TOPICS of conversation are not hard to come by with Tony Fernandes, the gregarious Malaysian entrepreneur who recently added Premier League football club Queens Park Rangers to an empire that includes AirAsia and Formula One racing team Lotus.
In a whirlwind half-hour he explains his recipe for business success, discusses QPR becoming bigger than Liverpool within 10 years, reveals the club’s plans for a new 40,000-seat stadium in west London and his attempts to sign England star and global brand David Beckham.
The charismatic 47-year-old (motto: No dream is too big) could not be more at ease in a hospitality box at the team’s Loftus Road ground, expounding on his ambitious plans for Rangers and recalling the childhood experiences that would later colour his portfolio.
But there is an elephant in the room. When Fernandes meets City A.M. the club is still engulfed in a racism row that began almost two weeks earlier, when Chelsea and England captain John Terry was accused of shouting vile insults at QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
Terry denies racial abuse and his club have supported him fully, yet the potential damage posed by separate investigations by the Metropolitan Police and the Football Association (FA) have kept the story firmly in the spotlight.
Fernandes and QPR have pledged support for Ferdinand and co-operated with the FA but Fernandes is at pains to point out that, contrary to popular belief and in a development that casts a fresh light on reports of death threats received by Ferdinand, neither the club nor player complained to the FA over the incident.
He also rejects the suggestion that a guilty verdict against Terry would wreak severe damage on the reputations of both one of England’s most distinguished players and the game in this country.
“Let’s put the matter in context,” he begins. “I don’t think Anton has complained. I don’t think QPR have complained. We have just said ‘If you want to investigate we will give you full support’, which we have. And we have given our player full support.
“I don’t think, if it happens, it’s the end of English football. I don’t necessarily think if John Terry said it, he’s a racist. We all say things in the heat of the matter. All I can say, as someone who has been watching football for the best part of 30 years, is that English football should be proud of how racism has, in my opinion, become a smaller issue than it was.”
KICKED, SPAT AT
Fernandes, who fell in love with football via the BBC’s World Service and Shoot! magazine as a schoolboy in England and played striker for London School of Economics (“I was a poacher, but with a different body,” he jokes), vividly remembers the dark days of the 1980s, when terrace violence and racism were rife.
“I’ve been physically and mentally abused many, many times at football games in the UK,” he says. “I have been kicked, spat at. I used to be scared. I’d still go because I loved the game, but you’d worry which Tube you took, where you were standing, you’d hide your scarf sometimes. I don’t feel that one bit [now].”
So comfortable is he in his new role as majority shareholder of the top-flight newcomers that he regularly chats with fans on social media sites Twitter and Facebook, and even met them in a pub for drinks before a recent home game – to the discomfiture of the club’s media staff.
“I wasn’t worried about security – he was,” he laughs, pointing at QPR’s press manager. “They sent two [security] guys who couldn’t even get through the door, they were so wide. It didn’t scare me for one moment. The fans here are fantastic, they need to be appreciated and I need to hear their views; to show I am like them.”
He goes on: “I want to watch a game in the stands.” Will he? “Yeah. I haven’t thrown it at the guys here yet, but I’d like to do that, because then you get to really understand what the club is all about.”
It is hard not to warm to Fernandes and QPR fans have, with an influx of signings and some good results, including a win over more illustrious neighbours Chelsea, lifting them to mid-table since his August takeover. He has “tremendously enjoyed” the ride, even if he has been taken aback at its effect on his already high profile.
“I’ve got a Formula One team, I’ve got an airline, I’ve been relatively public anyway, but football has put it on another wavelength,” he says, launching into a favourite anecdote. “It’s funny: one of the other owners came into Heathrow and the immigration officer said ‘Why are you here?’. He said ‘I’ve come to watch my football club, QPR’. The officer said ‘You don’t own it, Tony Fernandes does’!” He chuckles and surmises: “It’s a global sport.”
His wealth was built on AirAsia, the struggling carrier he bought for a few pence and turned into a business worth more than £2bn, using what he calls his “little recipe”. He has high hopes the same approach – “My whole philosophy is polishing an unfinished diamond” – will revitalise car manufacturer Caterham, whose name will replace Lotus in his Formula One team next year, and also QPR, who he believes can make money long term.
One part of that plan involves moving to a new stadium and Fernandes confirms the club have identified soon-to-be-former BBC premises at White City as the preferred site. “It’s true, but it’s one hell of a job,” he says. “Without a doubt I think QPR could fill a 40,000-seat stadium, and a bit more. I’ve only looked at White City. Logically, I’d like to stay where we were born, so we haven’t looked at other sites.”
Overseas owners have been accused of heresy for floating the idea of scrapping relegation and, in the case of Liverpool’s American investors, switching from collective to individual selling of broadcast rights. Fernandes is firmly opposed to both proposals and insists he cannot see them gaining sufficient support.
“No I really can’t. I think, if we stay up, in 10 years time we could be as popular as Liverpool. Secondly, the Premier League was set up in this structure. It’s not right to say ‘Drop this, screw everybody else’.”
Fernandes, who calls Kuala Lumpur home but has a house in London, has compiled a shopping list for the January transfer window. However, Beckham, who may leave LA Galaxy, is unlikely to be on it, despite QPR’s interest.
“I think signing Beckham is dead in the water, to be honest,” he admits. “It was a nice thought but midfield is probably one of our strongest parts and I’m not sure where Beckham would play, to be honest. We had initial discussions. It will be nicer in this transfer window because we have a bit of time. We’ve got a list, I’ve told everyone to dream big and they certainly have.”
With Fernandes at the helm, it looks like QPR will be giving people plenty to talk about for years to come.