The Long Read: Queens Park Rangers – Present, Past & Future
With four games of the Championship season played, Queens Park Rangers sit at the bottom of the table with no points, having scored just two goals and having conceded thirteen. This morning’s long read is a quick look at their current position, the story of the club’s history of change at Loftus Road, and what the prognosis might be for their future.
It’s probably reasonable to say that, barring a spectacular revival over its remaining four months, 2018 hasn’t exactly been a vintage year for Queens Park Rangers. Knocked out of the FA Cup at home by lower division opposition at its beginning, three defeats in their final four matches saw them end their Championship season in sixteenth place in the table, and the end of last season saw the removal of manager Ian Holloway with Steve McClaren. The former England manager’s reputation has been deteriorating with each successive appointment in recent years, though, and four consecutive defeats have marked the start of their 2018/19 season have dropped a cloud of gloom over Loftus Road before even the August Bank Holiday weekend.
A sense of foreboding had been growing amongst supporters since confirmation of their summer’s other big result, a settlement against the Football League in their case concerning breaching FFP rules during their 2013/14 promotion-winning season which has resulted in £20m worth of costs and fines to be paid back over the next ten years, the capitalisation of a further £22m of director loans into the club, and an embargo that will last the duration of the January transfer window. Spreading the club’s fine over a decade has relieved what might otherwise have been considerable financial pressure on the club, but it’s that transfer embargo which might well damage the club more than anything else over the course of this season. The club are able to make signings, but any first team players would need arrive on a free transfer and be replacing an outgoing QPR player, whilst players under the age of twenty-three can only be signed for a fee providing they… don’t play for the first team until the start of the 2019/20 season.
All of this heaped pressure on the club’s management to ensure that the right players were in place for the start of the new season, and the early signs in this respect couldn’t have been much less encouraging. McClaren’s team started off with narrow defeats at Preston North End and Sheffield United, but the last seven days have seen the wheels on the wagon start to wobble considerably more distinctly. Last Saturday, a trip to the freshly-relegated West Bromwich Albion ended in a seven-one defeat, whilst they fared little better in this week’s round of midweek fixtures, finding themselves beaten three-nil at home by Bristol City, and it has only taken these first four matches of the season for the pressure to start to grow on McClaren, a manager whose appointment wasn’t universally cheered by supporters when it was announced in May. Considering their weak start to the season and the handicap of their upcoming transfer embargo, a season of attrition would appear to be in store.
Considering the quagmire of its own making in which the club currently finds itself, it can feel difficult to remember that there was a period when Queens Park Rangers weren’t only one of England’s most forward-looking clubs, but were one which offered a potential template for others looking to modernise themselves. The club moved into Loftus Road in 1917, but has given the impression of spending much of the last 101 years wishing that they were playing somewhere else. In 1931, the club left their home to pitch up instead at the White City Stadium, only to return to Loftus Road two years later having made a (then-substantial) loss of £7,000. Developments to the ground didn’t seem to address the club’s itch to leave for pastures new, though, and the club left for White City again for the 1962/63 season. Again, though, supporters didn’t travel with them, and with losses mounting and the team faltering in the middle of the Third Division, the club returned to Loftus Road again, this time before it had even completed a season away.
With a capacity of 93,000, it is simultaneously easy to see both why White City was such a tempting option for the club in the first place and why it was doomed to failure. On the one hand, it would only have taken the smallest delusion of grandeur – an affliction common to football club owners since the birth of the game – to imagine filling it and becoming The Biggest Football Club In London. On the other, though, not only were small crowds at such a large venue ruinous for the atmosphere at matches, but in addition to this the cavernous venue was only made all the more unappealing for fans by it having a greyhound track encircling the pitch. With crowds falling across the board following the post-war boom, that the project failed is hardly surprising, but Rangers fans looking back might wonder what the potential of the club might have been had the club had the money to both buy and redevelop the site as a football-appropriate venue. White City Stadium was demolished in 1985.
This time, the message that White City wasn’t going to work seemed to get through to the directors of the club. Promotion to the First Division in 1968 – although this stay only turned out to last one season – led to the construction of a new stand, and a near-miss four years later coincided with the building of another. The construction of the stand on Ellerslie Road in 1972 coincided with QPR’s golden era. Promoted back to the First Division the following season, they almost won the league title in 1976, but this new dawn turned out to be short-lived, and relegation followed again in 1979. By the end of the 1970s, however, football’s economic future was starting to look somewhat bleak. Attendances had started to fall again, and other commercial revenue opportunities remained limited in a way that seem implausible to modern eyes. Bit by bit, Loftus Road had been redeveloped into a truly modern stadium – the final piece was put into place in 1980 with a new stand at the Loftus Road end of the ground, but in the summer of 1981 arrived the most revolutionary stadium development of the era. The “plastic pitch” arrived.
The evolution of artificial surfaces upon which to play football can be traced back to an ill-fated attempt to play an indoor football tournament at Olympia under electric light and on an artificial grass mat in 1906. The FA objected, but the commercial failure of the tournament ended the likelihood of anyone else wanting to take an interest in it. A more direct lineage comes, unsurprisingly, from the United States of America. Perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, though, it came about thanks to a mistake. Major League Baseball arrived in the city of Houston in 1960, but the extremely hot and humid climate in the city meant that a planned new facility would have to have a roof on top of it. With the contract to build the new stadium given to the city’s former mayor, Roy Hofheinz, the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965 with a natural surface, but the glass skylight panels on the roof had to be painted to avoid the glare of the sun, and this in turn meant that grass couldn’t grow properly. Hofheinz, however, worked with the chemical company Monsanto to instead create an artificial grass upon which sports could be played, and in March 1966 the new surface, “Astroturf”, made its debut and it’s success was such that an outdoor version was soon developed, leading to it being installed at stadia across the USA. By the end of the 1970s, it was commonly used in the North American Soccer League.
In the summer of 1979, Queens Park Rangers sent a delegation on a fact-finding mission to the USA in order to establish the viability of installing an artificial pitch at Loftus Road. The grass pitch there had been the cause of frequent problems in previous years, and an artificial surface could potentially increase revenue streams through near-constant use as well as ending the headache that came with the grass pitch’s poor drainage. The club, however, opted not to go with Astroturf, which needed to be replaced every decade and had already developed a reputation for being an outdated technology. Their preferred pitch was made using a system called Omniturf, which consisted of an artificial grass made from polypropolyne fibre with a layer of sand underneath it. It was already popular around the world – it particularly used for tennis courts – required less maintenance than grass, was harder wearing than grass, and would ensure that waterlogged or frozen pitches became a thing of the past. It was the solution that chairman Jim Gregory and chief executive Ian Simpson had been looking for and, at a not insubstantial cost of £350,000, it was installed for the start of the 1981/82 season.
The Football Association, of course, required a degree of persuasion, but they eventually agreed its use for a trial period to run from 1981 to 1984. The pitch made its debut on the 1st of September 1981 for a Second Division match against Luton Town. By this time, the club had a manager who was perfect for the role of selling the pitch’s benefits to the broader football community. Former player Terry Venables had once fancied himself as something of a novelist, and in 1972 had written a book called ‘They Used to Play on Grass’, which imagined future in which artificial surfaces had superceded grass completely. He left his first managerial position at Crystal Palace to move to Loftus Road in October 1980 with his former club bottom of the First Division and in financial difficulty, and his previously published novel lent credence to the idea that he was a true acolyte of the new technology. That first match on the new pitch, however, did not go entirely according to plan. Despite having won their opening game of the season at Wrexham the previous weekend with a degree of comfort, Luton were a little too smart for QPR and won the match by two goals to one. Still, at least the day was a success in one respect for the club. Perhaps it was a revival of interest borne out of curiosity at this apparent glimpse into the future, but the attendance that day of 18,703 was considerably higher than anybody expected.
Queens Park Rangers didn’t get promoted at the end of that season, but considerable compensation came in the FA Cup. Winning after a replay against Middlesbrough in the Third Round was followed by another replay at Blackpool, but thereafter a pair of home draws led to a pair of home wins led to a semi-final against West Bromwich Albion at Highbury, which was won by a goal to nil thanks to a somewhat fortuitous second half goal from Clive Allen. Venables’ team was beaten after a replay in the final by Tottenham Hotspur, but promotion was achieved as champions at the end of the following season. By this time, however, the shock of the new at the sight of the Omniturf pitch had started to give way to substantial criticism. The club had opted for the pitch that could withstand the heaviest use possible, but this in turn meant that the pitch was little more than a layer of polypropolyne fibre sitting on concrete with only a thin layer of sand to cushion the bounce of the ball, which was clearly too high for football. In addition to this, it was now understood that this extremely solid surface was bad for players’ joints and was causing burns to players who had the unfortunacy to slide on it. Upon promotion to the First Division the club added extra padding in order to allay criticism of the ball’s bounce upon it, but by this time criticism was well established.
More than anything else, though, there was a perception that the club was againing an unfair advantage by having an artificial pitch of their own. The club allowed other clubs to train on it in advance of matches, but the nature of the pitch meant that it often needed to be watered the night before matches, meaning that it sometimes played slightly differently on match days to even the day before. The Football League had sanctioned its use for league matches, so it was no surprise that they also did for the League Cup. Indeed, the club reached the final of competition in 1986 before losing to Oxford United. The FA, however, was a different kettle of fish. They’d had reservations from the outset and allowed it for the 1981/82 competition, but there were question marks over whether they would do so again after the end of the trial period. As things turned out, Queens Park Rangers would be knocked out of the FA Cup in the Third Round, away from home, for the next four seasons in a row. One for the conspiracy theorists, there.
Promotion to the First Division as champions at the end of the 1982/83 season, QPR adjusted quickly and effectively to life back in the top flight and ended their first season back in fifth place in the table, immediately above three of the “Big Five”, whose existence did so much to lead football in England towards the creation of the Premier League and where we are today – ten points above Arsenal, eleven above Everton, and twelve above Tottenham Hotspur. That was good enough for European football, but UEFA’s issues with the Loftus Road pitch were such that the club was prevented from using it for European matches in the following year’s UEFA Cup. In the first round of that competition, they were drawn to play Iceland’s KR Reykjavik and won the first leg by three goals to nil, meaning that QPR’s home European debut came at Highbury in front of just below 6,200 people. The match ended in a four nil win.
A second round draw to play Partizan Belgrade didn’t raise a great deal more interest, and just 7,800 people made the trek across London for the first leg of the match in October 1983. Those that made the effort were well-rewarded, though. Rangers won the match by six goals to two, a result well surpassing the pre-match hopes of manager Alan Mullery, who’d told reporters before the match that he’d be happy with a two goal win. In the second leg, however, Mullery’s young team received a rude awakening. Partizan raced to a four-nil lead after just sixty-four minutes had been played, and QPR couldn’t find a way back into the game. They were knocked out on away goals. This extraordinary tie remains the club’s last in European football.
Other clubs were, of course, paying attention to the progress of Queens Park Rangers from the installation of their pitch in 1981, and it was inevitable that others would follow. Luton Town became the second, in the summer of 1985, but they would use a different surface, called Sporturf Professional, which was manufactured by En-Tout-Cas. Luton would later be subject to considerable criticism over the condition of their pitch. A 1989 commission confirmed that the pitch had suffered excessive wear and tear, and ordered it to be resurfaced. A year after Luton Town, Oldham Athletic joined suit at Boundary Park. They would later get promoted to the First Division and reach an FA Cup semi-final with its assistance. That same summer, Preston North End would also have one installed at Deepdale, and this would prove to be the last to go in England, finally ripped up when artificial pitches were outlawed altogether in 1994.
Queens Park Rangers’ flirtation with artificial pitches was long over by the time the FA pulled the plug on them altogether. The club had found that making much money from renting them out hadn’t been as lucrative as they might have hoped, and the short-lived UEFA Cup run had UEFA’s ban had been something of a cold shower. The controversy over them had never gone away, and only three other League clubs had taken them up as well, meaning that those with artificial pitches remained a tiny minority. It was more likely that they would be banned altogether than they would be taken up in greater numbers. These were, of course, the nascent days of artificial surfaces. However, despite widespread take-up in the non-league game, they remain outlawed in the Football League, though there haven’t yet been any cases of the rules coming up against a club with a 3g artificial pitch.
Time has not been particularly kind to Loftus Road over the course of the three decades since the artificial surface was removed, though. As developments in stadium design changed the face of the game in this country in the years following The Taylor Report, the ground didn’t seem to much move with the times, and financial problems run up by the club as football’s stock market boom crashed and the ITV Digital fiasco threatened the wellbeing of dozens of clubs, QPR found themselves in administration in 2001, with the formation of a Supporters Trust to fight suggestions that the club should sell the ground or even decamp to Milton Keynes. Fulham moving in while Craven Cottage was renovated alleviated the worst of the club’s financial woes, but erratic ownership over the last quarter of a century has often left the club feeling as though it is living on the edge of a precipice, and even the chairmanship of Tony Fernandes – who, to his credit, does seem to have an interest in the club that goes beyond plumpening his own bank balance – couldn’t end this, as could be witnessed by the issues that it faced over FFP upon getting promoted to the Premier League in 2014.
Fernandes resigned his chairmanship of the club at the beginning of last week, with Amit Bhatia, who has been involved with the club since 2007, taking over instead. And difficult though the last couple of seasons might have been, at least supporters can feel as though they have a degree more security than they did during the days of Bernie Eccleston and Flavio Briatore, and their attempts to rebrand the club as a “boutique” club, whatever the hell that actually meant in the first place. That all feels a very long way away now, as does the club’s last spell in the Premier League. The club’s three seasons since relegation back in 2015 have ended with finishes in twelfth, eighteenth and sixttenth in the table. Small wonder that a sense of ennui may be starting to grow amongst its supporters.
These days, Loftus Road gives the impression of groaning under the weight of a lack of investment in recent years. With a capacity of just 18,739 and hemmed in on all four sides, the ground long ago started to look its age, and just a couple of weeks ago Chief Executive Lee Hoos confirmed that they are still looking for other potential sites to re-home the club. Attempts to find new locations with a 40,000 capacity stadium at Old Oak Common or at the Linford Christie Athletics Stadium have, however, proved to be problematic for a variety of different reasons, and moving the club to a new ground on the site of the former Wormwood Scrubs prison remains little more than an aspiration for now, with Hoos having admitted that moving there will be “very complex” on account of the number of different stakeholders involved in this particular plot of land. “Whether that comes to fruition or not, I don’t know,” Hoos confirmed. As such, it seems unlikely that Rangers will be leaving Loftus Road in the short to medium future, at least.
Some might ask, at this point, whether Queens Park Rangers even need to move ground at this stage. Loftus Road may be cramped and a little uncomfortable at this stage, but it is at least home and leaving would cost a vast amount of money that the club doesn’t seem to have at the moment. Lee Hoos seems to believe that the Linford Christie Athletics Stadium is the club’s only hope, if it is to remain in the part of London that it has called home for more than a century, but it’s difficult to consider comments such as, “If we get the go-ahead to pursue this option we will consult with fans about how any new stadium would work and, crucially, how we retain the best characteristics of Loftus Road” as being little more than empty words to assuage a support-base that has become a little restless at the club’s inertia over the last couple of seasons or so.
Recent reports have highlighted the fact that thirteen of of twenty clubs in the Premier League could now turn a profit without any match day revenue whatsoever, and this might be considered a state of affairs that may decrease the number of vainglorious stadium projects that clubs embark upon in the future. Discussion of a new home for QPR has talked of a capacity in the region of 40,000, 5,000 more than the club’s record attendance, which was achieved when the club was approaching the height of its 1970s success against Chelsea in 1974. Were the club to reach the Premier League promised land and stay there, however, it wouldn’t need a new stadium in order to stay solvent. This, however, overlooks the fact that increased revenue streams are desirable whichever division a club is in, and that Loftus Road has the third lowest ground capacity in the Championship, a division in which match day revenues are important to a club’s ability to compete in the transfer market.
Twice in its past, however, Queens Park Rangers decamped to a considerably bigger stadium in the hope that this might kickstart a change in the club’s fortunes that would transform its fortunes for good. On both occasions, the club returned to Loftus Road a short time afterwards, but any further move away from its home for the last hundred and one years would this time be permanent, with no likelihood of return. Earlier this month the club released a document called Secure ‘R’ Future, which examined its options for the future, and this stated that Rangers are not “financially sustainable” at Loftus Road and that “we are running out of possible sites near our current home where we could move to.” How much of this is mere playing to the gallery is open to question, of course, especially when we consider the financial constraints of the club’s recent substantial fine for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, but the notion that the club needs to move away from a stadium which, less than four decades ago, was considered a template for how a medium-sized club can maximise its space to create a modern football stadium clearly remains in the forefronts of the minds of those who run the club.
Such has been the nature of the club’s start to this season, however, that more immediate attention should probably be paid to the team’s start to this season. The decision to replace Ian Holloway at the end of last season was met with a mixed reception from supporters, but his replacement can hardly be said to have endeared himself to anybody during his short period in charge of the club so far. This must all feel a long way from the past for Steve McClaren. Those come from behind wins in the UEFA Cup for Middlesbrough and appointment into the England manager’s job certainly belong to a different era. His spells at Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Newcastle United certainly only seemed to cast a pall over a managerial record which wasn’t exactly stelllar in England anyway, and his brief spell of success at Twente already feels like the exception rather than the rule in terms of his managerial career.
Four games into a season feels like it’s too quick to make a judgement over the suitability of a manager for a role, but in the modern era, when every match can be watched afterwards and the technology exists for snap judgements to be made, it will probably happen anyway. A press conference earlier this week saw McClaren point the finger of blame in a familiar direction – “I knew the situation when I came in. This board and the owners, if they could spend money, they would, but the restrictions are the restrictions and what we’ve said is that we’re in the loan and free market and they are very supportive of that” – but in the modern, trigger-happy age, it seems unlikely that he will be able to prevent a growing tide of criticism for very long unless results begin to improve pretty quickly.
There is some good news, though. The Championship is a forty-six match slog and even losing your first four league matches of the season doesn’t necessarily have to mean that relegation is a foregone conclusion just yet. The vastness of the season ahead gives room for mistakes, and a couple of wins would lift heads, calm the early season panic, and give the team a little of the belief that has been ebbing away. In addition to this, this hasn’t been a completely win-free start to the season for the club. Two goals in the opening six minutes of their League Cup match against Peterborough United gave them a comfortable win in that competition, and a home draw against Bristol Rovers might be considerable an opportunity to build a little more confidence and progress a little further, especially considering that Rovers have only won (and have lost the other three) of their opening four matches of the season in League One. It’s not much after a fairly horrific start to the season, but every cloud does have a silver lining.