Just before Christmas, Queens Park Rangers announced ambitious plans to move into a new stadium by the start of the 2018-19 season, signalling the arrival of an off-field component to Tony Fernandes’ much debated generosity to the club.
Partners include the company Stadium Capital Developments and the plan is to acquire land holdings in conjunction with Network Rail and the Genesis Housing Group, the arena part of the much vaunted redevelopment of the Old Oak Common neighbourhood of west London.
That development is a hub for the government’s plans for High Speed Rail 2, the pros and cons of which we discussed last month – the result will be a rebuild that will best Canary Wharf for size while three local authorities have been kept abreast of the plans – Ealing, Brent and Hammersmith & Fulham.
Earlier this week, Law firm Macfarlanes came on board in an advisory capacity, while the tousled features of Boris Johnson have also been prominent in boosting the overall scheme.
An initial assessment of the prospects might be gloomy, albeit partially fuelled by jealousy from fans of other clubs whose financial endowment is less lovely.
At a 40,000 capacity, the mooted New Queens Park Stadium would be only 2,000 shy of Stamford Bridge and not even the most jaundiced of Rangers’ supporters would place QPR on the same plane as their rivals especially given Loftus Road’s current house room of 18,439 and season high gate of 18,171 for the visit of ex-coach Steve McClaren’s Derby County in November. Indeed, only 15,807 made the trip to the Bush for the visit of Doncaster Rovers on New Year’s Day.
Nor is the area around the stadium necessarily core territory for the club – London support tends to be patchwork and it’s arguable that Rangers draw much of their core constituency from distant Hillingdon and other outer boroughs – an area once suggested for a new home. The immediate vicinity of Loftus Road is QPR through and through but Chelsea fans are legion as they are in most places unfortunately.
Then there will be the slow development of the HS2 project itself – a glacial undertaking that won’t see services run until 2026 at the earliest – indeed, that’s if they even happen at all – The Economist’s excellent The World in 2014 overview stuck its neck out to the extent of predicting that HS2 will be scrapped.
However, these question marks can largely be neatly rebuffed while there are a score of other benefits that lead one to provide the project with a tentative thumbs-up.
For the construction of a shiny new home can revolutionise crowds at previously unheralded clubs and if Rangers don’t quite fill Loftus Road most of the time, they would be likely to do so more often than not a level up – and given the extraordinary investment in the playing staff, that’s pretty damn likely to be next season.
We’ve seen at Bolton, Reading and Hull the impact of (to paraphrase) Kevin Costner’s ‘If I build it, they will come’ strategy even if the risk of financial over reaching can provide an unappetising accompaniment and a well marketed arena close to a host of appealing west London amenities should prove attractive.
QPR should also be able to secure market share from their disliked neighbours – this excellent piece from Sam Wallace commented admiringly on New Queens Park and asked whether Chelsea have missed a trick in developing similar, albeit much larger plans.
The corner of the capital in which the stadium will be located has been on the up for a while – the mammoth Westfield shopping centre has been up and running for a while now, there is a great degree of wealth surrounding the low income housing estates of White City while the promise is 50,000 new jobs and 24,000 homes.
Then there is the cachet of a neighbourhood popularised in song by the likes of The Clash and Blur, the success of the Notting Hill Carnival, excellent middle-eastern restaurants aplenty and a closeness to another new train route – the much delayed Crossrail.
Indeed, Fernandes is to be congratulated for eschewing the out of town model which is starting to look pretty hackneyed these days. Perhaps the most appealing thing about the whole project is the closeness of the arena to the club’s roots, Rangers having turned out at two nearby grounds, the 40,000 capacity Horse Ring in Park Royal and the 60,000 park Royal Ground which they moved to in 1915.
The former was replaced by a Guinness brewery, a company that was to sponsor the club in the latter years of the twentieth century. Fernandes has shown a keen awareness of history and the way football culture is moving in looking to locate his club within the texture of city streets. In short, West London is trendy and if the description of QPR as a ‘boutique’ club is laughable, they do have a certain style that goes all the way back to Gerry Francis, Stan Bowles and Tony Currie.
So it’s an overwhelmingly exciting prospect although one or two pitfalls lie in wait and need to be avoided.
Aside from the obvious possibility of Fernandes pulling the plug, many such developments can be alarmingly uniform these days and the claim that this will be a new vibrant ‘entertainment quarter’ will make those who remember Ken Bates’ Chelsea Village shudder. Let’s also hope that the likes of Frankie & Benny’s and Nando’s don’t dominate the concessions – west London deserves better.
Nor is the prospect of a 350 room luxury hotel likely to be of particular benefit to the community while we shall watch with interest to see if those new homes turn out to be for invading yuppies with existing folks forced out to Hayes and elsewhere – the statements behind the Old Oak Common project indicate that the new housing will be ‘affordable’ – we shall see about that, especially given adviser Lord Deighton’s claim that ‘ regeneration only happens when the public and private sector’ work together.
Also, while some fans have hoped for an easier time of it parking on match day, Rangers really should ignore this and follow the Arsenal model, obliging supporters to take public transport.
Let’s put aside any cynicism for now however and give New Queens Park the benefit of the doubt – for to grow as a club, QPR certainly need more capacious surroundings than Loftus Road can currently provide, characterful though it is.