As the dust settles on Blackburn Rovers relegation from the SkyBet Championship to League 1, the enormity of the situation becomes greater almost with each passing day – not just the task of getting back to the Championship first, and then the Premier League; but also just balancing the books and remaining in existence.
Rovers relegation on the the final day of the season at Griffin Park made them the first former Premier League Champions to be relegated to the third tier of English football and the first time the Lancashire club had been in the old third division since 1979, when Rovers finished bottom of the old second division. In 1979, the hiatus from the second tier lasted only one season, with Rovers promoted at the first attempt, finished second in the division to Grimsby.
The landscape has changed somewhat since the last visit to the depths of the Third Division; not only is it now regarded as League 1, but the financial gap has never been greater. Back in 1979, a footballers wage would have more akin to the regular man’s and in the third division many players would probably have a second job to supplement the income from football, a trade they would more than likely continue at the end of their playing career. In 1979 Peter Shilton became the highest paid player by signing a new contract with Nottingham Forest for £1,200 a week – putting this in perspective, the majority of the Blackburn side relegated at Brentford would have been on at least that, and that is playing for a second tier side. The Clubs themselves were worth a lot less financially then than they are now, and there was no lucrative TV deal to support clubs – they relied on gate receipts, sponsorships and generous owners; but the days of Jack Walker’s investment were still some 12 long years away. In the same year, the first million pound transfer took place with Trevor Francis moving from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest for £1m – in 2012, Championship club Leicester City paid £1m for non-league Fleetwood Town striker Jamie Vardy.
Fast-forward 38 years and Blackburn Rovers find themselves back in the third division staring at a completely different prospect to that which would have been seen by then player-manager Howard Kendall and his team consisting of Jim Arnold, Stuart Parker and Kevin Stonehouse. For a start, the club are already in dire straits financially with debt already spiralling before the relegation (at the beginning of the 1978-79 relegation season, Rovers reported a profit of over £110,000 enabling the club to reduce its debts by about a third) – the impact of relegation financially will most importantly mean they will only receive £1m in television money for the 2017-18, compared to the £6m they would have received in the Championship. Even if Rovers could get 10,000 through the gate at Ewood every week, this would only make up £3m of the difference, and it is likely this money has already been allocated elsewhere – so it is safe to assume the £5m shortfall will have to be made up elsewhere. Most likely this will be wages and transfers (the club only spent £250,000 the previous summer).
The problem Rovers have is that the goal for the season has to be promotion at the first attempt, the cost of failing to achieve this could be catastrophic. But the books also need to be balanced. In 2012 when the club were relegated from the Premier League to the Championship a massive gamble was taken using the parachute money to bring in the likes of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Leon Best and Nuno Gomes to name a few, all on high wages for the division – the gamble did not pay off and is, in my opinion, why we are in the football and financial situation we currently find ourselves in. Obviously the transfer budget is not there this time around for a spending spree (probably for the best), so the club need to be careful with wages. The wages paid in the Championship are going to be too high to sustain, especially for a club on the edge of the financial precipice already – so the club need to balance the release of those on high wages at the end of their contracts, with the retaining of the quality of those who remain under contract with, whilst also bringing in funds from the sale of assets to help to continue to balance the books. Mowbray has said the same since relegation, that we need to ensure we are competitive both on the field and financially. It truly is a massive balancing act.
The first action came the day after relegation with Paul Senior resigning from his role as Director of Football and Operations – he was the man thought to be responsible for bringing Tony Mowbray in, but given the lack of funds, is there much need for the role at League 1 level when you are hamstrung in the market looking only at loanees and free transfers. My opinion is that I would rather his wage be spent on someone who can improve out chances of promotion, ie a striker.
Ten days later, news was announced of who was being retained and released by the club at the end of the season (those who are out of contract and either being offered a contract or not). The list of those released: Jason Lowe, Adam Henley, Hope Akpan, Danny Guthrie, Gordon Greer, Wes Brown, Joshua Askew and Ramirez Howarth. Those who were offered a new deal were just Connor Mahoney and Lewis Travis – it is worth pointing out that although they have been re-engaged, it does not mean they have to sign for the club. In addition to the above list, a number of the scholars at the club (8 to be precise) have also not been retained. It is also worth pointing out that according to the Clubs website we do not currently have a goalkeeping coach. So were does this leave the squad?
The remaining playing squad consists of:
Goalkeepers: Jason Steele, David Raya, Andy Fisher (3)
Defenders: Derrick Williams, Charlie Mulgrew, Elliot Ward, Ryan Nyambe, Scott Wharton, Jack Doyle, Lewis Travis, Matthew Platt, Lewis Hardcastle (9)
Midfielder: Liam Feeny, Darragh Lenihan, Willem Tomlinson, Connor Mahoney, Corey Evans, Elliot Bennett, Craig Conway, Connor Thomson, Joe Grayson, Joe Rankin-Costello, Tyler Magloire (11)
Forwards: Anthony Stokes, Danny Graham, Lewis Mansell (3)
On paper this is not a bad squad, but I would expect there to be further departures – before the start of the season I would expect the club to receive offers for the likes of Graham, Mulgrew, Evans, Bennett and maybe Conway. It will be interesting to see how the club responds to these offers, as I would imagine these will also be the highest earners at the club. Do they sell and save the money, or do they try and keep hold of them in the hope they can get promoted at the first attempt? In many ways, these decisions could mould the future of the club – do they take another massive financial hit for the year and gamble on an immediate promotion? Or do they cut their losses and almost start from scratch, putting trust in the academy and youth development players? If history is anything to go by, the latter may be the more sensible option. The fans won’t be happy with this as they will want to see a team that runs away with the division, but in the long term this decision is more sensible financially, and could secure the long term future of the club.
One way to look at it is if Rovers had stayed up on the final day of the season, yes they would have received more money, and yes they have a good experienced manager in Mowbray, but would that additional money be spent on keeping the club competitive in the division or to pay off existing debts? Neither of which is a long term solution – like putting a plaster on and amputated arm. Would it not make more sense to take the hit and get relegated; accept that financially we can’t compete and ‘start again’. Release those players who the club have no obligation to retain freeing up money from wages; wait and see what offers come in for those players who have a saleable value (and as such also the higher wages) and bring funds in from their sale, and save money from their wages; and then promote from within, utilising the youth development squad complimented with sensible free transfers and loanees to provide the experience?
When Jack Walker bought the club back in 1991 he wanted to make it self-financing in the long term, developing youth who could go on to play in the first team, reducing the amount of money which would have to be spent on transfers. In 1996 an official youth structure was put in place and in 2001 Brockhall Village Academy – during and since this period, the Blackburn Rovers youth teams have been one of the most successful in the country, and players who have emerged from it have included the likes of Neil Danns, Joe Garner, Paul Gallagher, Alan Judge and Phil Jones. Others have come through the Academy and been sold or released and have gone on to have successful careers. The academy at Brockhall is still widely regarded as one of the best in the Country.
Upon relegation a lot of media outlets jumped on the band-wagon of “Jack Walker turning in his grave” at what the Venkys have done to his football club; and they would not be wrong. However, at this eleventh hour, Jack Walker could once again provide the saviour and hero of the club. His foresight to build the academy back in 1990’s may have produced some talented gems over the years who the club have reaped the rewards of financially and on the pitch, but in the clubs darkest hour, the Academy could be the shining light that not only rescues the club financially, but allows them a second chance on the pitch. What is clear is that under absolutely no circumstances should the idea of selling the academy and/or the land it is built on be considered. During the last campaign the likes of Mahoney, Raya, Wharton and Tomlinson all made appearences for the first team and none of them looked out of their depth – yes they are only a small percentage of the players available, but it is a sign that even without the ‘big names’ we could still be competitive in League 1. Like all Rovers fans, I want a quick return to the Championship (and hopefully eventually the Premier League) but not at the cost of the club going out of business. If it takes a few years, but it means we are on a level footing financially as a result, I’d take that.
You never know, financial stability may make the club more attractive to local businesses who want to invest and tempt the Venkys to part with the club, I’m not a marketing guru but I can’t imagine they will get much positivity publicity globally from owning a club in the old third division.
Final Thought – similarities between 1979 and 2017:
The 1978-79 season started disastrously and there was unrest from the supporters and local press, and despite signings, the manager Jim Iley was sacked at the end of September after only 172 days. The club was by now embroiled in a relegation battle and Caretaker-Manager John Pickering was appointed, and then given the job until the end of the season in February 1979. A number of players where signed and this brought an upturn in results, but the damage had already been done and the club where relegated, but there was support for Pickering who had done a good job in his time at the helm – not too dissimilar to the support shown for Mowbray in 2017. Back in 1979 however the board decided not to renew Pickering’s contract and instead brought in Howard Kendall as a player-manager, despite him never having managed before. Despite his inexperience, Kendall’s Rovers finished second in the league which largely owed to an unbeaten 15 game run which consisted of 14 victories and draw. If Mowbray was to leave Ewood during the summer, could there be some symmetry with what Kendall achieved in his first role, and what David Dunn could potentially achieve if given the nod?
Note: Facts and content from the 1978-79 season taken form the book “Blackburn Rovers: The Complete Record” by Mike Jackman – well worth a read for any Rovers fan.