As Bad As Things Got: Queens Park Rangers, 22nd May 1963
Queens Park Rangers may well be truly embedded as the football club of Shepherds Bush, but over the years its owners have had something of a tendency to tinker with the club’s home. Queens Park Rangers have always had itchy feet. They’ve played at more different home grounds than any other Football League club. And on top of this, Loftus Road was slowly but completely rebuilt between 1968 and 1980, making it for a while England’s most modern football stadium, all topped off with a contentious artificial pitch, which the club retained from 1981 to 1988.
Rangers moved to Loftus Road as leaseholders for the first time in 1917, having prior to this played at a number of other different homes including Kensal Green and Park Royal. They took one stand with them from Park Royal, a 3,000 seater stand that was placed on the Ellerslie Road side. It would remain their only seated accommodation until 1968. Not long after moving in, though, they started to get itchy feet.
The club was elected into the Football League in 1920, as part of the league’s expansion towards four divisions, but their early years in Division Three South were not especially happy. They club finished bottom of the table in both 1924 and 1926 and crowds which had averaged 14,400 in their first season of League football had almost halved within a decade, even though performances on the pitch and league positions had steadily improved after those first few difficult years.
By 1931, the chill winds of the Great Depression were starting to rumble through the economy. Queens Park Rangers needed to redevelop Loftus Road somewhat, but this could be expensive at time when few businesses had much spare money. The directors of the club, however, had a better idea. They had a solution to the club’s difficulties that could transform it into one of London’s powerhouse football clubs.
Right on their doorstep, just a few hundred yards from Loftus Road, was one of England’s biggest stadiums. Completed in 10 months at a cost of £60,000 by George Wimpey, White City Stadium had a seating capacity of 68,000 in an overall capacity estimated as high as 150,000, and was opened by King Edward VII on the 27th April 1908, in plenty of time for that summer’s London Olympic Games. In 1927 the Greyround Racing Association purchased it and regular greyhound racing meets started there soon afterwards and remaining for almost the next six decades.
But it didn’t end there. The GRA was rapidly expansionist, adding speedway meets, Amateur Athletic Association Championships & major boxing events to an increasingly packed looking timetable. And in 1931, they added League football to their list of events being held at White City Stadium. Rangers had seen their crowds drop by almost 20% during the 1930/31 season, the result of a lower league position and the effects of the Great Depression starting to kick in. For the directors of the club, it was a sensible decision. Rangers were not leaving their local area, and White City Stadium had both a larger capacity and better facilities than Loftus Road.
Queens Park Rangers made their debut at the White City Stadium on the 5th of September 1931 for a Third Division South match against Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic. It had been hoped that more than 40,000 people would turn out for the start of this new era, but in the end just short of 19,000 people turned out. The programme notes for that match were predictably full of optimism for the sstart of a new era:
THE GREAT ADVENTURE. To-day will see the commencement of a new phase in the history, of Queen’s Park Rangers—one which we all hope will prove a stepping stone to the higher sphere of football which we have for so long hoped to see the Club attain. A right warm welcome is given to all our visitors and particularly to our supporters, old and new, who have come to witness this opening match at our new home—The White City Stadium.
It is an open secret that our Directors have previously made efforts to stage football at the White City—in fact the Rangers have actually played here—but difficulties arose which prevented the club from making the Stadium its permanent home until now.
Here we are in the unique position of being able to offer a seat, under cover, for the ordinary admission price of one shilling. That surely is a step in the right direction, as all the big clubs in the country are concentrating on providing more and more covered accommodation. Practically all clubs find their gates shrink to an alarming extent when the weather is wet, but we should not experience such losses through the vagaries of our climate in future. It will be very interesting to see what effect the wet weather has on our attendances.
The ground is a magnificent one in every way, fit to stage the Very best class of football, and it has few, if any, equals in the whole country. To be really worthy of it the Rangers must move up into higher circles. This cannot be accomplished without increased support, but once it is forthcoming in the required measure the rest can safely be left to the Directors.
The thanks of all supporters are due to them for the enterprise they have shown in carrying through negotiations to their present successful conclusion. They have set the ball rolling, and it is now up to you to rally round the club and give your wholehearted support. In saying “au revoir” to the Loftus Road ground many of us will perhaps have some slight qualms. We shall miss the homely atmosphere where many a royal battle has been fought and some of the leading clubs in the country have been entertained. But greater scope and opportunity await us here, where the excellent playing pitch will undoubtedly go a long way to improve the standard of play.
At the Bush, much time and quite a lot of money had been spent to bring the playing area to a state of perfection but all the efforts were of no avail. The pitch, too, was likened to the “band box” type and really appeared much smaller than it actually is owing to the fact that the spectators were so close to the players. Under such conditions, the standard of play is always likely to suffer. Here this will all be altered to the advantage, we sincerely hope, of all concerned.
Another factor which mitigated against our success financially at Loftus Road was the limited holding capacity of the ground. Many times in the past the gates had to be closed on the occasion of a big League game or Cup Tie, when the capacity limit was reached or precautions had to be taken on the score of “safety first.” Our new ground—of which by the way a long lease has been taken—can probably accommodate over 100,000 in comfort, with 80,000 under cover.
Crowds held up okay during the 1931/32 season, their first at White City Stadium, with crowds increasing again from an average of 8,785 the previous season to 13,303, despite sliding in Division Three South from 8th place to 13th. It was the third highest average crowd across both of the two regional Third Divisions, behind Fulham and Crystal Palace. The following season, however, Rangers slipped again to sixteenth place in the table and crowds almost halved, dropping to 7,707.
By the end of the 1932/33 season, Rangers had lost the sizeable sum of £7,000 on the move and took the decision to return to Loftus Road. The GRA found new tenants for the stadium in the form of the Wigan Highfield, a financially troubled rugby league side who they moved to London and renamed London Highfield. They only stayed at White City Stadium for a season before returning to the north-west of England as Liverpool Stanley after the GRA ended their loss-making experiment. The GRA did, however, continue to profit from the stadium, with some greyhound meets drawing attendances of over 90,000 throughout the rest of the decade.
Rangers’ time at White City hadn’t been a complete disaster. A club record attendance of more than 41,000 saw them beat promotion-chasing Second Division side Leeds United in the FA Cup Third Round in January 1932, while a record league crowd there of 33,553 saw them lose 2-1 at home to Brentford in the same season. Crowds, however, fell away over the two seasons, seeming to almost disappear in the cavernous stadium. At the start of the 1933/34, the editor of the club’s programme editor had this to say about the experience:
Unfortunately, we cannot look back with much satisfaction on last year’s record at the White City Stadium. We began splendidly, only to falter at the halfway stage, and, not being firmly gripped, we faded away in a manner which was only too apparent in the attendances, with the consequence that the Directors found the Club losing money every week.
Very early this year it became obvious that the club could not carry on on at the White City Stadium. Therefore, after prolonged and careful consideration, the Directors decided to terminate the tenancy, and this was accordingly done. The White City ground is essentially one that be more than half-filled, otherwise it has a very deserted appearance, which makes the atmosphere quite depressing. Our attendances did not average one-tenth part of its capacity.
Our failure to make progress in the Cup also added to the worries of the exchequer. Taking the three ties in which the team played, the attendances both at home and away were so small that after expenses were accounted for a heavy loss was sustained.
I was a disastrous season for the club in every sense. The Directors were saddled with an ever-increasing overdraft at the bank; in fact, I am right in saying that they found it very difficult to carry on the club for the last few months of last season. Had it not been for the generosity of our Chairman, Mr. C. W. Fielding, and his co-Directors, the club would have been forced to close down as it could not have met its obligations.
I often wonder how many football spectators realise how difficult it is to run a professional football club to cover expenses, let alone make a profit. Obligations have to be entered into each year long before the playing season opens; there is a risk of players acquired not fitting into a team, and whether the public will give the constant support so necessary for success, all of which has to rest on the Directorate. Very few football clubs paid their way last season. Unemployment, of course, accounted for quite a number of the diminished gates experienced all over the country. Let us hope for the much-needed improvement in trade, with its corresponding benefit to all.
By the time they left Loftus Road in 1933, the club’s finances were in a pickle, in debt to the tune of £35,000, an enormous figure for the time. The players were asked to defer their wages in order to help the complete the 1932/33 season with a promise made to pay them in full in the summer. The club’s financial position did, however, receive a boost when the son of late Chairman JH Fielding agreed to waive the £20,000 owed to his estate.
Rangers settled back in at Loftus Road and opted for making the best of what they had, winning their first seven consecutive matches back at the ground which they fortunately – as had first been planned – had not been sold when they moved to White City. They spent much of the rest of the decade knocking on the door of promotion to the Second Division, and in 1938 the supporters club raised £1,500 to cover the terrace on the Loftus Road side of the ground. Rangers finally made it to the Second Division in 1948, they purchased the freehold to the stadium and 39 houses on Ellerslie Road for £26,250, all financed by a share flotation that raised £30,000 for the club.
Life in the Second Division, however, proved to be a struggle. The post-war attendance boom had pushed crowds over 20,000 at Loftus Road, but Rangers didn’t really find their feet at this higher level, lasting just four years before being relegated back, having not finished above halfway in the table throughout their stay. They were relegated back in 1952, and in 1953 finished in 20th place in Division Three South, their lowest Football League position since 1926. Furthermore, the club’s relegation coincided with the start of the long, slow decline of attendances in this country. By 1958, Rangers’ average attendance had fallen back below 10,000. The houses Ellerslie Road bought a decade earlier had to be sold again, to balance the books.
Alec Stock had been of the generation of players who’d lost a chunk of their playing careers to war. Stock was 22 years old and had played thirty games for QPR when war broke out in 1939. When the game returned in 1946, he resurfaces as the player-manager of Southern League Yeovil Town, who he led to one of the most famous FA Cup upsets of all time, a 2-1 against First Division Sunderland in 1949, even scoring one of the goals himself, in his lasts season as player-manager. His success at Yeovil saw him take the managers job at Leyton Orient that year and he stayed at Brisbane Road for eight years, with brief interjections as an assistant manager at Arsenal – where he resigned after being sent to watch the reserve team on a Saturday afternoon rather than the first team – and AS Roma, where he lasted eleven games before quitting over directorial interference in team affairs.
In the summer of 1959, Stock turned up at Loftus Road and Rangers’ fortunes immediately started to improve. They finished in 8th place in Division Three at the end of his first season and spent the next couple of seasons knocking on the door of promotion back to the Second Division, finishing in third and fourth place in the table. Again, though, ambition started to outstrip reality, and the club announced that they would be going back to White City again for the 1962/63 season. This time the decision was made on the advice of Alec Stock, who foresaw a future in which the club might be able to make a go of White City, perhaps by sharing it with another West London club like Brentford or Fulham.
Their return to their other home was delayed by the weather, but QPR finally returned to The White City Stadium on the 6th October 1962, where a crowd of more than 15,000 people saw them beaten 1-0 by Notts County. The stadium itself had changed a little by this time, with its capacity having been reduced to about 70,000, but familiar problems started to raise their head almost immediately. Again, there was little enthusiasm amongst supporters for the move, and the thirty years between their spells there hadn’t seen the shape of White City change, meaning that fans were a long way from the pitch, again scattered around a huge stadium with tens of thousands of empty seats for every match.
The club sought to take advantage of the excellent catering facilties at White City by offering “Ritz style soccer”, with fine dining at tables with a view of the pitch, and initally it looked as though Rangers might be able to make something approaching a go of it, but this time luck was not on their side. One of the worst winters on record swept in at the start of 1963, causing a decimation of the league and cup programmes. Crowds plummeted in the new year and the team finished the season in 13th place in the table, their lowest league position since Alec Stock arrived at the club, four years earlier. The average attendance for the 1962/63 season was just 10,041 people, 10% down on the previous season at Loftus Road. Their last match there, a 3-1 home defeat against Coventry City, was watched by just 3,245 people.
After less than a year away, then, Queens Park Rangers returned to Loftus Road, and this time it was for keeps. While the club’s position hadn’t changed as a result of this move – the 1962 move to White City is now most commonly regarded as a case of those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat their mistakes – but it did set in motion a change of events that actually would transform the club forever. Queens Park Rangers had spent a lot of money on Loftus Road in the decade prior to 1962 – around £300,000 – but it seemed to have been to little effect. By the middle of the 1960s, the ground was close to under-developed, but also without the money to bring it up to the standards of an increasingly industrialised game.
In 1965, Jim Gregory arrived as the club’s new chairman. Gregory, who’d started as a market fishmonger before moving on to selling used cars, new cars, garages, and then chains of garages. He was an abrasive figure, but he also had money and a willingness to spend it on the club. QPR’s fortunes immediately took an upswing, and in 1967 they won promotion to the Second Division as champions and, remarkably, the League Cup, won after they beat West Bromwich Albion in that competition’s first Wembley final. It was, and remains, Queens Park Rangers’ only major trophy.
The following year they were promoted again under Stock, this time as runners-up on goal average ahead of Blackpool, and a point behind another progressive club on the rise, Ipswich Town, to reach the top flight for the first time. And by the time of this second promotion, the club was on its way towards being prepared for the First Division. In 1966, Gregory had invited the architect Michael Newberry to come up with a plan for a complete redevelopment of Loftus Road. Newberry’s plans, a complete redevelopment of the stadium in two phases to be completed by 1969 at a cost of £340,000, didn’t come to fruition, though. Gregory used the plans to get planning permission for Loftus Road, but only one stand was initially built, on the South Africa Road side of the ground, at a cost of £162,000.
By the time that promotion was already achieved, though, Stock was on his way out of the club. Known by some as “the first gentleman of football” (comedian Paul Whitehouse later based his Ron Manager character from The Fast Show on him), Stock and the hard-nosed – some might say devious – Gregory were very conflicting personalities, and by the end of the 1967/68 season the chairman was trying to move the manager out of his pisition, having convinced himself that Stock wouldn’t be able to take the club any further. When Stock’s asthma deteriorated to such a point that he was given three months leave in the summer of 1968, Gregory moved.
Despite the fact that Rangers were stalling in the First Division with the manager who had shaped their success on leave, winning just two of their first seventeen matches of the season in his absence under Bill Dodgin Jr and Tommy Docherty (it was their worst ever start to a season), Stock was sacked by the club in November 1968 after nine years. He wasn’t out of work for long, though. He accepted the manager’s job at Luton Town five days before Christmas 1968 and took them to promotion from the Third Division at the end of the season. QPR were relegated at the end of the 1967/68 season after just one season in the top division.
The next phase of development at Loftus Road came in 1972 with the construction of a new main stand, and the following season they won promotion back to the First Division. In 1976 they finished as runners-up in the league to Liverpool, a record high final league place, and even though they were relegated back to the Second Division in 1979 (with Jim Gregory still running the show) they pushed ahead with the final stage of development of the stadium the following year, a new stands at each end of the ground, an electronic scoreboard and, finally, the controversial Omniturf pitch, in 1981. They reached the FA Cup final the following year, only losing to Tottenham Hotspur after a replay, and in 1983 returned to the First Division again.
Even then, though, they couldn’t quite get completely settled. Finishing in fifth place in the First Division in 1984 meant European club for Rangers for the second time in their history (after the 1976/77 season), but UEFA weren’t as acquiescent as the Football League and FA over artifical pitches, and Rangers had to play their two UEFA Cup matches, against KR Reykjavik and Partisan Belgrade, at Highbury. After winning their home leg against Partizan 6-2, they were eliminated from the competition in remarkable circumstances, on away goals after losing the second leg by four goals to nil. The artificial surface was ripped up in 1988.
Queens Park Rangers didn’t have their worst ever league seasons or their closest brushes with insolvency while playing at The White City Stadium, though, so why has this been chosen as being “as bad as things got”? Well, the decision to leave Loftus Road for White City Stadium was twice made on the basis of a fallacy, that moving to a big stadium would in and of itself gift the club huge attendances and a bright new future. Both times it failed. White City Stadium was both far too big for the club, and on top of this it was laid out as a greyhound stadium, wholly unsuitable for staging football matches. At the White City Stadium, even though it was just a few hundred yards from Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers didn’t feel like Queens Park Rangers any more.
White City Stadium would go on to host one match at the 1966 World Cup finals, a group match between France and Uruguay which was watched by 45,662 people. The match had been moved there from Wembley because it clashed with a greyhound racing meet at Wembley that couldn’t be postponed. It remained in use for speedway, greyhound racing and concerts throughout the 1970s, and tragedy visited in 1974 when 800 people were injured and a 14 year old girl was killed in a crush during a David Cassidy concert there. The stadium finally closed in 1984, and was demolished a year later. Three and a half decades on, and despite not irregular talk of the need for the club to find another new home, Queens Park Rangers remain at the space they’ve occupied for 103 years. If the experience of their spells at the White City Stadium prove nothing else, at least they prove that Loftus Road may be the spritual home of this most nomadic of football clubs after all.