Power Rangers

Bernie Ecclestone’s takeover at QPR and how it nearly cost the club promotion

Roman Abramovich is said to be an enigma because he never speaks in public. In fact he might have done so occasionally but no reporter has been allowed to get close enough to hear him. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with another owner of a west London club, QPR’s Bernie Ecclestone, who seems to announce every thought that has passed through his head. He has had plenty to say about QPR lately, none of which will have impressed Rangers fans.

While Abramovich has never felt a need to explain his involvement with Chelsea he does at least turn up to watch them play, something that Formula One boss Ecclestone regards as a chore. “When I do go to football, I leave at half-time. By then you can see which way it’s going,” he told the Daily Mail, adding that he didn’t intend to take in QPR’s title-clinching match at Watford because it was too far to travel. Ecclestone might at least make the short trip to Stamford Bridge next season, however, as he has been there before: “I am a Chelsea fan and sometimes I joined Roman in his box.”

Ecclestone and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who is wealthier than Abramovich despite losing £7 billion last year, own 95 per cent of QPR. Even if they had plans to create a super-club in Shepherd’s Bush, promotion to the Premier League would not significantly increase QPR’s support base at a time when their neighbours Fulham and Chelsea are having their most successful periods ever.

In any case, the impression is that QPR’s owners see the club as a modest indulgence, somewhere to take associates for a few hours – even if Ecclestone’s guests aren’t given much time to settle before being whisked away. When the billionaires first got involved in 2007, alongside Italian racing entrepreneur Flavio Briatore, whom Ecclestone bought out last December, it was assumed that they would spend lavishly to secure promotion.

In fact, relatively little money has been put into team-building. The £3.5 million spent on Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlín in July 2009 was the highest fee paid so far, although it could have cost the club promotion. An FA hearing held at the start of May investigated alleged breaches of the rules relating to Faurlín’s contract. These only came to light in September last year when QPR themselves contacted the football authorities, who took a further seven months to launch an enquiry.

The club were found guilty on two of seven charges, but were given a fine rather than a points deduction because it was decided that the principal regulations to do with third-party ownership had not been broken. At the time of writing, Swansea, who finished third and would have been the main beneficiaries of a points deduction, are considering legal action against the verdict.

Many find Neil Warnock, QPR’s attention-seeking manager, difficult to take but his side were clearly the best in their division last season. To return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence is also a major achievement for a club that was in administration at the third level less than a decade ago. But it’s conceivable that the Faurlín verdict was influenced by the time of year it was made, in the build-up to the final round of Championship fixtures, and perhaps by the prospect of legal action by the club’s owners if the decision went against them.

It’s not as if this is the first time such an issue has come up. Ten years ago Aston Villa’s signing of Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel from Argentina’s River Plate was held up when it seemed that the bulk of transfer fee was to go to an agent. In 2006, West Ham provided false information about their signing of Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano, whose contracts were owned by the agency MSI. Although Tévez’s goals had been vital to their survival, West Ham escaped a points deduction and were only required to compensate Sheffield Utd who went down in their place. Having been roundly criticised for mishandling the Tévez case the football authorities declared that their procedures would be tightened up to prevent a repeat.

That it should have taken almost the entire season to address Faurlín’s case is ludicrous. The problems with the player’s registration seem to have applied only to his first season, in 2009-10, but QPR should not have been allowed to continue using Faurlín until the issue had been resolved. Still, football is not yet the worst-run sport in terms of bungled judgments. As Ecclestone will be aware, that honour rests securely with Formula One.

From WSC 292 June 2011