I remember exactly where I was when I found out I was one of the 5 Ultimate AirAsia Ranger winners. I was in the back of a car, with 6 other family members, on our way to dinner at a friend’s place. “I won!”, a stunned voice in the back cried, and both pride and jealousy was more than evident on the faces of the Rowe family. All of us have been QPR fanatics since birth, and I was about to embark on a journey many other Rangers fans only dream of.
The first thing I did, besides telling everyone in the world of course, was to ransack my cupboard for all my QPR shirts. Jerseys, Polo shirts, training kits; anything that I could wear on my 10-day trip to broadcast my support for QPR.
Our first stop was Kota Kinabalu in Sabah where Rangers were due to play a friendly against Sabah Select. The entire Rowe family was on my flight from Singapore to Sabah, as they decided to include the two Malaysian friendlies as part of a holiday. We proudly wore our QPR shirts on board, much to the pleasant surprise of the AirAsia crew, who all wished us on our way out of the aircraft, “We’ll see you at the QPR game!”
We stopped for lunch at Sutera Harbour hotel, where the team was staying. As my grandfather and I had a casual walk around the pool, we bumped into players like Anton Ferdinand and Shaun Derry, and had a lengthy chat with QPR CEO Phil Beard who could not believe the number of QPR fans that have flown in from the likes of Singapore, Australia, Dubai and Hong Kong! I was so pleased with how my lunch was turning out, but little did I know that every day as an Ultimate AirAsia Ranger would top that!
The Likas Stadium was quite a sight; every local turned up in variations of QPR kits. The mango-coloured away kit, the traditional blue & white hoops, the red & white quarters 3rd kit had covered my entire field of vision. My grandparents from England could not believe their eyes; their West London club had evolved into a complete global brand.
It was clear that Mark Hughes was using the pre-season tour to assess who to include in his 25-man squad. The game involved heavy rotations, players played out of their usual positions and even 11 substitutions at half time. Youth players like Ehmer, Harriman and Doughty featured regularly, a testament to the future of QPR that is coming up through the ranks.
The Sabah team was no match for even a weakened-QPR first team. Andy Johnson was raring to go from the first minute, and was unlucky not to clinch a few goals in the first half. Captain Park Ji-Sung industriously worked the middle of the park, much to the roaring delight of the locals who recognised him for his 7 years at Manchester United. The score at half-time was a surprising 1-0, as QPR chose to play patient football to get the gears going and establish good understanding with the new summer signings brought in by Hughes.
The second half proved to be a rout though, as many of the creative QPR players were substituted in. The likes of Cisse, Taarabt, Ephraim, Fabio and Traore were too much for the Sabah defence to handle. Fabio and Traore were both attacking threats on the wings with their overlaps, while Taarabt and Ephraim were threading through-balls from the centre of midfield for the two up top; Cisse and Helguson. A goal that definitely stole the show was Cisse’s first of the night, where he calmly lobbed the on-rushing keeper by the edge of the penalty box.
Kuala Lumpur & Kelantan
Next stop for myself and the other Ultimate Air Asia Rangers was Kuala Lumpur, where upon arrival, we were informed that we would be able to attend the press conference for the unveiling of the new QPR plane. I was beyond thrilled to be part of a moment that many Rangers fans would be monitoring from West London. It was a long wait for the press conference, but the thought of seeing the squad up close at the press conference was definitely something I would not pass.
It definitely struck a chord when Tony Fernandes announced the beautiful QPR aircraft was to be named Alan McDonald. It seemed surreal on two levels; the first that a man who just got involved a year ago would resonate a deep understanding of the club, and the second that just a month ago, when I was in England visiting family, I dropped by Loftus Road to sign the book of condolence for Macca. And here I am a month later, no longer just another name in a book, but physically present at the press conference unveiling the very airplane that would fly in his honour.
We boarded the incredible aircraft. The overhead lockers were decorated with historical facts of QPR, like Les Ferdinand being sold for a club record fee of 6 Million, and when the club was formed etc. The ceiling was covered in strips of blue and white, and the hoops made me feel right at home. The QPR players were just as impressed with the aircraft. I remember Jay Bothroyd and Anton Ferdinand saying, “what a plane!” when they boarded too.
I managed to take a picture with Heidar Helguson after the press conference. Heidar Helguson was QPR’s top scorer in the English Premier League, and one of the heroes that worked tirelessly to clinch the championship for us the year before. Just last week, it was announced Helguson had completed a move to Cardiff City, and I wish him all the best at his new club!
Already on cloud nine, the amazing AirAsia staff had even greater news to tell me. “By the way, we’re flying you guys for a day training in Kelantan tomorrow. Oh, and you’re flying on the QPR plane with the squad.” WHAAAAAAT. The next day, we patiently waited at our gate for the squad to turn up and just hopped on board as if we were an EPL player ourselves. We got to see a side of the team that many fans didn’t. We watched Shaun Wright Phillips walk around the plane with his bag of chocolates and Anton Ferdinand going out of his way to annoy his teammates. Team banter at best!
Watching the training session in Kelantan was a real eye-opener. The lads worked on crosses from the wings and finishing from the midfield area. This was a clear indication that Hughes intends to work on the lack of goals from the QPR midfield as the bulk of our season’s goals came from Cisse, Helguson and Mackie. At the end of training, the QPR team had a penalty shootout with the Kelantan team to give the local Kelantan crowd a little something to cheer about. The first player to miss his penalty was surprisingly Adel Taarabt, who kicked a weak shot that was pretty much straight into the arms of the keeper. Mark Hughes jokingly pointed to the dressing room to rub salt into Adel’s wound, but much to Adel’s delight, his teammate Samba Diakite also missed his penalty, which gave him someone else to share the blame with! It was clear that training was both serious and light-hearted fun, a combination that probably suggests that the team would be better prepared for the upcoming season than last year!
On the flight back from Kelantan, I sat by Alejandro Faurlin, who has been my favourite QPR player for a couple of years now. Of course, I couldn’t leave the plane without a picture with him You can see Samba Diakite photobombing our picture in the back! Faurlin told me his injury recovery’s going well and he can’t wait to get back on the pitch for the Super Hoops. The poor lad had to watch our relegation battle from the sidelines and hopefully we’ll see him back in action in Loftus Road early on in the season.
Many locals expected the QPR-Kelantan game to be a more even contest as the Malaysian club were champions of the local league. Instead, the game was yet another 5-0 rout. Although Kelantan had a few decent chances, QPR looked comfortable throughout the game, with Hughes still experimenting. I was extremely pleased to see Shaun Wright-Phillips back on the score sheet after a rather quiet season, and chuffed for Harriman who clinched his first senior goal!
By the time we got to Surabaya, us Ultimate AirAsia Rangers were beyond exhausted! The last game had an unbelievable crowd, between 50, 000 – 60, 000. The impressive thing was that the local fans that came down for the night game were there only to cheer on their beloved Persebaya – the Boneks are crazy! Flares, fireworks, chanting, dancing, the works!
The game was a dull 2-1 and some QPR players (specifically the goalkeeper and the defence) had a bit of a shaky game! They managed to come from a goal down from a Green blunder and win the game. The game was quite lethargic and uninteresting compared to the first two, and I can’t fault the QPR squad for that. They must be tired after 3 games, countless of trainings and press conferences in just under 2 weeks. I’m tired just watching them, let alone doing all that running!
4 cities, 3 QPR matches, 7 hotels, 1 press conference, 1 training day, 3 meet and greets & 7 flights within 10 days. Thanks to the awesome staff of AirAsia (like Swee Ping, Virginie and Anita) and the equally awesome staff of QPR (like Phil Beard and Becky) for the warm hospitality throughout our trip. And last but not least, the other AirAsia Rangers who turned out to be great companions on our trip of a lifetime: Faizal, Brad, Chairani and Agust.
Can’t wait for the start of the 2012/2013 season. Only a week left till the QPR v Swansea opening game. Come on you R’s!!!