QPR supporters could be forgiven for not remembering their derby match against Crystal Palace on April 4th this year. It was a turgid goalless draw and yet, unbeknown to those in the stands at Loftus Road, something extraordinary was happening as midfielder Lee Cook came on for the home side at half-time to replace Liam Miller. Telegraph Sport can disclose that the substitution was made on the direct orders of Flavio Briatore, the QPR Chairman and co-owner, working 6,500 miles away at the Malaysian Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur.
Sources close to the West London club have confirmed that the disgraced former Renault team principal, unimpressed by the footage he had seen of Miller’s first-half performance, contacted Paulo Sousa, the then team Manager, to demand that the 28 year-old be replaced by Cook. It would be neither the first time nor the last that Briatore exercised such a remarkable degree of control over selection decisions at QPR.
Gareth Ainsworth, a stalwart QPR player who has also spent two spells as caretaker Manager, had an equally memorable brush with the Briatore treatment. Ainsworth was in charge for the club’s 4th Round Carling Cup match at Manchester United on 11th November, 2008, and, in sodden conditions, decided to leave his mobile phone in the dressing room, in his jacket pocket. After a 1-0 defeat he returned to find 72 missed calls from Briatore.
As insights into Briatore’s outlandish methods as a football club owner, these are instructive. The Italian continued to be investigated by the Football League, who are digesting the full details of his order to Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jnr. to crash at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, before deciding whether to apply their fit and proper persons test. It is far from certain that Briatore will be removed by the League as a QPR owner since he could not be banned from Formula One directly, having resigned from Renault before last week’s FIA hearing in Paris, where a ban was merely recommended. Among the conditions of the League’s test is that subjects must declare that they have not been banned by a Sports governing body from involvement in the administration of that sport, and Briatore could claim that he has not.
Instead the 59 year-olds’ extravagant presence remains acutely felt around Loftus Road, even at his time of personal turmoil. Since November 2007, when he took over QPR with the joint backing of Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s commercial rights holder, and Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire steel magnate, he has elevated the club’s ambitions, reigniting the prospect of a swift return to the Premier League and presided over some dramatic upheavals. Briatore is already on to his fifth Manager, in Jim Magilton, while respected and long-serving club officials such as former secretary Sheila Marson have been sacked without so much as a word of explanation. Almost all decisions at QPR are coloured by Briatore’s cult of personality, as Sousa, Magilton’s predecessor and once a protégé of Jose Mourinho, discovered.
Sousa was unveiled as Manager in November 2008 amid great excitement, the photogenic young Portuguese finding himself acclaimed as the Championship’s answer to Jose Mourinho; the new ‘special one’. But he rapidly decided that even though he was technically in charge of the team, he had precious little power. To his chagrin, Briatore would undermine his selections by conveying team line-ups of his own immediately before kick-off. Tensions came to a head when Crystal Palace came to Shepherds Bush, for the match that brought the Miller substitution.
Dexter Blackstock was at the time QPR’s top scorer by some margin and yet it was announced that he would be loaned out to Nottingham Forest, one of the club’s main division rivals. Sousa, stunned, admitted that the move had been made without his knowledge. It had instead been sanctioned by Briatore, understood to have been affronted by Blackstock’s perceived lack of respect. Rowan Vine, Blackstock’s strike partner, was asked what he thought of the switch. His response was well-documented: “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to let your top goalscorer go for the last part of the season. It doesn’t really make sense.” Briatore’s reaction, less so: Vine was fined two weeks’ wages for speaking out of turn. Although Briatore has never been afraid to castigate the QPR players – accounts abound of his running commentaries from the Director’s Box, muttering oaths about the poor skills on show – he can also be surprisingly comradely.
In February 2008, he stepped into the breach when Luigi De Canio, his first appointment as Manager, had to return home to Italy due to a family bereavement. Briatore took over team-talk duties for the home game against Bristol City, telling the team: “You are professionals. We pay you. You know exactly what to do. I want you to go out there and do it. You win, for Gigi. Ok, that’s all.” After De Canio’s departure, preposterous rumours circulated that Briatore was poised to install a name as Manager that QPR’s fans could barely believe: Zinedine Zidane. What the fans got, ultimately, was Iain Dowie. With Dowie’s unglamorous image and uninspired tactics running counter to his benefactor’s template, it did not take long to realise that this was another marriage that could never work.
“I liked Flavio as a person,” said Dowie, fired after just five months in October 2008. “I won 53 per cent of my matches at QPR, so I’m very proud of my record. It’s just that Flavio’s vision for the club was very different to the one that I had.” That Briatore has noble ambitions for the club is not in doubt; the question today is whether he can return to bring those to fulfilment, now that he has been found guilty of the most ignoble episode to scandalise motorsport. Should the Football League keep him in place, it will require Briatore to do what he loathes most, namely to keep a low profile.