Blackburn Rovers: A question of Fit and Proper.

I’ll start with noting that I’m not a particularly gifted writer. But I feel compelled to tell the story about Blackburn Rovers. I also know Blackburn are not the worst off in terms of idiotic owners. But through my experiences, I now know that The FA simply don’t really care about the clubs that make it. Unless they are big clubs, that is.

Blackburn Rovers are a small team with a surprisingly large history. One of the founding members of the Football League, the last team to win the FA Cup 3 times in a row, one of a handful of teams to win the Premier League.

November 2010 was when we heard that Venkateshwara Hatcheries (known as Venky’s) purchased the club. After Jack Walker’s passing, the trust set up decided it was time to sell. Their ability and desire to fund the club was waning, so the decision to sell wasn’t necessarily a bad one.

It’s at this time I will introduce you all to Kentaro and Sports Entertainment and Media Group (I’ll refer to these as SEM). Kentaro and SEM partnered up in 2009, basically so they could bring players to the Premier League. The “front” if you will, was a man called Jerome Anderson.

Jerome Anderson was the first person to help bring overseas players into the Premier League, including the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, and many other Arsenal players in that era.

SEM were also Jon Obi Mikel’s representatives that took Mikel to Chelsea, despite it being widely reported he had agreed a deal with Manchester United.

Jerome Anderson was also heavily involved with Thaksin Shinawatra when he took over Manchester City at the time, and was influential in getting Sven-Goran Eriksson in as manager.

Then Jerome was involved with Blackburn Rovers. Now, to start with, I will say that it seemed wise for Venkys to have an agreement with someone who had a knowledge of takeovers and the Premier League. I don’t really begrudge Venkys for this decision. On the face of it, Anderson has many contacts in the game and has conducted takeovers of teams in the Premier League before. If I’m going to enter an area where I have no experience, I would always look for someone who does for help.

So, with that bit of background done, in November 2010, for £23m, Venkys purchased Blackburn Rovers. At this point, things started to go wrong. In December 2010, Sam Allardyce was sacked. At this time, the football Blackburn were playing was “effective” to be kind. I was a season ticket holder that season and the football wasn’t fun to watch. Sacking him wasn’t the worst decision to make, assuming that they had some sort of plan to bring in another manager with experience who could take us forward with some backing.

That, I’m afraid, didn’t happen. Steve Kean was put in temporary charge (having been hired by Allardyce as a coach in 2009). 2 weeks later, he was told he was in charge until the end of the season. Kean had started fairly well, so that decision was understandable. What caused some confusion, was when, on the 4th January, Venkys announced he would be given a 2–3 year deal. And this deal was signed on the 22nd January, with a record of 2 wins, 3 losses and a draw.

At this point, I should probably point out that Steve Kean was represented by….you guessed it, our friend Jerome Anderson.

It was also around this time when Transfers were in discussion as the window was open. You’ll probably remember the ridiculous rumours of us going in for Ronaldinho. It got worse when Venkys seemingly tweeted the terms that they had offered Ronaldinho to join. This was then compounded when AC Milan stated that they hadn’t received a bid from Blackburn Rovers for Ronaldinho. Now I’m no expert, but I do know that you need to bid for a player if you wish to sign him. There were other rumours about Beckham, but everyone, bar Venkys, seemingly knew that these people wouldn’t come to Blackburn Rovers.

The two transfers that happened were for Ruben Rochina, from Barcelona and Mauro Formica, from Newells Old Boys. Transfers later on in Venkys reign will be shrouded with confusion, starting with Rochina’s. Ruben Rochina cost around £375,000. The agent’s fees in this transfer, however, were over £1.5m.

What turned out to be one of the biggest problems of the Venkys reign was when John Williams resigned as CEO in February 2011. Mrs Desai (one of the 4 “faces” of Venkys) said the following about his departure:

“I think that after Sam left, John lost a lot of interest in the club. After that happened I think he knew that he wanted to move on. I know that he did not get along with Steve (Kean) and he had struggled to accept Jerome (Anderson)’s role at the club.”

It turns out (after some leaked documents) that Williams had voiced major concerns about the running of the club and Williams was, in effect, processing paperwork rather than running the club. An excerpt in the leaked letter also questioned the role of SEM in terms of transfers, the fact Steve Kean directly reported to Venkys rather than the board and that the board were being asked to authorise transfers they had no knowledge about.

John Williams had consistently kept Blackburn Rovers in the premier league, despite little budget. He had generally chosen good managers and kept the club competitive in the Premier League for a number of years. Future chairmen of the club wouldn’t keep this calm and rational running of the club, but we’ll get to that bit later on.

In the 10/11 season, Blackburn finished 15th. Our form was poor between February and April, with one win on the 30th April, but some more points in May and a win on the last day of the season meant Blackburn Rovers remained to be a Premier League club.

The 2011–2012 season was the key season for the club. Prior to the start of the season, the relationship between fans and the club were poor. Questions were being asked about the ownership, about Steve Kean and everything really.

Pre-season started off with even more questions. Myles Anderson (son of Jerome Anderson), was signed in July for a nominal fee from Aberdeen. At the time of the signing, Anderson had only played 1 game for Aberdeen, where he had come on in the 88th minute. Kean at the time said of Anderson

“We feel that Myles Anderson is a player with great potential as a late developer,” said Kean. “He could become something of a Chris Smalling who came through late in football and Myles has done the same because of his schooling.” Needless to say he went on loan and never made an appearance for Blackburn Rovers.

There were other transfers that worked out better, with both Yakubu and Scott Dann being notable transfers. A flurry of players were also released as they came to the end of their deals.

To say the 2011–2012 season started badly would be an understatement. By the end of November, Blackburn Rovers had Won 1, Drawn 4 and Lost 8. Venkys, at this time, felt it was appropriate to offer Steve Kean a “Contract Revision”. Even Kean at the time had to say

“Yes, there have been discussions about a new contract, but I have told the owners that this is an inappropriate time to conclude any new contract discussions”.

But, the “revision” was signed and then I experienced the most toxic atmosphere at a game ever. It was 20th December, 2011. We were at home to Bolton Wanderers, a local rival who were also a relegation rival. It was a bitterly cold Tuesday night. Kean was under severe pressure with Rovers in very poor form and seemingly destined for relegation.

Unfortunately for Kean, Blackburn were 2–0 down within 30 minutes. Bolton scored early in the 5th minute.

It was beyond brutal. I remember being there and feeling uncomfortable in the stadium. Almost feeling sorry for Kean. He was a man alone, on the touchline, when a stadium full of loyal supporters who could see the drastic decline of their club releasing all of the anger. The anger wasn’t just at Kean, but he had become the 5th Venky. He was the epitome of Venky’s reign at the club. That night at Ewood Park was the night that led me to believe that the whole reign of Venkys was untenable. Some fans possibly wanted us to lose as they hoped it would get Kean the sack, to give us a slim chance of staying up. Some fans, myself included, had, by this point, given up. The Blackburn Rovers I knew had gone.

The problem that people outside of Blackburn may not understand is the importance of the club to the town as a whole. When Blackburn were thriving under Mark Hughes, the whole town benefitted. More people went to games, more people bought shirts, more people went to pubs, and the whole town would be lifted. Relegation would mean people losing jobs, businesses suffering a downturn in business. Blackburn Rovers is a small town club, but it means so much to the people in the town.

How Kean didn’t go shows how little Venkys knew about football, or cared about the fans. Players couldn’t have possibly operated in that atmosphere. The club that night, was doomed to be last at Christmas, a result that usually ends in relegation. In this case it did, but not before the club spiralled further into shambles.

In February 2012, there was a leaked letter from the “de facto CEO” Paul Hunt. (John Williams was CEO but was never replaced after his resignation). This letter started to unveil the turmoil that the club was in off the pitch, as well as on the pitch.

It revealed that Barclays had requested the owners put £10m into the club, otherwise overdraft facilities would not be extended and players may not be paid. It also revealed that pretty much every decision had to be signed off by Venkys in India. This led to a club where things simply couldn’t be done. It would also highlight a series of political infighting at the club. Basically, the club was in pretty dire straits. But sadly, for Paul Hunt, once the letter was leaked, Paul was sacked.

This probably explains why in the January Transfer window, Ryan Nelsen was released on a free, only to be signed up by Tottenham (Despite us being told he wasn’t fit). Jason Roberts, Chris Samba and Keith Andrews also left. Neither of our two starting centre halves were replaced in this window. A recipe for relegation. Which it turned out to be, finishing 19th.

Now you may have read that and thought it was pretty bad. Unfortunately for Blackburn Rovers, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

So, it’s the summer before the 2012–2013 season. Steve Kean is still in charge despite relegation. This is the season that proves to possibly be the most farcical seasons in any level of football, let alone professional football. This is the season that proves that Venkys were not “Fit and Proper Persons”.

There were a large number of players leaving. Michel Salgado is one (he was not played towards the end of the previous season to prevent a 1 year extension).Yakubu left for China, Hoilett let his contract run down and left for QPR, NZonzi left for Stoke. The incomings were also curious, with a large number of Portuguese youngsters being signed. Also signed was Jordan Rhodes, for a staggering £8m. Other high profile signings included Nuno Gomes, Danny Murphy, Leon Best and Dickson Etuhu. All of these signings were on large wages and on multi year deals, despite their ages (bar Leon Best).

This was also the season where we Blackburn Fans were introduced to the “enigmatic” Shebby Singh. Singh was brought in as a “Global Advisor” having previously made his name as a pundit and also on a reality TV show called MyTeam, where Singh coach a group of Malaysian amateur players.

Singh’s first task was to announce that Steve Kean’s job was safe. But this didn’t last long as Singh, who was at a Blackburn Rovers Action Group meeting, suggested that if Kean lost 3 games in a row, he would be fired. He also likened Morten Gamest-Pedersen to a pensioner, a move that didn’t go down well with the player or supporters. He would later apologise for these comments, but this was a sign to come.

Steve Kean would leave Blackburn at the end of September. We were third at the time, but a 2–1 loss to Middlesbrough spelled the end for Kean’s tenure at the club. Kean claims he was forced to resign and his position was untenable.

The club were then on the lookout for a manger. Eric Black took caretaker charge of the club (Manager 2, trust me, it may help for reference later).

The club took a month to find a manager and on 2nd November 2012, the club hired Henning Berg as manager (Manager 3). Previously, Henning Berg had been damning on Venkys whilst being a pundit saying

“There are no real managers with credibility who would accept a job like that.” He later clarified this saying that was from being on the outside. Henning Berg wouldn’t last that long though. His reign was just 57 days long, with 1 victory in 10 days and Blackburn going from 3rd to 17th in the league, Henning Berg was sacked on the 27th December. There will more on Henning Berg later though.

It’s worth noting that Henning Berg was Shebby’s choice of manager. This further highlights a power struggle within the club. After Berg’s firing, Shebby Singh drifted into the background, seemingly pushed aside as his choice of manager failed.

Gary Bowyer took the job on a caretaker basis (Manager 4. The next managerial decision was taken quicker than Henning Berg, with Michael Appleton (Manager 5) deemed the man to take the club forward. He was appointed on 11 January, 2013. It’s worth noting that he had only been at Blackpool for 65 days, with his record being 2 wins, 8 draws and 2 losses. At this time, Shebby Singh didn’t know of the approach for Appleton, instead was seemingly a Derek Shaw and Paul Agnew appointment (Managing Director and Operations Director).

Appleton’s reign didn’t last much longer, he lasted a mighty 67 days, being sacked on 19th March, 2013, with 4 wins, 5 draws and 6 losses. When Appleton left, Blackburn were 18th in the league. Appleton was sacked, via letter, by Shebby Singh, but Singh had never met Appleton.

Unfortunately for Blackburn Rovers, the scale of the disorder would reach the High Court. Henning Berg had taken legal action against the club regarding the settlement of his contract.

It seems that Henning Berg’s contract stated if he was fired, his contract would be paid out in full. This meant that Henning Berg was paid £2.25m for 57 days work. That isn’t the damning part though. The damning part was our legal defence against Berg.

Our legal defence was that Derek Shaw (our Managing Director) was described as “in de facto control of the club and continuing to act without authority and his self-interest”. The club’s appointed lawyers also described that the club is “Out of Control” and that Shaw had given a more generous clause than the 12 months Mrs Desai had stated. Unsurprisingly, Berg won the case and was paid up in full.

Yes. You read that correctly. Our LEGAL DEFENCE was that the club is out of control. Surely at this point, the owners are no longer “Fit and Proper”. I know that the Fit and Proper Persons test is mainly financial, but for your legal defence to be your club is out of control, surely this should have been a red flag for The FA to act.

In what has been a rather long article about a series of shambolic steps, this is truly the lowest of the low.

What will amaze you even more is that Derek Shaw (the man who was deemed as acting in self-interest) remained in his job! He was put on gardening leave on the 4th April 2013, but an article on the Rovers website stated “the owners would like to state that there is no investigation into this matter with regard to managing director Derek Shaw who continues to have their complete backing and support”. A week later, he was back at his desk. Shaw resigned in Feb 2016.

On the pitch however, Gary Bowyer (Manager 6) was given the role on a caretaker basis, but then was given the role on a permanent basis after keeping Blackburn in the Championship.

Things would start to settle down. Bowyer brought stability to the club and we had 2 seasons of mid table finishes, a bit short from reaching the playoffs. But young players were being blooded from the academy and we were playing OK football. Fans had started to go back. Boywer cared about the club. Fans took to that and appreciated the difficulty of the role. Bowyer had brought stability, if not success, to the club. But in truth (and a little hindsight), the stability was the biggest success he, or anyone, could bring.

Sadly though, on 10 November 2015, Gary Bowyer was sacked. 5 days later Paul Lambert was brought in. Bowyer had hit a poor run of form and the club were 16th. Lambert was given a 2 and a half year deal. It turns out though, that this deal had a release clause. Lambert kept Blackburn up, finishing 15th, but released himself when it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be investment in the club.

The club now have Owen Coyle as manager. (Ironically the person who was Bolton manager on that night at Ewood) We are languishing near the bottom of the table, with debts that have racked up to over £100m. The club I used to love, but still like, face relegation and an uncertain future. There have been rumoured interested parties in taking over the club, but with no indication that the club wish to sell. The owners hold the majority of the debt, being owed in the region of £87m in interest free loans.

The only future I see for the club is relegation and then liquidation. Somehow, the club is now free of the Financial Fair Play restrictions that were applied to the club previously (and I haven’t really gone into that at all). Which seems odd, when the debt for a club the size of Blackburn Rovers is untenable.

So the only real way I can sum up my experience of Fit and Proper Persons taking over the club I once loved is this.

I have gone from a loyal Season Ticket holder with all the shirts to a football fan (and even a signed Jason Roberts shirt) who also once ran a supporters football team, to a fan who feels he barely has a club anymore. In some sort of vortex of where I couldn’t possibly support a different club, but now not having any sort of affiliation of what was my club. A team I have supported for over 20 years of my life, from when my Nan took me to my first Rovers match, to a little more than a passing interest in the results.

I’m not a writer. I’m just simply a fan of Blackburn Rovers Football Club, staring into the abyss of a future of where my club no longer exists and I’ll have no one to support.

Will it take a club disappearing for The FA to realise that there needs to be a change. Maybe. Would Blackburn Rovers be a big enough club to make everyone stand up and take notice? I’m not sure. It would be nice though if some good came out of this and there was some sort of protection put in place for other clubs who get taken over, as I wouldn’t wish this upon any fan. Having your club taken away from you, in a fairly shambolic manner, right in front of your face, yet you can’t do anything about it, isn’t a nice thing.