Below is an article written by Oliver Kay of The Times newspaper regarding the ownership of Blackburn Rovers and other clubs in the UK.

Venky’s and other corporate vandals must be stopped from owning clubs


It was a strange mixture of emotions that filled Blakeys bar at King George’s Hall, Blackburn on Thursday night. There was anger, righteous indignation at the deepening travesty at Blackburn Rovers, but there was also weariness, desperation, a palpable sense of helplessness among supporters unsure which way to turn.

They have stood and watched, powerless, as their club have been ridden roughshod towards oblivion by a group called Venky’s — an Indian poultry firm whose foray into football-club ownership has been one long story of wretched mismanagement. Stories about the Rao family’s ignorance of football matters — of the release clause in Phil Jones’s contract, of the fact you could be relegated from the Premier League, of the financial regulations that they would soon have to abide by in the Football League — have been detailed previously in this column, but nothing, not even the excruciating pronouncements of Shebby Singh during his mercifully brief spell as the club’s “global adviser”, reflect this tale of woe as starkly as the bare facts and figures.

Football clubs’ fortunes in the 21st century are being decided by a spin-the-bottle type ownership lottery
In November 2010, when Venky’s took control, Blackburn were a stable, well-run, albeit indebted Premier League club (average league attendance 25,427, net debt £21 million, pre-tax loss of £1.9 million for the previous financial year). Six managerial appointments later, starting with the mind-boggling decision to replace Sam Allardyce with Steve Kean, they are bottom of the Sky Bet Championship (one point from five games) with a skeleton squad playing to an early-season average league attendance of 11,153. Their most recent financial accounts showed a pre-tax loss of £17.2 million — and this while they were still receiving parachute payments from the Premier League — and a net debt of £104.2 million. The Burnley connections of Owen Coyle, the latest managerial appointment, are the least of the supporters’ worries.

It is an appalling mess, a serious threat to the future of a proud, historic club who were one of the Football League’s founder members in 1888, won the Premier League title under Jack Walker’s beneficent ownership in 1995 and were, for a time in the last decade, an example to all those provincial clubs who seek to balance realism with ambition in the bid to stay afloat in the top flight.

Thursday’s meeting was called by two fan groups — the Rovers Trust and the BRFC Action Group — in the hope of finding a way forward. The turnout was impressive, about 300 pitching up at 48 hours’ notice, but there was, among some, a feeling that nothing they do will force the change of ownership that the club so obviously need. Venky’s seems to have gained nothing but grief and adverse publicity from an investment that has cost it £100 million as it has tried to keep the club afloat, but it maintains that it will not sell and is “totally and absolutely committed to supporting the club [and] its advancement in all aspects”.
That message meets with derision back in Blackburn. Anger, too. “They’ve sold every asset player-wise, they’ve replaced them with free transfers, they’re losing £20 million every year and it’s only going one way,” Glen Mullan, the former Rovers Trust secretary, said after Thursday’s meeting. “They’re just not listening. And what you’ve seen in this room tonight is that people don’t know what to do any more. We’ve tried protests, we’ve tried going to the FA, we’ve tried the Football League, the media don’t really pick it up any more. You get relegated from the Premier League and you’re not big news any more, so we’re on our own.”

They are not suffering in total isolation, though. “Other clubs are being badly run — not just us,” another Blackburn fan, Neal, told the meeting. “We need to stand together with other clubs. I have one solution for fans of clubs like Blackpool, Leeds United, Charlton Athletic and ourselves and that’s to push the FA for fan representation at board level. It needs to happen to make sure what is happening to us — and what has happened at Blackpool, Leeds, Charlton — doesn’t happen elsewhere. We need to stop owners like this doing what they’re doing. There are clubs up and down the country who have been harmed by people like this. It has got to stop. We have got to push the authorities to protect football clubs.”

Hear, hear. This column has long argued for something to be done at government level to ensure that football clubs, increasingly regarded as commercial franchises, are recognised as community assets, among the most vital of local institutions. They must be protected from the type of corporate vandalism that led to, for example, Portsmouth going from FA Cup glory to the fourth tier in five turbulent years. The “Owners’ and Directors’ Test” is a little more rigorous these days, but, for example, Massimo Cellino, who has been banned from boardroom involvement at Leeds on two occasions, was still able to buy the club and continues to run it on the succession of bizarre whims that have added substantially to the chaos and dysfunction brought by previous regimes.
It should not be like this, where football clubs’ fortunes in the 21st century are being decided by a spin-the-bottle type ownership lottery. Land on an ambitious benefactor, like Chelsea and Manchester City did, and you are well placed for as far as the eye can see. You are more likely, though, to end up with the type of owner that brings disorder, usually through a drastic failure to comprehend what football is and how it works.

That is the situation, though, and the danger is that, with no obvious saviour or solution on the horizon, Blackburn’s supporters are simply going to have to live with the consequences of their owner’s many mistakes. Those consequences include apathy as well as anger. In a town such as Blackburn (population 105,000, facing the many challenges of post-industrial decline), it took significant on-pitch success, and the attendant feelgood factor, to sustain average attendances above 20,000 for most of the 1990s and the 2000s. Once a malaise eats away at the soul of a club, though, attendances tend to plummet, as they have done at Ewood Park.

Some would encourage the fans to stage a mass boycott until the club are back in suitable hands, but the effect would be smaller than you might imagine, since Blackburn’s annual matchday revenue has already dwindled to about £3 million. Beyond that, a boycott is always easier said than done. Mullan says that, despite his deep anger towards Venky’s, he loves and lives for the club and that “nothing in the world would stop me going — not even this”. That message is reinforced by another supporter, Bob, who is in his late 60s. “I don’t know where we’re going to go,” Bob says, “but I will still go to the Rovers until I bloody die.”

One decision to come out of Thursday’s meeting was for a loud and visible protest when the Sky Sports television cameras come to town for the home match against Wolverhampton Wanderers on October 29. A mass walkout was proposed by some, but even then there was the feeling that this might undermine the team while making no impact whatsoever on the owner more than 6,000 miles away in Pune. “We need to take the fight to the family,” Mullan says.

And that is what they are going to do. For five years they have waited for Venky’s to engage with them and so in January a delegation of Blackburn supporters will travel to Pune to try to hold face-to-face discussions with the Rao family — “to be professional about it, to try to meet them on their own turf,” Wayne Wild, chairman of the Rovers Trust says. “And if they don’t turn up, then the campaign will continue in India itself.”

The timing is based on a desire to attract media coverage in India around England’s one-day international cricket match in Pune on January 15 — and, if necessary, to embarrass the Rao family and the Venky’s brand. It is a desperate move, but the situation is so dire as to leave them resorting to desperate measures. It really should never have come to this, though. As one of those supporters said on Thursday night, more has to be done to protect clubs from being shunted on to the slippery slope on which Blackburn and others sadly find themselves.


Credit Oliver Kay: The Times

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