By the very tail end of the 1970s, a discussion was starting to take place on the subject of how professional Football might look in the future when the present was a time of crisis within the game. Attendances for matches were falling and there seemed to be no end in sight for this decline. Something, it was starting to become clear, would need to be done. The Football Men, of course, defined Crystal Palace as “The Team of the 80s.” Defined by the youth of the team, Palace were touted as an exciting team for an exciting era, but this was an idea that crashed and burned when Palace ended the 1980/81 season relegated from the First Division with just nineteen points.
A real revolution, however, was taking place on the other side of London. It wasn’t that Queens Park Rangers weren’t known before. They’d finished the 1975/76 season as First Division runners-up to Liverpool and had come damn close to winning the thing, after all. But by the end of the decade, QPR were set to change their Club in a way which some predicted would become a template for the future. In a period during which stadium redevelopment was limited to the occasional new cantilever stand springing up here or there, they redesigned Loftus Road to make it the most modern in the country.
The ground was almost completely rebuilt over a period of time, and in the summer of 1981, in a blaze of publicity, Britain’s first artifical Omniturf pitch was installed at Loftus Road. Some complained that it gave the team an unfair advantage, but what followed saw Rangers get to their first FA Cup final in 1982 and win promotion back to the First Division as champions the following year. Was this the pitch or was it the team? Critics were unhappy at the unnatural bounce of a match ball on the rock solid surface and there were complaints about injuries to players from burns suffered on the plastic pitch, but this didn’t stop several other clubs installing them as well, and there was no question that manager Terry Venables built a strong QPR team during this period.
By 1988, QPR were an established First Division club. They’d played European football (before the post-Heysel ban on English clubs playing in Europe), reached a League Cup final and, despite a scare at the end of the 1984/85 season, when they only just finished above the relegation places, were pretty much an established First Division club again. Venables had long gone, but Jim Smith had kept the team ticking over nicely. How to make that next step forward, though? When such questions are asked, perhaps being so close to the BBC’s former Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush helped. The producers of the BBC’s science documentary series QED contacted the club to see whether they would be interested in involving a sports psychologist to build the team’s confidence a little, and the club agreed. The result was this documentary, broadcast in March 1988, as QPR sailed to a fifth-placed finish in the First Division.
The match follows sports psychologist John Syer as he persuades the QPR players – who, for reasons best kept to themselves, are all wearing QPR shirts as they fill in the questionnaire that leads on to the other exercises that he carries out – that this could be beneficial to them before taking them through mental exercises designed to give them an edge against their opponents. But did it work? Well, QPR stayed in the top flight until the end of the 1997/98 season, their longest spell in the top flight of English football by a comfortable distance, so perhaps he did make a difference after all.
QPR didn’t become a template for successful mid-level football clubs in the end, though. The slightly cramped but definitely intimate design of Loftus Road remained a one-off, and almost forty years after its redevelopment it remains laregly unchanged, with the club making more or less perpetual noises about wanting to move elsewhere. The plastic pitch did go, though. The club returned to a grass surface in the summer of 1988 and the last artificial pitch of that era, at Preston North End’s Deepdale, was removed in the summer of 1994. A year later, they were banned from English football. But the story of Queens Park Rangers and the sports psychologist perhaps tells a story in itself. We can’t say for certain whether the club’s strong performance in the league throughout the 1980s and early 1990s was a result of Syers’ intervention, but the results following his involvement there speak for themselves.