Post by Bushman on Feb 2, 2015 19:47:21 GMT
The House That Jim Built
In the days when he would regularly clamber over the fence to escape from Latimer Road School in order to watch his favourite players, in particular goalkeeper Reg Allen and the prolific Tommy Cheetham, at nearby Loftus Road, Jim Gregory couldn’t have possibly conceived that one day he would own Queens Park Rangers FC. Undaunted by his inability to read or write on leaving school at the age of 14, Gregory honed his trading skills by running his father’s fish stall while he was away fighting in the war. On his father’s safe return, Gregory, empowered by his larger than life personality, launched into buying and selling anything and everything before forging a second-hand car business on a Hammersmith bombsite which, through his single-minded determination, quickly flourished into “Gregory’s Motordome” as he devoured the local market. He was so successful that he was able to retire as a multi-millionaire at the ridiculously young age of 37.
After both Fulham and Watford had both foolishly rejected his advances, the opportunity he craved opened up on the QPR board due to the impending retirement of Albert Hittinger. James Arthur Gregory joined the QPR board in November 1964 before taking over as Chairman just a few months later in March 1965. Gregory’s vision for QPR not only involved financially backing manager Alec Stock’s development of the team, but also transforming Loftus Road into a modern stadium.
A quick glance around Loftus Road as it was in 1965 reveals the scale of that undertaking. Apart from a couple of brief sojourns at White City, QPR had played at Loftus Road since 1917 when their previous ground, Park Royal, had been commandeered by the army. Rather bizarrely they had returned to Park Royal a couple of years later to lay claim to the main stand which was then re-erected on the Ellerslie Road side of Loftus Road, its wooden benches offered the only covered seating in the ground, it also housed the changing rooms.
The “Bobites” congregated beneath the only other shelter at the ground, their nickname derived from the shilling it cost to gain entry to the covered terrace at the Loftus Road end which had been in situ since 1938. Aided by a generous donation of £1,500 from the Supporters Club, QPR had commissioned the stand from Framed Structures Ltd for £7,000. It was opened before the match against Crystal Palace on 29th October by the Right Honourable Herbert Morrison, the labour MP for Hackney South who would go on to serve his country as Home Secretary during the war. The uncovered area in front of the stand was eventually concreted in 1945 to bring it in to line with the rest of the stand. Supporters standing at the opposite end of the ground were not so lucky, the School End terrace was totally open to the elements.
However it is the terrace on the South Africa Road side of the ground that supporters of a certain age still talk about wistfully. The terrace was no more than concrete steps built on a mound of earth which had been hastily constructed using clay excavated during the building of the White City tube station. The side of the mound facing away from the pitch was simply grassed over which rapidly transformed into a treacherous mud slide in the wet. Due to the inadequacy of the concrete steps down the bank, human chains were formed to pull fellow supporters to its summit before matches, while after matches the brave and impatient slid down risking injury should they collide with the retaining wall at the bottom.
By the time that Gregory took over control of the club, weeds were forcing their way through the concrete standings and the holes in the wrought iron roof over the Ellerslie Road stand were proliferating at an alarming rate. QPR were very much a third division club in a third division stadium; Gregory set about changing this.
The first casualties of Gregory’s revolution were the floodlights. These had been installed in 1953 making Loftus Road the first ground in West London able to stage night matches. Now deemed inadequate, new floodlights were installed in November 1965 which were not only twice the size and power of the originals, but were also, for a short while, the tallest and most powerful lights at any ground in the country. They also provided a very good vantage point to watch the match from for anyone with a good head for heights and scant regard for their personal safety.
Further development plans were put on hold while Gregory entered into a series of negotiations with Jack Dunnett, the Brentford chairman, which ran the full gamut of options from ground sharing Griffin Park to a complete takeover of Brentford. These talks eventually floundered and Rangers subsequently announced that they had decided to stay at Loftus Road and build a new stand along the South Africa Road side of the ground.
The two tier stand, which was built during the summer months of 1968 at a cost of £210,000 and was scheduled to open to celebrate QPR’s first ever match in the top flight of English football, comprised seating in the upper tier and standing in the lower paddock. Almost inevitably the project over ran and was partially opened several weeks after the start of the season for the visit of Manchester City on 24th August before being fully opened on 28th September for the 1 – 1 draw against Southampton, but even then it was not completely finished as became all too obvious to those sitting beneath a missing section of roof when there was a sudden downpour. However, that did not prevent it being a very impressive structure that dwarfed all of the other stands at the ground. The days of people slipping into the
ground at half time for free were over.
During the next couple of seasons, Gregory opened a match day box office in the new South Africa Road stand while still retaining the main box office in the Ellerslie Road stand and also installed a
new PA system before the start of the 1970-71 season; unfortunately it proved to be no better than the one it was replacing.
In 1972 Gregory, flush with money from the impending sale of Rodney Marsh to Manchester City, contracted J.M. Jones Builders, based in Maidenhead, to replace the archaic Ellerslie Road stand with a modern, single tier, steel framed stand with pre-cast terracing units and metal side cladding; a new television gantry suspended from the rafters completed the contract, while the changing rooms and box office were swapped across to the South Africa Road stand. The stand finally opened on 2nd December 1972 for the match against Oxford United in typically chaotic fashion; the club had somehow contrived to put up the wrong entrance signs above the turnstiles resulting in season ticket holders having major problems entering the stand.
The completion of these two major stands dramatically increased the capacity of Loftus Road. The incorporation of additional stairway access as part of a new four storey office block, which was tacked on to the back of the South Africa Road Stand, easing the passageway of supporters into and out of the stadium proved especially useful when champions-elect Leeds United came to Loftus Road on 27th April 1974 as a record breaking 35,353 supporters were crammed into every available nook and cranny of the ground. The perseverance of this record was ensured when the paddock in the South Africa Road Stand was converted from terracing to seating over the summer of 1975.
QPR’s relegation at the end of the 1978/79 season didn’t dampen Gregory’s enthusiasm or his desire to drive forwards his plans to re-develop Loftus Road, but as an astute businessman he was a master at keeping control over costs and was balking at the price to replace the open expanse at the School End of the ground with a two tier stand before he had a flash of inspiration regarding how a significant saving could be made. The stand, which offered seating for 2,500 on the upper level with standing for 3,500 below, was built directly on top of the old terrace forgoing all of the demolition costs. Gregory also replaced the temperamental and problematic floodlights for the second time in his tenure over the same summer for a more reliable model.
The following summer Gregory completed his re-building programme with the construction of a two-tier stand at the Loftus Road end of the ground. As with the School End stand the season before, it had been designed to dovetail with the South Africa Road Stand and the Ellerslie Road Stand to produce a completely enclosed, compact stadium; no corner was left undeveloped. In a bid to attract more corporate business he also built a row of executive boxes in the lower tier of the South Africa Road stand and at the same time removed the seating from the paddock to protect the capacity of the stadium. In just 13 years Gregory had transformed Loftus Road from a desperately ramshackle 3rd division ground to a state of the art stadium which was worthy of top flight football.
Unfortunately the pitch was another matter, it suffered from notoriously poor drainage and would rapidly deteriorate into a quagmire long before the full onset of winter. The crowning glory in Gregory’s vision for Loftus Road was a retractable roof which could be closed to protect the pitch from the rain. The plan was to have a roof constructed out of fibre glass cloth which could be deployed over the stadium on rolling trusses very much in the style of the Silverdome in Michigan. Michael Newberry, the architect of the Ellerslie Road, School End and Loftus Road stands, held this model central to his design. The FA denied QPR permission stating that it would give Rangers too much of an advantage because they’d have a better pitch than other teams forcing Gregory to turn to plan B – a plastic pitch.
Over the summer of 1981 QPR became the first British professional football club to install an artificial pitch. The Omniturf surface, a sand filled artificial turf, also enable the club to stage a wide range of other events including rock concerts, American Football, religious festivals and most famously boxing; Barry McGuigan beat Eusebio Pedroza to win the WBA Featherweight Boxing Title in the centre of the pitch. Other clubs followed Gregory’s lead and installed their own artificial pitches but when the FA decided in 1988 to outlaw them for FA Cup matches they and QPR had no alternative but to return to grass.
Following his doctor’s advice to slow down, Gregory sold his shares in QPR in 1987 and stepped down as chairman, safe in the knowledge that the club was comfortably established in the top flight and the ground completely redeveloped. Loftus Road is the most tangible part of his legacy at QPR; the stadium is ostensibly the same as when he sold the club. Quaint, quirky and unique, Loftus Road is the antithesis to the modern, out of town, soulless, identikit multipurpose stadia which are all the vogue and it is far more than just the realisation of one man’s vision, it is the hallowed repository of a lifetime of memories for generations of QPR supporters. The atmosphere generated by a full house at Loftus Road has to be experienced to be appreciated; the claustrophobic effect of the tightness of the stands to the pitch, the severely packed, cramped seating and the enclosed design all focus the intense, raw energy of the supporters straight out onto the pitch. The stands physically rock and at times you can’t hear your own thoughts, there is nowhere quite like it; we have Jim Gregory to thank for that.