‘In four years, we will be playing AC Milan in the Champions League’. Was the extraordinary statement made by QPR co-owner Flavio Briatore at the press conference announcing his and fellow co-owner Bernie Ecclestone’s acquirement of the club. Little did he know that in four years, rather than swapping fashion advice with the Milan big-wigs, a film would be released revealing the circus regime he governed over for four years as chief Coco the Clown.
The new behind the scenes fly-on-the-wall documentary covering the previous four turbulent and tempestuous years at QPR, The Four Year Plan is scintillating viewing. Despite the humour (there are several genuine laugh out loud moments; often provided by the Godfather of the movie, Flavio Briatore), the 96 minutes run-time is a chilling example of just how things can turn out when some egotistical billionaires turn up to buy your club, and try to make it theirs.
The film commences following Flavio Briatore’s, Bernie Ecclestone’s and Lakshmi Mittal’s takeover of the club in the Summer of 2007. It is Briatore and Mittal’s son-in-law, Amit Bhatia who have the lead roles, alongside the chairman Gianni Paladini. There are cameos present from no less than six (seven if you’re counting Flavio) managers, including the suave Portuguese Paolo Sousa and the, well, not so suave Yorkshire-bred Neil Warnock. The film largely follows the aforementioned characters, interspersed with footage from QPR games. The reactions to these games are great viewing, particularly from Briatore. A win, and he is responsible. Anything but that, and the manager is shit, the players are shit, his half-time prawn sandwich is shit and his new Prada shades are shit.
What is evident throughout the film, and goes some way to explaining the turnaround in QPR’s eventual success, is the contrast between Amit Bhatia and Flavio Briatore. Bhatia is a boyhood fan of QPR, as well as being a successful young businessman. This is reflected in his actions throughout, and he comes across well; from bonding with the fans immediately after an away defeat to Birmingham (whilst Briatore is running back to his helicopter, along with throwing spitting his dummy out), to hanging out in the executive bar after the home games with a bottle of beer; he is to the club, and the fans, everything that Briatore isn’t. What is particularly impressive is how he parents the irksome toddler that is Flavio Briatore. The moment where he commands Briatore to either shut up, or go away during a match after Briatore has continuously castigated the entire team, manager, and fans throughout the game is a victorious moment and is great to see, especially when Briatore is stunned into silence. What shines through most with Bhatia though, is the love he has for the club, and it is this love which is integral to him outliving Briatore. To Briatore, QPR is nothing more than an expensive plaything (which he aims to make a ‘boutique’ club). To Bhatia, QPR is to him what it is to the most ardent of Rangers: a club closer to the heart, than the wallet.
There are so many sackings of managers that it becomes a sort of running gag. Paolo Sousa and his assistant being called into Briatore’s office is enough the viewer needs to see to know what his fate will be. Flavio simply doesn’t do ‘little chats’ in his office without uttering Sir Alan Sugar’s favourite two words.
The business meetings are a fascinating insight into the ins and outs of running a football club and the troublesome attempts to balance the books. One suggested solution to cutting costs is to replace the current bouquet of flowers placed in each executive box on match days, to just the one flower. An estimated saving of £120 each home game, leading to £2,760 more at the end of the season to secure that striker that would carry the team to promotion. Yes, really.
However, despite the shocking behind the scenes content, can we really be so surprised at it? It simply tells us what the QPR fans have been shouting from the rooftops for the last four years. Indeed, we do see the fans’ general air of frustration displayed in the film. Fans chanting against Briatore leads to a bad-blooded confrontation between him and a QPR fan following a game. The interaction and relationship that Briatore has, or ever did have, with the fans is a world away from that of Amit Bhatia’s.
Despite this, the fact that Briatore’s name was actually sung from the Loftus Road terraces immediately after the takeover represents the fickle, and at times, naïve nature of football fans. ‘Gi Gi deCanio! Bernie and Flavio!’ was the hymn sung religiously by the R’s fans, as they were revelling in their club’s new found wealth-at an FA Cup game with Chelsea, owned by Russian richman Roman Abramovich the QPR fans had much fun in flashing £20 notes at their Chelsea counterparts. It is true that the Ecclestone-Briatore duo had saved QPR from administration, and for that they should be respected and yes, perhaps lauded on the terraces. But in the days of such football uncertainty, where many a fan wishes upon a star for ‘a rich Arab’ to takeover their club, perhaps this story will be one that serves as a warning for those who do so-it not only can all go wrong, but it probably will.
But The Four Year Plan is not the complete story. The final season may feel like it, where following Briatore’s departure from a hands-on role at the club, the documentary descends from a vital piece of viewing for any football fan to something more representing a piece of club propaganda or a season review DVD, and QPR secure promotion to the Premier League. Happily ever after?
That is what QPR fans must have thought, but promotion to the Premier League only served for the second coming of Mr. Briatore and the very large rise of ticket prices to make Loftus Road one of the most expensive grounds in the country. Fans’ fustrations were further increased when there was a lack of any obvious player investment. This led to Amit Bhatia stepping down from the board, and it felt as though Briatore had not read the script to this sensational Hollywood story.
However, like pretty much all films, there was to be a happy ending. Tony Fernandes represented the light at the end of the tunnel for QPR fans in leading a takeover, and finally Briatore and Ecclestone were driven out of the club. They now have no ownership or involvement of it at all, and Bhatia has been restored to the board. The story is yet over on the pitch, as QPR continue to battle against relegation from the Premier League but what they do have now is a stable ownership and a bright future. Though perhaps what is more important is what they don’t have; namely Flavio Briatore and Gianni Palidini.
The Four Year Plan; unmissable for a QPR supporter; and worth staying up late for on a Sunday night for a football fan. Captivating and enthralling, with enough dark humour to keep it entertaining and not as insipid as a Panorama documentary. Expect your mind to wander for the last half hour, only for the points deduction side-plot to reignite interest. It is flawed in that it is missing the final chapter to the story. But if there is one football documentary to watch this year, it is this.
The Four Year Plan will be broadcast on BBC2, Sunday 4th March at 23:15.