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Queens Park Rangers, F1 moguls, a four-year plan and the craziest football documentary of them all

It was one of the original football documentaries — a fly-on-the-wall film packed with flamboyant characters — that now feels a world away from the PR-polished shows pumped out by elite clubs.

Titled The Four-Year Plan, the feature-length one-off chronicled the journey of Queens Park Rangers, a struggling club in the Championship, after they were taken over in 2007 by Formula 1 moguls Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and Alejandro Agag, as well as steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and his son-in-law Amit Bhatia.

It charted the unfiltered drama and colourful language from the training pitch to the boardroom as QPR subsequently churned through seven managers in just over two years. Incredibly, despite the chaos along the way, their four-year plan to reach the Premier League was achieved in the summer of 2011, under the management of Neil Warnock.

This is the story of that tumultuous time and the warts-and-all documentary chronicling it, told by those who were there…

The Four-Year Plan came about when filmmaker Mat Hodgson approached QPR’s new owners after they completed their takeover of the west London-based second-tier club in November 2007. An £18million ($22.7m today) debt meant QPR had faced liquidation, but a deal was struck to haul them from the brink of bankruptcy…

Gianni Paladini (the chairman in situ, having joined in 2004): “I put all my heart into it but the club was in a mess. Nobody wanted to touch us; it was a complete disaster. I was the subject of an (alleged) kidnapping plot (in 2006) and went through all of that. I met Flavio Briatore at San Lorenzo, a restaurant in Knightsbridge (an affluent district of west London). ‘Please Flavio, why don’t you come?’. We were almost going bankrupt and I couldn’t do it anymore. So it was lucky I bumped into Flavio.

“He and Bernie came in and cleared the debts, and I stayed on as chairman.”

Paladini, right, leads Briatore on a guided tour of QPR’s Loftus Road stadium in 2007 (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Flavio Briatore: “QPR were last (actually fourth-bottom) in the Championship. I had a super partner in Bernie, and the freedom to work in the way I want to achieve the results. QPR looks as if they now have a four-year plan to go down to League One, or whatever it is (they are now third-bottom of the Championship). We need a new documentary on what is happening now.”

Amit Bhatia: “Bernie and Flavio announced they had bought QPR. I reached out to Bernie at the time to congratulate him. One thing led to another and they invited me to join them. It was quite amazing to have cameras follow us for four years and chart what that journey was.”

Hodgson: “The Mittal family invited me in for a chat for a documentary about QPR and it grew from there. I clicked quite well with most of the key characters. It’s strange looking back because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I had imposter syndrome. But I remember thinking, ‘We could do something really different with this.’ I chipped away at those moments of access with the board, especially as they were big names and had money and power. As a cocktail, they were so varied.”

Hogan Ephraim (a forward QPR signed from West Ham in January 2008): “We were dreadful. If the owners hadn’t come in, we would have been relegated. Back then, the first big takeover of that sort was Chelsea and Roman Abramovich (in summer 2003). So 19-year-old me was looking at the stars (joining the club) thinking, ‘We’re going to sign every player in the world and be in the Premier League in no time.’ We found out it wasn’t that easy.”

Ecclestone (left) and Briatore in attendance at Loftus Road (Daniel Hambury – PA Images via Getty Images)

After QPR rallied under their new owners to finish 14th in the 24-team Championship (albeit only six points above the relegation places) in 2007-08 under Luigi De Canio, the documentary opened at the start of the next season with the newly-appointed Iain Dowie in the dugout.

From the get-go, there were fireworks. Briatore, in his native Italian, was especially explosive. Within minutes, he said, “I want to sell this f***ing idiot” when midfielder Martin Rowlands gave the ball away against Birmingham City, while also moaning, “We never put it in the goal — I think we have a virus here, we have the disease”.

Watching a reserve game, Briatore called a goalkeeper “really s**t” and asked Dowie if he could send on a message for the players to pass more to new signing, Damiano Tommasi — who these days is mayor of the Italian city of Verona.

Hodgson: “Everyone told me football clubs are a closed, sealed unit — ‘You’ll never get anywhere near it.’ Now it’s quite common to have cameras all around the club and to film things that, a decade ago, were off-limits. Back then, we felt privileged to get access. I didn’t know it would be that explosive. I wanted to let the truth just hang rather than amplifying things.”

Dowie was sacked late in the October, after just 15 games in charge, with QPR ninth in the table and one point outside the play-off places. His win percentage of 53.3 remains the best of any manager in the club’s 142-year history.

Paladini: “That’s the only manager I felt like crying when he left, because I really liked Iain Dowie — he was a very decent and honest man.”

Dowie, left, lasted only 15 games at QPR before Briatore swung the axe (Tony Marshall – PA Images via Getty Images)

Gareth Ainsworth, a 35-year-old midfielder who had been at the club since 2003 and was working as player-coach with a view to studying for his UEFA coaching badges, was named interim manager.

Ainsworth (to football magazine FourFourTwo in 2023): “When Iain was sacked, Flavio said, ‘Gary, I want you to take charge’. He was always getting my name wrong. Working for Flavio wasn’t easy. He was constantly attempting to interfere. That period at the club was absolute chaos and it taught me I was nowhere near ready for football management yet.”

In a home match against Cardiff City, Briatore was filmed calling Ainsworth “that p***k in the dugout” for failing to bring on a midfielder named Gavin Mahon, adding, “If he loses the game, I’m getting rid of him.” Mahon was eventually brought on — and scored the winner.

After a month, QPR turned to Paulo Sousa as Dowie’s permanent replacement. Sousa had played for top clubs including Juventus, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Benfica while winning over 50 Portugal caps, but this was the 38-year-old’s first senior management role. It didn’t take long for the experiment to backfire. At the end of March, the team’s 11-goal leading scorer Dexter Blackstock was loaned to Nottingham Forest, then facing relegation from the Championship. In the next match, a 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace, Paladini told Briatore over the phone: “Flavio, we’re playing with one striker and 10 at the back at home — this is scandalous.”

Outside the dressing room at half-time, Bruno Oliveira, Sousa’s assistant, took a call from Briatore and was told to play two strikers. Post-match, Sousa told the media Blackstock had been loaned to Forest without his knowledge. Paladini, on the phone to Briatore at the time, is filmed saying, “The idiot’s going to turn the press against us”, adding, “These guys start off well, then they get big-headed”.

Sousa was sacked later that week with Ainsworth being reinstated as interim manager for the rest of the season.

Paladini: “Flavio and Sousa started to fight and I was in the middle. They fell out with each other.”

Sousa (to Sky Sports): “It was my first job, and it taught me a lot about dealing with people. The cameras, I never loved them much; I preferred to be involved on the pitch and I developed a huge relationship with the players. I think that was my downfall at QPR.

“After winning against Bristol City (on March 21), Flavio came on the pitch to embrace me, probably to show everyone. The players were pulling me away to show that I belonged to them, not him. A few weeks after that, he sacked me.”

A fresh-faced Paulo Sousa in his first managerial role (PA Images via Getty Images)

Following Sousa’s sacking, the fans began to grow restless and vented their frustration at the club’s owners. At the next home match they chanted, “We want our Rangers back” and one, Paul Finnery, said: “They talk about a four-year plan, (but) they seem to have a four-minute plan”.

An angry Briatore confronted supporters and told them he would sell the club and “you go back in League One.” He demanded the names of those who had booed him.

Briatore: “Let’s see where QPR are in the table now and ask the fans if they are happy. Maybe you need another Briatore to go back and save the club. But not me.”

Paladini: “Every game, win or lose, I used to go in the pub and have a drink with the fans. Even when they see me now in London, they come up and say, ‘Gianni, come back.’ We got to the Premier League. The fans who sit behind a desk, on their computers… they can say what they want. The real fans are the ones who meet the players at the training ground, the stadium, or in the street. I never had one of those fans attacking me.”

QPR finished 2008-09 in 11th place, 13 points off the play-offs and 15 clear of relegation.

Hodgson: “The last game of that season was away at Preston. They lost 2-1 and the players couldn’t wait to get out for a few weeks. I was in the dressing room and one of the players just started throwing things at me; bits of kit, a boot… tape rolls were bouncing off my head as I was holding my camera. I just gritted my teeth.

“Unless you walk the corridors of a football club, you don’t really know how it works. It’s quite intimidating. It’s fractious.”

Briatore with vice-chairman Bhatia (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The 2009-10 season kicked off with Jim Magilton as manager, though he left in the December following an altercation with midfielder Akos Buzsaky in the changing room after a 3-1 loss away to to Watford. Magilton denied any allegation of wrongdoing. QPR’s youth team coach Marc Bircham, a former player for the club, was put in caretaker charge for the next match away to West Bromwich Albion.

Bircham: “There was a meeting before the game and that’s when Briatore started going through the team he wanted to play. It was surreal. (Fellow coach) Steve Gallen and I managed to talk him round.”

Paul Hart, previously manager at Forest and Portsmouth, was then hired — but quit after just five matches.

Hart: “I met Briatore and Bernie. Bernie was brilliant — he rang me every week without fail to see if I needed anything, he was very positive. But there was a huge fear around the offices of Loftus Road. It was oppressive.

“We weren’t playing very well and I have to hold my hands up to that. We were playing 4-3-3, but Briatore was committed to a 4-4-2. I don’t think I’d ever experienced such involvement. He told me in a meeting he wanted me to play 4-4-2 and so I decided to save him the trouble and resigned. No one ever told me about the documentary.”

Anger at QPR’s high turnover of managers led to a protest outside the directors’ box at Loftus Road. Fans chanted “Four-year plan? You’re having a laugh”, and, “Briatore is a w***er”.

Briatore: “I was already too patient with the managers. Everybody has a different way. I changed some coaches because I never saw anyone good enough to do the job. Simple as that. Every time you see the CV of the people, it looks wonderful, no? The CV is amazing. But when you start working, you start realising if the guy is right or wrong.

“If it’s wrong, you’d better change immediately. Because the more you wait, the more damage you have. I don’t see any of the coaches I fired have success; no one. I didn’t fire anyone and now they are in charge of Manchester United or Manchester City, or whatever. No one. Everybody disappeared. I was right.”

Hart’s stint as QPR manager was brief (Neil Tingle/PA Images via Getty Images)

Bhatia: “When you’re living it, you feel like it’s the right thing to do because you’re being decisive. But when you play it back years and years later, it feels like, ‘Wow, it was a revolving door of managers coming in and out’.”

Bernie Ecclestone: “With Flavio, you are always going to have a lot of drama. I never took that much interest in QPR but he was quite keen. I went maybe half a dozen times and we used to have a different manager every time. Flavio would look at the manager and say, ‘Right, out’ and the manager was bye-bye. He was expecting more from the managers.

“The only thing I remember about any of the games was Flavio talking about the coach or a player and what they were doing wrong. He got very excited. He wasn’t a calm person to sit next to at a football game.”

Paladini: “Flavio is very explosive and difficult, but I knew how to handle him. In football, sometimes, you need guts — no guts, no chance. Once things are bad and the fans start to moan, you have to make a decision and tell the manager they’ve got to go. Every single day was a challenge. When Flavio calls, you must answer the phone. If you don’t answer, he gets very angry. I knew the character Flavio was, but he’s a winner. He doesn’t give a s*** about anything else. So you have to be fully committed to him and everything else goes with that.”

Briatore: “I still talk with Gianni sometimes. He was a good guy. He was doing what I told him to do, simple as that. He didn’t find that difficult, no way. Easy. Very easy.”

Hodgson: “At least Flavio is true to who he is. And the film is true to who he is. If he lives by that code, he can’t have any complaints. He got the Alan Sugar role in The Apprentice in Italy off the back of it, so he did pretty well. The whole ‘You’re fired’ thing resonated back home.

“I got obsessed with following Flavio (while filming). There was one occasion when I was so intently on him (I had my eye in the camera’s eyepiece and the other one shut) that I saw him stop and I pulled back. He was in the urinal and I’d followed him into the toilet without realising and he was like, ‘What the f*** are you doing?’.”

Ecclestone (left) and Briatore watch QPR play Wolverhampton Wanderers in December 2007 (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Paladini was the other star of the documentary — the chairman who wore his heart on his sleeve.

Paladini: “I am the way I am. I cannot pretend. Whatever you see in the film, that’s me. Every day of my life. My language, that’s who I am.”

Hodgson: “Gianni was very entertaining. He became the Baldrick to Flavio’s Blackadder. Flavio said jump and he had to say, ‘How high?’ He definitely had the club’s interests at heart. He was a staunch QPR fan by that point.”

Alejandro Agag: “Paladini is priceless when you look at his acting. You should give him an Oscar.”

Coach Mick Harford served as caretaker after Hart resigned until Warnock arrived from fellow Championship strugglers Crystal Palace at the beginning of March and steered QPR away from the relegation zone to a 13th-place finish, 10 points clear of the bottom three. Briatore decided to take more of a back seat at this point, with Bhatia having a more hands-on role.

Paladini: “I was lucky that, as soon as Palace entered administration, I got Neil Warnock. His wages were astronomical but he was the right man to get in.”

Bhatia: “Neil had this way of making players fall in love with football again.”

Warnock joined QPR from Palace and the rest is history (Sean Dempsey/PA Images via Getty Images)

Hodgson: “Flavio had stepped away a bit, Amit and I were like, ‘Let’s give it one more go and do one more season, then we’re done. That’s The Four-Year Plan… if it doesn’t succeed, it’s neat, it’s understandable’. So we did another season. The last game of the (2009-10) season, they lost to Newcastle (who were promoted as champions that year). Newcastle were celebrating on the pitch and Amit’s prophetic words were, ‘This time next year, that will be us’.”

Under Warnock, QPR stormed the 2010-11 Championship. Adel Taarabt was their outstanding player, with Warnock building the team around the Moroccan playmaker.

Keith Curle (then Warnock’s assistant): “When we came in, ability-wise Adel was Premier League but, attitude-wise, he was lower-league.”

Paladini: “I said to Neil, ‘This boy is a bit complicated but if you put your arm round his shoulder, you will see that he will do well.’ Straight away Neil said to me, ‘Gianni, this player is unbelievable.’ The rest is history.”

Briatore: “Gianni did an amazing job with Taarabt — like a nanny.”

Neil Warnock (to Sky Sports): “I told him (Taarabt): ‘If you come in our half, I’ll fine you £50; and (told the other players) if anyone passes to him in our half, I’ll fine you £50′, because he used to come and get it off the centre-half, nutmeg someone, lose it, and we’d concede a goal. Once we got the parameters, we flew.”

Hodgson: “Warnock was the easiest with the cameras. I went up to him before his first game, against West Brom, and asked if I could put a microphone on him, which I’d never really done, and he gave me a certain look. ‘Not now, son.’ He just let the cameras exist around him. He was more comfortable.”

Taarabt was a stellar performer in QPR’s promotion-winning season (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Taarabt (talking to The Athletic in 2022): “Tactically, he (Warnock) was not one of the best, but he gives you the confidence and very positive vibes. He gave me a lot of freedom, just said, ‘Go and win the games for me, and that’s it.’ QPR is a very special club to me. The love they gave me — that’s what I needed, and why I performed so well for them.”

Bhatia: “It was a dream season. Neil was the most incredible addition at the time and the stars aligned.”

But, in keeping with the rest of the documentary, there was still time for a late twist. QPR were alleged to have breached third-party ownership rules in the recruitment of Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Faurlin and faced the threat of a potential points deduction.

Paladini: “I had so much stick. Flavio was not happy with me, the players were not happy with me, Neil was not happy with me. ‘We’ve worked so hard and if we get a 15-point deduction, we would have done all this work for nothing.’ I was the black sheep.”

Bhatia: “Perhaps someone thought it would be too boring if we just cruised it, so they needed to throw in a bit of drama. We were nervous and it was dramatised incredibly well in The Four-Year Plan.”

QPR faced Leeds United at Loftus Road on the final day of the season still not knowing the outcome of the Faurlin case. However, just minutes before kick-off, it was announced they would face no points deduction. QPR were promoted. The club were, though, found guilty of two of the seven charges they faced and fined £875,000. In the documentary, Paladini was in tears as he celebrated.

Paladini: “My explosion went overboard. I could not control myself, I was very emotional. I cried. Listen, what’s wrong about being honest with yourself and crying when you feel like you have to?”

Paladini celebrates during the Leeds game with QPR spared a points deduction and promotion secured (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

QPR lifted the Championship trophy to secure Premier League football for the first time since 1996, a period that had seen them drop down to spend three seasons in the third division. In the documentary, Paladini told Warnock: “You saved my life, I love you.”

Ecclestone: “I was happy with where we got the club. It was a good achievement really, and we walked away making a few dollars — which is a bit difficult in football. The club did get to the Premier League.”

Paladini: “How can anyone with the right piece of mind say we didn’t do a good job? What else can you do? Win the European Cup? We left the club in the Premier League. The first thing I do every week is look at the QPR result. It’s still in my heart. I told my family, ‘ When I die make sure there is a little space with a QPR badge on my grave’.”

Agag: “I was actually watching the documentary not too long ago. I was mostly laughing when I watched it back. It was such a crazy ride. The documentary is very real and shows how things were. I learnt that football is so complicated.

“If you look at Flavio, Gianni and Amit, they are unique personalities. Flavio was the one who had really huge drive. Amit was key for the whole success. It was a great mix of people and difficult to reproduce. I don’t know if we’d do it again if you told us how it was going to be, because it was very tough, especially at the end of the third year. But it came together in year four.

“The documentary is unfiltered. Mat was living with us — I saw him more than my wife. It was authentic.”

Briatore and Agag at Loftus Road (Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Bhatia: “I end that documentary saying, ‘Nothing good in life comes easy. There’s always bumps along the way.’ We certainly had our fair share, but I look back with great admiration.”

Following that promotion to the Premier League, Ecclestone, Briatore and Agag sold their shares to Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian businessman. Paladini left the club 10 games into the 2011-12 season. 

Ecclestone: “A friend of mine bought Southampton (Dragan Solak, with his Sport Republic group in 2022). He’s happy with the way it’s working out. I gave him The Four-Year Plan and said, ‘Have a look at this and see all the things you shouldn’t do’.”

Briatore: “I don’t have any feeling. In the documentary, 70 per cent was correct, and 30 per cent not. But who cares, you know? You are part of this game, you are part of the history of QPR; QPR, you remember, go up with us, with me, with Bernie. We sold the club in the Premier League and walked away.

“At the moment I have got no interest to go back to the UK and buy a football club. The documentary is exactly what we said — a four-year plan to take QPR to the Premier League.”

(Top photo: Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images)

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