Mat Hodgson could probably fit a quart in a pint pot as a party trick, which is just as well. The director of “The Four-Year Plan” had enough material from the reign of motor-racing tycoon Flavio Briatore, and others, at west London club Queens Park Rangers for either (a) “an entire conference” (Fawlty Towers, 1979) or (b) six one hour episodes of a documentary series. “At least it wasn’t called the “five-year plan”, a friend noted, unaware of the Nazi connotations of the actual title. But only a warped sense of perspective would lead you to draw any parallels between 1930s Germany and 2007 Shepherd’s Bush; a sense of perspective such as Briatore’s, in fact.
Hodgson must have known straightaway that Briatore would be the film’s star. Whether he every conceivable emotional Italian stereotype from QPR’s directors’ box, or was a disembodied, unheard presence on the end of a mobile phone, Briatore dominated the first hour of the film. And it was surely no co-incidence that his presence, on or off camera, was in inverse proportion to QPR’s on-field success, though this may have been down to clever editing. Early shots of the directors’ box focused on both the front row and Briatore’s seat in row two. Later shots, from a not-noticeably different camera position, focused entirely on the front row. So when later shots of directors’ box celebrations had to pan out to capture various leaping bodies, it was a minor shock to discover Briatore in his old seat, but not a “presence” at all.
Briatore was but one of the filthy rich group of businessmen who bought QPR from the brink of extinction in 2007. Their combined wealth allowed newspapers to brand QPR technically the richest club in the world. And “brand” was a key early word, appearing at least three times before the opening credits. The “brand”, however, was not the story, thank heavens. The new board, with all human life on show, was. Whichever stereotype Briatore missed, self-confessed “lapdog”, chairman Gianni Paladini covered. Vice-chairman Amit Bhatia, son-in-law of the richest but quietest of QPR’s rich men, Lakshmi Mittal, was the Dulwich College-educated, calm business head, an unreasonable world’s voice of reason (Mittal was matched in the mute stakes by Bernie Ecclestone, who barely registered in the film).
And there was the manager Iain Dowie… no, Paolo Sousa… erm… Jim Magilton… of course. Briatore grew impatient with “this idiot,” (Dowie), “that idiot” (Magilton) and “complete idiot” (Magilton, again…or was it Sousa?), all chosen by Briatore himself, of course, although Paladini wasn’t about to say so. “Once you start losing, they lose their marbles,” he noted, describing the fast-growing list of ex-managers in terms which would have fitted Briatore absolutely – an irony that was almost too painful to watch. Hodgson caught Dowie on camera, telling a dug-out colleague at a reserve game that he and Briatore got on “fine” but “I’m not gonna just agree with what he says.” So Hodgson’s boast of “access all areas” was not an idle one (two minutes later in the film, the otherwise blank screen bore the legend: “Iain Dowie is sacked as QPR manager”).
You did wonder how much access was required before Briatore “got one right” about the team – lengthy, curse-filled pleas to bring on Gavin Mahon against Cardiff, vindicated by the striker’s terrific late winning header. And you had to wonder equally why such access continued while Briatore, Paladini and finance chief Alejandro Agag discussed a second-half substitution the day before one particular match under pliant caretaker boss Gareth Ainsworth.
Without knowing Paladini’s… erm… ‘complex’ football past, you could warm to his eccentricities and passion. He cared more than the others. Indeed he nearly did himself and the directors’ box a mischief with a right-foot volley of more power and accuracy than any from QPR’s misfiring forwards (except in the promotion season and, oddly, against Preston) – possibly the most violent reaction ever to an 80th-minute Hull City equaliser. And he had an endearing part in QPR’s promotion celebrations, hair tousled into electric-shock mould, glasses knocked askew like Eric Morecambe in a Picasso, bear hugs for players unprepared for them, and tears…lots of tears.
But the film hinted at enough of Paladini’s ‘other’ side. His kow-towing to Briatore included his snivelling role in the departure of striker Dexter Blackstock. “If this doesn’t happen, I get the sack,” he lied as he started Briatore’s dirty work. “Not me, innit”, he pleaded, pathetically to player Fitz Hall’s suggestion that QPR “didn’t want to make the play-offs now” because they were transferring their top-scorer. More important still was his role in QPR’s controversial acquisition of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin. A bewildered Briatore asked him why the FA was investigating and was as unconvinced as any viewer by his blanket denial of wrongdoing. “So why are we up to our necks in shit?” Briatore asked, possibly echoing the thoughts and words of a nation. And with Paladini making Briatore seem like the good guy for the only time in the film and, quite possibly, the decade, it was easy to believe that the former agent’s tears were those of relief at “getting away with it,” on hearing that there would be “no points deduction” for two matters of which QPR were (i.e. he was) found guilty.
Hamstrung by film length, Hodgson could not detail the Faurlin affair any more than the persistent boardroom power struggles. Bhatia was filmed in phone conversation with an unidentified associate bemoaning his Swordfish Investments private equity fund’s failure to gain a 50% stake during 2010. “I’m totally amazed,” Bhatia explained. “What seemed like a done deal… is now up in the air and I’m terribly confused.” It was an issue which would have merited one part of the aforementioned, hypothetical six-part documentary. But without the luxury of such time, this scene told enough of the tale to keep viewers sufficiently informed, a trick Hodgson performed successfully throughout. He was similarly economic in using the Championship table and a newspaper billboard to convey on-field and off-field contexts. This, and the absence of a voice-over, cut down what might have been 10% of some films to less than a minute, allowing proper screen time to the many co-stars in the tale, which allowed a more complete telling of the tale.
Each manager was given this proper screen time to establish their proper place in the story. Particularly revealing was Paolo Sousa’s introduction to a playing squad split between the uncomprehending and the indifferent, asking them for “ambitions, work and loyalty…loyalty,” perhaps aware that he wasn’t going to get the latter two from Briatore. Only Neil Warnock came across as a completely good guy, in a set of very well-filmed encounters. He displayed diplomacy and charm which wouldn’t have tallied with most viewers’ expectations, mixing equally naturally with the executive and ‘ordinary’ punters. Likewise with club captain Mikele Leigertwood. “Have you shook hands a few times with different managers?” Warnock quipped in front of Paladini, whose laughter betrayed a realisation that this joke was on him.
He wowed the press pack with his insistence that his players should “enjoy it, they’re getting paid a fortune to play football.” And he timeously cut short Leigertwood at a “platinum fan members’ meeting” (no wonder some fans used to sing “we want our Rangers back”) before the disgruntled captain could explain why “the last three years have been a nightmare.” “When they came in, the club was in a mess…we shouldn’t forget that altogether,” noted Warnock, not forgetting altogether that ‘they’ were still his and Leigertwood’s employers. “Successful men treat their business like they’re used to and, in their eyes, that’s how you do things”, he added, simultaneously diplomatic and scathing. He was relaxed in informal chats with Bhatia over transfer funds, filmed with completely random, co-incidental background shots of Harry Redknapp on his mobile phone (not sending a text message, of course, because he never has). And his curt dismissal of the “winners-only” sticker on the home dressing room door was a joy. “Have to take that off,” he said, as he passed the sign which had made an incongruous, hackle-raising appearance in the film’s earliest shots. Whether Warnock was mindful of the league table or disdainful of the psychobabble, he was already more impressive than all his predecessors combined.
Supporters, too, got respectful treatment in the film. For every fan screaming “Briatore is a w***er” outside Loftus Road, there was a fan association member calmly telling Bhatia of the fans who “want to come” but “can’t afford to come,” which stressed just how out of touch Briatore in dismissing fans as those “who pay £10.” (Bhatia, of course, temporarily resigned as vice-chairman last year over this issue). Though viewers would have “known the result,” the film captured the quiet tension of the last day of the season well, when QPR only found out for sure an hour before kick-off that the Championship title and promotion were theirs. And the cameras – and microphones – were in exactly the right place exactly when the news broke, via a manic Paladini screaming “no points deduction!! no points deduction!!” like he’d won a bloody “free bet!!!” at Ladbrokes.
A post-match interviewer sarcastically suggested to Bhatia that the four-year plan’s success “was never in doubt.” Bhatia’s reference to “bumps along the way” was nicely understated. And by then we’d seen enough to know just how understated it was. The film’s television premiere was well-timed. It came on a day when the arrogance and ignorance of west London football club owners was making headlines again, and the day after current Rs owner Tony Fernandes “did a Paladini” in front of the TV cameras and behind the goal during the match with Everton. And while there was enough match footage to keep football fans happy (those outside Preston, that is), it was a film to grab the attention of non-football, non-sports fans too. It was ninety minutes well spent. Better spent – as I’m sure others have said – than watching most QPR games in the months since.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.