A chair was hurled against the window, which quivered on impact. The line of policeman stood outside The Green did not see fit to enter the pub and merely held formation, censureless.
Certain fans of Plymouth Argyle Football Club had chosen to drink there on account of the name The Green reflecting the colour of the shirts that Plymouth Argyle play in. The Green had been invaded by The Green Army. We drank our pints swiftly, for although we too were supporters of Plymouth Argyle, the launching of furniture towards plate glass fenestrations was not something that particularly interested us. Moreover, the group of people from whence the chair had emanated were surely capable of lobbing chairs in other directions too. In spite of our shared desire to see Plymouth Argyle defeat Queens Park Rangers, the sort of mind that sees fit to toss around furnishings in confined spaces does not tend to discriminate.
Loftus Road in Shepherd’s Bush is a favourite stadium of mine. Unfortunately, the locality has rather a harsh reputation. The gloomy West 12 shopping precinct might have something to do with it, and the West Cross Route is grimmer still. Embedded betwixt Hammersmith, Acton, White City, Notting Hill and Kensington, Shepherd’s Bush can feel squeezed. Shepherd’s Bush Green itself, at its centre, is airy and arboreal, and much of the surrounding housing dates back to the late 19th century – Victorian terraces mainly, which is no bad thing. Still, the environment at Loftus Road is a physical hindrance, prohibiting expansion and limiting development.
Practically speaking, Loftus Road reached its extremity when QPR concurrently rebuilt the School End and Loftus Road stands in 1980 and ’81 respectively. Loftus Road backs onto terraced housing, whilst the School End overlooks a school – Jack Tizard School precisely. Built in 1972, the Ellerslie Road Stand, on Ellerslie Road, is encumbered with similarly residential concerns. Finally, The South Africa Road Stand (1968/69) is hampered by both its namesake and the four storey structure that has been tacked on its rear, as functional in its appearance as its purpose dictates: office space.
The overall impression is of rectangular cuboids and of the colour blue. The ground is almost as straightforward as this crude reduction suggests. The South Africa Road Stand is its centre piece, a tidy two-tiered structure with a single row of executive boxes in between and an outward appearance that belies its age. It is of ‘post and beam’ construction, but the posts – one at each end and two equidistantly between – are relatively unobtrusive. The Ellerslie Road Stand opposite is similarly supported but offers just one tier. It is the least remarkable stand of the four but by no means unattractive. The School End and Loftus Road are virtually identical and also the most interesting. They comprise of two tightly packed overhung tiers almost running the width of the entire ground. Their roofs converge with those of the South Africa and Ellerslie Road stands, not seamlessly but coherently enough to present the stadium as a single entity. That the fasciae are all painted the same shade of blue augments this impression. The stadium is completely enclosed, and the boundary between the stands and the pitch is contiguous. Incidental features include a video screen mounted above the School End, a television gantry suspended below the roof of the Ellerslie Road Stand, and four elegantly slim floodlight pylons emanating from behind the School and Loftus Road ends.
Problem: a limited capacity of 18,439. For the last forty odd years Queens Park Rangers have oscillated consistently between the top two strata of the English football league. Currently competing in the second, they’re averaging an attendance of between 14 and 15,000. If they were to be promoted this capacity would be found wanting. It is reasonable, then, that QPR are examining the possibility of relocating to Old Oak Common with the intention of building a new ground with room enough for 40,000 fans. This sort of thing takes time. Should QPR face relegation, rather than promotion, these plans will more than likely be shelved. In such an event, their fans can console themselves with their continued residency at Loftus Road.
Pilgrim Pete at Loftus Road
The football hooligan is afflicted with what could be described as ‘combat envy’ – a sort of collective guilt for having not fought in the Second World War. Aware of the horrors that became his ancestors, the hooligan wishes to atone in some way, but not to the extent that he’ll join the actual army and put himself in any substantive danger. The sacrificial element of partaking in combat does not interest him. He considers only his reputation: that people might think he somehow isn’t up to the job of his forebears, that he’s not ‘hard’ enough.
However, the thug does not aspire towards meting out random acts of violence upon disinterested parties. Instead, the mob – or ‘firm’ in football parlance – will simultaneously seek out pitched battles with complicit rival factions whilst also engaging the local constabulary with impertinent acts of antagonism. Indeed, if the police presence is significant enough, or sufficiently equipped, the respective firms may enter into coalition and direct their aggression solely towards the state apparatus. In this sense, the thug supporter sees himself more as some sort of fifth columnist. The role being played is not one of an occupying force – even when brawling at home – but of insurgent, guerrilla, or terrorist.
One should appreciate that the British police officer is not a gendarme: his or her role is primarily that of keeper of the peace. This plays perfectly into the deranged fantasy of the yob. As tensions rise, it can be imagined that the uniformed police are in fact infantry – a modern day Wehrmacht – whereas the firm is some sort of people’s army fighting against the odds, in civvies (but completely free from the threat of long term incarceration – or ‘disappearing’). If in Britain there existed something approximating Italy’s Carabinieri, these naive re-enactments would take on a much darker and improbable dimension. When the Metropolitan Police (or Waffen-SS for the sake of the metaphor) are involved, they sometimes do. Yet this is no incitement to riot but merely an opportunity for the deconstructed idiot to exhibit in front of his mates, cosy up to a horse and protest innocence when the mounted police officer tells him in no uncertain terms to back off. Then, as the fans are marshalled to the ground as a collective, the mob will sing about how they’ll never capitulate to the IRA – official, provisional, continuity, or otherwise.
Kenilworth Road is as confined as Loftus Road, but with added eccentricities. Comprised of five separate stands, the shape delineated is actually of an irregular hexagon. The A505 (Hatters Way) and the Luton to Dunstable Busway interrupts the Main Stand at an acute angle, and the crooked David Preece Stand fills in the gap awkwardly. It has the appearance of a diminutive two-tiered structure that’s been bent in the middle and had the lower tier removed (to provide access). It holds 711 spectators.
The Bobbers Stand is odder still, comprised of what passes for executive boxes. Whose idea was this? It was never a very big stand on account of the housing behind, although it used to accommodate 1,539 seated supporters. I have not been able to find out how many it seats now but it can’t be much more than a few hundred.
The Oak Road Stand (capacity 1,800) and the strangeness doesn’t let up. Its roof, pitched, is comprised of three staggered sections that rise in height to meet the Main Stand to its right. The entrance occupies what at one point must have been the ground floors of two neighbouring terraced houses, yet the top floors, and the front doors leading to them, remain intact. Once the fan has passed under these tenements they must climb a set of stairs that offer an intimate view of the terraced gardens either side. (Loftus Road’s surroundings appear boundless by comparison.)
Then there’s the Main Stand, which isn’t without eccentricity either. It appears at first glance fairly cohesive, but not only does it have to put up with the David Preece Stand’s clumsy incursion on its territory, three floodlight pylons blight the lower terrace. These aren’t the spindly stanchions incorporated so successfully at Loftus Road but more substantial latticed steel affairs. The club’s offices and utilities and the Nick Owen and Eric Morecambe suites are built on the back.
Finally, there’s the Kenilworth Stand, which has a flat roof, 3,229 seats, no significant visual encumbrances and room enough for a carpark out the front.
The stadiums of early antiquity were nothing more than acclivities with the ground levelled before them. These grassy verges were later fashioned into actual terraces, but they were still built upon naturally sloping land – there was no exterior to speak of. Practically speaking, it was the Romans who built the first freestanding amphitheatres, radically changing how such structures presented themselves. From possessing just one functional aspect, the stadium now possessed three: the façade, the interior, and the cavea.
This multi-dimensional perspective does not normally apply. Where form follows function, a building’s relationship with itself is more usually binary, symbiotic. Its innards cater to its functionality – a place to sleep, eat, work, etc. – and the external walls are present by default, to bear the roof and to demarcate the territory. The same cannot be said of the stadium, where the inside is outside too because what goes on inside is taking place outside. Its exterior then is continuous: it can be interpreted as both its inward and outward appearance. In its rawest form, what might be referred to as the stadium’s walls are in fact the underside of the cavea: they are not designed to protect this exposed internality but to physically uphold it. (Where an actual interior is present it is subservient to the building as a whole, providing toilets, ticket offices, changing rooms and other extraneous utilities. In this respect, the stadium is comparable to the railway station.)
Unlike those early auditoriums of antiquity (or even some of the Soviet ‘superbowls’ that were dug into the earth after the Second World War: Warsaw’s 10th-Anniversary Stadium; the Kirov Stadium in St Petersburg) Loftus and Kenilworth Road are freestanding structures. Except, so hemmed in are they, if you tore their floodlights down you might struggle to find them. There are no boulevards, concourses, squares, parks, or any other types of open space from which to view these buildings as independent structures. But where one can ascertain an external presence at QPR – if you look for it – it’s a real struggle at Luton. From Ivy, Beech and Clifton roads, one encounters fragments of breeze blocked walls and corrugated steel, random brickwork and wooden doors, peeling paint and corroded air-conditioning units. For all the onlooker knows, they’ve come up against something like an industrial estate or the back-end of a bingo hall.
I do not mean to disparage Kenilworth Road. A football ground can live with a shabby exterior, the atmosphere within unaffected; who is to say that a stadium’s aesthetic appeal rests upon the ability to perceive it from a variety of angles. I suppose the problem for many of these smaller grounds is the uncertain choices that their clubs face: to move on, redevelop, or settle for what they’ve got. And if move on, then where to?