“We should be looking forward to an FA Cup tie at home against Manchester United, a dream tie for most clubs with the chance of an upset and reaching the quarter-finals. Yet we are indifferent about the whole thing. The game is meaningless and we’d trade it for three points any day of the week.” – Ian Battersby, a Blackburn Rovers fan for 50 years
Battersby’s words may not suit BT Sport’s promotion of Sunday’s fifth-round tie at Ewood Park but they capture the depression, resignation and fear that have enveloped Blackburn. Year seven of Venky’s reign as owner sees a team continuing to slide and a support in the dark over the Indian company’s plans; common themes since it bought the club from the Jack Walker Trust in November 2010.
Even the tennis-ball protests that once fell at the feet of Steve Kean have continued although, significantly, they are also thrown from outside the stadium nowadays. Many fans have lost the appetite to watch Rovers’ regression under the calamitous ownership. Others have lost businesses that were reliant on match-day income and, with the club’s debt understood to be around £120m and the team in danger of relegation to League One, the concern among the local community is that a focal point of 142 years standing could be lost, too. There is anger, not only towards Venky’s but also the football authorities who allowed Venky’s in. Parliament’s recent vote of no confidence in the Football Association’s ability to govern the sport echoes what regulars at Ewood have been saying for years.
The controversial 2-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday sent Owen Coyle’s team second bottom of the Championship. The manager justifiably railed against disallowed goals by Hope Akpan and Marvin Emnes but results, coupled with his Burnley past, have cost him sympathy among supporters. Attendances at Ewood reflect the disillusionment. A crowd of 9,976 against Brighton & Hove Albion in December was the lowest in the league for 25 years and Ewood has been filled to 38% capacity on average this season, the lowest in the division.
“The atmosphere at Rotherham on Saturday [a 1-1 draw against the bottom club] was as bad as it has been for five years, as bad as the Steve Kean days,” says Mark Fish, chairman of the Blackburn Rovers Action Group which, along with the Rovers Trust, has coordinated protests against Venky’s, pressed for government reform of the FA and called for community ownership of the club. “The manager says he is not thinking about relegation when we’ve spent all but 17 days this season in the relegation zone and the highest we’ve been is 20th.”
Coyle said of the criticism he received at Rotherham: “If people think I’m the villain of the piece then so be it, but that won’t deter me. I understand the frustrations of the fans, I get that, but we’re out there doing our very best with the players we’ve got. We never inherited a team of champions, we inherited a team that, if they hadn’t won the last two games of last season when there was nothing to play for, would have finished 21st in the league. Some players have left since then, we will work with what we’ve got to keep the club safe and, when we do that, we need that investment.”
Paul Lambert, Coyle’s predecessor as manager, thought the same but walked away after six months when promises of a £20m investment towards a Premier League promotion challenge did not materialise. “I can’t keep being the spokesman for the football club, I’m the football manager,” Lambert had said towards the end of his brief tenure. “I went through the same stuff at Villa and I vowed I will never do that again.”
Venky’s continues to talk of taking Rovers back into the Premier League, on the rare occasions it makes public utterances, but the financial picture says otherwise. The club have raised £27.8m over the past four transfer windows by selling Jordan Rhodes, Grant Hanley, Rudy Gestede, Shane Duffy and Tom Cairney while spending £250,000 on one signing, Derrick Williams. The rest of their arrivals have been free transfers and loans.
Of remaining assets on the pitch, the cupboard looks bare and January brought further frustration and questions over Venky’s level of investment and/or interest. Apart from re-signing Emnes on loan, the club completed only the loan signing of Lucas João from Sheffield Wednesday. A deal for Celtic’s Efe Ambrose is still resting on a work permit. João arrived at Hillsborough when Paul Senior was an adviser to the club. Senior was appointed football director at Blackburn at the beginning of this year and, once the window closed, claimed investment was available but the right players were not.
One week after that declaration, Coyle revealed he had lined up deals for the Rennes right-back Dimitri Cavare, Watford defender Juan Carlos Paredes, Abdoul Ba from Lens and the Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Giles Barnes. “We worked very hard to present those,” said the manager. “Unfortunately they didn’t get over the line.”
Blackburn’s fundamental problems would not have been eradicated had they done so. There is substantial debt (including a loan of £87m from Venky’s, overdraft and forward-financing arrangements such as season tickets), parachute payments from the Premier League ceased at the start of this season and contracts awarded by former “global adviser” Shebby Singh are still being paid to players who no longer play for the club. Venky’s adviser, Suhail Pasha, returned to a more active role shortly before the sacking of Gary Bowyer – the one manager to preside over a period of relative stability at Ewood, and who did so during a transfer embargo – but his influence behind the scenes does not extend to communicating with supporters. Those lines are down at Blackburn, with Senior last week rejecting a request from the Action Group for a meeting.
“Administration is on the lips of every fan,” says Battersby, a lifelong Rovers fan and founder of Seneca Partners, an investment management and corporate advisory business. “Something has to give. Half of the town thinks Venky’s have a bottomless pit of money and the other think they have no money or don’t want to spend. You can make a case for either. If money is no object, and you are £87m in debt, then the only way you are getting that back is with a plan to get back in the Premier League. If the money has run out then you’d be looking to offload the club but they keep issuing ridiculous statements about not wanting to sell and wanting to get the club back in the Premier League. None of it makes sense.
“There is no logic around the club. You wouldn’t know if Venky’s are going to be here for two more days, two more years or two more decades. There is zero communication and zero plan. They’ve appointed a director of football when they are not spending money on players. Why? The club is £87m in debt [to Venky’s], staring relegation in the face and they appoint a director of football. I’d rather have had a right-back. It is unfathomable and has been since day one and the fans have had enough. It is hurting them too much.
“It is a toxic club, a toxic environment and now the fans have turned on the manager. Personally I don’t see administration happening. They would need to take assets out like the training ground and Ewood Park, and then dump the club, but that would be very controversial. There would be war.”
Battersby and his business partner, Ian Currie, travelled to Pune, India, to meet Venky’s directors in 2011. They outlined plans for the new owners to improve relations with the local community and never heard from them again. The pair made contact again last year, acting on behalf of an investor group that proposed a capital investment in the club in exchange for 51% of the shareholding.
“It wasn’t a bid but a detailed proposal dealing with the structure of the club,” explains Battersby. “It is haemorrhaging cash and the situation will be significantly worse if we get relegated. We wanted to plug the gap and install a prudent business model while providing fresh capital for the playing side. It was never a case of lining their pockets by repaying debt. Venky’s made mistakes and have to swallow them.”
The owners responded to last May’s proposal with a statement that said: “We have no intention of selling or diluting our stake in any manner. We are totally and absolutely committed to supporting the club and endeavour for its advancement in all aspects.” There has been no encouragement for Battersby and Currie since.
But Venky’s is not the only target of supporters’ anger and despair. “Fitness and propriety at FA level has absolutely failed us,” Battersby adds. “If this was an Indian company that had bought into Rolls-Royce and had this impact there would be an outcry in parliament, but this is a small Victorian mill town and so it is left to wither on the vine of hideous ownership.”
In better times, or with better governance, this season’s FA Cup would have brought Blackburn occasions to savour – a renewal of north-west rivalry with Blackpool in the fourth round, Manchester United in the fifth. Blackpool, however, was an occasion for protest as both sets of supporters gathered outside Ewood to condemn their respective owners while Coyle’s team played out a 2-0 win before a sparsely populated crowd.
“The protests will continue,” says Fish, the Action Group chairman. “We are involved in opening the north-west division of the FSF with Bolton, Blackpool, Everton and others, and plan to protest outside the offices of the Football League and the Football Association. Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Leyton Orient have also been in touch and we’re targeting a joint demonstration against the football authorities in April. This is not confined to one club. This is a disease running through the game and the governing bodies are not doing their job.
“I can only praise the no confidence vote in the Football Association. I have sat in the houses of parliament with MPs trying to address this problem and everyone keeps passing the buck. Venky’s were declared fit and proper owners six years ago. Since then they have ruined the club and they are taking the community down with it.
“My dad and grandad supported Blackburn Rovers but the generation after me are in danger of missing out. No one is accountable and the authorities need complete reform. This is football’s problem. It is not just Blackburn Rovers or Leyton Orient. It could happen to your club next.”
CHICKEN RUN ROVERS’ YEARS OF PAIN UNDER VENKY’S
Nov 2010 Indian poultry giant Venky’s pays £23m for Blackburn, pledging to retain Sam Allardyce. Venky’s chair Anuradha J Desai: “We plan to establish Blackburn as a truly global brand … one of the best-run clubs in the Premier League.”
Dec 2010 Allardyce is sacked. Desai: “The fans should trust us: this is in our best interests.” Steve Kean named caretaker.
Jan 2011 Kean signs a long-term contract and is branded “unsackable” by the owners. Desai tells the press: “He thinks well. He has vision. Mark my words, he thinks well. He’s a good thinker.”
July 2011 Venky’s release a chicken advert starring Blackburn players (left), which provokes derision. Kean targets “a top-10 finish”.
Sep 2012 Kean resigns with Rovers now a Championship side. Venky’s moves for Henning Berg as a replacement, handing him a three-year deal.
Dec 2012 Berg is sacked after 57 days, following a run of five defeats in six.
Jan 2013 Venky’s hires Michael Appleton – their third manager of the season.
Mar 2013 Appleton is sacked after 67 days. Former assistant Eric Black: “I’m flabbergasted, to be honest. They might as well give people five- or 10-game contracts. It’s ludicrous, I have to say.”
May 2013 Gary Bowyer takes over as manager on a rolling 12-month contract.
Nov 2015 Bowyer is sacked after a run of one win in six. Paul Lambert becomes the seventh permanent manager in seven years.
April 2016 Lambert announces he will leave at the end of the season, with Rovers 17th and debts now at £102.4m.
June 2016 Owen Coyle (left) takes over. 2, 913 fans turn up for an EFL cup tie against Crewe – their lowest crowd in 30 years. Eight months later, they sit 23rd in the table.