The very, very long road to Wembley - Column
Monday, 22nd Mar 2021 17:17 by Lee Death
To kick off a season of guest columns this latest international break, Lee Death reflects on his family ties to the club, a helping hand from beyond the grave, and an elusive pursuit of a QPR day in the sun at Wembley.
A helping hand
Aged 16, I made the decision to go into the morgue.
I didn’t know if it was the right one but I wanted to say one final goodbye to my Grandad Sid. He lay there very still but looked at peace. I nervously walked round him, not sure what the correct behaviour was. I didn’t cry, he was a hard man and I held the tears back as I knew he wouldn’t want me to shed any.
It was strange seeing him so lifeless but still so familiar. A proud man who grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, he was a grandad to be proud of and he, via my Dad, gave me one of my greatest loves in life…Queens Park Rangers Football Club.
It was 1995, February 18, and that afternoon, QPR faced Millwall in the FA Cup Fifth Round. My dad lost his father that week and told me and my brothers he had to go to the morgue to finalise some arrangements before we went to the game. They made us wait outside for about 20 minutes which just made us even more anxious and made us worry why it would take so long to get him presentable for us to see him.
Eventually they let us in and my Dad gave us the option to stay outside if we wished. We went in though and 18 years on, I am pleased I did. My dad was heartbroken but tried to not show it. He wanted his sons to enjoy our big day and hopefully a win which would see us get into the quarter finals of the FA Cup. Back then, the FA Cup meant just as much as the league in my eyes and you didn’t have half full stadiums then as the competition got the respect it truly deserved. It upsets me now that the tops sides see it as a distraction more than a prestigious trophy. Lots of clubs also price the fans out and gradually the magic has been sucked out of it, sadly.
After we paid our respects we set off towards Loftus Road.
My dad moved to South London 40 years ago but thankfully made us all QPR fans rather than any local sides. At school, I had loads of Millwall supporting mates, not to mention the ones I lived close to or played football with. It made it a must win game for me.
We have all experienced going into school on a Monday and getting heckled. Being the only QPR supporter in my class made it all the worse for me. Liverpool and Man Utd fans I didn’t take seriously but Millwall and other London supported sides I did as they didn’t support their respective sides from the comfort of their home.
Millwall packed out the away end and per usual made lots of noise. The prize for both sides was massive and for us, boasting a great side then with the likes of legends Les Ferdinand and Alan McDonald, we secretly fancied our chances of going all the way to Wembley if we made it through.
It was a fast paced affair. Andy Roberts for Millwall played exceptionally well and hit a post in the second half which had me wincing as soon as it left his foot. A typical London derby of tough challenges pursued throughout and when we reached injury time still at 0-0, the prospect of having to go to The Den in a replay was not what we had wanted or expected.
What happened next I will never forget.
A corner was given to QPR at the Loft End. I was in the Upper Loft and was just willing us to score but we looked like we could play until midnight and not hit the back of the net.
As the ball approached the crowded penalty box, Damian Webber, Millwall’s huge centre half, inexplicitly raised his arm, like Michael Jordan ready to slam dunk, and struck the ball blatantly with his forearm.
Three sides of the ground in unison shouted “HANDBALL” but we could have all stayed quiet and it would have been given as Webber almost caught it.
My dad turned to me and started yelling “He did it, he did it!!”
I didn’t know what he was going on about and he quickly explained before Clive Wilson picked the ball up.
“Your Grandad! I asked him just before the corner to give us a hand,” My dad shouted over the crowd.
I felt goose bumps. My dad and I have never believed in after life but the surreal nature of Webber’s behaviour and with all the emotion throughout the day, it really did feel Grandad Sid had played a part for us all.
The reason we cheered as if it was a goal rather than a penalty was because we knew we had the best penalty taker in the league. Clive Wilson was the coolest man in the stadium and three keepers wouldn’t have stopped his inch perfect strike. We all went mental and Millwall barely had enough time to kick off before the ref blew full time.
QPR drew Manchester United away in the quarter Finals and although we took eight thousand fans with us that day, we were beaten 2-0. It was my first visit to Old Trafford and the atmosphere was something I will never forget despite the result.
I will never forget Grandad Sid’s assistance either and I reckon he was the major reason I went into school the following Monday with a huge smile on my face.
Puts it into an area…
Seven years old, two feet away from the tele, I sat there watching Gary Bannister’s montage of goals that season. Its 1986 and QPR are in the Milk Cup Final (League Cup). The build up to any final was always great TV back then because football was rarely on unlike now as the greatest game on earth sold its soul to sky. As Bannister smashed in goal after goal, I recognised the song being played as ‘War’ from Rocky 4. Being one of my favourite films, I was getting pumped up for what would be a great game and victory for QPR.
Being favourites to win that day counted for nothing, we got beat 3-0 by Oxford and when the third goal went in, I couldn’t take anymore. My first real lesson of supporting QPR was being dealt out to me in the most severe way. I remember being confused and quickly shifted away from the TV and started playing with some toy cars. I needed some familiarity to ease this weird pain I was experiencing.
Pain…that’s what it was. The original disappointment of not being able to attend was nothing compared to watching my heroes crumble. I was as envious as a seven-year-old boy could be that my two older brothers were taken to the game by my Dad and I cried for a while. As Wembley had a portion of the stadium as standing, my Dad rightly said I couldn’t go as I wouldn’t be able to see. I didn’t get it at the time and pleaded to him but I was short for my age anyway which remains the case to this day (5ft 7″ was all I managed in the end).
So as I crashed my Knight Rider car continuously into the wall I could barely look at the TV. What happened to Bannister?! I asked myself. How can this be? Wembley is the place where dreams are created. To appease my anguish, my dad repeatedly told me that I could go next time. He genuinely meant it and I knew that.
Little did we know it would take a further 28 years for QPR to get back there. In that time, the stadium has been rebuilt and as (bad) luck would have it, QPR made a play-off final in 2003 only for it to coincide with Wembley being torn down and put back up to cope with the modern game and demands. So off to Cardiff it was to play…Cardiff. As impressive as the Millennium Stadium is, it’s no Wembley and it didn’t put any ghosts to bed for me. We lost 1-0 in extra time which hurt bad at the time.
You see I never wanted to go to Wembley unless it was for watching QPR. I’ve turned down the chance to watch England play, via paying, free tickets or even in an executive box. My desire to see the Rolling Stones there quickly dispersed when I remembered the real reason I wanted to go. Even Oasis, who were massive when I was younger couldn’t tempt me. When they announced the old Wembley would be torn down a part of me thought I should go as I’ll never see it like that again but I still refrained to keep my dream alive.
Another 11 years passed since that awful day in Cardiff and QPR finally found themselves at Wembley to fight it out for 90 minutes and see if they can get back to the Premier League. They took their time getting there and have rarely threatened through the usual method of a cup run - a tea bag stays in longer than us.
My dream was finally realised on May 24, 2014.
I got a call the day after the Wigan game at Loftus Road.
It was my dad. He said “I’m buying your ticket and we’re going to Wembley”
Thanks dad, we got there in the end.
We’ve received some incredible submissions from readers over the past few weeks, and with the Championship season finally pausing for breath after 12 QPR matches in 48 days we’re taking the chance of the international break to share a few of those with you, either side of our usual write-up of Tuesday evening’s fans forum. If you want to support LFW the easiest way is by subscribing to our Patreon where the cost of half a pint a month will get you bonus access to all our interviews with former players (and Mark Warburton getting cross with me). If you're feeling inspired, we're @loftforwords on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org on email.
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