If Wimbledon were the "Crazy Gang", what are Queen's Park Rangers? Try the maddest club in world football.
It has been a rather quiet week at Loftus Road. So far Richard Hill, the assistant manager, has been suspended by the club and arrested by the police on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm after a training-ground "friendly" against China's Olympic team was abandoned due to a mass brawl which left a player with a damaged eye socket. The Championship club's accounts have been queried and a goalkeeper, Lee Camp, has been hastily signed on loan from Derby County following one of the worst results in the club's history, a 5-0 thrashing by lowly Southend United. Oh well, it's only Thursday; plenty of time in the extraordinary world of QPR for something unusual to kick off.
Gianni Paladini, the QPR chairman, says there is "no place for violence". Actually, violence has found all too snug a nest in west London. Paladini, a former football agent, took the witness stand last year after alleging a gun was held to his head in the boardroom, though a group of men including a fellow director were later cleared of conspiracy to blackmail, false imprisonment and gun possession. One of QPR's brightest prospects, 15-year-old Kiyan Prince, was stabbed to death last year. Another player left the club after being accused by team-mates of theft, sparking a fight down South Africa Road. Oh, and if the right hook Hill is alleged to have thrown looked silkier than Rangers' footwork of late, he is a former trainer to Lennox Lewis.
But shocking though this might sound, violence is incidental to the decline of a club once swashbuckling in a different way. Having written frequently about my traumatic love affair with QPR, I was invited two years ago to sit on a new executive board, so have observed the running first-hand; boy, has it been sobering. Happily ignorant of what goes on behind the scenes of a football club, I have sat slack-jawed hearing of earlier mismanagement. It has been called a soap opera, but have you ever seen a soap opera this gripping? The frightening bit is that while the theatricals and thuggery are all QPR, I now suspect tangled financial problems are rife throughout football.
As a fan it is hard to believe QPR are in such a plight. A little over a decade ago Rangers were one of the capital's top clubs. From David Seaman in goal to Les Ferdinand up front, they made their old rivals Chelsea look ordinary.
I fell in love with QPR in 1976, when Stan Bowles jinked them to within half an hour of the championship. Bowles, who sometimes spent kick-off in the bookies, calls this the most skilful team never to win a major honour. Then Terry Venables installed an artificial pitch, but the football became as authentically brilliant as anything you might see in Italy. Rangers oozed flair through Glenn Roeder, Simon Stainrod and Tony Currie, whose long passes were unequalled.
Even Venables could never expunge the side's most enduring habit: Rangers could hit the woodwork half-a-dozen times and end up losing to a bunch of car mechanics - literally in recent years, against Vauxhall Motors in the FA Cup in 2002.
Yet however shocking performances on the pitch, nothing has rivalled the drama of late in the boardroom. Like so many of the burnt-out Premiership volcanoes scarring the Championship, the root of Rangers' sorrow - and predicament - is financial.
QPR have never recovered from falling out of the top flight in 1996 under the disastrous reign of Ray Wilkins. Chris Wright, chairman of Chrysalis, "invested" £30m; he may as well have hurled the cash off the Westway. QPR went into administration and even fell down into the third division.
Rangers are back - for now - in the Championship, but saddled with debt. The club is owned by a Monaco consortium that has struggled to pay even modest bills. Plans to sell the ground and move further west have not progressed.
Fans criticise Paladini, yet few have rushed to take over. I have sat with Paladini and shared his frustration when he has found money to pay £3,000 or £5,000 a week to a player who turns out to be a drifter.
Hanging over the club has been a £10m loan taken out by the previous board from a mysterious Panamanian outfit called ABC. Paladini cannot even establish the people behind ABC, who charge QPR a crippling rate of interest. After Paladini questioned the deal, Dave Morris, a rival director close to the previous chairman, Bill Power, queried a transfer Paladini negotiated. Then, Paladini alleges, a gun was drawn to his head and he was ordered to sign a letter of resignation before he escaped. Last June Morris and six other men were cleared of the offence at Blackfriars Crown Court.
The dugout this last year has scarcely been more serene, QPR changing managers like models change gowns. Ian Holloway's press conferences - he once likened an ugly win to "scoring" with an unattractive woman - were more diverting than his agricultural team. So last season Paladini sacked him, believing a return to silky ball-playing could gain that elusive promotion. But Gary Waddock presided over a team devoid of steel. QPR were in freefall, so in September Paladini fired Waddock and appointed another old boy, John Gregory.
A stalwart from Venables' day, Gregory found the manager's office had not enjoyed a lick of paint since then, but the team soon looked brighter. He has some sparkling attacking players, notably winger Lee Cook. Astutely - if humiliatingly - he has taken Chelsea youngsters on loan. However, all season the defence has left gaps wider than the Grand Canyon.
Rangers say they are too gifted to go down; but Rangers always say that. Even Kevin Gallen, who has hung around Loftus Road like a pair of comfy old slippers as the side pinged between three divisions, has finally had enough and departed. Is Gregory safe? Well, could the club afford to pay off yet another manager?
Commentators love describing clubs as "big". Perhaps Queen's Park Rangers was never quite that. But the game would have been a lot less beautiful without those blue and white hoops. I do not know the source of the madness gripping Rangers. But I do know it's a footballing tragedy.
Hoops history: How League runners-up and Wembley winners fell on hard times
Honours: Div 1 runners-up 1975-76; Div 2 champions 1982-83; Div 3 champions 1967-68; Div 3 South champions 1947-48; FA Cup r-up 1982; League Cup winners 1967, runners-up 1986.
Most Capped Player: Alan McDonald (52, N Ireland).
Most League Appearances: Tony Ingham, 519 (1950-63).
Record Transfer Fees:
Paid £2.75m Mike Sheron from Stoke City, July 1997. Received £6m Les Ferdinand to Newcastle United, June 1995.
League Record: 1920 Original Members of Div 3; 1921-48 Div 3 South; 1948-52 Div 2; 1952- 58 Div 3 South; 1958-67 Div 3; 1967-68 Div 2; 1968-69 Div 1; 1969-73 Div 2; 1973-79 Div 1; 1979-83 Div 2;1983-92 Div 1; 1992-96 Premier League; 1996-2001 Div 1; 2001-04 Div 2; 2004- Championship.
Most recent managers: Ray Wilkins (1994-96); Stewart Houston (1996-97); Ray Harford (1997-98); Gerry Francis (1998-2001); Ian Holloway (2001-06); Gary Waddock (Feb-Sept 2006); John Gregory (Sept 2006-).Reuse content