Over the Summer the excellent Dan Eley ( @DE. ) will be writing a series of editorials which will investigate the fall of Blackburn Rovers under the ownership Venky’s. Each editorial will take an in-depth look at how things unfolded and we hope that this will become and historical record as it will also source numerous articles. So it gives me immense pleasure in presenting Part One: The start of the nightmare. This looks at how Venky’s took charge and 2010-2011 under the guidance of Steve Kean.
The Demise of Blackburn Rovers Under Venky’s: Part One – The start of the nightmare.
By Dan Eley
Jack Walker passed away on the 17th of August 2000, at 71 years old. He had been battling cancer, and on this day finally succumbed to the disease. Walker, a self-made steel magnate, had been Rovers owner for just under a decade and overseen arguably the greatest triumph in the club's storied history. Taking over in 1991, when Rovers were battling in the old Second division, Jack promptly set about making his beloved hometown club the best team in the land. The next few years were a whirlwind, as the man affectionately known as "Uncle Jack" poured millions of his hard-earned fortune into Rovers and revitalised the club from top to bottom.
The appointment of world-famous ex-Liverpool star Kenny Dalglish as manager set the tone for what was to become a meteoric rise. Walker backed Dalglish heavily with his chequebook, allowing the quiet Scot to assemble a squad capable of challenging the very best. Bolstered by the likes of Tim Flowers, Tim Sherwood, Chris Sutton, Stuart Ripley and the fearsome Alan Shearer, Rovers' rise culminated in ultimate glory. On the 14th May, 1995, Blackburn Rovers pipped Manchester United to the post on a thrilling final day of the 1994/95 Premier League season and became champions of England for the first time in eighty-one years.
The sight of Jack Walker holding the Premier League trophy aloft with tears in his eyes is an image burned into the brain of every Rovers' fan old enough to remember this glorious period of the club's history. The great man represented every fan that day, and had become a hero to every supporter of Blackburn Rovers. His dream was our dream, and we shared it together, creating memories that can never be taken away.
Sadly, the next few years saw the club begin a steady decline. Kenny Dalglish's decision to vacate the managerial position directly after the 1994/95 season ended was the first body blow, and Alan Shearer's world-record transfer to Newcastle United in July 1996 was another bitter pill to swallow. A succession of ineffective managerial appointments and an increasingly disunited dressing room saw Rovers eventually drop out of the Premier League in the 1998/99 season, just five years after they had been at the pinnacle.
These were tough times, but Jack was determined to see Rovers return to the promised land. He continued to support the club financially, and his appointment of another ex-Liverpool legend, Graeme Souness, would see Rovers promoted at the end of the 2000/01 season. Tragically, Jack would not be there to see his cherished club win their fight to get back to the top tier, but before his death he had made provisions to ensure the club would continue to prosper long after he was gone.
The Walker Trust was established to keep Rovers going strong, with the eventual goal of making the club completely self-sufficient. Whilst Rovers would never again challenge for the Premier League title, the club enjoyed numerous successes in the early years of the Trust. Many astute signings were made, including goalkeeper Brad Friedel and Turkish midfield maestro Tugay Kerimoglu. Big name signings such as Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke gave Rovers crucial experience, whilst youngsters Damien Duff, Matt Jansen and David Dunn provided energy, exuberance and excitement.
Rovers won the League Cup in 2002, defeating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 in a closely contested final. The club would participate in European competition and continue to hold its own against the big boys. The next few seasons were filled with ups and downs. Souness left for Newcastle United and was replaced by Mark Hughes, who would go on to build another fantastic, combative side which at its peak finished 7th in the 2007/08 Premier League season. Top players like Damien Duff were sold along the way, but additions such as David Bentley, Roque Santa Cruz and Benni McCarthy proved worthwhile replacements.
Unfortunately, the Trust had started to lose interest in funding Rovers. The club was still far from self-sufficient, and lack of investment caused Mark Hughes to leave for Manchester City. The hapless Paul Ince briefly replaced him for a disastrous six months, before Sam Allardyce was appointed to get Rovers out of the relegation zone. Allardyce was successful, and despite working with a meagre transfer budget of less than £3 million a year - not including player sales - guided Rovers to a 10th placed finish in the 2009/10 season.
The Walker Trust by this stage were desperate to offload the club. They employed the services of investment bank Rothschilds to facilitate a sale. Ahsan Ali Syed, an Indian entrepreneur, was the first to show serious interest. He promised funding upwards of £300m, but after an investigation by BBC Radio Five Live exposing serious concerns over his credentials, he disappeared as quickly as he arrived. He would later resurface to purchase and then destroy Spanish club Racing Santander.
This wasn't the end of Indian interest in Rovers, though. At around the same time, football agent Jerome Anderson introduced Indian poultry giant Venky’s to Rovers. Venky's, headed by the Rao family, formally began negotiations to buy Blackburn Rovers around September of 2010.
As interest from Venky's became formal, Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan - a former Rovers player - voiced his doubts over the legitimacy of the takeover. In an article from 10th November 2010, the Guardian quoted Whelan as saying "the Blackburn deal doesn't sound right, and it doesn't look right. It is an absolute shame. The trustees want the club to be safe but it doesn't seem to be safe. I am sure Venky's can help sell Blackburn Rovers shirts in India, but I think it'll be very short-lived. Overseas viewers are interested in the more successful clubs – Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. The smaller clubs are irrelevant. I can't see many Indian people wearing Blackburn Rovers shirts long-term. Blackburn Rovers is a founder member of the Football League, support is about being loyal, and the club should be owned by people in Blackburn."
On the 19th November 2010, it was announced that Venky's had acquired 99.9% stake of Blackburn Rovers football club. In a deal that, even at the time, seemed very generous, Venky's had agreed to purchase Rovers for the sum of £20m whilst also taking on the club's £23m debt. They became the first ever Indian owners of a Premier League club, and swept into Blackburn with grand statements of intent and assurances that they were dedicated to pushing Rovers to the next level.
The Chairman of the Walker Trust, Paul Egerton-Vernon, stated that the Trust was "very pleased to be passing on the Rovers to the Rao family. We have been impressed with their enthusiasm and their plans and ideas for investment as well as their wish to preserve the legacy of Jack Walker."
Venky's chairwoman Anuradha Desai stated that the company was "delighted, proud and humbled to be associated with Blackburn Rovers," further adding that "we will absolutely respect the Jack Walker legacy and will be actively supporting the organisation to ensure that Blackburn Rovers remains one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League. We are particularly pleased that the deal has the full support of the Walker Trust, the chairman and the management team, who will of course remain in place with our full support."
Balaji Rao, brother of Anuradha Desai and Venky's director, made it clear exactly how Jerome Anderson had sold the club to the family, explaining that they planned to "exploit our in-depth knowledge of the Indian market in particular, and beyond that, the whole of Asia" to grow Rovers as both a global and Indian brand.
Fan reaction was decidedly mixed. Most supporters recognised the need for investment, as the Walker Trust's starving of funds had severely reduced the quality of the squad since the departure of Mark Hughes, but there was plenty of trepidation alongside cautious excitement. The club had been handed to an entity unknown to practically anybody outside of Asia, and although there were suggestions of extreme wealth, nobody really knew just how much cash the Rao family had available to plough into Rovers.
Family matriarch Anuradha Desai gave some indication of the type of money that would be available after giving an interview in late October, just before the takeover was completed. She told reporters that they would be looking to invest around £5m for new players in January, suggesting somewhat naively "we don't need expensive players, we can always lease them". These were not exactly the encouraging words Rovers' fans had been hoping for, although £5m per transfer window was still significantly more than the £-7m net spend that the Walker Trust had presided over the season previous.
Desai also went on in the same interview to reiterate that the family saw Rovers as a branding and marketing opportunity. She explained that "this is an investment, it will grow on its own strength", and said that she would be happy for Rovers to be finishing in "the top 10-12" of the Premier League.
Yet, in another interview with the Lancashire Telegraph during the same time period, Desai seemed to contradict these initial quotes entirely by stating "I am not promising that we will be a top four team but I can promise that we will try and that is what we will aim for", before further promising that "there will be much, much more than £5million and we want the fans to know that", ending the interview by saying "we are going to be good responsible owners and we want to make the club stronger". A cynic might suggest that her PR team had advised her that the truth had not gone down well, and a little exaggeration might calm the locals.
The first couple of weeks post-takeover were relatively quiet. Rovers' boss Sam Allardyce stated a few days after the takeover that he was "excited" to be working with the Rao family and hoped that their vision of the club would match his own ambitions. Venky's had been present for the 4-2 away defeat to Tottenham on the 13th of November, but a 2-0 home victory at Aston Villa saw Rovers jump to 11th in the Premier League, having taken 18 points from the first 14 games. It was at this match that Bajali and Venkatesh Rao were paraded on the pitch pre-match, applauded politely by the expectant Ewood Faithful.
On November 26th, Anuradha Desai gave another interview where she stated that manager Sam Allardyce "deserves a chance" to get the results they desired. She spoke of backing Allardyce in the January transfer window and providing the money necessary to improve the squad. In the same interview, she also said that she felt she could "draw parallels between the Jack Walker legacy and our traditional business", also telling reporters that she would "never want to upset the fans". Optimistically, Desai observed that "with the right motivation I feel they can go higher than eighth. Who is to say they can not do better than that, say fifth or sixth position, why not?"
One day later, on Saturday 27th November, Rovers would be destroyed 7-1 at Old Trafford by Manchester United. It was an embarrassing result, with Rovers only managing a single shot on target. Rumours suggested that Venky's had been watching this match in India with various invited associates, proud to show off their new acquisition, and were both mortified and humiliated by the scoreline.
A week later, Allardyce and Rovers managed a little redemption by comprehensively beating Wolves 3-0 at Ewood Park. Despite this solid victory, sections of the Rovers crowd were audibly heard booing the team for playing defensively at 3-0. Some fans had never taken to Sam Allardyce's personality nor his style of football, and the 7-1 drubbing at the hands of United had yet to fade from people's minds.
Rovers' next match was a trip to Allardyce's former club, Bolton. Once again, Rovers suffered an away defeat, their third in a row, going down 2-1 to Bolton. This was especially disappointing as Bolton were down to ten men for nearly half of the match. Home form was excellent, though, and Rovers were sitting relatively comfortably in 13th. They were five points off the relegation zone, but only three points from sixth place.
Rovers' defeat at Bolton occurred on 11th December 2010. Just two days later, the first bombshell of the Venky's era landed upon Ewood Park. It was announced that Sam Allardyce, along with his assistant Neil McDonald, had been relieved from their duties - just 17 days after Anuradha Desai had told reporters Allardyce would be given a chance to prove himself to them. He had been given just three games, one of which was the disappointing but difficult trip to Old Trafford.
The club released a short statement, part of which read: "We have taken this decision as part of our wider plans and ambitions for the club. We would like to put on record our thanks to Mr Allardyce for his contribution to Blackburn Rovers Football Club". Anuradha Desai would tell the Lancashire Telegraph on 14th December that "we want good football and Blackburn to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better. The fans should trust us because this is in the best interests of the club.”
Desai's full statement on the sacking of Sam Allardyce was published by the Lancashire Telegraph, reading as below:
"We do not mean anything bad for Sam Allardyce but we feel that we need to take the club up in the league and grow.
We want Blackburn Rovers to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better. It is not about the Bolton match. It has been a long time in our minds.
It is nothing against Sam but we have a different vision looking forward and we want the club to grow.
We had been talking to Sam in the past few weeks but he did not fit in with our vision for the club’s future.
We wanted good football, wanted the games to be interesting and of course wanted to win and to have good players.
We needed to do some changes and Sam going is, of course, the main change. This is a major step but it was needed. We thought: Why delay?
The fans should trust us and have belief in us because this is in the best interests of the club.
Our thinking now is that it will be a British manager, but we are open if there is an outstanding candidate: someone who would be really, really good for the club.
Right now Steve Kean will take over while we are looking for someone to take over on a permanent basis. Steve is a hard worker and he is doing a very good job as a coach.
We have been studying him and have been very impressed. He works long hours and is talented at his job. He also works well with our very skilful young players and that is important.
The future of the homegrown players is very important.
It could now be a couple of months before a new manager is put in place.
Right now we are going to have a study and put a lot of thought in to who the next manager of Blackburn Rovers will be.
We don’t want to make a hasty decision and we are in a good position to take our time because Steve is quite capable.
I know that John Williams was very close to Sam but their situations are very different. John is safe.
My message to the fans is that we want the club to go up and develop and we want it to perform much better.
Whatever we do we want to say to the fans that we have the best interests of the club in mind."
Allardyce responded by saying he was "shocked and disappointed" to be leaving Rovers. Club captain Ryan Nelsen was quoted as saying "not in my wildest dreams did I see this coming, nor did anyone else because of the job he has done since he has come to Blackburn. When he took over, it was a club that was absolutely in diabolical trouble and he turned it into a very efficient, streamlined club that has spent no money and has done extremely well. A huge big leadership has gone from the club and the Premier League is unforgiving if you don't have anyone directing the ship. I feel gutted for the man, the players liked him, the club liked him."
Rovers' Norwegian winger Morten Gamst Pedersen also commented on his website, noting that "the table situation does not reflect on how our performance has been in this year's Premier League season". LMA chief executive Richard Bevan admitted that it had been "extremely difficult to understand the thinking behind the dismissal".
Rovers' captain Chris Samba was perhaps most scathing of all in his criticism of Venky's and their handling of Allardyce's sacking. He made his opinion clear in media interviews. "New owners have arrived, they have fired the coach when he saved us from relegation two years ago. The least they could have done is come to us and explain their project. They haven't done that, it's a lack of respect. I don't want to be part of it."
The Telegraph reported that the sudden sacking had sparked "outrage" amongst both players and staff at Rovers, with some calling it a "disgrace", but adding a little more meat to the bones of the story. It was suggested that Allardyce had rejected a list of targets offered to him by sporting agency Kentaro, whom Venky's were very close to, and his unwillingness to work with Kentaro was the primary reason he had been shown the door.
Two days later, the Telegraph further reported that Allardyce's sacking had put the Premier League on alert over transfer dealings happening at the club. The article stated that "the role of Kentaro, a Swiss media rights agency that has contracts with international federations including the Football Association, is understood to be at the heart of Sam Allardyce’s sudden departure from Ewood Park this week". The article continued, "Allardyce is understood to have objected to the owners insisting that transfer targets would be identified by Kentaro and SEM after he was presented with a list including Middlesbrough’s Kris Boyd, David Bentley, of Tottenham, and Hull City’s Geovanni. All three players are SEM clients, and the recent transfers of Boyd and Geovanni are listed as “transfer highlights” on the company’s website."
On the same day, the Independent ran an article, which reflected that whilst it was common for managers to be offered players by agencies, "what appears to be on the cards at Blackburn is another step entirely. It has been suggested Kentaro might use Blackburn as a shop window, much as Kia Joorabchian did in parking Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano at West Ham. The big difference since then is that third-party ownership has been outlawed". The article ended by saying "Former owner Jack Walker can never have imagined such consequences when he decided to put his hometown club back on the football map".
The Lancashire Telegraph also ran an article on Kentaro and SEM. They noted that SEM were heavily in involved with Manchester City during Thaksin Shinawatra's period of ownership between 2007-08. The LT wrote: "SEM oversaw six of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s nine signings during Shinawatra’s season at the helm, including Elano, Valeri Bojinov and Gelson Fernandes. Kentaro has a wealth of experience in the sports media industry and has taken a consultancy role on several occasions in recent years for investors putting money into major football clubs. Kentaro also has a deal with the FA until 2012 for many of the international TV rights for the England national team, the FA Cup and the Community Shield. There can be no doubt that Kentaro and SEM have a vast network. How they choose to use it could yet determine where Blackburn Rovers go from here."
Fan reaction to Allardyce's dismissal, meanwhile, was one of general shock and fear over what the future held under Venky's stewardship. A poll on the Lancashire Telegraph's website showed 76% of voters believed sacking Allardyce was the wrong decision, with just 24% thinking it was the right decision.
Whilst many fans had grievances with Allardyce's style of football, some vocally so, the overall consensus was that he had done an excellent job with the resources available to him, and should have been given a chance to show what he could do with a larger budget. The gravity of Kentaro and SEM's influence had yet to dawn on the majority of fans, who were more concerned over whom Venky's would select to replace Allardyce.
Steve Kean, a client of SEM himself - and therefore intrinsically linked to Kentaro - was placed in "temporary" charge, having been promoted from his position as a first team coach. Unlike most caretaker managers, Kean was very quick to state that he wanted the job permanently, admitting that he had hurriedly arranged a trip to India for a four-hour meeting with Venky's to convince them he was the man to take Rovers forward. He offered an optimistic view of the future, suggesting that "the chairlady would like us to play winning football, if we can entertain as well that would be great. She wants us to eventually push for the top four, but there is a layered-on approach. We can push for the top half and get as high as we can. Next season we will strengthen again."
Fans got a glimpse into the madness that would descend under their new owners on December 15th, when the Telegraph reported that Venky's wanted Argentine football legend Diego Maradona to take the hot-seat at Ewood Park. Anuradha Desai was quoted as saying: "We thought about Maradona as a coach after we took over. Talks were at the initial stage then, but there is no development on that front yet". The man who had once told journalists during his brief tenure as Argentina manager to "suck it and keep sucking it" never arrived at Ewood Park, but it was an ominous sign of things to come.
The first match of the Steve Kean era was a tetchy 1-1 draw with West Ham United at Ewood Park on 18th December 2010. It broke a streak of three wins at home on the bounce, but was evidently impressive enough for Venky's, as it was right after this match that Kean was given the manager's job until the end of the season. Kean claimed in the post match interview that "I've no idea on the time frame of how long I'll be in charge", but it was announced on December 22nd 2010, just nine days after Sam Allardyce had been sacked, that Kean would take charge of the team until the end of the season. This was not the last time Kean would appear to be somewhat economical with the truth.
Venkatesh Rao, the brother of Anuradha Desai, also Venky's director and co-owner of Rovers, commented to the media "everything is looking positive and anything Steve wants we are there for him and the players too. We're looking for stability and to move forward", although the Daily Mail reported that there was still significant unrest within the Rovers squad, many of whom were still reeling from the sacking of Allardyce.
To add further intrigue to the story, former Rover Andy Cole revealed in an article written on the 24th December for The National that despite the outrage and shock over Allardyce's sacking, he was not surprised because "a trusted little bird told me two months ago what was going to happen. He said that the club would be taken over by an Indian company and that Sam would be pushed aside, to be replaced by the coach Steve Kean. If Keano does well then he keeps the job. If I knew that, then Sam did and he is probably right to think that he is been stabbed in the back."
Fan reaction was once again mixed, although many were very uneasy over entrusting the managerial seat to a total novice. Kean, bald-headed and unnervingly chirpy, spoke a good game and was a respected coach at the highest level of the game. Crucially though, he had no pedigree at management level and there were serious question marks over whether he had the ability to attract the right players to the club, or placate the current squad, who had been stunned and angered by the swift removal of Allardyce. The decision to hand Kean the reigns until the end of the season was met with consternation across the fanbase, who saw Venky's putting their Premier League status at serious risk within just a single month of becoming owners.
Media focus on Rovers' connections with Kentaro and SEM continued to ramp up as the January transfer window approached. Steve Kean told journalists he was "proud" of his connections to SEM, saying that he had been with SEM "long before" being appointed at Rovers (by Sam Allardyce in 2009), and that they were "a worldwide organisation who have got lots of top sportsmen and top managers, including Owen Coyle and Tony Pulis. It's something I'm proud of and glad that SEM are happy to look after me. I don't see that as anything other than positive and good for the rest of my career."
Early form under Steve Kean was patchy. A disappointing 2-0 home defeat by Stoke City on 26th December was evened out by a 3-1 away win at West Brom on 28th December. 2011 would begin with a 3-0 defeat away to Sunderland on 1st January, but just four days later Rovers would go on to record a stunning 3-1 home victory against Liverpool. The Merseyside club were in disarray under boss Roy Hodgson, who sacked shortly after this defeat. Rovers played the type of attacking, passing football that had not been seen at the club in some years and gained widespread plaudits for the manner of their victory.
After the Liverpool match, a delighted Steve Kean said "The lads showed a real together and a spirit about the group that was tremendous tonight". Nervously licking his lips and appearing like a rabbit in the headlights, Kean dismissed talk of transfer activity, instead insisting that he was focusing on "the lads that are here" and that if there were additions it would be to "assist the squad, not to replace anybody". This match, so short into Kean's tenure, would be the high point of his time as Rovers manager. It was a false dawn, which, for a fleeting moment, made some fans believe that things might turn out okay.
The January transfer window began with a bang, as Venky's announced that they had intentions to sign 30 year-old Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho. Despite being well past his best and having just been released by AC Milan, the player would represent a significant coup for Rovers and a serious statement of intent from Venky's. Desai clarified that Rovers would be prepared to pay Ronaldinho "7.6m euros (£6.5m) for the first year and about 8.5m euros (£7.2m) for the second and third years".
Ronaldinho was not the only aging star Venky's had set their sights on. Arguably even more ambitious was their claimed interest in former England, Manchester United and Real Madrid superstar David Beckham. Beckham, 35 at the time and playing for LA Galaxy in the United States, was discussed as a loan target and Desai said the club was "open whenever he is ready to come". Both statements were met with incredulity by most of the Rovers fanbase, who did not believe the club could attract these types of stars.
Ultimately, neither Ronaldinho nor Beckham decided their futures were at Ewood Park. Ronaldinho ended up signing for Brazilian side Flamengo, whilst David Beckham opted to wait for the American football season to start again in March. After these initial setbacks, Venky's would never again attempt to sign a 'marquee' superstar. Indeed, on 21st January Steve Kean told journalists that he did not think a marquee signing would happen, suggesting "that's probably best done when the market is stable in the summer."
Venky's also made it clear during this transfer window that Steve Kean was not going to be going anywhere once the season was over. Anuradha Desai was blunt when she told journalists "we're making a contract for him which is going to be a full-time contract. It's not just about this season. It's going to be a proper contract. At least two to three years. He thinks well. He has a vision. Mark my words, he thinks well. He's a good thinker. That's his biggest strength."
True to their words, Venky's offered Kean a contract which was hastily signed. On 20th January 2011, just over a month after taking over as caretaker manager, Steve Kean put pen to paper on a two and a half year deal that would keep him at the club until June 2013. Kean's promotion through the ranks had been eye-wateringly rapid, having gone from caretaker, to manager until the end of the season, to full time manager on a two and a half year contract in the space of around 37 days.
Of his new contract, Kean told journalists: "I am delighted to commit my future to Rovers at the start of what I see as a massively exciting new era. The owners have shown great faith in me and I will do all I can to repay them. This is a great opportunity for me and I intend to grasp it with both hands". Anuradha Desai added "We have great confidence in Steve, someone who impresses us with his work ethic, enthusiasm, positivity and football philosophy. We feel that the playing squad is in very safe and capable hands and we look forward to working with him. Stability is very important to us and this contract is further evidence of our desire to achieve such stability at the club."
Eight days prior to this, an assistant manager had also been appointed to aid Kean. John Jensen, former Arsenal midfielder and current SEM client, joined the club to replace Neil McDonald, who had been sacked along with Sam Allardyce in mid-December. Kean said of Jensen "his views and philosophies on football dovetail with mine and he has also shown himself to be a very loyal assistant – a massively important factor for me. I am delighted to welcome him aboard". Jensen meanwhile said that he viewed the appointment as "a great opportunity".
Rumours persisted that the squad were unsettled, and SEM agent Jerome Anderson was known to have made Rovers training ground Brockhall his base during the January transfer window. Despite a decent if not spectacular set of results since Steve Kean's appointment, Venky's still found themselves under scrutiny from the English media. Desai defended herself by saying "the impression is I've never watched a football match. I've not watched in a stadium but I have been watching the World Cup in India. I have watched hundreds of cricket matches but not live - it's all on TV. To say I don't have any knowledge would be wrong. I am a good listener."
Not only this, but Desai tried to further assuage the Rovers faithful by telling them "to trust us and give us some time and you will see for yourself that we are sincere people, very passionate about the football team and football club and our fans. We will not let you down". It was to be the first of many pleas for patience during the early years of Venky's ownership. After this initial period fans would rarely hear from Anuradha Desai again, although she did sign off this Sky Sports News interview by claiming the club were trying to re-sign Damien Duff. This would also come to nothing.
Ultimately, despite having some serious injury problems and badly in need of reinforcements, Rovers had an extremely underwhelming first transfer window under Venky's. Pascal Chimbonda and young prospect Alan Judge were let go, whilst the only permanent incomings were the completely unknown 22-year old Argentinean midfielder Mauro Formica (who Steve Kean referred to as "a young Gabriel Batistuta") and the somewhat unknown 19-year old Spanish starlet Ruben Rochina - signed from Newell's Old Boys and Barcelona B respectively.
The outlay on both players was undisclosed, but believed to be in the region of £3.5m for Formica and £400,000 for Rochina. It would later be revealed that over £1.6m was paid to Rochina's agent, four times more than the transfer fee itself. Rovers did also make two loan signings - former striker Roque Santa Cruz rejoined from Manchester City, whilst Schalke 04's American midfielder Jermaine Jones joined the club after a falling out with his manager at Schalke.
After Rovers impressive 3-1 win over Liverpool on January 5th, they were beaten 2-0 at Stamford Bridge by Chelsea before completing the double over West Brom by beating them 2-0 at Ewood on the 23rd January 2011. As the transfer window closed, Kean had been in charge for 7 matches, winning 3, drawing 1 and losing 3. A far from calamitous start, but things were about to go horribly wrong for Steve Kean and Blackburn Rovers. After beating West Brom on 23rd January, it would be over three months before Rovers fans experienced another victory in the Premier League.
February 2011 was an unmitigated disaster. The month started with a 1-0 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, which would be Anuradha Desai's final visit to Ewood Park. However, a far greater catastrophe befell the club just days later. John Williams, who had been Rovers' chairman for fourteen years, announced his resignation. There had been rumours that Williams had been unhappy since the arrival of Venky's, but his sudden decision to leave sent shockwaves throughout the fanbase.
The Guardian reported "Williams was dismayed by the sacking of Allardyce" back in December - a firing he had been forced to carry out on Venky's behalf - and had "contemplated resigning in protest". The paper also claimed that the resignation of Williams would not be a shock within the game "due to his widely-known concern over events at Ewood Park since Venky's arrival". Williams was diplomatic upon leaving, telling the club website that "there is a new order, a new way of doing things and I believe the time is right for me now to move on."
The Lancashire Telegraph - noting that Williams "was rated by his peers in the Premier League as one of the best chairmen in football" - further speculated that Williams' departure was prompted not just by concerns over the sacking of Sam Allardyce, but also "concerns over the role of sports agency SEM/Kentaro, which has been working with the owners on transfer policy", stating that "Mr Williams has not been party to the club’s inner circle in recent weeks."
Anuradha Desai, meanwhile, gave an exclusive interview to the Lancashire Telegraph to explain why John Williams had left the club. In this interview, she claimed that Williams had "lost interest in the role" after the sacking of Sam Allardyce and "didn't get on" with new manager Steve Kean. She also revealed that Williams "had struggled to accept Jerome (Anderson)'s role at the club", expanding further to say "Jerome has helped us but I want to be very clear that he does not run the club. We will be working with anybody and any agents to make this club successful but we are not controlled by his company. His role will now diminish."
The loss of Williams would have further ramifications for the club. Just hours after Williams announced his departure, Rovers' shirt-sponsor Crown Paints made it public that they would not be renewing their deal. The brand had been Rovers' sponsors for three years prior to this, but noted that they were "disappointed to hear the news of John’s departure from the club. He was an incredibly respected chairman and admired by so many people, both on a local and national level", making it obvious that Williams' departure had been a key part of their own decision to sever ties with the club.
Only days later the loss of Williams was compounded by a 4-3 loss away to Wigan Athletic, who were able to climb out of the relegation zone on the back of this victory. A 0-0 home draw with Newcastle United on February 12th was followed by a heavy 4-1 loss at relegation-threatened Aston Villa fourteen days later. Rovers had managed to gain just one point from a possible twelve in February, and were slipping towards the relegation zone, now just four points ahead of 18th placed West Brom.
Kean claimed after the Villa match that his side had been "trying to get a clean sheet as a platform" and had ended up having a "bad day" and left themselves "a little bit open". Rovers' cause in this match wasn't helped by Ryan Nelsen picking up an uncharacteristic red card for two yellow card offences.
There were only two Premier League matches in March, the first of which Rovers lost 3-2 away to Fulham, with the second being a disappointing 2-2 home draw against fellow strugglers Blackpool. Rovers were forced to come back from 2-0 down, with youngster Junior Hoilett striking in the dying seconds of injury time to equalise for Rovers. Despite this heartening comeback, Rovers had still only picked up a meagre two points from the previous eighteen available. The draw with Blackpool left the club in 13th but amazingly still only a single point above the relegation zone.
Rovers came under further scrutiny for non-footballing reasons towards the end of March when it was revealed that Myles Anderson - son of Jerome Anderson - was due to sign for Blackburn in the summer, having agreed to a pre-contract deal in January. Anderson was playing for Aberdeen at the time, but had only made one substitute appearance. He had actually had a trial at Rovers the previous summer, but the club had not taken up the option to sign him.
The Guardian reported that Steve Kean, himself a client of Jerome Anderson, had "stressed that Anderson will be signed for football reasons alone". They quoted Kean as saying "Myles Anderson is a player with great potential as a late developer. He could become something of a Chris Smalling who came through late in football and Myles has done the same because of his schooling. We think he has a lot of potential, but there was the opportunity for him to go to Scotland in January and we and he felt that would be a good experience for him."
With Rovers now fighting for their Premier League survival under their hapless new manager, the last thing the club needed was further off the field distractions. Unfortunately, key French defender Gael Givet became embroiled in a £275k tax dispute with Rovers. On 8th April it was revealed that this was the reason he had missed a crucial match against Birmingham City.
Steve Kean had told the press that Givet had not been "in the right frame of mind" to play the match - only days after he had claimed in an interview prior to the Birmingham match that "Gael has the ability to put it at the back of his mind" and that, having returned from suspension, "he is back in the squad and I am sure in the coming games he will have a massive part to play". Kean called Givet a "warrior" who would give his all for the cause, yet only days later refused to play him.
Givet wasn't the only player publicly unhappy. Nikola Kalinic, the Croatian striker signed for £6m by Sam Allardyce in the summer of 2009, was bemoaning his lack of game time. Not featured in Rovers' last four Premier League matches and completely frozen out of the squad for the previous fortnight, Kalinic told Croatian newspaper Sportske Novosti: "The only truth is that I’m unhappy with my status. I would just be happy if somebody would tell me why I have been pushed aside since my return from national team action".
Kean responded by saying, "there is no situation with Niko at all. He is under contract and is in the squad but we feel as though others are bringing different aspects to the team at the moment. Benjani has been looking very sharp and extremely dangerous in training and that has just given him the edge over Nikola Kalinic as far as a place on the substitutes was concerned". In truth, Kalinic had struggled for form under Allardyce as well, but could point to being the club's top goalscorer in the 2010-11 season - able to earn that accolade with just five goals.
Things would get worse still for Rovers, as Ryan Nelsen was injured midway through April and had to undergo knee surgery, ruling him out for the rest of the campaign. Chris Samba called for Rovers to end their dispute with Givet, his comments making it clear whose side he was on: “It is important we get Gael ready to play both mentally and physically. It has not been easy not having him around. He was recognised last season as the players’ player of the year. He is very committed and works hard in training and in games. He defends for his life. That is what we need that in the minute. We hope now we can get him back and mentally ready. I have spoken to him to try and stay up to date with what is happening. It is a small problem that should be settled by now and he is disappointed it hasn't been. I hope they will find an end to the story once and for all. The last couple of games is more important than a small problem that Gael has with the club.”
Rovers began April with an impressive 0-0 stalemate against Arsenal. This was followed by a winnable home match against Birmingham City, which Rovers could once again only get a single point from, as the teams played out a 1-1 draw, with Rovers missing Gael Givet due to the aforementioned tax dispute. The Frenchman would return for the next match, but couldn't stop Rovers succumbing to a 2-0 defeat against Everton at Goodison Park. Kean claimed after that match that "our belief is not shattered. Our team spirit has been called upon but we've got that in abundance."
On the 25th April Rovers lost again, going down 1-0 to Manchester City at Ewood Park. The defeat by City meant that, under Steve Kean, Rovers had only won two out of nine home matches. In contrast, Sam Allardyce had won four out of Rovers' first eight home matches before he was sacked. In terms of points, Allardyce had picked up 21 points from 17 matches. Since taking the reins, Steve Kean had only managed to accumulate 14 points from his first 17 matches.
The home loss to Manchester City left Rovers in 16th position, still only a point above the relegation zone with just four games left to play. The club was in freefall, under a truly dire run of form, which had seen them fail to register a win since January 23rd - ten games without a victory. Venky's released another statement pleading with the fans to give them a year to prove their worth as owners, whilst also confirming Steve Kean's job was safe despite a run of losses much worse than anything ever seen under Sam Allardyce.
By this point, many Rovers' fans had turned against Kean. It was generally accepted that the inexperienced Scot was horrendously out of his depth, struggling to gain the respect of key members of the squad. His ultra positive attitude had started to wear thin, whilst Venky's consistent backing of the manager only further served to frustrate the fanbase. Nonetheless, supporters continued to back the team, aware that relegation would be catastrophic and resigned to the fact Kean was going to be at Rovers until the end of the season at the very least.
The final match of April finally provided a little respite. On the 30th April 2011, Rovers recorded a long overdue home victory, deservedly defeating 8th placed Bolton Wanderers by a single Martin Olsson goal. This result lifted Rovers to 15th and opened a three-point gap between themselves and 18th placed Wigan, with Rovers having a vastly superior goal difference.
On 4th May, Rovers appointed Leicester City Commercial Director Paul Hunt as "deputy chief executive". It was a strange title, as Rovers technically did not have a chief executive to be deputy to. Hunt commented, "Blackburn Rovers is a great club with a fine tradition and I am truly excited about the prospect of working at Ewood Park. As a founding member of the Football League and one of only four teams to have won the Premier League in the modern era, the club has demonstrated innovation and has had great success. We must honour those traditions whilst looking forward to the future as we progress together with unity both on and off the field. I thank the owners for having the faith in me which I intend to repay with diligence and success."
A 1-1 away draw with West Ham followed on 7th May, followed by another hard-fought 1-1 draw at Ewood Park on 19th May against Manchester United, confirming United's record-breaking 19th Premier League title. It was an impressive point for Rovers, but it would be overshadowed by Steve Kean being arrested later that evening for drink driving. CM Solicitors posted that "Steve Kean, the Blackburn Rovers manager, has been charged with drink driving. Following the nail-biting 1-1 match against Manchester United, Kean was stopped on the M6 motorway by Cheshire Police. Kean was given a breathalyser test, which concluded that he was over the legal limit. He was charged with a drink driving offence and is to appear at Crewe Magistrates Court in June."
Although Rovers had managed five points from the last nine available, they went into the final day of the season still just one point above the relegation zone. In 15th on 40 points, Rovers' final match of the season pitted them away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were sitting in 16th, also on 40 points. Below them were Birmingham on 39 points, and Blackpool in 18th, also on 39 points. Wigan were in 19th on 36 points, but they had an extra game in hand, which they would go on to win. West Ham had already been relegated, propping up the Premier League table with 33 points.
Rovers saved arguably the best forty-five minutes of their season for the final match. Wolves found themselves 3-0 down at half time to a rampant Rovers, with goals from Jason Roberts, Brett Emerton and Junior Hoilett appearing to condemn the midlands club to relegation. A spirited fightback in the second half saw Wolves score two in response. Tottenham's victory over Birmingham meant that both Wolves and Rovers would survive at the expense of Blackpool and Birmingham, with Wigan's final day victory over Stoke giving them enough points to survive.
It had been a rollercoaster ride, but Rovers had secured Premier League survival for another season. Rovers finished the season on 43 points, in 15th place. Their ten game winless streak combined with injuries, suspensions and personal issues had come close to costing them their Premier League status, but eight points from their final four games had seen them over the line. After the Wolves match, Kean said it had been "a bumpy ride" but that the club now had "stability, a way of playing" and that he was "very excited for next season".
It was fair to say that by the time the curtain had fallen on the 2010-11 season, Rovers' January signings had not proven to be of much use. Jermaine Jones had been a combative presence in midfield, but Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica had barely featured at all. Rochina didn't make his league debut until the 2-0 defeat to Everton on 16th April, whilst Formica - the young Batistuta who had been handed a four year contract - had not featured a single time for the first team in the 2010-11 season. In the meantime, Roque Santa Cruz managed nine appearances but struggled with fitness, which was unsurprising. Rovers were well aware of Santa Cruz' injury proneness before they agreed to loan him back from Manchester City. He didn't manage a single goal in any of his nine appearances.
Rovers went into the close season lurching from one disaster to the next. The first six months of Venky’s ownership had given supporters a frightening glimpse into a troubled future. Fans reflected at how the club had gone from being run so professionally to the shambles it was becoming so quickly, but even then people hoped that Venky’s would learn from their mistakes and start to run the club properly. In the next installment, we move onto the 2011-2012 season.