It is hard to imagine many football club owners choosing the away end over the directors’ box.
Not just that but singing along with their club’s supporters on a cold Tuesday night at Milton Keynes Dons. Yet for Wael al-Qadi that seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do a couple of weeks ago. “This is what football should be about,” the Bristol Rovers president says. “It’s not going along and wearing a shirt and tie. You have to enjoy it.”
Qadi has been enjoying football ever since his father took him to see Chelsea in the Second Division in the 1980s. Hooked from day one, he was soon travelling the country watching David Speedie, Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon, and tells some terrific stories about that era and beyond, including the afternoon he eluded Roman Abramovich’s bodyguards to have his photograph taken with the Russian. Ten years later he was talking to the same man outside the dressing rooms at Stamford Bridge after a match between their clubs. “If you were to tell me that before I’d think you were having a laugh,” Qadi says, shaking his head.
Born in Qatar and educated at Westminster School, the 47-year-old Jordanian is a fascinating character. He is an executive member of the Jordan Football Association, vice-president of the Asian Football Development Project and the assistant general manager of the Arab Jordan Investment Bank, which his family founded in 1978. These days, though, he spends more time singing Goodnight Irene and celebrating Matty Taylor goals than checking interest rates. “Definitely more Bristol Rovers than banking,” says Qadi, laughing, when asked how he balances his different roles.
His family completed its takeover at Rovers in February, giving the youngest of three brothers a new lease of life as well as a long-suffering football club. His wife says she has not seen him so happy since their children were born.
Yet getting those closest to him interested in buying Rovers was no easy task. “I dragged my family into this,” says Qadi, who had been scouring Europe for a club with potential. “My father and my brothers – Hani, the eldest, is the guy in charge at the bank, a Harvard Business School honours’ graduate – they’re conservative and they look at business with numbers and charts. So to try to convince the family to come into football, something they see as just a game … they had no clue about the industry, about how it has grown.”
Eight months on and Qadi says the whole family have now “got the bug”. When Darrell Clarke, Rovers’ bright young manager, led the team to promotion to League One in May, Samer, the middle brother, described it as the greatest day of his life. Even the parents are tuning into matches. “They’re so immersed in it,” Qadi says. “But it’s not only the family; in Jordan as a whole there is a lot of interest – everybody knows about it.”
For Rovers supporters, the Qadi family’s involvement seems almost too good to be true. Homeless from 1986 to 1996, when they shared Twerton Park with Bath City, Rovers have been through some tough times and, in what went down as the darkest day in their history, lost their Football League status only two and a half years ago.
It has been some turnaround since. After consecutive promotions and a bright start to this season, Rovers will move up to fifth in League One if they beat Fleetwood at home on Tuesday night, with the change in ownership helping to fuel optimism around a club that has lived largely in the shadows of their neighbours Bristol City. “All the footballing credit is down to Darrell,” Qadi says. “As for the fans, they’ve been down to the Conference, experienced lawsuits, vultures hanging around waiting for the club to fall over – I think they realise that’s gone now and we can build for the future properly, on good foundations.”
Chatting over a coffee in central London, Qadi comes across as a genuine football fan and not on an ego trip. The only subject he is reluctant to discuss is his family’s wealth and that was also the case on the day they were unveiled as the club’s owner. When Qadi was asked about reports suggesting they are worth £1.4bn he politely dismissed the figure. “The first reason for that is because it’s not true and I don’t like to have something that is not true written about me,” he says.
“Number two, if you do have that tag – and I’ve seen this already in dealings in football – you might not get things done, just because of that reputation: ‘Oh, these guys are loaded.’ And plus expectation; you get fans who think we are going to buy Messi and Ronaldo, splurge on players, get promoted immediately and in a couple of years win the Champions League. That’s not what it’s about. It’s how we want to progress, it’s about building a club slowly but surely.”
Whatever their wealth – last week the Bristol Evening Post estimated the Qadi family are worth closer to £400m – it seems safe to say that Rovers’ monetary problems are a thing of the past and that they will never have a better chance of finally moving to a new home. Rovers have planning permission for a 21,700-seat stadium at the University of the West of England (UWE) and, crucially, with the Qadi family involved, it is no longer dependent on finding a buyer for the current ground, as was the case in the past, when Sainsbury’s controversially pulled out and everything fell through.
“A new stadium has to be built. We cannot be sustainable if we stay at the Memorial,” Qadi says. “But we inherited this situation and we did find some issues which we had to address, and it takes time because UWE are a public institution; it’s not a private company where the CEO can say: ‘Let’s get rid of this condition.’ We hired Ernst & Young, they’re doing the feasibility study and they should be done very soon, so it’s a gradual process. But if we want to succeed, a new stadium has to happen.”
Elsewhere things are already coming together. Qadi has developed good relations with Chelsea, who have loaned Rovers two promising youngsters in Charlie Colkett and Jake Clarke-Salter and he has worked closely with Clarke to improve the infrastructure at a club that needed dragging into the 21st century in some respects. He wants the academy, where he was appalled to learn that staff were “employed by email”, to become the lifeblood of the club, and small but significant changes have been made in other areas, right down to putting on food for first-team players after training.
Arguably the most important cog in the wheel is Clarke, who was courted by Leeds in the summer but decided to stay. Qadi speaks extremely highly of the manager, whom he talks to on a daily basis, even while in Jordan, where he spends roughly three weeks a month and relies on a special “owners’ feed”, provided by the Football League, to watch matches. There is no commentary and it is not always reliable – Al-Qadi smiles ruefully as he recalls how he never got to see Colkett’s 90th-minute winner at Northampton because Rotherham versus Newcastle appeared on the screen instead.
One game Qadi was never going to miss was the EFL Cup tie at Chelsea in August. After the match, which Rovers lost 3-2, he had a brief chat with Abramovich – “I was introduced to him, because by then we had finalised the loanees, so he’s in the picture” – and that conversation took place in a rather different setting to their first meeting, when the dialogue was a little one-way.
Qadi chuckles at the memory. “It was the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I was having a drink with my friend in Dortmund and he pointed out there was someone from Chelsea. I looked round and saw it was the owner, so I got up and just ran among a sea of people. He was walking on his own, with two bodyguards just behind. So I zoomed past the bodyguards, got side-by-side and said: ‘Mr Abramovich, can I please have a picture?’ I gave my camera to the bodyguard and he looked like he wanted to kill me but he took the picture. I said: ‘I’m a big Chelsea fan, Mr Abramovich.’ He didn’t say a word, he just nodded his head.”
Now the tables have turned and Qadi has fans coming up to him, as was the case behind the goal at MK Dons and when he set foot on Gloucester Road, close to the Memorial Stadium, after winning promotion from League Two. Footage emerged that day of Qadi being carried on the shoulders of Rovers fans, singing “The Gas are going up.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it?” Qadi says, covering his eyes. “I was invited to the pub by some fans. A couple of the Rovers staff said ‘Don’t go’. But I wanted to celebrate, so I went with my brother and two friends, and all of a sudden three or four guys came over and hoisted me up. I looked ahead and there were 3,000 people. The fans were really nice, it was just happiness. But the police called in the next day and gave us a warning, saying something about I could have caused a riot if there were some Bristol City fans. They told us not to do it again.”
So presumably that will be the first and the last time we see him being carried through the streets of Bristol? “No,” Qadi says, laughing. “Long may it continue.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010