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Birmingham/Leeds/Huddersfield/West Brom – Awaydays
Saturday, 18th Nov 2023 22:07 by Clive Whittingham

The Gareth Ainsworth era at QPR dissolves through a dispiriting autumn of mammoth journeys, infrastructure collapses, late nights at Lenny Henry’s and oh so many miles of smart motorways.

Decay

To drive the length of our country’s M1 motorway is to cast yourself as the ball in an enormous game of crazy golf.

The obstacles are many, varied, and often completely hidden. Some of it is lit at night, some of it isn’t. Some of it you can drive at 70-miles-per-hour, some of it you can only drive at 40, and those bits change from minute-to-minute. It can be up to five lanes in width, or as few as one, and this is also changeable right up to the point you’re ten yards away from it happening. A piece of road you drove yesterday that was four lanes and national speed limit, is two lanes and 50-miles-per-hour today. Sometimes it tells you a lane is closed when it’s not, and at others it tells you it isn’t when it is. If you broke down last week, and were grateful for the refuge of a hard shoulder, you can break down this week, in exactly the same spot, and find it gone. You can drive for 20, 30, 40, 50 miles under gantries limiting your speed to 50, for no apparent reason at all, often late at night when the road is empty, and then suddenly one of them is set to 40 and… FLASH there’s one of the 24,000 cameras along its route extracting £100 from your bank account for not noticing.

It is exhausting. Its design distracts you from the business of driving your car – because who’s got time for mirror, signal, manoeuvre when there are gantries and speedometers to watch? - and frustrates you, and everybody else around you, into making poor decisions, which it then fines you for unmercifully. It is a road designed by somebody who, one can only presume, did so safe in the knowledge they would never, ever have to use it themselves. That person is a cunt.

The toughest hole on the course is just south of Sheffield, on top of High Moor. You’ve laid up with well-placed tee-shot, past Woodall services, to junction 31, where the poor people who live in Worksop can deny they live in Worksop no longer and have to exit. From here the motorway, with three lanes of fast-moving traffic, does several things almost immediately. First, it turns, at a 90-degree dogleg, to the left. While doing so it simultaneously merges with a second motorway – two lanes of 70-miles-per-hour cars from Doncaster or tankers from the Humber Estuary. While doing both of those things it goes off the side of the High Moor and into a very steep decline, down the side of the valley which ultimately contains most of Sheffield. Immediately after this sharp, blind, downhill dip is the main exit into the city – currently being entirely rebuilt to increase its capacity and number of adjacent Amazon distribution centres. Whether it’s two lanes into three with a hard shoulder, or two lanes joining alongside to make five, varies from minute to minute and is controlled by overhead gantries. These are also used to tell you whether the speed limit is anything, anywhere, between 30 and 70. Immediately after all of that it narrows dramatically and enters a low-sided viaduct with two further exits for the sadists who want to spend their time in Meadowhall.

Let’s recap. In the space of about 45 seconds, travelling at high speed, in a couple of tonnes of steel and plastic filled with petrol, in formation with hundreds of others, probably as tired and fed up as you are after anything up to 200 miles of this insufferable fucking bullshit, you are making a sharp left turn, heading steeply downhill, merging with another trunk road, increasing or decreasing your number of lanes, increasing or decreasing your speed limit, gaining or losing your hard shoulder, crossing several lanes to the left to go into Sheffield, or several to the right to carry on, with everybody else doing the same, and then entering either a large set of roadworks or a bridge with no high-sided protection suspended 80 feet up in the air. Your warnings that each of these things are about to happen to you are measured in feet and seconds rather than miles and minutes, and the rules of engagement (controlled by the gantries) change constantly.

It is an absolute death trap. And if you think I’m exaggerating and going over the top and “typical Clive” and “have you ever tried to ride a bike through Hanoi or drive a truck through Delhi” then fine, but you ask the families of Jason Mercer (44), Alexandr Murgeanu (22), Derek Jacobs (83) and Charles Scripps (78), who’ve all been killed here recently. Or the coroners at their inquests who specifically blamed the design of the road for their deaths. All had broken down on a piece of motorway that used to have a hard shoulder, until somebody made it “smart”, and were left there as sitting ducks.

This is driving in Britain today. Rather than invest in a rail network and aim to take cars and lorries off the road, there has been steep decline in the reliability, frequency, convenience and industrial relations of rail travel along with sky-rocketing fares placing more and more people behind the wheel instead. The only reason we’re here, taking our life in our hands on the M1, trying to get to a poxy Wednesday night fixture at Leeds, is because there is yet another train strike today. If that’s where you’re going to hang your hat then fine, I don’t agree but fine. Look forward to that investment in the road network then. Instead, they’ve done things like take away the hard shoulder, stick a gantry up, and pretend they’ve built you a four-lane road. File that away with the 50 new hospitals.

It takes us more than eight hours to go from South London to Leeds. You could be on Miami Beach in less. Much of it spent stationary, or crawling, dodging a plethora of accidents and jams on – and caused by - the “smart motorway”. The return journey, the following day, takes nine. We leave at lunchtime, repeat the dose all the way back down the east of the country, until Nick can stand it no more and demands to be let out at High Barnet so he can do the rest of it on the tube. From there we punch Tooting into the sat nav, weary, but relieved we’re surely nearly home and have broken the back of this thing now. Three hours. Three hours. Three hours from here, to there. Three hours from a place in this city to another place in this city. The entirety of Freiberg 1 West Ham 2 plays out on TalkSport in the time it takes us to drive from one end of the Northern Line to the other.

Hammersmith Bridge is closed because if you drive more than a tricycle over it the whole thing will collapse into the river. Battersea Bridge is closed because the surface of the road has disintegrated. Wandsworth Bridge is closed for reasons I can’t remember, and even if it wasn’t you can’t get to it anyway because Hammersmith and Fulham Council have armed the route with cameras to stop anybody who can’t afford £1.5m for a house along that road from using it. There’s fun at Hammersmith Broadway, where I’d like to turn right, and so get in the right-hand lane – two weeks later a letter arrives fining me £60 for doing so, because this is now a bus lane, protected by cameras, and to turn right you paradoxically have to be in the left lane. We spend 50 minutes on Putney Bridge, where the right lane is to Barnes, and controlled by a set of traffic lights allowing half a car through every five minutes. We don’t want to go right, or to Barnes, or through the traffic lights, but the first indication that’s happening to us doesn’t come until halfway across the bridge, forcing us, and everybody else who’s made the same mistake, to try and change lanes to the left and… yeh… that was another hour of our lives. There’s a long, drawn out, empty, straight piece of road past Wimbledon Common – open countryside to the right, high walls and steel gates to the left - which is a 20-mile-per-hour limit, with a camera every 50 feet. We’re the only car on the road at the time, crawling along at a rate slower than some of our coasts are eroding. I'm sorry, who are we killing at 30 miles per hour here? At one point, after finally dropping everybody off, I find myself screaming at set of temporary traffic lights. Screaming and pounding the steering wheel. This is not the behaviour of a rational and sane person but spending 17 of the last 36 hours dragging a car to Leeds to watch Osman Kakay is not a rational or sane course of action.

We did £200 in petrol, £120 in fines (an appeal against a parking charge in Leeds later halved this), and a service station steak bake, that looked and tasted like something a pathologist might fish out of my lower colon during an autopsy, cost £6.

A week or so later we are, mercifully, on the train for Huddersfield.

Not to Huddersfield, of course, silly Billy, because that’s completely closed today while they trick northern people into thinking they give a single shit about them by putting a sticking plaster over some Victorian infrastructure. Not to Leeds either, or Wakefield, as it turns out, which we had considered as alternatives close enough to mount an assault via a taxi. Not anywhere, in fact, it seems as we arrive at London King’s Cross on Saturday morning to find that, because it’s rained heavily on Friday, the network is now under several feet of water. Storm Barbet has swept diagonally across the country, 30 miles north of its forecasted target. LNER wash their hands of the situation immediately and issue a blanket “do not travel” bulletin which entitles the three of us a refund on the £300+ we paid for this trip – a refund that, four weeks on, I’m yet to receive, but it’s ok because what’s 300 sheets between good friends? A harassed, white-haired gentleman staffing the information desk sees my QPR hat, puts a hand on my shoulder, and says, “you won’t be getting to Huddersfield today my friend, mind you the way we’re playing we might be doing you a favour.” We’re here, we’re there etc.

Temporary plastic barriers are erected to stop people pressing on through the ticket gates to see the trains not moving for themselves and slowly the hall starts to cram with people. As each departure time draws near so another few hundred people join the throng with nowhere to go. It’s getting cramped, it’s getting tetchy, it’s becoming unsafe. Any hope of using the West Coast instead is kyboshed when, midway through purchasing three tickets, the system kicks me out back to the start of the process again and then – because of-fucking-course – informs me tickets have been removed from sale and all trains are sold out. Even the standard, open returns - the cost of which would buy you a very nice 20-bedroom hotel on the South Coast – are unavailable. Take my money damn it.

There we all stand, in ever decreasing amounts of space, breathing ever diminishing amounts of air, pale faces staring up at the blinking orange lights of the departure boards as trains move right to left in front of us, through ‘on time’ to ‘please wait’ to ‘cancelled’ and then sliding off the left into oblivion. Two hours of this.

There will be a train this morning. On the other side of the barriers they have been quietly loading people from the cancelled trains at 07.00, 07.30 and 08.00 onto the 08.30 which, an hour later than scheduled, and packed in tighter than the Nottingham Forest team coach, is about to make a run for the north. Somebody, somewhere, however, has forgotten something. Somebody, somewhere, is about to get the bollocking of a lifetime. Because somebody, somewhere, hasn’t overridden the automatic update of the departure boards. And so, when the previously deceased 08.30 is taken to a better hospital where its condition is upgraded to alive, it flashes up on all the boards accordingly. Boarding now, platform four. Not only that, but it triggers the automatic announcement too, and the robotic woman informs the massed ranks of plebs they should “board the train now, as it is ready to leave”.

People do as they’re told.

I’m half a second ahead of her, shooting Nick and Jamie a glance and giving a “Four. Now. Move.” command having clocked the error with the board. It’s not much of a head start. The best part of three thousand people are now charging a gateline built to handle 12 at a time. The protective plastic railings are flattened and scattered. The gates snapped back and rendered lame. A lone employee shouting “it’s full anyway you’ve got no chance” is shoulder charged to the side: no time for you old man. A young couple with coffees and a pushchair are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Funerals a week Tuesday. A woman bound for the far north trips in the rush, a suitcase twice her size landing behind her with a loud bang, and people start climbing over the top of it, and her. It’s a full-on Lion King recreation, wildebeest on the charge, obliterating all in their path, and Simba can go fuck himself because some of these people need to be in Newark North Gate.

The train itself is not the right train, and it’s not going to the right place, but these are first world problems for a third world system. It looks like something Michael Palin would have used to traverse India for BBC Two in 1988. You’d have genuinely had more space to yourself on the last chopper out of Saigon. Once on board it’s like you’ve been buried alive in a shoebox. The three of us share a first class luggage rack with two Crystal Palace fans trying to fight their way to a 4-0 defeat by Newcastle – they reckon Eze will do the decent thing and sign a new contract on the understanding he’s allowed to leave when a reasonable bid is made, which sounds familiar in that it’s exactly the sort of honourable thing that lovely boy does, exactly the thing he did when he played for us, and will save our club all over again. They also inform us they’d been on another train due to leave at 07.00, before being switched onto this one. Their journey is three hours old, and they’ve moved from platform one to four. At one point an old gimmer can hold his bladder no longer and fights through to a toilet at the end of the carriage – a journey of some 20 minutes – but when he arrives and pulls the door back he finds three people sitting in there. Hello, can we help you? There are cheers and applause – genuine cheers and applause – as we depart, but they turn to more worry and exasperation at Peterborough where we’re stationary for 25 minutes. The local crazy cat lady, pushing two dogs in Easter bonnets up and down the platform in a modified supermarket trolley, is haranguing the staff about not being able to board and go to wherever the fucking hell she’s going today. The guard is refusing to move until British Transport Police attend because two of our fellow passengers have “had a fight”.

Through sodden fields, and arable farms transformed into trout fisheries, we get as far as Doncaster before calling it a day. “How’s the journey going,” texts Kath while the Coach B undercard is getting underway. “Not well”. Luckily, Taxi Joe’s leisurely approach to motorway travel means they’re drifting past Doncaster at exactly the same time we are, and a rescue operation is enacted. Well, if we learned nothing else from Who Framed Roger Rabbit it’s if you need a ride just stick out your thumb. This club is blessed with the best kind of people.

And, so, there we were again, on the M1, going past Sheffield.

You can choose your fighter in Britain at the moment. Maybe you’re on some hideous hospital waiting list, living in pain or discomfort for months and years for your turn, forever punted and bumped by one staff shortage, absence of beds or winter crisis after another. Maybe your nan’s had to wait eight hours on the floor at the bottom of her stairs for an ambulance to arrive. Maybe you’ve been to your GP for an appointment, been told the next one isn’t for three months, and so engaged in the nonsense mass ring at 8am to pretend your broken finger is an emergency on the off chance you get through to the pug-faced receptionist. Maybe the roof of your kids’ school has fallen in, and they’re in temporary classrooms in the car park this winter. Maybe you, or your spouse, is quitting your job, because what’s the point if childcare is £2,700 a month? Maybe you’ve already done that only for your mortgage, utility bills and household shop to triple in price. Maybe you used to get away from all of this with a day at the beach, but last time you went the used tampon you flushed the night before was waiting for you there on the sand. Maybe it’s that, and the poisoning and death of our rivers and streams, in 2023, that really gets you. It might be the sheer number of homeless people. It might be the £8 pints, the rapidly closing pubs, the developers pulling or burning down your favourite local because they couldn’t get planning permission – don’t be ashamed, that’s high on my list too, pubs are important. Maybe it’s the library closures, Remploy, the Sure Start Centres, the youth clubs, or how, quietly, every open-access football pitch has been swept up and fenced off by a PlayFootball, or Goals, or PowerPlay, or #BALLERS, organisation who now rent out a pitch infested with cancerous rubber crumb to people who can afford to pay £90 for 40 minutes of kick about. Maybe you’re stuck in high rise clad in solidified lighter fluid, still waiting for a single recommendation of the Grenfell Inquiry to be enacted, faced with a six-figure bill to remove the callous, profit-driven decisions of others from the outside of your home while they enjoy hospitality at Twickers on the company account. Perhaps you were unfortunate enough to buy one of those places, with your own money, and now there you sit, in a worthless death trap, praying a tumble dryer doesn’t catch fire somewhere downstairs. They’re currently evacuating a block of flats in Bristol because they’re not even confident the thing can continue to stand up on its own.

It is, truly, everywhere you look, but if you want a really simple way to gauge the state of the nation at the moment, just try and travel around it.

Shirley

Queens Park Rangers are finding the building of a new stadium in London something of a challenge. Certainly, more of a challenge than Arsenal or Tottenham did. Or Brentford. Millwall, Wimbledon, Barnet… Wealdstone now. Given we can’t even keep the one we’ve got clean, painted, and with a working public address system, it should probably not come as much surprise that a whole new one is proving beyond us. If you can’t get the pitch ready for the first game of the season, can’t get season ticket holders’ name stickers sorted for their seats by mid-November, and respond to supporters saying “errr, did you know the ceiling has collapsed in the disabled supporters’ waiting area?” like they’ve just introduced you to a talking cat, it’s little wonder The Air Asia Megadome has yet to move further than the artist impression.

Tony Fernandes was keen on Old Oak Common. So keen in fact he went ahead and started the process without asking the people already there whether they minded – “we like it here, you poor people are going to have to fuck off”. Ruben Gnanalingam spied an opportunity at The Linford Christie Stadium. Given we don’t have an ambulance service any more the close proximity to Queen Charlotte’s Hospital seemed easily surmountable. Sadly, the council weren’t keen at the price offered (£0). Meanwhile, The Friends of Wormwood Scrubs worried it might interfere with the true purposes of metropolitan open space – dog walking, kids sports, park runs, and fencing the whole thing off for the summer so Secret Cinema can charge giant man children 500 sheets to come and cosplay Back to the Future.

So, we’re back to where we started, in a decaying 18,000 stadium on four acres of land, hemmed in on all sides by houses and flats. There’s some suggestion the Jack Tizzard School site could become available again for the first time since Chris Wright foolishly passed up that opportunity in the late 1990s in favour of pursuing the horrific vision of the club playing out near Heathrow. The council, also, may be more amenable to offloading some or all of Batman Close our way – another part of our city being left to openly disintegrate before our eyes. The classic message board theories about building out over roads, adding third tiers, sticking a hotel on the end, hanging a revolving restaurant over the centre circle, have inevitably bubbled back to the surface. In London you’re never more than 20 feet from a rat, or somebody preparing to lay out their case for digging Loftus Road down. Down into the ground. Down, into the water table, to create some giant bucket, that we can all line up around the rim of and peer over the edge at the synchronised swimming taking place below. Still, we can’t be any worse at that than we are at football.

I don’t want to be defeatist, but let’s remind ourselves again this is currently a club that cannot provide us with running water. Every week we go, we drink, we piss, we press the tap, and we waft our hand under a puff of air. This has been the case for years, and apparently cannot be fixed because to do so would require… digging up the road. Well, yes, that’s generally how we fix the water network in this country. It’s also how we fix the gas, the electricity, the broadband, the sewers, the telephones... It’s why every road in every town and city is a patchwork quilt of different bits of tarmac hastily slapped down by different minimum wage shovellers for different reasons. It’s why there are 10,000 holes in the road in this city, each with their own set of temporary traffic lights. Well, there were so many holes in First Avenue already, we really didn't think anybody would notice. It’s why they’ve had my road up three times in the last six months. It’s why, not three streets away from our stadium, the road to the Crown and Sceptre has been a large trench for the last six weeks – they’re fixing the water supply. But, no, apparently. Not for us. And we’re going to redevelop this stadium are we? Go on then, I’ll wait here in the warm while you crack on.

Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.

Alright then, misery guts, what’s your big solution then? Well, let me tell you. I think we should move to Birmingham.

There are currently so many different ways to get to Birmingham by rail that Chiltern Trains only charge me £6 for my two-hour journey there on a Friday lunchtime, which is slightly less than London Underground charge me to get to Marylebone and back to catch the thing in the first place. The empty Avanti service home in the middle of the night affords us an entire carriage to ourselves… and a fully functioning fridge for our beers.

Not satisfied with this, we’re currently bankrupting the country building a fourth, super high speed, option, the costs of which have escalated to such an extent they’ve decided to only do the bit from the Scrubs to Aston. It is, essentially, a £71bn white elephant built specifically and solely for QPR fans trying to get to Birmingham. When you get there, like Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook before it, Birmingham has discovered light rail. A tramway is extending out from the station to St Andrew’s at a rate of half a foot every six months. This means, by 2062, even if that walk from Moor Street down to the ground is too much for you, there’ll be a fast, clean alternative.

Birmingham are currently, belatedly, rebuilding the lower tier of their stadium so it’ll soon be an impressive and intimidating horseshoe terrace stretching right round the pitch. They don’t intend to stay here though; the nascent American owners are eyeing a fancy new build megadome of their own. So, we’d be free to move in any time we like. QPR have won five and drawn two of their last ten visits here - as many points as we’ve taken in the last 27 matches at Loftus Road. Even the shambolic rabble we’re watching at the moment get a 0-0 out of this latest visit, albeit with some Sam Field acrobatics on the goalline to maintain the deadlock.

Then there are the pubs. Right at the epicentre of tram-a-geddon we start off in The Old Crown. It has wooden beams in the ceiling, and a portrait of a mallard duck in a military-issue wax jacket on the wall, which is how you know it’s old. From there we wander down into Digbeth, which is the sort of place where graffitiing the walls is deemed beneficial to the aesthetics and culture of the area, as opposed to the rest of the city where it’s considered an arrestable offence. There’s a mosaic mural of JFK patting small children on the head here, put up by Irish people, after he was killed, because it’s a nice thing to do, alright? There’s a pub casting lumps of dead chicken adrift in a sea of boiling oil, dinner from a bubbling cauldron of hot grease, and charging you a tenner to strip the skin from the roof of your mouth with it. Another’s got a whole load of funky shit and a child’s bike on the wall – what’s the theme, Hiroshima? Old Shite?

I like Andre Dozzell to be nice and blurry by the time I clap eyes on him a few moments before kick off, and as far as places you can go to achieve that are concerned this figures pretty high on the list.

Is that my good typewriter up there?

“Good afternoon gentlemen.” This is Shirley. Clad in leggings, speaking with a Brummy accent as dense as a dying sun, and at least giving the impression she’s employed by the pub we’re drinking in. We’ve moved on: four games, in which QPR have amassed zero points and scored twice while conceding ten; and to the other side of city, for West Brom. The Old Joint Stock faces Birmingham Cathedral. It’s all Doric columns and plush carpets. There’s enough etched glass in here to sink the island of Murano into the sea for all eternity. It’s part pub and part alternative theatre. This week’s show is Charles and Diana: The Reunion Tour, which is a considerably better option than West Brom 2 QPR 0. Its outstanding beauty is enough to distract you from paying Mayfair prices for pints in a place where a tramp took a shit on the pavement as you were making your way in through the front door.

Today, we don’t even have to go to the bar to order… because Shirley is here. “I’ve come across to your table today for two reasons,” she begins, in an accent I cannot believe isn’t being put on for comic effect and with the formality that suggests a timeshare pitch is about to begin “The first is to make sure everything’s well with your visit,” which is nice, and we inform her it is. “The second is because my manager watches me on the security camera to make sure I’m doing some work,” which is a great line, so well executed we allow her to fetch us another round of drinks.

I could, in true LFW Awaydays style, launch into some romanticised waffle about how all pubs need somebody like this because pubs aren’t about locations, or buildings, or even beers, they’re about people, and the whole soul of pub culture in this country risks being swallowed up by all too many All Bar One travesties and lost forever if we don’t have room for a Shirley or two in our lives. Pragmatically, though, all pubs need somebody like this because pubs are struggling as much as everything else, and Shirley’s bedside manner is so disarmingly hilarious that in no time at all we’ve whipped through four rounds of drinks. Four rounds of drinks, and a pork pie and Scotch egg charcuterie board. Four rounds of drinks, and four portions of pie and mash. And a sharing bowl of treacle sponge. And a collection of leaflets promoting the theatre’s Christmas show programme. It’s not even five in the afternoon, we’re pissed as farts, and the pub has had three figures out of us.

Shirley announces to us just before 17.00 that she’s closing our tab. Not because we’re leaving (we’re not), but because she is. That’s where we are by this point. We try to put a handsome tip on a card payment.
“That’s lovely,” she says.
“Do you get it?” I ask.
“Oh yes, it goes into central pot and it’s shared among us absolutely.”
“Oh. Well, would it be better if we gave it to you in cash?”
“Did the gentleman over there mention cash? Well that’s a wonderful idea I hadn’t thought of that.”

A tremendous woman, who knows the rules of the game, she tucks the notes into her bra and announces she’s off to the Bingo. My God how I wish we’d gone with her.

What we’re doing with our lives

You’ll know - because with each passing game at Elland Road this season comes a new batch of outrage from away fans discovering this - that, when we finally did make it to the end of the M1, Leeds United charged us £45 to get in. Leeds United, in receipt of parachute payments, charged us £45 to get in.

It seems to me they spend this money, almost entirely, on stewards. Try and remember throughout this rundown that there have been PTA meetings at suburban secondary schools better attended than this QPR away game. There’s a line of them to greet us at the main gates down into the car park behind our stand, to check our ticket and see if we’re allowed to proceed through the main gates and down into the car park behind our stand. There’s another line at the entrance to a myriad of winding steel railings built to house the sort of queue not seen in this country since 106,000 people went to see Oasis at Knebworth in 1996. While working our way through those we’re accosted by several police officers with a drug dog who had really good root around in my crotch to double check I wasn’t planning to sooth the experience of watching Ilias Chair dropping 30 yards into our half to knock channel balls for Lyndon Dykes by stuffing several thousand pounds worth of cocaine up my hoop. There was a bag search, and a pat down. A steward in front of the turnstile to teach you how to use it, and one on the other side in case you fucked that up. There were stewards at the top of the stairs into the bar where, for £7, a paper cup of some froth with a bit of warm Amstel at the bottom could be yours, and at both the top and the bottom of the concrete steps into the stand. The one at the top was something of a boss level steward – Priti Patel with half the compassion and twice the arse – insisting the 500 QPR fans sit in their allocated seats in an away end built for several thousand people. She could be beaten, it turned out, by laughing and telling her to “have a day off”. The prize for completing all of this was 90 stupefyingly boring minutes of football, in which QPR committed three separate foul throws. We endured it faced, throughout, by a ruddy-faced gibbon, approaching his 50s, who spent the entire match staring into the away end and acting the big ‘un to an assembled gaggle of suitably amused, young, teenage boys. If we’re talking police resources, how about get that dog out of my arse for two minutes and go and check that danger’s hard drive?

The theme of the four games this column ostensibly covers is one of deep, rapid regression, from an already low base. The last Awaydays covered wins – honest to God Marge, wins - at Cardiff and Middlesbrough. Here, QPR took one point, and scored one goal, from the matches at Leeds, Huddersfield, West Brom and Birmingham. Given the results and performances since, that’s at least two, and arguably three, games burned off against eminently beatable opponents. We need to find at least – at least – ten victories from here if we’re to stay up this season and, frankly, if you can’t get one of those against this Huddersfield Town outfit then you may as well pack in. That it was Jack Rudoni pulling the strings, setting up the first and scoring the second himself - a player QPR knew all about, scouted repeatedly, liked, and passed up the chance to sign when he was playing five miles down the road from our ground, in favour of working ourselves onto another financial precipice with deals for Austin, Johansen and Gray types - only made the whole experience all the more bleak. There are four bad teams in the Championship this season, and we’re three of them.

This tranche of games finished, predictably, inevitably, with the sacking of Gareth Ainsworth. This had been on the cards for weeks - preferred replacement Marti Cifuentes wishing to finish the Swedish season before moving - and was accelerated to conclusion the night after the debacle at Huddersfield. Knowing he was gone, Ainsworth could have done whatever he liked at West Brom on the Tuesday, and what he liked was parking a 4-5-1 in his own half and attempting to Geoff Boycott straight bat a nil nil draw from a home team missing four of its five mainstay attackers. Jimmy Dunne’s act of stupidity in getting sent off was then surpassed by an even dumber red card by Andre Dozzell at the weekend. Regression. Rapid regression. Everywhere. Each act of idiocy more mind blowing than the last.

One of the reasons we always feared the idea of bringing Gareth ‘home’ from Wycombe was the niggling doubt the notorious style of play he favoured at Adams Park wasn’t a financially driven means to an end at all, it was just how he saw football and preferred his team to play. That, unfortunately, has proven true. For all the horrendous situations he inherited here, he was, sadly, a manager out of his depth. You’ll see this manifest in the jobs he gets from here.

The second reason was the unbearable thought of watching another hero of our club’s better-times-gone-by chewed up and spat out by QPR in its current form. The general acceptance the constant managerial changes for zero improvement probably means the manager isn’t your problem hasn’t stopped Gerry Francis and Ian Holloway copping fearful abuse. On the pitch, populist moves that played well, particularly with QPR’s online-based supporters, like re-signing Charlie Austin (remember how much Flo Lloyd-Hughes copped for saying she wasn’t sure that was the best idea?) have turned sour, with exactly the same accounts that battered the club the most to do the deal the first to turn against and start messaging his wife about how poorly he was playing. This is a club that eats its young. You and I remember Gareth smashing in blooters at Rushden and Diamonds, trying to run off a spiral fracture of his shin, giving everything to our cause – that matters little to people too young to remember it, and living in a society where your hilarious Frank Gallagher meme is more vital than what it does to the person on the receiving end of it. This has sadly also played out even worse than the most pessimistic among us could ever have imagined. Gareth will, unfortunately, go down as one of our worst ever managers.

There was a subsequent message board thread about Ainsworth’s wellbeing. Driven somewhat to the end of my tether by not only the performances at Leeds and West Brom, but also our abysmally defeatist attitude to both games, here’s what I wrote…

It's a lovely sentiment, and I worried about him too watching his interviews. It was his dream job, he wanted it for ten years, he left the safest job in football to get it, he loves QPR and he's a decent guy. So many of the problems were ones he inherited, and could do nothing about. We're borderline unmanageable.

So it's hard not to have your heart break for him. But, here, let me have a go...

He could have resigned, saved the club some money.

He was earning six figures to do the job, and it's only football, it's not like he was in charge of an oil rig or a power plant or a bridge that blew up and people died.

What about the people who are spending their money in an economic crisis following a team around that's basically lost 50 of its last 90 games? How's their mental health?

Sorry, but after the efforts and expense we went through to get to Leeds and Huddersfield, and what we were rewarded with when we got there, I'm struggling to sympathise too much with somebody who's probably just pocketed a pay off it would take me years to earn.

I actually think our message board’s been really interesting this year since a little bit of cleaning house in the summer, and among the many well-reasoned and thought-through replies it was the one first by PunteR that made me check myself the most. As he rightly points out, as I’ve written about on here many times, becoming something of a marmite figure among QPR fans, where you either love LFW or think me a total twat, has been quite difficult to deal with. If 100 people tell me the site or an article is great, but one person says I’m in the pocket of the club, or sets up anonymous Twitter accounts to abuse me, then it’s the latter that sticks in my head and not the former. For Gareth Ainsworth, in the job he always coveted, times that by many thousands. Mental health doesn’t care how much you earn.

Then again, Gareth’s a Blackburn fan. As much as he clearly had an affinity to QPR, and will be personally and professionally gutted and embarrassed that he couldn’t kick start the wreck of a club we now undoubtedly are, he’ll get over it. He’ll get other jobs, he’ll move on. The people who go every week were here before and after Gareth the player, and before and after Gareth the manager. Needless to say I didn’t agree with Joe’s point further down that thread that all sympathy should be with Ainsworth, and zero with people who chose to follow the team and should be “loyal to the nightmare of their own choosing”. I did, at least, respect him for expressing it in an erudite way but they, we, are the club. Everybody and everything else comes and goes.

It's not a nightmare, either. Ok, Leeds was a nightmare, Awaydays lowest ever score coming up there. Overall, though, this is just part and parcel of following a club like ours, particularly in the modern game.

I write bleak, and dark, because that style of prose and humour appeals to me, suits my personality, and fits so perfectly with QPR as a club. I promise though, I’m not running a bath at the Leeds’ branch of Lenny Henry’s gaff in the middle of the night to soften my wrists up for an attempt to finally rid myself of the torture of watching Albert Adomah attempt a long throw. It’s football guys. That’s all it is. When you’ve got a half day booked and you’re sitting on the front step of Marylebone’s lesser-used Tuesday lunchtime service to Moor Street, with a six quid ticket in your pocket, and a bag of icy cold beer on your back, soaking up the last of the autumn sun before the driver fires the locomotive up and blasts you off to the latest bitter disappointment, there are worse places you could be.

The people are still the same. They still come into the Crown & Sceptre at the same time, and sit in the same places. You can set your watch by who comes through the door next: Jules does the quiz at halftime in the lunchtime game, Andy reads the team out at 2pm and always says Robert Green is in goal, Mel’s always back at the table long before full time. At the moment QPR are as bad as I’ve ever experienced, but this will get better. It’ll get worse, potentially a lot worse, probably at least one division below worse, before it does so, but all sport is cyclical. Things will turn, if not for Marti Cifuentes, then for whoever follows him, or whoever follows that. We will, eventually, beat somebody, and then we’ll beat somebody else, and somebody else after that. It may come this month, or next year. We may have to wait until next season, or the season after. We may still be Championship. We may be one, or two divisions lower. It will come though. Sooner or later one of these incompetent oafs is going to accidentally head us in a late winner from a yard out in one of these poxy away games that reignites the pilot light under this football club. Hopefully we’ll still be playing West Brom when it happens. It might be Walsall. Hell, it might be Solihull Moors. We’re two years into this, maybe there’s two years more, maybe it’ll be even worse than that, but it will come. It will come.

When that starts happening there’ll be the flood of people you haven’t seen for five or six years, all bitching and moaning about loyalty point holders hogging tickets and “sitting down away”. There’ll be righteous Twitter rants about how, despite not going to a QPR away game since the death of the Queen, it’s completely unfair they cannot get a ticket for them, and several family members, for what is suddenly a big game at Reading, or Bournemouth, or Millwall, or somewhere else 20 minutes from their house. You’ll have your ticket though, and you’ll have deserved it, because you stuck with this.

It's the sticking with QPR - through the Albert Adomah long throws, through the Jake Clarke-Salter groin twinge performance theatre, through the Lyndon Dykes’ circus of incredible sitters - that make it feel so good, and taste so sweet, when the going gets good again. You suffer that, yes, to get to the bits where Adel Taarabt steals Joe Allen’s soul, and Bobby Zamora scores in the last minute at Wembley, and Trevor Sinclair bicycle kicks the greatest goal of all time into the School End net. They’re the bits everybody has heard about, and they were wonderful. We do it, also, for Rowan Vine running through on an empty net at Burnley on a Tuesday night in front of 200 away fans; or Ciaran Clark’s last-kick own goal equaliser at St James’ Park; or Alan McDonald’s headed winner at Huddersfield; or Ray Wilkins putting Dennis Bailey through in the last minute at Carrow Road. The bits nobody remembers but you, and I. Those little snatched moments of greatness are all the more euphoric for the shit you have to wade through to get there, and the people you wade through it with. This will turn. We will be there, together, to see it turn.

And, hey, if it doesn’t, it’s still better than being at work.

Scores on the doors

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

Leeds:
On the pitch >>> QPR performance 3/10 >>> Leeds performance 5/10 >>> Referee performance 3/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 5/10 >>> Home support 5/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 3/10 >>>> Stadium 4/10 >>>> Police and stewards 2/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 6/10 >>> Atmosphere 6/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
On the train >>> Journey 0/10 >>> Cost 0/10

Huddersfield:
On the pitch >>> QPR performance 4/10 >>> Huddersfield performance 6/10 >>> Referee performance 5/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 7/10 >>> Home support 7/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 7/10 >>>> Stadium 7/10 >>>> Police and stewards 7/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 7/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
On the train (lol) >>> Journey 1/10 >>> Cost 0/10

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

Totals, Birmingham 100/140, Leeds 56/140, Huddersfield 79/140, West Brom 84/140

2023/24 >>> Austria Pt 1 >>> Austria Pt 2 >>> Wimbledon >>> Oxford >>> Watford/Cardiff/Middlesbrough

2022/23 >>> Blackburn/Sunderland/Charlton >>> Watford/Swansea/Millwall >>> Bristol/Sheffield/Luton

2021/22 >>> Hull/Boro 21/22 >>> Reading/Bournemouth >>> Fulham/Peterborough >>> Cardiff/Blackpool >>> Bristol/Birmingham >>> Peterborough/Coventry/Millwall >>> Barnsley/Blackburn >>> Luton/Nottingham >>> Sheffield/Preston/Huddersfield

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Pictures — Action Images

The Twitter @loftforwords

Clive Whittingham



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Loftgirl added 04:20 - Nov 19
Incredible writing. I'm 12,000 miles away but I felt I experienced it all with everyone else.
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RedbourneR added 14:21 - Nov 19
Great piece Clive. All the pain, all the joy.
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davman added 17:49 - Nov 19
Great piece, Clive and the last section reassuring - Christ, it is depressing at the moment, but it is only football.

Also nice that my fave ever QPR away goal gets a mention: "We do it, also, for Rowan Vine running through on an empty net at Burnley on a Tuesday night in front of 200 away fans". Kiraly, in his longbottoms, coming up for a corner that he was NEVER going to win, then Vine leading the Keystone Kops (5 or 6 of them chasing, chasing, but never going to get there). We knew it was a goal from the moment he got to the halfway line, we knew that we'd get a 2-0 win. The ONLY thing missing was the Benny Hill theme tune blaring over the speakers.

Happy away day up there with the George Santos Masterclass at Crewe around the same time.

Lovely.
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qprninja added 12:57 - Nov 20
Say what you like about the French, but we just did 2000 miles top to bottom and back in our motorhome in the summer. Their roads are incredible, we encountered just one minor traffic jam over the two weeks due to a light collision. Our roads are geared towards making money, nothing more. Our safety and convenience are total after thoughts. We should introduce toll roads and actually spend the money on proper efficient and safe roads. I'd rather pay that than the stealth camera fines which as you say, makes the roads less safe and are a cash cow.
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royinaus added 02:53 - Nov 21
Marvelous Clive
I'm on the other side of the world but I feel I know Shirley - even pictured her.
I didn't pick QPR, my mum & dad being from Shepherds Bush and Notting Hill respectively meant I had no choice. I still don't & wouldn't have it any other way. I try to explain to the locals, who tend to follow whatever state they find themselves in, no matter how bad they get, if QPR cease to exist, so does football in any meaningful capacity.
I am there in December - see you in the Crown & Sceptre.
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gigiisourgod added 06:38 - Nov 21
Any pictures of Shirley?
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dsw2509 added 07:27 - Nov 22
This is just brilliant-especially the battles with the M1 and taking 3 hours from Barnet to Tooting. We eventually gave up on Battersea, because you couldn’t actually get to it in a car any more-we moved to Islington. Saves 2 hours on a journey north.
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