Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chris Wright Interview

Our latest interview is with former QPR owner and Chairman Chris Wright. Chris agreed to meet with us a couple of weeks ago and talked through his time in charge from the highs of the early days to the lows of administration and beyond.

QPRnet: Let’s go back to summer 1996, QPR had just been relegated from the Premier League, Richard Thompson was looking to sell, how did you come onto the scene?

CW: Well Nick Blackburn and I had always thought that it might be interesting to look at buying a football club but it never happened for us. Then all of a sudden QPR came on the market, I never thought that would happen and so we decided we ought to go for it.

I did speak to some friends at the time and there was a concern that it was difficult from an economic stand point because the ground only holds around 18,000 so it might be difficult to be competitive because of that.  That put us in two minds frankly but at the same time someone was trying to get me to buy Wasps.

Back then Wasps were still an amateur club and rugby was moving towards a full professional set up so I went along to see where Wasps were playing which turned out to be not much more than a public park with a pavilion so I came up with the idea that if we played the two clubs at the same stadium we’d probably make enough money between the two to offset the fact that QPR had such a limited capacity.

I thought that might make it much more financially viable and work to the benefit of both clubs. As it turned out that was a silly idea because the most of your costs in football isn’t in the infrastructure it’s in players salaries. Realistically I think all I was doing was giving my head justification to do what my heart wanted which was to buy QPR.

QPRnet: The club had made a profit that year and apparently always made a profit under Richard Thompson as he had balanced the books selling players. Was it in good shape financially when you took it on?

CW: I can’t remember if it always made a profit under Richard Thompson but it was certainly run pretty tight from a business standpoint. They did sell players regularly at least they sold all the good players anyway so  I think it’s quite possible it was doing that.

The big thing that happened around that time which changed the economics of football was the Bosman ruling, before then even if a player was out of contract he couldn’t go to another club unless you sold him for a transfer fee. When Bosman came in that completely destroyed that, the only thing you could sell was the remainder of his contract and you wouldn’t have a contract unless you were paying a lot of money. So the whole business of selling a player to balance the books went out of the window, it changed everything completely.

In any event it was always essential you got re-promoted to The Premier League within two years otherwise you went into freefall. Practically every other team that got relegated and didn’t get back up within two years found that out, Leeds went into freefall, Manchester City did, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United there were loads. Unless you bounce straight back up you are in an awful lot of trouble. Had we bounced back in the first year it could have been a whole different story.

QPRnet: The club was quickly floated on the AIM, looking back do you regret that? Do you wish you’d kept it as a Ltd company?

CW: It was just the fashionable thing to do at the time and a lot of football clubs floated on the AIM. It did give us some financing though so in the short term it wasn’t a problem but clubs like QPR shouldn’t be on the AIM and long term it was completely wrong.

QPRnet: There was soon talk of moving to a new ground, how advanced did the plan ever get?

CW: For all the time that I owned QPR and all the time I owned Wasps during and since I have spent more time thinking about trying to move grounds for both clubs, either together and individually, than almost anything else.

I read all the press reports these days about Chelsea trying to move grounds, QPR wanting to move grounds and Wasps moving in the future. Let me tell you I know every single piece of potential real estate between here and halfway down the M40 and frankly it is impossible.

There are sites but the real estate value of them is horrendous and that’s before you even start to think about building a stadium on it. If you’re Sunderland you get given a piece of land on a disused pit but there’s no chance of that happening in West London.  

It’s a big factor too because the clubs that have moved to new grounds have done very well and if QPR could magically have a 30,000 seat stadium somewhere in this part of London would it be an advantage? Enormous. Would they get 30,000 people going instead of 16,000? Yes. Would that make a big difference? Of course.

QPRnet: You mentioned earlier about the importance of bouncing straight back up, was that the strategy in that first season because you certainly supported your manager with some big transfer fees?

CW: It was yes, I think I spent more on players for QPR than any club outside The Premier League had ever done or certainly QPR had ever done. When you consider this was fifteen years ago and we paid £2.2 million for John Spencer, nearly a million for Gavin Peacock and £2.75 million for Mike Sheron, that’s like signing a fifteen million pound player now.

It all went wrong right from the word go though. As soon as we took over the club Ray Wilkins resigned as manager and to this day I don’t know why. I think he thought he wasn’t going to get on with Clive Berlin, who was the Chief Executive, but I’m only guessing.

QPRnet: To clarify Ray Wilkins resigned, he wasn’t sacked?

CW: Oh he resigned, he didn’t resign to me, he resigned to the Chief Executive so whatever happened happened between him and Clive Berlin. I would have kept him on personally but Clive told me he only wanted to be the manager so he could pick himself.

We lined up Alan Curbishley to take over but he couldn’t get out of his deal with Charlton and I think if he had come at the time it could have been a completely different story because he went on to prove what a good manager he was with Charlton.

Clive Berlin thought we had to have a manager with Premier League experience which proved hard to find, Stewart Houston came up and he had managed Arsenal for the best part of a year so we chose him. Stewart was a very decent guy and I don’t think he did that terribly either but the fans never really took to him and I think he made a mistake in bringing in Bruce Rioch as his number two.

QPRnet: The players at the time have said since they weren’t impressed with Houston and Rioch and found them too authoritarian.

CW: I don’t think Stewart was like that it was Bruce Rioch who was the authoritarian. His management style was a throwback to the old days and it was at a point in time when players were changing their attitudes and I’m sure some of them didn’t take to him. You can’t run a football club based around who players take to but I think it was fair to say there was a problem there.

We never hired Bruce though, if I wanted Bruce Rioch as the manger I’d have given him the job but I didn’t and of course you can’t hire a manager and not let him choose his own assistant.

So we had a run of things going wrong from the start, the first thing was that Ray Wilkins resigned, second that we couldn’t get Alan Curbishley, third that when we got Stewart Houston he hired Bruce Rioch as his assistant and the fourth thing was in the second game of the season Kevin Gallen did an ACL and was out for the year so we didn’t start off with much good luck.

QPRnet: The big signings didn’t work out and Stewart was out 14 months after arriving. How did we arrive at the decision to appoint Ray Harford?

CW: Ray Harford was very definitely Clive Berlin’s choice, we had initially gone back in for Alan Curbishley a second time and we thought we had him but missed out again. Ray Harford was doing very well with West Brom and it seemed quite a shrewd move really but of course it proved to be a mistake.

QPRnet:  You could see from the transfers that season that it was a different strategy. Was that financial strain starting to show or did we make a decision to go at it in a different way?

CW: That is a very good question. Ray Harford and Clive Berlin proved to be very close and the two of them dictated the transfer strategy. To this day I’m not sure myself what the motivation was for the players being singed and the players being sold. Clive was a football agent he was connected with agents and I admit some of the transfers seemed very strange.

We signed a player from Sunderland called Richard Ord for a good few hundred thousand. Of course he got injured pre-season, in fact I think he was injured before he came to us, and he never played a game. We got a goalkeeper from Crewe called Ademola Bankole who wasn’t even signed to Crewe when we brought him which we didn’t know about. We let the likes of Rufus Brevett go to Fulham and signed really bad replacements.

QPRnet: Gerry Francis then came back to the club and that certainly boosted everyone for a time, but realistically his hands were tied from day one financially weren’t they? At least he didn’t make a particular secret of that fact…

CW: True but every football manager in the country says he’s got his hands tied budget wise. Arsene Wenger might say the same at Arsenal, every manager wants to spend more money. Sure we were running out of money though, we were losing about five million a year and by this time it was all coming out of my pocket.

We hadn’t got players to sell either, we thought if we needed to raise money on the transfer market we could sell Clarke Carlisle and Richard Langley and then they both do their cruciates within ten minutes of each other in a home defeat to Fulham. We thought we could maybe raise five million by selling those two which we would have re-invested in players but they got injured, we couldn’t sell them, we had no other players we could sell and I was running out of money myself.

QPRnet: When did Gerry tell you he wanted to leave?

CW: That was after I resigned as Chairman. I think Gerry saw the writing the on the wall and he wanted out. Gerry and I were close, I liked him we always got on well, he was a thoroughly decent bloke and I’ve got nothing bad to say about Gerry Francis whatsoever he is a very honourable guy.

I think when I left Gerry could see things weren’t in great shape and he wanted out as well. So we did the search for a new manager for the fourth time, we saw all the usual faces, Steve Coppell and so forth but Gerry was quite keen on Ian Holloway. Ollie was living down in the West Country so I had a series of meetings with him in Gloucestershire and between myself, Nick Blackburn and Gerry we decided to give him the job. He was the right manager too, it’s a shame he didn’t keep us up but I think it was just too much to do by then.

QPRnet: You mentioned your resignation there that was February 2001

CW: Yes, I got to a stage where there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t put anymore money in as I was losing five million a year. We had just lost our two best players and I just thought I couldn’t do anymore at all.

QPRnet: You’ve previously talked about the abuse you were getting around that time at games, how bad did that get?

CW: Well it gets unpleasant, you get death threats and that kind of thing. Usually by email now of course they could have been twelve year old kids in New Zealand but it still isn’t very nice for sure.

QPRnet: From your point of view, the first few months you were there fans were singing your name, must have felt good …..

CW: Felt great

QPRnet:  ….Last few months you’re getting threats and what have you

CW: But it happens to every Chairman in the country, you go in and you are a hero and two years later you are not. You tell me someone it hasn’t happened to, it is just the way it goes. You need a pretty thick skin to deal with it all and I don’t have one.  

QPRnet: You were trying to sell the club, how advanced did talks get with the like of Andrew Ellis?

CW: The problem with selling a football club is there are a massive amount of chancers who haven’t got two pennies to rub together but love the idea of owning a football club. They turn up and you give them hospitality in the boardroom, shower them with food and drink, they have the time of their lives but when it comes down to it none of them have got the cash. You don’t know that up front though and you can’t turn everyone away in case one of them is the real deal.

It’s hard selling football clubs, in fact you can’t actually sell one really, someone has to want to buy it and with a club in the bottom half of what is now The Championship that wasn’t easy to find.

QPRnet: By April you’d put the club into administration, was that the absolute last resort?

CW: Administration isn’t something you choose to do it is something that is legally foisted on you. If you are in a situation where you can’t guarantee you can pay all your debts you have to go into administration otherwise as a director you end up going to prison.

For a year or two it was me signing everything off and saying I will make sure the club has enough money to meet it liabilities that kept things going. But when I got to a point where I could no longer do that the directors had no choice but to make the announcement that we were going into administration.

QPRnet: Most of the debt was loans to yourself, give or take a few million to the taxman

CW: All the debt was loans from me because I’d been supporting all the cash balances.

QPRnet: One of the most controversial outcomes of the administration is one of the major things fans would criticize you for. The club is in administration most of the debt is owed to you but you end up taking Wasps and our training ground as well. How do you address that?

CW: Loftus Road only owned fifty percent of Wasps, the other fifty percent was owned by the old Wasps committee. If a rugby clubs goes into administration the rules were that they were immediately thrown out of the Premier League. So first of all it was impossible for Wasps to go into administration and secondly it wouldn’t have been right to force them into administration when we only owned half the club.

The solution for that was for me to buy Wasps from QPR which separated the two, got Wasps out of that conundrum and at the same time put more money into QPR to help them carry on for longer.

As far as the training ground is concerned I cant remember what we brought  it for from British Gas but it was probably about half a million. That money came from me in the first place, I loaned QPR the money the buy it and then I paid two million to take the training ground out and give QPR more money to keep going.

The fans got upset at the time because they thought I was doing it as a property speculator but ten years later it is still a training ground, there is no property aspect there and its value is as a public park and nearer two hundred thousand than two million. There was a situation where at some point in the future someone might have got planning permission and it might have made a lot of money so I entered into a covenant with the club that if that happened they benefited from the sale.

The main reason for taking the training ground out though was it was an asset which couldn’t be sold so I bought it to put the money into QPR.

QPRnet: Pretty soon after administration the merger with Wimbledon was mooted. How did that come about?

CW: Wimbledon was owned by some very rich Norwegians, they said they had to get a proper permanent ground to play at otherwise they would pull out so the guys that were running Wimbledon day to day came up with the idea of a merger with QPR.

Everyone got upset about that, Wimbledon fans didn’t like it, QPR fans didn’t like it. Now you might think it’s a silly idea but here’s the way we looked at it. QPR had a crap team, that’s why were in the relegation zone. Wimbledon had a good team which is why they were challenging for promotion. They had rich owners with lots of money whereas we’d run out of money. They didn’t have a stadium, we did. They didn’t have any fans, we did. Put the two together what have you got? A good team challenging for promotion with rich owners, in its own stadium and loads of fans.

The deal was the team would have been called QPR & Wimbledon and within a year or two the Wimbledon name would have gone. They were going to play at Loftus Road in blue and white hoops and just use the Wimbledon away strip. Most QPR fans wouldn’t have known any difference, they’d have been going to Shepherds Bush to see QPR play except  they would have had a better team and been near the top of the Championship instead of being relegated into what’s now League One.

Mergers in football are difficult but I think it was worth considering. It would have staved off relegation and administration and we might have got back to The Premier League quite quickly. The fans didn’t like it but what did Wimbledon get instead? Milton Keynes, and does anyone still think that’s the same club? Arguably they’d have been better off if they had become part of QPR.

QPR fans didn’t like and I guess all they’ve had to suffer is three season in League One and that’s in the past now with the club back in The Premier League. I suppose for QPR it’s better that it hasn’t happened but at the time it was worth looking at it however when people didn’t want to do it we dropped it and that was that.

Honestly we just trying to think of anything that would bring in new owners, we couldn’t get our own in so this seemed like the next best thing.

QPRnet: Would the league have sanctioned it?

CW: We did have a meeting with the league, they were very sympathetic to the situation but there was an issue that the new team may well have had to take the lowest position of the two existing teams, in which case it would have been scuppered anyway even if the fans hadn’t objected.

QPRnet: During administration and the months that followed Rangers fans were reduced to rattling buckets outside Loftus Road to help raise finances to keep the club going. That can’t have felt good can it?

CW: No but what else could I do? I couldn’t do anything else it was costing me five million a year and I didn’t have any more money.

QPRnet: When we did exit administration via the ABC loan it was stated on the official website that you took a substational write off of the loans owed to you, how much did you actually lose over all?

CW: I’d say about £20m. The club cost £10m to buy it in the first place, about £6m of that came from myself and the other £4m from the AIM flotation.

I should also point out that we made back about £9m from the sale of the old Wasps ground and although some of that went to pay Wasp losses, it was by no means all of the £9m. Therefore were it not for the sale of the Wasps ground at Twyford avenue, the losses would have been much more.

QPRnet: You retained some sort of shareholding until relatively recently, when did you finally sever all ties with Loftus Road?

CW: I didn’t retain any shareholding, my agreement with the club was I would be life vice president and technically I still should be. It was in the programme until quite recently but I believe it isn’t anymore.

QPRnet: I ask because in 2004 there was pressure from both the fans and the QPR chairman of the time to hand over your remaining shareholding.

CW: I don’t think I did have any shares, Gerry Francis had share options and the options came from me so technically I owned the shares he had options over. I forgot all about that until Gerry phoned me out of the blue one day to ask what he wanted to do with them. I can’t remember retaining any shares but I certainly haven’t had any for a long time and if I did I gave them all back.

QPRnet: It seemed like every few months your name would pop up in connection with QPR’s financial woes, you generally kept your silence did you get fed up of taking all this blame or were you comfortable to accept that responsibility?

CW: Not really, it was just an unpleasant experience overall. It’s the team I supported and loved and I tried my best.

I think the team I inherited that had slipped out of The Premier League was probably too far short of a team that could easily get promoted. When you consider the first season we were in charge our best players were John Spencer and Gavin Peacock, players we brought in, none of the other players that came down from The Premier League had much of a future really.

QPRnet: People who buy football clubs are generally wealthy, successful businessmen. What is it about football that makes people like yourselves perhaps make decisions you would never make in a million years with a normal business?

CW: It’s true football does that to you but its very hard running a club like a normal business. Firstly because a normal business is run to be both successful and profitable. You cant do that with a football club because it wont be profitable anyway so you’re only left with successful.

Generally people who buy clubs are fans so you want it to be successful on the pitch and the more money you throw at it the more likely you are to see that happen but then the more money you throw at it the more you lose.

It’s a very difficult balance to get right, especially at a club like QPR where the money we could gross wouldn’t have allowed us to make a profit even if we had a squad of YTS players.

QPRnet: If you could go back and talk to your younger self would you tell him to steer clear of the whole thing?

CW: Oh defiantly, I wouldn’t have done it and if I did I would have done it very differently. I think to run a football club you have to be there the whole time otherwise you don’t know what’s going on. There is money coming in the front door and going out the back door without you even seeing it.

At the time I had a business to run, Chrysalis was a big company and I didn’t have enough time to devote to football so I put together a board of what I thought were good people and relied on the Chief Executive and the managers. Unfortunately I wasn’t very lucky with my choice of them.

QPRnet: When was you last at Loftus Road and would you like to go again?

CW: I’ve been to the odd away game, you can go incognito to away games but I would like to start going to Loftus Road again.

QPRnet: Do you think that’s possible?

CW: I don’t see why not, life moves on doesn’t it? I don’t own Wasps or Chrysalis anymore I’ve got more time on my hands so I’d love to get to some games and I’m planning on doing that.

QPRnet: If you did have a message for the fans who lived through that era and everything that followed it what would you say?

CW: All I can say is what I’ve said. I tried my best, I lost a lot of money, and it didn’t work out.  I still think I spent more money on QPR than anyone else has done until perhaps until Tony Fernandes came in this year. Let’s not forget though he has a Premier League club and the income that goes with it and the club will possibly have increased their profits as a result despite the outlay on players.

It probably didn’t help from QPR fans point of view that Wasps were so successful even after I left Loftus Road. During my time there we won eleven trophies in eleven years including two European Cups.  I think I did a better job at Wasps because I didn’t know anything about rugby. It made it easier because I wasn’t a fan so I was much more able to see the wood for the trees whereas in the case of QPR, because I so emotionally involved in it, I simply couldn’t.

We’d like to express our thanks to Chris for taking time out of his evening to meet with us and answer our questions.

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