Normal families spend the Easter holidays by the seaside or in the Mediterranean. But not the Youngs. My three boys and I took advantage of the two-week break to criss-cross the country following Queens Park Rangers, going to Sheffield, Preston and Huddersfield. We lost 1-0 to Sheffield and 2-1 to Preston, but managed to draw 2-2 with Huddersfield, which made it a good day out by QPR’s recent standards.
I’ve always enjoyed going to the occasional away game, but this season my sons and I have tried to go to as many as possible to compensate for the closure of football grounds during the pandemic. Our original plan was to go to every single fixture, but that hasn’t been possible for a number of reasons, such as having to accompany my daughter to Mexico in February to help her find a job and a flat. That meant missing a trip to Barnsley on 12 February, where QPR lost 1-0. But we’ve been to 19 away games so far, as well as every home match.
A typical QPR away day starts with a mad dash to Euston or King’s Cross, often hampered by delays or cancellations. For instance, the London Overground train we needed to get from Willesden Junction to Euston to catch our train to Blackburn in time for kick off on 26 February was cancelled, forcing us to abandon the railway network. We managed to get to Euston in an Uber with seconds to spare, but the connecting train to take us from Preston to Blackburn was then delayed, forcing us to get another cab to the ground. That added to the already eye-watering expense – and to cap it all we lost 1-0.
Reading this, you probably think QPR never win away – and, indeed, the away fans have a chant they sing to the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’: ‘We’re the Rangers, the mighty Rangers, we never win away… a win away, a win away, a win away, a win away…’ Witnessing moments of self-deprecating humour like this among the long-suffering QPR faithful is one of the things that makes following the club on the road such fun – although it’s a lot more fun when you actually win, obviously.
For the first half of this season that’s exactly what we did. Club records were toppled every week as we chalked up victory after victory. Fair-weather fans started coming to away games in droves, expecting to see another win – 4,000 showed up at Coventry Building Society Arena on 22 January to watch us beat the Sky Blues 1-2.
By the end of that month we were fourth in the table, and I congratulated myself on having picked QPR’s most successful season in years to become such a devoted fan. Carry on like this, I thought, and we were guaranteed to make the play-offs at the end of the season. That’s a contest between the teams that finish in third, fourth, fifth and sixth, culminating in the play-off final at Wembley, known as the most valuable game in football because the winner gets promoted to the Premier League, which is worth at least £170 million. Everyone agreed that our manager, Mark Warburton, was doing a fantastic job.
But since the beginning of February, QPR has suffered a dramatic collapse in form, losing more games than any other team in the Championship. Among the travelling supporters, this is the only topic of conversation. Is it due to a string of injuries that have resulted in, among other things, Warburton having to field five different goalkeepers this season? Have other teams ‘sussed us out’, i.e. studied Warburton’s tactics and worked out how to beat us? Or is there something going on behind the scenes which we don’t know about? Speculation has centred on several tweets posted by disgruntled players that have been quickly deleted.
The depressing thing about this reversal of fortune is that Warburton really is our best manager in years. At the end of his first season in charge, in which we finished 13th, he sold all our best players, halved the wage bill and still managed to finish the next season in ninth place. This is his third term at the helm and, until February, he looked like the Championship’s golden boy. Now, if he doesn’t improve on that ninth-place finish, it looks like he’ll be gone by the summer. All football clubs have a terrible habit of throwing their managers under a bus the moment they hit a losing streak, and QPR is no exception.
But there is a smidgen of hope. We beat Derby on Saturday and if we can go on to win the last three games of the season we might still get into the play-offs. It’s tragic, but there’s nothing in my life I care about more.