|Six circles of hell β LFW Awaydays|
Wed 14th Nov 2012 20:23 by Awaydays
A reduced LFW team headed to Stoke on Saturday, and as the day wore on the question of why any of us bothered at all burned all the brighter.
Stoke is a place brimming over with unhappy personal memories.
This is famously a city made up of six towns, brought together by a handy knack of making nice plates and pots. For many QPR fans, including me, it was a place first visited in 1996/97, that scary first season outside the top flight for a good long while. In a farce only QPR could conjure – and in fact in circumstances remarkably similar to those they'd managed before against Newcastle (triumphantly) and Partizan Belgrade (less so) – the R's managed to turn a four goal deficit into a draw at Port Vale.
It was one of those 'I was there' moments. Friends of mine to this day still recall, with a smile on their face, storming onto the pitch as John Spencer slammed in the injury time equaliser. Rangers had trailed 4-0 at half time, and 4-1 with four minutes to play which was actually the point my father and I gave up hope and headed back to the car. I'd like to say I was there when Spencer scored, dancing around with the other believers on the pitch, but in fact I was in the passenger seat of my dad's car as we accelerated wildly around a roundabout in celebration at the news that had just come through on BBC Radio Pot Maker.
I assumed at the time that Burslem - where Port Vale reside, lurching permanently from one financial mismanagement to the next in their half finished ground – was about as bad as it gets. Certainly the worst of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent, and potentially one of the worst places I'd ever been to in my entire life. We're talking a Luton level of degradation here, a place the whole world has probably forgotten even exists and will only recall should the planet require an urgent enema and need to find a location to insert the tube.
A few seasons later, and a division lower, Northern-the-Elder and I set sail for Burslem again. We'd heard talk of a small train station nearby called Longport which was served by the stopping train from Crewe and was within walking distance of the ground. We arrived – via three changes from Grimsby – in the middle of a blizzard which whipped into our face and tore off the skin around our lips as we walked up a steep incline into the town centre. We sought refuge for the afternoon in a pub called The Queens Head which welcomed customers with a sign on the door that read "Those who were barred by the old management, remain barred" and another deeper within that asked, as if this should need asking, punters not to "spit on the pool table."
That particular five hour journey into hell was rewarded by goalkeeper Simon Royce being sent off after eight minutes of a game that subsequently finished 0-0. Back at Longport, we discovered that trains only stopped for passengers that flagged them down – like a bus – and so there we stood, on the West Coast Mainline, in the dark, waving our arms at a stopping train to Skegness, and hoping the driver wasn't too deeply engrossed in his copy of Big Jugs Monthly to see us. Perhaps, on reflection, it would have been better if he'd run us over.
I recall another trip to Vale Park – although my psychiatrist says I really shouldn't – for a 2-0 midweek defeat in a season that would actually end in promotion for Ian Holloway's team. It was then that I discovered that Burslem isn't so bad after all, when you compare it to adjacent Hanley which is where you have to change buses on the way back to a proper, well lit, train station where the trains stop of their own accord. If you've ever soiled yourself – because you were drunk, because you misjudged a comedy fart, because you're incontinent, whatever – imagine the feeling of horror that accompanies that moment. Then imagine it as a place. That's Hanley Bus Station.
Later that night a gang of 200 boisterous Sheffield United fans making their way back from Wigan decided it would be a tremendous idea to set fire to the train carrying them – and me – back over the Pennines to the Steel City in the middle of the night. Then, after the train stopped and the passengers were evacuated out onto the side of a snow covered mountain, they decided to abuse the guard and the driver trying to put out the flames.
I know I'm a little right wing on such matters, but I honestly believe that us normals should be legally allowed to shoot people that thick in the head for the good of society. I mean, they've probably bred now.
And then there are the visits to Vale's more illustrious neighbours Stoke City. QPR fair rather better at the Britannia Stadium, which stands over the city on the top of an extremely windy hill as a permanent monument to the long ball football of Tony Pulis and the mindless idiots that design modern football grounds – the main stand is actually closer to the pitch at Crewe some 12 miles along the A500 than it is the one it's meant to offer a view of. Why the need for that gap?
The Stoke fans are famed for the atmosphere they create – famed, presumably, by sports journalists who only started turning up when Man Utd and Arsenal did and weren't there, for instance, in 2007 when the crowd was a fairly sparse and deathly silent 11,147. To be fair they do well to make any noise at all, given that distance from stand to pitch and the wide open spaces in three corners of the ground through which the wind whips in and the atmosphere escapes into the surrounding industrial parks and theme "pubs". Plus, would you fancy making any noise, or even turning up at all, considering the way this Stoke side goes about its business?
Famed, also, by people unaware that after QPR scraped a highly fortuitous 1-0 win here in 2004 the away fans were penned in for more than an hour afterwards while the locals massed around and through bits of rubble from the car parks at them – like it was the supporters' fault that Marc Bircham engaged in some histrionics and got Gerry Taggert sent off. Or, a season later, that Simon Royce – who probably enjoys coming to Stoke about as much as I do – was bundled into the net by a Stoke fan and attacked in an incident that saw QPR fined and the home club let off completely. Or, later that same day, when the single bus of lonely QPR fans heading back to the station was attacked by another gang of home fans who attempted to tip it over and put several of the windows through.
Oh yes, tremendous atmosphere at the Britannia Stadium, when they're not booing Aaron Ramsey for having his leg broken or attacking people for daring to catch a bus home and what not.
Which all rather begs the question of why in the name of God I keep going back? Fair enough, QPR actually have a winning record at the Britannia Stadium – four triumphs from six visits – and you can sort of take being showered with glass from a bus window and having your goalkeeper attacked if it's merely part of a tantrum after a 2-1 QPR win. It's actually quite amusing. But this QPR team – spineless, gutless, fibreless waste of space that it is at the moment – had about as much chance of winning at Stoke on Saturday as flying to the moon on the team bus for an evening of terribly interesting and important non-football related activities planned for them by Bobby Zamora. Following them here was like that time I followed my brother onto the runway at Heathrow Airport because "there are no flights at 3am" and "it will be quicker than walking round." Logic that didn't wash with the anti-terror police and shouldn't really have washed with me.
I wasn't the only one either. A depleted LFW crew (several regulars had more sense) made our way quietly to The Terrace, a pub we've used without a hint of bother and without seeing another soul in previous seasons when the police have kettled all the away fans in the bar at the adjacent student union. However, in a triumph of forward planning akin to signing Kieron Dyer and then extending his contract, Staffordshire University had decided to hold an open day for prospective students on the day of a Stoke home match. This meant first of all the 200 QPR fans who would usually have massed in the student bar had to find somewhere else, and second of all the image of Staffordshire University presented to visiting teenagers and, more to the point, their parents and, more to the point still, their chequebooks, was one of a campus surrounded by police officers, riot vans, and noisy lunatics.
So The Terrrace – population prior to last season's game six, population prior to this season's game 3,345 – became the go-to venue for the afternoon and soon we were surrounded by likeminded idiots. All of us frantically downing enough beer to be able to stomach the thought of watching QPR at the moment and singing happily along to "We're Queens Park Rangers, we lose every week."
Praising the fans is always the first port of call for the modern day PR savvy footballer or football club. "The fans are great," "can't knock the fans," "doing it for the fans," "love the fans," – and that was just Peter Crouch on last week's Goals on Sunday. Words rendered empty and hollow through overuse by footballers trying to curry favour and press officers too unimaginative to say anything different.
However, on this occasion, the QPR fans deserve all the plaudits they can get. A 1,600 allocation was sold, miles from home, in an unpleasant part of the world, at a ground where we've had trouble before, and they all went and sang their hearts out and smiled and laughed through another defeat. Never have known a group of fans so stoic and supportive of a team as bad, lazy and under committed as this. Tempers frayed – the insistence by those at the back that those who don't stand up and sing for every second of the game are somehow lesser fans is tiresome, as is the insistence of some that they need to get up and go downstairs for another line of coke twice each half - and by the end there were arguments breaking out all over the place. However they calmly sat through another 90 minutes of dire stuff, watched the team miss countless chances and then give up with 20 minutes still to play, and really it was only when Jose Bosingwa, who'd done nothing all day and looked thrilled to death about it, broke out into a sprint for the first time that afternoon to rush past the away end and down the tunnel on the first blast of the full time whistle that the group actually came together and complained in unison about anything.
Outside afterwards the fans waited for the best part of half an hour for an old bus back to the station. The solution to the problems of previous years appears to be keeping the away fans locked in until everybody has gone home and the lights are off and then escaping in an old relic under a cover of darkness.
"It was like this last year" laughed one old boy near me. He'll be back next year, as well all will, but judging by the previous 90 minutes of drek it could well be for a Championship fixture. If only we could bottle this madness and feed it to the playing staff.
On the pitch >>> QPR performance 5/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 >>> Match 4/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 8/10 >>> Home support 6/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 6/10 >>>> Stadium 5/10 >>>> Police and stewards 7/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 8/10 >>> Atmosphere 8/10 >>> Food 5/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
On the train >>> Journey 7/10 >>> Cost 6/10
Pictures – Action Images