Blackburn Rovers: When Owners Turn Chicken
One emerging problem with the “benefactor model” of club ownership is “what happens next?” Blackburn Rovers have struggled with this problem since their 1990s benefactor, steel magnate Jack Walker, died in 2000. And current owners Venky’s are not, yet anyway, the solution. Walker, who famously took Rovers to/bought the 1995 Premier League title, made some post-benefactor plans, forming the “Jack Walker Settlement” (JWS), a trust based in the Jersey tax haven, where he lived from 1974, when his riches attracted taxes which the great benefactor was…erm…unprepared to give.
The Trust dealt with the practicalities of Walker’s business legacy, to “promote and enlarge all my business interests.” For Rovers this meant providing finance “for the foreseeable future”, which manifested itself in annual £3m contributions. £3m wasn’t quite “a lot of money in those days.” But it became exponentially less significant over time. And the end of the “foreseeable future,” as David Conn wrote in the Guardian newspaper in 2008, “was apparently reached in January” when JWS trustees saw “no immediate requirement to invest further.” Rovers’ then-chairman John Williams negotiated funding for the short-term. But the trustees wanted to sell the club and Rovers had already joined the Premier League clubs searching for wealthy investment in those immediate pre-recession days.
They attracted suitors such as Daniel Williams, Chris Ronnie and Nabeel Chowdery until the economic freeze turned the trail cold. Then in 2010, Indian businessmen Saurin Shah and Ahsan Ali-Syed emerged. Syed became front-runner, thanks to some outlandish promises, before his murky business background was exposed by BBC journalist Adrian Goldberg. La Liga’s Racing Santander didn’t heed the warnings and Syed arrived there last January, before being exposed again and disappearing, leaving the perennially cash-strapped Racing in administration. The Rao family, which runs the Indian poultry conglomerate, arrived in Blackburn when Syed left (so Rovers had a lucky escape with Syed…but not that lucky), introduced by players’ agent Jerome Anderson. Anderson had been touting Blackburn around for the Trust, a comedown from investment bankers Rothschilds, who had touted Rovers around in 2008. Venky’s had considerable business credibility but no football credibility, as we now know. Alongside numerous PR-stunt disasters (Ronaldinho, Maradona etc…), they presided over an £18.6m loss in 2010/11.
Most fans, with an understandably secondary interest at best in Rovers’ financial intricacies, have focused their ire on manager Steve Kean, who was promoted from coach to manager by Venky’s. He was as over-promoted as that sounded, with his reputation sullied by being an Anderson client and clearly becoming manager because of that. Anderson claimed this was “absolute, utter rubbish…garbage” in a recent Sky interview (“he’d already been there a couple of years”), but failed to explain how Kean did get the job. Kean’s public statements haven’t helped either. Optimism in the face of dreadful results has mixed with time-dishonoured accusations that protesters against his tenure were not “true” fans – an accusation Anderson insidiously repeated to Sky (see below).
Kean has had considerable, if ill-informed, sympathy from media and managers for withstanding some fearful abuse on matchdays. Everton boss David Moyes walked out, “in protest” at half-time in the Blackburn/Bolton game (he gave his reasons…but I didn’t like them, so I stopped reading halfway through…in protest). Powerful imagery induces this sympathy – Kean staring into the middle-distance from his technical area to a backdrop of faces turned monumentally unattractive by contortions of rage and gestures only the most innocent minds could not understand. Kean is an issue. 37 points from 42 Premier League games tells a tale. And Venky’s business plan requires Premier League status. But Kean is not the issue. Venky’s ownership is.
The early cluelessness of the Raos – especially “matriarch” Anuradha Desai – has proved the most sustainable aspect of their ownership, awarding the “brilliant” Kean a pay rise in December being the latest example. Pointless pursuits of star players were replaced by pointless plans, revealed with disdain in the Guardian, for a concert featuring R&B stars Akon and Kelly Rowland. Their communication has been hopelessly vague or non-existent. A Rao brother (the relatively sensible-sounding Venkat or the pony-tailed 1970s throwback Balaji) has regularly assured fans of their “desire, passion and commitment” and 94 variations thereof. Even the latest annual report fell victim to meaningless language. The ‘Executive Report’ said Venky’s wanted “to build a successful and sustainable club…(and)… have a desire to see (Rovers) prosper on and off the field.” As opposed to what, you may wonder.
Some suggested – as standard in such football club takeovers – that the purchase was cover for asset-stripping. But Venky’s motives were transparently different. Fans who credit the Raos with any coherent strategy believe they want to Venky’s to help “build” the Rovers “brand” worldwide, especially in India. Indeed, the vacuous psychobabble that is “building the brand” is another heading in the annual report. But that is back-to-front. The Raos were sold a vision of this worldwide “EPL brand” which was as misleading as whoever told Dick Whittington London’s streets were “paved with gold.” And “we can benefit from being owners of a major football club. It will help build our brand,” Desai told the Times of India newspaper immediately prior to the takeover. “Venky’s want global publicity for Brand Venky’s not Brand Rovers,” agreed one fan on the BRFCS.com messageboard. But Deputy CEO Paul Hunt was appropriately stark in the annual report’s ‘Challenges ahead’ section: “The club must preserve its Premier League status.” After all, Football League status won’t “build” any “brand.” So the Raos’ complacency about relegation is mystifying – unless they believe relegation won’t be enforced on an established “EPL brand.”
Financial commitments are also going unfulfilled. Before Christmas, the club bankers, Barclays demanded that Venky’s deposit £10m in Rovers’ bank account by 31 December, otherwise the bank’s willingness to extend overdraft facilities would be tested. Venky’s say Barclays are ignoring the company’s ability to cover any overdraft. But, according to Nick Harris, on his informative Sporting Intelligence website, Venky’s have a “long-standing agreement…(to)…inject specific sums of capital at certain times.” Barclay’s claim this agreement has been breached and the accounts suggest that loans have met Venky’s takeover commitment to “(funding) on a systematic basis.” The document also said Venky’s intended to “support the existing management team and staff.” This would be over-restrictive as a commitment. As the annual report notes: “With many company acquisitions, there are people who leave the business.” But Venky’s have lost valuable employees, while adequate replacements have been found belatedly, or not at all.
There is the mark of farce, for instance, in appointing a deputy chief executive where no CEO exists. And Venky’s have not said who, if anyone, is fulfilling the role. Other key appointments were made months after posts were vacated. New finance director Karen Silk arrived four months after predecessor Martin Goodman resigned – fifteen days before signing off the 2010/11 accounts. Hunt was made Deputy CEO eight days before the end of that accounting period. And respected ex-chairman John Williams has not been formally replaced. Predecessor Robert Coar is a non-executive director. But Williams’ knowledge, experience and reputation would have been more relevant and helpful. And it is hard to believe he would have resigned if he had faith in the Raos. The £18.6m loss is partly because of this leadership and control vacuum. Ex-manager Sam Allardyce was not averse to paying agents fees. But proper financial control would have avoided a £1.65m agents’ fee for Ruben Rochina’s £398,000 transfer last January.
Venky’s are not without support. But these supporters are few and, to use a Blackburn phrase, there are about four thousand holes in their arguments. They happily discredit the more outlandish accusations thrown at the Raos – and there have been plenty of them – while ignoring more genuine issues. They emphasise the “£10m” Venky’s invested in, and the “£43m” they spent, to buy Rovers, while ignoring the promised £10m Venky’s haven’t invested since and the fact that half of the £43m was bank debt. They claim Rovers’ financial problems are exaggerated by financially-illiterate scaremongers, even though the accounts say they “will require significant funding in addition to the current facilities available” over the next 18 months to remain a going concern. They still believe Venky’s will promote Rovers, not the other way around and that their media problems are the media’s fault. Even among these fans, though, Kean’s continued employment is a puzzle…or just plain wrong.
There have been strategic differences among protestors. Some have been frighteningly intense. While shortly before Christmas, others called a “truce” to allow a meeting with Kean and club officials. Rovers postponed the meeting, which would have (because it would have?) discussed 64 questions on topics from decision-making structures to Kean’s allegedly-fraught relationship with senior players. Then Blackburn lost at home to Bolton and the protests re-exploded. So the recently-published “United Statement by Blackburn Rovers fans” was hailed as a considerable drafting achievement, as all the various supporters groups and websites put aside those differences and put their names to it.
The “United Statement” called for “the appointment of a respected manager who has the requisite experience to preside over our proud club” and “an administrative structure… becoming of a modern institution such as a Premier League football club” as “the first steps in the restitution of our football club.” But it did not demand the Raos’ exit, perhaps acknowledging the limit of supporters’ power to remove 99.9% club owners, if they want to stay. This (and the use of the word “becoming”) might have been a recipe for division a matter of weeks ago. Rovers’ situation has become too desperate for those divisions.
So the protests continue. As a counter, Anderson this week (ab)used his Sky interview to smear protesters, suggesting “other things were going on which we are not aware of”…by which he meant – or at least meant to insinuate – racism from those who “don’t want the Venky’s (sic) to succeed, for whatever reason.” And in case viewers hadn’t taken the hint, Sky added footage of Rovers protestors, arms outstretched, framed to suggest some had only one arm outstretched. It was a disgusting attempt to discredit the protest movement. And both Anderson and Sky would be shamed by it… if either knew the emotion existed.
Venky’s must change. Premier League status still underpins everything they are trying to achieve. So they should be seeking to maintain that status at all costs. Yet that is precisely what they are not doing. They have bristled at paying £10m in January to which they are already committed. So they will be extremely reluctant to part with the cash required to strengthen a squad about which the current league table is not lying. They simply must overcome this reluctance. If they do not, and Rovers are relegated, they will stand condemned by their own criteria, whatever the other mistakes they have made.
(I would like to thank “Fernhurst Rover” for his help in researching this article).