The following article appeared in the ‘Telegraph’ over the weekend and was written by Derick Allsop -Steve Russell
Flavio Briatore had that countenance of any football fan when his team run out of ideas and almost out of luck. But then, as he says, it has to be a step at a time and at least this was another point. Behind him, in the Queens Park Rangers directors’ box, Bernie Ecclestone muttered: “Told you it would be 1-1.” Maybe he was wishing they had bought Chelsea, after all. We’ll get back to that. For better or worse, Briatore and Ecclestone, two luminaries of the Formula One world, have committed some of their fortune to the mission of turning Rangers into a force in the Premier League. They have the track record and Rangers have a pedigree of sorts. Some of the 15,383 who saw them hold on for a draw against Sheffield United will recall a time when this was a cult club: winners of the League Cup as a Third Division team, runners-up in the old First Division. Their style, bordering on arrogance, was epitomised by those Loftus Road icons, Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles.
There was little evidence of swagger or even hope when Briatore and his chums took over Rangers in September. “Flavio rescued them, make no mistake,” Ecclestone said. The pair pledged to pay off ¬£3 million debts and invest in the ailing Championship team, now managed by Italian Luigi De Canio. “We (Italy) have given England and Ireland their managers but this is just a coincidence,” said De Canio’s compatriot, Briatore, over pre-match lunch. Briatore, who led Benetton and their successors, Renault, to Formula One supremacy and Ecclestone, responsible for transforming haphazard Grand Prix racing into the finely-tuned extravagance it is today, recruited three partners, including steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, whose wealth puts even Bernie in the shade. But despite the resources of the world’s fifth richest man, Briatore insists they won’t aimlessly throw money at their football project. “We didn’t waste money at Benetton or Renault and we won’t here,” Briatore said. “We have a three-year plan to take the club to the Premier League, improve the stadium and facilities, but the focus is the sport.”
Briatore, a Juventus fan from boyhood, now has another club dear to his heart, although he admits he thought QPR was a restaurant. “I’d never heard of QPR,” he said. “But now I am glad we don’t have a restaurant ! My job is Formula One. Here we have people in position to run the club properly. Football is an emotional sport and when you are involved, it matters. I get as nervous as any supporter. I don’t know what will happen today.” Ecclestone interjected: “I do, we’ll win 4-0. I’ve had a word with the referee.” Bernie is renowned for his impish sense of humour as well as his power. He was just jokingwasn’t he ? He goes on: “For me this is a nice diversion. Trouble is, wherever I go, people want to talk Formula One. At least I don’t have to worry about every little detail and nurse-maid boring VIP’s as I do at a race. The thing about football is that it can be uncertain until the last minute of injury time. You don’t get that so much in Formula One.”
So what is this about Chelsea ? We would have bought them if Roman Abramovich hadn’t done,” he said. “It would have cost us about ¬£140 million. We’d have done it, but then Abramovich came in.” Briatore said: “I like taking a small club and making it a big club, so I’m happy we’re here.” Ecclestone came back: “I’d like Chelsea !” Rangers are light years from Chelsea’s status but De Canio brought in ten players during January and they have edged away from danger. Just as Ecclestone and Briatore head for the directors’ box, Birmingham score a late equaliser against Arsenal. “See what I mean,” Bernie said.
Briatore studied the team sheet and pointed to number 36, Angelo Balanta. He is only 16, one of the most talented players we have.” His eye is caught also by United’s number 6, James Beattie. “They paid ¬£5 million for him – we bought all eleven players for that.” Briatore was soon enthusing about his goalkeeper, Lee Camp. “Bravo, bravo.” Both men were up on their feet when Balanta scored after 18 minutes. “It’s the kid, it’s the kid,” Briatore yelled. Rangers held their lead at the break and Bernie and Flavio retreated to the chairman’s suite to study the half-time scores. United, managed for the first time in a league match by Kevin Blackwell, resumed with greater purpose and Fitz Hall, the Rangers defender, was summoned to work overtime. Briatore twinged in anxiety and Ecclestone popped out to take a call and was probably grateful for the relief. He returned to see United claim an inevitable equaliser though the scorer was less predictable. For once Hall was unable to clear decisively and United’s centre-half and captain, Chris Morgan, drilled in the equaliser. As Briatore and Ecclestone were aware, it could have been worse.