Since they claimed top spot in the Championship from the very beginning of last season, Queens Park Rangers have seemed certain to be playing Premiership football this season. For 15 years the fans from Loftus Road have been dreaming of seeing the R's return to the top division of English football, but before a ball is even kicked in the 2011/2012 season, QPR's hopes of survival are already seriously in doubt.
The return of QPR to the Premier League has been an expectation of their fans since their relegation to Division 1 in 1996, and a realistic expectation of many since the takeover of Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore in August 2007 and the purchasing of a minority stake of shares by Lakshmi Mittal in December of the same year. The new owners gave QPR the potential to become one of the richest clubs in the world should they invest heavily. This was not to be the case, though it was not this aspect of the ownership which has made the pair so unpopular amongst QPR supporters. In an age where media coverage of club owners is at an all-time high, Ecclestone and Briatore have made no effort to present themselves in a favourable light; whilst Mittal is not in the light at all. No effort was made to play down stories that Ecclestone originally thought Briatore meant KFC when he proposed the idea of investment to him, and has since gone on record admitting he only knows a two of the squad’s names (and not full names simply ‘that guy who scores goals for us...(Adel) Taarabt’, and loanee (Wayne) ‘Routledge’) and famously reasoning that he only goes to ‘local’ games when asked to explain why he would not attend what turned out to be QPR’s promotion clinching match away to Watford. But more than this, in the same interview Ecclestone stated he left matches at half time, as ‘by then you can tell which way it’s going’. If ever a man wanted to endear himself to his club fans, it certainly isn’t Bernie Ecclestone. However this is not a trait that is Ecclestone’s alone; at the unveiling of a plaque earlier this month to commemorate the birthplace of QPR in Queen’s Park 125 years ago, not a single board member was present.
This style of ownership is causing problems within QPR. Ecclestone’s admission that he doesn’t know much about football means most of the decision making within the club is being left to chairman Gianni Paladini, an ex-agent who hardly has a record for doing the best thing for his charges, having been the agent for serial club-hopper and ex-Middlesbrough man Emerson. Paladini and Briatore’s links with Italian football were the reasoning for the appointment of Luigi De Canio back in 2007, as well as the sposnsorship of Lotto Sport. With this in mind it is no surprise that since QPR have gained promotion a string of Italian managers including World Cup winner Marcello Lippi have been linked with Neil Warnock’s job, despite reassurances from Ecclestone it is safe. Warnock has come out a number of times saying he is unsure of his job safety, despite guarantees from the board.
Attempts to shrug off these rumours and get on with the job are proving a hard task. The seven times promoted manager saw his attempt to bring Craig Mackail-Smith to West London scuppered as Mackail-Smith was unwilling to commit when he was unsure of the future of Warnock. Mackail-Smith is one of the few players QPR have really looked like sigining this season, with Warnock recently claiming he only had £1.25 million to spend, a pittance in today’s market. This figure seems even smaller when you consider not only the wealth of the men who still hold shares in QPR (Mittal is reportedly the 8th richest man in the world), but also the monetary prize promotion to the Premiership brings, an estimated £90 million. This figure seems even smaller still when the ticket price hike is considered. The cheapest ticket at Loftus Road (one which will have a restricted view) will cost £47, up nearly 40% on last season. The prices caused outrage amongst fans and just served to push more distance between themselves and the owners, and even caused problems amongst the board, with Amit Bhatia resigning as vice-chairman in protest. This is not the first instance of QPR having low transfer funds, Alejandro Faurlin is the most expensive player post-takeover costing just £3.5 million. The rest of the players brought in have either been well managed to produce quality performances after showing less potential elsewhere, such as Routledge, Kasper Gorkss and Adel Taarabt, or smart buys from struggling clubs such as Paddy Kenny and Jamie Mackie.
Despite their limited budget, QPR have made two signings this summer in Keiron Dyer and Jay Bothroyd, and at the time of writing it looks certain QPR are to sign another free agent in Danny Gabbidon. Despite the apparent ease with which they won the Championship last year, QPR need more than one £1.25 million signing and a handful of free agents to survive in the Premiership. With Dyer the question has to be asked what can a player who couldn’t even stay in the first team squad (Dyer was loaned out to Ipswich in March) of a relegation team last season add to a team that is near-certain to be in relegation battles this season? That is, if he even makes it on to the field. Dyer made 30 appearances in four years with West Ham, and whilst he has since blasted the Hammers for their treatment of him, it cannot be ignored that Dyer was out for nearly a year and a half with a broken leg whilst in East London; roughly the same amount of time Gabbidon was out of action for West Ham also, making him another risky signing. What is it they say about not putting all your eggs in one basket? And then we come to Bothroyd, a player who had a fine start to last season, with 15 goals in 16 appearances earning him an England call-up, but he only finished the season with 18 goals, never looking the same after hamstring and heel injuries in December and January. Although the QPR defence was the fourth best in all four divisions in England last season, it will be facing much sterner tests this term and needs to be seriously bolstered before it faces some of the best attacking forces in the world. The example of Blackpool, who focused their activity in the transfer market entirely on their attacking line (2 of 11 payers signed in the summer defenders, and 1 of 4 in January a defender, with 1 of the defenders signed in the summer leaving the club in January) and paid the price, is a shining one of the pitfalls of failing to give your defence the attention it requires in the Premier League, with Blackpool conceding more goals than anyone last season by 6 goals. And it is not only the defence that needs addressing, with goalkeeper being the only position in which they have real Premiership quality with Paddy Kenny and his back-up Radek Cerny.
With a season ahead which promises little joy, little spending and little care for the fans, it might be best in the long run if Queens Park Rangers take this season on the chin and head back down to the Championship and hopefully come back in the near future with a real board, a real plan and a real chance.