Tales From Bloemfontein Road

For some reason, QPR have only allowed away fans in to the twelve or so rows of the upper tier of the School End this season. Unlike on all other visits that I can remember, there were now home fans in the lower tier. Maybe they had suddenly found an extra thousand fans from somewhere. Of course on many previous visits to Shepherd’s Bush by the descending hordes from Chelsea, it was very often the case that stands housed both sets of supporters. On my very first visit to Loftus Road in 1995, I sat in the Ellerslie Road Stand – along the side – in a home area, yet surrounded by Chelsea supporters. We used to swamp the place. In fact, our away allocation on Sunday April 12 2015 would mark our smallest ever presence at QPR. I suppose our previously weighty presence needed to be engineered out of the equation. Such is life. It will surprise nobody that I will take a couple of digs at Rangers’ ridiculous claim that “West London Is Ours” in this match report; to be honest they are an easy target. Just three years ago, when a Juan Mata penalty gave us a narrow 1-0 win in an FA Cup tie, the attendance of 15,728 was some 2,500 below capacity.

Pathetic really.

On the morning of the game, I had enjoyed a rather different pre-match routine. Setting off early, at just after 6.30am, and travelling alone – Parky was one of the many unlucky ones who had missed out on one of the 1,700 tickets – I had decided to undertake a little sightseeing around central London prior to attending the match. I often rue the fact that I never take really advantage of being in one of the world’s great cities on match days. I hoped to make amends. I parked-up at the usual place for a game at QPR, just off the Uxbridge Road, at just after 9am. I caught the tube from Shepherd’s Bush Market in to town. I headed for Piccadilly Circus and spent the best part of three hours idly walking on familiar streets in the heart of the city. The weather was spectacular and the bright sun made the famous buildings look even more stunning. As I slowly walked past tourists, I was in familiar territory…the Eros Statue at Piccadilly Circus, the cinemas on Leicester Square, the church of St. Martin In The Fields, the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, and a glimpse of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, The Strand, Charing Cross Station, the Savoy Hotel. I dipped into the Strand Palace Hotel for a coffee, with good reason, and was lost in thought for many a minute. My parents honeymooned in this hotel in 1957 and my good friend Glenn’s grandmother worked in this hotel during World War Two. Down to Westminster Bridge and views – what views – of the city and the River Thames. To the east, the dramatic skyline of the city, with a plethora of new skyscrapers jostling for attention with the classic dome of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. To the west, Royal Festival Hall and the London Eye with the iconic Big Ben standing proud alongside the Houses of Parliament away in the distance.

London Town.

Chelsea Town.

There was a certain strangeness as I headed west again, via tube to Hammersmith and then bus to Shepherd’s Bush, in balancing the fact that this great city, with a population of eight million, was playing host to two of its top football teams in a stadium holding just 18,000.

Walking along the Uxbridge Road, past a few cafes and pubs, and past road signs for Loftus Road, then Ellerslie Road, and then turning up Bloemfontein Road, everything was pretty quiet. It was just before 1pm, with only half-an-hour before kick-off. There just wasn’t the hustle and bustle of match days along the Fulham Road. No souvenir stalls. No grafters. No touts. No buzz.

I bumped into a gaggle of mates outside. The big news was that Loic Remy was not playing; there were unsubstantiated rumours of his mother being taken ill. Izzy Brown was on the bench. Didier was playing. I summed things up in ten words.

“Tough game. We aren’t playing well. Didier. FFS.”

Yes, Didier Drogba is a Chelsea legend, but I am sure I wasn’t the only one who was worried about him leading the line for ninety minutes.

After a minimal search by a couple of stewards, all high-viz jackets and acne, and then a walk past a line of policemen and policewomen outside the steps to the upper tier, I was in. It is ridiculously cramped in the seats of the upper tier, and even more cramped in the narrow area behind. There was no beer sales, so I made do with a coffee. On the wall in the serving area, behind the young girls nicely bedecked in Chelsea T-shirts, were the famous words belonging to a South American football devotee;

“As a man, you can change your wife, your girlfriend, your politics, your religion and your sex, but you cannot change your mother and you cannot change your football team.”

Well said, sir.

Inside, Loftus Road looked the same as it has done for the past thirty-five years. It only holds 18,000 and, according to thousands of Chelsea fans, is a “quote, unquote, shit hole.” My personal view is that it is a neat stadium, albeit with restricted sight lines. Although it seems that the spectators in the upper tier might be able to tap goalkeepers on the shoulder if the need arises, visibility of the nearest goal line is only achievable by standing the entire game.

So be it.

Alan and Gary soon joined me in row H. We were just to the right of the goal. Above, a blue sky, flashed with the vapour trails of planes heading to and from Heathrow. The double-decked “Loft” at the other end. The ‘eighties-style scoreboard. The floodlights on spindles. The closeness of the supporters. The eccentric QPR fan wearing a sombrero, remembered from 2012,  in the first row of the South Africa Road Stand.

1,700 Chelsea supporters making themselves heard.

As the game began, with Chelsea in that odd black and jade number, I was far from confident. Yes, we were league leaders and yes, Rangers were mired in the lower reaches, but previous visits to Loftus Road have not, generally, been too successful. Our last league win was almost twenty years ago. Rangers, undoubtedly, would be fighting for every ball.

The first incident of note involved Willian, out on the right, who whipped in a bending cross which “plinked” against the metal of Robert Green’s near post. Chelsea tended to dominate possession in the opening period, but our play exhibited all of the characteristics of the past few weeks; one touch too many, players unwilling to take ownership, a lack of pace. The blustery conditions made controlling the ball difficult. After a neat start, Fabregas began to fade. Up front, Didier was putting in a lot of effort, charging down space and pulling the markers away from their comfort zones.

We had heard that Roman Abramovich was in attendance, but it took me a few minutes to spot him, alongside Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenebaum, in the director’s box. Roman was watching, with his chin nestled in the palm of his hand; it is his trademark. Buck was wearing a pair of royal blue comedy sunglasses. They all look involved and worried. Chelsea will do that.

A volley from Ramires did not trouble Green. Our midfield was generally struggling, and Eden Hazard seemed especially quiet. QPR’s attacks increased steadily throughout the first period, and the twin strike force of Austin and Zamora occasionally cut through our ranks. An Austin shot from outside the box, at waist height throughout, was classically palmed away by an extended Courtois. I was the save of the match thus far. It was a warning to us all. At the other end, a mere twenty five feet away, an awkward header by Fabregas cleared the bar. We had struggled in the first-half, and as I said to Gary, regardless of our result, the poor play did not bode well for the rest of the season. At times, the noise levels did not befit a local derby. The home fans were quiet too.

At the break, the mood in the away section was of gloomy pessimism.

Soon into the second-half, a cross come shot from Phillips evaded everyone and I gasped as the ball went out for a goal-kick. Oscar replaced Ramires, who had struggled to make an impact. QPR were attacking the School End now, and it enabled me to appreciate the organisational skills of John Terry as we defended free-kicks and corners. The Rangers’ chances began to mount up, but our defence was – thankfully – on top. Crosses were headed away, blocks were made and tackles kept attackers at bay. Azpilicueta again shone. Gary Cahill, although at times looking like his legs had been put on backwards, always seemed to make a tackle at the right time. If only his distribution was better. Didier, bless him, won countless headers, and ran his socks off.

But, still, our attacks were far from convincing.

A couple of half-chances raised the spirits slightly, but the mood in the away end was still of frustration. Two more dropped points here, with games coming up against Manchester United and Arsenal…sigh.

There was a major reprieve when Phillips was allowed space to turn on the penalty spot, but Courtois beat off the shot for a corner. There was a grim realisation that the game’s best two chances had fallen to the home team.

Our support rallied a little.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army, clap, clap, clap, clap.”

The odious Joey Barton was right in the mix of everything that QPR produced. He was the game’s dominant midfielder. Another save by Courtois from Austin.

On eighty minutes, Juan Cuadrado, who has hardly enjoyed the most positive of starts as a Chelsea player, replaced Willian, and I begged of him “come on, son, make a name for yourself today.” He made his way over to the right wing, but was largely ignored by his team mates. Niko Kranjcar, who seems to have been around for ever, yet is only thirty, appeared as a late QPR substitute. He has followed Harry Redknapp around with such blind devotion these past ten years, that I have no doubt he will soon be found running baths for the retired Redknapp in his Sandbanks home.

The minutes passed.

Brighton Tony, never short of an opinion, breezed past with five minutes to go, heading for the exit, and full of alliterative scorn for “The Catalonian.” I could not deny it, Fabregas – the latest of our masked men – had struggled all game.

Moments later, salvation.

A scuffed clearance by Green, with more backspin than a Alex Higgins screw-shot back in to baulk, was picked up by Eden Hazard. He skipped past a marker on the QPR left, received the ball back from Oscar, then played it in to Fabregas.

Surrounded by players, he calmly slotted low past Green.

Surrounded by fans, I calmly photographed the ball on its way in to goal.

The Chelsea end exploded. I can barely remember a goal celebrated so wildly all season. Clasping my camera in my right hand, I continually punched the air with my left fist.

Punch, punch, punch. punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch.

Alan was away, lunging towards the front of the stand. The noise was deafening. He returned to his seat…

Albert Steptoe : “They’ll have to come at us now,”

Harold Steptoe : “Come on my little diamonds,”

With just two minutes left to play, we were winning.

Kurt Zouma replaced Cesc.

Four minutes of extra-time.

Tick, tick, tick.

At the whistle, shrieks of delight. The players’ faces were contorted with pleasure as they celebrated down below us all.

“And now you’re gonna believe us…we’re gonna win the league.”

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