“We will absolutely respect the Jack Walker legacy and will be actively supporting the organisation to ensure that Blackburn Rovers remain one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League.” – Venky’s chairperson Anuradha J. Desai, November 2010
“We now find the board are not even being consulted on some of the most fundamental decisions this or any other football club ever makes. This includes the termination of the manager’s employment [Allardyce] and the appointment of a new manager [Kean]. We have had no input into the terms of this appointment and presumably discussions are taking place with Steve Kean concerning additional staff appointments, again without an input from the board. In addition, and of greatest concern, as we enter the transfer window, is your instruction that the manager is to no longer report to the board on transfer matters. The board’s role seems to be merely one of processing the transfers as opposed to delivering a strategy based on discussions with you as owners and working to pre-agreed financial budgets.” – Blackburn Rovers chairman John Williams, managing director Tom Finn and finance director Martin Goodman, January 2011
Any football fan naive enough to believe in the fairytale of the foreign-investor-as-knight-in-shining-armour need only look at the parlous state of Blackburn Rovers to be brought to their senses. John Williams, Tom Finn and Martin Goodman felt compelled to express their extreme concern just two months after Venky’s takeover, and events since – culminating in relegation to the Championship in May – have only gone to prove that if there’s an inverse of a panacea, then Venky’s are it.
So, what exactly did the owners of an Indian chicken-processing company see in a club which Williams himself conceded hails from “a small, relatively impoverished town” and which has “a small fan base“? It’s a question that was posed when Blackburn got the Swiss Ramble treatment back in July 2010, four months before Venky’s bought the club. Sure, Rovers had a rich (if remote) history, and at the time were one of only four clubs to have lifted the Premier League trophy – but things have moved on significantly since 1995, to such an extent that it’s now almost unimaginable that the title might be claimed by such a minor power ever again.
In truth, the precise identity of the club chosen seems to have been unimportant – simply being able to boast ownership of a Premier League side was enough. Even while claiming that Venky’s would tread carefully in the House that Jack Built, Desai shamelessly declared that the purchase was intended as a means of promoting their brand globally. So it must have come as something of a blow when the club’s deputy chairman Paul Hunt was prompted into speaking out about (amongst other things) how Venky’s decisions and actions were proving horribly damaging to the brands of both the club and the company. Not only did Hunt’s advice fall upon deaf ears, he was sacked three days after relegation was confirmed.
This is not to say, however, that everything was rosy in the Rovers garden prior to Venky’s arrival; even “one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League” had its problems. The small size of the town and therefore the club’s fan base, as already noted, meant that revenue was restricted – £51m in 2009, of which an unhealthy proportion (70%) came from TV money. The low revenue combined with the need to pay substantial salaries resulted in a dangerously unsustainable wages-to-turnover ratio of 91%. “So long as we can preserve our Premier League status“, John Williams observed, “the club is stable“, but its long-term prospects looked uncertain – hence the eagerness with which he and the board set out to find a major investor.
Needless to say, Venky’s have certainly not turned out to be the investor that was hoped for. Far from helping to preserve Blackburn’s future financially, they’ve actively endangered it. Even prior to relegation, in December 2011, Rovers posted a pre-tax loss of £18.6m, hefty for a club of their stature. Now that the demotion Williams dreaded has come to pass, stability looks a distant dream and even survival cannot be guaranteed. Parachute payments will be forthcoming, but nevertheless revenue is set to plummet due to reduced TV income and lower attendances. It’s a measure of just how farcical things have become at Ewood Park that the club has contrived to anger even those fans sufficiently stoical (or masochistic) to want to continue to part with their cash and watch Rovers in the Championship by delaying the release of season tickets.
If there’s one consolation, Blackburn didn’t overspend in attempting to cling onto their top-flight status, and so their wage bill probably isn’t as horrific as it might have been for other clubs (I’m looking at you, QPR…). But even that must be galling for Rovers supporters – surely at least some expenditure in January was worth the risk, given what was at stake? As it is, they had to make do with loanee Anthony Modeste – nine appearances, no goals – and, ultimately, the relegation that means the spectre of Portsmouth now looms large.
And who’s been entrusted with the responsibility of leading Blackburn out of the Championship and back into the promised land? Steve Kean, the same man who has presided over their spectacular demise. The Scot’s post-match interviews last season – all bullish attitude and bulging eyes, as if daring his interlocutor to disagree – were like watching someone scuba-diving in slurry, surfacing only to hold aloft triumphantly what he claimed was a pearl. Not for nothing has the man predictably labelled Agent Kean by Burnley fans been caricatured as a Walter Mitty-esque figure, the disparity between his delusional pronouncements and reality frequently a yawning gulf.
Paul Hunt’s letter to Venky’s argued the manager had lost the dressing room as early as December last year, with the fans lost a long time before that. And yet, while Hunt’s been given the boot, Kean has actually been rewarded with the enthusiastic backing of Venky’s. The perversity of the owners’ logic is unfathomable – even if they’re fearful of the prospect of losing face by sacking the man they promoted to replace Sam Allardyce, then this is still taking their support for the current incumbent to ridiculous extremes. I suppose someone capable of royally riling Allardyce can’t be all bad, though.
Kean’s most recent champion has been Shebby Singh, a former Malaysian international plucked from the sofa of ESPN’s pan-Asian programme Football Focus to take on the role of director of football or “global football advisor” (depending on what source you read) – or, in layman’s terms, Venky’s mouthpiece. All the more curious, then, that in his previous position as print media pundit he was among the clamouring majority calling for Kean’s head to roll…
While his employers have seemed content to rule from afar, Singh has – to his credit – at least acknowledged the need to engage in person with those to whom the club really belongs, even if this does translate into publicly squaring up to 500 irate fans. Of the many issues on which the BRFC Action Group will want answers, Kean’s continued employment will inevitably be one – as will the apparently cosy relationship between the club and his agent. Jerome Anderson has admitted involvement in the takeover deal as well as in Rovers’ first transfer dealings under the new regime, but has also claimed that all ties have since been severed. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take a sensitive nose to smell something fishy about the fact that Anderson’s son Myles was signed to play in blue and white. At the age of 22, the defender has precisely one first-team appearance to his name, as a substitute for Aberdeen. “Great potential as a late developer“, argued Kean.
What of the other members of the playing squad at Kean’s disposal for the forthcoming campaign? The two players who arguably did the most to preserve Blackburn’s top-flight status, Yakubu and Junior Hoilett, have both fled the sinking ship, their consciences clear – the Nigerian striker moving to China and the Canadian youngster joining forces with former Rovers manager Mark Hughes at QPR.
The consequent recruitment of Newcastle’s Leon Best, even for a relatively sizeable £3m, looked like an astute decision – especially by Venky’s lowly standards. Best may not be the most naturally gifted of players, but honest endeavour allied to a hat-trick on his full debut and vital strikes against Fulham and QPR last season earned him something approaching cult status on Tyneside. And yet no sooner had Best been handed Alan Shearer’s number nine shirt than he’d been ruled out for six months with cruciate ligament damage to his knee. Genuine misfortune, for a change, rather than just another thing for which the blame can be pinned on Venky’s.
Kean had been hoping to pair Best with another summer arrival, a veteran of several major international championships. Nuno Gomes notched 125 goals in 293 appearances over two spells for Benfica and, perhaps most memorably, scored the goal that completed Portugal’s comeback victory in England’s opening game of Euro 2000. There’s no doubting that over the course of his career he’s been an excellent player – but, at 36 and in the rough and tumble of the Championship, he looks all set to be a hugely costly albatross. With Michel Salgado having departed, presumably there was a vacancy at the Ewood Park Retirement Home for Iberian Former Greats.
Another acquisition, Danny Murphy, is also nearly of pensionable age, but he does at least possess valuable experience of English football and could establish himself as the central fulcrum of the side, aided and abetted by a familiar face, fellow former Fulham man Dickson Etuhu. Certainly, last summer’s midfield recruits Simon Vukcevic and Radosav Petrovic have singularly failed to impress, David Dunn and Morten Gamst Pedersen are both very much fading forces, and few (myself included) expect Steven Nzonzi – one of the club’s few bankable assets – to remain at Ewood Park beyond the end of the month.
Most alarming for Rovers fans will be the fact that defensive deficiencies haven’t been addressed, even though these – and the ill-judged January sales of central defensive pairing Christopher Samba and Ryan Nelsen, compounding the loss of Phil Jones – were instrumental in the club’s relegation. Scott Dann looks a shadow of the player who formed such a formidable partnership with Roger Johnson for Birmingham, and while Grant Hanley showed promise at times (and conjured up a winner at Old Trafford), at others he looked more at sea than a cruise ship. Solving those problems is key to the side’s chances of success, as is keeping Paul Robinson fit and getting much more out of youngsters Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina.
However, whether promotion is a realistic ambition, even with reorganisation and reinvestment, is debatable. Some would argue that, after years of punching above their weight, the small-town club has finally been floored, brought back down to what might be regarded as their “natural level”. Keeping them company in the Championship are Bolton, who also suffered relegation from the top tier.
Elsewhere in Lancashire, Preston are languishing in League 1, Graham Westley’s not-so-softly-softly approach to rebuilding involving telling senior players not to turn up for training by text message, while the town has lost the National Football Museum to Manchester; Rochdale are back in League 2, after just two seasons at the higher level; and Blackburn’s bitter rivals Burnley, while no doubt cheered by Schadenfreude at Rovers’ plight, have suffered the indignity of being stripped of star striker Jay Rodriguez by a club who were a division below them as recently as 2011. At present – Fleetwood’s ascent to the Football League aside – it really is grim oop north-west. And with Venky’s at the helm, it only looks like getting grimmer for Blackburn.