Night time matches were the best.
Early evening I’d head up into the setting sun to East Acton where my young mate Hiro lived, then we’d walk back down to the Bush and join the gathering crowds. We never missed a home game and took in a few away trips too. We’d started going to games back when Rangers were really good, “top team in London” under the guidance of coach Gerry Francis and led by the mighty Les Ferdinand.
There were the days of Sir Les knocking them in for fun – thrashing Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle and Bryan Robson’s Boro and turning Loftus Road Stadium into a fortress. We’d approach Shepherd’s Bush along Uxbridge Road joining others clad in blue and white hoops, the colours of Queens Park Rangers. I didn’t start off a fan, as Hiro did, him being a Bush lad, born and bred. I was a transplanted Yorkshire bloke, brought up on Barnsley and Leeds United. But after a game or two the legendary Loftus Road atmosphere got me hooked.
I lived just off the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. If I leaned out far enough I could see the stadium floodlights across the rooftops on those wintery nights, when the glow of the game and the roar of the crowd turned the treelined Victorian streets into a dreamland. Time just slipped away a little and old London came to life.
If it was frosty and misty the atmosphere was just beautiful. If Rangers were winning and the crowd was up the moments before the full time whistle were full of anticipation. There would be a final huge cheer and within seconds the quiet leafy streets would be teeming.
Today, following football via the internet and the highlights shows, the beautiful game seems to be a totally different beast. Watching pro sports on TV seems to be designed to put you off watching it in real stadia – endless prattle of gormless commentators and ex-player pundits, newspaper scandals, pointless transfer speculation and online fanboys trolling each others twitter feeds, getting all worked up about some rumour they’d read in the red tops. Nothing like the real experience at all.
As a kid Dad took me and my brother along to the local Sunday League games where he played centre half for Wombwell Main or Cortonwood Miners, and later would be the man with the magic sponge. At games like this there’s be no grandstands – just cheering on from the touchline, us kids trying not to get in the way of the linesman.
I got used to watching through the game rather than over it – a player’s eye view if you like. At big away games I was never happy high up in the corners of places like St James Park, Elland Road or Old Trafford. I liked to be close – preferably right down front. If I could hear the coach’s instructions so much the better.
At Loftus Road night games in winter really are something special. Even in these overpriced Premier League days I can’t imagine things have changed. The stadium is tucked right in between Victorian terraced houses and walking to the match, kicking autumn leaves and chatting with friends, you can feel the anticipation in the icy air.
There would be an electric glow above the houses and the deciduous plane trees. You wouldn’t see the stadium until you were right onto it. In the early days I used to buy tickets on the night, but later, when Hiro and I went from casual fans to season ticket holders, we breezed straight through the turnstiles and into the brightness. The livid green pitch right there before you, just waiting for the battle to commence. The chants are louder, the singing infectous.
Loftus Road Stadium is a compact and old school footie ground. Don’t expect much legroom (many of the seats were hurriedly installed, replacing stand up terraces) but in the Loft End, behind the goals, you won’t be sitting down much anyway. It isn’t luxurious, mate – and if it rains you’ll likely get soaked through. But on big game nights, when the R’s are scoring, that tight little ground can build up a massive atmosphere.
I used to love our regular seats close to the dugouts in the West Paddock. We could spell the grass and if you yelled at the opposing players he could hear every word!
At a live game everything is MUCH smaller and closer. On TV the crowd is a blur and the pitch the size of a small town. In real life you can see the faces in the granstands opposite, and you can hear the game being played. On TV these sounds are drowned out by the announcers, but live there is just the ebb and flow of the crowd – collective applause, cheers and songs, the odd nutter yelling at the ref, the coach trying to communicate to his captain who is copping a deaf ‘un… Watch a game live and there’s no commentary, no action replays and no analysis.
There’s a genuine peace at the heart of a good game – where you can see the way the team work together, players running off the ball, hard tackles and guys running off a hard knock. The game’s rules haven’t appreciably changed for a century and there are times when the rush of modern life compeltely fades away. You get lost into the heart of a good match, and for ninety minutes it’s game on.
The action can be end to end and goals come seemingly out of nowhere. Blink and you’ll miss it.
And now – miles away and reduced to watching it all on TV – I really really miss it.
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