I can barely contain my excitement. The Easter break is nearly upon us and I will soon be heading off to an exotic locale where I can cast off my work-soiled garments and rediscover earthly pleasures. I will spend my time eating, drinking and singing, sure in the knowledge that no one will judge me because I’ll be surrounded by members of my elite metropolitan tribe. I’m talking, of course, about Pride Park, home of Derby County FC, where I’ll be travelling to an away game on Friday with 1,000 fellow QPR fans.
This fixture clashes with a private party being thrown for my friend Barry Isaacson, once the most powerful British executive in Hollywood. Not so long ago I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. But as I’ve got older, hanging out with the beautiful people has lost much of its appeal, while watching QPR draw 0-0 against another Championship side on a rainy weekday evening has become strangely irresistible. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even if Boris Johnson invited me to a dinner party to celebrate the triggering of Article 50 with the rest of the Vote Leave team, and Dan Hannan promised to re-enact the St Crispin’s Day speech he gave on the night of the referendum, I would have to decline if it clashed with a QPR game.
There’s something particularly compelling about away fixtures. I can’t boast of going to every one (although I hope to when I retire) but I manage about half a dozen each season. As a general rule, the further afield they are, the more fun. That’s because fewer and fewer fans can be bothered to make the trip, so the ones you end up sitting next to are the most committed and passionate. There’s also something more tribal about the experience, probably because you’re completely outnumbered by hostiles. And when you lose, the gallows humour is something else. I remember pouring out of the Den after we’d lost 2-0 to Millwall, singing: ‘We’re the Rangers, the mighty Rangers, we never win away…’
Which isn’t strictly true. So far this year we’ve won twice on the road, but the fact that it’s such a rarity makes victory all the sweeter. When I look back on seasons past, I find it hard to recall the home wins, but the points we’ve picked up at away grounds are seared into my memory. Few things have made me happier this year than watching QPR beat Birmingham 4-1 at St Andrew’s. It’s not the goals I recall with such fondness, but the expression on the faces of my fellow supporters. A kind of gobsmacked delight, a gleeful celebration of the fact that, for once, they’re cheating the fates. It’s at moments like this that I feel sorry for Chelsea fans. If you’re used to winning every week, you never experience such ecstasy.
The best thing about these trips, though, is the fact that I’m always with my two sons, Charlie and Freddie. If anything, they enjoy away games even more than me. They’re young enough to still get a thrill from travelling anywhere by train and they like ticking off the different grounds and comparing them with Loftus Road. Above all, they love the fact that the travelling QPR fans are so incredibly foul-mouthed. They’re both under ten, so just hearing someone use the F-word is bliss, but to witness a red-faced fan unleash an expletive-laden rant at a linesman is very heaven.
I occasionally get disapproving looks from other travelling supporters, as if being among the likes of them is no place for kids. And it’s true, there are no family sections in away ends. Then again, the ‘Family Stand’ at Loftus Road, where the three of us have season tickets, is overlooked by ‘The Loft’, which is the sweariest section of the ground. Thanks to the proximity of these hardcore supporters, there isn’t a chant or taunt my sons don’t know. I remember Charlie, aged four, thrusting his finger at the away fans when QPR were playing Swansea, shouting: ‘Sheep-shaggers, sheep-shaggers, sheep-shaggers.’
But it’s precisely because there’s something illicit and risqué about the atmosphere at away games that Charlie and Freddie like them so much. For them, it’s like sneaking into an 18 at the cinema, although I should point out they’ve never done that. I expect these trips will be seared into their memories too and I hope they look back on them fondly long after I’m gone.
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