In the past few years Blackburn Rovers have descended from being a well-run, well-respected Premier League club to a Championship side which, thanks to the actions of their owners, has become a laughing stock and a basket case off the pitch. On Tuesday, there was yet another fiasco, when Blackburn fired manager Michael Appleton, after a mere 67 days in charge, meaning that Rovers have now had four different managers in charge this season.
The reaction here in England was one of incredulity at the actions of the Blackburn owners, the Indian poultry giant Venky’s, and has raised questions not just about the suitability of Venky’s as football club owners due to their lack of knowledge about running a football club, but foreign owners of football clubs as a whole.
I’ve always maintained that it’s not necessarily a problem that a foreign owner such as Venky’s doesn’t know anything about running a football club; but if that’s the case, they have to recognise that fact and employ people who do know what to do. Venky’s failed to do that, with most of the people in key roles at the club either being replaced by totally unsuitable people, or not being replaced at all.
As I see it, the biggest problem Venky’s have isn’t so much they don’t know what they want in a manager; it’s actually even worse than that. Everything suggests that Venky’s don’t even know what they don’t want in a manager. Maybe they don’t even know that there are different types of football manager. This seems to suggest that they are just going to keep stumbling in the dark, making the same mistakes again and again when it comes to choosing a manager.
Blackburn’s handling of Steve Kean was bizarre. Nobody would’ve blamed Venky’s for pulling the trigger on Kean last season. He was despised by the fans and the team were performing dreadfully on the pitch. Last season, I wrote that I felt a bit sorry for Steve Kean. He was put into a terrible situation, was stymied by the total lack of off-field leadership that Blackburn endured last season; with Rovers not having a Chief Executive or Chairman, the two most important off-field positions in a football club, and had little to no input on transfers.
However, Venky’s went against the grain, stuck with Kean and kept him as manager for the start of this season, hoping he could lead them back to the Premier League. Money was spent on players, with prolific striker Jordan Rhodes arriving for a large fee and several players coming in on huge contracts. In true Blackburn fashion, Kean wasn’t consulted on the majority of these transfers, with three players arriving on transfer deadline day that Kean admitted he hadn’t seen play before.
Blackburn tried to remedy their off-field problems in the close season. They appointed former Malaysian international Shebby Singh to be their global advisor, which eventually turned into a more day-to-day, hands-on role within Blackburn. Again, this was a curious decision. Singh was known for being an analyst on ESPN Star Sports, and aside than covering it, he has no experience in English football and no previous experience in running a football club.
As well as Singh, Blackburn finally appointed a Chairman, with former Preston North End Chairman Derek Shaw being given the job. The big problem is that Singh’s role is so loosely-defined, and seems to change on a daily basis; that in effect there are two factions wielding the power off the pitch.
That would not be such a problem if they worked in unison with one another, but it is clear that is not the case. Having two people in charge with vastly different visions for the future and different ideas may have worked well in Ancient Rome, but such internecine squabbling is a disaster for a football club. All Blackburn did by failing to properly define the off-field hierarchy was to create an atmosphere of tension, instability and uncertainty, which has spilled onto the pitch. Singh and Shaw are believed to have not spoken to each other since December.
Despite this, this season’s campaign started well, with Blackburn in third place when Shebby Singh, who had stated before the start of the season that Kean would be fired if he lost three consecutive games, described Kean’s status at the club as ‘deteriorating every day’. When Singh allegedly tried to interfere in team selection, Kean resigned, and is currently mulling over taking Blackburn to court for constructive dismissal.
That left Blackburn looking for a manager. It didn’t take long for the managerial search to become a farce. Despite saying all the right things, it quickly became apparent that Blackburn didn’t have a clue who they wanted. Instead of going for an established manager, or a promising up-and-coming manager, like other clubs around them did when they changed manager; Blackburn’s shortlist seemed to solely consist of former players who might want to break into management.
After being refused permission by Spurs to speak to Tim Sherwood, and with the negative reaction of the fans putting a stop to the possible appointment of Billy McKinlay, Blackburn plumped for another former player, Henning Berg. Berg had managerial experience in his native Norway, though he wasn’t exactly a hot commodity and had been out of work for over a year. Plus, he’d been very critical of Venky’s during his work for Norwegian TV.
Berg lasted 57 days and 10 matches before he was sacked, with Blackburn only winning one of those 10 games. At the time of writing, Berg is taking Blackburn to court claiming there was a breach of contract and it is expected Blackburn may have to pay him around £2m.
While Shebby Singh was licking his wounds following the dismissal of Berg, as Berg was Singh’s appointment, leaving him in the bad books of Venky’s, Chairman Derek Shaw stepped up and appointed Michael Appleton as manager, with Blackburn paying Blackpool a considerable amount of compensation for the services of a man they themselves had only appointed two months earlier, while Blackburn were searching for a manager after Kean’s resignation.
On paper, this seemed like a wise move. Appleton was very highly regarded manager following the great work he did amongst the wreckage that is Portsmouth, where the financial situation meant he had no first-team players at one point and had to rely on a team comprised of youth players and players on short-term deals, who Appleton had managed to mould into a decent football team.
It didn’t take long for the off-field instability to surface once again. Shebby Singh was not happy with Appleton’s appointment; he had wanted former Aston Villa caretaker Kevin MacDonald. He was also angered by Appleton’s decision to not play former Liverpool, Spurs and Fulham midfielder Danny Murphy, who is believed to be on a two-year £30,000 per week contract laden with bonuses, despite being 36.
For his part, Appleton was baffled by the composition of the squad he inherited and was expecting to oversee a clearout of players in the summer in order to have a more balanced squad. Most of the players signed without Kean’s knowledge were shipped out, as well as talented players Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina.
In fairness to Venky’s, Appleton’s record at Blackburn wasn’t spectacular. He did only win 4 of the 15 games he was in charge for, but one of those wins was away at Arsenal in the FA Cup. However, Appleton inherited a talented, but dysfunctional squad that was a long way from being a cohesive team, and should’ve been given the time to succeed.
In true Venky’s fashion, Appleton’s sacking was farcical. It was Shebby Singh, who Appleton had had no contact with at all during his spell in charge, who sacked him by way of a letter. Shaw only learned about the decision to fire Appleton minutes before the manager was informed and is believed to have directly appealed to Venky’s Chairwoman Anuradha Desai to hold off, telling her that this decision would bring further ridicule on Blackburn, but his plea fell on deaf ears.
At present it looks as though the balance of power has swung back Singh’s way, with Shaw’s position now looking under threat. Singh is believed to be considering taking legal action against Shaw over the way Shaw appointed Appleton without his say so.
Shebby Singh may end up winning the off-field war at Blackburn, but at a terrible cost. All the turmoil at Blackburn has resulted in Rovers currently being embroiled in a relegation battle to stay in the Championship, which is a far cry from the promotion chase that was meant to have happened. Singh seems to have staked a considerable amount of money on Blackburn being promoted, with some players being given huge contracts that their performances this season haven’t merited.
The state of affairs at Blackburn is driving their fans to despair. Many have voted with their feet, with attendances being way down on last season. One fans group, The Rovers Trust, has tried to be part of the solution by offering their services to Venky’s in return for a say in the running of the club. They received no reply. “It is obvious to any experienced fan or football professional that to keep changing managers – we are now looking for our sixth this season – will only lead to yet more instability and uncertainty,” the Trust said. “The owners have to face up to the fact they are entirely responsible for the situation we find ourselves in with a second successive relegation a distinct possibility.”
Blackburn are staring in the face of a second successive relegation, and will do so with another inexperienced manager, with the announcement today that Caretaker Manager Gary Bowyer will remain in charge for the rest of the season. It is believed that Venky’s will use their considerable resources to try and land a big-name manager in the summer. Even with that in mind, because the Blackburn manager job offers all the stability of a Cypriot savings account, it is hard to imagine that Blackburn will be able to attract the manager they want; if in fact they do know who they want.