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Jun 18, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

It has been 15 long years since Queens Park Rangers competed in the top flight of English football. Rather than anticipating the new season with giddy excitement, fans are once again nervously placing their faith in a club that has narrowly avoided disaster after disaster in recent times.

Back in 1995-96, under the stewardship of player-manager Ray Wilkins, the West London side struggled to cope with the recent sale of England striker Les Ferdinand to Newcastle and finished 19th. They were relegated that year along with Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers.

QPR soon found themselves lost in the footballing wilderness. Another relegation followed before their slow ascent back into the mainstream this season. The club did occasionally make the news, albeit for mostly negative reasons. These range from the tragic and untimely deaths of youngsters Ray Jones and Kiyan Prince, the numerous threats of extinction, the alleged boardroom gun saga, the embarrassing brawl with the Chinese Olympic team and the frankly humiliating home defeat at the hands of Vauxhall Motors in the FA Cup.

Things were apparently looking up when, in September 2007, Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone arrived from the glamorous world of Formula One to stave off the latest threat of administration. Overnight, the club were propelled onto sports pages around the world with talk of them being in a position to financially challenge their neighbours at Stamford Bridge.

However, a flurry of managers, increased ticket prices and Briatore's talk of a 'boutique football club' - where image comes first, and football later - understandably worried fans. One Monday night shortly after the takeover soon came to define the differing attitudes between the board and the fans about the club's direction. Supermodel Naomi Campbell and it-girl Tamara Beckwith were in the directors' box for QPR's 1-0 victory over Norwich City and, while the television cameras focused on the A-listers in the director's box, fans were relieved to have finally secured their first win of the season after nine attempts. They were bottom of the league and struggling to fill the stadium.

By the end of the year, off-field events continued to dominate the news and paint a happy picture of a club on the up as Lakshmi Mittal, one of the richest men in the world, bought a 20% stake in QPR. He was to be represented on the board by his son-in-law and newly appointed vice president Amit Bhatia.

Then the real fun started. Forgetting the flurry of managers that soon came to represent their ownership, the most worrying trait of the early Briatore-Ecclestone years was the conveyor belt of anonymous faces brought to the club, whether it be on loan or on longer contracts.

There are far too many names to mention, but arguably the most embarrassing episode came in 2008 after Argentinean midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma, on loan from Genoa at the time, scored a hat-trick against Carlisle in the Carling Cup. The club shop had commemorative T-shirts for sale in time for the weekend. Needless to say, there was not much uptake.

Two years passed, yet QPR's progress on the pitch was still being stunted by the constant interference from above and the frustration in the stands reached new heights. The chairman, Gianni Paladini - the man who was to be at the centre of the Alejandro Faurlin transfer debacle this season - was another huge factor in the merry-go-round of players and managers. The fans made their feelings towards the former agent known, in addition to the continued baiting of Briatore and Ecclestone.

A small victory, and period of respite, for the fans came when the increasingly unpopular Briatore eventually stood down as QPR Holdings Chairman in February 2010. The club was still in the bottom half of the league.

A month later, Neil Warnock was brought to the club from Crystal Palace. Mittal's representative, the popular Amit Bhatia, was instrumental in convincing the former Sheffield United man to take the job. This was not an easy feat. He was, after all, the 11th managerial appointment since the 2007 takeover.

Warnock was welcomed by most QPR fans as someone with a decent track record in the division and, perhaps most importantly, a famously stubborn attitude. This was certainly needed when it came to dealing with the board and, in particular, the club's scattergun transfer policy.

A staggering 50 players had been brought to the club before Warnock and his staff finally gave the club a sense of direction. As if to prove a point, just three players were brought in last summer - Paddy Kenny, Clint Hill and Shaun Derry - all experienced, no-nonsense professionals with whom Warnock had worked previously. The signings complemented the existing talent perfectly and, with the Championship title won, fans were excitedly and optimistically looking to the future.

This was before the shock resignation of Bhatia from the board last month.

In a statement at the time, Bhatia said: "It is clear to me from recent board meetings that my vision, strategy and direction for the club is very different from that of the other shareholders and board members." He added that the 40% price hike in season tickets was another key factor.

Bhatia did confirm that the Mittal family was considering a potential buyout of the other existing shares - a popular idea with the fans - but with Briatore once again involved with the everyday running of club and his idea of a 'boutique club' growing ever nearer, it is unlikely he would sell. Likewise Ecclestone, who, despite confessing to not having a great deal of football knowledge himself, has invested a lot of his personal wealth into the running of the club over the past season.

This in mind, and the fact that his ally was no longer present to fight his corner, fans feared that the vulnerable position Warnock found himself in would result in him leaving the club and, despite being given a vote of confidence by Briatore, the lack of transfer activity since clinching promotion this summer suggests that wider issues continue to undermine the progression of the club.

In recent weeks, QPR have been linked with World Cup-winner Marco Materazzi, former Italy defender Nicola Legrottaglie, and Juventus striker Amauri, who has been on loan at Parma. All are experienced Serie A players, but hardly align with Warnock's signings from last summer.

Of the three promoted clubs, QPR remain the only side not to have signed any new players, yet the doubt over who exactly is initiating the talks from Loftus Road these days will be of primary concern for most fans.

While it is not yet time to panic - Warnock, like most players, has been enjoying his holidays recently - the fans who are being asked to pay extortionate prices next season will, understandably, want to see a slightly higher value product. Many have already declined the offer to renew season tickets.

Yet marquee signings are not what is needed at QPR. After everything the club has been through during this hiatus from the top flight, the need for transparency and stability is needed now more than ever.

The biggest worry of all, though, is that the last year's success was the blip, as opposed to the years of chaos and politics that preceded it.

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