The only way is down for Queens Park Rangers
All but relegated, QPR provide a valuable lesson in how not to run a club with Premier League aspirations
The former Northern Ireland international and ex-chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, Derek Dougan, once wrote a book titled How Not To Run Football. Dougan, who died in 2007, would have found Queens Park Rangers an interesting case study for an updated version. Like Leeds United, Ports-mouth and others, they are the latest club to live the dream beyond their means and find it becoming a nightmare.
Today they visit Reading knowing both clubs are almost certainly relegated – just as the Premier League's most lucrative broadcasting deal kicks in and the Football League adopts stringent new financial rules that allow losses of only £4m per year. So it is crucial that they go down in good health.
Reading will, having been run prudently by Sir John Madejski before he handed over to the Russian Anton Zingarevich, who confounded all those expecting a mini-Abramovich. By keeping wages under control, not making marquee signings and inserting relegation clauses into contracts, Reading will be in comparatively good shape. As Madejski put it: "We've built this brick by brick and we haven't gone for a quick fix. QPR have got all the hallmarks of quick fix, or allegedly quick fix."
Rangers appear to have made all the worst mistakes of Leeds and Portsmouth, leaving fans fearful they could end up in a similar position; not just in the lower divisions but in administration and uncomfortably close to oblivion.
Professor Tom Cannon of the University of Liverpool, a specialist in football finance, says that relegation (only West Ham of the last nine teams to go down came back up) means they will be facing the worst of both worlds: "Football League regulations are much tougher and QPR have spent so much to stay in the Premier League that the chance of parachute payments balancing the books are really small.
"You can't charge Premier League admission prices in the Championship, crowds and match-day revenue will go down and many of the commercial deals I'd guess will have break-clauses in the event of relegation," he adds. "Then there are the players on long-term contracts they will struggle to sell."
New managers with rich owners tend to want new players. Neil Warnock, Mark Hughes and Harry Redknapp were no exception and agents have had a field day with 24 signings in the four transfer windows since the Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes became chairman in August 2011; on the latest figures only Manchester City and Liverpool spent more on agents' fees.
Rangers were the third highest net transfer spenders in 2012, even before splashing out £20m on Christopher Samba and Loïc Rémy at the start of this year; several other high-profile players were also able to demand huge wages because they came on free transfers, and will be disinclined to move on now unless the club pays up their contracts.
In speculating to accumulate, newly promoted clubs face a difficult balance. The two who also came up the season before last, Norwich City and Swansea City, have shown that it can be done and, as our panel shows, they are in a far healthier position than QPR in every facet of their operation. Crucially, each has survived a change of manager too.
If there is a single indicator of financial health it is the ratio between wages and income. Norwich's figure is the best in the League at under 50 per cent and would be even lower if the salary figure did not include their large catering staff, who under Delia Smith produce significant profits. Swansea, at 53 per cent, could still attract the players to win a trophy.
In their Championship-winning season, QPR spent almost £30m on wages when their income was barely half that – a ratio of 183 per cent. Last season it was reduced to "only" 91 per cent of turnover, with the 12th highest wage bill in the League but only the 17th highest income.
Loftus Road, with a capacity of less than 19,000, was immediately identified as a problem by Fernandes, but having already committed to funding a new training ground, a stadium means only further expenditure; hence a recent £15m loan from Barclays, which in turn has pushed up the club's debts to around £100m.
There was widespread relief when Fernandes bought out the old regime, and brought the wealthy Mittal family back into the fold. Original (and successful) Premier League members, by 2001 they were in the third tier and in administration. The chaotic regime of Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone was captured in the documentary The Four Year Plan – four years in which they went through six managers.
Fernandes made all the right noises about profitability and long-term sustainability and seemed to have an ideal track record in building up comparatively small businesses like his budget airline Air Asia and the Lotus (now Caterham) Formula One team. Yet neither he nor his chief executive, Phil Beard, had football experience or contacts.
As Professor Cannon says: "If you look at successful entrepreneurs, what often happens is that they think football's easy. They think they can do it better, as I think happened to some degree at Newcastle United. Tony Fernandes' plan was to make QPR major players, even when you've already got in London three of the country's top five clubs."
The one positive appears to be the board's genuine long-term commitment, exemplified in securing planning permission last Thursday for the new training ground. "They have enough resources to see them through, as long as they can meet the tough new regulations," Cannon says. "If they keep putting their hands in their pockets, they can avoid becoming another Portsmouth. But it's not going to be a quick fix."
The bottom line
These three teams were promoted two years ago but their finances last season were very different:
All figures to 31 May 2012
Reading v Queens Park Rangers is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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