Evening Standard

Street wise: Tony Fernandes is delighted to have bought QPR. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Tony Fernandes has been a West Ham fan since he was eight but the new owner of Queen Park Rangers is glad that his failure to buy the Hammers led him to Loftus Road.

We are in his elegant town house in the capital and the 47-year-old owner of AirAsia is telling me of his many efforts to take over West Ham stretching back five years.

“I tried before the Icelandic guys bought it,” he says. “Then, when they had all their problems, I was in a bidding war with David Sullivan and David Gold but the Icelandic banks went for them. We approached them again when they got relegated in May and I upset Sullivan.

“I was getting hundreds of messages asking, ‘Have you put in an offer?’ So I tweeted, ‘Yep, I’ve put in an offer.’ World War 17 exploded. It was then that Bernie Ecclestone called and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you look at QPR?'”

Fernandes reveals that, initially, he was only looking to buy up to 20 per cent of the west London club and take the role of chairman. However, his thoughts changed following a meeting with manager Neil Warnock and Flavio Briatore in Italy.

“I thought great, I liked Neil’s passion, he knows football, loves it. That is when Bernie and Flavio said, ‘Look, the chemistry seems really good between you, the manager and the fans. Why don’t you take all of it?'”

By then it was an open secret that co-owners Ecclestone and Briatore were not getting on with Warnock and had angered the fans by increasing ticket prices by 40 per cent. Fernandes did not hesitate. “I said okay and we negotiated something.”

For just under £45million, the Malaysian got 66 per cent with the Mittals, billionaire Lakshmi and son-in-law Amit Bhatia, who had also fallen out with Ecclestone, keeping their 33 per cent and returning to the board. Last year, after another failed attempt to buy West Ham, he was close to buying Charlton.

“It was very cheap, a great business deal but I didn’t have any heart for it. It was too close to West Ham.”

QPR were different. Sent to boarding school in Epsom from Malaysia at the age of 12, he ended up as an accountancy student living in the Uxbridge Road above a kebab shop.

“I walked past Loftus Road every day,” Fernandes says. “It was the first ground I went to in this country when I was 18, back in 1982. I always loved Stan Bowles, he was unbelievable.”

Although Fernandes has always “had a soft spot for QPR” what really makes him glad he bought the club is that he feels there may have been unrealistic expectations at Upton Park.

“Maybe what Sullivan and Gold were hoping for is a real billionaire. That’s a blessing at QPR. We’ve got some very good, level-headed fans who are not expecting me to be Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich. I’m not someone who can whip out the cheque book like them, that’s Disneyland stuff. You don’t get success by spending hundreds of millions of pounds. Look at Fernando Torres, dropped by Spain, dropped by Chelsea and that’s a lot of money potentially down the drain.”

Abramovich spent £50m to bring Torres from Liverpool in January while, at Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour sanctioned an £81m spree in the summer to land Samir Nasri, Sergio Aguero, Gael Clichy and Stefan Savic.

Since the Fernandes takeover, QPR have bought in seven players but he says: “We spent around £10-12million, not even half a Man City player if you think about it.”

He reveals there would have been an eighth arrival but Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy stopped Sebastien Bassong leaving after the north London club failed to get Gary Cahill from Bolton.

Although Fernandes accepts he can never match the Premier League’s big spenders, he points to his record with his other businesses.

“How did I start AirAsia with two hundred thousand US dollars and compete with Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Japan Airlines? How can we start a Formula One team when Toyota, who spent £200m a year, failed? At Lotus we have probably a quarter of the budget of the big teams but in one year we’ve increased by five seconds. Success is about having the gel, the chemistry, bringing the right people in and giving them the stability to grow and prosper.”

But can he really expect such growth from Joey Barton, given the midfielder’s track record of violence on and off the field? “Listen, that was Neil’s call and I supported him. Often how a player behaves is down to his environment. Put someone in one environment and you can get the best out of him. That’s been my own skill set, where I see talent and I can really bring it out.”

And while Fernandes is only getting to know Warnock, and has so far only got to chapter two of the QPR manager’s book, he is convinced the Yorkshireman can get the best out of players.

“I’ve heard stories of the great stuff Neil did with the squad he was given for the Championship. Given the right support, love and attention, Barton is worth the risk because he’s definitely a huge talent and can improve.”

But if Barton was Warnock’s call, then should David Beckham end up wearing the hooped jersey it will be down to Fernandes. “It’s an idea of mine that somehow some newspaper got hold of. I don’t like to say something and then be doing something else and get caught out. So when I was asked I said, ‘Yeah, it’s something I’d like to do.'”

Fernandes has not spoken to the former England captain but may get a chance when Beckham goes out to Indonesia with LA Galaxy at the end of November.

The QPR owner admits: “It’s a long shot. Spurs, a much bigger club, have stuck their hand up. And then the question is, will the manager want him in December? Does he fit in our team? Does it make sense? Does Beckham want to come? There are a lot of ifs.”

So many ifs that Beckham at Loftus Road seems a more remote idea than QPR moving to a new stadium.

“There’s potential for another stadium,” Fernandes says. “The most obvious one would be somewhere in White City. There are parcels of land around there, some owned by the BBC. Westfield has opened up a lot of potential and we would be looking for a stadium of 40-45,000.”

This is not only a big leap from the 19,000 that Loftus Road can hold but Fernandes does not rule out sharing.

He says: “My first game in Italy was AC Milan v Inter Milan. These are two of the biggest clubs in the world and they share a stadium.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to do it but there’s nothing that should be not looked at. And there was precedence here; Crystal Palace and Charlton shared at some stage.”

Although Charlton did move into Selhurst Park during the Eighties that was because they did not have a ground. Fulham, meanwhile, spent two seasons at Loftus Road from 2002, as Mohamed Fayed looked to redevelop Craven Cottage and make his club the Manchester United of the south.

Unlike Fayed, Fernandes is not the sort of man to make such grand statements.”I haven’t come in and said, ‘I want to be in Europe’ or ‘We want to be the Premier League champions in five years time.’ All I’ve said is, ‘We want to survive this year.’ That is being realistic.”

This realism blends with the hope that owning a Premier League club will do nicely for his business. “Premier League is huge in my part of the world. Apart from the Queen, it is the biggest English export and QPR help our aspirations. It’s a great west London location, easy to get to and fits the branding ambitions for my businesses.”

AirAsia is a business Fernandes is very proud of and with some justification. Having qualified as an accountant but hated every minute of it, he went from a long spell in the music industry working for Virgin, where he was hired by Richard Branson and Warner, before going into the airline business.

Inspired by a meeting with easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, he went home to Malaysia to buy AirAsia.

“We bought it for 25 cents, took on $10million of debt. We signed on September 8 and three days later 9/11 happened. We had two planes, 254 terrified staff. Now we have 100 aircraft, 9,000 staff, no unions, fly 33million passengers, the turnover is about four or five billion dollars and we made four hundred million dollars last year.”

Working with Manchester United and Formula One has helped promote AirAsia and it has also convinced Fernandes he can deal with football fans.

“An airline is very public, you get a lot of stick from passengers when you don’t have an aerobridge. Or don’t allow 65-year-olds to board, or charge for food. I’ve been through a lot with that. I’ve been picketed by the Handicap Association.”

There is nothing Fernandes has done that could make QPR fans want to picket him and he admits: “It’s much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. But I’m in a honeymoon period. I’m not naive enough to think that will always be the case.”

Like AirAsia when he took over, Fernandes sees QPR as “a kind of an unpolished diamond”. He says: “We could screw up or we could make it into a diamond, who knows.”


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