This article is part of our Neutral's Guide series. You can read previous entries here.
Nickname: The Hoops, The Rs
Concise Summary: No-frills club in Shepherd's Bush which is low on grandeur and high on authenticity.
Famous fans: Bill Bailey, Nick Cave and Pete Doherty, who used to edit a QPR fanzine called 'All Quiet on the Western Avenue'.
When walking towards Loftus Road from the tarmacked environs of White City station, it's easy not to notice the ground until you're practically at the entrance. In stark contrast to many of the modern stadiums which other London clubs now occupy, QPR's home for the last century is inconspicuous and unobtrusive, squatting low like a concrete golem swathed in a deep blue sheet-metal shell. Far from dominating the local skyline or towering over its immediate surroundings, Loftus Road is hidden away amongst sprawling estates and brown-brick flatblocks, fringed by terraced housing and hemmed in by busy highways. Not far from the Westway flyover, the air on the streets which lead to the ground often smells vaguely of car fumes on a warm day.
QPR fans would be the first to admit that Loftus Road is not the most attractive ground in West London. Were it not bestowed with the newly redesigned QPR logo – a stylish calligraphic motif, which most agree is an improvement on its overbusy predecessor – the side of the stadium which faces out onto South Africa Road could well be mistaken for seventies office space. Fans are not drawn to Loftus Road for its aesthetics, though the confined spaces and close-packed stands within are crucial to its often clamorous atmosphere. That said, even the functionality of the ground is questioned at times, with opposition fans known to quip that wherever one sits at Loftus Road is a restricted view.
As well as the pillars which, like an optical illusion, seem to shimmer and shapeshift to obstruct the eyeline, the seats at the ground are so cramped that many end up sitting sidesaddle. This often bestows spectators – especially the uninitiated – with the appearance of demure Victorian ladies bestraddling Loftus Road like some sort of giant, unbiddable horse. There are many QPR fans who couldn't care less about these practical foibles, and some who have doubtlessly come to love them as a definitive part of their matchday experience. Nonetheless, the issues with the ground are one of several reasons that the club hierarchy are seeking to move to a new home, with latest reports suggesting they could relocate to the site of the Linford Christie athletics stadium just over a mile away.
There are several other considerations when it comes to QPR's long-term future, not least increasing their ground capacity, modernising their infrastructure, improving their facilities and revenue and so on. While moving stadium is often a controversial and contentious process, the club's commitment to remaining in the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham seems to have largely kept supporters onside. There will, of course, be many questions about how best to safeguard the club's identity and culture, with the idea of some modern megalith of a stadium surely still a source of considerable unease. Looking across the capital to West Ham's travails at the London Stadium, QPR fans will no doubt want to be better consulted on the details of the move, whenever it arrives.
QPR are, in some ways, a bit of a throwback, and it will be hard to conserve their sense of traditionalism at their new ground. Football clubs cannot be preserved in aspic, of course, but Loftus Road is steeped to its core in the essence of the past. The local supporters' pub, The Queens Tavern, shows footage of vintage QPR games on a projector, with images of Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles, Ian Gillard and the like flitting across the wall as fans drink their pints. While it's hard to draw solid conclusions from the mere evidence of one's eyes on matchday, the average age of the support seems higher than many other clubs in the capital.
The club also feels inherently connected to a London which is rapidly receding in sepia, with the post-war estates and working-class neighbourhoods around Loftus Road reflected in the fans. This sets them apart from the other West London clubs, with Fulham considerably more genteel and Chelsea increasingly corporatised. While Brentford are perhaps most similar to QPR in this regard – it's no coincidence that the two fanbases seem generally cordial with each other – there is something about the spirit of White City and Shepherd's Bush which makes QPR distinctive. There's a bohemian streak amongst Rs fans, though they retain that characteristic unaffectedness which goes hand in hand with London's less fashionable teams.
Like the other clubs which are forced to search out the sun in the shadow of behemoths like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, QPR must consider how to bring in their next generation of supporters. As one corner of West London's footballing quadrangle, their catchment zone is far smaller than some of their East and South London counterparts, making the task at hand even more difficult. The arrival of new fans will naturally be dependent on the success of any stadium move, but may also require more by way of quality and consistency on the pitch. Though the Rs have graced the Premier League twice since 2011, they have also suffered two dreary relegations. They are currently languishing in the lower half of the Championship, after a tough and transitory campaign under first Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and then club veteran Ian Holloway.
Then again, supporting QPR is not all about reflected glory. While the club have had some golden eras – their seventies heyday saw them finish as runners up in the old First Division, while they were regulars in the top flight in the eighties and early nineties – they have also spent prolonged spells drudging away in the Championship, which perversely have provided many fans with some of their fondest memories of the team. QPR were habitual underdogs until the arrival of Tony Fernandes in 2011, with the multimillionaire airline magnate swelling the wage bill and bringing in a spate of expensive transfers to a club which, throughout its history, has traditionally flirted with financial insecurity. Fernandes' spending spree produced mixed results at best under the management of Mark Hughes and Harry Redknapp, and made QPR seem like yet another monied tourist destination populated by overpaid journeymen and mercenaries, somewhat discombobulating a club which had previously prided itself on old-fashioned graft.
Now, though, with attempts being made to revive the traditional ethos of the club and stabilise matters off the pitch, things seem tentatively more secure at Loftus Road. That's certainly the impression we get from talking to fans ahead of QPR's match against Brighton in early April, though it's perhaps typical of the Rs that they have gone on a markedly poor run since. Nonetheless, the club hierarchy appears to have moved away from a policy of massive overspending on the squad, and towards an approach based on bringing academy graduates into the team and developing the club's facilities and infrastructure. It seems like a relatively prudent strategy, and also harks back to old QPR sides – take the mid-noughties vintage of Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook and Kevin Gallen, for instance – which have historically been furnished with a core of West London lads.
Speaking to Jack Harry, a longstanding QPR fan who moonlights as a creator of great content, there is a feeling of long-term optimism returning, even if the immediate present is still a cause for gallows humour. "Confused, I'd say, a lot of the time," Jack says when asked to describe the culture of the club in recent years. "It's getting back to where it should be. Obviously, QPR went from being a team that a lot of people didn't know much about, to then being the butt of every football-related joke on the internet in a very short space of time [early on in Fernandes' tenure]. It's now getting back to being a smaller club that develops players and then sells them on, rather than a place where people come to finish their careers. It's still a journey that we're trying to complete, but things are looking a lot better, and it's a better time to associate yourself with the club than, say, two or three years ago."
"We're one of the only clubs to get a multimillionaire take over and then become worse, pretty much," Jack adds. "Now we're trying to get back to that culture that we had before the money, and it's proven difficult getting rid of certain players and certain attitudes. But, slowly but surely – we've got Les Ferdinand in as Director of Football and he's doing good things – they have trimmed the wage bill a lot. We've got Lee Hoos, who's our CEO and who used to be at Burnley, and obviously they're a very well run club. So things are slowly changing, touch wood."
There seems to be a certain embarrassment about the brief experiment with spending big money, with QPR's two recent stints in the Premier League seeing players like Jose Bosingwa, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Esteban Granero and Chris Samba float listlessly through the club, amongst others. The squandered outlay on those players leaves some fans wincing with discomfort to this day. "When the money came in, it went from being that people hadn't heard of us... to our wage bill being bigger than Bayern Munich's, or whatever that meme was that was going around," Jack says. Predictably that expenditure was the source of much mockery, especially the first time the Rs were relegated. Nonetheless, Jack still thinks that when it comes to QPR "people have a grudging respect for you supporting a less glamorous team, and it makes the good moments a lot sweeter when they come around."
In what seems like broad agreement with Jack on the state of the club is Julius Flusfeder, another longtime QPR devotee. "We've distanced ourselves from that QPR-under-Redknapp era, from overspending on washed-up players and [spending] too much on agents and wages we couldn't sustain," he says. "Now Les Ferdinand is the Director of Football, and under him and Lee Hoos we are changing a lot. Things are far more sustainable, wages are way down, and I think it's a lot more of a likeable QPR compared to a few years ago, when [the club] were sort of vilified for having a wage budget higher than Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid."
Asked whether the amount of money QPR spent at the time bothered him at all, Julius says: "A little bit, yeah. That's not what attracted me to QPR when I was younger, we're an underdog club, and I didn't like the idea of signing these washed-up players." Once again, however, Julius seems to feel a cautious sense of optimism about the direction of the club at the moment. As long as they see out this season and avoid some fresh disaster – relegation is still a mathematical possibility – there is genuine hope that the Rs can be both successful on the pitch and truer to their heritage.
If there is a reason to follow QPR's fortunes, then, it is to see how a historic club fares in an uncertain future. While there is hope amongst fans that the club hierarchy have learned from some of the mistakes of the past, everything from the team to the stadium is still essentially up in the air. There is something traditional about QPR, but there is also something chaotic and unpredictable, and it is that strange contrast which makes the club what it is. This is perhaps best summed up by one overseas fan visiting from Connecticut, who we coincidentally bump into outside The Queens Tavern. Looking a little out of place on the streets of White City, he tells us that he – the eponymous neutral – got into QPR because he loves them for their imperfections. "Every time I watched them they lost," he says of his first few run-ins with the club. "It's been a bit of a rollercoaster." No doubt it will continue to be.