Bircham the Shepherd's Bush hate male

Confrontational style of QPR midfielder does not endear him to opposition fans, as Phil Shaw discovered

Marc Bircham has been accused of many things, from crimes against hair styling to getting opponents sent off by going down too easily, but losing touch with his roots is not one of them.

Marc Bircham has been accused of many things, from crimes against hair styling to getting opponents sent off by going down too easily, but losing touch with his roots is not one of them.

It's lunchtime in a pie, mash and eels emporium in Shepherd's Bush, west London, the area where Bircham was born, raised and now plays in midfield for the club he has supported since he was two, Queen's Park Rangers. He is mopping up his potatoes with the green "liquor" in which these Cockney delicacies swim when an Irish voice calls across from another table.

"Excuse me," says a Dot Cotton lookalike, "but do you play for QPR?" He turns round, grinning, and answers: "I try to." She wishes him luck for the rest of the season and, as if aware of his reputation, instructs him maternally to "behave yerself with the football".

Later, as Bircham strolls down Goldhawk Road before hanging a right towards Rangers' stadium, it becomes clear he could not escape his public if he wanted to. Whatever name you give the shark's-fin shape dyed in Rangers' blue and white that adorns his head - modified Mohican, skunk, punk or simply, as he prefers, "the barnet" - you cannot miss it.

There are places Bircham, 26, might be advised not to go walkabout - Stoke-on-Trent for one; Guatemala City for another, the result of a spiky performance for Canada (for whom he plays international football by virtue of a grandfather born in Winnipeg) - because an integral part of the perpetual-motion style that has helped give Rangers hope of Premiership promotion and endeared him to the club's manager, Ian Holloway, is a talent for getting up opposition noses.

It is a safe bet, for instance, that Elland Road will not take kindly to his appearance or attitude as Rangers visit Leeds United today. " Everyone is up for it when they go there," he says. "I certainly will be. In this league, Leeds are everybody's cup final."

He will have to be at his most provocative, however, for the reaction to be angrier than when he played at Stoke City. Bircham claims he took an elbow in the face from Gerry Taggart that knocked him over and split his lip. The referee agreed, dismissing Taggart, yet the ensuing free-for-all and police escort to the team bus were not the end of the matter.

"I got a stack of hate mail from Stoke fans. There was one I thought must be a proper letter because he'd put his name and address [on it]. It said I was a disgrace, a diver, a cheat. And Taggart was innocent. There was a fiver and a PS saying, 'I enclose £5 for you to get a proper haircut'. So I've written back and said, 'This is London prices down here, mate. I can't get my barnet done for this sort of money, but if you send the rest I'll quite happily do it'."

The Guatemalan episode was more sinister. Canada beat the Central Americans, with Bircham in feisty form, but still had to play the return game. "I received a bullet with my initials on it in the post. I had to go to the game in an armoured car and change in a broom cupboard. The police even had snipers in the stadium. So whatever Stoke have got planned for me, I can take it!"

There can be few players, ironically, who are more steeped in the fervour which football whips up. Several generations of his family - including his brother Jack, a professional golfer - have been devoted to Rangers. "I always find it strange," says Bircham, "when you ask a player who they supported as a kid and they say, 'I didn't really follow anyone'.

"I used to idolise John Byrne (a Mancunian-Irish forward). We're always looking for the next Rodney Marsh or Stan Bowles here and he was the one for a while. I used to have his hairstyle, a long mullet that I put highlights in. My mum went mental, made me cut it off."

The memories flood back. Wembley '86, the Loft end, Omniturf. A 4-4 draw at Port Vale, who led 4-1 after 82 minutes. Oh, and Leeds away in 1990. "We're 2-0 down when Roy Wegerle sets off from the halfway line. He nutmegs (David) Batty and (Gary) McAllister, goes between (Chris) Whyte and (Chris) Fairclough, then curls the ball in. We won 3-2. The police kept us in the ground for ages so their lot didn't kill us. I identify with the fans because I am one. When you've been to Oldham on a freezing night in February and seen the team put in a stinking performance, you know how they feel."

Even when he played for Millwall he kept up his QPR Supporters' Club membership. The south London club were able to woo him from his first love, where he trained from nine to 14, because Rangers were thinking of scrapping their youth policy. He had a "good rapport" with the New Den faithful, who showed their esteem with a mantra of "He's got bird shit on his head" when the sides met recently.

The chance to fulfil a boyhood ambition came in 2002 when Rangers came in. "I couldn't really say no," he recalls. "They were the reason I started out in football." Last season he reportedly said he would be "drunk for a week" if they won promotion. "That was crap," he advises me. "It was much longer than that." After the decisive game, at Sheffield Wednesday, he went clubbing in the QPR hoops and tracksuit bottoms before joining his colleagues on an extended bender in Dublin.

This season finds them challenging again, despite a mediocre start and a meagre budget. Bircham is eager to laud his manager, arguing that Holloway's habit of "Ricky Gervaising it up" to the media detracts from the ability of "the best motivator and most honest manager I've known".

As a tireless, in-your-face midfielder, Holloway was like Bircham without the barnet. "The gaffer went blond last year," Bircham says. "It was like Erasure. He looked very camp. He reckons if he had the hair, he'd do it like mine."

His first coach with Canada, Holger Osieck, viewed his individuality less favourably, although the relationship started promisingly. Bircham, having understood he had Welsh ancestry, was all set to play for Wales B until checks uncovered the Canadian connection. "We were playing Plymouth next. They had a Canadian international, Carlo Corazzin, who asked if I fancied playing for them. I said I wasn't sure. He said the next game was Barbados away. I said, 'Go on then'."

In the event, he made his debut in Northern Ireland, securing an entry in the Guinness Book of Recordsas the first player to score for a country before setting foot in it. Yet he found Osieck "very robotic", obsessed with discipline and routine. "You couldn't even whistle," says Bircham, who began warbling like Roger Whittaker on speed in defiance of the German.

"It got to the stage where I hated Holger. It all came to a head before the Confederations Cup in Japan. We trained in a park in Vancouver; asking sunbathers to move, jumpers for goalposts. We were playing Brazil soon and we're wondering, 'Is there dog poo where they're training?'" Bircham was ignored for the three games and "retired" as a Canada player until Osieck was replaced.

Rangers remain his passion and priority. "I'm not saying I'll be here forever, but the victories are sweeter and the defeats hurt even more," says the barnet from the Bush before the seriousness gives way to self-deprecating humour. "Mind you, with things like the Stoke business, I'll probably have to end my career at QPR anyway. The options are running out."

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