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Sheffield/Preston/Huddersfield — Awaydays
Monday, 2nd May 2022 20:31 by Clive Whittingham

The penultimate gratuitous Awaydays write up of the season sees the LFW crew steadfastly grinding their way through three fruitless trips to the north inside a week as QPR’s campaign dies a slow and painful death.

Happy place

The season, like my childhood, began in Hampton and effectively ended in Sheffield. Both are happy places and times, while much of what took place in between is not.

Some kids are made by secondary school. A teacher, a book, a friendship group — something just clicks, and turbo-charges them off into the world. Some kids peak there. All the ones you admired or feared or were jealous of — the one that got the girl, the one that captained the football team, the one that held court at lunchtime, the one with all the smart-arse remarks from the back of the class, the one everybody thought was so cool to already be on a pack of cigarettes a day at 13-years-old. You see them now on Facebook, still living in the catchment area approaching 40, working a dead-end job to feed a brood of similarly mediocre kids behaving the same way at the same school while dad waits for that latent lung cancer to surface. Some find it varying degrees of unbearable, torturous, upsetting, distressing or miserable - bullying, puberty, hormones, cruel little bastards lurking around every corner, fucking algebra - but they get through it, and move on, and realise just how pointless and insignificant all that stuff they were told meant the world really was. Those Year Nine SATs they rushed me back straight after my father’s funeral to sit? Ooooh I can’t tell you how many times I get asked how I did in those at job interviews.

And some kids are completely destroyed by it. Waves. Not some of the way, not for a while, I mean entirely altered permanently, to the point where I cannot sit through any form of drama, soap, television programme, play or musical set in a fucking school this side of The Inbetweeners without descending into a wreck. The darkly comic tone of LFW seems to work for its regular readers (hello to both) but please know it comes from a place of abject misery and mental torment that dozens of adults responsible for my wellbeing saw, saw every day, did nothing about, and quite often told me was “character building”.

At Hampton Hill Juniors there was a night where the art club I was part of, the student council I was class president on, and the football team I played for, all had a fixture on the same night and I had to choose. That was me. Into everything, friends with everybody, out every night. Precocious little twat probably, always sticking my hand up in class and assembly to make some vitally important point of my own, but really fucking happy. And confident. I used to sell a little hand-written football magazine on the playground called The Hampton Hill Miracle, later retitled 90 Minutes (or 98 minutes if Man Utd are losing) after the demise of the original.

Having taken a new job up north my parents dropped my at the gates of the new northern comp out of the removal man on day one of Year Seven - me knowing neither the town, nor anybody any it. Every day thereafter was progressively worse than the one before. Anything and everything remotely different about you — which, let’s be honest, four-foot blond boy called Clive with high pitched London accent, was a lot — was seized upon and torn to shreds in front of everybody for sport. Even some of the fucking teachers would do it. The football team, for instance, was absolutely not for me, as the coach of it made painfully clear by following me around in training shouting “you’re giving the ball away QPR”. They did let me run the line for their games though so I could sort of be part of it which… didn’t help. They knew I couldn’t play cricket, so they put me in at opener where I couldn’t help but let me team down. They knew I couldn’t play basketball (I repeat, four foot fucking tall), so they stuck me up front ensuring my team would never score and it would be my fault. They knew I couldn’t turn a fucking summersault off the fucking trampette — vital life skill — so they made me repeatedly try it in front of the other boys. I’d become painfully clingy and obsessed with the one or two lads that did try to be my friend, to the point where it just became too weird for them and they abandoned me. I'd beg one of them to save a space at his dinner table in the canteen so I didn’t have to sit by myself, but he'd only do it if I paid him 20p a day, and when I didn’t have it he filled it with coats and made me go somewhere else. I had to pay 20p a day for somebody to pretend to be my friend during lunch. By the time I’d finished my best friend was my English teacher, who let me hide in her classroom. Nobody wants to buy your handwritten football magazine here mate.

When my dad got seriously ill, sent home from the hospital with the “nothing more we can do” message and slumped in his chair in the living room being fed steadily by a mechanical pump into his stomach, one of the little twats decided to tease me about it. This developed over time into him waiting for me each morning to walk 20 feet behind me on the walk to and from school, sitting near me in all my lessons making comments about it, turning up on the field my brother and I used for football/solitude and standing watching us. The school knew, watched, saw it, and did nothing. The teachers let him sit next to me, class after class after class. They made me keep a diary of everything he did, then when they read it said I’d just have to put up with quite a lot of it. I blamed myself, thought I was exaggerating, thought I’d brought it on myself. In fact, the school needed to keep its exclusion figures down. In the end his parents did the decent thing and moved him, but only after I’d had a nervous breakdown in a food tech lesson and, I’m told, though having completely blacked out I don’t remember, snapped and gone for his head with a stool.

After dad died the school’s advice to my mum was getting back to normality and routine was key for little Clive i.e. get him back here as soon as possible. I should have been removed, taken out, taken on a very long holiday, and restarted the following September somewhere else. There was nothing left of me. A costume of a boy. Instead I was back in the following Monday. Let’s be grown ups about this 20 years on - the fat wanker headteacher desperately needed my exam results for his league tables. I got them thanks to three brilliant teachers who got together and threw a protective ring around me (a real one, not like the care homes) to drag me through the final 18 months. I wish I’d flunked the whole lot, just to fuck the place over. I deliberately picked up the wrong, lower-ability paper in my maths GCSE mock, limiting the grade I could get to a C, just to watch them shit themselves. I got chaperoned to the real thing.

The winters were long, dark, and freezing fucking cold. The building, which they pulled down the second I left, didn’t have an airtight room in the place, and leaked rain and wind into every lesson. The windows had apparently been loosened by the blast force of the Flixborough disaster which was, checks notes in 197-fucking-4. Can we wear our coats in class miss? You cannot. I’d walk home, alone, in the dark and the sleet, across a bleak playing field next to a factory that made chips for McDonalds, get home, sit in the bath to get warm, and cry at the loss of myself. Who was this boy, and what had happened to him? Again, the grown ups knew all this and did nothing. At one stage QPR were away at Grimsby, so a lot of my dad’s mates were up for the game, and mum sent Polish Paul and Mick Harman (who many of you will know and I still see all the time at Rangers) out across the field to meet me and cheer me up. After 20 minutes of asking school kids if they “knew Clive” they returned home empty handed, but did subsequently appear as really rather life-like police e-fits on the front of that week’s Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph as “strange unidentified men approaching Foxhills pupils on their way home”.

Zero optimism, drained of belief, torched confidence, self-worth in the gutter, cynical, bitter and hateful… Sheffield was where I went next for a university degree. And I will never get off the train here without a warm feeling washing over me ever again. Back to the pubs I started to frequent with friends — actual friends. Back to Mama and Leonies where you can still get a lasagne hotter than the surface of the sun for less than a tenner, and spend the rest of the day peeling the skin off the roof of your mouth. It turns out being different is ok. It turns out some people are decent. It turns out you are allowed to play football, even if you’re not that good at it, just for fun and socials. Christ they even let me play in goal there, despite being a midget, and lo and behold… I was alright at it. If you want to watch independent documentary film at The Showroom instead of Marvel Avengers drek at the Vue — it’s fine. Having the name of an old man in a cardigan when you're 19 is something to laugh about together, not be destroyed over by yourself. If you want to read books instead of going to club nights, or you enjoy writing, or you support QPR instead of Man Utd, or you prefer old-man pubs to bars, or you like to cook, or you want to watch the League Two play-offs, or rugby league, or ice hockey, THEN. IT’S. OK. It’s ok to just be you. Nobody is coming for you over it. Sheffield taught me this. I rebuilt to the point where I can now just about function — though still painfully shy, horrifically self-conscious, horribly cynical, terrified of large social gatherings unless drunk and prone to panic attacks in rooms of people I don’t know. Other people’s weddings are a living, breathing nightmare. I was safe in Sheffield. My mum used to ask me when I was coming home, and I’d just laugh at her.

At the time Sheffield was a happy rebuilding place for QPR as well. What hadn’t helped over the nightmare years was my only escape from the depression was Saturdays away at Rangers, but unfortunately the spent the vast majority of that time losing really rather too often to Stockport County. My first year in Sheffield was 2003/04 which began with Martin Rowlands running a sword the size of an elephant’s tusk through Sheffield United while we all stood in the away end at Bramall Lane and rubbed our eyes in disbelief, and ended with 8,000 of us packing out one end of Hillsborough to see a QPR team we could genuinely be proud of give us full actual promotion to celebrate. Hillsborough and Bramall Lane are spectacular football stadiums, brilliant places to watch the sport, and I’ll never go to either without closing my eyes and seeing Rowlands in full flight, Gallen’s back-to-goal game, Furlong rolling Chris Carr, and that feeling that I am occasionally allowed nice things dawning on my shattered remains.

It wasn’t to be on this occasion — never going to be if you don’t have a serious shot on target all night — but that didn’t, doesn’t and never will matter to me. Sheffield is a happy place.

Were we successful? I’ll let you be the judge of that…

Preston is… not a happy place. I mean, it’s not like Scunthorpe, it doesn’t bring me out in a literal sweaty rash at the mere sight of its name on the train’s calling points, but for QPR it’s not a place that immediately makes you feel flush with the potential success of a riotous afternoon on the road. There’s a school next to Deepdale proudly displaying a poster outside saying that it is a good school, but it’s put the “good” in inverted commas — like QPR have got a “good” chance of winning this game. “I’ll give you a bell after the defeat” Si says to Mrs Si over the phone in the cab ride to the ground.

Such is the way of the Championship, and the railways, that you end up coming here, or through here, or near here, to see Rangers play not only Knob End, but Blackpool, Blackburn, Burnley, Wigan and Bolton and, well, I’ve got more hairs on my little toe than I have happy QPR memories from that collection of grounds. It is the train of doom. Since exiting the Premier League the first time in 1996 Rangers have played those six clubs away from home on 65 occasions. That’s 65 early morning trips to Euston, 65 fistfulls of hard-earned forked over into Wanker Branson/Avanti’s current account, 65 slogs up to the northwest, 65 forlorn searches for a good pub and all for… 11 wins. Even that is propped up rather by Richard Langley’s bitter personal feud with Blackpool, where we have won four of nine trips. Our record in that period at Preston, Blackburn and Burnley is 38 visits and three wins, one at each ground. Three out of 38, with nine draws. At the price of this latest sojourn I have spent six grand on that, at a cost of £315 per point. Still, could be worse, it’s Grand National day, and Everton v Man Utd, which means there’s a train coming back this way tonight at some point that’s an equal mixture of Cockney Reds and coked up twats in tweed suits. There’s a lot of “morning gentlemen, how are we…” greetings from boys of 23 at Euston before we depart. A lot of cheering for people who’ve turned up fractionally late. One of them saunters in front of the departure board in a top hat. A top hat. Get in the sea please, do not pass go, do not collect £200.

Good news — we have now found a decent pub in Preston. I’m not going to tell you where it is, because it seats about 20, there was already one of those sorts asking to taste the beer before making his choice in front of us at the bar when we arrived, and an order of five lunches sent the chef into a panic. But the beer was good, the food was excellent, and when we trudged back in there at half past five they greeted us warmly with “Hiiii — was it successful?” Noooo. Very much more preferable to the one near the station that hasn’t been hoovered since the time of the Vikings, and the other one near the station where they had the collection for the IRA that time we went in there.

Bad news — the goalkeeper’s injured again. I’m starting to think using live ammunition in training is a mistake. The reaction to the announcement in the away end at five to three is incredulous laughter. We’ve decided to find it charming. Football Manager regen Murphy Mahoney is summoned from his A Level revision and sent out ahead of the rest for a perfunctory five minute warm up prior to kick off — the situation now so precarious the club didn’t want to risk him in the usual shooting drill and so stuck the reserve goalkeeping coach in net for that instead. Not that you’re in much danger standing there with our forwards at the moment. We’re back down to the die-hards now, all that posturing over how unfair the loyalty points system is from the time of Reading and Bournemouth away mysteriously boiled back down to the usual 700 or so. If you were wondering back in September how people accumulate so many of those points — well this is where you get them, and this is why.

Mahoney is given a standing ovation, a tremendous reception, and his name is sung through the first half with him at our end, and speaks subsequently about the difference that made to his mood, confidence and performance — probably worth bearing in mind when I read message board posts about “giving them hell” because they haven’t met our expectations this season. I got quite emotional seeing him run out. Just a kid really, imagine the stomach knots, plunged into that situation for a senior debut in a team that’s shot to shitrags, and in this sort of rapidly deteriorating mood. He makes a string of second half saves to keep the score respectable and I love him for it.

Afterwards it’s the train station of doom again. Chalk another one up to experience. On the way home we get two talkers — one of them QPR, one of them Exeter City making the long trek back down from Carlisle. Lovely fellas. The migraine pierces to the point I can’t even drink — 41 down, five to go.

Where do these stairs go?

For the third time in a week, Good Friday brings another long trek to the North. We thought we’d had a touch cancelling that Sheff Utd game when we did, avoiding their red-hot new-manager bounce of December, but it leaves us facing a horrible week right at the business end of the season and, as it turns out, QPR are mid squirt of a comprehensive bed shitting by the time it comes around.

Why would you bother? Some pointers for you. It’s what we do. We follow QPR, we are QPR followers. It’s where our friends are, it’s what we enjoy, and if it had ever been about the winning in the first place then we’d have followed a team that did that occasionally. Twitter hero Will Pound is here with his “we never win away” flag. It’s what we missed most during lockdown and have looked forward to having back. There’s also a pugnacious sadism to me in times like this — oh you think I’ll give up do you? Think I’ll stop going do you? Think you’re going to put me off do you? I’ve travelled when George Kulscar was starting in midfield mate, settle yourself down. And, to bring this whole sorry tale full circle, it’s the way I feel connected to my dad the most. I’ve lived more of my life without him than with now, and while I constantly wonder what he’d make of what I’ve done with it, I know for certain that were he still here he’d be standing next to me in the back left corner of the Huddersfield away end too. I end up missing the Stoke game as a plus one at somebody else’s wedding (AGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH KILL IT BEFORE IT LAYS EGGS) and I can see him looking back at me in the bathroom mirror that morning — “A wedding? A wedding? Get your arse on that fucking train.” It can feel like letting him down. Though the amount of times I’ve glanced skywards and asked him to have a word with somebody about maybe getting us an equaliser only for nothing to happen perhaps I shouldn’t be so concerned.

Padding across King’s Cross station in the morning, there’s a handsome midget in a white tracksuit up ahead. Ilias Chair is on my train. This is odd, firstly because for a club that’s supposed to be skint QPR aren’t shy of booking overnight hotel stays even prior to a midweek match at Millwall, so they’ll definitely have travelled Thursday for this. Secondly, he’s by himself. Trying to be a funny twat, I stick a Tweet out so I can do a “bare bones” joke. By the time I’ve finished my breakfast and my 4G signal has returned as the train approaches Peterborough (AGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH KILL IT BEFORE IT LAYS EGGS) it’s had 101 likes and 23 replies mostly conspiratorial and saying things like “travelling as they play, as individuals”. This is a support base on edge. Chair is given special dispensation to go up on Friday because the rules of Ramadan say you can break your fast (i.e. have a pre-match meal) if you’re completing a long journey that day for “non-sinful purposes”. Which, it turns out, Huddersfield away counts for. Luckily Sean Dyche gets the sack around Newark North Gate so QPR social start frigging themselves into a frothy frenzy about that being even a remote possibility — which it’s absolutely fucking not. The scandals and dramas come along every 45 minutes or so at Rangers at the moment. Chair, meanwhile, claims an equalising goal and the man of the match.

Huddersfield is one of those places stereotyped by southerners as being A Bit Shit. A part of the world for Stephan Yaxley Lennon to stomp around after a refugee gets beaten up, and Karen Matthews to hide her kids under the bed. But it is, actually, really rather beautiful in parts. You can approach from Leeds through the mills, or Manchester through the hills, and it never disappoints. The locals want to chat, rather than fight, and as in Sheffield the week before we field a number of "what on earth has happened to QPR" enquiries by referring them to our previous shrug. Unfortunately we rather lazily never make it far beyond the excellent Head of Steam pub at the station, and as it’s important that I have somewhere to sit and watch my other love, Hull FC, also bollocks everything up for me in the lunchtime game that doesn’t change today. But it’s all valleys and rivers and proper buildings made out of yellow rock and I really quite like it a lot.

As new grounds go they did at least try with this one, and it feels like something is really building here. It’s ten pound a ticket across the board (including away fans, lovely touch thank you), the programmes are free for all, and the place is absolutely rammed. I’m a grumpy old twat who can’t be getting on board with these Euro-lite flag parades clubs are putting on these days, particularly when you see the organisers (Palace, Forest) putting out deadly serious “official statements” about “securing our presence” at future games and making sure that only “organic” flag parades are allowed, not ones arranged by the clubs. Have a fucking day off will you? But there is a bit of that going on off to the right, as close to the away end as they can get, and the atmosphere is jumping throughout, right up there with Blackpool as the best of the season and enough to leave a tiny QPR following absolutely pissing into the wind noise wise. The place is alive, it looks and sounds terrific. It feels like a club, and a support base, and a team, and a manager going places. And right now ours just doesn’t.

I already know the answer because I’ve asked it before. Lee Hoos would tell you this is a relatively new, far larger, purpose built stadium, with space, and capacity, and hospitality, and mod cons. Huddersfield can afford to do ten pound a ticket, give space over for flag parades, give programmes away for free, because they’ve got the facilities, have been in the Premier League recently and had parachute payments. You can’t do this at Loftus Road because Loftus Road this and Loftus Road that. But I compare the backing Huddersfield get here for their promotion push with the morgue that greeted our lot for that key Middlesbrough game a couple of months back when we were still right in it and playing alright, and it’s night and day. Night and day. I’m not saying it’s easy, I count myself as one of the QPR fans who’s very realistic and pragmatic about the limitations the ground, the accounts and the rules of the league place on us. But I am saying at the moment we’re not even trying. Sheffield United round the season off packing the School End out and blasting us on and off the pitch. That’s happened from day one against Millwall this season, and been repeated by Boro, Sunderland, Fulham, Coventry, Bristol City, Forest and others. We are stuck at Loftus Road. We are stuck there. For ages. For the foreseeable future. We have to make more of it. We can’t just keep shrugging. Hopefully the safe standing will be a big part of improvement on this front.

Let’s also have it right, Huddersfield’s team is no better than ours on paper, and hasn’t been built on a significantly bigger budget. Their strike force consists of one part-used Danny Ward, and he goes off at half time here. Sorba Thomas, one of the finds of the Championship season, could quite easily have been found by us, playing at Boreham Wood 13 miles away from our stadium, instead he turns up here 200 miles away. The recruitment has been so, so much better, but it does occasionally feel like we’re still the club that buys Matt Phillips from Blackpool rather than Wycombe. It’s increasingly difficult, post-Covid, to compete at this level with the parachute payment clubs. But Forest, Luton and to a certain extent Huddersfield have done exactly that this season.

Thankfully QPR do perform here — Amos and Chair score in a 2-2 draw. It is still there, somewhere, tucked up deep inside. But it’s more Steve McClaren’s 2-2 at Hull than Adel Taarabt’s 2-2 at Cardiff and there’s a strong melancholy of what might have been on the last train of the night back from Leeds. Sensing this, the buffet car boy slips us a free bottle of wine at Wakefield Westgate.

Next season Rodney, we’ll be millionaires.

Scores on the doors

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

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

Huddersfield: On the pitch >>> QPR performance 6/10 >>> Huddersfield performance 6/10 >>> Referee performance 8/10 Off the pitch >>> QPR support 7/10 >>> Home support 9/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 8/10 >>>> Stadium 7/10 >>>> Police and stewards 7/10 In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 8/10 On the train >>> Journey 7/10 >>> Cost 5/10

Totals, Sheffield 91/140, Preston 84/140, Huddersfield 99/140

Previously this season >>> Hull/Boro >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool >>> Bristol/Birmingham >>> Peterborough/Coventry/Millwall >>> Barnsley/Blackburn >>> Luton/Nottingham

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simmo added 00:18 - May 3

royinaus added 03:39 - May 4
Brought tears to my eyes mate (and some uncomfortable memories I'd though locked away forever). Only great writing does that.

B_Wad added 05:21 - May 4
Have been so depressed I almost didn't read this. Thanks for the brilliant writing.

BrusselsHoop added 10:29 - May 4
A wonderful, poignant read. Thank you.

distortR added 23:55 - May 4
mate, you're a credit to yourself, and I'm so thankful that you're one of us and give us this great site.

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