On Monday night, Newcastle United did what so many teams set out with the intention to do but so often fail – return to the Premier League at the first attempt. At the opposite end of the table, this weekend (weekend of the 29/30th April) are also the first weekend that Blackburn Rovers could mathematically be relegated. It could have been so much different though.
In my current line of work, Project Management revolves around the critical path of projects – what milestones do you need to meet in order to deliver a project on time and on budget. At Ewood Park, this weekends potential relegation and continued demise all goes back to the Summer of 2012, the Summer following relegation from the Premier League. It was at this point in time that the wheels were set in motion for the club to end up in its current state. I’m not denying that there have been opportunities to realign the critical path and avoid the fate which potentially awaits the team, but ultimately, decisions made (or not made) that Summer are what will sentence the club to its fate.
Yes, you can argue that the demise started when the Venkys bought the club in November 2010, or even when they sacked Sam Allardyce later that year; but the line in the sand moment followed relegation in 2012 when there was an opportunity to start afresh, an opportunity for the Venkys to admit to their flaws and turn it around being the club drifted to far in to the abyss.
At the beginning of their first season in the Championship, the Blackburn Rovers squad was arguably better than the one that had been relegated, and better on paper than many teams promoted since. The signing of Danny Murphy was met with excitement: a midfielder confident on the ball who could unlock defences, with his old mate Dickson Euthu beside him to do his legwork and protect him; and once he’d picked that pass, the experienced Portuguese international Nuno Gomes to put the ball away or slide in the most prolific man in the Football League, Jordan Rhodes. At the very least, the team should’ve been challenging for the top 6.
That Summer in 2012, the Venkys spent serious money on both transfers and wages, investing in an attempt to get the club promoted at the first time of asking – but they made one big mistake; they kept Steve Kean.
Steve Kean will forever be seen as the man who oversaw the beginning of Blackburn’s downfall. Yes, he may have been a good coach, but he was not a manager. A bigger more self aware man would have resigned at the end of the 2010-11 season when Rovers stayed up on the last day, aware that he was in over his head, but he didn’t. Instead he stayed on and oversaw a horrendous 2011-12 campaign which ended in relegation. By not removing him from his position, but still investing, the Venkys may as well have burnt their money as there was no way the fans would get behind Kean and the team the way a team needs when they are pushing for promotion.
The Venkys had many viable reasons to sack Kean as well as his poor performance as a manager: his off the pitch issues regarding drink driving; the charges of slander from Sam Allardyce; and the continued unrest from the supporters – but they kept him in charge, and in doing so started the club along the critical path to where we are today.
That first season in the Championship when optimism about an immediate return should have been so high, and the quality of the pitch should have been so much better that the previous season, turned in to a shambles which saw 5 different men managing the team in some capacity over the season. Suffice to say, the opportunity was well and truly missed. Financially, the club has never recovered and the spending from that Summer has ultimately crippled the club.
As a result of the over spending without success, the wage budget has had to be slashed to a fraction of what it was in 2012 and has had to operate on a shoe-string transfer budget relying on freebies and loanees. For the 2016-17 season Rovers only paid a fee for one player, left back Derrick Williams, just over £200k – markedly different to the £8m spent on Jordan Rhodes.
Before the first game of the 2012-13 season against Ipswich Town, newly appointed Global Advisor Shebby Singh told fans that Kean was 3 straight defeats away from losing his job. This may have been an attempt to get the fans on site but it hardly got the fans behind the team; many seeing 3 losses as a necessary evil to rid the club of Kean once and for all. Surely if Singh wanted rid of Kean this should have been done in the Summer when there was good reason (relegation, drink driving, slander), leaving the club with the opportunity to bring in a manager experienced in the division and given them the funds (or even just the players) to get the team promoted. Kean eventually resigned from his position as manager after 4 wins in 6 to start the season (wins which ultimately kept us up as fate would have it), the night before the away game at Charlton Athletic, despite having travelled with the team, saying that his position had become “untenable” and he was no longer prepared to carry on as manager. How this became known to him only at 7pm the night before a fixture having travelling down to the hotel is beyond me, and is another examples of the mans selfishness and incompetence. At the time of his resignation Rovers had lost only one game (at home to Middlesbrough the game before) and they sat 4th in the table after a draw the following day at Charlton. What followed can only be described as a circus (2 different permanent managers and 3 caretaker stints which ultimately resulted in Rovers narrowly avoiding relegation). A modern season equivalent would be Rafa Benetiz leaving Newcastle, their big signings never being seen again, and Newcastle finishing the season they were supposed to get promoted, in 18th place.
It is as clear to see today as it was back in 2012 that what should have happened was Kean should have been sacked, at the latest in early Summer in 2012 (if not months before), and a fresh start made. A manager with experience of the Championship, or just with any managerial experience, would have given some hope of promotion with the squad assembles that summer. A Crystal Palace squad many had predicted to be fighting for survival won the pay-offs under Ian Holloway, and remain in the Premier League to this day. I can’t say who the appointment should have been but like a Steve Bruce, a Mick McCarthy, a Neil Warnock, or other similar manager with experience of promotion would have been perfect. We could have done worse than try and twist Souness’s arm to come out of retirement. In fact, when Michael Appleton left after his short stint, Mark Hughes was without a job and without many offers – he would have been ideal. Yes he would’ve cost money, but it would have been money well spent. He would have had the supporters on side immediately and looking upwards. Instead, when Kean finally left, we opted for Henning Berg who had no experience of management in England and limited experience elsewhere; and after Berg was sacked we opted even more inexperience in Michael Appleton; as boardroom unrest began – something which has continued to this day.
The team that played on the last day of the 2011-12 season consisted of: Kean, Olsson, Givet, Dann, Henley, Formica/Morris, Pedersen/Rochina, Olsson, Lowe, Hoilett and Yakubu. The one which started the first game of the next season in the Championship consisted of: Robinson, Lowe, Givet, Dann, Orr, Formica, Murphy, Etuhu, Pedersen, Gomes and Kazim-Richards. The team that got Crystal Palace promoted that same season: Speroni, Ward, Moxey, Delaney, Gabbidon, Dikgacoi, Garvan, Jedinak, Williams, Zaha and Wilbraham. Out of these 3 the one most likely for promotion surely has to be the one which started the 2012-13 campaign for Blackburn.
So as Newcastle head back to the Premier League it is through sad eyes that I think about what could have been had the right decisions been made back in 2012 – that could have been us. Who knows, had we got back in to the Premier League we may even have achieved that Champions League promise. Instead, we head in to this weekends fixtures knowing that realistically back to back wins are needed against Aston Villa and Brentford to have any chance of staying in the second tier.
Final note, as I have put this piece together, another level of Kean’s incompetence has become apparent. In that season we got relegated, Rovers took a young Frenchman on loan. He only made 9 appearances and failed to find the back of the net, but has since found the net 72 times in 154 games and sees himself 3rd in the top scorers list of the Bundesliga, behind only Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. That man was a certain Anthony Modeste. In his first appearance for Rovers he won a penalty and rightly wanted to take it, only for David Dunn to take the ball off him and miss – if he’d took the penalty and scored, who knows what might have been…