THIS WAS A STORY that never seemed to unfold the way onlookers would have expected. No matter the twists and the turns, the odd and chaotic reign of Formula One moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore at Queens Park Rangers was an incredible journey that seemed to change course on a monthly basis, depending on hard finances, heroics on the pitch, or simply just the owners’ moods. They had a four-year plan to return the club to the Premier League and subsequent glory, but first they seemingly had to defeat their own self-destructive instincts in order to even get a chance to try.
The West London-based club was one of the original members of the Premier League, but their relegation in 1995 led to a struggle in the lower levels of the footballing pyramid. The turn of the millennia even saw them drop down to Division Two for a few years under the stewardship of Ian Holloway, but they spent most of the post-1995 period in the second tier.
While this might imply a sense of stability, it was nowhere near the case. The club entered administration in 2001 and consequently struggled to pay back a £10 million high-interest emergency loan. On top of this, multiple scandals shook the Rs over the following years, including blackmail allegations and a boardroom coup, not to mention the tragic death of Ray Jones, a promising young striker who lost his life three days before his 19th birthday in a car crash. While the club retired his number 31 shirt – the first time the Londoners have ever done so – by 2007, QPR’s £18 million debt and concerning results in the league meant that liquidation was a real possibility.
Enter Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore alongside Alejandro Agag, a lesser-known but important figure in the F1 empire. They bought the club and its debt outright and were later joined by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and his son-in-law as shareholders. At first, it must have looked like the next Chelsea story, or perhaps a prelude for what was to come at Manchester City: billionaires coming to what was now cheekily referred to as ‘Lo£tus Road’, saving it from bankruptcy and hopefully providing a high enough stack of cash to reach the top of the table. Even then, Premier League clubs averaged over six times the revenue of a Championship side – the goal was obvious.
The way there wasn’t so clear. Briatore quickly took over as chairman and started to put his stamp on every aspect of the club’s life. The old crest was replaced with a completely different design to fit the new owners’ plans of turning QPR into a super-brand, and the Renault managing director even took the opportunity to get rid of Jude the Cat, the popular mascot based on a real black feline that had lived at Loftus Road before being relocated. The superstitious Italian viewed black cats as a source of bad luck; despite an odd attempt at re-spraying Jude grey, it was announced in the 2 February 2008 matchday programme that the poor thing had “gone on holiday”. While not an issue in its own right, it hinted at the Italian’s eccentric ways.
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If that wasn’t bad enough, he also made a habit of interfering with decisions on the pitch, regularly ordering managers to play with more strikers and go for a more exciting approach. Under his chairmanship, the Rs chewed through seven managers in two years. Paulo Sousa was fired due to “divulging sensitive information” as he voiced his disagreement regarding the club’s leading goalscorer being loaned to Nottingham Forest without his input, while his eventual replacement, Jim Magilton, supposedly headbutted his own midfielder in the dressing room after a 3-1 loss to Watford.
In the meantime, the tabloids had a field day with the non-stop flood of speculation, ranging from Luís Figo joining Loftus Road as a player to Zinedine Zidane – with no coaching experience at that point – as a manager. The new owners’ first season in charge yielded a 14th-place finish in the Championship, putting QPR six points clear of relegation but also 12 off a playoff spot.
Despite a promising start, the 2008/09 season didn’t bring a major improvement on the pitch, and the multiple managerial sackings and planned ticket price increases turned the fans against the owners. “We want our Rangers back,” became a regular chant on the stands as the team kept stumbling to mediocre performances. With a financial crisis looming large, it was around this point that finance meetings devolved to changing menu elements and getting fewer flower boxes in order to keep things running. Perhaps understandably, Loftus Road was half empty on match days throughout this turbulent period.
By the middle of the next season, the club was flirting with relegation in 19th place after 30 games, only a point clear of the drop. Around this time, Briatore was essentially forced to take a step back. Internally, he explained the change as a logical step, as “[they had] saved the club at this point” and “somehow found all the incompetent [managers]”.
Of course, the real reason had more to do with the embattled Italian’s personal issues as the consequences of his 2008 race-fixing scandal during the Singapore Grand Prix started to spiral out of control. He was indefinitely banned from FIA-sanctioned events at this point, but the Football League was also getting interested in the subject. They inquired about the availability of the racing association’s evidence in order to determine whether Briatore was expellable under the fit-and-proper-person requirements that had come into effect a few years earlier.
With Briatore stepping back, Neil Warnock was brought in as the fifth manager of the season – “a strong guy with a strong character” according to the vice-chairman. He’d previously led Sheffield United to the Premier League and had an excellent record in playoffs in the 1990s. With him in charge, the team safely navigated the treacherous waters of the remaining months of the season as QPR comfortably avoided relegation.
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Considering the turbulent backdrop, the next season was as close to a fairytale on the pitch as possible, with the Rs getting off to a flying start and seemingly never letting go. Three straight victories followed by a draw turned into 29 points out of the first 13 games with a healthy goal difference and no defeats in the league. Warnock’s new 4-2-3-1 approach relied on Adel Taarabt and was a resounding success, with the team remaining undefeated until the 20th game of the season, when they lost 3-1 to Watford at home.
Even this exciting run wasn’t without its own controversies, as the always outspoken manager referred to Blackburn’s less-than-loved El Hadji Diouf as “the gutter type” and “a nasty little person” regarding his behaviour after a rough challenge between two other players. “I was going to call him a sewer rat but that might be insulting to sewer rats,” he added. While QPR didn’t make it past a single round in either of the cup competitions, they seemed unstoppable in the league, topping the table throughout most of the season.
Then the Football Association intervened. They launched an investigation concerning the signing of Alejandro Faurlín from Instituto de Córdoba two years earlier. It turned out that the player had joined Loftus Road on a free transfer but was still under contract with an American sports agency, violating third-party ownership rules. While the men in suits tried to figure out what was going on, the lads in tracksuits kept winning. If QPR were found guilty on the seven charges, however, they would likely have faced a points deduction.
While uncertainty was nothing new to people around the club at this point, this was a very different kind of sceptre over their heads. The team secured the title with a game to go but was still unsure whether they would make it to the promised land of the Premier League. They had been due to be presented with the trophy at their final match, but there was a real possibility that they would’ve had to have handed it back a few days after.
The FA made their delayed announcement shortly before kick-off of the last game: the club had been found guilty on two of the seven charges, but only resulting in a fine and no points were deducted. The chant of “Campeones, Campeones” could finally ring out around Loftus Road. While they lost the game against Leeds, the fans couldn’t have cared less.
Somehow, despite what seemed like the owners’ best efforts at times, QPR’s four-year plan was completed. It also marked the beginning of the end for popular figures Amit Bhatia and Ishan Saksena as Briatore attempted to return to the forefront. Gianni Paladini, the chairman who seemed to survive everything from the protracted battles of the early 2000s to the FA charges, left the club by mutual consent shortly after the title win. Not long after, Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes bought out the F1 moguls, with Bhatia remaining a minority shareholder to this day.
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Warnock didn’t last long as QPR’s manager. After getting dangerously close to the drop zone, the new regime fired him and brought in Mark Hughes as a replacement. “Obviously I’m very disappointed but, having achieved so much, I leave the club with a great sense of pride,” he said at the time. “I have enjoyed my time here more than anywhere else and the QPR fans have been brilliant with me – they deserve success. My biggest regret is that the takeover didn’t happen earlier, because that would have given me the opportunity to bring in the targets I’d pinpointed all last summer and probably given us a better chance to succeed in the Premier League.”
His next destination was Leeds. Remember “the gutter type”? That spat didn’t have a lasting effect on their relationship as Warnock signed Diouf for his new club. After a short stint at Crystal Palace and a quick return to QPR, he swooped in to save Rotherham from relegation in the Championship. After Warnock stated that he wanted one last season managing in the Championship, Cardiff offered him the chance to do just that this year.
After his sacking, QPR avoided relegation by a single point that season under Hughes despite the title-deciding defeat to Manchester City on the final matchday. The former Manchester United favourite only lasted until 23 November when he was replaced was Harry Redknapp, who guided the team to last place that year, 14 points from safety.
They returned to the top-flight in 2014 after an unexpected win in the playoffs but were immediately relegated again. It was also around this time that they removed the despised crest introduced by Briatore, changing it into something much closer to the one in use between 1982 and 2008. Their current manager is – perhaps ironically – Ian Holloway.
As for the disgraced former Renault boss’s thoughts on the matter, he is unlikely to return to the greener footballing pastures. “I will never invest in a football club again,” he said. “It’s only ever a good idea if you’re very rich and looking for ways to waste your money. In two years, you’ll be very poor and won’t have that problem anymore.”
It’s safe to say that not many have followed his advice, and if prospective new owners are looking at his QPR tenure as an example, they will probably try to achieve a similar result – preferably without the drama and the bans. After all, despite every twist, turn and asterisk, his four-year plan was ultimately – in a literal sense at least – a success.
By Luci Kelemen @luci_kelemen