The fighting started just as Caroline turned right on to the Uxbridge Road after emerging from QPR’s stadium on Loftus Road. About 25 football fans began punching and kicking each other in the middle of the road, forcing the pedestrians on the crowded pavement to surge backwards to avoid being caught up in the mêlée. Caroline suddenly found herself pinned against a shop window along with two of our sons, barely able to move. I was still on Loftus Road with our third son, struggling to re-attach the wheel of his bicycle, which he’d left locked up outside the stadium. I glanced up when I heard the commotion and saw police running towards the Uxbridge Road, batons held aloft. ‘Oh God,’ I thought. ‘I hope Caroline’s not caught up in that.’
I’d been trying to persuade her to come to a QPR game for years, hoping she’d finally develop an interest in football, and naively thought our match against Millwall would be a good advertisement for the sport. After all, there’s nothing like a London derby to get the juices flowing. The Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium would likely be packed, and not just because Millwall are one of our closest rivals. It was our first game of the 2021-22 season and for the majority of fans it would be our first opportunity to go to a match since March 2020. I had a niggling worry that some would stay away for fear of catching Covid, but as we threaded our way along the Uxbridge Road at 2.45 p.m. those doubts disappeared. QPR fans were streaming toward the ground from all directions, like ants returning to a colony.
I had my first inkling that bringing Caroline to this game might not have been a great idea when we saw the police vehicles lined up outside the stadium. I know Millwall fans have a fearsome reputation, but this was ridiculous. I counted at least two dozen vans, hundreds of police constables and a team of mounted officers. I later learned that 2,500 Millwall fans had descended on Loftus Road and the police were clearly expecting trouble.
The charged atmosphere outside the stadium reminded me why I’d stopped going to see QPR at the Den, Millwall’s home in Bermondsey. The last time I went with my three sons, all the visiting fans were kept inside a barred metal enclosure for about 90 minutes after the game. The police’s reasoning was that even the most blood-crazed Millwall supporters wouldn’t wait an hour and a half to attack the away fans. We were packed in like pilchards and I was so worried that Charlie, then only nine, would get crushed underfoot that I hoisted him on to my shoulders. They’d beaten us 2-0 that day and it was a miserable end to a joyless afternoon.
One of Caroline’s reservations about English football is that she’s been persuaded by liberal commentators that it has a racism problem, but I assured her that wasn’t true — certainly not of QPR. ‘Honestly, I’ve never heard a racist chant in the 15 years I’ve been going,’ I told her. Imagine my horror, then, when, ten minutes into the game, the QPR supporters started the following chant, directed at the Millwall fans: ‘No noise from the pikey boys, no noise from the pikey boys…’
‘That’s a racial epithet, isn’t it?’ said Caroline.
‘I don’t think so, no.’
‘Yes it is. It’s a racist term for travellers and Romany people.’
‘But travellers and Romany people don’t come from a single racial group, so how can it be racist? Offensive, yes, but racist…’
She wasn’t impressed.
Fast-forward 90 minutes and her worst suspicions about football fans were confirmed. The arrival of the baton-wielding police officers didn’t stop the fighting, at least not at first, and Ludo, my 16-year-old, put a protective arm around his mother and tried to shield her with his back. There was a brief lull as the police and the visiting fans squared up to each other — ‘Come on, I’ll take the ’ole lot a ya,’ shouted one tattooed fire hydrant — and Caroline and the two boys made a dash for safety. By the time I got there, wheeling Freddie’s bicycle, order had been restored.
‘Honestly, darling, it isn’t always like that,’ I said, when we got home. ‘Our next home game is against Barnsley and that will be a much more sedate occasion.’
Somehow, I doubt Caroline will be coming to another game.