Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Aston Villa Gamble

Relegated as one of the worst sides in Premier League history, despite being a league member since its inception, many believed at the end of the 2015-16 season that Villa were destined to jump on the Pompey highway and tumble down the divisions.

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Their relegation came following the initial optimism of management under the enthusiastic Tim Sherwood, which quickly turned to realisation that his management skills were limited to jumping around the touchline wearing a fashionable club gilet and trying to motivate his players to perform – a task he failed somewhat miserably at. Sherwood was replaced by Remi Garde, a man linked with every vacant job in the Premier League since his successful stint on the coaching staff at Lyon with Paul Le Guen during which they won the title. Garde brought with him a sense of optimism that they could get out of the struggle they found themselves in and potentially aim higher with a bright young manager in future seasons. How wrong they were – the rot continued under Garde, at arguably a worse rate as they failed to muster any sort of fight to stay up; if only Villa’s performances had been as impressive as Joleon Lescott’s ability to unlock his phone and post a picture of his Mercedez all whilst being in his back pocket. By mid-April their fate was sealed, following the sacking of Garde who won only 3 out of 23 games he took charge of, with Eric Black taking charge until the end of the season.

So Villa tumbled through the trap door and in to the Championship, manager less and with a mixture of experienced players on high wages, and youngsters who had looked somewhat out of their depth in the top flight. A worrying time for Villa fans as the scaremonger’s circled and hinted at a bigger demise. Villa turned to Roberto Di Matteo to get them back to the Premiership or at least stop the rot – a Champions League winning manager and manager who had previously got local rivals out of the Championship (remember the last time they appointed a local rivals’ manager?).

Since appointing Di Matteo Villa have spent approximately £38m on the signings of McCormack, Chester, Jedinak, Elphick and others; whilst selling £15m-worth of players in Gueye, Clark and Sinclair – a net spend of £23m; not a lot, but a significant amount in the second tier.

Thus begins a cautionary tale:

In 2012 Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League with a relatively good squad and decided that in order to get back to the big time, and fast, they had to invest in players. That summer before the 2012-13 season they spent roughly £14.4m (a considerable amount in the pre-mega TV deal days) on transfers and a hefty amount in wages to free transfers like Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, all in an attempt to jump straight back up using the money left over from the Premier League and the money to come from parachute payments. The gamble didn’t pay off and by the turn of the year the club was facing a double relegation following 3 managers and a court case. They didn’t get back that season, the following season, nor the season after that, and they now find themselves propping up the Championship in +£100m debt.

So are Villa walking a tight rope and is their spending reckless? On first glances you would say it is a massive gamble which is heavily reliant on the managerial expertise of a man who most recently guided a talented team the Champions League trophy, getting the most out of a relatively average squad of players, bolstered by some big money signings. Dig a little deeper though and this is a different scenario all together to the one at Ewood in 2012.

When Blackburn were relegated they stuck with the man who took them down, Steve Kean, a man who fans had turned on many months earier and a man who defiantly insisted he was the best man for the job despite evidence to the contrary and a man who argued he still had the support of the fans (which he definitely did not). At Villa they have brought in a manager who has experience of the division and of English football in general, who has successfully gained promotion before – he is a gamble, but a measured one given his experience.

Aston Villa followed relegation by being sold to a new owner with enthusiasm to take the club back to the top, and who has backed-up his enthusiasm with finances to potentially achieve this. At Blackburn, the Venkys were already well established for not really ‘getting’ football, the realism of transfers or the fact that relegation can happen (we’re still awaiting the arrival of Beckham and Ronaldhino), and in the summer following relegation it is rumoured that they put the future of the club in the hands of others to agree transfers. It might have looked like ambition and promise at the time, but it soon became clear the problems at the club were far more deep-rooted than the playing staff. At a time when the supporters wanted dialogue and communications with those running the club there was a deafening silence from Pune, which only soured relations further. At Villa they now have an owner in Tony Xia who tweets and interviews and tells of his ambition for the club. At Blackburn we struggle to get a press release from the owners when a viable, fan backed, takeover bid is put forward.

The investment in players and the appointment of an experienced manager at Villa won’t guarantee success in terms of promotion or stability in terms of survival but they are making the right steps, and by keeping the fans on board the new owner has given the club a chance – whether they have the players, talent or mental capacity to achieve either of these is still to be seen.

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Europe to the brink of League 1 in 10 years

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Ten years ago this weekend, Blackburn took on Portsmouth in the first game of the 2006-07 Premier League season. Their sixth season in the top tier following promotion from the Football League First Division, after only a two year stay in the second tier. Although the opening day of the season saw a 3-0 defeat away at (ironically) Portsmouth, there was a sense of optimism at the club following the summer signings of South Africa’s leading all-time goal scorer Benni McCarthy, former Champions League finalist Shabani Nonda, and the Dutch defender Andre Ooijer. The previous season Blackburn had finished the previous season in 6th place behind only Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Fast forward 10 years and in the same weekend, Blackburn lie bottom of the Championship, drawing 2-2 with newly promoted Burton Albion (a team who ten years ago where in the Football Conference), following three defeats to Norwich, newly promoted local rivals Wigan, and Cardiff – the only team on 1 point in the division.

Back in 2006-07 there was a sense of excitement around the football team – throughout the summer months I would keep a close eye on Skysports and the local and national media to see who potential comings and goings would be, prophesising about who would be a good fit or who could be the biggest name we could attract. That summer we signed Benni McCarthy of the best European striker of the previous 5 years, a Champions League winner. As well as looking at who we could bring in, there was always the worry that key players could be snapped up by the bigger clubs – the previous season had seen brilliant performances from the likes of David ‘the new Beckham’ Bentley, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brett Emerton, all players who had been linked with moves away – but we had managed to hold on to them.

In 2016-17 times have changed somewhat. The attendance against Burton yesterday was 10,356 – the lowest league attendance at Ewood Park since the month after Kenny Dalglish took charge in October 1991 when Rovers were in the old Division Two; this includes the period when Ewood Park was being redeveloped. Of those 10,356 it could be argued that only around 10-20% showed any sort of emotion when Burton twice equalised. Rather than the anger, disappointment and want to apportion blame that has followed many a goal conceded, there was a sense of inevitability and acceptance. A sense that it was bound to happen and that the supporters half expected it. You could call it a lack of passion, but these supporters have been through a lot in the last 5 years, never mind the last ten. In the space of 5 years, Blackburn Rovers have gone from being a mid-to-top-table Premiership club, well run, regularly attracting crowds of 20,000+ and contending in Europe – to a side who in allegedly hundreds of millions of pounds of debt; attendances struggling to break the 13,000 mark; hunting for free transfers; and on their 6th manager in 5 years (that including a two and a half year stint from Gary Bowyer).

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Attendances have shrunk significantly over the past 5 years

In the early 2000’s Blackburn were seen as the shining light of how to run a top division team in a small town without building up masses and masses of debt. They never spent beyond their means yet always outperformed where there spending on transfers and wages should have placed them. This was in no small part down to the Chairman/Chief Executive John Williams.

Now instead of spending the summer exciting/worrying about potential new players in and stars leaving, there is no checking of websites or media outlets, only the hope that we have a squad of players come the first day of the season with the ability to compete. All hopes are placed in finding a player on a free transfer who has dropped down the leagues but has the talent to get back to the top, or in loan deals bringing in players of higher quality looking to show their ability to their parent clubs. The turnover of players in five years has been incredible; even from the starting line up from the first game of the season the defence featured only one player, the captain Jason Lowe. Even when players leave the club now there is a sense of acceptance that we probably need the money to pay off debt or to reduce the wage bill; but we have been saying this for a number of years now, yet we are still a selling club who has to balance the books and pay off the debt – surely there can’t be many players left at the club on Premier League wages, or who could potentially generate a big transfer fee (by big I mean more than £2.5m).

In the last five years Blackburn have sold (reported fees):

  • Phil Jones (£22m)
  • Nikola Kalinic (£7m)
  • Yakubu (£1m)
  • Junior Hoilett (£4m)
  • Steven Nzonzi (£4m)
  • Martin Olsson (£2m)
  • Mauro Formica (£0.6m)
  • Alan Judge (£0.35m)
  • Tom Cairney (£3.5m)
  • Josh King (£2m)
  • Rudy Gestede (£6m)
  • Marcus Olsson (£1m)
  • Jordan Rhodes (£9m)
  • Grant Hanley (£6m)

Total Monies raised: £68.45m

And signed (reported fees):

  • David Goodwillie (£2.8m)
  • Radosav Petrovic (£2.7m)
  • Simon Vukcevic (£2m)
  • Yakubu (£1.5m)
  • Scott Dann (£8m)
  • Jordan Slew (£1m)
  • Leon Best (£3m)
  • Dickson Etuhu (£1.5m)
  • Jordan Rhodes (£8m)
  • Corry Evans (£0.6m)
  • Ben Marshall (£1m)
  • Shane Duffy (£0.4m)

Total monies out/spent = £32.5m

‘The Venkys’ bought a 99.9% stake in Blackburn Rovers in November 2010 spending £23m on the deal and taking on around £20m of the clubs debt. In its most simplistic form, they spend £43m on buying the club and debt; then have spent £32.5m on transfers (total spending = £75.5m) and raised £68.45m from transfers – the visible profit and loss from this stands at -£7.05m, arguably they could have more than halved the debt they took on board. However, as I say, this is only looking at the simple figures of transfers, and only those which we know the value of – what this doesn’t take in to account is the money spent on players wages, staff and operating costs, and agents fees. As of June this year (2016), the Lancashire Telegraph reported that although losses had improved by almost £25m, the debt still stood at £104.2m (these are the figures for the 2014-15 season). So this begs the question, where has the other £97m debt come from? A relatively large percentage of this will have arisen from wages and operating costs which aren’t covered by ticket sales, especially given the decrease in attendances – but the question needs to be asked, why are players on wages which aren’t aligned to a sustainable model for income against expenditure (i.e. keeping the amount which isn’t covered by season tickets as low as possible), especially given that the club are in the second tier and haven’t mounted a serious promotion challenge since relegation? Are they overpaid for their level of performances? If this is the case, who has agreed these deals? This brings us on to two key points in the demise of Blackburn Rovers – who is actually running the club day to day and approving transfers and wages for players who clearly aren’t of the standard required (the same could be said of >80% of the previous 6 managers)? And why have such astronomical amounts been paid to footballers’ agents in these deals?

I said earlier that there was arguably a lack of passion at Ewood Park when the opposition scores – let me clarify this: there is no lack of passion. What has happened at Ewood is that from the months after the Venkys bought the club, the supporters have known something wasn’t quite right. The sacking of Sam Allardyce was the start of this; followed by the appointment of a little known coach as manager; followed by the new improved contracts offered to key players who then mysteriously became injured and released/sold, only to make a Lazarus-like recovery; followed by the resignation of senior members of the clubs hierarchy (John Williams et al) as they didn’t feel they were being consulted or used appropriately given their previous experience and successes. This all culminated in a number of protests at Ewood before, during and after games mainly aimed at the frustrations and lack of confidence in the Manager – this gained national press for a while, but soon it became old news, and many of the supporters were criticised for wanting an inexperienced manager out before the club was relegated – eventually, the inevitable happened and Blackburn were relegated, with a game to spare. Again the fans called for the Manager to go, but unbelievably he kept his job, and was given vast amounts of money to spend (which evidently the club couldn’t afford).  Eventually Kean resigned and so commenced a further period of uncertainty and backroom hi-jinks as Blackburn got through two managers in the space of four and a half months as backroom staff wrestled for control and authority – eventually resulting in a £2.25m pay-off to Berg. When Michael Appleton was sacked in March 2013, a second relegation in as many seasons looked a likely outcome to the season, fortunately reserve team coach Gary Bowyer stepped up and ensured survival, and was then given the job for a further 2 full seasons. During Bowyer’s time in charge he was forced to hunt for free transfers and loan signings whilst having to sell his best players, and maintain a team capable of challenging for the top 6 – there were times during this period that players would appear on the pitch and supporter’s would have no idea who they, were they came from or what to expect, only for them to be released or called back to parent clubs shortly afterwards, there seemed to be an ever-revolving door of players coming in and out. Bowyer was sacked part way through the 2015-16 season as the club sat in mid-table despite having sold key squad members. Paul Lambert was given the job and promptly advised that Jordan Rhodes would be sold. Performances towards the end of the season were lacklustre and poor, and at times relegation was again a possibility – at the end of the season Lambert advised he would be leaving in the summer, rumoured due to be because of unfulfilled promises. Blackburn started the 2016-17 season with former Burnley, Bolton, Wigan and Houston Dynamo’s manager Owen Coyle in charge – much to the disappointment of fans. Never has a former Burnley manager then managed Blackburn.

Blackburn fans aren’t a wanting or overly expectant bunch. They are under no illusions that they should be battling for the top 6 of the Premier League at the minute, or arguably the top 6 of the Championship. All they are looking for is some hope. Hope that maybe things will get better; maybe it will be a long journey to get back to where they were 10 years ago and maybe it will take twice as long as that to do it, but they would be happy to know that there was a journey and not just the constant disappointment and farce that is the running of the club at the minute. The owners, Venkys, haven’t been seen at the club for years and very rarely speak to the media about the club or to calm fans fears. I am a lifelong supporter and season ticket holder and I couldn’t even tell you who our Chairman or Chief Executive is, or if we even have one. I don’t know what the owners expectations are for the season, next season or if they even have a 5 year plan. What I do know is that if I had invested £43m in to a football club, I would at least go and watch them in person every once in a while, and try to keep the fans on board and get bums on seats to raise much-needed money. But there is nothing comes from them other than the occasional press release saying they are 100% committed to the club and share the fans frustrations – this isn’t good enough. This summer they proved that they know nothing about English football, fandom or even the local area. To appoint a man who has previously managed the clubs bitterest rivals shows a complete ignorance of the clubs history and a lack of interest in what the fans wanted or definitely didn’t want. This decision will have cost season ticket sales. To further frustrations, after the club lost 4-1 at home on the opening day of the season they decided to jokingly muse that club stalwart Morten Gamst Pedersen may be re-signing, only to then announce that it was a joke and that he was only visiting. Let’s not forget that Pedersen scored some 35 goals in 288 games for the club and stuck with them during times of intense transfer speculation; when the club were relegated to the Championship it was rumoured that some people high up in the club had said he was too old to play at this level – at the time he was one of the best technical players in the squad. In the end he was shown the back door Karabukspor after having been forced to train with the youth development squad for a number of weeks. His bond with the Blackburn fans was shown when he came over to the supporters after a game he hadn’t played in shortly before his move and received rapturous applause. He could definitely still do a job in the side today, 3 years after leaving. For the club to joke that he may be re-signing is absolutely unbelievable and again shows that there is no awareness from the owners/club as to what the supporters are going through.

If I could ask the Blackburn Rovers owners one question, it would be: “What is your end game for the club?” If it was because they loved football, they would be at more games (or at least some games). If it was for the love of the club, they would again be in attendance at games, and they would not have let it get in to its current state. If it was to make money, they have had ample opportunities to sell either upon relegation or upon receipt of the parachute payments before the club was plunged in to debt. Further still, offers have been made which would allow them an exit from the club without it costing them a fortune, or offers which would allow them to be part owners without putting any more money in – but they have rejected both. Is it for the marketing potential for their chicken meat processing business? If so, why isn’t Ewood Park plastered in signs and logos and why isn’t their product sold in the stadium and local vicinity? Surely there is no marketing potential in the Championship to reach an international audience as you can’t buy the product in this country. So what exactly do they want from the club?

There has been a lot of activity from supporters of the club this past week to raise awareness of the current plight of the club and raise questions about previous dealings. In an ideal world this will bring back the national media attention and at least force the Venkys to answer questions about their dealings and intentions, in an ideal world it might start the process of the sale of the club to more competent and interested hands. What I fear is that the same old story will be played out again: the Venkys will release a statement saying they are fully committed to the club and getting back to the Premier League and they are not interested in selling, but will welcome discussions with fans, which will never happen.

If things don’t change, the club is only going one way, further down the ladder to League 1.

At least we have a big screen they can advertise on in League 1.

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