LFW Awaydays – Eastlands, Manchester
Thursday, 7th Jun 2012 22:24 by Awaydays
A last dose of rambling self-indulgent twoddle for the 2011/12 season as LFW looks back on a memorable second and final QPR trip of the season to Manchester.
The railway through Rochester is certainly one for a Sunday afternoon, rather than a Monday morning.
The town’s station sits no more than 500 yards away from the previous calling point in Strood, and probably less than that from the next one in Chatham. The three are separated by a river bridge over the dockyard that has seen better days, and a tunnel from which bricks and other masonry occasionally fall onto the trains below. The high-speed, multi-million pound, state-of-the art, Japanese-built electric trains rumble through there at a fraction of their three-figured speed limit looking sullen and caged. Only in Britain would such engineering brilliance be put to use in this way. The frustration of commuting through here on a train built for such speed travelling at such a pace must be an absolute ball ache.
One week after the extraordinary events at Eastlands I found myself trundling through this historic cathedral town on my way to see Hull FC play London Broncos in – true to eccentric British Rugby League form – Gillingham. The carriage was empty except for my mum, who enjoys Rugby League a whole lot more than she does football and happily spends her summers trawling around with Hull FC between golf matches, and nobody else. Over the course of an hour we discussed why I’m underweight, why I look like a bit ill, why I have no savings, whether I thought £744 was reasonable for a season ticket at “Queens Park Bloody Rangers”, whether I drink too much, why my girlfriend walked out between Blackburn away and Fulham at home and why exactly I remember it as “between Blackburn away and Fulham at home” and not the actual date it happened.
This discussion, on various – mostly recurring – themes takes place every year around this time as she once again pins her hopes on me deciding enough is enough, no season ticket, time to enter the real world. Time to think about careers and mortgages and a wife and some kids and a pension and a savings account. Time to start mowing the lawn on a Saturday morning. Time to look at a fixture at Wigan away and think ‘that’s a bloody long way’ rather than ‘I know a good pub in Wigan’. Time to bid Queens Park Rangers some sort of farewell. She longs for the day I tell her I’m not renewing my season ticket. But, then, she’s longed for that day since I was 15 and I’m 27 now. These days the chat concludes with a resigned, warm smile and she’ll rub the back of my hand. Give it another couple of years I reckon she’ll cry. She used to yell.
A week previously the reasons I’m still doing all of this QPR stuff to this extent were there for all to see.
We get the 08.20 train from Euston for these north west away games, which is a bloody stupid thing to do. This train is cheaper, marginally, than the others – it’s been suggested that’s because people know the LFW Crew get on it and avoid it – but pulls into Manchester so early the money we all save by travelling on it has been spent twice over by the time a sensible arrival time has come around.
On the final day of the season your official non-salaried photographer and newly installed LFW tactician Neil Dejyothin and I had to get a taxi down from Barnet because the Northern Line was still asleep. Tracey (in charge of drinks) came from Staines, setting off little after 5am and changing twice because of engineering fun and games. Indebted betting columnist Andy Hillman and better half Jas came from Earlsfield, setting off at first light with only two fellow Earlsfield residents who’d suddenly discovered they were Man City fans for company. Message board regular Charlie joined us from somewhere very, very south and once on board we found our old chum Mick and journo Chris Charles for company as well.
These people were tired and/or hungover. They wanted to be in bed. Every other week these people do this and no doubt spend most of the first couple of hours cursing me, QPR, this website, life and everything else besides. But then we all meet under the departure board at Euston, and we hug, and everybody has a silly grin on their face, and the fact that we’re lame and weird and not behaving normally or rationally or in a grown up manner ceases to be an issue. By the time the match kicked off we were all wearing personalised geeky t-shirts and Adel Taarabt themed blue and white Fez hats. We looked like some weird stag party, or I imagine we did but since people tend to get married and have stag dos on a Saturday I’ve never actually been on one so don’t really know how they go.
The Lass O’Gowrie is the QPR pub of choice in Manchester but we went in there after the Man Utd game and found it was not only full, but also contained two of the world’s most irritating people. To our left we had The Captain - or The Chief I forget which - a denim clad mid-aged rocker with blonde hair down to his shoulders, the look of an Indian tribal leader and a love of Manchester City. I say ‘a love’, I mean it wasn’t actually enough for him to turn around and face the screen to watch their game against Arsenal that day, but he did feel able to profess it loudly to the entire pub at regular intervals. To our right we had the new-age football fan attempting to impress two ladies with his knowledge of the sport which, when Mikel Arteta scored a late winner, extended to him leaping out of his seat and shouting “Oh my fucking God did you see that cross shot?”
So we gave it a swerve this time and decided to stick with the horribly trendy Piccadilly Square bar that we’d previously used for breakfast. The Blue Parrot looks like it was decorated during a particularly fraught episode of Changing Rooms by a team of smack addicts overseen by Morticia Addams. It’s the sort of place I imagine the previously mentioned open-neck-shirt-wearing, cross-shot-appreciating, chinless prick from The Lass may bring any lady friend desperate enough for a man to listen to his retarded ramblings on an evening. It’s not a football pub.
What it does have going for it, amid the strange statues of fat naked women dancing, is a chef that knows how to cook breakfast. I mean, really knows how to cook breakfast. What it also has is a waitress who knows how to take a breakfast order. I mean, a breakfast order from eight people that included seven altered in one way or another from what was on the menu and a final “loaf of toast” request that wasn’t actually on the menu at all. Not only that but having dealt with us all so admirably pre and post-Blackpool she then, six weeks later, remembered us immediately when we walked in before the City game. It must be said though her “Oh, it’s you with all the toast” exclamation when Jas walked through the door was said more fearfully than is strictly necessary for a warm welcome.
After the match the Blue Parrot put a sign on the door that, in rather longer terms, echoed Basil Fawlty’s “no riff raff” policy. Luckily said waitress (who must have fancied Neil) had left our rather bizarre description with the bouncers who then reluctantly let us in for the remainder of the afternoon. A strange place, that suited us very well indeed. Point off for the plastic glasses though – rules are rules.
This is me happy. Rare.
By the time the day ended we were spread out across a table on the final London train from Manchester, surrounded by crisps, bottles of beer and magnums of Spar Shop champagne which retailed at about £17 and tasted like sheep dip. Manchester City fans formed a conga line down the aisle and shook our hands after spying the big gay QPR flag in the window. We recalled author and occasional LFW columnist Mel Huckridge’s valiant attempts to mimic Sheffield United’s love of Annie’s Song by cajoling the QPR fans to sing Close to You by the Carpenters in the away end at Bramall Lane one cold January afternoon and arrived in London at midnight with the whole carriage belting it out at volume.
And this probably has something to do with why.
I say whole carriage, there was actually pretty much only us left. Even the City fans were giving us a wide berth by then.
Time can be the cruellest thing. Time will drag by when you least want it to and pass in an instant when you need to savour it. You always have either too much time or not enough.
Time in football starts ticking the moment the ball is nudged off the centre spot at the first game of the season and it doesn’t stop ticking until the final whistle of the last match. Tick by agonising tock the time drains away one grain of sand at a time. Little over 205,000 seconds of playing time across 38 matches and nine months slowly dripping away.
At Eastlands on the last fateful day, with the final 180 seconds of the 2011/12 season remaining, nobody knew anything. The previous nine months may as well not have happened for either QPR or Manchester City because still, with just three minutes left, nobody knew anything.
City have spent a billion pounds in transfer fees and wages to get a playing squad capable of reaching this point but you cannot buy heart and courage in the transfer window. QPR have worked through two owners, two managers and 35 different players this season trying to find a combination that would be enough to keep them in the top division, but you cannot predict anything in football. With three minutes of added time left here, after nine months of hard slog, nobody knew a damn thing.
Not since a young Michael Thomas found himself marauding towards the goal at the Anfield Road end of Liverpool’s famous home in 1989 has there been anything quite like this played out on an English football field. That night Arsenal had to beat Liverpool by two clear goals to take the title, but at Eastlands things were rather more complicated. Sure, for Man City, the task seemed simple: match Manchester United’s result at Sunderland. Mark Hughes’ Queens Park Rangers side could hardly be described as much of an obstacle to this, given a dismal run of ten defeats and two draws from their previous 12 away matches, but they came with baggage of their own. Rangers had to hope Bolton didn’t win down the road at Stoke or, if they did, take at least a point to secure their Premiership safety.
In between the 205,000 seconds of actual playing time is a whole heap of others that need to be filled with things that earn money and keep the mind occupied before football can start again. It’s only when QPR find themselves in this sort of situation, or embroiled in something like the Ale Faurlin hearing last season, that one bleeds into the other in an unhealthy way. The page impression stats on LoftforWords tell me I’m not the only person who becomes consumed by this nonsense when things are reaching a climax – I think this website is a big part of the reason the economy is in such a state, give the amount of people in the City of London apparently just sitting there all day hitting refresh.
In Man City’s fabulous stadium (probably the best new ground I’ve been to) Tracey and I sat together at the back of the upper tier while Neil and the rest of the gang sat further down on to our right, almost on the front row. It was an awkward ticketing situation, caused by a mixture of those with away season tickets and those without. For once, and I mean no offence to anybody, I was glad to be by myself. I wasn’t in the mood for talking, singing, chanting, shouting, or anything other than just sitting and awaiting our fate. I was tired of the waiting.
As with so many other traumas in life, it’s the not knowing that kills you - the not knowing, and the lack of control you can exert over it. This is only football, so to compare it to a relative dying is inappropriate, but the two scenarios share that torment of not knowing, not being able to control the situation. Djibril Cisse’s last minute winner against Stoke moved the sands of time into the longest week of the season where you have five days at work when work is the last thing on your mind.
Rangers initially engaged in bus parking, sitting deep and narrow on the edge of their own penalty box, allowing City’s two full backs to remain unmarked and therefore attract the ball safe in the knowledge that one thing a front two of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez couldn’t do is win many balls in the air against Anton Ferdinand and Clint Hill. But you cannot invite a team of City’s quality into your own penalty area for 90 minutes and live to tell the tale in the bar afterwards. The statistics for this match were extraordinary: QPR completed just 82 passes in 96 minutes, an all time Premiership record low, and faced 42 shots on their goal, roughly one every two minutes. Pablo Zabaleta’s first half goal, which Paddy Kenny should have saved, killed plan A which seemed to be based around a miraculous 0-0 draw. In Stoke, Bolton took the lead.
At half time the script said we were looking at a coronation procession. City were about to cruise to their first league title in 44 years, the thronged masses were ready for a rousing chorus of Blue Moon, Noel Gallagher was poised in his manky anorak, Mike Summerbee was primed and ready for the presentation. In amongst the City fans to our left who’d applauded the first Stoke goal by way of moral support, and would finish the day shaking hands with us through a line of stewards, one chav who probably supported Manchester United when Jamie Pollock once did his thing stood on his seat and shouted “going down, going down” through a toothy smile. Strangely, five minutes later, he was nowhere to be seen.
Queens Park Rangers, barely out of their own half for the entire first period and without an away win of any sorts in 12 attempts over six months, walked calmly out of the changing rooms and equalised almost immediately. In Djibril Cisse, the R’s have smuggled in/accidentally found a player technically better than any other they had for a generation. A season that started with Patrick Agyemang leading the line and missing an open goal in a 2-0 defeat at lowly Wigan, ended with a French international of 41 caps standing marching through on Joe Hart’s goal and planting a shot so fiercely into the bottom corner that it almost ripped the net off the back of the posts. The feeling was indescribable.
QPR, never more than a fortnight away from the latest media shit storm, then reached for their well worn self destruct button. Joey Barton, provoked, lashed out at Carlos Tevez and was sent off. By the time he finally arrived in the mouth of the tunnel he’d kicked Sergio Aguero in the back of the knee, headbutted Vincent Kompany, argued with Mario Balotelli and wrestled with the QPR coaching staff charged with rescuing him from himself.
Then Jamie Mackie scored. Then Jamie Mackie scored. I can scarcely believe it weeks later. Ten men with a notoriously dreadful away record marched to the City end of the field and scored a goal so beautiful that several people around me in the away end burst into tears as it hit the net - as did the goal scorer. What had the soft lad from Dorking done now?
Tracey, my female equivalent in so many ways and somebody I’ve known since I was 15 years of age, sat with my silently for the remaining 25 minutes. We conversed once, with ten minutes remaining, when at the exact point I thought I was going to vomit into my Fez Tracey turned to me and asked if I’d have a go at her for being sick into hers.
Meanwhile some 150 miles away in Scunthorpe my grandmother was listening in on the radio and having her fourth heart attack of the season. She’d rung me before the game to wish us luck, and left me an answering machine message afterwards saying she was delighted but thought it was “a bit poor to let two goals in injury time.” Thank God she survived again, imagine if that was the last thing your gran ever said to you.
We were very, very fortunate to be sitting behind a gentleman with an excellent radio and live commentary of the Stoke match. Rumours swirled around the away end all afternoon that Stoke had done this or Bolton had done that but thankfully we realised pretty quickly that unless the man in front of us flinched nothing we heard was true. He’s since revealed himself as BillionR who posts occasionally on this website and he has no idea how grateful I am to him for nursing me through this. We listened to the Stoke penalty together. Fuck it was magical. Who would have thought it? Stoke City.
Despite it all, with three minutes of injury time to go there was still that chance: still a chance City could win, still a chance Man Utd would concede late at Sunderland, still a chance Bolton could win at Stoke. An entire season came down to three minutes, and boy did they pack a lot in. In 180 seconds Edin Dzeko headed home from a corner to equalise, the final whistle sounded at first Sunderland and then Stoke, and then with half the QPR players already celebrating on the field and the away end in raptures at safety secured Sergio Aguero rounded Clint Hill and slammed in a goal that sealed the title with the final kick of the season.
Extraordinary. There is nothing in the world that can make you feel quite like that. The absolute best case scenario: QPR were safe, Man City were champions. City fans celebrated together like lunatics while somewhere north east of Eastlands the Sunderland fans stayed behind to mock Man Utd’s misfortune. Good on them. This one’s for you Ashley Young. The irony of Alex Ferguson being beaten like that in stoppage time should form the dictionary definition of the word from now on.
Three days later the club rang me to say that I was going to be named Supporter of the Year, which I’m embarrassed but proud about. My Dad won that in 1998 on one of the first occasions they ever handed it out, two weeks after a miraculous result and Jamie Pollock own goal at Man City had sealed our survival. He was dead within 11 months, so I hope I last a bit longer than that. My mum made a grumbling noise down the phone when I told her, and said something about “not needing any more encouragement.”
See you all next season.
On the pitch >>> QPR performance 8/10 >>> Man City performance 7/10 >>> Referee performance 7/10
Off the pitch >>> QPR support 9/10 >>> Home support 9/10 >>> Overall atmosphere 9/10 >>>> Stadium 9/10 >>>> Police and stewards 8/10
In the pub >>> Pubs 7/10 >>> Atmosphere 7/10 >>> Food 9/10 >>>> Cost 7/10
On the train >>> Journey 8/10 >>> Cost 6/10
Pictures – Action Images
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