Tony Fernandes on Football Fandom and Attempting To Build The New QPR
Despite QPR’s up and down showings under his tenure, Tony Fernandes is one of the more popular owners in English football. We spoke to him about the mistakes of the past and his new vision for the club.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
One doesn't have to speak to Tony Fernandes for long to realise that he considers himself something of a romantic. While the stereotypical multimillionaire and business mogul is a hard-nosed, pragmatic and endlessly cynical figure, there is a streak of idealism to Fernandes which makes him considerably more personable than the standard archetype of the mega rich. The enthusiasm with which he speaks about QPR – where he has been majority shareholder since the summer of 2011 – is one of the reasons that he is generally well liked at the club, this despite their inconstant fortunes under his tenure. Having seen QPR relegated from the Premier League twice during his time in West London, with one glorious play-off final victory in between, Fernandes has already witnessed more highs and lows than many owners do in twice the time.
"It was something I just thought was natural – you pay someone and you think they are going to work their guts out, but that wasn't the case." Fernandes' assessment of the mistakes of the past is characteristically candid, with the recruitment policy during his first stint in the Premier League not exactly a resounding success. Having survived by the skin of their teeth at the end of the 2011-12 campaign, losing that famous match against Man City only for relegation rivals Bolton to slip up against Stoke, QPR went down ignominiously the next season despite an enormous outlay on transfers, wages and agents fees. The squad finished the season bottom of the table on a meagre 25 points, with big-name signings like Shaun Wright-Phillips, Esteban Granero and Christopher Samba looking either disinterested or inadequate, while an insubordinate supporting cast headed by Jose Bosingwa seemed to drag down the dressing room and undermine morale.
Those days are, thankfully, behind them, and QPR now appear to be a more stable club off the pitch, if not on it. Though Loftus Road was tinged with an air of dysfunction in those initial Premier League seasons, there is now a sense in which things have settled down behind the scenes and Fernandes and co. are attempting to go about things in a more sustainable and sensible way. While QPR only survived for a single season after being promoted via the Championship play-offs in 2014, it represented another part of the learning curve for the club hierarchy. Now, rather than focus on their transfer expenditure, QPR seem more interested in finding a new stadium, developing their academy and improving club infrastructure in a manner which it is hoped will furnish them with solid foundations for future success.
"We've always been on the back foot," Fernandes says, when asked about what has gone wrong at the club previously. "This is the first time, the first period [of my spell at the club] where we can plan. I sat with our chief scout recently and it was the most enjoyable meeting I've had, because there was patience, there was a vision, there was: 'This is what we're going to be doing.'" Fernandes then sets out the club's previous transfer strategy in suitably bewildering terms, with an animated description of their buy-sell-buy-sell approach which could just as easily apply to the stockbroking in the Wolf of Wall Street as to player acquisitions in the Premier League and Championship. "We finally said, as the owners of the club: 'Look, let's do this properly.' We've never had a good pre-season, we've never had a squad of players who have come through the academy, so we've always been chasing our tail," he adds.
For someone who has facilitated his involvement in football with the riches he has earned from his business career – Fernandes also owns low-cost Malaysian airline AirAsia, and according to Forbes is worth hundreds of millions of pounds – he seems curiously philosophical about money. "What we've learnt is that you can't really buy your success," Fernandes says, before throwing in the telling caveat: "I mean, you can in some ways, by spending huge amounts of money, but even then it's fraught with risk." Most would agree with him on this, and his ability to concede the point shows a certain magnanimity, a willingness to take his losses on the chin and carry on regardless. "We just feel it's good to get back to the spirit [of the club]. I can't emphasise that more – I think the spirit of the squad, the spirit of togetherness, the spirit of the mission are so important. That takes a couple of years to build up, [and it takes time] to clear out the guys who maybe just came to take a wage. We want guys who really feel they want to grow with this club, and feel something when they put on that shirt."
Fernandes is clearly invested in the symbolism of QPR, and does seem genuinely involved with the club on an emotional level. He says all the right things regarding his love of Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis and the like, but he also shows considerable understanding on the nature of fandom and what it is to support a community club. With our interview taking place in the hours before QPR play Brighton, Fernandes tells me: "Today – and I've been waiting for this forever – we have Ryan Manning, who was in the academy, right, and two weeks later he's playing first-team football. We have Darnell Furlong, who's now our regular right-back. These are all academy players, and we have four or five academy players who have played for us who are now out on loan. That's my dream, right, to have that, and I always said when I came here that I liked to have players who have QPR in their blood.
"When I retire, I'm going to do a PhD on fans," Fernandes goes on, speaking entirely unprompted at this point. "It is quite incredible the passion they have, from tattooing their whole body to making sure that their one-year-old baby has got a QPR outfit on." It's hard not to get drawn in by Fernandes' effusiveness here, which comes across as almost an infatuation with the club. "I think the most amazing thing about football fans – and I don't care what anyone says, any fan in the world – is going up midweek in the coldest weather to clubs up north and supporting your side, even when they are mid-table or struggling. That is remarkable passion which money can't buy."
Whether or not anything is truly priceless in football, there is again something refreshing about hearing an owner prioritise intangibles like commitment and loyalty over cold, hard cash. Though, in what is perhaps a sign of innate world weariness, it feels necessary to resist this tide of positive thinking and maintain a healthy level of scepticism, Fernandes' optimism and ebullience wash some of our subliminal reservations away. This is not to say that such optimism will necessarily translate to success on the pitch, with Fernandes' claim that he wants to "transfer some of the fans' passion to the players" maybe a little too hopeful, given what we know about the workings of modern football. Still, it's nice to hear such things said in earnest, even if our jaded worldview forces us to take them with a pinch of salt.
Speaking about the health of the club, Fernandes seems confident that Ian Holloway is the man to take them back into the Premier League and that, after a choppy season this time around, QPR can really kick on again next year. Of course, this will require them to survive in the Championship this term, with the fact that they are not already mathematically safe an indicator of how far there is to go. QPR fans are used to the odd dodgy season, and this campaign is perhaps best written off as transitional. Results aside, he stresses the club's community values when asked how QPR can continue to grow and attract fans in the future, though he does recognise that West London is a crowded place in that regard. "If you look at most clubs around the world there are a few teams in a city, and in most places one," he says. "Just in West London we have three, or if you consider Chelsea, four."
It's this sort of knowing quip which has given Fernandes his reputation as a people person, at least relative to the other businessmen who occupy the higher circles of English football. He knows how to get a crowd onside, and certainly talks the talk. With his increased focus on academy footballers and what seems like a viable new vision for the club, he also seems to have adopted a prudent strategy for furthering his ambitions in football. All being well, that should improve the odds on history repeating itself, and make it more likely that QPR can eventually carve out a niche for themselves in and around the Premier League.
When it comes to Fernandes' ambitions, however, he seems fairly realistic. While many Championship owners are maddened by the smell of money which wafts tantalisingly from the top flight – and scrabble desperately to get there as a consequence – Fernandes seems philosophical and reasonable about what the club should be looking to achieve. This is not to say the allure of the top tier doesn't work its magic on him, merely that he appears to recognise that success at QPR means more than just revenue and profit. Asked what his favourite memory of watching QPR is, he tells a story of the 2014 Championship play-off final down to the last detail.
"You're standing there, and one side of the stadium is completely empty, because all the Derby fans have gone," he says, "and one side is just blue and white." There is a fondness in his tone which feels authentic, whatever his penchant for positive vibes. "That's what football is all about. I don't care about all the bad things and the good things, it's not about: 'Oh, was this a good business?' Those experiences, money can never buy." Again, this sense of romanticism sets Fernandes apart from many of his hard-nosed contemporaries, and those who talk about football as nothing more than a vehicle for finance. "If I get hit by a bus tomorrow I've had the most amazing experiences in life," Fernandes adds. "That's what football's all about, it's amazing, and it's why you love QPR."
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