road to the site of the nearby Linford Christie Stadium. And again when I read Lee Hoos’ hurt retort. In an era when some councils seem all too willing to assist developers to avoid their responsibilities to the communities in which they are looking to make large profits, it is heartening to see a council boldly state its determination to respect the interests of local residents in negotiations with potential developers.
At the same time one can understand the representative of the current very rich owners of QPR expressing some chagrin on their behalf - especially as, in the time that Fernandes has been owner, the club has certainly engaged positively with the local community, most prominently in staging the Game for Grenfell in September 2017. The irony is, of course, that Grenfell Tower, although not far from Loftus Road, actually stands within the neighbouring borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and QPR’s championing of the cause of the victims of that atrocity stands in marked contrast to the seeming indifference to their very existence shown by their local council. QPR have, of course, worked on projects with their own local council.
Why very rich foreigners should wish to bestow their largesse on football clubs and communities in this country rather than in their own native lands is not a question I can answer but it would be churlish to deny the benefits that owners like Tony Fernandes and the late, lamented Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at Leicester City can bring to the clubs and communities on which, for whatever reason, their interest falls. Obviously, Srivaddhanaprabha’s involvement at Leicester brought greater footballing success than Fernandes’ stewardship of QPR has so far achieved - but, at last, after what has been a rollercoaster period for the club in recent years, QPR have gained a stability on the pitch which, if current form continues, will soon, at the very least, see the normally ever-present threat of relegation banished for this season. Whether this state of affairs has been achieved more by luck than by planning is still open to debate - and there remains a sense of fragility about the current upturn in the club’s fortunes. However, with Fernandes and Bhatia in charge, I believe we can have more hope for the future of QPR as a successful club embedded within its local community than we ever could under the likes of Briatore and Ecclestone.
The trials and tribulations recorded in The Four Year Plan documentary must serve as a strong warning for the future. Until Neil Warnock arrived to save the day, it was more like Carry On Up the Bush than a behind-the-scenes record of a serious football club. QPR became an Italian multi-millionaire’s plaything; a ‘boutique’ club at which the loyalty of lifelong supporters was carelessly tossed aside to create an area of upmarket seating for the more well-to-do supporter. Fernandes, when he took over, seemed at first to be as clueless as his immediate predecessors, when he made the precipitate decision to sack Warnock after a difficult but by no means disastrous start to the club’s first season back in the top flight for fifteen years. In truth, he has not displayed much footballing nous in the years since until, perhaps, the recent reality check provided by the Financial Fair Play fine forced him and the other powers-that-be at the club to take a more pragmatic attitude to the task of running a football club.
One thing you can say for Fernandes is that he is undoubtedly a nice bloke, who really wants to contribute something to QPR and the local community. And the same can surely be said of Bhatia, judging by the clips of him in The Four Year Plan and his recent comment that, “I would like to be involved in this club for the rest of my life.” Which brings us back to the question of where QPR play their football. If QPR has one claim to fame it’s the fact that it has had more grounds than any other English Football League club. Even with the great increase in the number of clubs moving to new purpose-built grounds over the last twenty years or so, I would be very surprised if Rangers did not still hold that record. The statistic is somewhat misleading, of course, as most of those moves took place in the early years of the club’s history and, since it first took up residence at Loftus Road, there have only been a couple of ill-advised and temporary relocations to the White City Stadium which, until its demolition in 1985, stood at the east end of South Africa Road.
That is not to say that over the years since then there hasn’t been plenty of talk of another move away from Loftus Road. In 1967, there was a possibility of QPR moving to Brentford’s Griffin Road ground - something I had not been aware of until we started playing the Bees again in recent years. Then, in 1987, came the threat of Fulham Park Rangers - a name as meaningless and abhorrent to fans of both Fulham and QPR as that of Milton Keynes Dons must be to fans of AFC Wimbledon. Had it not been for the resistance of both sets of fans, this aberration might have come to pass and thus become the sad, final legacy of arguably Rangers’ greatest-ever chairman, Jim Gregory. It was to the credit of new owner, David Bulstrode, that he recognised the strength of feeling among fans of Fulham and QPR, and ditched plans to merge both clubs and to develop the Craven Cottage site for luxury homes.
I cannot remember the question of Rangers moving coming up when the club was owned by the frugal Thompsons, who famously failed to purchase or sell a single player for a whole year during their tenure; but the matter was certainly a live one when Chrysalis owner Chris Wright became chairman. He promoted the idea of moving Rangers to a new stadium somewhere along the A40 corridor, something which I could never get my head around. However, for me the biggest error that was made during Wright’s time in charge was the failure to purchase the land behind the School End of the stadium when the opportunity arose. Had Wright - who I believe wanted to do the best for the club - acquired this land, then perhaps a bigger stand could have been built at that end of the stadium. This would have given the stadium a somewhat lop-sided look but it would have increased the capacity. Even if a bigger stand had not been built, QPR would have acquired some valuable real estate, which could have been used for parking space for fans in the short- to medium-term, and been sold to raise finance or used as a bargaining chip in any future effort to find a new ground.
However, that was not to be, and Rangers have remained in their tight-fitting stadium, with its capacity of less than 20,000, until this very day. The talk of a move to a bigger and better stadium has been resurrected in recent years. First there was the proposal to build a spanking new stadium as part of the redevelopment of Old Oak Common. This seemed to me to be a good option: the proposed capacity of 40,000 was highly ambitious but the site is well within Rangers territory; also, potential transport issues would be alleviated by the building of a new railway station on the proposed stadium’s doorstep. Sadly, this option was kyboshed by the refusal of the current owner of the land, Cargiant, to play ball - the irony being that the boss of the firm was a season ticket holder at Loftus Road.
And so we come to the Linford Christie Stadium. From Rangers’ point of view, there are obvious advantages: it’s close enough for the move not to seem too much of a wrench to all concerned; and it’s bang in the middle of QPR territory. The disadvantages are that it is further away from the two underground stations on Wood Lane, which make Loftus Road so accessible. Also, if it was necessary to incorporate a running track, this would inevitably take away the one great asset that the current stadium possesses: the closeness of the stands, and therefore the fans, to the pitch. QPR are not the most well supported club in London by some distance - but even with an attendance well below the current stadium’s capacity an atmosphere can be created that is a great boon to the home team and a hindrance to the opposition. And the closeness of fans to the playing area allows for easy interaction with the players.
This can sometimes be problematic but one of the pleasures of being close to the pitch is the opportunity to take part in and witness banter between fans and players. One of my fondest memories of great crowd favourite of the 80s, Gary Waddock, is of him sitting on the low wall at the side of the pitch chatting to supporters. In my view Rangers must retain this essential element of the Loftus Road stadium in any potential future home - and I am reassured by indications from the club that the running track would be outside any new football stadium built on the Linford Christie Stadium site.
The question of where and in what type of stadium Rangers play their football is crucial to the future of the club. Professional football grew up as part and parcel of the development of Britain as an urban industrial nation. Clubs were formed within urban industrial communities to cater for the needs of a working class that was finally gaining some meaningful leisure time at the end of the nineteenth century. They became a focus of local interest in such communities up and down the country and brought different socio-economic classes together in one place for the purpose of watching and supporting - and sometimes even playing for - a team representing their community in matches against teams from other similar communities. The communities which created these clubs have changed considerably over the years and we have seen an increasing number of clubs move from their original grounds to new state-of-the art-stadiums, sometimes at some distance from their original grounds. But, in most cases, the clubs have relocated to new stadiums that are near enough to their old grounds to enable them to retain their identity and fan-base.
This was not the case, of course, with Milton Keynes Dons. The result was that the great majority of Wimbledon fans refused to support the club in its new location - deciding, instead, to form a new club of their own which would play as close as possible to where Wimbledon had played for so many years. Surprisingly, this saga seems to have worked out reasonably well for fans of the respective clubs. Both are now established in the Football League - and AFC Wimbledon will be returning to the London Borough of Merton in a new purpose-built stadium in 2019. In the light of this, it is surely time for MK Dons to drop the ‘Dons’ from their name and for all concerned to move on.
What the example of Wimbledon and MK Dons, and indeed the whole history of modern football in this country shows, is that the game is essentially about community. The fact that a professional club has been successfully established in Milton Keynes, a place where one did not exist before, shows the relevance of football to communities in modern British society; and the fact that the supporters of the old Wimbledon refused to accept the removal of their club from their community showed the strength of feeling that exists for the retention of long established clubs in the areas that spawned them. In the case of QPR, a move to a new stadium somewhere along the A40 may or may not have been successful, but it would have torn a long established institution away from its roots. Let us not forget either that Pete Winkelman’s initial overtures in trying to persuade supporters that relocating to Milton Keynes was in the best interests of their club were not to those fans at Wimbledon but at QPR.
So the intention of the current owners to keep QPR within its historical territory has to be applauded. It is regrettable that the first attempt to do this, at Old Oak Common, hit a brick wall. The site of the Linford Christie Stadium offers some advantages but also some challenges. The only alternative is for the club to stay where it is. Jim Gregory, when he became chairman, as well as building a team that could compete at the highest level in this country, set about rebuilding the Loftus Road stadium stand by stand, so that eventually Rangers were playing their football in one of the country’s most modern stadiums for its time. Other clubs have overtaken QPR now but I would hope the current owners might look again at the possibility of staying at Loftus Road, rebuilding the stadium once again, possibly stand by stand.
The rebuilding of the ground would have to give careful consideration to the requirements of a 21st century football ground. For starters, it would be hoped that the new stadium could be built without pillars. A capacity of 19,000 is really not large enough for a club that hopes one day to compete again at the top level of the game in this country - and I would suggest that to increase capacity at Loftus Road to the necessary level (say, 24,000) would inevitably require the re-introduction of standing areas. Considering that the move to all-seater stadia was, at least in part, a political decision, one that paid scant regard to the wishes of the fans who would have to pay for the cost of the change in increased ticket prices, it is not hopeless to believe that this decision could be reversed. There would be an added benefit to the reintroduction of standing areas: it could allow for a reduction in ticket prices that would make football at Loftus Road more accessible to a larger number of local residents.
My guess is that the change of Loftus Road to an all-seater stadium reduced the capacity in former standing areas by about a third. So, if the Lower Loft, the South Africa Road paddocks and the lower tier of the School End were made standing areas, this could significantly increase their capacity. The rest of the stadium could remain seated - but I would like to see fewer seats so that there could be more leg-room. I guess that this might be possible with something like an overall reduction of 2,000 seats. The reduction in seating capacity would be more than made up for by the increase in capacity in the standing areas.
Lee Hoos claims that for the club to be sustainable it must move to a new ground. What exactly does he mean by sustainable? He seems to believe that QPR could make additional money by renting the ground out for non-football events; but the only time the club has really done this in the past, to the best of my knowledge, was when it had the artificial pitch. I don’t think many fans or players would want the club to go down that route again. I believe the only way to make the club truly sustainable is to produce a team that plays football people want to see in a comfortable stadium that is large enough to cater for a crowd somewhat above the club’s average attendance, but not so big that it destroys the elements that makes Loftus Road such a benefit to the home team, and to make the club as accessible to and as much a part of the local community as possible.
A move to the site of the Linford Christie stadium could bring many of the benefits associated with a successful redevelopment of the current ground, with the additional ones of a further increase in capacity - to, say, 30,000, surely the sensible limit for a club of QPR’s size? - and increased opportunities to develop the relationship with the local community. It is not necessary to see the recent comments coming from the council and from Lee Hoos in a negative light. They could be seen as the two sides setting out their strongest negotiating positions before getting down to the business of producing an agreement on a way forward that is to the benefit of both parties. The council cannot be unaware of the efforts of the owner, however unsuccessful to date, to turn QPR into a successful modern football club and the owners will surely recognise the legitimate concern of the local council for any development that the club embarks on to be of benefit to the local community.
The club itself has one great asset to bring to the negotiating table: the Loftus Road stadium. If it were to commit, in redeveloping Loftus Road, to meet or, better still, surpass the council’s target of 50 per cent affordable homes for new developments, then this would give the strongest possible signal to the council that the owners of QPR are committed to improving the lives of local residents and would surely make the council more amenable to reaching an agreement on a move of the club to the site of the Linford Christie Stadium. Such a development at Loftus Road would likely have the added benefit of creating a significant number of new QPR supporters. I would also like to see the club take seriously the suggestions of the council to, “Give up some ownership of the club to ensure the community and QPR’s fans have a greater voice in the club’s future.” Whichever way the club decides to go, it must be right that the owners involve their own supporters and the local community in the decision and the development of any future plans. Personally, I would like to see a permanent seat on the board for a fans’ representative and also, possibly, for a representative of the local community.
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