Last Saturday afternoon was spent at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, watching Reading play Queens Park Rangers. I drove there with mixed loyalties.
As a young lad growing up in Berkshire, I would make the pilgrimage on a Saturday to Elm Park Road – their old ground - to watch Reading play at home. Known then as the Biscuitmen, because of the Huntley and Palmer’s factory in the town, they never achieved the ambitions I harboured for them. They were subjected to cruel jokes by my friends who supported glamorous clubs like Arsenal and Spurs. They would ask me if it was true that, so small was the home crowd, the announcer read out the names of the spectators as well as the players. And was it the case that the Reading goalkeeper was so short-sighted that he couldn’t even find the ball at the back of the net?
Later, as the MP for Acton in West London, I shared my commitment to Reading with a commitment to Queens Park Rangers. This was not as difficult as it sounds. They were in different leagues, and both sides had white and blue colours. Both were known as the Hoops and the cry from both terraces was “Come On You R’s”. I bought four season tickets for myself and my two sons, who could then invite whichever schoolfriend they wanted to curry favour with. I started taking them at an early age – one son surprised his mother on return by singing a chant he had picked up from the terraces at Loftus Road - “The ref’s a w*nker”. Queens Park Rangers got to Wembley one year and lost, and then sank down the league. At one home game where they were playing appallingly, a dog strayed onto the pitch. The game was momentarily halted. “Leave the dog on” shouted my neighbour, “Take Masson off.”
The game last Saturday was a draw, with QPR thankful to get an away point, having sacked their manager the day before.
I played my last game of football a few years ago for the parliamentary team. We went to Bisham Abbey, where the England team trained, to play a team of Swiss Parliamentarians. We were hoping to get revenge for the Annual Ski Race at Davos which the Swiss Parliamentarians understandably won every year.
We played this match after a bitter row in the Commons, when the Labour Government were accused of breaking a pair – the equivalent of pocketing your opponent’s ball at golf. Relations had broken down and, if MP’s had ambassadors, they would have been recalled. We took to the pitch barely on speaking terms with each other and perhaps took our row to extremes. The Conservatives would only pass to other Conservatives, and the Labour MP’s would only pass to other comrades. By half-time we were severely behind. After sucking an orange, we agreed to call a truce and went on to win.