As excuses go it was a good one. In fact if I had to look for another excuse not to attend QPR matches in those twilight days of the 70s, I would have struggled to find a better one. For I lived in Eire - and, being some 500 miles due west of Loftus Road, found getting to midweek matches in England a touch awkward. Besides, at the tender age of nine and threequarters I had difficulty enough in navigating a safe journey to school and back.
But I wanted to go, oh how I wanted to. In the five years since my family had returned to our native Ireland, taking me with them, I had pleaded, implored and begged my father (a QPR fan and hence more pliable) to bring me back to the Bush. But my parents, for reasons that I never fully understood, decided that in their list of priorities, food, health and education came above a thousand-mile round trip to a foreign country purely to pacify a kid whose sole purpose for travelling was not to watch football but to brag to his friends upon returning
Reflecting on it now, I find it strange that I retained any interest in Rangers at all. My brother had already succumbed to the understandable temptation and changed his allegiance to Liverpool, but I remained true. In all probability this owed more to my self-adopted role as an outsider than from any sense of loyalty. Ireland treated football as a second class citizen then - and the media paid only passing attention to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. A team like Queens Park Rangers, languishing in the murky depths of Division Two, were ignored completely.
Television coverage was almost non-existent, limiting itself to Match of the Day. It was broadcast at an ungodly hour - and long after this young boy was curled up in bed. My only source of information was the schoolboys’ bible, the Panini Football Stickers Album. This proved invaluable whilst QPR remained in the First Division. Unfortunately, during the period of this tale, they were doing well to remain in the Second.
If I had written an essay on QPR, the title would have been longer than the contents, so little did I really know about them. That made it difficult if not impossible, to defend them against accusations by my schoolmates, delivered with the ferocious insensitivity that can only be achieved by 10-year-olds. It was only upon relegation to Division Two that the jibes stopped. Whereas previously Rangers were the subject of ridicule, now they were ignored. This could have proved a turning point. I was within my rights to pick another First Division team to be devoted to. But somehow it didn’t seem right - and instead I rallied to their defence.
The near-masonic mystery which enveloped QPR had its advantages. If in that particular corner of the world there existed little information on what was undoubtedly the best club in history, it only seemed right that I should remedy the situation. It was left to me to elaborate. Fortunately elaborating was my forte. I regaled my friends with tales of how a small club in London was changing the face of football, how it was striking a blow for the purists, and how its football was so magical that it was only a matter of time before the balance of power switched to Shepherds Bush. The only problem was, I assured them, finding space for the inevitable rush of trophies.
In the light of such information it was understandable that my sceptical audience should enquire as to why a team of such stature was presently sandwiched between the legendary clubs of Shrewsbury and Preston North End. But slowly Rangers began to produce the results my increasingly imaginative insights warranted. Scepticism began to turn to intrigue. Rangers were on the brink of promotion and, enjoying a gold cup run that would lead to Wembley, were in serious danger of achieving success.
The sarcasm that had once been omnipresent in the voices of my audience had now gone, replaced by curiosity. I was the storyteller supreme. I told tales of Ian Gillard, the youthful left-winger whose silky runs past five or six dazed defenders provided the chances for the that powerful figure of a man, Clive Allen; and of Gary Waddock, tranquillity personified, modelling his game on Beckenbauer and possessing his eye for goal. And I didn’t stop at pen portraits. Monday morning playtimes found me detailing the goals that clinched the latest victory. It never occurred to anyone, least of all myself, that QPR scored a disproportionate amount of overhead kicks and 30-yarders, or that we possessed players of Brazilian quality. If it had done, I may have modified my approach. But I’d tasted success at last and was thirsty for more. It was this greed which proved my undoing.
If I had half as much foresight as I had imagination, I would have known what was to come. Rangers, who by now had booked a Cup Final place, had achieved the near impossible by stirring the slumbering giants of Irish television. They decided the match against Bolton proved to be another learning experience in an adolescence in which learning was so often equated with pain. In our school days and beyond we often get hurt most whilst defending those we love - and I was no different.
The match itself proved to be a surprising reflection of my appraisal of QPR’s talents. Rangers won 7-1 and played as brilliantly as my boastings had indicated they would. It was a joyous occasion, but not for me. As I watched transfixed, I was painfully aware that although my schoolmates would be grudgingly admirable of Rangers football, they had just seen through the Emperor’s New Clothes: Gillard had transformed from a youthful winger to a veteran left-back, losing his pace en route; Waddock, for all his qualities, was hardly an orchestrator; Clive Allen was on the downside of six-foot and looked nothing like Peter Osgood; Roeder was a centre-back, Flanagan a forward and Micklewhite, if he was a right-back, was constantly out of position.
But their transformation was dwarfed by the metamorphosis that had overtaken Bob Hazell. He had ceased playing on the right-wing, had acquired a barrel chest, lost his long flowing blonde locks and was… black. Even the master storyteller, now exposed as a fraud, couldn’t explain that away. The barrage of scorn heaped upon me lasted only a few days, the embarrassment slightly longer. But my devotion to QPR survived, although I never publicly extolled their virtues again.
In 1985, my family returned to England and I returned to Rangers. My boyhood fantasies could never have envisaged the pride I now feel following them wherever they go, scaling the heights or dredging the depths along the way. I am still ridiculed for supporting QPR - but I’ve long since realised that I do not need to defend myself for that. Others may point to a rather barren trophy room, but I now measure success in terms of loyalty and love - and at Loftus Road we have enough of each to last a lifetime.
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