Although the close season seems to be getting shorter and shorter, the summer is a chance for football clubs to regroup and rebuild, and it goes without saying that some clubs need more rebuilding during this break than others. Comment assent seems to have it that, in the summer of 2011, one of the Premier League clubs that is in the most drastic need for surgery is Blackburn Rovers. Last season came close to being a nightmare season for the club. Its take-over by the Venky’s London Group in November of last year was greeted by supporters with a combination of excitement and apprehension. This was another new group of people choosing to dip their toe into the water of the Premier League, and they did so for the arguably reasonable price of £23m. Nine months on, the jury is still out on the club’s owners.
Their first significant move was one that arguably affected the rest of the club’s season. Sam Allardyce may be some way from being everybody’s taste, but he had at least led the club to the relative comfort of a mid-table position the year before and a considerable amount of experience at managing in the Premier League. He lasted, however, barely three and a half weeks in the job under Venkys’ ownership. His replacement, Steve Kean, was lowered into the position very slowly. Some reasoned that the motivation behind his appointment may have been more to do with Kean’s agent having been Jerome Anderson, of the sports management agency SEM. Anderson, after all, had advised Venkys on their take-over of the club in the first place.
Anuradha Desai said, of Allardyce’s departure, that, “The fans should trust us because this is in the best interests of the club”, but Rovers supporters turning up at Molineux for their last Premier League match of the season might have begged to differ over the success of this decision. Kean’s team has won just four league matches in 2011, but a 3-2 win in that match ensured their survival (although, as things turned out, results elsewhere meant that they would have stayed up anyway). There could be little doubting that the end of last season for Blackburn Rovers, but the question that should perhaps now be asked is that of whether the summer break will be long enough for the work required to be done in order to prevent a repeat of last season’s narrow escape to be carried out.
Since the end of last season, twin rumours have continued to circle over Ewood Park that have continued the feeling that Blackburn Rovers is not a happy place right now. The first of these rumours is that Venkys are considering selling their stake in the club already. The club’s big loss of the summer so far has been that of young defender Phil Jones to Manchester United, for £16.5m. This sale was triggered by a release clause in Jones’ contract which allowed the sale to go through. Venkys threatened legal action over United allegedly receiving confidential information about the release clause, with Blackburn also claiming that the release clause in the Jones’ contract only allowed open negotiations and did not guarantee the completion of a deal at the release clause price. Terms were agreed, however, and Jones will be a Manchester United player next season.
When Venkys bought the club, they agreed to take on £18m of debt from the previous owners, the Walker Trust, in the form of a mortgage, but it has been reported that the club’s bankers have demanded that this debt be reduced, and that this means that the money from the sale of Jones has now gone towards paying down this debt and that Blackburn’s plans for buying players have now been tempered to less ambitious plans for a restructuring of the squad. There is an alternative theory in town, though, which is that this predicament is more to due with Venkys not understanding the basic finances of Premier League finances, that the club wasted money on the sacking of Allardyce, on overspending during the January transfer window and that the club’s collapse in league form had a detrimental effect on their end of season prize money.
This is a story that seems likely to run and run, but the no matter what exactly happened the outcome remains the same: Blackburn Rovers, a club which, according to this table, earned just £6m from gate and matchday income during the 2009/10 season (compared to, say, £17m at relegated West Ham United or £94m at Arsenal – and these are figures, as the represent bread and butter cashflow liquidity throughout the season), seem unlikely to be spending an enormous amount of money this summer. The second question involves Steve Kean. How long will he stay at Ewood Park? Many Blackburn supporters now believe that he will be at the club for as long as Venkys are, meaning that they believe that Kean and Venkys are intimately acquainted. If they sell, he may well depart. If they don’t, the question then becomes one of what happens should next season see the club struggle as badly on the pitch as some believe they may. Would they stick with him, even if the team was marooned at the foot of the table? Blackburn Rovers’ supporters could be forgiven for hoping that they will not get the chance to find out.
It is the uncertainty that is troubling about Blackburn Rovers at the moment. The club recently cancelled a pre-season tour of India on security grounds, following the recent bombings in Mumbai. Such is the growing atmosphere of suspicion amongst the club’s support at present that one could be forgiven for wondering whether this explanation can be taken at face value, though. There has been talk that Kean’s time at the club might be coming to an end – Mark Hughes seems to be repeatedly mentioned as his replacement, but there is nothing solid to base this upon at present apart from hearsay – and numerous names have also been mentioned in connection with an exit strategy for Venkys. Ultimately, in the media-hungry environment of modern football, news vaccums are abhorred and they tend to be replaced with rumour and speculation, often masquerading as fact. The truth of the matter is that much of the discussion at Ewood Park has been little more than this, but there will be plenty of people that will argue that there is often no smoke without fire, and it all adds to an atmosphere of destabilisation that seems to have engulfed the club over the last few months.
As such, it is difficult to be optimistic about the team’s prospects for the new season. For a club the size of Blackburn Rovers, a continuing presence in the Premier League is far from guaranteed and needs careful management in order to retain its position amongst the top twenty clubs. We have already spoken of the importance of custodianship during this series, and, ironically, The Jack Walker Trust offered Blackburn Rovers exactly this. The club is not in financial danger at present – there are others with considerably higher debts playing in the Premier League – but the Trust’s ownership of the club gave it a feel of security that it simply doesn’t have at present. Venkys are welcome to prove us wrong (though it is worth pointing out that the only people that they really need to prove themselves to are the supporters of the club itself), but if they have miscalculated, they must reform or resign. The future of Blackburn Rovers – another of the clubs that was amongst that original twelve to found the Football League in 1888 – is too important to be risked for the sake of bloody-mindedness.
The image accompanying this article is produced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence, courtesy of Bill Boaden.
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