Frost/Nixon it wasn’t. Yet Blackburn Rovers global advisor, ex-player and TV pundit Shebby Singh was ‘interesting’ when interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s 6-0-6 phone-in programme last weekend. Rovers fans, though, might have found another word beginning with ‘I’ for Singh after his BBC Radio performances this week. Handing an important role to an ex-player and TV pundit is always of questionable wisdom. But the BBC persists with Robbie Savage on 6-0-6, “the UK’s biggest football phone-in,” so we’ll have to grin and bear it. And at least Savage had proper journalist Darren Fletcher alongside him, if matters got preposterous. Not that Singh spotted this, namechecking “Robbie” throughout his interview, and starting each answer with “well, Robbie, you know”, regardless of who had actually asked him the question.
Singh’s mid-June appointment as the Rao’s representative at Ewood Park was ridiculed by anyone who had seen his “outspoken” punditry on ESPN Star’s EPL coverage over the past 11 years. That he was apparently appointed Rovers’ global football advisor in July 2011 because of that punditry (Robin Van Persie is “wasted as a striker” apparently) only invited more ridicule. Singh quickly lived down to that reputation for mindless out-speaking with crass summer comments about midfielder Morten Gamst-Pedersen and then-manager Steve Kean. But you have to hear him speak to realise how ridiculous he and his appointment really is. The 6-0-6 interview didn’t plumb the depths simply because there wasn’t enough time – there were only three callers in his 19-minute interview. But Singh quickly found time to plumb personal depths – he was “not telling,” when Savage asked “what exactly is your role at Blackburn?” Now, I cannot criticise others for starting off with lame jokes – see above. But even after that false start, Singh ended up “not telling” what exactly his role is.
Initially, “my bosses are the Venkys”, as the Raos were lazily called by everyone on air, “and I make the decisions with their blessing.” But within a minute, “the final decision was mine,” to sack manager Henning Berg after 57 days. “It is very difficult when it is not a conventional title, role or post or responsibility,” he added. But he regarded part of his role/post/responsibility as “fighting enemies from outside and inside,” which he was forced to backtrack into “just fighting the regular battles” after Fletcher smelt a story in his original words. So he really does appear to be running Rovers, which explains their on-going problems, as his football background – a Malaysian international left-back who, his Wikipedia entry notes, was once “man-of-the-match against Shrewsbury Town” – leaves him as (un)qualified for that role/post/responsibility as, well, Robbie Savage.
Even now, Singh hasn’t grasped how Rovers’ reputation has crumbled under the Raos. The 6-0-6 interview was dominated both by Berg’s dismissal and by reports that Singh himself had taken training the day before, assisted by Judan Ali, a youth football coach with pretentions and ambitions but no experience of any football remotely close to Football League level. Ali’s training ground presence before Berg’s dismissal was reported by the Independent newspaper’s Ian Herbert. But, despite stating that his own training ground presence was part of his role/post/responsibility, Singh was angrily adamant that reports of he and Ali actually taking training were rubbish. “Awwwww, come on, give me a break, how stupid is that?” he asked. “I… did… not… take… training,” he emphasised, twice. “That’s really stupid for anyone to think that…that’s downright stupidity to even suggest that.” However, such “stupidity” seems par for the Rovers’ course these days. And his explanation for Ali’s training ground presence wasn’t entirely credible, claiming that Ali phoned Rovers “about nine weeks ago” asking to “observe the team, as most coaches do from time-to-time.” This corresponded with Herbert’s report but not with Ali’s presence last Friday.
If Ali was after advice on how NOT to do things, he chose his club well – for instance, Berg’s backroom staff were sacked en-masse and only found out from television reports. But Singh’s suggestion that coaches at Ali’s (low) level habitually observed top-flight Football League clubs seemed dubious. And Singh even failed to offer Ali’s own explanation, that he was “part of an FA scheme to boost the number of black, Asian and ethnic minority coaches.” This “real” explanation only emerged two days later, when Ali phoned the Sporting Intelligence website’s Nick Harris, asking Harris’s “view of what was going on” at Rovers. Singh blamed the whole furore on “the timing of his arrival” not being “right,” claiming he couldn’t tell Ali “please do not come, because of this or that.” As “this or that” was Berg’s sacking, Singh could and should have told Ali not to be at the training ground 24 hours later. But he insisted: “He was a guest of the club. He’s a friend. Period.”
The third caller to 6-0-6, Steve from Preston, went on… and on… about Rovers “becoming a laughing stock” (some might have used the past tense there), why “it’s an embarrassment to be a Blackburn Rovers fan” and how Rovers were “going downwards (and) backwards, not forwards.” Indeed, if Steve had actually supported Preston, or even Burnley, he could scarcely have been more critical. Singh, though, “really, really appreciated” Steve’s, ahem, “kind words.” Steve was “spot on.” And it was “the best call I’ve received in a long, long time.” Maybe Singh was clumsily trying to thank Steve for his honesty. But it came across as the voices inside Singh’s head drowning out the criticism everyone else heard. Other criticisms were due to more traditional factors. “With digital media, there’s things happening out there that we have no control over,” he said when Fletcher suggested that “there seems to be this semi-comic element about things at Ewood Park.” Rumour management was the problem; even though Singh’s endless name-dropping has often been the source of such rumours.
Meanwhile, Kean’s departure was “a long time ago, as far as I’m concerned,” equating three months in football to a week in politics. And apparently: “we all know he resigned, so that’s not even a question anymore.” Singh traced Rovers’ problems much further back in time. He claimed to have watched Blackburn for “many, many years now” (presumably as a TV pundit, because he let slip later where his football allegiances truly lay – “today I am alright because…Tottenham Hotspur won…”). And he “always struggled to identify their style of play, their footballing philosophy.” So those “many, many years” didn’t include Sam Allardyce’s managerial tenure. Momentarily thinking he was at Ajax, Singh said Rovers needed “a certain identity of play, a certain concept that seeps through the club all the way down to the academy.” Laudable stuff but pie-in-the-sky just now, as Singh admitted: “I thought there would be something to build on but it’s much harder than I thought, trying to paper over the cracks” – cracks largely caused by his current bosses.
He did take full responsibility for the whole Berg fiasco. But he could hardly have done otherwise, having been very visibly at the head of the convoluted hiring process. He did try to put Berg’s 57 days into a more favourable context by noting that “it was 44 days for a very well-respected gentleman, one of my favourite all-time ever managers.” But he’d lost faith with that argument as soon as he’d finished it (“but never mind about that, Robbie.”) And as for the future? “Let’s join hands and say 2013 will be better than 2012,” he said, setting the bar pretty much on the ground. Sadly, 2013 quickly proved no different to 2012. Having agreed with everyone on 6-0-6 that Rovers needed experience at the helm and subsequently said “we would like to make an appointment on New Year’s Day,” Singh yesterday told BBC Radio Lancashire’s Graham Liver: “We are looking for a manager on a six-month contract, with specific targets” which, if met, would “trigger off a longer-term contract,” adding the handy soundbite: “we want to reward success, not failure.”
This interview quickly plumbed the depths, thanks entirely to Singh. He suggested, in itself not unreasonably, that “there’s no time to indulge someone who thinks he can have three or four years on his contract and take his time about what we’ve set out to achieve.” But when Liver said that “some would have a totally different view about football”, Singh got nasty. Liver claimed “the position the club has been allowed to get to” meant Rovers needed “someone to come in with a team of people…”, at which point Singh accused Liver of being “disrespectful” to the “backroom staff” – led by reserve-team boss Gary Bowyer, who oversaw Rovers’ two post-Berg wins – and had “worked their socks off over the last week.” Liver was being nothing of the sort, of course: “that is not in question and that is not what I meant.” But when he suggested that Rovers were “men down” having sacked a whole management level and replaced them internally, Singh bit again: “No, we are not short-handed in any department. We have people who are extremely happy and accepting the challenge.”
Not surprisingly, fans’ texts were “flying in” to the programme. “People are not having that,” noted a riled Liver. “I’ve got plenty of texts saying ‘you must be joking, who is going to take a six-month contract?’” Singh suggested “somebody” with “ambition, knowledge and experience” would take the job. But rather than explain why any credible manager with such qualities would submit to six-months’ probation, Singh flew at the “silly” people who “listen to the six-month contract and then they stop there… why don’t they listen to the whole sentence?…how difficult is it to understand?” There was no evidence that texters had “stopped there.” But Singh was arrogantly adamant that any criticism was down to their stupidity, not his.
The key to his plan, of course, is setting appropriate targets. But Singh’s target-setting qualities were demonstrated when he undermined the start of this season by setting Kean a target of 16 points in seven games to keep his job. And, unsurprisingly, before yesterday was out, his six-month plan was itself undermined by the announcement that Bowyer and Terry McPhillips would be in charge until the end of January, giving any new manager just three-and-a-bit months to pass his “probation.” I know it’s easy to criticise Shebby Singh. But while he just combines telling people what he thinks they want to hear with simply making things up as he goes along, Rovers’ problems will intensify. Singh said: “We have to be very careful about the choice we make. We have been through difficult times and now we must make the right decision.” Unfortunately, he said that in October. And if he gets it right, it will surely be by accident rather than design, because the man’s ‘interesting’ but he’s also an idiot.
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