The Demise of Blackburn Rovers under Venky’s – 2011-2012 season Part 2 by Dan Eley
Part 2 covers the period from September until end of November.
Rovers' first match after the closing of the transfer window was away to Fulham at Craven Cottage. In a fairly even match, Ruben Rochina's incredible opening strike was quickly cancelled out by a Bobby Zamora equaliser. The game ended 1-1, giving Rovers their first point of the season, albeit at a cost. Chris Samba, David Dunn and Junior Hoilett all suffered injuries. After the match, Kean told the BBC: "I'm very close to the owners, and the dressing room showed what we're all about today. The tightness and togetherness that I've got with the dressing room. I've been with the owners last week, they're happy with the way the lads are trying to play, and they're happy with the way things are shaping up. I've got the confidence of the owners, and I'm just wanting the fans to back the players and back myself, and then we'll be in the top half - no doubt about that."
Kean's plea for support would not resonate with all of the fanbase, though. On 17th September Rovers would face a daunting home match against Arsenal, but before the match began a section of fans would stage their first protest against Steve Kean and Venky's - who were at the match in the form of Balaji Rao, Venkatesh Rao and their entourage. Unfortunately, a combination of poor weather and general supporter apathy meant that turnout was not as high as expected, with the Lancashire Telegraph reporting that "Around 250 Blackburn Rovers fans staged a protest against manager Steve Kean today. Organisers had hoped up to 1000 fans might take part". http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/9257409.Blackburn_Rovers_fans_stage_Kean_protest_march/
The day before the protest, Venkatesh Rao was interviewed by ESPN. When asked about whether he was concerned by the welcome, they would receive, Venkatesh responded: "No I'm not worried about the welcome tomorrow, I'm more worried for the results. We've been unlucky in the last few matches. I think we will come out of this". On the protests, he said "I'm not worried. They have the right. It's the fans who own the club also. We are a family, and in a family if the father gets angry at you, you're not angry. For them, this club runs. We have to listen to them."
The ESPN reporter pressed on whether Steve Kean would be removed, to which Venkatesh replied: "It's not so easy to just put somebody in and out, in and out. Particularly management. We have to give time, and keep calm, and we'll produce results. I'm sure about it". On Kean's job, Ventatesh said "he's very much safe. There's no problem with Steve. He's a nice man, and I'm sure he'll deliver the goods. We've had bad luck in the last few matches. Higher management has no idea of changing anybody out here."
Venky's also released a public statement regarding the planned protests, telling fans: "We understand there is a sense of disappointment and anger amongst our fans at the recent performance of our team, which was not up to the expectation of fans. We fully understand your feelings and share your disappointment. At times like this, when the team is going through a bad patch, they need all the support and encouragement they can get from the fans to boost their morale and enable them to perform at their best. This is the time when fans can make a difference by lending their full support and to cheer the team on more vigorously than ever, and help the players renew the confidence in themselves. On behalf of Venky's, we would like to reassure the fans that we are fully aware of our responsibilities towards them, and the club and to football."
Irish paper The National ran a critical article of Steve Kean pre-match, saying: "Kean continues to insist that it is only a minority who want him out - although, according to one newspaper poll last week, 81 per cent of supporters do - which is part of his problem. Too often his rhetoric does not stand up to analysis. Asserting, for instance, that Blackburn dominated in the second half of their 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa, when the consensus is that Rovers were utterly abject, merely adds to the impression that he is management's version of an ostrich, head buried in the sand and oblivious to what others see. A club that was a model of quiet over-achievement is now being mocked, while mixed messages emanate from the club's high command.
"Their quest for a galactico was an embarrassing failure - Ronaldinho, Raul and David Beckham proving somehow able to resist the entreaties from East Lancashire - and the closest they have come to finding a big name is Yakubu, the striker who was utterly unwanted at Everton. For all the promises of investment, Rovers made a transfer-market profit in the summer. While seven players arrived, two of the departures may be more significant. When Blackburn took seven points from the final three games to stay up last season, two of the catalysts were Phil Jones, now turning in similarly important performances for Manchester United, and Brett Emerton, who has returned to his native Australia with Sydney FC. The third, Christopher Samba, eyed the exit and appears disenchanted."
The match itself would be as crazy as the atmosphere surrounding it. Arsenal would ultimately contrive to defeat themselves. Despite largely dominating the match, the Gunners found themselves on the wrong end of a 4-3 loss. Own goals from Alex Song and Laurent Koscielny helped Rovers on their way, with Yakubu scoring two goals to complete the scoring for the home side. The BBC called it "an end-to-end encounter in which defending appeared to be a lost art for long periods". Perhaps because of this result, the BBC noted that "a rumoured post-match protest from some of Blackburn's fans never materialised". Meanwhile, Sky's coverage of the match ended with Steve Kean walking off the pitch, exchanging thumbs up gestures with an ecstatic Balaji and Venkatesh sitting high above.
After the match, Steve Kean told the BBC: "I think today we showed what we're all about. We've got character, team-spirit, determination. I think results are important, but I think performances are equally important. I know there was a little bit of a protest today, I think a couple of hundred people, which is 1% of what's in the stadium. So I'm happy that there's 99% that are happy, and hopefully the other 1% will go home happy as well". He also clarified that the owners were behind him "100% - you only have to read their statements."
With Kean now in a buoyant mood, the Daily Mail quoted him as saying "I'm happy to meet any supporter and to be open about what we are trying to do at the club. But the thing that disappoints me (about the criticism) is that we've been playing well. It's been disappointing to get a bit of stick but you take it on the chin. I don't feel as though I'm under pressure, not when you have the backing of the dressing room, the backing of the owners and I think we've turned a few of the 500 or 600 (protesters) and sent them home happy". On Venky's, Kean insisted "They're not just here for a couple of years. They're here for the long haul, they've got a feel for this club. I've been on record saying we want European football, but that's not this year. It's a four-year programme. On deadline day we were one of the clubs that were spending. Any time I've ever asked the owners to produce the cash to get someone I want they have always done it."
After defeating Leyton Orient 3-2 in the Carling Cup, Rovers returned to league action against Newcastle at St. James's Park on the 24th September. Normal service was resumed, as Rovers succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. Martin Olsson would be sent off for picking up two yellow cards, as Demba Ba netted his first hat-trick in English football. Newcastle had total control of the match, with 19 shots to Rovers 4. Post match, Kean complained that Newcastle's third goal shouldn't have been given due to a foul on Scott Dann, and said that the third goal was "a big turning point", despite Rovers never seriously being in the game.
Just five days later, on the 29th September, John Jensen was relieved of his duties as assistant manager - having only signed a contract extension in May. The club released a very short statement reading "The club would like to thank John for his efforts over the past nine months and wish him all the best for the future." Jensen, meanwhile, revealed his bemusement over the decision, telling the media: "You expect to get an explanation but there has been no explanation from the club. One day we might get to know the truth. The firing was a shock for me. I still don't know why I was fired but the main reason must be the results. When you don't get good results it's a risk that you'll get sacked". Considering Kean had crowed about the need for "loyalty" upon Jensen's appointment, this seemed like a callous move from a man looking to blame anybody but himself for things going badly.
Rovers began October with a 4-0 trouncing at home to Manchester City, which saw a sit-in protest staged against Steve Kean. Rovers had held off City for 55 minutes, but Adam Johnson struck in the 56th minute and from there the floodgates opened. Loud, angry chants from the home crowd were directed against the manager once Samir Nasri put City three ahead. It was the club's worst home result in three years. This result kept Rovers second from bottom, having managed just four points from their opening seven matches, with a goal difference of -9. New signings Petrovic, Yakubu and Goodwillie played, but were utterly ineffective.
Post-match, Steve Kean was defiant. He told reporters at the post match press conference that he was "100% per cent" committed to seeing the job through, commenting that "If the fans want to vent [their frustration] I'd rather they vent it at me than the team. I told the lads I will battle on for my players. Even the ones I didn't bring to the club I consider my players. I'll take the criticism on my shoulders and take it away from them. A couple of weeks ago it was very buoyant dressing room. Obviously we're disappointed with the manner of the goals because I felt in the first half our game plan was working well. A couple of weeks ago we played Arsenal and got a fantastic result and most of the fans went home very, very happy. We've lost today and the fans are not happy, nor are the players, nor am I. But I think we have to put it in perspective. For the first 55 minutes the shape of our team was good and we minimised the chances of Manchester City, and it has taken a very good goal. We reacted by feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves and conceded another goal. It is certainly not something I am enjoying but I can take it on the chin."
An international break followed this match, but rather than using the time to reflect on the team's issues, Rovers were flown out to Pune in the middle of the season to play an exhibition match against Pune FC. This match was supposed to be played during pre-season, but due to terror attacks in Mumbai the initial fixture was called off and rescheduled during the season instead. Sportskeeda noted that "ticket sales were dull because of the exorbitant prices (which wasn’t the case for the game scheduled in July)". Barely 6000 supporters turned up for the match, in a stadium that could hold up to 14,000, and NDTV added that there was further embarrassment for the organisers "when the ball had to be changed after just two minutes because it had not been fully pumped up".
On the mid-season tour of India, the Guardian wrote: "Steve Kean leads Blackburn on a brief tour of India this week arguing that, far from being disruptive and bizarrely timed, it might help bring a struggling side together. He insisted that, despite the calls for his dismissal that echoed around Ewood Park, he still has the backing of the club's owners, Venky's, who fired his assistant, John Jensen, on Wednesday night. Kean said he bore no responsibility for the sacking of Jensen. Kean has averaged less than a point a game since succeeding Sam Allardyce 10 months ago, although he argued that despite a sequence of results that has seen them beat only Arsenal with the help of two own-goals, he retains the support of the owners, if not the fans".
Unsurprisingly, Kean effusively praised the owners, quoted as saying: "The owners are very strong. I spoke with one of the owners [Anuradha Desai] first thing [on Saturday morning] and she said there were going to be demonstrations and that I should not let it bother me and I won't. The owners are in it for the long term and they have backed me to the hilt". Kean also claimed that the players "disapproved" of the protests against him, telling reporters: "They said in the dressing room that it was very unfair. I told them not to worry because I can take it. When we beat Arsenal I gave all the praise to them and when there's stick I will take it."
It was also during this trip that a select group of Rovers' fans were invited to India by the owners to engage with the higher management structure at Venky's and experience a taste of India. Cynics noted that this seemed like nothing more than a PR stunt by Venky's to appease growing unrest across the supporter base, but Secretary of the Fans Forum John Wareing was optimistic, telling the Lancashire Telegraph: "We are delighted to be able to accept this invitation by the owners. It is rare indeed that owners of a football club would go to these lengths". This would be the only time Rovers' fans were ever invited to India, and it would become clear in the coming months that nothing the supporters told the owners had any effect on their perception of how the club should be run.
The match itself was historical, being the first game played between a top division English team and an Indian club. As expected, Rovers won the match comfortably, with a 3-0 victory. The BBC noted that "a 'Kean out' banner which appeared in the stands in the first half was removed by organisers". Glen Mullan, of the recently formed protest entity Blackburn Rovers Action Group, told the media "Over the last week or so, myself and the fellow organisers of the recent protests have been working hard on what we should do next following the ridiculous comments coming out of the club. The numbers are expected to be much larger than the previous march as more and more supporters have joined the protest campaign."
The Telegraph made note of the protest banners at the Indian game, reporting that "the sight of ‘Kean Out’ messages in the home city of Venky’s will prove embarrassing for Kean, who was the subject of a fans’ demonstration following last Saturday’s 4-0 home defeat against Manchester City". The paper also quoted Balaji Rao as stating: "We know that a few people have been generating thousands of emails demanding the ousting of Steve Kean, who is a brilliant manager. The team is in the relegation zone right now, but it is going to come up I am sure of that. We know the team is going in the right direction and we are very positive about the way the team is performing and the way it is going. On the whole the goal of playing in Europe over the next four to five years is a realistic one."
On the 14th October, the day before Rovers were scheduled to play QPR at Loftus Road, it was announced that future Derby County and Swansea City manager Paul Clement would be replacing John Jensen as assistant to Steve Kean. Clement told the media: "I'm excited to be here at a big club like Blackburn Rovers and am really looking forward to the challenge. It's great to be linking up with Steve again and I can't wait to get started". Kean was similarly positive, saying that he was "delighted that Paul has agreed to join us. He is someone I know well and respect as a coach and will be on the bench with me at QPR. I go back to 2000 when I first met him at Fulham and saw him progress through the age groups before he was head-hunted to go back to Chelsea. He worked closely with Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti, with whom he managed to win the double. We've got someone who has a habit of winning games and working at a very detailed and high level and that can only help the whole club."
Rovers could only manage a 1-1 draw at Loftus Road, with Bolton's 2-1 victory over Wigan on the same day meaning Rovers sank to the bottom of the table. QPR had been beaten 6-0 by Fulham in their previous match, but Kean's miserable winning record continued, meaning he had only picked up 27 points from a possible 87 since taking charge in December 2010. The BBC noted that the game featured "atrocious defending", which was becoming a common criticism under Kean, whilst Rovers' manager suggested that he was "happy enough with a point" and insisted that "The point gets the momentum moving again, which is important".
On 23rd October, Rovers would go on the record another home loss, this time beaten 2-1 by Tottenham. Rovers had not kept a clean sheet in the league since their 1-0 victory over Bolton on April 30th, and the BBC reported that "numerous Blackburn fans marched towards Ewood Park armed with a variety of banners, placards and posters all demanding the exit of Kean, who was presiding over his 30th match in charge but remains with only six victories". Despite this, Kean claimed in his post-match interview "we're going to play worse than that and win", and added that "each supporter is allowed an opinion and I respect that but they were fully behind the team. I've got broad enough shoulders and I'll protect my players, we'll organise, get back out there again and win games."
In the post-match press conference, Kean stated that "There’s a manner in which you can lose, and I think we lost today trying to win. The crowd should stick with us because of way we played. We grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck". When questioned on the escalating protests against his management of the club, Kean fired back by saying "I don’t know if it’s a large section and I’m not paying attention to anyone who’s staying behind. When you’re down in the position we are, there are going to be supporters … but the majority of them are with us. The performance of the players and application of players show that we’re together as a group. I’ve got the full backing of the owners so we’ll grind through it and when we do we’ll say that we played ourselves out of it".
Three days later Rovers would defeat Newcastle 4-3 in a Carling Cup match. The defending was once again terrible but on this occasion, Rovers managed to outscore the opposition. The match was notable for a reported bust-up between Rovers' backroom staff and some fans pitchside. The Sun reported that "Rovers No 2 Paul Clement, Kean’s chauffeur Matt Hockin and assistant Iain Brunskill were alleged to have rowed with punters during the extra-time thriller at Ewood Park."
An eyewitness said: “One member of staff in a red jacket started squaring up to the fans. He was giving it out. He was swearing and looked like he wanted a fight. He was dragged away by a head steward. There were insults flying backwards and forwards. This sort of behaviour by officials from a club sums up my feelings of dejection with the club at the moment.” Another fan claimed he heard a Rovers official telling a fan to ‘shut the f*** up’ after he had shouted something at Kean. The boss said: “I was not aware of that but I will certainly investigate it. If anything occurred I will certainly investigate it and speak with our stadium safety officer.”"
On 29th October, Rovers would travel to Carrow Road to face Norwich. More horrendous defending saw the match end 3-3. Rovers had been 3-1 ahead, but a last gasp penalty from Grant Holt after a harsh handball decision against Steven N'Zonzi condemned Rovers to another league match without a win. The result lifted Rovers to 18th, two points behind 17th placed Wolves having still only accrued six points from their opening ten games. Kean was quick to use the controversial penalty as an excuse, telling reporters "If the referee sees it again then I'm sure he will admit he was wrong to award it. We've just got to keep going. It's tough but we've got to move on."
Writing on his online blog, Morten Gamst Pedersen said "It was hard to swallow that we didn’t get three points from the match against Norwich. I and the rest of the team was extremely disappointed and we were left with a bitter feeling afterwards. I’m not going to blame other than ourselves". Pedersen's blog during this period is notable for its total lack of mentioning Steve Kean. He mainly focuses on the failings of the players, diplomatically ignoring the situation surrounding the manager.
Rovers went into the match on 5th November at home to Chelsea with Kean now officially the second worst manager the club had employed since 1992. He was only beaten to the accolade of worst manager by Paul Ince, but it's worth remembering that Ince had only been at the club for around five months. Kean, on the other hand, was approaching twelve months as manager and had dragged the club down every step of the way.
Prior to the match against Chelsea, Rovers implemented some draconian laws by outright banning any protest banners. The Independent wrote that "A fourth successive demonstration is planned at Ewood Park, but the club will not allow any banners into the ground until after the final whistle. Rovers will, however, allow fans to stage their protest after the match with banners which have been handed over to stewards prior to entry". Protest leaders, after meeting with the club, said that Rovers had claimed "there may be a counter protest against the demonstration and they wanted to reduce the chances of conflict inside the ground". Glen Mullan told the media "Although disappointed, we respect the club's decision to impose a banner ban in the interest of public safety".
If the club thought they had gotten one over on the protesters, though, they had underestimated the creativity and determination of those involved. The Lancashire Telegraph reported on the 4th November that "fans had donated around £1,000 to fund a plane and visual protest message" to fly over the ground during the match. After the match, the Metro reported that "The plane circled Ewood during the first half of the match against Chelsea, with the message – reading simply ‘Steve Kean Out’ – bumping along behind it. As well as the plane, fans held a protest outside the ground before kick-off, and organised ‘human banners’ made up of lines of supporters all wearing matching T-shirts."
Predictably, Rovers would once again lose a home match, this time by a solitary goal scored by Frank Lampard. Chelsea were poor, but Rovers couldn't capitalise and also lost Chris Samba to a suspected hamstring injury. This match was Chelsea's first clean sheet since the first match of the season. Kean continued to be ridiculously optimistic, telling reporters "We're not far from going on a really good run. We created a lot of good chances and but had a lot of bad luck. We're convinced with the run of games coming up that we will put lots of points on the board". In the post-match press conference, Kean claimed he hadn't seen the protest plane and didn't know what the banner said - despite pictorial evidence showing him looking directly up at the plane as it flew over. He also started to place a portion of blame onto the protesters for results, saying "If we weren't playing well or working hard, then OK. But we are, and the players aren't enjoying the ¬negativity".
Disappointingly, former Rovers manager Howard Kendall wrote an article in the Liverpool Echo calling out the supporters for demanding Kean's sacking. He wrote: "The criticism Blackburn Rovers’ manager Steve Kean is receiving from sections of the support is totally wrong. Kean has not really had much time and I recall in the early 80s when there were leaflets going around Goodison Park calling for me to be sacked. Calls for the manager to be sacked at Blackburn should not be heeded. I’ve seen Rovers a few times this season and I think they have been slightly unfortunate – similar in many ways to what Everton have been forced to deal with. Kean deserves more time because you can only go on what the players are putting in on the pitch and Blackburn can not be faulted for effort. Of course some fans will point to the fact that he’s not done that particular job before and say he lacks experience but when I watch them play I say that does not come through at all."
An international break followed the Chelsea match. With protests having largely been ignored, fans were beginning to turn their anger on Venky's as well as Steve Kean. Hopes were raised when the Lancashire Telegraph reported that "A Qatar oil giant could be set to launch a shock takeover bid for Blackburn Rovers. The Lancashire Telegraph understand the company is preparing to offer £25m for the club to under fire owners Venky's as well as taking on and clearing the club's debt. The company, who do not want to be named at this stage, would want a quick resolution to their move in order to implement the changes they feel are needed for the club to thrive in the Premier League."
Unfortunately, these hopes were hastily dashed by Venky's, who released a statement on the official Rovers website on 15th November. It read: "There have been reports that someone from the Royal Family of Qatar was in India to meet us and discuss the possibility of buying the club. We would like to clarify that there is absolutely no truth in these reports. No-one from Qatar - or anywhere else - visited us. We have no intention of selling and are totally committed to the club. There is no possibility of us selling the club."
The Daily Record ran an article on Rovers on 17th November, noting that when talking to Steve Kean "you'd think he was the manager of table-topping Manchester City. The Blackburn boss is the ultimate glass half full kind of guy and insists, with the straightest of faces, he can keep his job, guide Rovers to a top-10 finish and win the mutinous supporters over". The article quoted Kean as saying "I don't look at this season in terms of trying to salvage something. I think we have a good enough squad to be in the top 10. You always have to take a longer view. Seasons don't last 10 games. The owners can see we've added value to the squad and brought in some good young players. They have a lot to look forward to when they see the age of the team. In one of our last games it was the youngest Blackburn team since 1996. So the future is bright and I think the owners know that. I would hope the educated fan can understand it's a transitional period for the club". Kean was apparently not asked to clarify how these stats about Rovers having the youngest team since 1996 and creating future value was going to help them survive, let alone reach the top ten.
Rovers' next match was on the 19th November at the DW Stadium, against Wigan Athletic, who were at the time bottom of the table. Balaji and Venkatesh Rao decided to pay a visit, reportedly there to both show solidarity with Steve Kean and also discuss transfer funds with him the next day. Supporters, incensed by Venky's unwavering support for Steve Kean, made their visit an unpleasant one. Venky's surprised many when they decided to leave at half time. The Daily Mail reported that: "Blackburn's players may believe in sticking at it until the final whistle, but it is a measure of the chaos engulfing Ewood Park that others evidently do not. The club’s owners, for instance. "Evidently ‘spooked’ by a barrage of abuse from fans who spotted them entering the ground, they failed to reappear for the second half, leaving a row of directors’ box seats conspicuously empty for the remainder of their side’s desperate battle to prevent Wigan overtaking them at the foot of the table. The Venky's party had been seen filing out of the main entrance and into their fleet of limousines, with Kean’s half-time team talk barely underway. How owners of a club could go to the trouble and expense of travelling halfway round the world for a game, and decide to clear off after 45 minutes, takes some working out. In their absence, Kean had to contend with chants for his, and their departure".
The match itself was the usual goal-fest, with embarrassing defending and a general lack of discipline. Rovers were already 2-1 down when David Dunn was sent off in the 48th minute for two bookable offences. Junior Hoilett would equalise for Rovers after Morten Gamst Pedersen appeared to cheat by dribbling the ball straight from a corner, but Rovers found themselves 3-2 down after conceding in the 88th minute. Luck would shine on them, though, as Yakubu slotted home a 99th minute penalty to ensure another high-scoring draw. Morten Gamst Pedersen was frank on his online blog, stating "we don’t defend good enough as a team to win matches like this".
The draw didn't do much for Rovers, leaving them in 19th, a point above 20th placed Wigan but now four points behind Wolves in 17th. Although goalkeeper Paul Robinson called it "a point gained" with circumstances taken into account, the Mirror noted that "While Rovers’ spirit could not be faulted, their performance could and they would have lost if Wigan had not been so wasteful in front of goal. They also got two big breaks thanks to referee Andre Marriner’s failure to award Wigan a penalty for Morten Gamst Pedersen’s blatant foul on Victor Moses and not spotting that Yakubu didn’t touch the ball for the corner which led to Blackburn’s first equaliser. But they defended poorly and despite Steve Kean portraying the result as a point gained, drawing at the DW Stadium won’t be enough to fulfil his confident promise that they will stay up". The paper also noted that Venky's half-time disappearing act was "a fitting way to mark their first controversial year in charge at Ewood Park".
It was around this time that Kean came out with another quote that made fans press their palms firmly against their faces. Talking to reporters, Kean boldly insisted "We won't get relegated, absolutely no chance. We just need to keep plugging away. I think the owners and the majority of our fans can see that we are in a false position at the moment. We feel we should have six or seven more points and be sitting halfway up the league. It's not as if we are getting battered, not playing well and we're on the ropes". Kean continued to defend his horrendous record, resorting to the 'what if' league table to prove his point: "You look back on the games, were we good enough for a point against Chelsea? Yes. Should we have got three against Norwich? Yes. Should we have got a point against Tottenham? Yes. You add up all those points and we’re sitting halfway up the league".
As was becoming normal, he then turned his ire on the protesters, insisting "the genuine fans who go every week, the ones who go week in week out home and away, can see how we’re playing and they know we’re not in a nice position at the moment. I think we know as well, as players and staff, that we should be a bit higher. We would have rather been in a top 10 position now but I think our performances have merited being in that position. The travelling fans have been excellent, there has been a very small section at home who have been a bit negative. But we speak to people in the village (Brockhall) and around the training ground, and it’s nothing but compliments, ‘Stick with it, it’s getting better, we can see massive signs, it’s the best we’ve played in years’. I think it’s a small section. I think the fans who are totally with what we’re trying to do are getting a bit fed up with those who are having a pop, to be honest. I think for the other fans there is a genuine feeling that, ‘Come on now, okay, you’ve had your protests, you’ve had a march, you’ve done whatever you’ve done, you’ve written an article, let’s now everybody get behind the team because we’re in a position where the signs are good, let’s turn some performances into points and let’s grab some momentum and get everybody pulling together and push us up the table’". Kean reportedly said all of this with a straight face.
The manager meanwhile continued to praise the owners, telling the media "I think with the owners they’re very strong people and they’re here for the long term. We are changing things, we’re trying to develop a brand new young team and sometimes with a young team you might have less experience and points slip away from you. But these young players are all getting better and I think the owners know as well that there’s now a squad of players that has got a very big value. If you added up the value of the squad now, then what it was 12 months ago, I think we’ve got a much more valuable squad."
As Rovers fans prepared to lay flowers at Jack Walker's statue as another protest to signify the death of the club he loved so dearly, Venkatesh Rao reaffirmed Venky's commitment to the club by telling the media: "We are here to stay with the club. We’re not interested in giving it to anybody. It’s like our baby. Money isn’t everything to us. The passion is there and we don’t want to let the fans down. We’ve had no offer. God willing, we’ll be here for a long time. It’s very nice to have such a prestigious football club but you have to be sure of your results also, which I’m sure will come off later". There had also been rumours that Venky's were preparing to offer Steve Kean a new contract, which had further ignited absolute rage across the fanbase. On this, Rao said "It's very early to talk about something like that. At present there is nothing, to tell you very honestly. I don’t know how the news has come out but it is nothing like that, nothing has been signed."
Steve Kean would contradict Venkatesh on the 22nd November by claiming Venky's had approached him about a new contract, but that he had told them "this is an inappropriate time to conclude any new contract discussions. Instead, the real issue is for me and everyone else to concentrate on the games". Incredibly, just one day later, the club announced that Kean had secured a pay rise and a new contract - which was worded as an amendment to his existing contract. The Guardian reported that "Kean held talks with Venky and Balaji Rao, the brothers who co-own Blackburn, in London on Sunday. A report on Tuesday claimed the under-fire Scot had been handed a two-year extension to his deal – which is due to expire in 2013 – but Rovers have instead increased his salary to about £1.5m a year". The Mirror claimed that Kean "also won his battle to have a clause removed that made him easier to sack".
The news that Kean had been given a pay rise - in spite of Rovers' terrible form, poor transfer signings, inability to defend and the manager's overwhelming lack of popularity with the fans - understandably infuriated an increasingly despairing fanbase. Kean's claim that "the vast majority of the fans can see that our performances deserve to be six or seven points better off and halfway up the table" was met with widespread derision and contempt, with the manager having long lost any credibility with the majority of supporters. The Mirror meanwhile reported that the contract extension was " a surprise after the Venky's team discovered the depth of bad feeling towards them and their boss on a flying visit" - referring to Balaji and Venkatesh's brief appearance during the Wigan match - and claimed that "Blackburn's Indian owners are even planning to stay away from future games because of the hostile reception of the fans. The Rao brothers were shaken by the level of abuse aimed at them and Kean in the relegation crunch with Wigan".
Rovers' next match was against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on the 26th November. Stoke had been on a poor run of four defeats before this match, but easily put hapless Rovers to the sword with a 3-1 victory. The BBC noted that "While a record of six wins in 33 league games would get many football managers the sack, at Blackburn it earned Kean a revised contract", but also claimed that "it was impressive to see the visitors clearly playing for their manager". Despite this observation, the BBC also noted that Rovers did not have a shot on goal until the 45th minute. Their match report also noted that Mauro Formica - who Kean had likened to Gabriel Batistuta - managed to "completely miss contact with the ball six yards out with the goal gaping". The match report concluded with "a heavy defeat was little more than Blackburn deserved in the end and Kean must only expect further protests from the club's supporters should Rovers fail to get anything from their next few matches against Swansea, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton".
Kean, predictably, had an entirely different point of view. He told reporters "I don't think we played that badly today", then explained "What we've got to do now is work on the training ground at shutting the door at the back. There are some good things happening here but at the moment our play is not getting the rewards it deserves". It was an astonishingly deluded set of remarks from a man who had seen his team lose eight of their opening thirteen games. This loss once again left Rovers bottom of the table, now two points behind Wigan and Bolton directly above them, and five points behind Wolves - who were still in 17th place.
Rovers' ill-discipline meanwhile would continue to cost them. Steven N'Zonzi was banned for three matches for throwing an elbow at Ryan Shawcross in the aforementioned match against Stoke, an incident that occurred in just the 9th minute of the match. The referee had not seen this action, but it had been caught on camera and N'Zonzi was retrospectively punished. Rovers released a statement which read: "The Rovers midfielder has accepted the FA charge and his ban will start immediately, making him unavailable for Blackburn's Carling Cup quarter-final at Cardiff and the two upcoming league games at home to Swansea and away to Sunderland".
The Carling Cup match against Cardiff would be another flashpoint for Kean and the Supporters, in what had become a truly toxic situation. Championship Cardiff dispatched of Rovers by a 2-0 scoreline, but it wasn't so much the defeat that concerned fans. Under Kean there was an acceptance that most matches would end in a loss, even against poorer opposition, but Kean's post match comments served to ignite further fury.
The BBC reported Kean as saying, post-match: "We are in a position where we have forfeited going through and having the chance to reach a cup final. We have games against sides within touching distance of us in the league. We need to treat those games as cup finals". The BBC noted that "Kean made five changes to his side for the trip to south Wales, electing not to risk the defensive trio of Christopher Samba, Martin Olsson and Michel Salgado, who have all had hamstring injuries" and Kean confirmed "They could have played at a push and if we had been in a slightly different position in the league. We have Swansea coming up so I made five changes and left those lads behind."
Suffice to say, Kean's comments did not go down well. The Telegraph reported that fans who went to the game were demanding their money back over the comments, with many on message boards and twitter posting a link to a Lancashire Telegraph article where Kean appeared to contradict his post-match comments by telling the local media before the match: "We’ve said all along that we’d like to go all the way and get to the final and try to win the competition. I wouldn’t say the side that’s going to play against Cardiff will be the side that played the last league game or will be the side that starts against Swansea, but it will still be a strong side that we think can progress in the tournament. Why can we not get through? Then you get yourselves into the semi finals and over two legs see who you get. But let’s make sure we’re in that draw first."
Realising he had made an error of judgement - caught up in an increasingly intricate web of paradoxical statements - Kean claimed that his comments about forfeiting were "taken out of context", telling the club's official website that "There is absolutely no way that we would ever consciously forfeit a game, quite the opposite. If my explanation or wording was vague or unclear then I regret that. I want to stress that both the major knockout competitions are massively important to us, but the Premier League will always be our primary objective. I am a big fan of the Carling Cup and I refute in the strongest possible terms any suggestion we didn't treat the competition with due respect."
Around this time, troubling reports began to surface about Rovers' finances. The Telegraph reported on the 30th November that Barclays were demanding a reduction in the club's debt, writing "The club owe at least £21 million to Barclays, and it is understood that Venky’s - which is owned by the Rao family - agreed to reduce the debt when they took control at Ewood Park. A year later that has not happened though, prompting the bank to demand more security against its loans as the club face possible relegation. Barclays’ concern is understandable given the club’s perilous league position and the increasingly risk-averse position of lenders in the current financial climate.
"Venky’s initially offered the club’s stadium and property assets, as well their shares in Blackburn, as security. The security is detailed in documents filed by the club’s holding company, Venky’s London Ltd, on the day of the takeover, Nov 19 2010. Barclays’ concerns will heighten worries over Venky’s’ stewardship of what was once a stable, if loss-making, club. They have certainly not delivered on the expectation of the club board and the Walker Trust, which agreed to sell this time last year. The club have just a league single win this season and manager Steve Kean is under huge pressure from disgruntled supporters unconvinced at his ability to steer the club out of its current predicament.
"Venkys did invest £10 million in equity last January for transfers, but despite a welter of promises, the investment in star names never materialised. Since then they have made a net profit on transfers and the club’s best player, Phil Jones, was sold to Manchester United for what already looks like a bargain £16.5 million. With pressure from the bank to reduce debts, it is unclear what, if any, funding Venky’s are willing to make available to Kean for signings in the forthcoming January transfer window. They are also likely to come under pressure to sell their remaining valuable players including Christopher Samba, likely to be a target for Tottenham and Arsenal among others. A spokesman for Venky’s did not respond to a request for comment. A Blackburn Rovers spokesman said the club were unable to respond to questions about the nature of their financial arrangements with Barclays."
On the 10th December, the Daily Mail also published an article by Nick Harris on Rovers' financial concerns, speculating that "Premier League strugglers Blackburn are heading for a financial crisis that threatens the future of the club after their bankers, Barclays, handed them a £10million ultimatum. Coaching and scouting departments at Ewood Park were told last week that budget cuts and possible job losses are on the way as the club face the threat of financial meltdown in the New Year. The crisis is the result of Barclays running out of patience with the failure of Venky’s, the Indian poultry conglomerate who own the club, to honour contractual obligations made when they bought Rovers in November last year. "Barclays say the club must deposit £10m in their account by New Year’s Eve or the bank will refuse to extend the credit needed to pay the players’ wages beyond January. Mrs Desai, the matriarch of the Rao family who own Venky’s, is adamant that they will not pay the money, believing Blackburn can fund themselves without fresh cash from India. She has the final say at Rovers and if her stance on funding is maintained, the club’s overdraft at Barclays, currently around £6m, could burst beyond its agreed limit on January 23, when wages totalling £4m-5m are due to be paid. The club could then face meltdown within a month. If the overdraft limit is exceeded and there is no sign of a cash injection, Barclays can stop funding the club, which could then technically become insolvent. Barclays and Mrs Desai both declined to comment."
The Daily Mail also reported on a poll organised on an online fan website, which "saw just one fan out of 500 vote in favour of keeping [Kean] in charge at Ewood Park. Kean recently responded to a series of protests and demonstrations by suggesting that only ‘one per cent’ of supporters wanted him out. But by lunchtime on Wednesday, 482 fans had voted online in favour of sacking Kean with just one backing the beleaguered Scot whose team are bottom of the Premier League and went out of the Carling Cup at Cardiff on Tuesday night". The story also noted that Kate Hollern, leader of Blackburn Council, had sent a concerned letter to Venky's, of which they quoted Hollern as writing: "I am concerned to hear both in the papers and in the media that the club, which used to be one of the best run in the country, appears to have very few senior executives running the club in Blackburn on a day-to-day basis. There appears to be serious communication problems between the club and its stakeholders, which are fuelling the frustration that people are feeling."
In the next part we head into December and a traumatic month which seemed to be the footballing elite turning on Rovers fan for wanting Steve Kean sacked…………