Fans cry foul after Venky’s owned Blackburn slip further

Chicken run: Dysfunctional management leaves ex-EPL winners in danger of 3rd-tier relegation.

Written by New York Times | Blackburn | Published: April 19, 2013 3:24 am

RAVI UBHA

Neil Thornton,enjoying a drink at a restaurant inside Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park,smiled when he recalled his wedding reception. It was held at a suite inside the stadium in 1995,and he could glimpse the seat he occupied as a season-ticket holder. “My partner didn’t mind,” Thornton,47,said. “We needed a venue for a disco.”

Asked how his marriage worked out,Thornton chuckled and said,“It didn’t,but I’m still involved with Blackburn Rovers.” Thornton is a die-hard fan of a small-city club. It is hard to walk away,even when times are tough. Gone are the heady days of the mid-1990s,when Blackburn overachieved with the homegrown steel magnate Jack Walker as its owner.

Blackburn beat the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool to win English soccer’s most coveted trophy – the Premier League title — in 1995,the year Thornton married. Blackburn remains the only club apart from Manchester United,Arsenal,Chelsea and Manchester City to capture the title. A statue of Walker stands near the club shop with an inscription that says “Rovers Greatest Supporter.”

The fans continue to chant his name. “You can’t compare it with the current setup,which is as dysfunctional as you are ever going to get,” said Thornton,who began supporting Blackburn as a 4-year-old. Everyone in Blackburn,it seems,has an opinion on the team,not surprising given its importance to the community of 113,000 slightly north of Manchester and Liverpool.

Stewart Cunliffe,a Blackburn fan for 45 years who runs a bakery at Blackburn Market,called this season in the second tier “disgraceful.” “Every day working on the market,people come to you and say how bad things are going with the club,” Cunliffe said. “Now we’re just a laughingstock.”

How else to describe the last seven months,when Blackburn has used five managers?

Gary Bowyer,in charge now as caretaker,is into his second stint and is trying to steer Blackburn away from back-to-back relegations. At his unveiling – for a second time — at the end of March,Bowyer saw the humor in the situation as he addressed a handful of reporters in a chilly press lounge.

Has it been a bewildering season for him? “Bewildering is a good word,” said Bowyer,normally the coach of the reserves. “It’s not just me,but it’s everyone who is connected to the club. Even yourselves. You wouldn’t dream this up,would you?”

When Venky’s,a poultry company,bought Blackburn for £23 million in 2010 from a trust established by Walker before his death,there was more optimism about the team’s future. With Venky’s being part of the VH Group,described as a $1 billion conglomerate on the Venky’s Web site,Blackburn fans could dream of faring better in the Premier League. Yet suspicions were raised almost immediately. Blackburn fired Manager Sam Allardyce,who had brought stability to both Bolton and Blackburn.

The club said the decision to replace him was part of its “wider plans and ambitions.” His job was given to the inexperienced Steve Kean,who was at the helm when Blackburn was relegated last May,ending its 11-year stay in the elite division. He resigned in September with reports suggesting he was being told whom to play by the owners.

Blackburn fans never took a liking to Kean,pelting him with tennis balls when Blackburn was officially demoted. The assembly line of managers has since produced Kean’s assistant,Eric Black; Henning Berg; Bowyer; Michael Appleton; and Bowyer again.

Appleton was not endorsed by Shebby Singh,an owners’ representative with the ill-defined title of global adviser,and was fired by letter. Singh and the managing director Derek Shaw are at loggerheads,and Shaw,according to the BBC,was told to stay away from the club earlier this month because he was being investigated in relation to compensation owed to Berg. Blackburn issued a denial.

‘We want Venky’s out’

The fans,however,made their views known to the owners in January when they made a rare appearance in Blackburn. They chanted,“We want Venky’s out,” and Jitendra Desai,the husband of the Venky’s chairwoman,Anuradha Desai,was struck in the face by a snowball. In a protest last May,fans released a chicken onto the field.

Now,instead of making a quick return to the Premier League,Blackburn is in danger of being demoted to the third tier,where it last played in 1980.

Blackburn beat Derby,2-0,on Saturday to end an 11-game winless streak and escape the relegation zone with three weeks remaining. “The actual number of people who come through the turnstiles now is 7,000 or 8,000,” said Wayne Wild,the co-chairman of Rovers Trust,a group of Blackburn fans seeking to gain control of the team. “I want my club back,” said Thornton,who handles media relations for the group and whose wedding reception at the stadium was in a bygone era.

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