Wimbledon QPR Merger Off

A horrible day. QPR fans woke up to the breaking news that, 14 years on from the last proposed merger, another was on the cards. This time it wasn’t Fulham, but Wimbledon. Different club, same reaction.

So, first, a press release – in which we state our opposition to the proposed merger and promise to fight it all the way. We do so in the belief that the overwhelming majority of QPR fans will be opposed to such an idea. “Working to protect the identity of and future of Queens Park Rangers”. That is the platform on which we launched QPR 1st. Here then is our first big test. We are an organisation just three weeks into existence, still sifting through close to 2,000 registrations and putting in place a truly democratic ‘one member, one vote’ set-up. In that time, we have had a thousand people turn up to a public meeting and provide overwhelming support for the idea of setting up a supporters trust.

We have backing from the government, from the FA, the Football League, and the PFA. We receive support from the council, from the Mayor, from the local MP, and from the Shepherds Bush business community. We now have the voting power of over two million shares pledged. Of course, that is insignificant compared to Chris Wright’s majority shareholding, but as a meaningful lobby of small shareholders, it is a hugely significant figure.

So the wording of the press release, then. We promise to fight any merger. It is our unshakeable belief that it is something the overwhelming majority of QPR fans are opposed to and state as much. Predictably, from some, there is criticism that we don’t represent the views of ALL the fans – not something, to the best of our belief and knowledge, we have ever done. There are those who in favour of a merger, we accept that. And indeed respect their views.

But we’re a democratic organisation, and the messages of support from people registering support for QPR 1st merely confirm our unshakeable belief that the majority of QPR fans oppose a merger. It is all very well arguing that, if looked at unemotionally, the merger is a good business proposition. Which of course it is. But you can’t conveniently take the emotional aspect out of the equation. Choosing to support a football club is not a cold decision. It’s one that comes from the heart, and is pursued via an emotional roller-coaster. That’s the appeal, the very essence of supporting a club. Those of us who came to the fore to take QPR 1st forward – not just for our own benefit, but for all QPR fans who share our beliefs and visions – bleed blue and white. If you love something – truly love something, even if it is only a football club – then you’ll not only nurture it, you’ll fight tooth and nail to protect it. We are QPR. We are not QPR incorporating anyone else.

The amount of vitriol that comes our way because of that stance is astonishing. There are ridiculous suggestions that we knew about the merger three weeks ago, although nothing to explain why we would wish to keep that to ourselves. We are accused of everything from being “unrepresentative” (don’t think so!) to being a cosy little clique with all sorts of hidden agendas (not so). What an insult that is to those who have pledged support for QPR 1st, numbers which are rising rapidly every day. In fact so vitriolic is it at times, that you would be forgiven for thinking it was almost orchestrated. At least we always put our proper names to, for example, postings on the Internet. It’s interesting that so much of the criticism of QPR 1st comes from anonymous sources. Fine, democracy means that those who support the merger are entitled to form their own collective voice. Let them come to Molineux on Sunday and canvass support.

So the wording of the press release contains no prevarication. As a responsible organisation, of course we have to listen to the proposals with an open mind. But they are splashed all over the newspapers, and in turn reproduced on the Internet. There’s nothing in the proposals to make us believe the majority of QPR fans will view this merger any differently to the one in 1987, or significantly oppose it any less.

The merger story in the Sun can, we decide, be looked at from one of three perspectives. Firstly, that it is the route Chris Wright and the administrators are set on. In which case, it is something that will inevitably be fought by fans of both clubs. Secondly, it is a story deliberately leaked to the press and designed to create a smokescreen whereby the fear of merger tempts a firm bid to the table. So far, we are told, there have been 30 or so expressions of interest in buying QPR but no firm bid tabled. Nothing like a good scare story to propel potential buyers into action. Thirdly, it is a classic negotiating tactic – present a worst case scenario, then downgrade it to something not quite so unpalatable, but something which in itself would have met opposition. A groundshare perhaps? A sell-off of Loftus Road and QPR groundsharing somewhere else? A move to a new stadium? It’s all guesswork, but the meeting with Chris Wright this evening will present an opportunity to sort out some fact from fiction. Or not as the case may be.

The meeting with Chris Wright and representatives from QPR 1st, had been agreed a week or more beforehand. The objective of it was to obtain first-hand information about his plans and intentions for QPR. It was also to convey the aims and objectives of a supporters trust and take the first step in what we hope will eventually lead to a ‘listening club’ – not one that merely pays lip service to the notion that the fan-base should be an inclusive part of the way the club is run, not peripheral to it. But of course the merger was now the key issue to address.

Would the story coming out in the papers (a coincidence or timely?) and the protests which had gone on all day, both outside Loftus Road and at the FA, scupper the meeting. We assembled, nine of us from the Interim Commitee, there representing QPR 1st, but equally drawn from across the broad spectrum of QPR support, incorporating the LSA, shareholders, webmasters, and A Kick Up The R’s. Even up to the last minute we were waiting to confirm the location of the meeting. As it transpired, Nick Blackburn and Chris Wright came to us, not us to them

Nick Blackburn arrived first, and proceeded to tell us about the thinking behind the proposed merger. It seems it was first mooted at Selhurst Park after the 5-0 defeat by Wimbledon. He describes it as an idea discussed “half-heartedly” and as a “bit of a joke”. They are not words, we are quick to point out, that are particularly appropriate to the future of our football club. It seems the idea was then discussed further at QPR board level and a more formal approach made to Wimbledon. Nick Blackburn said that the QPR board felt that, due to the financial difficulties facing the club, it was a proposal that merited a further look.

He asked us if we saw any merit in the merger or if the whole thing was the worst idea in the world? The latter, we informed him. Even if a merger meant come August we would be able to watch a team “wearing hoops” at Loftus Road, but with ‘Wimbledon’ incorporated into the club name, playing Manchester City in front of 20,000 fans, rather than QPR playing Bristol City in front of 8,000? Especially not if meant a team wearing hoops at Loftus Road, but with Wimbledon incorporated into the club name, playing Manchester City in front of 20,000 fans, we assured him. QPR then, QPR now, QPR always, to steal a line. We would rather watch QPR at the bottom of Division Three having retained our own identity, than watch some hybrid, mongrel club at any level. The continual use of the word ‘hybrid’ began to annoy Nick Blackburn after a while, we felt. Hybrid, mongrel, or whatever – what guarantee was there that the new amalgamated club would be successful. There were, we reminded him, alternative ways to fill a stadium. That was one of the ways in which QPR 1st could contribute. (Dare we suggest that a full stadium week in, week out is the wish of every QPR fan, or do we need to acknowledge that there are perhaps some fans who only want a half-full stadium?)

Chris Wright arrived not too long after. He sat down, and invited us to fire questions at him, anything we wanted to know. He would answer as honestly as could, he assured us. Tell us the precise situation QPR are in now, we invited.

He began by explaining the injuries which had blighted our season and eventually led to relegation. No, he wasn’t happy with the performances, but impending relegation and the consequential worsening financial difficulties, whereby the club were potentially trading insolvently, forced the club into administration. Chris Wright is an engaging speaker in the surrounds of a less formal setting such as this, but there is still a feeling that you give him a cue and the well-rehearsed lines come out one after another. The product of a man who has been interviewed a thousand times, and forgiveable for that alone. There was nothing he said that any of us hadn’t heard before. Until of course the point when he got to the merger.

He reiterated Nick Blackburn’s views that it was merely an idea, one in fact that he himself had decided three days beforehand was a non-starter. Even so, he believed that many Football League clubs were looking at the possibility of merger – many Football League club’s CHAIRMAN he agreed, after interjection on our part – and used the two Sheffield clubs as an illustration of how two medium sized clubs could merge to compete as one powerful one in a 50,000 stadium. The assumption that it would be a FULL stadium was one that didn’t go unchallenged. Nor did Nick Blackburn’s earlier suggestion that Loftus Road would be heaving with 20,000 punters desperate to see Quimbledon, or whatever the name was. More like a tenth of that, we suggested. And no support away from home.

It was always, he assured us, the club’s intention to seeking the views of season ticket holders, shareholders and members, and the merger would only proceed if there was a significant majority against the idea. It would all have depended on the results of a ballot. And of the way it was worded, we interjected. It would have been a straightforward poll, he responded, and if the verdict had been anti-merger then he saw no way that QPR could go down that route.

We expressed shock that someone who is a fan, and around in 1987, should even begin to entertain a merger – a horrible word to QPR fans. Had the protests today come as a surprise to Chris Wright? No, they hadn’t. Was he aware that whilst we might be sitting around the table in a calm manner, there were many, many very angry fans out there, some of whom were planning further protests both at Wolves on Sunday, and also at Loftus Road on Sunday? He didn’t doubt it.

He was now talking in the past tense, we pointed out. Did this mean that no ballot would take place? The story breaking in the Sun, he felt, had scuppered any rational debate on the merits of the merger, so no it was not an option that the club would now persue. In any case the strength of feeling demonstrated at the ground, on the messageboards, and around the table here this evening had confirmed his own private feelings that a merger is not the way forward.

So what is the way forward? He confirmed that he would continue to fund the club until October, but of course a buyer may well come in tomorrow. And after October if no firm bid is recieved? What contingency plans did he have? None, was the short answer. But he stated he would not allow QPR to go bust. What conditions did he place on the sale? For example, would he consider selling Loftus Road separately to QPR? He promised he would do everything in his power to keep the two together.

What about the Wasps deal, which included Twyford Avenue as well? It seems he had kept Wasps out of the administration process as league rules meant any rugby club in administration would immediately be kicked out the league. The reason for buying the two was to reduce the debt linked to QPR, and therefore make it a more attractive proposition to any potential bidder. Would he agree to a clause whereby any bidder wanting to buy Wasps as part of the package could buy them and the training ground for the same price Chris Wright had paid. No, on balance, that wasn’t something he was prepared to agree to. What about conditions of sale? What criteria, apart from bidders having the money, would he place on any sale? Again he thought it inappropriate to impose conditions on any sale but stated that he would ensure himself that any bid was the right deal for QPR. Did that include the City consortium who had made their interest public earlier that afternoon? They and anyone else who put in a firm bid, he stated.

Chris Wright wasn’t the only person who had lost money with the collapse of the share price. He was though in a better position to shoulder the loss than many. What was his feelings on that? He was very sorry, of course, but football shares had performed poorly everywhere and we weren’t the only club to suffer. What about accusations that he was really only interested in Wasps all along and that he has no interest in what happens to QPR? It was something he denied totally. Why had he used the incident at the Fulham game to step down as chairman and leave the club effectively rudderless? You are a rich businessman with diverse interests, we pointed out, surely you have not got where you are today without developing a thick skin? Anything but, he said, I am a very sensitive person, not thick-skinned at all. I take criticism very hard. I am used to dealing with singers, DJ’s, actors – creative people. My skills lay in nurturing talent. But, yes, he agreed, the one thing QPR needed then, and needs now, is a ‘hands-on’ chairman. But it can no longer be himself. He had, we reminded him, actually got very little flak from the fans, certainly in comparison with chairmen at other clubs.

We talked about the concept of a supporters trust and what in-put one can have into the running of a football club. Both Chris Wright and Nick Blackburn stated they were receptive to the idea, and that they would be prepared to meet with QPR 1st on a regular basis. For now, on a weekly basis, we pitched? Fortnightly would be more realistic, given his full diary, responded Chris Wright. With that, and hour and a quarter after arriving, he was gone. Off to the BBC to give an interview to Radio Five.

The verdict of the meeting with him? He had given us a clear, unequivocal undertaking that there would be no merger with Wimbledon or any other club. He also stated that he would continue to do the best for QPR but it is always hard to pin someone down to hard specifics if they don’t want to be pinned down. And the impression, as it always is with Chris Wright, is that he doesn’t want to be pinned down. But the ‘no merger’ agreement was unequivocal enough – and all we can do is take that at face value. For now. No-one is under any illusions that there is a bigger game being played here. All we can really do is ensure to the best of our limited abilities that QPR fans are not treated as a pawn in all this, but as a major player whose views about the future of our club are paramount.

As we left the meeting and went home, Chris Wright was on Radio Five, saying much the same as he’d said to us. Merger had never been a serious issue, and he himself had big reservations about it. It would never have gone through without the backing of the fans anyway – and, no, it was “extremely unlikely” a ballot would now take place. No mention that the majority verdict had already been given anyway. All part of the game, of course, and one only just begun.

Dave Thomas