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Luton/Nottingham — Awaydays
Wednesday, 30th Mar 2022 19:56 by Clive Whittingham

From celebrations so raucous even Nathan Jones thought it a bit much, to a long soggy trek across The Trent, two awaydays four days apart brought a stark contrast in result and emotion.

Through the square window

There is a man at the far end of St George’s Square in Luton with a loud hailer. His output is incessant. “Jesus Christ is a knight of the realm” he concludes at the end of a run-on sentence that’s lasted several minutes. Perhaps he’s confusing him with Lewis Hamilton? Given that it’s Sunday morning — and really rather stupid o-fucking-clock Sunday morning at that — and he’s out here shouting at the non-believers, it’s probably safe to assume he’s so far gone even his own church will no longer let him in. The QPR fans braving their designated pub for the day stand in the smoking area of The White House 100 yards away and stare across the square at him non-plussed. It’s difficult to inspire a fear of hell into people who are already in a Wetherspoons in Luton before midday.

Arrogant Andy made the mistake of coming to “university” here for a degree that qualifies him to run the LoftforWords’ Patreon account. “We spent a lot of time in the student union, in a way it builds solidarity,” he says — something for The Sunday Times to consider for this year’s guide. On a rare brave venture out to the Tenpin Luton next to The Wetherspoons he bowled a 190 to win the main prize of a large stuffed animal from the top shelf, but when he returned from celebratory drinks later this had been claimed by an actual child and so he was stuck with the secondary prize of a microwave. That feels like a far more useful prize for a student to me but he says he immediately took it to CashConverters and got a tenner for it, possibly to buy another large stuffed animal. Anyway, he says the 190 is the pertinent fact here, which is exactly the sort of boastful dickswinging we’ve come to expect.

Luton is not a pleasant awayday. I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences here, nor causing any offence. If you’re Luton, initially trying to stay in and now be promoted from a division in which just about everybody has more resources and a bigger playing budget than you, you take every advantage you can get. You don’t want the away fans and teams to be having a lovely time do you? Because then you’re Birmingham City, and Birmingham City don’t do a lot of winning — except, weirdly, against Luton. I’ll always prefer an old-school stadium in the town to one you might mistake for an IKEA distribution centre out on some miserable retail park, and there is certainly old-world charm to this ground assembled over many years’ enthusiastic attendance at car boot sales. QPR’s team coach gets stuck on the Oak Road behind the away end before the game forcing the players to walk the final 200 yards and inadvertently drop a showstopping cover for their critic-pleasing second album. But once you’ve been here a few times, had the locals try to rip out your spleen for sport, spent time being kettled onto trains of the police’s choosing (“but I live in Sheffield mate” “tough”), and used half time to consider what exactly happens to the people in a stand this old - with one four-foot-wide exit onto a narrow staircase at the back and a five-foot concrete wall at the front - in the event of a fire, the novelty of “oh my God the turnstiles are part of a house” starts to wear off. The strip light above our heads is held against the rafter with a cable-tie.

This year it’s a game that has loomed large on the horizon ever since Sky Sports were allowed to move the corresponding match to a Friday night, flying in the face of all common sense and every bit of local knowledge anybody who’s ever been to a Luton QPR game would have immediately offered. Everybody ever employed by the Met was there that night, riot vans stretching further down South Africa Road than ever before, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men lost control of the situation on the Uxbridge Road after the game resulting in one visiting fan suffering life-threatening injuries, and one from our ranks pending a criminal trial. Given how calm and serenely the people in this corner of Bedfordshire took us signing Tony Thorpe from them at the height of their financial meltdown, this doesn’t feel like something that’s going to be allowed to slide by without a response. Particularly with the previously discussed post-pandemic re-rise of the chucklesome Stone Island brigade, filming “fights” for their SnapChat and talking about “grasses” as if they’ve stumbled in from an episode of The Wire while still awaiting their first proper shag of any sort.

Back at The Crown there are few takers (for the trip, not the shag): Kath wants to come but Joe does not; Nick, who’s been known to travel from Sydney for QPR games, just laughs at the suggestion and returns to his drink. Rangers get only 1,000 tickets, and set the loyalty points so high only the five richest kings of Europe qualify for one, leading to fears that the away support will be Old As Fuck and those the 17-year-old virgins refer to as “scarfers” could be veritable lambs to the slaughter. In the end, nobody wants one, and while it inevitably sells out, it dips way deeper into the sales period than anybody would ever possibly have expected it to do so. I know people who’ve done stupid things to get to QPR games in the past who had zero interest in this one — particularly once it was confirmed as a TV game. The unspoken truth is we’re expecting a hiding, on and off the pitch. The public address system crackles out Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones as part of the pre-match - usually the point in every Martin Scorsese film where some really serious shit goes down — to add to the sense of foreboding.

The opposite turns out to be true. Sure Luton start well, as you’d expect of a form team on a barnstorming run up the league of ten wins from 15 games, and QPR look like they’ve been at the chloroform again, as we’ve grown wearily accustomed to since five wins and two draws in January collapsed into one win from eight through February. David Marshall treats Cameron Jerome to one, as he is wont to do at the moment; there’s a ridiculous miss from Allan Campbell that, such is our view from behind the goal, we’re sure has gone in until the day after; and a borderline offside decision denying Elijah Adebayo a fifteenth of the season. In the conservatory showroom to the left a gentleman whose knock off Peaky Blinders hat is fooling nobody, and coat hasn’t fitted properly around his tummy for quite some time, hasn’t clocked the flag going up and gives it a proper large one to the away fans a few feet away. Oh what fun we had. Takes me back to the time that poor bastard who’d rented the same end “box” for the afternoon decided to turn up for the game in a pink dress shirt.

In the second half, a couple of “boxes” down from Cillian Murphy’s beer shit, a chap bearing a striking resemblance to Harry Potter takes the wholly unwise decision to have a very public two-minute meltdown in the general direction of the travelling faithful — all cross words and flailing arms and leaning over to smash his palms into the advertising hoardings. I’m amazed he’s able to produce that much testosterone to be honest with you, he’s certainly hiding it well otherwise. He, too, is handed his own arse, and he needn’t think that just because we were celebrating Rob Dickie’s winning goal at the end we didn’t notice him turning on his heels and exiting the second the ball hit the net. Tarra chuck, don’t let the Safestyle UK UPVC double glazed door (buy the pitch-facing ones they’ll give you the back for free) whack you in your scrawny arse on the way out. Actually, while you’re there, can you turn the handle upwards on your way out, otherwise they tend to flap open.

Anyway, that’s right, celebrate, win, goal, Rob Dickie. By adopting the time-honoured Homer Simpson technique of allowing Luton to punch us until they got tired, and then the revolutionary idea of adding a midfielder (Big Bad Luke Amos) who crosses the halfway line every now and again, QPR secure a victory that even they seem a bit surprised about. We can’t see much from our position behind the goal, but we’re on the perfect trajectory to see Chris Willock’s (RIP) whipped cross heading straight towards us and then into the nearest corner off Shy Rob’s shoulder. His first goal since that remarkable August that seems to long ago now. I know I talk about this stuff a lot but it’s moments together like these that we missed the most during lockdown. We scored another late goal at this end of the ground during that period, and the ecstasy of watching Macauley Bonne seal that 2-0 victory was heavily tempered by being stuck at home watching on a creaking stream rather than packed in behind that goal watching the ball come towards us before collectively losing our damn minds together. There really is no feeling like it, and as an old-school metal dustbin flew through the air and everybody ended up rows and rows and seats and seats away from where they started, I’m clearly not alone in thinking that. Afterwards Nathan Jones, with a chip on his shoulder you could re-float the Costa Concordia in, complains about QPR’s celebrations, and then doubles down after a midweek victory here against Preston saying they were “disrespectful”, which is like getting a bollocking off Danielle Lloyd for fucking too many footballers.

Stupid QPR. Just when you’re out, they pull you right back in again.

Mull of Kintyre

From a ground where QPR never lose, to one where they never win. Nottingham, a city for whom no town planning problem cannot be conquered by the addition, extension or widening of another inner ring road.

Yesterday, and for the next five days straight, bright sunshine will bathe the UK to such an extent that barbecue invitations start landing, but today it’s been heaving it down with sheets of water for several hours before we arrive, and continues to do so for the duration of our stay. Had it started a couple of hours earlier there’s a good chance the game would have been off. The corners of the pitch are barely playable as it is, but luckily the PGMOL have sent us Jon Moss to oversee the evening’s festivities and he never makes it far enough out of the centre circle to notice so on we play.

Nottingham for football supporters means Hooters. The orange sign glows through the rain as we exit the train station and dump the bags at Lenny Henry’s gaff. I’m not going to get all snotty about this — beer, food, football, walking distance to either ground, it can do a job. And by ‘do a job’ I mean LFW rattled up a bill north of 500 sheets in there a couple of seasons ago — it was the 23 pints of Heineken what done it. And some cunt ordered oysters, just because he couldn’t believe they were on the menu so we spent the thick end of a score finding out what they were like. Not good, in case you were tempted to make an error similarly grave. But once you’ve been a few times, and drank that beer, and paid those prices for that school-dinner style food, the attraction starts to wear away because — recent discovery guys — boobs are available on the internet now. Besides, your waitress isn’t interested in you, or your mega-ladz-bantz, and nor is she coming home with you afterwards, unless you’re my substantially more handsome younger brother who was greeted on first name terms by several of them last time we popped in.

We’ll be back, probably, but this time we decided to be sad, rather than dirty, old men. Nottingham actually has some great pubs. Several laying claim to being the oldest in the country, including Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem which has sort of been dug out of a sheer rock face under the castle and has be seen, and drank in, to be believed really. On recommendation of an old QPR friend who’s made the frankly fucking ludicrous decision to move back to this country from New Zealand at this point in British history we head up towards the Old Lace Market and drink in The Keans Head where all the beer has terribly witty names and fancy pictures on the pump, and the Indian menu on offer rivals most restaurants. Watch out West Brom’s Vine, new competition in town. We’ll definitely return here.

As ever, the pub is the best bit of the day. “QPR have never won at Nottingham Forest, so a draw there is always a good result”… so goes the introduction to our 1-1 on this ground for the season review VHS 1990/91( !!). See, we're taught it from birth. That was attempt 18, and there have been another 19 cracks at it since prior to this evening resulting in one lone victory — just about the only thing Steve McClaren did achieve during his dreary 2018/19 campaign. There’s brief threat that a second may be on the cards here as Andre Gray gives QPR a half time lead — and between them Luke Amos and Lee Wallace surely should also have scored prior to that — but Djed Spence burns the barn down precisely at the moment we think we’ve weathered the crucial first ten minutes of the second half. From there it always felt like ‘a draw here is always a good result’ would be the wreckage to cling to, but the recalled Dion Sanderson loses Ryan Yates at a late corner and that’s the end of that. QPR, who finish with ten men and no goalkeeper, spent whatever boost the Luton win gave them in the first 45 and thought the second increasingly look, feel and play like a side running on fumes.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole life being bummed in the gob here with only The Mull of Kintyre by way of bedroom music. I’ve been to 17 of our failed attempts to win, and of course the one precious victory. I feel like I could handle another, to be honest, were it offered. I dragged my then-girlfriend (needless to say not any more) through end-of-the-world style traffic (maybe another inner ring road might help?) on a freezing cold Tuesday night to watch us lose 5-0 here once. I was here for the Tony Roberts goalkeeping masterclass in 1994 when Les Ferdinand and Bradley Allen had, frankly, done their fucking best. I was here for a 3-0 on the final day of 1995/96 by which point we’d already been relegated from the Premier League, not to return for 15 years. Two years later Forest had joined us in the second tier and a couple of days prior to the August Bank Holiday trip 12-year-old me had fallen some considerable height from a tree behind our house and fractured both my arms in multiple places from the wrist to the elbow. My dad’s sympathy was limited because he’d wanted to stay in and watch Blackburn 7-2 Sheff Wed on Monday Night Football, and now he had to take me to the hospital. If you think discovering masturbation for the first time as a pubescent teenager and then three months later having both your arms put in a plaster cast from the first knuckle back is torture, add in a 4-0 humping and a Pierre Van Hooijdonk hat trick.

I should absolutely adore the place. The City Ground is, along with Bramall Lane, the best ground in this league by a thousand country miles — and just like every film could be improved by cutting 20 minutes from the run time and adding a scene with an exploding helicopter, so every place is immediately improved by the nearby presence of a body of water so the river probably nudges it ahead. A proper, old-school stadium, right in the heart of its city, packed to the rafters, gleaming through the teeming rain as you cross The Trent towards it. You look at this place, and then you look and the monstrosities Southampton, Leicester, Derby, Boro and others have saddled themselves with for the next 100 years, and the difference is laughable really. A new main stand to complete the picture is in the offing.

But then the new ownership and return to form here has come with attempts to improve the atmosphere, “reconnect the club to its people” and all sorts of PR guff like that, which amounts to plastering things like “The Garibaldi we wear with pride was made in 1865” around the place and staging ever increasingly elaborate flag parades behind the goal. Look, I’ve said in this column many times that anybody who wants to travel around this shithole island, spending this sort of money, on these sorts of trains, and this sort of beer, watching this sort of football, with this sort of refereeing, is absolutely fine by me to do so in any way they choose as long as it doesn’t harm anybody else. You’re mad, I’m mad, but we’re the fabric holding this thing together. Flag parades your thing? Go nuts. But if the overall aim, as it seems to be, is to transport a little bit of Europe’s “ultras culture” to these shores, well I’m afraid it falls down at the ‘culture’ part because culture isn’t a thing you can transfer — just ask MK Dons. In the same way away fans heading out en masse isn’t a thing in La Liga and 3,000 Zaragoza fans pitching up in Seville on a Tuesday night would be a bit weird, whenever we try it here it feels, looks and sounds a bit forced. The best atmospheres we’ve experienced on the road this season, for me, were at Blackpool and Coventry, the latter creating theirs in the absolute worst example of a new stadium build with one end almost completely empty. It’s happening in those places organically because both sets of fans thought they’d lost their clubs, and actually boycotted them for a long period of time, and now here they are roaring back in the second tier playing great football. It’s one to bear in mind for anybody who thinks safe standing at the Loft End (which I’m in favour of) is going to magic back the atmosphere to Loftus Road — the best it’s been in modern times was the Oldham play-off semi-final, for wholly organic reasons you cannot recreate. By trying to forcibly do so you risk creating a sort of footballing Disneyland. Some nerve from the fan of a team that plays goal music, but still on our visit The City Ground feels rather like a Championship Anfield where the most noise and atmosphere you get all night is when the set songs — Mull of Kintyre, Mull of bloody Kintyre again, Depeche Mode — are played at the set times at high volume and everybody knows to join in and wave the flag they've been given. Well, join in, or film the spectacle on your phone, in which the crowd splits about 65:35 — a better ratio than at Anfield, but still not great. Norwich are having a similar problem having tried a similar thing.

Forest on the pitch are one of the season’s big success stories. A storied FA Cup run that has already done for Leicester and Arsenal is being married with an assault on the upper reaches of the Championship that will terrify anybody else in the top six should they make it for the end of season knock outs. The team has been transformed from one that took a club record low one point from its first seven league games, boring the living piss out of everybody with Chris Hughton’s tried and long-since-expired straight lines football, to this electric opponent which, in the end, QPR simply can’t live with. With Djed Spence flying one side and Brennan Johnson (surely one of the best young talents in the country right now) the other, they have that searing pace that Rangers badly lack. It’s enough to make a fairly stodgy set of forwards look half decent — although Villa loanee Keinan Davis spends this one missing chances you’d have fancied yourself for, restricting the damage done to a spent Rangers team. They’re doing it without parachute payments as well, which should be treasured and lauded in this day and age. But (can you see, there’s always a but), their ludicrous signing of 100 players over the past four and a bit seasons, often cast aside almost as soon as they’ve arrived (Gaetan Bong), occasionally just as we looked set to sign them ourselves (Hefele, Cook), rather sours the narrative. It was funny when they were combining this with a collection of increasingly convoluted late season collapses, and maybe there’s another of those to come, because like Derby there'sjust that faint whiff of entitlement here because they were good for a bit 30 years ago under a generational managerial talent, and like Leeds no length of time being properly shit (and in League One) seems to beat that out of them. But now it’s just annoying, because they’re actually good, and I’m jealous. More pressingly, the amount of times ‘Olympiakos’ appears in their business (16 separate occasions, mostly "undisclosed", along with a couple of bits of business at the no-questions-asked cash converter in Almeria) is a bit of an eye-roll as a fan of a club still paying off a world record FFP fine.

They have some of the best fan media in the country. Fanzines, websites, vlogs, Matchday with Max, Forza Garibaldi, that put the rest of us to shame. The latter focuses very much on the culture of football fandom, running awaydays, picking pubs, sorting the train travel. They managed, somehow, for the Friday night game at Loftus Road to run a successful campaign to persuade East Midlands Trains to hold the last service so their fans could catch it. East Midlands Trains said they would, and then didn’t bother, stranding them all, but that’s not the point — we knew they were pricks to start with, football supporters need to band together more against companies like them that treat us like this. But (see) I do rather object to The Athletic contributing quite so much of my subscription fee to indulging Forest fans who want to write 3,000 words on how Steve Cooper has “brought the city together” that really belong on the fan media, or in the matchday programme.

I don’t know, it’s hard to put my finger on it. Except it’s not is it? You’re never going to warm to a place where you’ve been 38 times and won once are you? Pavlov doesn’t so much ring the bell as beat us to death with it here. You can hear them snapping the rubber glove up to their elbow as we walk across the fucking car park. “Oh, it’s you again. Annual prostate examination is it? You know the drill.”

Later LoftforWords’ less than fine picture agency, which provided exactly zero snaps of the weekend triumph at Kenilworth Road, offers us 34 from here. There are half a dozen of an ecstatic Steve Cooper who is obviously doing a fantastic job but, bless him, isn’t somebody you particularly want to be cropping photographs of at one in the morning is he? Still, probably for the best, those Hooters girls didn’t fancy coming back to Lenny Henry’s with me either, and my wrists still get sore in the cold and the wet.

Some great beers

In the end we see no trouble at all in Luton. Actually, we see no Luton fans at all in Luton. For every bit of shambles the police operation was at the home game, here it runs smoothly. We’re quickly funnelled out, across the Dunstable High Road, under the railway tracks, and make our way back to the station from there. One local in the emergency off licence even wishes us luck for the rest of the season — mind you he was on crutches with his leg in an air boot so wouldn’t have stood much chance if we’d kicked off. Not that our group looks anything like the sort that would kick off over anything other than somebody giving away our giant stuffed animal from the bowling alley. Later there’s Mabel’s Tavern, which artificially inflates the pub scores in this report — not that anybody looks at the scores anyway. The pub has all the electric off because there’s water pouring through the ceiling, but lets us in anyway to talk an unmerciful amount of complete bullshit, even by our standards. But first, we procure our entry into this magnificent Twitter trend…

Luton: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 7/10 >>> Luton performance 6/10 >>> Referee performance 5/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 8/10 >>> Home support 7/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 7/10 >>>> Stadium 3/10 >>>> Police and stewards 8/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 6/10 >>>> Cost 4/10 On the train >>> Journey 7/10 >>> Cost 7/10

Forest: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 5/10 >>> Forest performance 8/10 >>> Referee performance 6/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 5/10 >>> Home support 7/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 6/10 >>>> Stadium 8/10 >>>> Police and stewards 5/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 8/10 >>> Atmosphere 5/10 >>> Food 8/10 >>>> Cost 7/10 On the train >>> Journey 5/10 >>> Cost 3/10

Totals, Forest 86/140, Luton 89/140

Links >>> Hull/Boro >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool >>> Bristol/Birmingham >>> Peterborough/Coventry/Millwall >>> Barnsley/Blackburn

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ShotKneesHoop added 20:26 - Mar 30
Wonderful read ... can you put it on Audible too? I want to go to sleep listening to prose like this too. Just brilliant stuff, keep it up, If you can!!

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