On 7th August 2010, Queens Park Rangers faced Barnsley in their opening game. I always find there is an unwritten tradition for the first game of the season: it must have a backdrop of spectacular weather.
On this occasion, it did not disappoint. The sun was shining. The air was warm. The grass’s green surface reflected beautifully. Loftus Road was not full, but the early season aspirations created a cheerfulness that resonated around the stadium.
QPR had been through a lot recently. It was not too long ago administration – or liquidation – threatened the club.
Now, they were owned by a luxurious consortium of Formula 1 titans Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and the lesser-known Alejandro Agag; Italian eccentric Gianni Paladini; and steel magnate Lakishma Mittal and his son-in-law Amit Bhatia.
In 2010, Mittal held the Sunday Times top spot for being the richest man on the planet for the sixth consecutive year. His wealth was estimated at £22.45 billion.
For an eleven-year-old, this was totally unbeknown. Little did I know that this would also become the moment that I finally became entrenched within football’s charm.
My family never hesitated to take me, and my older brother, to a game prior. Two years before I stood waiting for Adel Taarabt to lead the QPR team out of the tunnel, my parents and their friends travelled to Swindon away in the League Cup.
However, the only memories I have of the days before Barnsley are the stories my parents tell me on an occasional night. Growing up watching football was something I did sporadically. Whenever I did, it tended to be on the sofa rather than in the stands.
Consequently, the portrait of My First Game is not about my actual first game. That would be too difficult to describe when there are no memories to draw from. Instead, it is about the first game that made me connect to football and the spark to which lit an emotional attachment to last a lifetime.
The lesson I learnt quickly when I arrived at Shepherd’s Bush Market (one of the London tube stations for QPR matchdays) was the communal aspect of the sport. Me, my brother, my dad, my dad’s friend and his son travelled by train to ensure we arrived in the area by midday – a tradition which lives on today.
The walk to the local pub was not far, but it allowed me to digest the community QPR are based in. Places to eat topped my list.
Walking down Uxbridge Road introduced me to one of the sacred conventions that have underpinned my eleven years of attending matches: experiencing the gathering buzz and social time at a football pub.
When lockdown began and the stadiums closed, match attendance was not just missed. The pre-match discussions and atmosphere always provided a foundation to the day. Even a chat with the familiar bartenders contributed.
But that whole process would need to wait. As the time ticked towards 3pm, we all made our way to Loftus Road along Uxbridge Road. To what seemed like to a young boy, a sea of blue and white flowed down the street, until it was diverted into the channels towards the stadium.
The pools of people roared as they entered Ellerslie Road and washed around towards the Lower Loft. The latter’s entrance was our stop. The concourse is entirely comparable to what it was eleven years ago, except for the timeline painted on the metal wall opposite the entrance gates and the Blue and White bar’s doors.
I trod up the steps, turned right to our block and exhaled as I digested the scene that was set. Even then I fully did not understand the fuss about football. I enjoyed playing the sport at school and in the early morning on the weekend, but that was just a game. It was no different to Monopoly or a video game, right?
Soon, the announcer’s voice rang around the stadium, the players walked out, and Papa’s got a brand new Pigbag by Pigbag came out of the stadium speakers. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but butterflies kicked in and my muscles shivered. My future was about to change forever.
Then came Neil Warnock out of the tunnel. As one could expect, I had little idea about his calibre of manager. The ownership wanted promotion and he was the man to get them it.
Nevertheless, even for Warnock’s standards, QPR was a tough task. Briatore and Paladini were loose cannons. Ecclestone tended to be elsewhere, as was Mittal. This left only Bhatia to be the stabilising and cool figure in the boardroom.
In previous years, Briatore was the main man and caused chaos. The Italian went through seven managers in two years, including current Poland manager Paulo Sousa, Ian Dowie and Jim Magilton. Warnock’s predecessor, Paul Hart, lasted 29 days.
Fans protested against the ownership, or Briatore specifically, often. Towards the fourth year of F1 ownership, there was little surprise when Bhatia became more involved and a central figure in the club’s dealings.
To get the job done, Warnock recruited players who he knew from previous clubs. Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, defender Clint Hill and midfield combatant Shaun Derry formed a defensive core. Joining them in their defensive duties was new signing Bradley Orr, Latvian Kasper Gorkss and Fitz Hall.
The majority of the attacking prowess was handed to Taarabt. After a loan spell the previous season, Warnock signed the Moroccan permanently and gave the 21-year-old skill star the armband.
Any fan or pundit would be bespectacled by the decision. Not too long ago Taarabt waved his hand in disgust to the Loft as frustrated fans criticised the player for his attitude and failed explosive skills. In any case, his overall persona did not give off good vibes.
Within reason, people were rightfully concerned about what game Warnock was playing. A young Taarabt was not a leader by any stretch.
It turned out the experienced manager was playing 4-D chess.
During pre-season, Warnock called in his expected candidates for the captaincy. Kenny, Hill and Derry were there. He broke the news that Taarabt would be leading the side. Unsurprisingly, they were all flabbergasted.
But Warnock’s intentions were smart. He knew Taarabt was the only player capable of sending QPR to the Premier League and he needed to appease his ego.
Instead, those players – alongside the other experienced players like Hall and Tommy Smith – were unofficial joint captains of the team. While Taarabt did his thing, they would do theirs.
In addition, Warnock set the 21-year-old a specific rule: do not come past the halfway line. The manager did not the attacker to defend. He was not needed and unpredictable if he got the ball on the edge of the box. Taarabt was naturally best suited focusing on how to break down the opponent.
The best part of the story? It worked.
Not only did Taarabt toy with Barnsley, but he set a level that was unprecedented in the Championship. He was the chief operator. A dancer. A street-player. A maverick.
Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin always looked to give his teammate the ball. As long as he had the ball, something special could be fashioned.
Forty minutes into the first half and Barnsley were already sick of the Moroccan twisting and turning. Stephen Foster bundled Taarabt over in the penalty area and Heider Helguson put Warnock’s side one goal to the good.
Early into the second half, Jamie Mackie got on the scoresheet. An hour into the game, Helguson was fouled and another penalty was awarded. This time Taarabt was not missing out and blasted the ball into the goal in front of the Lower Loft. On the 80 minute mark, Hall made the score 4-0.
What made the game special was not that Rangers won, but how they won. The nature of the match, and then what came after, lives long in my memory. The leadership. The style. The pleasure. The joy.
It is a cliché to come out with a quote along the lines of football is an art performed by artists, or football is happiness.
But to a dad who was trying to pass on his QPR heritage, and to an 11-year-old who was not yet wholly part of the football community, my first memorable game opened my mind to these trivial sayings. I witnessed in the terraces alongside 13,000 other fans.
More than a decade later, I would not have it any other way.