Blackburn soccer fans wait to count their chickens

Blackburn soccer fans wait to count their chickens

Blackburn, England: When Nowaz Khan started watching Blackburn Rovers, he was one of the only Asians in both the ground and the small Lancashire mill town.

Forty-four years later, the Premier League club has Indian owners and a mission to tap into the huge Asian market, while the northwestern English town itself is home to a thriving Asian community that makes up almost a quarter of its population.

Blackburn, who struggle to pull in fans in an area saturated by top clubs such as Manchester United and Manchester City, have long sought to attract fans from different backgrounds, installing a multi-faith prayer room at their Ewood Park ground in 2008.

With its shops selling brightly-coloured fabrics and Asian groceries, the Whalley Range area of the town offers new owners, Indian poultry giant Venky’s, a home-from-home feeling.

Fans welcomed their arrival last week to end three years of uncertainty while the club was up for sale, but are cautious while they wait to hear more details of their investment plans.

“Show us your money and we’ll count our chickens," bus driver Khan, who has supported Rovers since moving to Blackburn from Pakistan as child in the mid-1960s, urged the owners.

Venky’s, which makes products such as chicken nuggets, sealed a £54 million (Rs 388.3 crore) deal to become the first Indian owners of a Premier League club, but apart from saying Rovers need a striker, have not told manager Sam Allardyce how much money he can spend.

“I’m looking for a player who would improve the squad dramatically," Allardyce said last week. “But I’m not really looking for a player to develop at this moment in time. We’ve had enough of those recently."

Crystal heirloom

Much of the owners’ talk has been about improving the Blackburn Rovers brand, but some fans have questioned whether they really have the club’s interests at heart after saying they wanted to rename Ewood Park after Venky’s or another sponsor.

“Blackburn Rovers is a very traditional club with a rich history and any tampering for quick business reasons is on a par with tampering with the family heirloom," said Nazir Musa, who writes a column in the Asian Image newspaper.

“It’s not the done thing and naming the ground...will not be seen well by the fans at all. Blackburn folk are traditional, working-class, down-to-earth people set in their ways when it comes to their football club.

“If Venky’s were to catapult us too fast and too soon they may find such get-rich schemes will fall flat as fast as they came.

“Rovers is a crystal heirloom which deserves to be handled with care, consideration and understanding. The fans would rather the club stable and mid-table than a one-season wonder."

Blackburn have, after all, already won the Premier League to achieve the seemingly impossible for a club from a small town.

Their 1995 title came after tens of millions of pounds of investment from Jack Walker, the steel tycoon with a big passion for his home town and football club who, many fans feel, set an example that no new owners will ever live up to. Walker left a legacy of a redeveloped stadium and top-class training facilities as well as a trust to own the club when he died 10 years ago.

Transfer fees and wages have since spiralled. Blackburn have been unable to keep up with the Premier League’s big spenders—many of whom have foreign owners—and the Jack Walker Trust put the club up for sale three years ago.

Fans are excited by the new era and hope the takeover will mean the club can stop having to sell its best players.

“We know we are not going to get ridiculous amounts to spend like Manchester United and Manchester City," fan Simon Fish said after coming out of the club shop in central Blackburn.

He said he fully supported the club’s decision to sell because investment was needed, but added that Walker would be “turning in his grave" at the idea of renaming Ewood Park.

Fan base

Directors of Venky’s, B. Venkatesh Rao and B. Balaji Rao, watched their new club beat Aston Villa 2-0 on Sunday in front of 21,848 people at home, the weekend’s second-lowest Premier League attendance after promoted Blackpool and the club’s lowest of the season. The owners have spoken about wanting to add “a huge Indian and Asian fan base" and though they emphasize attracting an international following, they may want to look closer to home to fill their more than 31,000-capacity stadium.

Season ticket prices are the lowest in the Premier League at £209, two-and-a-half times cheaper than at champions Chelsea, yet the ground is on average only three-quarters full.

Fans who regularly attend say the number of Asians in the crowd has grown over the past five years, but is still “small". “There is an untapped market in Blackburn," said Fish, who added the takeover might bring more Asians through the turnstiles.

Those like Khan, who remember when there were only a handful of Asians in Blackburn, know how quickly things can change.

“There weren’t many Asians at matches, one or two people maybe," he said of his experiences as a fan in the 1960s. “I wasn’t just the only Asian in the class, I was the only Asian in the school. Things have changed now."