As a lifelong QPR fan and an optimist who expects to be disappointed by life, I’ve grown to expect little from away games than the inevitability that in the end, football will get in the way of a good day out.
On the very rare occasion that Queens Park Rangers play well enough for opposition supporters to ask “Where were you when you were shit?” my mind instantly takes me back to one cold and wet afternoon in Derbyshire . . .
Chesterfield 4, Queens Park Rangers 2
Saturday, January 30th 2004
It’s a damp and dank matchday as the London to Sheffield inter-city service slowly rolls into Chesterfield station.
Passengers alight from the train and make their way along the platform, through the booking hall towards the station’s exit and the Derbyshire market town that awaits outside. A sizeable majority of the train’s male passengers are met by the local constabulary.
The Police, decked out in full urban combat fatigues, welcome all men to Chesterfield by shepherding them round to a holding pen, where each man has his face filmed by specialist “liaison” officers. It is an obvious deterrent for any visiting Londoner wishing to dance toe-to-toe with the notorious Chesterfield Bastard Squad.
Being more River Island than Stone Island, I’m surprised to have fitted the profile of a visiting member of a London lunatic fringe. Parting the sea of Aquascutum jackets, Burberry scarves and Henri Lloyd polos, I take matters into my own hands: “Officer, if you would be so good as to allow my brother and I to step past you. We have people to meet, a twisted spire to see and quite understand that by entering Chesterfield we take our lives into our own hands. As Paul Furlong is my witness, I refuse to be escorted to a nightclub where you will force us to drink VK Ice all afternoon. Now please stand aside Officer, I bid you adieu.”
The Jedi mind trick works and the constable stands to one side with a warning that I do indeed take my life into my own hands. Behind me a small moustachiod gentleman clutching a bunch of roses has been patiently waiting with us for the past 5-10 minutes, with a growing expression of bewilderment on his face he steps forward to negotiate his own release.
Dressed in a leather jacket and resembling the missing third Chuckle Brother, the man angrily gestures towards the car park. Prodding the roses into the officer’s chest he explains in the local dialect that his “lady friend is int’ car park and she’s waiting ont’ meter!” This is a full two weeks before Valentine’s Day. You can keep Paris, whoever said “romance is dead” has clearly never been to Chesterfield in the rain.
Free from our shackles, my brother and I plod on through the rain towards the town where we meet up with members of the Yorkshire Rs. Details are sketchy after more than a decade but memories include a) a dodgy Spire, b) not drinking VK Ice, and c) not making it to a pub called the Barley Mow (which apparently had Britain’s most beautiful barmaids).
After some light liquid refreshment we arrive at the Saltergate Recreation Ground just before kick-off having passed through turnstiles originally built by the Romans. In front of me, hundreds of my fellow away fans are huddled against the elements like penguins behind the goal.
“Chesterfield raised their hopes of avoiding relegation when they thumped QPR 4-2 at Saltergate to dent the London club’s automatic promotion hopes.”
I’d like to say I recall good morale and camaraderie on the terraces in the freezing rain that day. Although gallows humour was certainly in evidence, the away end was largely filled with men drenched to the skin, shuffling round moaning at each other before heading off to have a half-time slash against a wall which doubled up as Saltergate’s toilet facilities. I dread to think what the ladies’ must have been like.
Apart from the conditions, apart from the performance, the most galling aspect of that afternoon was the fact that three sides of that ancient old ground were happily applauding their side and openly mocking ours. This was Chesterfield. Of the 4,567 attendance, more than 1,200 were QPR supporters.
Queens Park Rangers’ side that day had been fairly strong. The club was chasing promotion and had many players who for their efforts and character are generally regarded fondly by Rangers’ fans. Ian Holloway’s team that day was; Chris Day, Terrell Forbes, Gino Padula, Steve Palmer, Clarke Carlisle, Matthew Rose (replaced by Eric Sabin, 74 mins), Marc Bircham, Martin Rowlands (Wes Daly, 89 mins), Paul Furlong, Kevin Gallen and Tony Thorpe. On the bench that day, QPR had Nick Culkin, Kevin McLeod and Dennis Oli as unused substitutes.
“Although Tony Thorpe gave the visitors an early lead, Chesterfield turned in one of their best displays of the season to completely overwhelm Rangers.”
Rangers’ opener through Tony Thorpe came before the full deluge but was certainly wind assisted as the Chesterfield keeper’s kick crossed the halfway line only to be blown back to Kevin Gallen who rolled in for the former Luton Town man to slot home with a neat finish.
Jamie McMaster levelled for the Spireites after some quite ridiculous defending, as Rangers conspired to make sure half-time honours would be even. Five minutes after the break future QPR stopper Ian Evatt gave Chesterfield a 2-1 advantage before skidding through an oxbow lake in celebration.
A Steve Palmer pile-driver briefly gave us hope that our journey would not be in vain, before a Glynn Hurst flick on from a long, looping corner found it’s way past Chris Day to restore Chesterfield’s lead 2 minutes later. With 11 minutes still on the clock, Mark Hudson took advantage of what can only be described as an assist from Ranagers’ right-back Terrell Forbes to belt home a winner and compound the misery of the drenched visiting supporters.
Rangers boss Ian Holloway conceded: “Some of our decisions and some of our marking at set pieces and corners was an absolute joke.
“I cannot protect the team after a performance like that. It was absolutely diabolical.”
“On this performance, it was hard to tell which side was at the top and which was at the bottom.”
The bulldozers have since moved in at Saltergate, levelling the floodlight pylons and walls painted black that passed as gentlemen’s facilities. In place of the ground that stood for 139 years, new homes have been built and a road named “Spire Heights” winds through what was once hallowed ground.
Chesterfield now ply their trade in a purpose built stadium complete with corporate conferencing facilities and why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t fans be able to have a pie, a pint and a slash in comfort?
As more of our towns and cities lose the old cattle sheds we once crammed into and declared home, we lose a little bit of who we are. With homogeneous bowls of prawn sandwich munching fans slowly replacing generations who (not always) happily stood in the wind and rain with a sense of misguided devotion, we are losing a little bit of our heritage and matchday traditions. We can no longer look for floodlight pylons as we pass through towns on a train. I pity our sons and our daughters.
Of course QPR have regularly played worse than they did on that Saturday afternoon. In the final two games of this season which saw Rangers relegated with just 2 away wins all season, our ineptitude plumbed new depths as we conceded 11 goals. In the 2000/01 relegation season which saw the R’s drop to the 3rd tier I remember watching us ship 5 goals at Wimbledon, Wednesday and Preston North End, each performance was probably worse than on that Saturday at Saltergate.
QPR have fallen through the Premier League trap-door and who knows when “the promised land” of over-priced tickets for anti-social kick-off times will beckon again. Open terracing like we saw at Saltergate is now largely a thing of the past, as are regular Saturday afternoon away days subsidised by a Young Person’s Railcard.
When I find myself in times of trouble, or on top of the world as I did later that season when we were ultimately promoted away at Sheffield Wednesday; I reflect upon the day I pissed against a wall in Derbyshire.
That’s why we do it isn’t it? We take the rough with the smooth. Addiction, self-flagellation, mis-placed duty, call it what you will. The sense that we are part of something bigger and that one day it will lead to something and these days huddled on a terrace will suddenly make sense.
Of course the armchair would be more comfortable, but a miserable day in Chesterfield is necessary if you’re going to fully appreciate a day at Wembley with Bobby Zamora lashing home a last minute winner in a game you have no business competing in. The clouds will clear, the rain will stop and the sun shall shine again.
Football after all, is tribal and it keeps us coming back for more.
Come on then, where were you when you were truly shit?
Images in this piece (aside from the one of the gentlemen’s facilities) are used with the kind permission of David Bauckham of Centre Circle Publishing and were originally posted on his Flickr account. You can see more of his work at centrecirclepub.co.uk and anyone wishing to purchase enlargements can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.