The following article was written by James Olley and appeared recently in the London Evening Standard – Steve Russell
The Championship season may be drawing to a close but at Loftus Road there’s a sense of a new dawn. Queens Park Rangers have represented something of a calamity to those who assumed the arrival of Flavio Briatore and the super-rich Mittal family in late 2007 would automatically awaken a sleeping giant. Instead, confusion reigned as six permanent Managers failed to live up to the expectations of promotion amid rumours of Briatore’s increasingly irrational behaviour, which extended to angry late-night telephone calls and interference in team selection.
The club insist Briatore stepped down as Chairman in February to “pursue other business interests” and that he remains a Board member and a “committed shareholder”, although they remain unwilling to divulge the stake he now commands. It is said Briatore’s passion for the club had extended to him walking through Loftus Road’s corridors in slippers embroidered with the QPR badge. But for the Italian’s flamboyance, read new Chairman Ishan Saksena’s prudence and sensibility. Lakshmi Mittal’s interests have been hitherto represented chiefly by the appointment of son-in-law Amit Bhatia as Vice-Chairman to Briatore.
But any awkward juxtaposition of Briatore’s eccentricity and Bhatia’s sagaciousness that existed is dispelled by Saksena’s introduction. The 31-year-old was born in New Delhi and is a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he met Bhatia before embarking on a 10-year career working in the finance sector, chiefly in private equity, mergers and acquisitions. Saksena and Bhatia remained in contact throughout that time and, after moving to England in 2007, he was invited to join the Board as an advisor late last year but quickly ascended to Chief Executive and then Chairman in February. Despite the shift in power, Saksena is determined not to paint Briatore as the villain of the piece but admits an important alteration has taken place at Boardroom level.
“The way decisions are made at this club has changed and that is the important thing,” Saksena said. “Flavio made whatever decisions he made in the best interests of QPR. In retrospect, perhaps certain decisions could have been made differently. We have done a lot in a short space of time. We have stabilised the organisation from the freefall I think it was experiencing a few months ago.”
Already, more than 2,000 season tickets have been sold compared to around 550 at the corresponding stage last season as fans have responded to attempts by the club to reconnect with their core supporters. Saksena organised a forum with 12 representatives of various fans’ groups and attended by Amit Bhatia to discuss the direction they must now take. But the most notable development to date was the appointment of Neil Warnock as Manager at the beginning of March and Saksena personally negotiated the ¬£500,000 compensation package to prise him away from Crystal Palace, who it is understood, originally wanted three times as much.
Saksena is keen to emphasise the burgeoning friendship he enjoys with Warnock and promote the extension of such stability to the dugout. “We hit it off from the day we met,” he explained. “I have met his family and we are friends. We have very different styles but we work well together. I look forward to getting to know him better, not just over the next three years while he is Manager, but much further beyond.”
As if to underline the business acumen ready to guide QPR forward, the Sunday Times Rich List claims steel magnate Mittal has doubled his personal wealth from ¬£10.8billion to ¬£22.4billion despite a worldwide recession and it would be easy for the club’s supporters to get lost in the swathe of dreamy transfer aspirations. But as a former Director in the investment banking division at Lehman Brothers in both New York and London, Saksena is well placed to preach prudence. Any extravagance extends only to the Director’s Box, plush with crocodile skin walls, luxurious sofas and a lavish dining table. “The Board and I will fully support Neil in what he wants to do with the team and how he chooses to shape the squad,” he added. “I can’t give you numbers of what money is available. We want to be active in the transfer market but it is going to be dictated by what Neil wants. You have to balance expectations with financial prudence. Because of my experience with Lehman, I can relate to financial sensibilities and see the human emotion when something like this happens. I am proud to say we have no external debt in the company and we intend to keep it like that.”
Briatore’s four-year plan for promotion has been replaced by a more measured prediction in which Saksena is reluctant to introduce any kind of time frame. “We want to reach the Premier League and Neil would not have come on board if we weren’t all sure of that vision,” he said. “There is no point saying we have a two or five-year plan to make it. It won’t be a failure if we are not promoted next season. If we don’t go up, I will wish we had but that doesn’t mean it is failure as long as we are making steady progress.”
Saksena effuses a pragmatism that should inspire supporters to believe the club are in good hands, with Briatore’s contacts still a useful source to call on. In fact, the supermodels that adorned W12 upon the Italian’s arrival may not be a thing of the past, even if style and ostentation are not paramount. “I haven’t even thought about viewing the business like that,” Saksena said. “The main goal for Queens Park Rangers is to do well on the pitch. If getting supermodels in the Stands improves the morale of the crowd and encourages the team to score more goals, we should get them back. If it doesn’t, we won’t.”
James Olley – London Evening Standard