I was surely not alone in thinking “Ha-ha-ha” when hearing of “Big” Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn departure. But unless there has been a master plan in place since day one (and Maradona’s unexpected appearance in England a few weeks back now has a new explanation), the decision appears the latest example of Venky’s – and in particular Anuradha Desai’s – utter ignorance of English club football, which is no laughing matter. All the questions about Venky’s true motivation for buying Blackburn have been aired. And a refreshingly large number of people have recognised that the deal is far more about Venky’s worldwide profile than Rovers’ Indian one. Not least because, as I mentioned the last time I wrote about Blackburn, Desai said so.
Seemingly blissfully unaware that Indian newspaper interviews can be available in this country via the internet, she told the Economic Times of India on October 27th: “Football is a global craze and as the VH Group globalizes, setting up feed plants and hatcheries around the world, we believe we can benefit from being owners of a major football club. IT will help build OUR brand.” (My emphasis). If you were being really picky, you could question her interpretation of the words “craze” and “major.”
And she hasn’t stopped offering more head-in-the-hands moments than is good for the soul. Indeed, almost every time she has opened her mouth on football, all the “women in football, bloody hell!!!” stereotypes which I happily refute elsewhere (Jacqui Oakley is just a bad TV football commentator, it’s not because she’s a woman) come unfairly but unflinchingly to mind. Before ‘Big’ Sam’s departure, Desai’s biggest clunker was her declaration that “I am now becoming a big football fan. I was a hardcore cricket fan but that is all changing. My view has changed overnight.” Quite which night this was isn’t clear. But if she could be that fickle, a dose of Blackburn v Stoke might change her mind back again. Her second biggest clunker came in the same interview, when she declared: “Blackburn is now my second home,” adding in true public relations-by-numbers style: “when you are so much involved in the club and its well-being, you feel a real connection to the place.”
Relatively speaking, such rock-star “I love you all” insincerity is harmless. More harmful would be confused, ill-thought out ambition, a public inconsistency of strategy and a lack of both knowledge of and realistic perspective on the football business. Venky’s have firmly concluded that the thing to respect is “Jack Walker’s legacy,” to the point that almost nothing else matters. The suggested renaming of Ewood Park was a case in point. It was clumsy in the extreme for Desai to tell the Lancashire Telegraph on November 22nd that “our stadium could be called the Venky’s Stadium” before claiming 24 hours later that “we will not do anything to remove the name Ewood Park.” And to equate the re-naming of Ewood Park with the naming of the new, otherwise anonymous, Arsenal stadium was plain football ignorance.
However, in their much-lauded list of contractual commitments in the offer document sent to the few non-Walker’s Trust shareholders in the club, they said they wouldn’t change “the name of the stand currently known as the Jack Walker Stand… without Blackburn Rovers Football Club Investments Limited’s prior written consent.” They then made an inordinate commitment to the future of “the statue of Jack Walker outside Ewood Park”, which “will be kept in a good state of repair and will not be moved to a different location, obscured or have its prominence diluted without BRFCI’s prior written consent.” Clearly a vital component of any campaign to stay in the Premier League. Partly this is because negotiations over Venky’s purchase have been with the Jack Walker trustees, whose priority was and is Jack Walker, not Blackburn Rovers. So, in a sense, Venky’s concentration on the man rather than the club has been foisted upon them.
It is nonetheless disappointing that Venky’s have allowed their concentration to be distracted so easily. A lot of faith has been placed, by fans and outside observers alike, in the Trust’s ability to ensure that purchasers of the club were ‘fit and proper’ for the club. That faith appears misplaced. And, of course, when the commitments do refer to the club, Venky’s commit “to support the existing management and staff.” So these commitments are potentially worthless. A Lancashire Telegraph poll of Rovers’ supporters suggested that only 52% thought Venky’s takeover “a good thing.” Even allowing for the racism which the takeover has brought from a few, that is a large slab of supporter unease, which you can’t imagine has been dissipated by Desai’s public revelations about what she was going to “tell” Allardyce to do.
In the end, of course, all he was told was “where to get off.” But the idea that the chairperson of a poultry company could or should tell a football manager how to do his job will not have appealed to even Allardyce’s most vehement critics. (It would be tempting to compare this to Allardyce telling Desai how to farm chickens…but you suspect ‘Big’ Sam knows more about food than Desai does about football). Worse still, Desai seemed to think it was right to tell the Lancashire Telegraph what she was going to tell Allardyce…before telling Allardyce. “I am going to tell him fans’ opinions are important” she said, insulting the man’s intelligence, before displaying more ignorance of proper football terminology with “we should go up in the rankings.” But Desai has even surpassed herself in explaining away Allardyce’s departure, asking fans to “trust us and have belief in us” at the same time as suggesting that it “could be a couple of months before a new manager is put in place,” thus leaving Rovers without a manager throughout the January transfer window.
This has the superficial appearance of madness but may be designed to give Venky’s “advisors” Kentaro and their “corporate partners” Sport Entertainment and Media Group the freedom of the window. It has given coach Steve Kean the freedom of the window, someone Desai describes as “a talented worker” who “we have been studying” and with whom “we have been very impressed.” (possibly not unconnected to Kean’s increasingly well-publicised links with agent Jerome Anderson of… Sport Entertainment and Media Group). Yet it gives any new manager no opportunity whatsoever to influence the squad they will be taking over. In such circumstances, this new manager is expected to “take the club up the league and grow,” because “we want Blackburn Rovers to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better,” – suggesting that the very act of replacing Allardyce will magically make this happen. And now she says: “We are going to have a study and put a lot if thought into who the next manager of Blackburn Rovers will be.” In other words, “our vision for the club’s future” didn’t include lining up a replacement for Allardyce before sacking him.
And why is she still doing all the talking anyway? The football lover in the family, we were told, is her brother Balaji, who looks after all the “non-synergistic diversifications of the VH Group.” Yet, of him, we have heard nothing and it is supposed to be his project. His brother Venkat popped up on BBC Radio to tell surely disbelieving listeners that Allardyce “is a very sweet and nice person.” But that scarily suggested Desai was the best spokesperson of the three. Some people, such as Louise Taylor in the Guardian, are starting to punt the line that Desai is an admirable strong woman, unwisely invoking former Rovers vice-president Margaret Thatcher, as if the similarities – such as, to pick a random example, knowing sod-all about football – were somehow a good thing.
Taylor proudly quoted Desai as saying “I know how many strikers we need,” as an illustration of the differences between her and Allardyce (“note the plural, Allardyce tended to field only one”). But what gives her even the vaguest notion that she really does know this, given that she’s only been remotely (I use the word advisedly) interested in football for about a month? Rovers fans seem as confused as they are uneasy. Lancashire Telegraph journalist Andy Cryer broke the story of the Rao family’s meeting with Kentaro. It was a solid story, based on the very fact of the meeting, and the fact that Kentaro were being consulted before Allardyce, with the consequence that two separate lists of January transfer window targets were in the offing. The story was savaged by a number of fans as “pathetic journalism,” and “unfounded reports of Kentaro interference in Allardyce’s transfer plans.
One fan claimed that there was “obviously too much positivity (at Blackburn) for the Burnley Telegraph (sorry, Lancashire Telegraph)” and that Cryer’s article was “the inane ramblings of a desperate man who knows full well that he is running short of stories that might put a dampener on Rovers’ season.” Events have amply demonstrated who the “inane rambler” actually was. This must not be a trend among Rovers’ supporters. If even the truth about Venky’s motives and ambitions are dismissed as “any scrap of negativity that can be found”, it does not bode well for fans’ abilities to see what is wrong about this takeover so far.
So far, all the ingredients are there for disaster to befall Rovers. For the club’s sake, it is to be hoped that SEM can deliver some goods on the playing front – although Kris Boyd and Geovanni don’t inspire huge hope in that direction. Otherwise, Venky’s mixture of ignorance and arrogance, led vigorously from the front by Desai, might prove true to another, less well-remembered legacy of Jack Walker, from 1999. Relegation to the Football League, which is where they were when Walker arrived and right back where they were when he died.
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