QPR chairman is bruised after a relegation season and admits he wondered about sacking Mark Hughes after first game
The images retain a startling clarity. There was Park Ji-sung, holding aloft his new Queens Park Rangers shirt, on the 29th floor of London's Millbank Tower, surrounded by a sizeable South Korean media corps and beautiful models. The excitement was palpable and nobody felt it more than Tony Fernandes, the go-getting, high-revs, heart-on-his-sleeve club chairman.
This was no ordinary player unveiling and Fernandes trumpeted the capture of a "global superstar". It was July of last year and when he said that QPR's target was to finish above the Premier League's relegation places, you knew that he thought more was attainable. With further signings in the pipeline, it was a time of hope, ideals and, in some respects, innocence. The reality has been shattering.
Fernandes sits on the pitch at Loftus Road. The sun is shining and it is a nice spot for a postmortem. But as the words tumble out, in the wake of relegation, Fernandes lays bare the hurt, the helplessness, the sense of betrayal and, overwhelmingly, the shock that comes from being up close and impersonal with an industry in which the core can look rotten.
"I've seen all of the parts that make football quite ... maybe immoral is a strong word but they would sell their grandmother to do something," Fernandes says. "It's all parts of the football ecosystem. I don't want to go down that route [of naming people] as we have to work with them. But what I am saying is there are people in the business where money comes first."
It is no great leap to identify the agents, transfer-fixers and middlemen who have been necessary cogs in the squad's evolution as the focus of his angst. Fernandes estimates that he has put £50m of his personal fortune into the club and it seemed unfair to remind him of the old line about the quickest way to make a small fortune in football: start with a big one. Yet he was also stinging in his criticism of the players who have been happy to take home the huge salaries while worrying about little more than their social plans.
"Passion is just something that comes naturally to me," Fernandes says. "If I was a player, I'd go out every week and give it 150%. I don't know if every player in the Premier League feels hurt when they lose a game. The right sort is very important. I was naive in thinking that everyone was like me."
Fernandes oscillates between feeling persecuted by this unreal world and heartfelt expressions of mea culpa. He stands accused of tempting players with inflated salaries, misreading their personalities and exiting the summer transfer window with an imbalanced squad. He does not duck the charges.
"I don't think I will be exploited any more," he says. "I think I allowed myself to be exploited but that's my choice. Agents are trying to get the best contracts and there's no two ways about it, I had to pay premiums. It wasn't easy persuading José Bosingwa to come. It wasn't easy convincing Júlio César, Brazil's No1 goalkeeper, to come."
Fernandes concedes that there have been "weak links" at centre-half, defensive midfield and centre-forward, and there was the admission that Joey Barton, who has been loaned for the season to Marseille, with QPR paying the bulk of his wages, had been missed, although purely for his midfield qualities. "We missed Joey," Fernandes says. "We needed a workhorse midfielder and we tried to get Scott Parker [from Tottenham]. We missed a real leader. We tried to get Michael Dawson [also from Tottenham]. To be fair to Mark Hughes [the former manager], he said he needed two centre-halves.
"We saw Ale Faurlín as a key midfielder. He came back from injury but it never happened for him; he'd lost a little bit of his pace. Samba Diakité had lots of issues, Stéphane Mbia took time to settle but he wasn't the Scott Parker type. Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora would have been a reasonable strike-force but we got one game out of them before Andy was ruled out for the season. This has been a tragic season in many ways. It is a Shakespearean play in the making."
Fernandes talks of how "ethics and principles should come first" and it is clear that he both cares and cares what people think. He says that he wondered whether he should have sacked Hughes after the 5-0 home defeat by Swansea on the opening day "but can you imagine what you [press] guys would have done to me?" He mentions hearing criticism from other chairmen and advises them to "stick to their own club".
The thought occurs that Fernandes is too nice, too sensitive, for this gig. "The music and airlines businesses are tough but I've been successful in them," he replies. "There's a manner in how you have to be a tough bastard and I don't think I have to be an asshole to be successful in football. I have to be smarter and learn from the experiences, although nobody can train you for relegation or for a player refusing to play [like Bosingwa] because he is a substitute."
Fernandes says that "60%" of the squad have contractual clauses that will see their salaries reduced in the Championship, and so does the manager, Harry Redknapp. He accepts that QPR are "a long way" from complying with financial fair play(FFP) but he is confident that there will be takers for the players that they want to sell.
He does not dismiss the notion of his company, Air Asia, buying the naming rights to Loftus Road, which may help in the FFP calculations and, as for Barton, the official stance is that he will return and will not be paid to leave. "We're not going to be taken for a ride any more," Fernandes says.