After 16 minutes there was hope. Blackburn Rovers led 2-0 at Brentford – they were not yet condemned to the third tier – and there was rare optimism amongst the relentless conglomeration of anger and disillusionment. “We are staying up,” the visiting fans chanted, and they really believed it.
In the end, it was false hope; the kind of false hope the club’s supporters had now become accustomed to. They would eventually win 3-1 at Griffin Park, but victories for Nottingham Forest and Birmingham meant it wasn’t enough. Blackburn, Premier League winners in 1995, were officially a League One club. The chants had quickly turned to “we want our Rovers back” as the collective finger was pointed unflinchingly at the owners, considered responsible for such a seemingly avoidable decline.
Those owners are Venky’s, an Indian poultry firm that took control of Blackburn in 2010. At the time, the club were 14th in the top flight. Seven years of incompetence, indifference and neglect later, and the club are at a level they have not experienced since 1980. It has stemmed from the blatant mismanagement and apparent ignorance of the Rao family, whose running of the club, when digging down into the details, is tale after tale of shocking absurdity.
They remain at the club, though. For all the protests, all the rage and vociferous discontent, they continue to overstay their welcome with apparent nonchalance. Not only have Venky’s aimlessly and frivolously overseen the ineptitude on the pitch since their arrival, but they have taken the club’s finances from relatively stable to the exact opposite. When they purchased Blackburn in November 2010, they took on a net debt of £21 million. By the start of last season, the net debt figure stood at £104.2 million.
Blackburn’s decline might appear unsurprising at this stage, but when Venky’s first flew to Lancashire from India they came with ambition, claims of future European football and high-profile signings. At first, nothing seemed overly untoward. The Rao family successfully navigated the Premier League’s fit-and-proper-person test, which was introduced to prevent “corrupt or untrustworthy businessman serving on the board of football clubs”.
Eyebrows were first raised when the experienced, proven Sam Allardyce was dismissed, and replaced with first team coach Steve Kean. The Glaswegian had not yet held a managerial role; the decision seemed uninspiring and vapid when considering the grand claims Venky’s had only recently made. Kean’s results were equally uninspiring. Blackburn finished 14th in the 2010/11 season, four points clear of the bottom three and having made little progress since Allardyce’s departure.
The ambition that did come, in typical Venky’s style, was more reminiscent of an excitable 10-year-old given free rein on FIFA. First there was Ronaldinho, then David Beckham. How realistic either were became more apparent later down the line, but by some it was seen as a sign of intent.
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No marquee signings materialised; in fact, there were no real notable additions at all, and Blackburn began the 2011/12 campaign with three successive defeats. Kean had expressed his hope of “solid, reliable foundations”, a statement which in hindsight could hardly be more ironic. A poor start to the season had seen the already wavering trust in Kean diminish almost entirely. A protest was organised against the manager, though it would have very little effect.
It was Kean’s supposed ineptness at the forefront of attention, rather than any focus on the club’s owners, but the growing discontent would eventually expose the deeper, more sinister issues at play. Blackburn continued to struggle on the pitch, with a team that appeared bereft of confidence and without any organisation, while in the stands, the atmosphere grew increasingly toxic. A 4-0 defeat against Manchester City at Ewood Park in October saw a sit-in protest, ‘Kean out’ banners and even violence between those fans that disagreed with the protestations.
As the situation escalated, the Rao family remained in India, apparently unconcerned by the division and growing frustration caused by the club’s poor performance. Their knowledge of football – and indeed their interest – had come into question previously, and their persistence with Kean raised more doubts over their suitability. Before a crucial bottom of the table game against Bolton in December, the calls for Kean’s departure from the fans – and even local MP Jack Straw – reached a crescendo. Blackburn lost, and relegation loomed. Unperturbed, Kean claimed he would be “100 percent shocked” to lose his job.
He didn’t lose his job; he kept it until the end of the season, when Blackburn were relegated, second from bottom, six points from safety. By this point, the anger of supporters was directed at both Venky’s and Kean. A group of dedicated fans had discovered that the Rao family were, along with Kean, making money from signing players whose ability and potential to improve the team was of little concern.
It was revealed that Jerome Anderson, an influential agent at Blackburn, was inflating commissions and moving players through the club in a mutually beneficial agreement, while experienced squad members such as Míchel Salgado and Ryan Nelson were offered 80 percent of their contract to be released on a free.
The finances and politics at Blackburn were a confusing mess. In a series of blog posts, Glen Mullan, the founder of a fan group campaigning against Venky’s, exposed numerous incidents of incompetence and corruption. Kean’s failure as a manager is hardly surprising when considering some of the accusations put against him. Mullan claims that he was at one point paying an employee at the club a backhand of £500 a week to “keep the players sweet, be a fly on the wall and help plant stories into the press”. Kean had become far more than simply an inadequate manager. He was part of the problem, of the damaging activity behind the scenes.
Then there was the bizarre Venky’s appointment of “global advisor” Shebby Singh, a man who through a mix of naive honesty and startling incompetence showed the extent of Venky’s control over all aspects of the club. With Kean still in charge, Blackburn had made a surprisingly good start to the Championship season following their relegation. Mullan, who had established a relationship with Singh, recalled an occasion during a game against Leicester which went a long way to explaining some of the on-field problems.
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With the score at 1-1 and Mauro Formica warming up on the sidelines, Mullan, from the stands, sent a text to Singh which read: “Forget Formica, get [Ruben] Rochina on.” He received a reply within seconds of “OK”, and the planned substitution was changed. In essence, this meant that, as Mullan put it: “The team was being run from the stands and India by people who had little clue of how to manage a football team.” Venky’s were running the club and picking the team. Kean, it appeared, was simply along for the ride.
Kean eventually left the club a month into the 2012/13 season, claiming his position had become untenable. There were, and are, far bigger problems for Blackburn fans, however, mainly that Venky’s remained and didn’t see fit to join Kean on the way out. Details of the Scotsman’s contract later emerged. According to Mullan, he was paid a basic salary of £1 million, which included numerous bonuses, provisions for managing the club in League One, and an “additional contract” of £1.6 million. Mullan claimed that these details “pointed to betting markets”.
It had not taken long for Venky’s to place the club into turmoil. It grew increasingly apparent that they had purchased Blackburn as a plaything. The Rao family arrived not knowing that relegation from the Premier League was possible, later admitted to being unaware of a release clause in defender Phil Jones’ contract, and also had no idea of the financial regulations in place in the Football League. Yet they felt the need to involve themselves in matters on the pitch.
After seven years of decline, Blackburn, one of the Football League’s founding members in 1888, Premier League title winners 22 years ago, and once a prime example of how to run a football club, are now at their nadir. There have been seasons when Venky’s have appeared not to have proved a complete hindrance – eighth and ninth-placed finishes in the Championship in 2013/14 and 2014/15 hinted at a potential top of the table challenge. But supporters, unsurprisingly, have never been content with the Rao family at the helm. The lack of time given to managers Henning Berg and Michael Appleton was lamented, and there has, regardless of results, always been an underlying inability to provide anything close to stability.
And now, in 2017, Blackburn find themselves in the third tier, with little sign of things improving in the near future. Tony Mowbray was the manager tasked with pulling off a great escape, but his impressive mini-resurgence was not enough. He has been faced with the lack of communication now synonymous with Venky’s, speaking to them only twice, via telephone, since his appointment in February.
Mowbray has looked to instigate some positivity following the devastation of relegation, although it’s not clear if he’ll be the man charged with bringing Blackburn back to the second tier. If he is, it certainly won’t be easy. Only £250,000 has been invested in the first team squad over the last two seasons, while a number of key players have been allowed to leave; that suggests that Venky’s are likely to be equally, if not more, frugal in a lower division.
“The ownership – I can only recommend what I think they should do,” Mowbray has said. “Sometimes decisions are made over the manager’s head. I’d like to say we’re going to spend loads of money and win the league and make me look great but that’s not the way it works.”
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There is more uncertainty than ever at Blackburn, more desperation for Venky’s to finally take some responsibility for their actions. The Rao family have been urged to move on, to sell a club suffering from their indifference and ignorance. They have reportedly not even visited Ewood Park for three years. “The situation will get worse before it gets better,” Nick Jarrett, a Blackburn supporter, told These Football Times. “We’ll sink further until they leave and sell the club to an owner who’ll run things properly. I for one will never return to Ewood Park until then. I can’t justify giving my hard earned cash to fund Venky’s.”
It seems that Venky’s are unaware of the cultural significance of a club like Blackburn. The connection of the club with the town in general, the local economy, the community feel, is palpable, and it has been so throughout its history. When they took control in 2010, the average attendance stood at 25,427. Last season it was 12,688, and that will undoubtedly drop further with relegation and continued disillusionment.
That could have an adverse effect on local business and in turn local economy. Pubs, shops and cafes near Ewood Park have been closing at a rapid rate, and sponsorship at games has taken a big decline. The importance and impact of the success of a football club such as Blackburn cannot be understated.
Fans have attempted to involve the FA and the Football League, and even taken their complaints to the government, but with little response. Another potential outlet, media interest has declined since Blackburn’s Premier League exit, leaving supporters feeling alienated, without any options to instigate a turnaround in fortunes for their club. And it’s not just Blackburn. The path of uninterrupted disruption taken by Venky’s represents a wider problem, one which needs addressing before it becomes the norm.
Clubs such as Blackpool, Coventry, Leyton Orient and Charlton, to name a few, have experienced owners that neglect, mismanage and disrupt, often with no consequence. The increasing commercialisation of football has made such haphazard, experimental ownership a growing issue, particularly when those taking control of clubs have little to no interest or knowledge of the game. Put simply, far more must be done to prevent the exploitation, and in some cases, destruction of historic footballing institutions, whether it be from the FA or at a governmental level.
That is how fans of Blackburn feel. One supporter, Duncan Miller, has gone as far as to stand for the upcoming general election on an anti-Venky’s platform. If it wasn’t already clear how much the club means to locals, Miller has been handed better odds of winning in the constituency (100-1) than the Liberal Democrats (200-1).
“My decision to stand in the election may seem drastic, but so is the situation,” he told These Football Times. “Where else is there to go? MPs have made noises in parliament, but nothing has been done. I want to force the issue. The ultimate reward would be a complete reform of our national game. I’d like to see a governing body which regulates and finds some teeth. Football needs cleaning up.
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“Despite what Sky TV would have you believe, the 90s cash influx has turned it into an absolute cesspit. Clubs should be safeguarded, and owners need to be held accountable – those who are not fit and proper (a term which has become an utter joke) should not be allowed to buy clubs, and those who already have need to go.”
Such a passionate fanbase will not allow Venky’s to lead the club into desolation, but the future remains shrouded in doubt and potential difficulty. The Rao family’s tenure could continue to have a negative impact even after they are gone. With 16 of the 92 league clubs falling within the Lancashire borders, and a catchment area that includes Manchester United and Liverpool, young players of all ages are growing less and less likely to see Blackburn as an attractive proposition.
“The damage could last generations,” Miller said. “I’m loath to say it, but look at our arch rivals – there are major parallels between Burnley and Blackburn, and they are in very close proximity to us. Unfortunately they are progressing as rapidly as we are declining, and you have no idea how much it pains me to say that. They are well run, we aren’t.”
And the details of just how badly run Blackburn have been under Venky’s are truly chastening for fans of clubs in comparatively stable situations. “Their attitude smacks of sheer arrogance,” Miller added. “Nowadays we don’t hear a dickybird until we lurch to our next disaster and are met with some insipid statement, which by process of elimination must be written by our only remaining director (of finance), a man totally devoid of charisma, or seemingly ideas on how to run a club. We also have a non-exec director who proudly holds a position within the FA and threatens fans with legal action. Any concerns raised are ignored, any dissenters within the club are removed. NDAs and gagging orders make it difficult to truly understand what is going on.
“If Venky’s thought there was an opportunity to make money out of a club like Rovers, they are either naive or stupid. Aside from a handful of exceptions, football clubs are money pits that need either a benefactor or a solid business plan implemented by a worthy custodian. Their motivation was always a mystery, but on the few occasions the Rao family have bothered to show their faces, they did so in convoys of Rolls Royces.”
Miller represents a group of fans that have reached the end of their tether. A once fractious atmosphere between supporters has now become one of unity; Venky’s are the enemy and something needs to be done. Media interest is often focused on clubs like Arsenal, whose disarray or crisis is trivial in comparison, particularly now that Blackburn are no longer in the top division. Below the Premier League, away from the money tree of TV deals, it is almost a different world. But that is where many of the problems lie, and more has to be done to help.
Blackburn could well face further adversity ahead, but, as with other clubs who face similar situations, the passion and loyalty of fans will always overshadow the greed and incompetence of incapable owners
By Callum Rice-Coates @Callumrc96