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For Premier League-centric supporters, Queens Park Rangers are still best remembered for one of English football’s most reckless and heady periods of spending.
After winning promotion in May 2011, QPR signed more than 30 big-name players over the next 18 months, including four Champions League winners in Julio Cesar, Jose Bosingwa, Park Ji-sung and Djibril Cisse.
They were relegated after two years in the top flight but bounced straight back for the 2014-15 campaign, again spending big, only to finish dead last for the second time in three seasons.
In a four-year period, QPR splashed out more than £100million and inflated their wage-bill to nearly double the club’s turnover, proving a memorable example of how not to buy success.
“The best way to describe it? The wild, wild west,” laughs Les Ferdinand, QPR’s director of football.
The club are still counting the cost of their extravagance, having agreed a £42m settlement with the EFL in 2018 for breaching Financial Fair Play rules, to be paid over a decade.
“That’s how we thought you brought success to a football club,” says QPR chairman Amit Bhatia, who has been there since 2007. “We paid those expensive transfer fees, we signed big-name players on large wages. And we failed. Of course, it was exciting. Was it correct? No. There was a period where we lost our way.”
For all the thrills, there was a sense that QPR had fundamentally strayed from the values of a community club with a proud record of developing players.
“It just didn’t seem like the club I knew,” says Ferdinand, who played for the Rs and was tasked with changing the approach when he returned in 2015.
After six seasons scrapping in the Championship, QPR are beginning to cautiously eye the promised land of the Premier League again. Mark Warburton’s side have made an encouraging start and Saturday’s short trip to promotion favourites Fulham should provide an early test of their top-six credentials.
“It’s tough but we’ve got our eye on that play-off route,” says Ferdinand.
Today, though, QPR’s grand plan for promotion could scarcely be more different to a decade ago. From spending lavishly, the club are now determined to develop their own stars and become fully self-sustainable.
They are already making impressive headway, with 20 players coming through their youth system to the first team in the past seven years, including Osman Kakay and Ilias Chair.
“It’s traditionally been the way of the club,” says Ferdinand.
“But also we have to do it this way. If I could spend £10m on an Ivan Toney, I would. We’re not in that position any more. We did that and now we have to suffer the consequences and do things in a more holistic way.”
QPR want to tap into the capital’s pool of young talent, while also snapping up older rough diamonds, like their most successful recent export, Eberechi Eze, and Chair, who could be the next to make the step up to the Premier League.
“We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past,” says Bhatia. “We’ve understood how we have to be different and build for the future. We’re looking at it as a very long project. Success doesn’t come overnight if you want the club to be sustainable.”
At the heart of QPR’s plans is infrastructure. The club hope to build a new stadium and last month planning permission was granted for a £20m training centre in Heston, due to open during the 2022-23 season.
The project is being funded by an innovative QPR Bond, which will pay investors five per cent gross interest annually and a one-off 25 per cent bonus if the club are promoted in the next five years.
The bond allows supporters to invest directly in the training ground, providing a canny means of raising funds and linking the club directly with a fanbase that began to feel alienated during the years of excess.
The training centre will be state-of-the-art but, for Bhatia, it means a return to QPR’s roots, cementing the club’s identity, bringing together all age groups in one place and hopefully attracting more of the capital’s best young players.
“When you have a permanent place you call home, it develops our identity, develops players, gives them a sense they’re part of something,” says the chairman.
“It’s extraordinary special. It’s something we haven’t had, as much as we’ve tried to make our current facility home. If we have a permanent place of our own and we call it our own, it has our culture, has our values.”
On a more practical level, Ferdinand adds: “It will make a major difference. At the moment the Under-18s and teams below train on a separate site. They never get to see their heroes. It’s like running a race with no finish line.”
After a roller-coaster of costly trial and error, Bhatia is convinced QPR have struck on the right formula for long-term success.
“The club has to make amends for some of the mistakes that it’s made in the past, change its ways, adopt a new style and understand, as a board, that sometimes success doesn’t come quickly and easily by spending money,” he says. “It’s the hard graft of doing things right, setting solid foundations. That takes a journey.
“We harbour ambitions, of course, of being promoted to the Premier League, but we’re going to do it the right way this time. It’s going to be around developing youth and bringing through players. I’m convinced this is the right way forward. If I could go back in time, we’d have done it differently.”
Les Ferdinand and Amit Bhatia were speaking at the launch of the QPR bond. To find out more about the QPR bond, please visit here.