Richard Thompson on how it all went sour at QPR — Interview
Thursday, 23rd Mar 2017 19:45 by Ron Norris
In the first of what we hope will be many interviews for LFW with notable figures from the QPR past, QPRnet's Ron Norris caught up with controversial former chairman Richard Thompson.
Everything is being rebooted these day and now we have decided to reboot the QPRnet interview but on Loft For Words! Here’s why...
I first started interviewing for QPRnet back in 2001. Across the next 13 years we racked up more than 50 chats with players, managers and officials — you can access the archive here. It became one of the most popular features on the site and my favourite to do.
Since I stopped updating QPRnet a couple of years ago it has been the one thing I’ve really missed. The odd interview wasn’t really worth hosting a whole site for though so when Clive mentioned to me that he would like to carry them on LFW I jumped at the chance to get back into it. Which leads us to here.
When I started putting feelers out for new interviews I threw a cheeky email out to a third party about Richard Thompson. I have followed his business career over the years and sent a few emails in the past but never got anything back. I never thought for a moment that he would be the first person to reply to kick off this new run but that’s exactly what happened. Which means this first interview on LFW is with one of the more polarising personalities of recent years. In for a penny….
The following is our chat with Richard during which time he talks about his period running the club, living through the protests against him, his thoughts on the big player sales and the Rodney/Gerry saga from his side of the fence. Enjoy.
Let's go back to the beginning if we can, how did you and your family get involved in QPR?
RT: My father had a stake of about 28% in Marler Estates who owned the club so I knew the people there very well. Then when David Bulstrode died in 1988 the Marler CEO at the time asked me if I would fancy taking on the chairmanship. I said yeah fine. At 24 I thought why not, I'll have a go. About nine months later Marler was sold to another company and they wanted to move the club on so we bought it outright, that was about nine or ten months after I took over as chairman.
It was another world back then right? To get involved in football ownership now would be madness but to do it back then it was something that a family with a successful business could do?
RT: Yeah totally, completely different situation now, a world of difference.
You mentioned being just 24 at the time, you were the youngest chairman in football, what was the reaction like to you within the game?
RT: I think on balance people were sceptical and looking back I think they were probably right to be, 24 was a bit too young. I'm 52 now and I look at 24 year olds and think 'bloody hell, that’s too young to take on that kind of position'. I can understand people back then thinking 'he’s just a young rich boy, what does he know?'. From my point of view I had always loved football, I had watched a lot of it and I felt comfortable in the role. I didn't feel nervous about it which probably made people even more sceptical because I felt quite relaxed and maybe that came over as arrogance.
What was the structure of the business, were you totally in charge of the club?
RT: After we bought the club in July 1989 effectively I was in total charge. My father wasn't really involved, albeit it was his money, he left it to me and the key decisions were mine. There wasn't a board of directors as such because it was 100% owned by our family.
You worked through some managers in the early days, the likes of Trevor Francis and Don Howe weren't there for a particularly long time and it wasn't until you hit on Gerry Francis that things settled. Was there something you were looking for in a manager to work with you?
RT: I think essentially I was looking for someone to work with on a day to day basis and have the right chemistry with. Jim Smith was there first, he was at the club when I arrived and when he left to go to Newcastle Trevor came forward. He seemed like a decent candidate, he was a well known player, been at QPR for a couple of years. Trevor ticked a lot of boxes but when it came down to it he wasn't really that popular with the team. He didn't have the experience, he was only 34/35 at the time, although he seemed old to me.
Don was always a stop gap from my perspective. He was a great coach but he never seemed that comfortable being a manager. When I found Gerry that was definitely the sort of person I was looking for. He obviously he had the QPR background, was extremely popular and had been having some success at Bristol Rovers so he seemed a good choice. I was very keen to appoint someone for a good chunk of time so we went for Gerry and things started to come together.
Gerry certainly got the club moving, by the time we finished fifth in The Premier League it seemed like we had a great platform to build on but instead we sold Andy Sinton that summer. The questions about your motivations began, what was the thinking from your side?
RT: Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal came in for Andy in that summer and he was keen to go. We got a lot of money for him at the time but he was a big loss, no question, albeit we did buy Trevor Sinclair to replace him which was a good thing in the long run.
When you look at the player departures under you, you can list them out, Seaman, Parker, Wegerle, Peacock, Sinton, Ferdinand, at the time you were accused of asset stripping, how would you defend that?
RT: The club was always losing about £1m a year, then you had the capital expenditure on the stadium which was probably another couple of million or so. There's no question profits were made on players, although we did replace them all we absolutely had a big surplus come back into the club. If you take the losses and the CapEx that surplus probably covered that sum, it wasn't any more or less if you look at the numbers in real detail.
We did spend money on players too, of course we made some bad mistakes with the likes of Ned Zelic and Mark Hateley. I would always argue there was no asset stripping, it was just funding the losses of the club and of course players were brought in too, so it wasn't all one way.
We spent about £10m on the club in terms of buying it, investing in it and at that time that was quite a lot of money, people now probably think '£10m that’s nothing', but back then it was a lot.
The Peacock sale really kicked off things against you, I can remember the protests at the time, what was that like from your perspective?
RT: When I sold Peacock to Newcastle Gerry was coming to the end of his three years, England were looking at him, Wolves were looking at him. He and I.... well it got tricky. I think Gerry was hedging his bets with other jobs and our relationship became strained at that time. I was keen to secure him for another couple of years but he wouldn't commit.
Things got tense, the fans got upset with me. Eventually Gerry signed up for another year but I think at the stage our relationship had probably fractured over that March/April '94 time. From my perspective he wasn't coming to the table, he was telling the fans the club wasn't ambitious and then the big offer came in for Peacock. Gerry was actually very supportive of that move, it was a lot of money and Gerry wasn't really that concerned with it, he was fine with the deal.
I think you're right though Sinton going, Peacock going, the relationship with Gerry becoming fractured, the fans then becoming upset, meant there was a lot of disillusionment around the place. At that stage I'd been there six years and I started to think that although I'd enjoyed it so much I had done my time and if we could find a buyer for the club it would probably be the right thing to do.
To be frank it was getting tricky. It wasn't that pleasant on a human level because you can’t help but get a little worried when you see all these leaflets about you. I remember a game against Manchester City we went 2-0 down pretty quickly and when you're sitting there in the directors' box and you don't even dare look round because you have so many people swearing at you, calling you an f'ing c. When you have that constantly you sort of think 'bloody hell, this is scary'. When you're sitting in the stadium and the chant starts building "we want Thompson out, say we want Thompson out" I wouldn't want to go through that again. I can't say I particularly enjoyed it.
It's tough but a chairman of a football club will always come under attack when things aren't going well and you can't take the glory if you can't take the grief but it did go on for a few months from about February 1994 and into the next season when the Gerry situation became tense again with the Rodney Marsh thing.
Let’s talk about the Marsh thing, Rodney has said in the past that the first thing he said to you was Gerry must be told about this, Gerry has said he was never told. There's a truth in there somewhere, how did it all happen from you side?
RT: It's a good question that. I'll be honest, it's years later so if you want the truth I can probably tell it now. I was in a position where I had just had enough of the situation with Gerry. I said to Gerry 'can you help me out here, can you maybe write some programme notes or be a little more supportive of me?' and he bluntly said 'no I can't, I can't help you, you're on your own'. I appealed to him, I mean we had been working together for nearly four years, maybe you could just write some things to say I'm not all that bad and he said 'no, absolutely not'. So of course I got resentful and that led to me ringing up Rodney.
I was thinking Rodney was so popular at QPR that if I brought him in as a director of football role that might be good, the fans might like that. I sat down with Rodney and he said 'you do understand of course that Gerry can't stand me?'. I honestly didn’t realise it was that bad, I knew they weren't close but Rodney then tells me Gerry absolutely hates him.
Then Rodney says 'is this because you want Gerry out?'. I said if that was the outcome I wouldn't mind that really, I've just had enough right now. So Rodney says 'don't tell him then, let the whole thing build up and Gerry will either storm out or accept it'. So I didn't tell Gerry and I figured that if he accepts it with Rodney on the board it’s a good move for the club but if he leaves, he leaves and it it’s probably better for me.
The day after it came out Gerry came to me and made it crystal clear how he felt about Rodney Marsh, it’s fair to say he wasn't happy at all.
It was a hell of a few days. I honestly didn't know things were that bad between them. I didn't understand how much Gerry didn't like him but at the same time I didn't mind much because I thought Gerry wasn't helping me maybe Rodney can. But yeah basically Gerry was right I never asked him his view.
If it's any consolation the plan worked really well…
RT: Yeah.... ironically at that time Alan Sugar then called about the Spurs job and Gerry wanted to go there. When Gerry left all the people around me and all the non exec directors like Tony Ingham said they didn't want Rodney at the club, so he then didn't come on board. Everyone got really upset with him and it just wouldn't have worked. I wanted a legend from the past there, I needed help, I needed help with the PR and communication with the fans and I really thought Rodney would be the best man for it.
For the record, Gerry Francis’ side of this, as told to the Fulham Chronicle recently is: “Liverpool was my last game at home. Rodney Marsh, who the board knew I didn’t get on with, was parading around, and I felt I had to resign. I was fuming. We’d already had had the chairman’s car turned over just before because the club wanted to sell Les, and I didn’t. After finishing fifth previously and selling players for the last two years like Andy Sinton, Paul Parker and Darren Peacock, wanting to sell Les was frankly, a kick in the teeth. They wanted me to resign so they could sell Les whenever they wanted to, because earlier they promised me they wouldn’t. It was emotional. I was having to leave a club I didn’t want to after 20 years of effort - and disappointed was an understatement. I didn’t want to go to Tottenham particularly. I didn’t want to go into management after that. Two weeks before I got a call from Wolves, but wanted to stay in the Premiership at a club I love, but the board forced my hand.”
You ended up with a clean slate again then and turned to Ray Wilkins…
RT: Ray had been our captain and gone off to Palace that summer. There was a groundswell of support building up for him and I called him up to come back. I've always got on really well with him, he's a delightful guy. After a few weeks I was starting to wonder if things would work out with him though, but he started well and had a great rapport with the squad.
Ray was a great player, he did well initially and then Les went. How much of those early days do you think were Ferdinand and how much were Wilkins?
RT: Totally, Les and him got on very well and things worked for a while but after he left we struggled. We started off 1995 pretty poorly and by then I had started to talk to Chris Wright about taking the club over. I was very keen to move the club on I was finding I had less time to dedicate to it and although I had enjoyed it immensely it was time to move on and we ended up selling the club in August 1996 after the relegation that season.
I did nearly eight years there, albeit the last two seasons saw Peter Ellis take over as chairman to give the club a new front and take the pressure off - but I was still in charge.
That Ferdinand sale had been ongoing for two years really, what made it right at that moment and do you think it was one sale too far?
RT: Les had wanted to leave in '94 but we did another contract and he stayed. When Newcastle and Villa came in for him it was a lot of money for the club and Les wanted to go. QPR was the sort of club where young players would always want to move on in the end and that's what happened with Les, he wanted to make a move and we lost him, he was a massive player for the club and a big miss.
To be fair Ray was given all of the money to spend that summer?
RT: Totally, we had to give 10% to Hayes as part of the original deal to sign Les so we ended up with £5.4m and we spent pretty much all of it. We bought in the likes of Simon Osborn, Zelic, Hateley and those last two cost around £2.5m of it between them. Neither worked, Zelic hardly even played for us. Ray found his signings didn't work and the whole thing just started to get tricky that season.
Like I said we were negotiating with Chris Wright at the time and he had made it clear he wanted Ray to stay as manager even if the club went down so changing Ray wasn't really an option.
On the subject of Chris Wright, were you amazed at how quickly he wrecked the place?
RT: I get on quite well with Chris but it did spin out of control quite quickly for him for sure. I think he was such a fan and he wanted it to work so badly that he got himself into quite the pickle really very quickly. I think it just spiralled inside a couple of years. He thought they would bounce back up straight away and he had big visions for Wasps and a big sporting strategy but he bit off more than he could chew really.
After QPR you got involved at Leeds, why did you go back to football?
RT: I'd always got on well with the Leeds board and one of the guys there said they were looking to sell the club. As a career I've always bought and sold businesses and I approached the Leeds thing like that, a good business opportunity. I was never going to be chairman of Leeds, no chance of that, it was more of a business transaction that happened to be a football club. It felt like I was married to QPR but Leeds was a casual girlfriend. I had some fun but it was never anything serious.
In 2001 QPR were in administration, Chris Wright was trying to get out and you were linked with buying it back. How close did that come?
RT: Not very close to be honest. There were some people there from my time who were keen for me to get back involved and despite everything I had developed quite an attachment to the place and I felt part of the club. I did consider it but it never really got going. It seemed like a great idea one day, not so great the next. It never really took off, the idea was put to me, you know what football is like you have one conversation and it hits the press but no, it never got serious.
Have you ever been back to watch a game since you sold the club?
RT: I've been back to a handful of games but I've sat in the stands, not the directors' box.
Baseball cap and sunglasses?
RT: (laughs) no not really, you see a couple of people look at you thinking 'I know that face' but I've got older, maybe people don't recognise me. I've been invited to the directors' box a couple of times but I've not done that. I might do at some stage, I had an invite at Christmas time through a friend who is doing some work with Tony Fernandes.
Looking back what would you say your biggest achievement was at the club?
RT: I think being part of The Premier League and finishing fifth in that first season. Gerry as manager and that team with Les, Andy Sinton etc it was an excellent time for the club.
I was there for eight years, we had a lot of top flight football, most of our seasons were good finishes, knocking around the top half. Mostly it’s the games I remember. I loved the match at Old Trafford on New Year's Day 1992 obviously. I loved the Leeds and Manchester City 4-1 home wins. The FA Cup draw with Liverpool at home. I remember a match against Arsenal in the rain, I think it was 2-0. We had some great nights at Loftus Road, some great wins. I really enjoyed my time, I found 1994 difficult but overall I look back at it with real warmth and so many good memories.
What would be your major regret?
RT: I think the regret is the communication with the fans. My communication wasn't good I didn't spend enough time talking to the fans, explaining my perspective. I probably felt too defensive because I think I could tell everyone thought I was too young. That's probably the biggest regret and I do wonder that if I had done better at that before 1994 then I probably would have been in a better position in 1994 to help manage that situation.
How would you like to be remembered?
RT: I love football, I’m a football fan and having been chairman for a few years I can tell you I would much rather be a fan. I fully respect and understand where the QPR fans were coming from at the time. I think my age counted against me and like I say my communication lacked. I'm sure I'll be remembered as someone who made mistakes but hopefully they will look back on some of the good years we had because I certainly have very warm memories of my time at Loftus Road and I wish the fans all the very best. Let's hope they get some success over the coming years because they deserve it.
Many thanks to Richard for spending his time talking to us and to Clive for helping us kick start this again.
We are working on further interviews and hope to present them on a semi regular basis. If you want to view the QPRnet interview archives you can do so here.
If you have any ideas as to who you would like us to get hold of, if you can help us get in touch with someone worth talking to or if you are Roy Wegerle then please email ron at qprnet.com or Tweet @qprnet
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