Wright bringing harmony to Wasps and QPR

David Aaronovitch on a music mogul's designs for football and rugby in unison
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Hard by the A40(M) flyover (Oxford in an hour), in the middle of the giant White City estate, bordered by roads named in the aftermath of the Boer War (South Africa, Bloemfontein, Mafeking), stands the dinky- doo little stadium of Queen's Park Rangers. Only the tall floodlight stems and the large logo distinguish it from some of the low level sixties housing in the area. Inside, where there is room for 19,000 fans to sit, the newish stands (nowhere much taller than a double-decker bus) crowd to the edge of the pitch, creating an intimacy rather like that of the recreated Shakespeare's Globe theatre in Southwark - and utterly unlike the vastnesses of Highbury or Old Trafford.

Everybody likes QPR. For years they have played nice football, without having the temerity actually to win anything (save for one glorious League Cup back in 1967. Oh Mark Lazarus, Peter Springett, Frank Sibley, where are you now? No, I don't really want to know, either). And it was here - despite being a Tottenham man - that I watched my first live match on New Year's Day 1973, when the Rangers gave Manchester United a 3-1 slapping. In all this time they have generally been thought of as London's fifth team (after West Ham, but before Palace - leaving Wimbledon out altogether). It hardly seems the place for a sports revolution.

But there are some strange things about this club. Among the list of the dozen or so companies holding executive boxes (Coopers and Lybrand have two, some outfit called MR Security has another two) are no less than three music companies: Skhratch Music, HMV UK and EMI records. For Rangers are for the music industry what Arsenal are for bald writers, Tottenham are for us Jews and Chelsea are for Conservative politicians.

So here we are, overlooking the pitch, to listen to the club chairman Chris Wright, (multi-millionaire music mogul, boss of Chrysalis, the man widely blamed for discovering Genesis), unveil his plans for his beloved Rangers. And what plans they are. Mr Wright has also bought Wasps Rugby Union Football Club (based in a suburb of London called Sudbury, which I have never visited) and merged the two sports operations in one - Loftus Road plc. This season 12 rugby matches will be played at the ground, within easy travelling distance of central London. They include Wasps versus the Welsh champions, Cardiff, and a match against Toulouse. It is a unique proposition.

Its author is an archetype of the new breed. Bransonesque in appearance, he probably looks far smarter in Davy Crockett coat or Bermuda shorts, than he contrives to be in shirt and tie. He also sports the Sugar/Yentob "beard" of successful 90s men, as worn by those who don't actually like beards, but aren't that keen on their faces either. He is genial, understated, lacking in the enormous pomposity of the soccer chairmen of old and immensely ambitious.

He believes that Wasps and Rangers can be good for each other; they will be promoted together, their sales operations merged, their fans encouraged into cross support. Season ticket holders at Loftus Road can come to a football match (or "show" as Mr Wright engagingly calls them) one week and watch Bristol or Bath the next. So, on Sunday 8 September, Saracens visit QPR and, if more than 5,000 or 6,000 turn up, Chris Wright will be vindicated. In the long term, if both teams were successful and support grew, then he might be looking at building a new stadium. This, as a senior executive put it to me, would be outside football-ground bespeckled London and "in the M40 corridor", somewhere in the under-served Western sprawl.

The Rugger lot, poor relations in every way, profess themselves ecstatic with the arrangement. Wasps' chief executive, Geoff Huckstep - who has clearly spent a whole productive season in the Coopers and Lybrand suite - is keen to "give an indication of some of the synergies", while accepting the need "in the fullness of time to evolve some corporate identity". Now, you never heard old farts talking like that, did you? Which is why old farts wouldn't have brought off the coup that Mr Huckstep has, that of signing up All-Black winger, Va'aiga Tuigamala, who has taken a real shine to the Loftus Road stadium. He will join Wasps next month after Wigan's season has finished and will return to Wigan for pre-season training early in 1997.

The one big problem with this deal is the pitch. Football needs nice, flat, unrutted surfaces, so that the best players on the continent can shimmy and turn. Rugby players prefer a slushy mudpit, so that it hurts less when you're tackled. And the Rangers pitch, which they allow us to walk on, is a thing of beauty; it is such a lovely vibrant green, so soft, springy and earth-smelling, that I want to take it home with me and make mossy love to it. But won't Mr Tuigamala and friends ruin it? Apparently not. Turf specialists have declared that the grass can cope. And "we have 1,000 square metres of spare turf in identical condition in storage, should the need arise", says the Operations Director, Alan Hedges. Whew.

As I make my way out of the Executive entrance, a sparkling navy blue Range Rover parks half on the pavement, and a tall brown man with gold shades brushes past. It is the former England striker Mark Hateley, every inch a modern sporting hero, dropping in to "pick up some stuff from Ray", before going off to Leeds United on loan. In South Africa Road, with the rundown Springbok pub and the metal-grilled William Hills and the urchin in the QPR shirt, Hateley cuts an incongruous figure. He would look far more at home in the M40 corridor.

Comments