Experiencing boutique football at QPR
Shepherds Bush, London, the Saturday before Christmas.
Hordes of shoppers looking for some last-minute presents are piling into the recently-opened Westfield Centre, west London's mammoth new cathedral to capitalism.
Several hundred yards away a church of a different kind is in session as QPR host Preston in their last fixture before Christmas.
The festive season is in full evidence on the walk to the ground, with supporters discussing their plans and hawkers selling QPR Santa hats (the traditional red giving way to blue). The Superstore is also doing a roaring trade, with security operating a one in, one out system.
In one sense it is a very traditional scene, one that could have been found at grounds the length and breadth of the country. Yet Loftus Road and QPR are changing. The club has been infused with its own touch of Italian style over the last year, with Flavio Briatore presiding over the Championship side.
The 58-year-old Italian has been involved with the club since August 2007 and became chairman of QPR Holdings Ltd in February. Since then a succession of glamorous figures have been spotted at Loftus Road, while Briatore has begun to stamp his vision of Rangers upon the club.
The directors box has been completely overhauled while the area around it is now known as the C Club. It is often fairly empty but its creation involved supporters who had sat in that area for many years being relocated to other parts of the ground. It is clearly a cause of some friction. Top-class dining can now be enjoyed at top restaurant Cipriani, which is built into the main stand, but for the majority of supporters their football grub still takes the form of a pie or a hotdog at the kiosks built into the stands.
Ticket prices themselves remain an issue. I have a mate whose season ticket went up from £395 to £525 over the summer but he reckons that he was relatively fortunate; others went up by 50%.
The mascot has been changed, with the historically relevant Jude the Cat giving way to a tiger, while the club has a new badge and rumours intermittently circulate to the effect that some at QPR would prefer a new name, one that included the word London.
Briatore has made it clear that with Rangers' limited capacity - the ground holds less than 20,000 - he wants it to become a boutique brand. What does this mean?
Inside the directors entrance is a very lush stand of designer clothes and trainers for sale. Prices aren't on display. The first time I saw it I wondered what it was. It oozes luxury. Perhaps this hints at the future.
I was struck on my way to Loftus Road and, later, looking around inside the ground at the number of supporters who are middle-aged. It is a purely anecdotal observation and could be totally wrong so I asked a couple of supporters whether they were concerned about where the next generation of fans are. They agreed it was a concern. Perhaps people are being priced out of watching Rangers? In the club's defence they have held some ticket promotions over recent games. Maybe they do understand the implications of the credit crunch on ordinary people.
It is interesting talking with Rangers fans. They see Rangers as a welcoming, well-supported club with a fine tradition and a distinct place in London's footballing community. But I sense a definite unease about the future. No-one is sure where the club is heading but one thing is for sure. Nobody that I have talked to seemed prepared to sacrifice what they regard as the heart and soul of their club for success.
Whatever people make of Briatore nobody could justifiably accuse him of lacking commitment. It is unusual for him to miss a home game and he has certainly not been scared to make decisions.
Rangers, for example, are on their third manager of the season in former Portugal international Paulo Sousa. The appointment of Sousa is particularly interesting. It is his first managerial role after working with the coaching staff of the Portuguese national team and the early signs are that he is a man capable of succeeding under a chairman who is keen to be kept in the loop.
A colleague of mine visited the training ground days after Sousa's arrival and was impressed with the knowledge he had already gained of the other teams in the Championship. Sousa has apparently watched DVD after DVD in order to bring himself up to speed.
His team play a diamond formation in midfield and it looked extremely effective at times against Preston. Rangers lost the initiative after the break and North End equalised for the second time. Sousa made a decisive double substitution, with his team switching to a 3-4-3 formation. It is testimony to the coaching skills of Sousa that his team quickly looked comfortable after the change and went on to score a late winner.
Sousa was quizzed about his formations by the press afterwards. A clearly intelligent man (he apparently speaks Spanish, Italian, French and English as well as some German and Greek in addition to his native Portuguese), Sousa was asked whether his diamond formation lacked width. I think he both impressed and confused some of the assembled media when he explained how his side are still able to exploit "lateral corridors".
Parejo, a flagship Briatore signing in the summer on loan from Real Madrid, has returned to Spain since Sousa arrived, which suggested that he is keen to make his own decisions. Briatore's alleged influence on first-team affairs is the subject of plenty of rumours but Sousa explained on Saturday that he does not discuss strategy with his chairman. He handles himself with style and seems at ease in his role, though time will be the ultimate judge of his relationship with his chairman.
The squad are extremely fit. Performance manager John Harbin has obviously done a superb job and it is no surprise that QPR have won two games this season - against Birmingham and Norwich - after having a player sent off.
There is plenty of quality in the squad as well - Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook, Heidar Helguson - though what happens in January will probably have a big say on the rest of the season (though I think this was somewhat overstated on Saturday when the announcer said over the tannoy "The whole of football is waiting to see what QPR do in January.")
No one is quite sure exactly who is bankrolling the club and to what extent - and Sousa would not be drawn on how much he has to spend in January - but the club does not lack cash. In addition to Briatore, Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone and the extraordinarily wealthy Mittal family are involved at Loftus Road. It prompted QPR fans to talk in terms of being the richest club in the world in the wake of their takeover, though Manchester City may well have that tag now.
Briatore has made it clear he wants to see the club run properly; he wants to reorganise and build a strong brand. With a few shrewd signings in January it might be that Rangers win promotion this season. They, like so many other clubs, are hovering just below the play-off zone but their extra financial muscle could make the difference.
Success is a balm to salve many pains and after years of financial uncertainty at Loftus Road, not to mention all sorts of bizarre stories such as guns in the boardroom, a return to the Premier League after a 13-year absence would doubtless bring great joy to many supporters.
As the fans made their way out of the stadium on Saturday it was with a smile on their face. The club had given them an early Christmas present. Yet at the same time I cannot help wondering to what extent these supporters feature in the club's long-term vision of the future.