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Experiencing boutique football at QPR

Paul Fletcher | 12:50 UK time, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Shepherds Bush, London, the Saturday before Christmas.

Hordes of shoppers looking for some last-minute presents are piling into the recently-opened Westfield Centre, west London's mammoth new cathedral to capitalism.

Several hundred yards away a church of a different kind is in session as QPR host Preston in their last fixture before Christmas.

The festive season is in full evidence on the walk to the ground, with supporters discussing their plans and hawkers selling QPR Santa hats (the traditional red giving way to blue). The Superstore is also doing a roaring trade, with security operating a one in, one out system.

In one sense it is a very traditional scene, one that could have been found at grounds the length and breadth of the country. Yet Loftus Road and QPR are changing. The club has been infused with its own touch of Italian style over the last year, with Flavio Briatore presiding over the Championship side.

briatore438.jpgThe 58-year-old Italian has been involved with the club since August 2007 and became chairman of QPR Holdings Ltd in February. Since then a succession of glamorous figures have been spotted at Loftus Road, while Briatore has begun to stamp his vision of Rangers upon the club.

The directors box has been completely overhauled while the area around it is now known as the C Club. It is often fairly empty but its creation involved supporters who had sat in that area for many years being relocated to other parts of the ground. It is clearly a cause of some friction. Top-class dining can now be enjoyed at top restaurant Cipriani, which is built into the main stand, but for the majority of supporters their football grub still takes the form of a pie or a hotdog at the kiosks built into the stands.

Ticket prices themselves remain an issue. I have a mate whose season ticket went up from £395 to £525 over the summer but he reckons that he was relatively fortunate; others went up by 50%.

The mascot has been changed, with the historically relevant Jude the Cat giving way to a tiger, while the club has a new badge and rumours intermittently circulate to the effect that some at QPR would prefer a new name, one that included the word London.

Briatore has made it clear that with Rangers' limited capacity - the ground holds less than 20,000 - he wants it to become a boutique brand. What does this mean?

Inside the directors entrance is a very lush stand of designer clothes and trainers for sale. Prices aren't on display. The first time I saw it I wondered what it was. It oozes luxury. Perhaps this hints at the future.

I was struck on my way to Loftus Road and, later, looking around inside the ground at the number of supporters who are middle-aged. It is a purely anecdotal observation and could be totally wrong so I asked a couple of supporters whether they were concerned about where the next generation of fans are. They agreed it was a concern. Perhaps people are being priced out of watching Rangers? In the club's defence they have held some ticket promotions over recent games. Maybe they do understand the implications of the credit crunch on ordinary people.

It is interesting talking with Rangers fans. They see Rangers as a welcoming, well-supported club with a fine tradition and a distinct place in London's footballing community. But I sense a definite unease about the future. No-one is sure where the club is heading but one thing is for sure. Nobody that I have talked to seemed prepared to sacrifice what they regard as the heart and soul of their club for success.

Whatever people make of Briatore nobody could justifiably accuse him of lacking commitment. It is unusual for him to miss a home game and he has certainly not been scared to make decisions.

Rangers, for example, are on their third manager of the season in former Portugal international Paulo Sousa. The appointment of Sousa is particularly interesting. It is his first managerial role after working with the coaching staff of the Portuguese national team and the early signs are that he is a man capable of succeeding under a chairman who is keen to be kept in the loop.

A colleague of mine visited the training ground days after Sousa's arrival and was impressed with the knowledge he had already gained of the other teams in the Championship. Sousa has apparently watched DVD after DVD in order to bring himself up to speed.

His team play a diamond formation in midfield and it looked extremely effective at times against Preston. Rangers lost the initiative after the break and North End equalised for the second time. Sousa made a decisive double substitution, with his team switching to a 3-4-3 formation. It is testimony to the coaching skills of Sousa that his team quickly looked comfortable after the change and went on to score a late winner.

Sousa was quizzed about his formations by the press afterwards. A clearly intelligent man (he apparently speaks Spanish, Italian, French and English as well as some German and Greek in addition to his native Portuguese), Sousa was asked whether his diamond formation lacked width. I think he both impressed and confused some of the assembled media when he explained how his side are still able to exploit "lateral corridors".sousa438.jpg

Parejo, a flagship Briatore signing in the summer on loan from Real Madrid, has returned to Spain since Sousa arrived, which suggested that he is keen to make his own decisions. Briatore's alleged influence on first-team affairs is the subject of plenty of rumours but Sousa explained on Saturday that he does not discuss strategy with his chairman. He handles himself with style and seems at ease in his role, though time will be the ultimate judge of his relationship with his chairman.

The squad are extremely fit. Performance manager John Harbin has obviously done a superb job and it is no surprise that QPR have won two games this season - against Birmingham and Norwich - after having a player sent off.

There is plenty of quality in the squad as well - Martin Rowlands, Lee Cook, Heidar Helguson - though what happens in January will probably have a big say on the rest of the season (though I think this was somewhat overstated on Saturday when the announcer said over the tannoy "The whole of football is waiting to see what QPR do in January.")

No one is quite sure exactly who is bankrolling the club and to what extent - and Sousa would not be drawn on how much he has to spend in January - but the club does not lack cash. In addition to Briatore, Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone and the extraordinarily wealthy Mittal family are involved at Loftus Road. It prompted QPR fans to talk in terms of being the richest club in the world in the wake of their takeover, though Manchester City may well have that tag now.

Briatore has made it clear he wants to see the club run properly; he wants to reorganise and build a strong brand. With a few shrewd signings in January it might be that Rangers win promotion this season. They, like so many other clubs, are hovering just below the play-off zone but their extra financial muscle could make the difference.

Success is a balm to salve many pains and after years of financial uncertainty at Loftus Road, not to mention all sorts of bizarre stories such as guns in the boardroom, a return to the Premier League after a 13-year absence would doubtless bring great joy to many supporters.

As the fans made their way out of the stadium on Saturday it was with a smile on their face. The club had given them an early Christmas present. Yet at the same time I cannot help wondering to what extent these supporters feature in the club's long-term vision of the future.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great blog, thanks. It's good to get a bit of perspective from an outsider about what is going on at our club.

    As a fan since 1977, all I can say is that it's much better to have uncertainty with a lot of money behind it than uncertainty due to ever-impending bankruptcy!

    I for one am very grateful for Briatore and the other investors for saving the club, although I do understand that this means the club will fundamentally change.

    Change is not always welcome, but in QPR's case, it was essential.

    I'm surprised that you did not mention at all the role that Gianni Paladini has played in all this transformation. He was (allegedly), after all, at the business end of that gun in the boardroom that you referred to!

    Your observations about Sousa are excellent. It's early, but the indications are there that he may be a terrific up-and-coming manager. It's not east arriving from another country with little experience and quickly finding your feet in the cut-and-thrust of the Championship, but Sousa seems to have managed the transition with ease.

    I predicted at the start of the season a 9th place finish for QPR -- almost exactly where we are, at the moment. As with most other clubs, what happens in January will go a long way to deciding if we move up or stand still.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good blog.

    Not sure what on earth valedictory is piping on about - i think he was trying to be clever and witty. Seems strange to be criticising the media on a bbc blog page...

  • Comment number 4.

    Is the Westfield Centre any good?

  • Comment number 5.

    Good write up. The age make up of the Rangers crowd is typically 40 to 60 year olds but probably less so than it was around 10 years ago. A lot of younger supporters started following the Rs around 5 years ago with the play off final in 2003 and promotion in 2004 but many have been priced out by the comparatively high ticket prices being charged nowadays.

  • Comment number 6.

    A nice unbiased blog. As a ranger for 20 years, Ive seen quite a lot go down at the bush. The arrival of Briatore has received mixed reviews with some fans forgetting where we were last year and demanding money be spent!

    The ticket price hike is a joke, but as long as they stay the same for the next couple of seasons I'll keep my season ticket going...

    Superhoops! Roll on Wembley in may!

  • Comment number 7.

    Paulo Sousa looks like a good appointment, but what is with these businessmmen when they come into football - they lose all sense. He wouldnt dream of tinkering with the engine of a F1 car, but somehow thinks he's qualified to be coach as well as front man for the owners' consortium.
    As for transforming the club as a business; in what other business sector do you whack the prices up before improving the product? He can't even get the basics right. Halfway through a season and the superstore still doesnt have kids' shorts and socks in the new kit! Maybe he means he's going to run a boutique when the money men get tired of the football club?

  • Comment number 8.

    This is a really good and balanced article. It is pretty much rooted in reality. I'm impressed that it avoids using the lazy "moneybags QPR" label without proper analysis of the facts.

    The only thing I would note is that QPR continue to offer very positive ongoing prices for children in the family stand - this is a permanent arrangement and separate from the family for £20 offer that featured this weekend.

    There are a lot of people who (rightly) criticise the price rises, but it is also fair to point out that the club is doing good stuff for younger fans. On Tuesday season ticket holder and members can watch the players train at Loftus Road, meet the players, get autographs etc and all for free! That's a great opportunity and something I would loved to have done as a kid.

    Finally, well done again for a decent piece of journalism.

  • Comment number 9.

    From the outside looking in i would throw this theory into the mix about the average age of your fans.

    It wasn't that long ago that QPR were the biggest team in West London (yes Chelsea fans even bigger than you!). Then came the early Chelsea revolution with Ken Bates followed by the major impact of Abramovich. Between these two stages of revolution at Chelsea, there was the Fulham revival under the guidance of Al Fayed. During this time QPR were overshadowed by the glamour and style of the Marketing campaigns, that both Chelsea and Fulham undertook.

    Then came what i thought to be the killer blow to QPR which was the ground share with Fulham. I suppose at the time the board couldn't image the impact it would have, but allowing a team that are more prestigious than yourselves (at that moment in time), with a great history, to share your ground, you open up yourselves to lose support.

    I used to get free tickets to go watch Fulham play when they played at Loftus Road. The one thing that stuck out the most to me was that there was not too much advertising or signage around the place that would have pointed to a ground share situation, it looked more like Fulham's ground. In fact, the only thing that gave any indication that QPR played there was the blue and white colours scattered around the place. I think the only successful ground share agreement in football has been that of Milan and Inter.

    Now what i have noticed in the past 5 years in the west london and surrey areas is the youth involvement schemes run by Fulham and Chelsea. Now i'm sure we all remember as children we all wanted the latest and shiniest toys. This is what Fulham and Chelsea currently represent to the youth in QPR's catchment area.

    However, with Fulham now gone and ultimately cutting back in their previous extravagant activities, QPR have the opportunity to claw back some ground. It seems that they now have a manager who can guide the team to the top tier similar to Tigana at Fulham.

    Until QPR start to take back 'their Manor' (for want of a better phrase), from Chelsea and Fulham, they can forget about this new branding enterprise. Everything seems to be in place for this to happen its just a case of whether they can push on.

    I would be interested to know just how many young fans, that go to Chelsea and Fulham matches and wear the club colours, have older family members that are QPR supporters.

  • Comment number 10.

    Very nice article, addressing all the important points fairly and intelligently.

    Id like to point out to the user above that i am a young chelsea fan from a QPR family and this is purely because they are not a premier league team but if they do get back to the premier league they will have my full support.

  • Comment number 11.

    I am beyond middle age, well into my 60s. My father took me to my first QPR match in 1948, depositing me in the long-defunct boys' enclosure behind the goal at the Loftus Road end.
    Beware the men with supposed mega money! Sometimes it works (Mohammed Al Fayed and Fulham), more often it doesn't. Older fans may remember John Bloom of Rolls Razor fame who with his forthcoming pile from a new washing machine was going to take over the R's, buy George Eastham from Newcastle and get us into the First Division in two seasons. It all, including Rolls Razor, spectacularly crashed (Eastham sensibly moved to Arsenal instead).

  • Comment number 12.

    'Boutique football'

    Is modern football speak for 'deliberately pricing out your most loyal customers'

    Its all very well having top class dining and comfy seats but when you have completely priced out your traditional support who is going to create the atmosphere that football as entertainment thrives on and is reliant on?

    Look at QPRs neighbours Chelsea who have to pipe crowd noise in and arrange flag displays to create some sort of atmosphere.

    And then theres the credit crunch....I hope this tacky commercialism blows up in the faces of the marketing clowns who came up with it.
    ....but then they can fall back on the yuppies Nuremburg defence:

    'Its just like any other business'

  • Comment number 13.

    Really good analysis Paul - thanks very much!

    I think you've summed up the views of the majority of season-ticket holders (mine anyway!) regarding the Flavio effect.

    Personally, I was happy with him to come in, install flash seating and dining for him and his chums, and spend however much of his own cash as he wanted on his 'boutique' football club - just as long as it didn't have an adverse effect on the traditional QPR supporter.

    But the massive ticket price rises enforced as soon as possible drove a wedge between owner and fans (comments such as 'I don't care what someone who only pays £20 thinks' didn't help either) and the club will have to win promotion for Briatore to win many back I feel.

    But it looks like he has a good man in charge now - he just has to let him be in charge.

  • Comment number 14.

    Very nice blog. As a Palace fan I see what has happened at QPR as a good thing for the club and good on them. However, the ticket price issue is something that is neverending unfortunately. We have seen it at Palace as well. However, I do believe that tickets will continue to increase, although what SJ did at Palace some years ago was great (reduced season tickets by a lot) and helped to generate an athmosphere. That said, everywhere now seems to turning for the worse?!
    Whatever happened? Not sure but the REAL fans seems to find the money always and as that trend continues then no wonder these big guns keeps adding and adding?
    Good Luck to QPR and we will see you at the play-off final I hope??? :-)

  • Comment number 15.

    10.
    Jerod Mayo, nice honesty mate admitting that you follow Chelsea despite your family being Rangers fans. However, i fear you are not alone in your defection to a more glamourous Premiership option.

    In regards to ticket pricing here is a link to an interesting article in on the Mail website

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1057573/As-credit-crunch-deepens-QPR-bring-50-Championship-ticket.html

    This would suggest that the League itself is not happy about the price increases. However the final paragraph is significant in my opinion, because it states that the money made from the increases is to be ploughed into the club. It says 'club' and not 'team' so make of that what you will, but it suggests that the extra revenue will help the future of QPR.

    I think that consideration has to be given to the location of QPR as a club in London. West London is considered the most expensive part of the capital and if you were to look at the average house prices around all 24 clubs in the Championship then i'm sure QPR would come out top. Some times we forget that football clubs are not community funded projects but businesses that need to be self sustainable. The costs of running Loftus Road will be higher than most (if not all) other Championship clubs. Also according to government stats the earnings of people from that area are significantly higher.

    QPR's poor financial history has been well documented in the past and maybe this has been caused because tickets were vastly under priced, under the previous ownership. I just see don't see it as a suprise that QPR should be the most expensive ticket in the Championship. Location is everything in my opinion, and so long that Briatore is not using the extra cash to refurnish the board room then i don't see the major problem.

  • Comment number 16.

    I know PS from Juve, he should be a good asset for QPR, while he was playing , he seemed to be a good reader of the game.
    Maybe ManCity should rope him in if they sack MH.

  • Comment number 17.

    To poster number 9:

    Over the past few years Chelsea's involvement with the community has generally been pretty far away from Stamford Bridge. They still do a lot of work in the local area, don't get me wrong, especially with the schools around there, but they used to do a huge amount outside of London in Surrey and South Bucks, traditional catchment areas for their fans. Fulham also have made a big effort with local schools and football clubs.

    I've been impressed by a lot of what I've seen of QPR's community work in the past five years. Since following in Chelsea's footsteps at their Harlington training ground, the coaching staff seem to have built good links with community coaching projects, including school and girls teams. I know they do a fair amount of work across the north of London in trying to support community sports schemes to give young people outlets and activities (although trying to get a housing estate to be named after the club was probably a bit much). They're not yet up there with Charlton, but I think that they are probably trying to emulate that level of community support.

    And yes, I'm sure as someone else pointed out, the housing prices around the club are probably pretty high compared to others in the championship. But most of their fans don't live in Notting Hill, that's for sure!

  • Comment number 18.

    I'm a fan in my mid 30's and the thing that keeps me away is ticket prices.
    There may well be high earners in Notting Hill but not everyone from West London is a high earner (some parts of the surrounding areas of W9, W10 are in the top 5% of deprivation in the country) and you don't have to travel far from the ground to the White City Estate to see that not everyone in W12 is as rich as Bernie and Flavio.
    After the unsettling times of a couple of years ago its good to see a bit of financial stability. However I'm a bit worried about the future of the club. I want us to be successful of course but I don't want us to be another Chelsea!

  • Comment number 19.

    Interesting read However in a recent AKUTRS fanzine it stated Rangers were the 7th highest for adult season ticket holders Top price for the Championship and more than Everton Portsmouth Man City Villa and Blackburn

    how can that be justified ? Ok weve got some slightly better players since they took over but certainly not Premiership quality Is it any wonder we are in the bottom third of Championship attendances

    Briatore once said when speaking about moving to a new ground .. if you run a restaurant you need to fill all the tables before moving to a larger premises. I agree but charging silly prices for an average meal wont attract more diners.

    He also needs to stop talking about the "project" ..we are a Football Club

  • Comment number 20.

    I went to secondary school in the Shepard Bush Notting Hill gate area, and remember when QPR was the glamour club and Rodney Marsh the coolest thing this side of George Best. I think the Italians have the right idea, make it glamourous again, they have a great name... Queens Park Rangers
    its up there with Tottenham Hotspurs, Queen of The South, Raith Rovers, Bristol Rovers, Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa. Chelsea and Arsenal are dull sounding like stops on the Tube, or what you would call a pet

  • Comment number 21.

    I must admit the only time I have been to QPR was when I saw Yes play there in 1975.

    To me there are two types of owners these days. Local man who loves the area and team made good, and somebody coming in from outside with loads of money and using the club as a play-thing/status symbol ala Chelsea, or somebody coming in needing to use the club for their own means ala Liverpool, Man City etc.

    As a Reading fan I remember Robert Maxwell trying to merge us with Oxford Utd to create a Thames Valley team of some sort. It was opposed successfully. Thankfully. Madjeski, the current owner is in the first group.

    I know bankruptcy is no option, yet when people like oil sheiks, and Ecclestone get involved, the things that make a club, its fans, players, history have very little currency. You only have to look at the way Ecclestone runs Formula One to see what you are in for.

    I wish you all the best, and I can only hope that you can still see some connection between yourselves and the club in the future.

  • Comment number 22.

    I've enjoyed the article, as it seems a fair assessment of the state of play at Loftus Road. I was born near the ground and watched my early games at White City. I still have a 1961-62 supporters club membership badge. It was division 3 in those days. When I was 18 I bought 2 season tickets and took my new girlfriend to home games. We live near Bondi now. I'm optimistic about QPR's future. They seem to have bought too many players and lack finishing power, but they're improving and the team with the greatest momentum entering the play offs generally goes up. I hope this tendency to hike the ticket prices up is restrained. I've a friend who paid 299 pounds for a season ticket in a good position at Fulham. I can't see why real supporters should be penalised for loyalty and, as was correctly pointed out by others, to cultivate real, enduring support you have to have young people attending games. The new manager is looking good and I wish all the fans and players the best of luck. Next time I'm in town I'll hope to buy a ticket - hopefully to see QPR beat Chelsea.

  • Comment number 23.

    Interesting insight. Can't wait to see them play against Man City next season as I don't see them getting promoted. Wonder what it would do for the premiership if the Championship started being richer?

  • Comment number 24.

    Over the years I have been amused by football supporters who accept the incredible draws that have been achieved in FA Cup, (or whatever it is now). Is it a complete coincidence that the lowly team then go back to the Premier team's ground for another well paid gate where they get thrashed! This is not a sport - it is business.

    Happy New Year Mugs.

 

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