Europe to the brink of League 1 in 10 years


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).


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.

Riches to rags, a Blackburn Rovers story

Back in the 1990’s Blackburn Rovers where the Manchester City or Chelsea of the then First Division – 20 years on and they teetering on the precipice of financial regulation and penalty. Where did it all go so wrong?

As the financial reports for the tax year to June 2013 are were published earlier this month, it did not make for good reading for Blackburn Rovers fans. Following relegation and a dismal showing last season, their mood was made no better by the news  that a club once renowned for its savvy dealings and operations on a relative shoe-string – once thought to be one of the best run clubs in the English game – was operating well outside of its means.

According to reports, the club currently has a wages to turnover ratio of 136%, meaning that it must find an additional £10m per year just to continue to pay the players and the staff employed by the club – not taking in to account transfers. Although last year the club posted, surprisingly, a profit over the year, this year’s report highlights a £36.5m loss.

When the Venky’s bought the Lancashire club and announced they would be signing big and dipping in to their deep pockets for the likes of Ronaldinho to propel the club to the Champions League within 2 years – many laughed. However, looking back now, they weren’t a million miles off, the only difference being that the money has been spent on a series of mistakes and the backing of bad advice and decisions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount spent on average, over the hill players, agents fees, manager and player pay-offs and court cases wasn’t near a magical sum that would bring you a Brazilian Superstar. And I don’t mean Bruno Ribeiro.

Anyone looking at the club 3 years ago would have a seen a club out-performing its town’s status, but doing so because it was so well run. A tight wage structure, a limit on transfer spending, and only spending the money on players deemed worthy of the shirt. Fast forward to the present day and not only are the names in the team relatively un-recognisable, the background staff have all changed, and with them the savvy running of the club. Instead of managing year upon year to pay the bills, with a financial structure which roughly made ends meet (turnover being the same as spending), we have a club trying to recover from nearly spiralling to League 2 and potential administration. It begs the question, where did it all go wrong? The simple answer is the sale of the club to foreign owners with no association or real interest in the club or town – but I think that would be unfair to the owners. They have obviously put their money where their mouths are and as a result shown a commitment, it is what they have spent that money on which has landed them in the current predicament.

1)      When they first bought the club, they signed the clubs stars up to new and improved contracts, you would imagine, to fend off interest from other clubs. The likes of Samba, Robinson, Salgado, Roberts and Nelson all received new deals, presumably on more money. Yet a few months down the line they were all sold, probably for nowhere near their value when the Venkys came in. The likes of Salgado, Nelson and Roberts went for nothing and before this, were seemingly not allowed to play for the club. During this time there is a good chance that the clubs wage structure was changed, impacting on the wages to turnover ratio; and combine this with poor performances, which could arguably have been improved had those who were ‘injured’ played , the situation with the league table could have been different – reflecting higher prize money come the end of the season.

2)      One of the Venkys first big money actions was to bring Roque Santa Cruz in on loan from Manchester City for six months, at the price of paying his £90k a week from January until May (roughly over a million pounds in wages). The wage structure was well and truly shattered, and to make matters worse, he didn’t even score a single goal, possibly not a single assist at the same time.

3)      Following relegation from the Premier League, part of the master plan for immediate redemption was to hire Malaysian football guru Shebby Singh, on a reported £1m-a-year salary. The impact he had was phenomenal: he alienated and insulted one of the longest serving players at the club; backed Steve Kean and his Portuguese scouting network; orchestrated the sacking of at least one manager; and generally just poked his beak in when it wasn’t needed. The best times last season and this season have been when he has been on the other side of the world, unable to meddle in club affairs.

4)      The second action following relegation from the top flight was to recruit experienced pros capable of steering a young team back to the Premier League. At the time, I don’t think you will find many Blackburn Rovers fans who were not at least slightly optimistic of the season ahead with Danny Murphy, Nuno Gomes and Dickson Etuhu. However, as the season unfolded the players saw less and less game time, and in the case of Murphy, seemed less and less interested in performing for the club (when news broke last month that he had retired from football I was shocked – I though this had happened 10 months ago). These players again came in on high salaries to help with Steve Kean’s ‘project’ but were unable/unwilling to cope with the physical and mental demands of a long Championship season. Couple this with the large pay-offs Murphy and Gomes have received over this summer just to get them off the books, and you have a double financial hit. It was an almost “gamble or bust strategy” but in the end they got neither and are right back where they started from, perhaps in a worse predicament having spent the money and achieved nothing.

5)      Since they bought the club numerous rumours have conspired and progressed in to conspiracy theories – one of the most common, shared and publicised is the role of agents in the running of Blackburn Rovers. Rumours have suggested that certain groups played a large part in the buying of the club and have subsequently been rewarded with business for their players, others argue that they, for a short time, were the ones running the club and making the decisions. Either way, the £3.5m spent on agents fees in the summer running up to their first season in the Championship is atrocious. What is even more worrying is the players that were signed at that time – the only one with any positive impact on the club was Jordan Rhodes, and to be honest, any fee was worthwhile as he single-handedly kept the club in the division last time out. At times, the fees received by agents were significantly more than the fee paid for the player, which in many cases was £0.00p. An untapped market Mr Kean????

6)      Perhaps the most significant contributor to the financial situation is the unrest behind the scenes up in the boardroom. Starting with Kean – the man was rewarded for failure. He took the club down a division, decimated gates in the process and alienated lifelong supporters, yet was rewarded with a new contract, which, if had lasted the duration, would have earned him a reported £14.9m, based on a £1m per year standard salary increasing annually depended on performance. The only good thing he did for the club financially was resign, costing the club only £500,000 rather than potential millions. The Venkys are not blameless here though – they passed up multiple options and times to sack him, before offering him a new contract: slander towards Allardyce, poor team performance, loss of fans (gates dropped by 7,500 during his tenure), and drink driving offences – yet they continued to support and reward him to a point where a bond with the lifeblood of the club, its supporters, was nearly broken.

Once Kean had gone, they still did not learn from their mistakes – anyone looking in could see the club needed an experienced manager to either steady the ship or build a team capable of challenging for promotion, but instead they brought in ex-player and fan favourite Henning Berg who was untested at this level and in this country, and then rookie Michael Appleton who had done nothing to suggest he was capable of either of those things. To make matters worse, both were sacked and paid off accordingly (£2.25m for Berg and £500,000 for Appleton) – yet more money that did not need to spent. At least now they seem to be giving Bowyer the chance to do things his way and without interfering or suggesting his position was under consideration. This may be a realisation that things couldn’t continue the way they were, or it may be their only option given the financial situation.

7)      The biggest mistake of them all – putting John Williams in a position where he no longer found a use for himself at the club. The man had run the club on solid footing for numerous years and made it one of the most attractive clubs for any manager, as well as the best-case example of how to run a football club. Yet upon buying the club, the Venkys used him for less and less tasks and functions, to the point where he no longer saw a need to be employed by the club. He left and went o Manchester City who subsequently won the league and have curbed their spending – coincidence, I think not.

If Blackburn post a loss of more than £8m by the end of this season, they will be hit with a transfer embargo. If this happens and the club have won promotion, they will be fined considerably. The worry on Blackburn fans minds is that the only way to make the £10-15m extra needed to keep running the club is to sell its prize assets, one in particular, Jordan Rhodes. If that happens, promotion will not happen, and along with it, all the good work undertaken by Bowyer completely forgotten. It is a sticky situation the owners have found themselves in, but it is all their own doing. As a reported billion pound business, you would expect better. Let’s hope they have the business knowledge to avoid the impending sanctions, or at least a contingency to get the club back on its feet.

Safety first

As the curtains close on another Championship season, Blackburn Rovers just about avoided a second successive relegation – just about. But does this reflect a very poor season? A season reflective of the off-field antics? Or a season of consolidating?

At the beginning of the year, before even a ball was kicked, most Blackburn fans would tell you that the Play-Offs where an absolute minimum, with many eyeing up second place and automatic promotion. Fast forward to February/March time, and those same fans would happily have taken finishing 21st on goal difference. The Championship is the most gruelling league in the world, and it can be the cruelest, as Peterborough found out yesterday when they were in the bottom three for three minutes – unfortunately for them it was the last three minutes.

Blackburn started the league well with wins and draws keeping them in the top six up until September, albeit the performances did not warrant this, then the merry-go-round started with Steve Kean claiming his position was untenable with people calling for his head after a home defeat to Middlesbrough, who at the time were flying, and them him resigning. This was followed by a consolidatory period under Eric Black were we didn’t win so many games, but we didn’t lose too many. Then in came Berg and the hopes of a romantic relit love match with him being the man to guide us back to the Premiership – but it wasn’t to be and he was sacked after a poor run of results seeing him pick up one win in ten and then his P45 after just 57 days. Step up Gary Bowyer, reserve team manager. He did what he was asked and steered Blackburn through to the next round of the cup, and to three wins and a draw in his four games – a feat which it seemed would see him remain in the post indefinitely, potentially until the end of the season – within the week, Michael Appleton was poached from neighbours Blackpool. Appleton’s reign resumed much of the mediocre performances that were witnessed under Berg – except, he removed a lot of players sending them out on loan or cancelling their contracts – the result of which was a return to Allardyce hoof-ball tactics, to a striker who plays best with the ball to his feet. Appleton’s reign last a lengthy 67 days and consisted of four wins, five draws and six defeats, including a poor showing in an FA Cup Quarter final and last-minute equalizer against Burnley. Step up again Mr Bowyer – with the team dropping towards the foot of the Championship at a rate of knots, Bowyer was again asked to steady the ship and set a course for dry land – a task he completed with a game to spare with the club finishing 17th, four points above the drop. Other items of note during the season on the pitch are pretty much confined to Jordan Rhodes, who equaled a consecutive scoring club record, and finished second top goal scorer with just one behind Glenn Murray; another shining light was the performances of Scott Dann who featured in all Blackburn’s games, and the progress made by the young Scot Grant Hanley.

So that is on the pitch, what about off the pitch? It can be argued, with some ferocity, that the reason for Blackburn’s poor league showing was the off the field issues – starting with Shebby Singh setting Steve Kean an ultimatum, through to the dragging of the club’s name through the Courts as the owners defended their right to not pay Henning Berg all his compensation for an early holiday. Sandwiched inbetween these two incidents included: a slander case as Kean made accusationary comments about former boss Allardyce; resignations; sackings; the appointment of a general manager and an operational director; claims of agents running the club; fan ownership issues; chickens on the pitch; the managing director told to stay away from the club; the managing director offering contracts he didn’t have the authority to and issues ‘untrue’ press statements on the clubs website; release of the details of players wages; managers being sacked by PA letter – the list goes on.

I think you could easily argue the case that regardless of the performances on the pitch, the club was never going to get an instant return to the Premiership, and arguably, they didn’t deserve to given the way they were being run.

So what is the solution to get Blackburn Rovers fighting at the top of the league for promotion? I don’t think the answer is the removal of the owners – they have the commitment and they have proved this through the amount of money (rumoured to be £20m) that they have pumped in to the club, but I think they have been very poorly advised – by whom, I’m not too sure. Given the amount of money it takes to run BRFC a fan owned club could be a disaster from a financial point of vie. Here is my 5 point plan for promotion in 2013-14: –

  1. Keep Jordan Rhodes, and keep him fit;
  2. If the Venkys are staying, they need to appoint a CEO to run the club properly at this end (I’d personally start grovelling to John Williams now);
  3. Transparency – make clear who is making the decisions at the club – to often statements have been released with muddy the water around who is actually running the club and making the decisions;
  4. Attend more games and show more commitment – you can hire as many PR companies as you want – the best form of PR in this instance is commitment and open communication;
  5. Hire a manager proven in this league to get the wheels turning from the start and push towards the play-offs. This needs to be done quickly, as they don’t hang around for long*;
  6. Let the manager do their job – from picking the team, to scouting and buying players, to offering new contracts – if the Venkys are committed to getting the club back up, they need to let the manager do things his way with pressures around contracts.

It sounds simple, and it should be, but it is a measure of how far from grace the club has fallen, that these things need to be spelt out to the club. Another season of turmoil off the pitch could very realistically result in relegation.

* Although point 5 states that a proven manager is required, there are rumours that Jorge Jesus, current Benfica manager, would like to manage in the Premiership, or at an ambitious Championship club. Given the number of young Portuguese players, and the alleged ambition of the clubs owners, could this be the ideal fit for him? Given that he has guided Benfica to the Europa League final and is unbeaten in the league this years says the man knows his way around a tactics board – but does this also mean he is hot property around ‘bigger’ clubs in Europe?

Divine intervention: Jesus wants to move to the Premier League.. after leaving  Benfica