With an air of the inevitability that has accompanied much of their season and more than a hint of black comedy, Blackburn Rovers slipped from the Premier League last night. It was managed, as these matters so frequently are, by a very thin margin, with only a goal from Wigan Athletic’s Antolin Alcaraz three minutes from time being enough to separate the two sides on the night. Those protesting at Ewood Park last night, however, were playing protest as the longer game, having spent much of last nine months venting their fury in the direction of the Venkys group, whose ownership of the club has led to the eventuality of relegation and the financial uncertainty that comes with it.
The black humour on display at Ewood Park last night provided merely the thinnest veil of levity to an otherwise depressing evening for the club’s supporters. Where else but at this ground, we might reasonably ask, could a match be held up because a chicken dressed in the livery of the home team managed to get onto the pitch? It was a moment that the high definition cameras of the watching broadcasters couldn’t help but focus upon, but as the fall-out began to settle after a fractious evening in Lancashire, a familiar narrative had been picked up on by those watching the match from the comfort of the studios – that of the know-your-placery that has come to characterise so much of the discourse surrounding the Premier League these days.
The only conclusion that we can draw from those with a vested interest who got angry with Blackburn supporters venting their fury last night is that it has been too long since they had to purchase a ticket to get into a match themselves. In so far as media perception is concerned, there is an undeniable contradiction at the heart of of the caricature of the modern football supporter. On the one hand, broadcasters are more than happy to bulk up their footage with shots of people gurning for their cameras. Indeed, “passion”, a curiously vague summation of what is considered to be acceptable behaviour amongst those that continue to have their wallets emptied every time season ticket renewal time comes around, has become almost sacrosanct.
When that very passion manifests itself as something that doesn’t fit with the happy-clappy image of modern fans that the broadcasters wish to present to their viewers, however, the gloves come off and much of the language used sounds as if it has been nabbed from that increasingly dusty-looking book, “How To Discuss Hooliganism On The Television”, complete with bonus I-Spy points for the usage of the word “mindless” and trite exhortations to “get behind the team”, as if this might somehow be considered a panacea for the structural weaknesses which have clearly hampered this club’s season to the point of no return. In the absence of having anything useful to say about the increasing disenfranchisement of the modern football supporter, it’s a handy – and conveniently reactionary – replacement to refer back to.
Never mind that the arrival of the Venkys Group at Ewood Park has come to represent the very worst and most inept manifestation of the recent influx of speculators into the game, or that almost every decision that they have taken since taking control of the club has been to its detriment, from the dismissal of Sam Allardyce and his replacement with Steve Kean to the sale of Christopher Samba during the January transfer window. Don’t worry about what has come to be considered by many as the overbearing influence of one agent on a Premier League football club. Broader, nuanced concerns on the part of supporters at what is happening to their club have been disregarded by those of the opinion that this disquiet is solely fuelled by the status that comes with a place in the Premier League.
Wigan Athletic, Blackburn’s opponents last night, have also been the cause of a considerable amount of irritation amongst those of the opinion that football clubs and their supporters should know their place and stay there. Their escape from the gravitational pull of relegation under Roberto Martinez over the last few weeks has been a joy to behold, a series of improbable wins played with a flash of elan, yet Wigan are still frequently discussed as if they an interloper in the Premier League, and as if there should be a criteria beyond mere meritocracy which should be applied when considering what should and shouldn’t make up a Premier League football club. There is a degree of irony in the fact that it was this of all clubs should have been the ultimate cause of Blackburn’s relegation is somewhat ironic. A popular manager with the supporters on his side has managed to steer his club to safety with some stunning results in recent weeks, with performances from players that have reflected the belief that they have in their coach. It is a marked contrast to the winter of discontent that the supporters of Blackburn Rovers have been forced to endure.
The question of where Blackburn Rovers Football Club goes from here is one that will haunt the club over the next few months or so. Steve Kean himself indicated last night that he has no intention of going anywhere, and the extended contract that he signed at the end of last year means that resignation from his position is hardly in his best financial interests. Meanwhile, the clubs fall from the Premier League will be cushioned by the parachute payments now awarded to relegated clubs, but the recent experience of those that have dropped into the Championship has not been a particularly happy one, with automatic promotion straight back being far from the near-certainty that it was once presumed to be. Whether Kean actually does stay in his job may become a matter of how thick his skin is, but the owners of the club’s heads may yet be turned by a drop in season tickets sales this summer, a circumstance that seems inevitable following the club’s relegation.
Meanwhile, the supporters of Blackburn Rovers Football Club do know their place in one sense and that place is, for next season at the very least, in the Football League Championship. Their protests have never been as simplistic as the narrative of those in the press that have chosen to fight the manager’s corner over theirs would have us believe. The battles being fought in and around Ewood Park have been about the long-term well-being of the club rather than any sense of entitlement over a perpetual place in the Premier League. They haven’t been silenced, and they will not be in the future if the events of yesterday evening are anything to go by. This season at Blackburn Rovers has been an uncomfortable state of affairs for those who have a vested interest in presenting the Premier League’s garden as being entirely rosy, and the reactionary response to such protests is to seek to demonise those whose opinions don’t fit with this narrative.
The supporters of Blackburn Rovers, however, were around long before Venkys, Steve Kean or Jerome Anderson pitched up at Ewood Park and they will be there long after they have packed up their bags and left this corner of Lancashire for good. And herein lays one of football’s perpetual inherent contradictions – one person’s career decision is ultimately another person’s passion and life-blood. To assume that the supporters of this club – of any club – are merely passive consumers who will blindly continue to spend money and valuable time on the “product” without voicing an opinion when things start going wrong is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what it means to support a football club. There will be idiots – there will always be idiots – but these are firmly in the minority at Blackburn and even their excesses do not excuse the mismanagement of the club. It has been a singular failure to get to grips with the peculiarities of the stewardship of a football club that has proved to be the undoing of Blackburn Rovers this season, a relegation that was, for the supporters of the club, as inevitable as it was depressing.
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