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Wael Al-Qadi: Dreams of the big time with Bristol Rovers

Create: 10/26/2016 - 17:40
Wael Al-Qadi is a very popular chap. As XtraTime pitches up at the Memorial Stadium to meet the man whose family owns Bristol Rovers, separate queues of fellow outlets, together with autograph and selfie-hunters are already forming.
We are told we must try and find a discreet spot in the West Stand to conduct our interview a couple of hours before kick-off in order to avoid interruption from those in the latter two groups. "He won't say no to any of them," explains long-serving club press officer Keith Brookman.

The theme continues online, where the Jordanian banker and newly-installed club president spent the close season patiently fielding questions from Rovers fans about (surprise, surprise) the prospect of a new stadium at the University of the West of England, the futures of star striker Matty Taylor and manager Darrell Clarke, and delays over the new kit.

In an age where English football supporters feel increasingly divorced from boardrooms and the very identity of the club they first fell in love with, his is a heartening approach. Best of all, it appears to be utterly genuine. If there is one thing that strikes you upon chatting with Al Qadi for a few minutes, it is an almost child-like passion and wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game, together with the old-school atmosphere and camaraderie still found on the terraces in English football's lower leagues. He might have grown up as a Chelsea fanatic after living near Stamford Bridge during his days as a classmate of Helena Bonham Carter at Westminster School but the overriding message to Gasheads is: "I'm one of you now".

“It's all about being in touch with the fans and knowing what they want,” said Al-Qadi, now six months into his role at the Pirates' helm. “It is their club, after all. So you have to listen but I don't think it is something I do on purpose, it just comes naturally. I am a football fan and think exactly like them.

“From 1983, I used to watch Chelsea home and away, when they still had terraces,” he recalled. “When I came to Rovers, I tell you what, it's uncanny how much the fans reminded me of Chelsea fans back then – passionate, very loyal and just fantastic. Even using some of the same chants. It was like, 'woah', I really had a sense of deja vu.”
The club's fanbase, heritage and proud tradition are all reasons regularly used by Al-Qadi when he is asked the inevitable question of 'why choose Bristol Rovers?'. It is an understandable one, given that it is a club that has been largely down on its luck since it sold its spiritual Eastville home to the Bristol Greyhound Company in 1940. Just two years ago it was embroiled in an expensive legal battle with Sainsbury's over the supermarket giant's purchase of the Memorial Stadium while plying its trade outside the Football League.

Was Al-Qadi even aware of the famous blue and white quarters when he was cheering on Kerry Dixon and co in West London back in the 1980s? “Of course,” is the answer. “I have heard of all teams, even the ones I knew back then who are somewhere in non-league now – the likes of Boston and Tranmere,” he added. “I have no idea why. I guess it is just the footballing fanatic in me. When I was young I followed the results – and I don't know why! I watched English football on TV and was heavily into it.”

It might have come as a bolt from the blue when the takeover by the Al-Qadi family, significant shareholders in the Arab Jordan Investment Bank (AJIB), was announced in February but Wael, the youngest of founder Abdulkader Abdullah's three sons, revealed that the purchase of a football club had been more than two years in the making.
Amid secret talks, it was brokered by new chairman Steve Hamer, who once held the same position at Swansea City, and added another string to Al-Qadi's footballing bow. His LinkedIn page lists his 'real job' as the assistant general manager of AJIB, but his numerous roles in the sport include helping to organise the upcoming Fifa Women's Under-17s World Cup in his homeland, a place on the executive board of the Jordan Football Association and the vice-chairmanship of the Asian Football Development Project.
“It wasn't a spur of the moment decision,” said Al-Qadi. “I'd been studying and looking and doing my due diligence. It was not only in England. I looked at clubs in Belgium and Spain before realising, like I always knew, that it should be in England. After deciding that, it was a case of deciding which fundamentally strong footballing clubs were out there and I think I landed on the perfect choice.

“There were other clubs, and I visited several, but at Rovers, the momentum, the feel of it and so many other things that lead to such transactions just fell into place.”

As has been well documented, foreign ownership in English football is a decidedly mixed bag. For every Leicester City and AFC Bournemouth – two of the true success stories – there is a Nottingham Forest or Leeds United, so eyebrows were raised across the region and beyond once the news broke that a Nick Higgs-led board made up primarily of Bristol businessmen was to be replaced. However, with the Pirates' new stadium project appearing to be in jepoardy due to a funding shortfall and a high-interest, short-term loan of around £2million rapidly coming up for repayment, the situation appeared bleak, despite an upturn in fortunes on the pitch that saw manager Darrell Clarke's National League promotion winners challenging strongly for a play-off place in their first season back in Sky Bet League 2.
So while there was an understandable degree of skepticism in the air – and one that may well linger until Rovers finally move to a new ground –  Al Qadi was given something of a hero's welcome when he was paraded before the supporters at half-time of a decidedly untidy encounter with Morecambe. He kissed the club's badge in front of a North Terrace, who in turn seranaded him with the club's anthem of Goodnight Irene and the bond was cemented.
Rovers trailed at the time but went on to win 2-1 thanks to second-half goals from Rory Gaffney and Billy Bodin. The result sparked a remarkable end-of-season run that only the most optimistic Gashead – and there aren't too many who fall into that category – could have predicted. Its fairytale conclusion was automatic promotion after Lee Brown tapped home with his weaker right foot in injury time to clinch a victory over Dagenham & Redbridge on a nerve-shredding final day of the campaign.
As thousands invaded the pitch, news came through that Accrington Stanley, who were battling Rovers for third place in the final table, had failed to beat Stevenage. The Gas, after all the troubles of recent seasons, were going up for the second time in the space of 12 months.
Al-Qadi ended the afternoon on the shoulders of worse-for-wear supporters whose celebrations had spilled down – and managed to close – part of the Gloucester Road. It was a presidential visit with a twist. All of the players and coaching staff involved on that famous day might have been recruited by the former board, but it would be unfair not to credit the feelgood factor that surrounded the club from the spring onwards with a percentage of a triumph that was achieved by the skin of Rovers' teeth.
“That incredible roar and feeling of that second when we won promotion will stay with me forever and it was one of the greatest moments in my life so far,” said Al Qadi. “It was epic.
“All credit must be given to Darrell, his staff and his team because what they achieved on the pitch was incredible and it was infectious throughout the club, the fans, the people who work here, the city. Crowds of 6-7,000 went to full houses for the stretch towards the end of the season.

“After the takeover, that kind of dark cloud situation hanging around the club disappeared so all of a sudden everybody realised that we are here, we are here to stay and we are here to improve and that got everybody together.”

When asked about targets, Al-Qadi will only echo the sentiments of Clarke, the key figure he was able to keep from the clutches of Leeds United in May after making him the best-paid manager in the club's history. The mantra is “game by game, season by season, division by division” and, with the antiquated Memorial Stadium unable to generate the sort of commercial revenue necessary for a sustainable future at Championship level or above, it appears that the next big steps by the club must be taken away from the field of play if the rise is to continue.
Experienced duo Lee Atkins and Michael Cunnah, the latter an ex-chief executive of Wembley Stadium, have been tasked with delivering a new ground, while a permanent training facility at Almondsbury is also central to the Al Qadi vision, something he foresees as being as “the heart and soul of the club”. Currently, the first team rent a base at Cribbs Causeway during the week, while Academy youngsters are put through their paces at three locations around the city, including Golden Hill and St Bernard Lovell School. That, the owner says, is something that has to change. And, while he has never promised to throw millions of pounds of his family's money at the project, he knows only too well that giving the club a truly exciting future will not come cheap, or indeed happen quickly.

“It's a business plan,” said Al-Qadi. “It is about securing, first of all, a training ground and by doing that then if you want to attract talented players, you will. You have a chance to get them in and you build on that and start adding value that way. You need the infrastructure first. We are willing to do that.

“If we build the club up properly and build something that is sustainable, I cannot see why the club cannot be successful. If you have a very strong academy that is producing quality players, and that means recruiting them into your system when they are young, why can't you have a successful club?
“What is the point of building a stadium when you cannot provide the first team with talented players? We all know that bringing in some players, let's say by the 'new way' like Man United and other big clubs, is not a sustainable way of running your club. We want it to remain for the future and don't want it to go belly-up.”
Even allowing for football's ups and downs along the way, Al-Qadi is plotting a course for the very top. He might not follow Roman Abramovic's blueprint for success but believes, a decade from now, that he could well be sharing a boardroom with the Russian on an annual basis at the home of his boyhood club.
“I hope to be and I want to be here in ten years' time and I hope Rovers are extremely successful in that time,” he said. “We are all football fans. I'm a fan of Rovers and I would want them to be playing at the highest level. That is every fan's ambition, after all.”

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.