Not time for chicken puns, is it? Not when your football club, from a poor little town in Lancashire, has been relegated to the Football League Championship after 11 seasons in the top flight at the English Premier League (EPL).
The story of Blackburn Rovers and their free-fall since the Indian poultry giant Venkateshwara Hatcheries (or VH Group), which owns the Venky’s brand, took over the club 18 months ago, continues to be a remarkable story of a business decision gone incredibly wrong.
When Venky’s purchased the Rovers in end 2010, there was a genuine sense of anxiety in Blackburn owing to the atmosphere in mainly middle-class, north-west England created by the takeovers of the two clubs—Manchester United (by the Glazers) and Liverpool (by Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. Liverpool has changed hands again, and is now owned by New England Sports Ventures). Venky’s bought the club for a little over £23 million (Rs 199 crore now) and promised to respect and take forward the legacy of the late Jack Walker, a local businessman and industrialist who repeatedly donated a part of his fortune to Rovers’ cause, and even helped them win a league title in 1994-95 by paying handsomely to sign on good players.
Today, they are seemingly on the brink, with fans protesting the ownership, and chants of “VENKY’S OUT” reverberating louder than ever before. The growing perception of Venky’s in the eyes of loyal fans is that of owners who’re not just clueless, but who simply don’t care enough about the football club they claim to love.
In a soup: Rovers manager Steve Kean. Andrew Yates/AFP
How did it all go wrong? To begin with, this wasn’t about football. In her first interview after the takeover, Anuradha Desai, Venky’s chairperson, said, “I feel that the brand will get an immediate recognition if we take over this club, and that is the main reason why we are doing this.”
Then, poor advisers. Given that Venky’s was not known to have footballing interests before its involvement with Blackburn, it allied with Jerome Anderson, a football agent whose company SEM (Sport, Entertainment and Media) Group sold them a vision based primarily on dismantling everything that Walker and his board did for nearly a decade.
The first of many decisions was implemented with a sense of immediacy that shunned the best of corporate practices. That decision, to sack Sam Allardyce, a veteran English manager, and appoint a novice first-team coach Steve Kean, whose résumé as a football manager looked blank for the most part, sowed the seeds of unpopularity among Blackburn fans. Anderson was Kean’s agent. The Blackburn board, including its long-standing chairman John Williams, wasn’t consulted or told about Allardyce’s sacking.
“I thought that (Allardyce’s sacking) was the turning point of the Venky’s ownership, a few weeks after they took charge. (Till then,) people here largely welcomed them and looked forward to their leadership,” says Andy Cryer, the Blackburn reporter for the Lancashire Telegraph.
Chelsea players celebrate after scoring against the Rovers during an EPL match earlier this month. Miguel Medina/AFP.
If anything, that decision went a long way in establishing who really was in charge of the football club—not Williams, not Venky’s, but Anderson. Several big-name signings were promised when Venky’s took over, not the least names like David Beckham and Ronaldinho, which made for great headlines in the UK and India. But the team ended up with the likes of Myles Anderson (Jerome Anderson’s son) and Mauro Formica. Without understanding the apparent narrative in the EPL, Desai exclaimed about “finishing amid the top four or five”. With unrealistic ambitions and unkept promises, the decline had well and truly begun.
Kean, who initially took over on a caretaker basis, was appointed full-time for the 2011-12 season. Despite repeated protests by fans, Venky’s didn’t buckle and kept insisting he was the best man to take their vision forward. Alas, it ended in a situation where it seems the fans were mentally prepared for relegation from the Premier League to the Championship.
Despite several attempts on phone and email to contact Venky’s for this article, there was no response to requests for an interview.
On the management side, Venky’s, unfortunately, chose to run the football club from their headquarters in Pune, which sounds bizarre given that most professional clubs in England, even with foreign ownership, are run locally.
A chicken was sent on to the pitch by Rovers fans in protest. Andrew Yates/AFP
“It’s fair to say that nobody is in charge of the football club,” says Cryer.
The absence of a hands-on CEO to take charge of the club has only made things worse. The position of the chairman is vacant today—Williams, who had held the position for 13 years, resigned in February 2011. Exactly a week ago, Venky’s sacked Paul Hunt, Blackburn’s deputy CEO, in the wake of a leaked letter he wrote to the owners expressing concern about the club’s situation—the company has said it was a cost-cutting measure. Hunt had proposed a 10-point plan to not just rescue the football club, but run it effectively.
The absence of regular communication with fans and the larger public is hurting Blackburn more than ever before. They do not have a director of communications, or even a public relations officer dedicated to the football club. Instead, Venky’s chose to produce a tasteless advertisement with their football stars to endorse their brand, with the likes of David Dunn and Ryan Nelsen seen eating a product of their core business—chicken.
If Venky’s were to be brutally honest in appraising their handling of Blackburn Rovers, they’d look at the Championship as an opportunity to reshape the club by pumping in more money (with EPL wages and money to buy quality talent) and reset their ambitions. It gives them a glorious opportunity to win back fans, and redeem themselves by doing everything in their power to bring Blackburn back to EPL football. This would effectively translate into sacking Kean and appointing a manager of credible experience—a small first step which could go a long way in winning fan confidence.
Life in the Championship won’t be easy. With a steady decline in attendance already expected, and given the disenchanted environment around the football club, convincing disillusioned fans to renew their season tickets will be a herculean task. Blackburn Rovers’ TV revenue is also nowhere close to what it is in the EPL—upon relegation, the team is expected to take a slump from £42.5 million to £5-6 million.
Rovers fans will meet British government and EPL officials to voice their concerns about the club. Nigel Roddis/Reuters
The message from fans is loud and clear. Jack Rydeheard, a Rovers fan, says: “I’ve been a supporter for the last 50 years and a season-ticket holder for 30-plus years. Myself and my sons will not be renewing our season tickets until Steve Kean is gone and Venky’s engage properly with the fans. If they can’t do either, they should sell the club and go.”
Zahid Iqbal, a resident of Accrington and a Rovers supporter, had this rather crisp message for Desai: “Firstly, sack Steve Kean, for his record speaks for itself. Appoint a chairman and rebuild the foundations at the club that you destroyed. Appoint a decent manager and try and keep most of the squad and you will sell 15,000-plus season tickets next year. Most importantly, communicate with the fans. Else, go.”
The growing perception that Kean (on behalf of Anderson) and not Desai is running the show only adds to the disenchantment. Andy Young, another Rovers season-ticket holder from Glasgow, Scotland, says, “The Venky’s are becoming a laughing stock here for their seeming inability to sack Kean.”
It seems clear that everyone still wants to see Venky’s succeed. Hopefully, they won’t chicken out.
Venkat Ananth is a Mumbai-based columnist and an avid football fan.
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