Wright rues a sporting life of headaches and hassle

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The Independent Online
It was supposed to be the road to riches. Football was a gold mine, rugby union was the next football and any self-respecting businessman would be crazy not to jump aboard. Chris Wright put his record collection on one side and bought Queen's Park Rangers and Wasps, only to find the sporting street full of potholes.

The last time I met up with Chris Wright, the chairman of the Chrysalis Group, who last year joined the growing band of entrepreneurs who had bought themselves into sport, he was enjoying his newest investments.

His rugby club, Wasps, were well on the way to clinching the Premiership title, booking themselves an automatic place in the European Cup as a consequence, while his football club, Queen's Park Rangers, were perfectly entitled to be looking at a play-off place and, possibly, trips to Old Trafford and Highbury this season. The Sheffield Sharks ice hockey team, yet another Wright acquisition, were holding their own, and even his racehorses were bringing home some bread.

Ten months on and Wright is sitting in his colourful, west London office, with a rueful smile on his face. "Where were you a year ago when I needed someone to tell me not to do it?" he asks me, only partly in jest. "I sometimes wonder why on earth I bothered to get into this in the first place. I can only assume I must have been mad."

His sentiments are explained by the downward spiral of fortune that seems to have hit both of his major sporting investments. Wasps, who suffered a 53-17 hiding at Harlequins on Saturday, are languishing in the lower half of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, while QPR find themselves in mid- table, having recently, and somewhat messily, hired manager Ray Harford at the expense of Stewart Houston and Bruce Rioch.

Oh dear, this is not quite what Wright had in plan. Let's begin with the English rugby champions. "For some obscure reason Wasps have started badly," he says, settling back on his sofa. "I can accept losing at home to Brive, and I know that Sale and Saracens are good teams, but I can't forgive them for losing at London Irish. We've got a lot of injuries and key players out, and with the Five Nations looming as well, I can't say the future's looking bright. The most we can hope for, I reckon, is a top four place, but it would help if the structure was in place."

It does not take long for Wright to get on to what he sees as the most serious, and threatening issue in rugby. The structure - or rather the lack of it - is casting serious doubts in the minds of the new investors who have flocked to the new, professional game. Only last Thursday, Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board, revealed yet another blueprint for the game's future.

"We never know what the structure of this game will be from one day to the next," is how Wright puts it. "It's in a complete mess. Rugby, at this point, is the worst-run sport I can think of. It even makes the Jockey Club look good."

So, this extraordinarily successful businessmen is not too enamoured with the oval ball game. "There are a few plusses," he begins. "We've had some respectable crowds at Loftus Road, and we have the advantage of not having to provide our own ground, but the crowds aren't building as they should be.

"We haven't got a chance with the season structured as it is now. As soon as we begin to get people in the habit of coming to matches, we don't then have a match for them to watch. The last Wasps game was in October. Our next one is on December 30th, on a Tuesday evening. God knows when the next Sunday home match is!"

I suggested that perhaps Wright should have been aware of this problem before throwing himself into the cause. He delivers a slightly resigned sigh. "Well, I guess I'll have to admit I didn't know how bad the structure was, and I wasn't to know that four internationals would be planned, back- to-back, this side of Christmas.

"I believed club rugby was supposed to be an integral part of the game. I was not aware that the RFU has its own agenda, and I sometimes think they'd like to get rid of club rugby completely. The bottom line is that, although the product on the pitch has improved, as have the facilities and the coverage of the game, the finances have not got better, and neither have the attendances or the ability to market the game. In fact the game is worse than when I first came into it."

So what does all this mean for Wasps, supposedly one of the famous big four, if not big two clubs in the country? "It means that we will have to cut our cape according to our cloth, which will result in some kind of entrenchment.

"There's no point in winning the league and then going bust, is there? We have to discipline ourselves. There are some rough seas to sail through, and I don't know when, or even if, these seas will subside, but I do know we'll have to batten down the hatches. We will need to trim our budget at Wasps, that's for sure because, right now, we are losing money."

Is this the case everywhere? "More or less, but there will be those who won't cut back. It could mean, short-term, that they could take the club honours, but at what cost to their long-term existence?"

I put it to Wright that those within the game who eye his and his fellow businessmen's involvement with scepticism, will now be claiming that their predictions were right all along. "The RFU would be thrilled if people like me, Nigel Wray at Saracens and Ashley Levett at Richmond moved on, because they see us as an invasion of their cosy existence. I think it's a terrible thing that people still resent us coming in to rugby. All we're trying to do is to drag the sport out of the horse and buggy age, and into the 20th century.

"The reason why we're fulfilling some of these people's prophesies is because it is how they want it. They are not helping us at all. I am, to be frank, growing pissed off with the poor administration, and my patience is beginning to wear thin."

Yet, despite his mood, Wright is not deserting the ship. "Far from it," he insists. "I can tell you that all the club owners are united in trying to get it right. We're not throwing in the towel and I, for one, am determined to see this through."

It's not going that much better at QPR, either, a team Wright expected to be, at least, challenging for promotion. "Right now we're not and it's clearly going to be a struggle to do so, with Forest and Middlesbrough going so well. We've got the play-offs to aim for, which is why I made the management change now, rather than at the end of the season, which I would definitely have done if we had not gained promotion."

Was it easy sacking Houston? "No, I found it very difficult. I'm not very good at asking people to leave, especially when the person you ask felt he was doing OK. I just felt the combination of Stewart Houston and Bruce Rioch wasn't working."

Maybe, but was it necessary for Rioch to discover that he had been dismissed courtesy of Sky television? "No, you're right," he accepts. "That was unfortunate. Bruce was employed by Stewart, and when we asked Stewart to leave, we told him we wanted Bruce to go as well. He asked us who would tell Bruce, and we asked Stewart to do so.

"Where we went wrong is that we released the news an hour later, assuming that Stewart had told Bruce. It didn't look good, and we should have delayed the announcement going out. It wasn't right, Stewart left it a little late to tell Bruce, and we jumped the gun."

He feels that in Ray Harford he has the right man for the job. "His CV is excellent, apart from his last year at Blackburn, something he has since put right at West Bromwich." And no problems with the Midlands side? "It will all be resolved," he replies, confidently.

Next, quite possibly, will come a new stadium. Wright is looking hard at a site in Hillingdon, on the outskirts of west London. "I'm a great believer that sport is very much facility-led. Look at Middlesbrough. They were averaging 12,000 as a mid-to-lower-table First Division side a few years ago. They weren't a glamour club at all. Now they've got a spanking new stadium, and even though they are in the new First Division, they're averaging 30,000 a game.

"So, if I can build a new stadium in the right location, I'll probably double my attendances just because people could drive there and park their cars, get a decent meal and a seat. If we can get it together then it would make a good, joint home for QPR and Wasps, but I need to feel a bit more confident about QPR's ability to get back into the Premiership first."

I ask him if all this has been worth his while. "I was happy enough going to QPR and screaming abuse at the chairman, the managers, the players and the referee, and then going home," he admits. So why did he take the plunge? "Because it was there," he answers. "So I did it. There was a belief that football was becoming a business, and not just a sport, and that rugby would become the next football. So that's why I did it."

Chris Wright has been nothing but honest, which is why, as our meeting concluded, he laughed at my query about whether he might be interested in acquiring any further sports teams. "No, thank you very much," he replies. "My sports cup is overflowing as it is. If it worked smoothly, I wouldn't have a problem, but right now, it's more hassle than I need.

"Still," he adds, with a wry smile on his face. "At least my horses are still winning. So at least something's going right."