It is Sunday April 7th, the tail-end of the 2012/2013 season, and Queens Park Rangers – my team – are playing Wigan Athletic at our home ground, Loftus Road. I am 6 miles north-west, in Wembley; but, through the miracle of Sky Sports, and the greater miracle of my father keeping a considerate-if-bemused silence regarding how his son could possibly find this nonsense more engrossing than cricket, I am there.
I am there as I think about how unlikely it would be for Rangers to avoid relegation, being as we are second from bottom in the Premiership with very few games remaining. I am there as Bobby Zamora is infuriatingly and justifiably sent off in the twentieth minute, leaving QPR down to 10 men with almost three quarters of the game left to play. There, growing increasingly nervous before suddenly shouting “JESUS CHRIST!” in the eighty-fifth minute, as a Rangers counterattack culminates in Loïc Rémy side-footing it first time from some twenty yards out into the bottom right corner past a goalkeeper who is off his line and can only stand and watch and look and hope and then curse as his futile Latic prayers go unanswered. QPR are one-nil up.
Five minutes, plus injury time, remain. I get a sense not only that the goal must be – has to be – the winner, but also that victory might spark a run of results that will keep QPR in the Premiership next season. Even with a win here, the odds would be against this broadly lacklustre, undeserving Rangers side staying up; but the goal has transformed the crushingly improbable into the tantalisingly implausible and potentially incredible. With it, I feel the familiar foolish rush of almost-certainly-won’ts being transmuted into precarious crumbs of maybe-just-maybe-mights, a feeling bestowed that afternoon by whatever alchemical properties are contained within Loïc Rémy’s right boot.
I am there during the final minute of injury time, as Stéphane Mbia gives away a needless free kick on the edge of our box. Shaun Maloney steps up for Wigan to shoot over the defensive wall of players who stand halfway between him and the QPR goalmouth. He strikes, and the wall is rendered almost immediately useless as Rangers’ Adel Taarabt instinctively ducks and turns instead of blocking the ball by allowing it to strike him in the face. The shot goes over his cowered head and curls perfectly past the outstretched left hand of our ‘keeper, Júlio César.
The referee calls full time a few seconds later. It ends, one-all, and I feel as though I have been punched in the throat.
One point for the draw, not three for the win. Less than ten minutes after wondering whether Rémy’s goal would prove the decisive moment in QPR’s struggle to remain in the top flight, commentators are questioning if Maloney’s equaliser has made relegation all but a certainty. In his post-match interview, Rangers’ manager Harry Redknapp calls the Wigan goal “the cruelest last kick of the ball [he’s] been involved in since [he’s] been involved in football.” It’s certainly the cruelest last kick of the ball I’ve ever seen. But, then again, he’s been in the business a long, long time, and I have been following football for about 9 months.
I became a fan of Queens Park Rangers Football Club in August 2012, at the age of 21, making me something of a late bloomer. I was never particularly averse to watching football, and had made vague attempts actively to follow it at various points over the years; however, despite the occasional spurt of enthusiasm, my interest tended to wane as quickly as it had been piqued. How supporting a particular team could mean as much as it does, to as many people as it does, was something I saw as a quirk in others that I would never really understand. (This approximately resembles my views about belief in a personal and interventionist God; though, considering I was able to appreciate the sport without following a team, perhaps a truer analogy could be drawn with organised religion. Maybe that’s what I was when I would watch especially interesting fixtures without feeling any partisan affiliation: a believer, but one who doesn’t attend a church.)
This changed last August, when I was in a bar in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival with my friends Rhys, Mark, and Alfie. I am a stand-up comedian, as are they. We all initially became friends because of professional coincidence; we were in Edinburgh because of professional necessity; we were in a bar because of personal inevitability. The conversation moved toward football. Having little to add, I listened as my friends discussed the summer transfer window and hopes for the coming season from the perspective of their teams (Spurs for Rhys, Derby County for Mark, and Liverpool for Alfie,) and found myself unexpectedly envying them. They all have other enviable qualities – Rhys writes fantastic one-liners, Mark is a brilliantly quick improviser, and Alfie can create strangely beautiful odes to cum – but, in this instance, it was their enthusiasm for football that I envied.
At the time, I was acutely aware that, aside from work (which for many reasons was, and is, both enjoyable and lonely,) there wasn’t a great deal going on in my life. Not much to feel especially invested in. It’s a trite thing to say, but, however you feel about your job, you obviously need more. This need is perhaps more immediately noticeable if said job – whatever it may be – is a broadly solitary pursuit. Many frustrations are simply the inevitable character development of an internal monologue too-long uninterrupted.
In an Edinburgh bar, my friends were eagerly discussing something intrinsically communal. Something that involved shared passions, histories, emotions; something that seemingly afforded a reliable way of getting out of your own few cubic centimetres for a little while in order to engage with something larger. Something routine and yet outside of the everyday; something that could be known about and felt about; something that exercised the head and the heart and might possibly punctuate the quiet tyranny of indistinguishable afternoons. (Of course, there are things other than partisan appreciation of sport which offer curiously similar feelings, but the most obvious examples are either non-secular, quite threatening, or both.)
“Guys, I want a team. I think I should have a team. Who should my team be?”
I was born in Central Middlesex Hospital, just under three miles from Loftus Road. QPR it was.
Since that night, I’ve ended up watching, reading about, talking about, and thinking about football far more than I had previously imagined I ever would; and, while I have no idea when it really took hold, I have become genuinely invested in a club. There’s something slightly unnerving about feeling a sincere emotional connection emerge from a relationship initially created wholly, intentionally, even cynically, artificially. I suppose such connections develop whenever any conscious decision for how you want to live, or what you want to do, becomes slowly indistinguishable from who you see yourself as being. Will becomes habit becomes case. To take as an example something that is, admittedly, far more important to me than football: a long time ago, I chose to stop eating meat. It no longer feels like a choice: the more time that passes, the stranger it is to think it ever was one.
This season has, of course, been a fucking shocker for QPR. While a year ago that fact would have meant nothing to me, it’s become a source of recurring sadness, disappointment and frustration. You’re more aware of your own existence as an emotional being when inhabiting the peripheries of your range (and I think most aware of it during moments of shared elation.) It’s the peripheries that football offers, and it offers it to those who, as B. S. Johnson wrote, “need to experience a wildly fluctuating range of emotions within ninety minutes.” It offers the prospect of elation and the potential of devastation to thousands upon thousands of people at the same time, and it offers absolutely no certainty which of the two – if either – you will feel. You can only really hope.
We seek out heightened states of feeling; seek things to care about, things to invest in, outside of ourselves, greater than ourselves; things to engage us, things to distract us; things to consume and be consumed by. They get sewn into a patchwork quilt. One of the patches on mine now has a club crest. You’ve gotta have a hobby, I suppose. (But I assure you, it’s much, much more important than that.)