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South of the river – Awaydays
Sunday, 23rd Jul 2023 22:53 by Clive Whittingham

Back in the UK, two weeks out from the start of the new season, a threadbare QPR class of 23/24 went south of the river, at this time of night, to face Wimbledon on Saturday.

At this time of night?

Towards the end of last year Kwasi Kwarteng stopped teabagging Liz Truss (prime minister for the moment, not of the moment) just long enough to give a speech which set light to the British economy, and my mortgage.

Joe Public loves a mystery blaze, and in the ongoing search for who could possibly be responsible for this the good people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip this week bypassed the man in the giant hot dog costume and alighted upon… Labour, and their ideal that if you want to drive a 20-year-old Astra van around the gaff and poison the air your kids breathe on the way to school you should have to pay £10 for the privilege.

I, meanwhile, have had to swap my lovely little house in Barnet for somebody else’s house in Tooting. This has been something of a trauma for somebody who previously lived their life by the London taxi driver mantra when it came to going across the Thames. North of the river – people to see, places to go, things to do, QPR. South of the river – marshland until 15 years ago as far as I can tell, and also Millwall.

From being able to run through open countryside, to now doing the same lap of Tooting Common every day. Round and round the common, clockwise or anti-clockwise are the choices. Or, if I’m feeling particularly maverick, a figure-eight pattern. Just a large expanse of grass populated by yummy mummies doing their early morning kickboxing set with the personal trainer who’s absolutely not smashing one out all over her tits on the side the second the old man’s goes to work; the park run crowd and their ‘rules control the fun’ approach to exercise; the local Indian lads who play a game of cricket there Thursday and Friday lunchtimes better than anything you’ll see in the County Championship; and the middle classes who spend lot of time there with pugs, because having turned their own garden into a biological wasteland with £15,000 worth of artificial grass the “Gucci poochy” can’t get out for a piss when that stuff heats up to a billion degrees in the sun.

So, how am I finding it? Well, there’s a broader selection of much better pubs, some truly excellent places to eat especially if it’s a curry you’re after, but also there were five lads doing a deal for a dog out the back of a van outside my house a couple of nights back and the dog didn’t seem very happy about it. At all. Like everywhere, there’s good and bad. An afternoon spent in front of the big screen in Tooting Market is time well spent; five minutes in The Mayfair Tavern, or with the waifs and strays on the benches outside the telephone exchange, probably less so.

The place could be improved considerably by renaming some of the tube stations. At the moment you’ve got Clapham North, Clapham South, Clapham East, Clapham West, Clapham Common, That Bit of Clapham Where All The Aussie’s Play Aussie Rules, That Bit of Clapham Where All The Aussie’s Play Touch Rugby, That Bit Of Clapham Where The Aussies Try To Light Each Other’s Farts Over The Big Table In The Spoons, That Bit Of Clapham Where Liberal MPs Go “Badger Watching”… I mean fuck me I’ve been on the Northern Line for three quarters of an hour and I still haven’t made it beyond Clapham. For the people unfortunate/stupid enough to still be commuting into work five days a week I think adding a bit of variety to the station names could at least imbue them with some sort of sense of progress, even if it’s just towards death.

Crazy times

And Wimbledon’s new ground is walkable. Even in the pissing rain that is this year’s Ashes-scuppering British summer time. I’d been here once before, for my Covid jab back when they were trendy, but Mel has been very insistent that cannot count against my 92-club quota and so on Saturday I joined 2,000 others on a ground ticking exercise for QPR’s first appearance here.

I guess the kindest way to describe The New Plough Lane, or whatever sponsor-driven name we’ll avoid repeating as part of our editorial style guide, is functional. The Dons, now managed by former Spurs and Charlton midfielder Johnnie Jackson, finished fourth bottom of League Two last season having been relegated from League One the season before. For the level they’re at, this place is fine. Fairly characterless – I’d have had a terrace behind both goals for a start, a roof for the away concourse wouldn’t have gone amiss, and the decision to have not one single window on the whole back side of the block of flats at the far end leaving it looking like some giant turbine hall from a Soviet era nuclear plant is just plain bizarre/cruel – but the facilities, corporate, bars and spaces in the main stand put Loftus Road to shame.

Most importantly of all, it’s theirs. Bought and paid for, in part with a similar bond scheme to the one that helped build our new training ground.

I’m too young to really remember Plough Lane, Alan McDonald and John Fashanu elbowing each other up and down a mud bath of an afternoon, and actually my main childhood recollection of the place was a rare Match of the Day appearance for my then-Fourth Division hometown team Grimsby Town there in the FA Cup and the first national exposure to the local phenomena Harry the Haddock.

The Wimbledon of my youth played in front of sparse crowds at Selhurst Park: Ray Wilkins caressing a 35 yard lob over stranded Hans Segers with his left foot; Les Ferdinand being allowed to turn with the ball on the halfway line and punishing that insolence with a 40-yard maraud past helpless defenders and a power drive into the bottom corner; 16,000 QPR fans taking over the place thinking we were going to the FA Cup quarter final only for the team not to show and Robbie Earle to break our hearts; and the infamous, forlorn, 5-0 surrender to a team with one Gareth Ainsworth on the wing that to further cemented our relegation credentials, serenaded onto the field for the second half by the Steptoe and Son theme song. Jazz FM’s Chris Philips was the half time DJ that day, and remains so today – he played it for us again prior to the second half, for old time’s sake. A beautiful nod to history and nostalgia that people with MK Dons season tickets just wouldn’t be able to grasp at all.

Philips also played a couple of Gareth’s new songs at half time on Saturday, which has got to be a first for an opposition manager at an away ground having tracks from his new album blasted out while he’s giving a team talk, but he’s not the only connection between these two outfits. They were nearly linked in ways none of us could ever possibly have countenanced or recovered from. First as a proposed merged club, designed to save Wimbledon from their state of permanent homelessness and QPR from the Second Division and Chris Wright-induced financial meltdown, then as a new club for the city of Milton Keynes. Pete Winkelman pitched his project to QPR fans in The Adelaide, before finding an altogether more vulnerable neck from which he could suck the life in the beleaguered Dons. The three-man FA panel that endorsed such wanton vandalism said starting again as a new Wimbledon, with Chessington as an away fixture rather than a World of Adventures, was “not in the wider interests of football”. Having, quite rightly, rolled that judgement up just tight enough to shove straight back up their arse and started again regardless, to have got back as far as they have and be playing in a new, wholly-owned stadium in south west London (something we’re finding impossible to do ourselves) is a remarkable achievement and who really cares if the Stella is £6 and you get wet drinking it?

By way of his own piece of nostalgia home centre back Joe Lewis, recently signed on loan from upwardly mobile Stockport, found a pair of short shorts left hanging around from the wreckage of the original Plough Lane. A camel toe like that hasn’t been seen since velour tracksuits went out of fashion, or anywhere in fact since Channel 4 stopped gratuitously putting Jordan on the television. The 2,000 QPR fans stationed directly behind him for the first half called him the Rear Admiral. Or should that be Admirable. Certainly a good deal more admirable than his partner Ryan Johnson in any case, who laid a pass back up Matthew Rose levels of Chris Day-killing short for Lyndon Dykes to walk in an empty netter after two minutes. Get the HMS Piss The League memes.

By that point debutant Asmir Begovic had already rampaged out into heavy traffic to defuse a couple of dangerous crosses. Soon he was writing and singing the theme tune mopping up a through ball out by the far corner flag. When Field sold Paal a hospital pass, and the Dutchman abdicated all responsibility for the consequences, Morgan Williams drew a fine save from the Bosnian. Another free kick from Wimbledon’s seven cut straight through a broken wall (twice that’s happened this pre-season) and Begovic was grateful to watch it drift wide. He says his mantra is “always to be ready, and then you’re ready regardless”. That’s good. Are you ready for World War One? You're going to be busy.

Where we are

QPR lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system in the first half with goalscorer Dykes backed by a three of Ilias Chair, Taylor Richards and Chris Willock. It was, bar Jake Clarke-Salter, the best team we can currently field. Paul Smyth was absent, casting into some doubt the obviously nonsense notion that removing him 30 minutes into the second friendly in Austria was the plan all along. Ainsworth risks burning off credit he can ill-afford to lose if he keeps feeding us this obvious bilge.

He’ll win it all back again if QPR can play some of the football they did in the first half, with the combinations between the attacking players, Chair’s constant involvement, and Willock’s renewed levels of purpose and effort to the fore. When we do good, we use the Chair pen. Not fucking about in our own half, getting the ball into a trio of creative tens behind a talismanic centre forward is exactly how Neil Warnock solved our last crisis at this level and while we’re not doing it with the calibre of Helguson, Taarabt, Smith, Routledge and Faurlin this time there were at least some indications here that it’s not just going to be hoof and hope, 19% of the ball, “possession can do one”.

One particularly slick give-and-go move of a dozen passes carved Wimbledon apart and should have resulted in a goal for Andre Dozzell – tidy, but still not involved enough – denied by keeper former Pompey keeper Alex Bass who looks like a good addition for the Dons at their level on loan from Sunderland. Chair into Dozzell and out, into Paal and round to Willock, back to Chair, into Richards, Chair again, and Dozzell once more, Richards' touch overed by Willock to free Paal and then Willock a final time with a nutmeg and cut back... It was that moment in Footloose where dancing is legalised. What a feeling. There is hope yet, and how wonderful it would be for Ainsworth to jam cynicism from websites like this right back up us playing football like that.

Richards, having quite clearly tossed off the second game in Austria, was at least moving around here and showed some decent bits and pieces while still being nowhere near influential enough against a level of opponent he should be able to absolutely school. He's a guy drinking in Last Chance Saloon who doesn’t realise last orders were called ten minutes ago.

There is, however, nothing beyond what started on Saturday. Nothing. Less than nothing, in fact. I had a better time here having my injection than I did watching the second half.

Jimmy Dunne isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and his senseless charge out of position into a ridiculous tackle he could never possibly win on halfway set in motion a chain of events at the start of the second half that ended with a low cross cut back into the space he’d vacated for Josh Neufville to calmly slam into the top corner for an ultimately decisive equaliser. But when he went down injured, and stayed down, hearts were in mouths because… who else have we got? Deon Woodman, ludicrously tall, and Henry Hawkins, stupidly handsome, came on at centre back second half and both did really well in the face of an ever-more-increasingly physical barrage late in the game. Joe Gubbins did a nice line in belting the ball into the stand, but are you going to do a Championship season with these centre backs? Stoke’s released Morgan Fox, originally a left back, might fit within our costs. Chris Forino will not while Wycombe want £400k for him. That’s where we are.

The more and more substitutions we made, the worse we got. Sinclair Armstrong’s turn and run into the channel did, again, cause problems to people who aren’t as quick as him – i.e. everybody. But his touch in general, and knowledge of the offside rule, made Macauley Bonne look like a Mastermind Grand Champion. Rafferty Pedder looks super tidy on the ball, but you could x-ray that boy with a Fisher Price torch. As the away end slumped from early highs into typical pre-season lows of talking among yourselves and trying to keep up with the cricket, one brave attempt at maintaining Captain Jack ended up more Fathers for Justice protest than football chant. She won’t let me see the wee'uns. By the railway track, or otherwise.

Wimbledon are a poor side. They started with square-arsed Josh Davison in attack, who has never scored more than nine goals for any club he’s played for and has a haircut to match. Later they introduced gigantic 31-year-old Harry Pell from Tilbury Dock, which is exactly where he’d be working if he was 5ft 8ins tall. He spent the final quarter of an hour clumping around and treading on people. Stephen Duke McKenna objected in the end, and the referee should have known better than to add four minutes to a game that was long since on the wane to a bit of a barney. By then the age of QPR’s entire team added up to one Albert Adomah, still chugging around out there wide right. That two-year contract he got last summer remains one of our more heinous recent crimes.

You’ll get a centre back, and a central midfielder. You’ll get a forward, to back up Lyndon Dykes, probably on loan, probably late in the window. They’d like a right back, if they can, to provide a better alternative to Osman Kakay than Aaron Drewe who looked like Sinclair Armstrong’s lunch as they warmed up together in the first half. Is he going to eat the Drewe? Sinclair doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt. But that’s going to be it. And that’s going to be enough? If Dykes gets injured? If Chair is sold? If Clarke-Salter is made of glass after all? We’re one injury to Jimmy Dunne away from going to Watford with Deon Woodman and Joe Gubbins as the centre halves.

It's hard to shake the notion that one 20-pass move almost resulting in a goal against AFC Wimbledon in mid-July might be as good as this gets.

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Pictures – Ian Randall Photography

Ian Randall Photography

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eastside_r added 00:42 - Jul 24
I mean that contained so many absolute truths, the main one being the often neglected North-South divide (that’s London not England.)

How can a day / game so drab elicit a report that brought so many smiles and a few LOLs?

I’ll be back for more on this for sure.


hoops_legend added 07:48 - Jul 27
Loved the part about Clapham and the yummy mummy’s 😂

HastingsRanger added 12:05 - Jul 27
This is going to be a long season. Already coping better thanks to this superb narrative. Great prologue too. Hard to believe just how much has changed so quickly from this time last year! Very different starting point, best of luck to GA (unless he pisses off after 10 weeks)

Noah289 added 17:18 - Nov 30
The rollout of 5G technology has been a game-changer in the realm of connectivity. With faster speeds and lower latency, 5G has paved the way for enhanced mobile experiences, making real-time communication and high-quality video streaming more accessible than ever.

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