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[Archived] David Conn article 21/12/2010

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How an agent came to hold so much power at Blackburn Rovers. Does Venky's grand 'vision' involve buying players on the books of Jerome Anderson, the agent who helped broker the takeover? David Conn, The Guardian

For Blackburn Rovers, as the saying nearly goes, the proof of the poultry will be in the eating. The new Indian owners of the Lancashire club, who sacked Sam Allardyce almost immediately, may be visionaries or they may be undoing a decade of generally admired management since Rovers' benefactor, the local steelman turned Jersey tax exile Jack Walker, died in 2000.

If it feels like the outer limit of Premier League clubs' rush into foreign ownership for Blackburn Rovers to have been taken over by an Indian chicken company Venkateshwara Hatcheries, or Venky's it is also clear that Rovers are scampering into an experiment. A substantial, unexpected degree of influence has clearly been entrusted at Ewood Park to the football agent Jerome Anderson, whose company, SEM, which is merged with the Swiss sports rights agency Kentaro, was advising Venky's before they bought Rovers. Anderson, one of English football's longest established and famously hard-working agents, helped introduce Venky's to buy Rovers for £25m from the trustees of Walker's estate, and is advising them now on what to do with it.

For all the heady talk of "our vision" by Anuradha Desai, chair of Venky's, when dismissing Allardyce for not embodying it, she and her two brothers running the chicken business have also admitted to little knowledge of or even interest in football before buying Rovers. The stated vision, of a fifth‑place Premier League finish playing more sparkling football, and hatching a fan base in India, which has provoked widespread scoffs in football, may well have sprung infectiously from Anderson who, an obsessive observer of players and compulsive positive thinker, will believe he can help deliver it.

Rovers sources have denied reports that Allardyce and the new owners clashed over a list of players for the January transfer window, saying discussions never got that far or took place to any depth at all. Players, including David Dunn and Ryan Nelsen, have talked of shell-shock, a vacuum of communication at the club, and the long-serving chairman, John Williams widely considered to have run the club solidly with 10 years' limited backing from the Walker trustees is understood not to have been even consulted over Allardyce, and now to be agonising over whether to stay on.

Steve Kean, the coach promoted into Allardyce's chair, is himself represented by Anderson who, senior football sources say, has for years rated Kean as highly promising. Kean has already disregarded the time-honoured rules of caretaker management diplomacy, which dictate that coaches in his temporary position say they do not want the position full-time, at least at first.

Seasoned pros figured out decades ago that in a workplace as insecure as football they have little chance of being appointed permanently anyway, and if they say they want it, a new manager will see them as rivals-in-waiting and be inclined to cast them aside. A foremost exponent of this art is still to be found at Ewood itself Tony Parkes, a caretaker between four Rovers managers while never saying he wanted the job, lasted as a Rovers coaching fixture until Mark Hughes arrived in 2004 and decided there was no role for him.

Yet Kean, just Saturday's 1-1 home draw with the Premier League's bottom club, West Ham United, on his managerial CV, said he does want the job full-time an apparent sign that he is emboldened by having the confidence of Anderson, his agent and adviser to the new owners.

Anderson and Kentaro have been in a similarly influential position with a Premier League club's new overseas owner before Thaksin Shinawatra, when the former Thai prime minister, accused of corruption and human rights abuses, took over Manchester City in May 2007, certified by the Premier League as "fit and proper". Anderson, working his mobile phone from a dugout in the City of Manchester Stadium, was instrumental in the hiring of Sven-Goran Eriksson to replace Stuart Pearce as manager, and signing eight players, including some notable hits, Elano and Vedran Corluka, along with one or two who did not make it at City the £8.8m striker Rolando Bianchi returned to Italy after one season.

Anderson can justifiably recall the sunny spirit arisen at City then, as Eriksson's side briefly topped the table and City fans guzzled free noodles laid on by Thaksin in Manchester's Albert Square. Anderson's status as favoured fixer was undermined, however, as Thaksin was persuaded he did not need to pay an agent to sign players, then Kia Joorabchian, Carlos Tevez's adviser, and Pini Zahavi, the prolific transfer intermediary, became close at Eastlands to Thaksin's lieutenant, Pairoj Piempongsant.

If City was a frustrated project for Anderson he will believe he can help improve Blackburn post-Allardyce as another of his clients, Owen Coyle, is transforming Bolton Wanderers. January beckons, and if Desai financially backs signing new players she has said Kean will make the football decisions Anderson will fancy his prospects of advising shrewdly. Football will be watching carefully, though, to see whether Blackburn's recruitment includes a roster of SEM clients.

To understand how Rovers, formed in 1875, came to be owned by poultry producers from Pune, two details must be borne in mind. The first is that Walker's trustees funded the club only reluctantly after 2000, then in 2007 put it up for sale. In three years, no solid investor came forward with the required price until Venky's, who have not said how they funded their purchase. Not one British business person looked at 10 years in the top flight, crowds around 22,000, the vaunted global profile as a televised member of the Premier League, and decided the Rovers "brand" looked a sound investment.

The other is to remember Desai's first interview to explain the takeover. She talked not about what Venky's can do for the football club, but what being associated with Premier League fame could do for her company. "I feel that the Venky's brand will get an immediate recognition if we take over this club, and that is the main reason why we are doing this," she said.

Since they took over, the company's financial power has been vastly exaggerated. Reports of a £1bn turnover and £100m profits may have sprung from confusion over multiples of rupees, lakhs (100,000 rupees) and crores (10m rupees). In Venky's (India) Ltd's annual report for 2009-10, last year's turnover is reported as 71,000 lakhs (7.1bn rupees), the pre-tax profit 8,200 lakhs (820m rupees). At yesterday's exchange rate of 0.0143 rupees to the pound, that amounts to a £100m turnover, a £12m profit, about a 10th of what was initially reported.

Not in the billionaire class, then, but healthy, of course, for a company founded in 1971 by Desai's father, Padmashree Dr Banda Vasudev Rao. His vision, reaffirmed in a corporate speech by Desai last June, was: "To see India in the No1 position on the poultry map of the world."

They see buying Blackburn Rovers as a leg on that journey, and January will be key to its direction. Rovers may flounder, as many predict, or the sacking of Allardyce may yet be recognised as proof of the adage, that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

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