QPR playmaker Ilias Chair is the latest to feature in our Isolation Interview series as he talks growing up on the streets of Antwerp, how he welcomes being written off by others and why he has to be almost forcibly removed from the pitch at the end of every training session.
He races home from school, throws his bag inside and rushes out again. Needs to get there quickly, wants to get there quickly. Time is ticking and the sun is dropping and every idle second he’s not there is a second less of that feeling he craves most of all. Luckily, the trip’s a short one—50 yards actually, give or take. He goes out the door, crosses the road, cuts between the two apartment blocks and he sees it: a nothing concrete rectangle that somehow means everything. There’s not much to it admittedly. Some white lines on a faded maroon floor. Two weathered steel pipe goals at either end with wiry green netting holding on by the fingertips. A lonely basketball hoop hanging above that might as well not be there. A row of windows off to one side at a very breakable distance. There are no walls here, no boundaries—get bundled out of play and there’s a fair chance you’re copping a park bench to the knee or a swing set to the chin. Yet he doesn’t care. It doesn’t faze him. Not one bit. It’s as though this pitch was made for him. A concrete field calls for a concrete mind and a concrete heart and fortunately for Ilias Chair he was born with both.
There’s a certain strangeness now to the way Chair looks back on what was effectively his classroom in his native Antwerp, Belgium. Maybe it’s because he can literally see it from where he’s standing at the moment—in lockdown at his family home alongside his parents and four younger brothers—and for one of the few times in his memory it’s completely empty. It’s a sad and barren sight for the 22-year-old who crafted his playground brand of football here against blokes who were twice his age, twice his size and doubly determined to put a cheeky little showboater in his place. Chair remembers nights where he would limp home grazed and bleeding and bruised but smiling all the same, already fast-forwarding the hours in his head until he’d be back there the next day. What he’d give for a taste of that right now.
Yet Chair is acutely aware that there are larger issues at play at the moment. Football doesn’t often come second in his world but this is no normal world we’re living in. He knows he’s lucky to be spending this time with his Mum and Dad and especially his little brothers who adore him so. They’re his biggest fans and his most tuned-in disciples. They all want to be exactly like their big brother. Twin 15-year-olds, a 12-year-old and a seven-year-old. Four young impressionable minds. Quite the responsibility for someone who really is just a kid himself. It's a weight he's always conscious of so Chair keeps it simple and only preaches what he practices. Just be yourselves, he tells his brothers. Be yourselves, find whatever it is that you love, work hard at it and you’ll enjoy life.
Which is to say that right now, Illias Chair is not enjoying life. Professional players will often relish whatever little downtime they can scrape together. Days away from the training ground are becoming fewer and fewer with each passing season and so they need to be cherished and savoured—rare gifts from the seldom-benevolent, all-demanding football gods. Though Chair doesn’t exactly subscribe to this idea. He’s wired a bit differently. “I don’t like to switch off at all,” he says. “It’s difficult for me, it’s against my nature. It’s been 22 years now and that’s how it’s always been for me. The only thing I can think about is football, football, football. It’s why I’m missing it so much.”
That frustration Chair is feeling is probably also born out of the fact that this break has disrupted the best season of his career. He’s become a key part of QPR’s all-guns-blazing front-third armada, having been involved in all but five Championship games, netting four times and providing five assists along the way. It’s a far cry from the youngster who only made four league appearances last season—all as a substitute, for a grand total of 28 minutes—before being loaned out in January to League Two side Stevenage. A lesser player would’ve sulked, their pride wounded by being shipped down two divisions. Chair though is accustomed to being doubted. Too small. Too weak. Not the right body type. Not the right player for the system. “There was always an excuse,” he says. “So I’ve always had to prove a point. I have that mindset where I want people to write me off. Write me off so I can prove you wrong and show you what I can do. That’s always the mentality I’ve had.”
Show them he did. So much so that in his time with the Boro, Chair made such a mark that manager Dino Maamria would go on to proclaim him as the best player that has ever worn a Stevenage Football Club shirt. Not a bad feat to achieve in just 16 appearances. Chair was a bona fide box-office drawcard at Broadhall Way, scoring six goals (one of those outrageously from his own half, the rest mostly from distance) and tallying six assists as Stevenage finished one point shy of a playoff place, having been 20 points off the season before. Much like teammate Ebere Eze’s six-month spell at Wycombe Wanderers in 2017, Chair’s stint at Stevenage was characterised by what can only be described as quintessential modern day swagger. Each and every Saturday he was showcasing the sort of can’t-be-taught confidence and gait that had cinder-block-footed League Two centre-halves lining up to kick him into row Z. Nothing that The Concrete Kid couldn’t handle though.
Being a ringmaster in League Two however far from guarantees you the spotlight in the Championship. Even this season, where Chair has featured in the starting line-up more often than not, there have been stretches where he’s found himself second choice and on the bench in consecutive weeks. “You try to train well and I think for every football player, when you’re not starting you feel a bit hard done by and you can moan and search for excuses,” Chair says. “For me though, it’s more about accepting the decision and then whenever I do get the chance, I need to prove to the coaches why I deserve to be starting. No matter if we’re winning or losing, I know I need to make an impact.” It’s unsurprising then to learn that three of Chair’s four league goals have come as a substitute, none more memorable than his late winner against Derby in February which he scored just two minutes after entering the contest. Chair recalls that Mark Warburton’s instructions before he came on that night were pretty simple enough. Create chances. Make a difference. Change the game. “They’re the kind of things I like to hear,” says Chair. “It's about making every moment count.”
Every moment. Every second. Even now, when Chair doesn’t have to worry about bolting out of school to make it to the local pitch before sunset, any opportunity to touch the ball is precious still. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at the club’s training base in Harlington, hang around until the end of a session and you’ll witness a familiar sight. The fields are emptying out and the lids on the lunch pots are being lifted in the clubhouse but QPR’s young Rat Pack—that is, Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel, Olamide Shodipo and Chair himself—are still messing around with a ball. Angel Rangel has worked his way into the club too, Chair notes. They’re out there juggling, dribbling, goading the goalkeepers with stuttered run-ups from the penalty spot. Most importantly though they’re laughing. For them, happiness is the ball and the ball is something they’re not prepared to give away unless absolutely necessary or until one unlucky staff member is tasked with trying to drag them off the grass and into the changeroom. “I know we’re professionals and we have to make sure we don’t get injured but we just want to play as long as possible,” says Chair. “We just go into the gym and play a bit of two touch after anyway.”
It’s all just playground stuff, concrete stuff. It’s the stuff you can’t unlearn or bury deep inside, even when you’re playing in front of thousands and there’s so much riding on those two numbers on the scoreboard. Even at this level—no, especially at this level—staying true to yourself is important. Chair says he doesn’t care about the money or the celebrity or the status. “There’s that business part of football but for me it’s always just been about having fun and doing what I love. It’s about wanting the ball around your feet and playing with a smile on your face. That’s all.” Right now, for Chair that means knocking it around with his little brothers in the back garden. It means looking out his front window, across the road and between the two apartment blocks, and replaying all those afternoons on that faded maroon floor. And above else, it means fast-forwarding the hours and the days and the months in his head until he’s back wearing blue and white hoops.