QPR hatch plan to succeed in the rich man's game
Close to extinction last year but now the Championship favourites, Jason Burt sees the new board at Loftus Road change perceptions
Friday 08 August 2008
If you are a Queen's Park Rangers supporter then it is time to salivate now. The vice-chairman, Amit Bhatia, is soberly laying out the "three-to-five year plan" which he and his fellow co-owners, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, have formulated to return the club to the Premier League... when he then outlines what could happen when they reach it.
"I think about it," Bhatia says. "It's an expensive sport, no doubt. But the Premiership is where everyone wants to be. It costs money because all the teams are so good. So do you have to spend? Yes. And players are expensive. Are we prepared to spend? Absolutely. When you get to the Premiership the level gets raised and you have to do it justice. And we will do it justice."
Doing it justice, when the combined wealth of those involved in owning the Championship club is conservatively estimated at £23bn – of which Bhatia's father-in-law, the steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, can account for around £20bn – is an intoxicating thought. Especially when Bhatia goes on to claim that there is no point being in the Premier League "to finish 14th". "How sad would that be if that was the height of our ambition?" he says. "Let's get promoted, then not get relegated. Then let us be super-competitive. Let's not say Champions League football because that is not realistic for now. We would be spitting in the wind. Things will take time and money and that will come."
The key phrase is "for now" which he interchanges with "at the moment". The feeling is that QPR are on the brink of something and not, as was likely last year, extinction. Understandably given what Bhatia, who speaks rapidly and animatedly, calls the "hoopla" surrounding the high-profile, glamorous, jet-setting takeover of QPR which saved the club, he and his fellow directors have spent virtually all the ensuing period dampening down expectation. And that can range from whether they were about to appoint Zinedine Zidane as manager, Luis Figo as star player, sign "two from Real Madrid" – or have Naomi Campbell, who has been to watch matches along with a coterie of celebrities, model their new kit.
"A lot of fans ask why we don't spend like Mr Abramovich," Bhatia says. "We don't need to buy big players to create headlines. If we get promoted then will we have to buy household names? We probably will need to. We are spending money – a dozen players in January and another half-dozen already this summer but they are players who can play Championship football."
Mention of Abramovich is inevitable. QPR's owners are always going to draw comparisons with what has happened a few miles across west London. After all, Mittal – who recently gave up his £1m-a-year executive box at Stamford Bridge – is alone worth around twice as much as the Russian billionaire, having made his fortune through the steel business. Mittal is now ranked as the richest man in Britain and the fifth richest in the world. Hoop dreams, indeed, for the Super Hoops.
But many of those dreams have already been fulfilled. What has happened in a year has certainly replaced the nightmare of the last decade. Before Briatore, the colourful – and not just because of his perma-tan – owner of the Renault Formula One racing team and his friend, and the sport's overlord, Ecclestone, acquired QPR last August, the club was going under. And not just because they were facing another relegation battle with an underperforming team and a boardroom beset with division and accusations of corruption.
Some said it was just a few hours from being wound up when they agreed to take control and clear £13m worth of debts at a club that had sunk after spending 12 years out of the top division – having finished as London's highest-placed club in 1993 – with three of those campaigns in England's third tier.
The next move was to involve Mittal. It helped that Briatore and Ecclestone were friends with the businessman – and that his son-in-law was a sports nut who had been a promising cricketer – he won a scholarship to England – and helped run the Mittal Champions Trust in India which helped fund athletes.
Bhatia, himself a wealthy banker in his late twenties whose family originate from Delhi, had been looking to get involved in football for some time and had held discussions with a variety of clubs, some in the Premier League. "With QPR we said 'sure, let's talk'," he says adding that it helped that Loftus Road "is just seven minutes' walk from our home". He goes on: "This a club with a great history. We've not bought a Championship club. It just happens to be in the Championship at the moment."
The proposal was tempting. It is believed Mittal had to pay just £200,000 for a 20 per cent stake, bought from Briatore who now owns 49 per cent of the club, with Ecclestone having 15 per cent and a further 31 per cent held by small shareholders, pledging £1m to cover debts. He has since put in comfortably more.
"It was the maximum we were offered," Bhatia says of the shareholding. "But I feel like I own the club, as does Bernie and Flavio. When decisions are made it's not like I have half their say. I wish I owned more, of course I do." That may come. Early dividends of the takeover – apart from obvious improvements on the pitch – have been QPR's deals. A £20m five-year kit contract with the Italian firm Lotto and a three-year sponsorship with Gulf Air – £1m a season which rises if the club reach the top flight – with record ticket sales and all corporate boxes sold.
There are no plans to move stadium – although there is concern that Loftus Road, as atmospheric as it can be, is too cramped and old. "It becomes an issue when we get promoted and we have 30,000 people wanting to watch us. When that time comes we'll increase capacity," Bhatia says. The new owners are hardly indulgent. Bhatia maintains that relations with the former coach Gigi Di Canio are good – but he was sacked at the end of last season even though he guided QPR from the relegation zone to 14th place. Iain Dowie was installed as his successor. "We wanted a coach who had got promoted at this level before," Bhatia says. They are the bookmakers' favourites to win the division, never mind promotion.
Not that it is all hard-headed business. Bhatia admits the owners have had to stay "disciplined" over transfer fees and wages – claiming that, like Chelsea, there is a premium when they come calling. But he also adds: "When we sit down together as shareholders we say that decisions have to be made as fans first. We never got involved in football as a money-making idea. We don't want to be wasteful but we do want to be successful."
As sober as he attempts to be, Bhatia is also an enthusiast. "This is unbelievably exciting," he says, admitting it is far more fun than anything else he is involved in in the world of finance. "But there is also pressure because I know there are expectations for us. But I like that."
When the Loftus Road cat's away... the fans will pay
The Independent was given a sneak preview of QPR's 18 new corporate boxes, complete with freshly buffed wooden floors, shimmering glass tables and finely upholstered sofas. A stylish 12-seater box is yours for £70,000 a season. Cipriani, the top Mayfair restaurant, provides the catering to the boxes. The biggest 30-seater one has been snapped up by the Mittal family.
But such glamour has not gone down well with the fans who are wary of the road down which the new owners are taking the club.
For a start there are the season ticket prices. Paul Payne, 41, agonised over whether to renew his family's season ticket when he learned the cost had shot up from £860 to £1,600. "In the end we bit the bullet and paid it," he says. "We didn't want to stop going just when there is so much excitement about our future."
And while summer has seen a total refurbishment of the corporate end of the ground, little has been done to improve seating for regular fans. "I think they painted the stairs," jokes Stephen Dedridge, chairman of supporters' group QPR 1st. "The ticket prices were a big shock to us, especially as it's the same old stadium."
Flavio Briatore's move to redesign the club badge has also proved controversial with the core support. The old badge has been replaced by a coat of arms. "I liked the old badge," says one fan, trudging round the club shop. He hitches up his right trouser-leg to show the old badge tattooed on his ankle.
Then there is the strange story of Jude, the club's black cat mascot who was a favourite with fans. The new owner was not so keen – black cats are bad luck in Briatore's native Italy. After a brief colour change to grey, Jude disappeared.
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