It’s possible that there has never been an atmosphere quite as odd at what was purported to be a promotion party as that at Loftus Road before Queens Park Rangers’ final match in last year’s Championship against Leeds United last season. Rangers were already, theoretically at least, comfortably promoted according to that morning’s league table, but it wasn’t until news came through about an hour before kick-off that the club was not to be deducted points on account of the Alejandro Faurlin affair that the party could really get started. The supporters of the club had been a decade and a half without Premier League football and their team had been, by common assent, the best in the division all season. At times, the team had played some thrilling football and their promotion had taken the feeling of being little more than a coronation from before last Christmas. In short, they deserved it.
Over the course of the summer, though, cracks which have been evident since Ecclestone and Briatore first took control of the club have rapidly become more and more apparent from the outside, and this summer has seen the contempt of many of the clubs supporters descend into a state of something approaching a complete breakdown, with many holding the owners of the club for a level of its mismanagement that even the prospect of a first season in the Premier League in fifteen years could be indelibly tarnished for them. The rumours have run the full gamut – from arguably their best player of last season, Adel Taarabt, being constantly linked with a move to Paris St Germain to the possibility that the club was lining up Claudio Ranieri as a replacement for manager Neil Warnock while the body of last season was still warm – and these were just the rumours. What has actually been going on, though, has been, if anything, been even more troubling than the rumours.
Queens Park Ranger’s summer has been punctuated by boardroom bickering and furious supporters. In the first place, there was Bernie Ecclestone’s refusal to sell his shareholding in the club to Lakshmi Bhatia, which led to the resignation of his son-in-law Amit, the club’s vice chairman. Amit had some choice words to accompany his resignation, and the ownership of the club has been available – at a price – for some time. With the start of the new season around the corner, it is believed that the prospective new owner is the businessman Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian founder of Air Asia and principal of the Team Lotus Formula One racing car company, but even if he were to manage to get control of the club by the end of the transfer window, there is still no guarantee that Fernandes would put in the money required into the team in order to build upon last season’s success himself. Many supporters remain, perhaps unsurprisingly, suspicious of Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, and one of the question marks hanging over Queens Park Rangers’ season is that of, if they are not able to sell quickly, how long they will be able to brazen things out at Loftus Road.
Then there is the small matter of a huge price hike for tickets, once promotion to the Premier League had been secured. Queens Park Rangers have, like so many other clubs that have spent time in the middle ranking of the Football League in recent years, been dependent upon those that paid to turn out every other Saturday, as often as not to watch rubbish to some degree, to keep themselves afloat. Those supporters were “rewarded” with massive price hikes for tickets for next season, and indication of the extent to which they seem to be treated as at best an inconvenience by those that run the club. This morning, an article on the BBC’s website confirmed what many had suspected. Queens Park Rangers, the occasionally down-at-heel but ultimately likeable club from West London, would be the second most expensive club in the Premier League at which to enjoy the cheapest match-day experience. More expensive than Manchester United and (for those that might seek to push the point that being from London carries a price premium) Tottenham Hotspur.
There were muffled sniggers from elsewhere when the announcement was made, upon new owners taking control a couple of years ago, that Queens Park Rangers were to be posited as a “marquee” club. This summer, these price rises felt, to many Rangers supporters, like the final act of what this rebranding would mean, as far as they were concerned. The anger was perhaps most venomously articulated in this exercise in spleen-venting on the Rangers website Blog And White Hoops, the final paragraph of which is about as damning a verdict upon those running the club as could be imagined. Meanwhile, on the playing side, Neil Warnock’s position has hardly been strengthened by the paucity of money made available to him this summer. Kieron Dyer, a player as acquainted with the physio’s room as the pitch in recent years, and Jay Bothroyd have arrived at the club on free transfers and it is anticipated that DJ Campbell will join them from Blackpool, but other players that Warnock may have wished to bring into the club have gone elsewhere.
All of this leads to a sense that, no matter how successful those running Queens Park Rangers may have been in other areas of their lives, that they still haven’t fully got to grips with the very peculiar business of running a football club. On top of the lack money for squad-strengthening, the boardroom wrangling, the price hikes and hanging axe over the head of a promotion-winning manager come an assortment of other misdemeanours since taking over the club which include (but aren’t limited to) replacing the club’s badge with one that resembles one of the fake club badges from the Pro Evolution Soccer video game, not having a new kit launched with less than two weeks left until the start of the season and getting involved with a film called The Four Year Plan, the trailer for which has already unleashed another torrent of ridicule from some quarters.
The problems that Queens Park Rangers face going into the new season seem self-evident. The team’s performance last season hinted at a team that was plenty capable of holding its own in the Premier League, if a little investment could bring some much-needed experience into the club. As things stand, though, the club has signed three players of mixed reputations, none of whom inspire a great deal of confidence that the first team squad has been strengthened by their arrival. On top of this, the arguing behind the scenes seems unlikely to abate, the manager’s authority has been undermined and the supporters are in open revolt against the owners of the club. For newly-promoted clubs – particularly those with no recent experience of the division – staying in the Premier League is likely to be a dog eat dog business, and it can surely only be helpful to have everybody onside and pulling in the same direction. As things seem, any success that Queens Park Rangers do have over the next ten months which will be in spite of, rather than with the assistance of, the atmosphere around the club at present.
Perhaps the bigger questions for the club are in the longer term than this. Queens Park Rangers may well be able to sell their Premier League tickets at the exorbitant prices that they have selected for next season, but it feels as if some fundamental bonds of trust between the club and its support have been fractured this summer, and those driven away or turned off by the circus may not return should the club fall on leaner times again further down the line. Perhaps those bonds can begin to heal if (or when) Ecclestone and Briatore get out of the club, but it may be too late for the coming season, and herein lies perhaps the saddest aspect of this entire story. At a time when Queens Park Rangers supporters of all ages should be beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of a returning to a stage that they were part of for many years until a decade and a half ago, there has been a distinct souring of the air hanging over Loftus Road of late. It has been an insult to the supporters of the club and, should the issues concerning its ownership not be resolved to the satisfaction of said supporters, it may be a sequence of events that those running the club come to repent at leisure.
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