The charade at Ewood Park never ceases to sadden yet no longer surprises. As ever, Venky’s remain incommunicado despite the best efforts of the fans, but this season’s defining feature was the boardroom power struggle which contributed to an unprecedented five managers in a single season to which performances on the pitch played second fiddle.
During the court hearing to determine the compensation due to Henning Berg, Rovers’ lawyers openly confirmed what its fans have known for a long time. The club is “out of control” and a “shambles”. A damning indictment of what was regarded only three years ago as one of the most shrewdly operated and best run clubs in the game.
There is no doubt that since their return to the Premier League in 2001, Blackburn have punched above their weight by registering five top half finishes and qualifying for Europe on four occasions. Former Chief Executive John Williams and Managing Director Tom Finn earned widespread respect for the manner in which they kept the club competitive on the tightest of budgets and it was no surprise when Williams joined Manchester City after being forced out of his role at Ewood.
At the other end of the spectrum, Derek Shaw, aided by former PR man Paul Agnew, has been “continuing to act without authority and in his self interest” in direct conflict with Shebby Singh, whose bizarre and contradictory comments have infuriated and frustrated in equal measure.
These divisions are perhaps best illustrated by Berg’s appointment. Shaw and Agnew wanted Ian Holloway whereas Singh favoured Tim Sherwood and they compromised somewhere in between with the Norwegian under the misapprehension that a former player would appease the fans. On the contrary, the fans had vocally called for experience having already boycotted a move for another of Singh’s targets, Bill McKinlay. It became evident before the end of his 10 match tenure that it was the wrong choice.
His replacement, Michael Appleton, said all the right things but performances failed to match his rhetoric. Even so, he deserved much longer than 67 days. That no one at the club was held to account for such costly errors in judgment exemplified the incoherence of the current regime. Without a hint of irony, Singh has since labelled both managers as “clueless” and all three continue to mismanage the club.
On the pitch, Rovers dropped from top of the table in early September to the bottom three in April with a succession of insipid displays devoid of any confidence or conviction. The feeling of terminal decline crystallised in early March upon going three nil down inside half an hour at home to the then bottom club, Peterborough United. It is impossible to quantify the effect of the upheaval and uncertainty on the players but its correlation with results this season have been so pronounced that few could argue the two were mere coincidence.
Of the summer signings, Danny Murphy rightly lost the captaincy and his place after a string of abject performances. Dickson Etuhu also failed to impress whilst Nuno Gomes was not given the chance he deserved after scoring four goals in his first six appearances.
Thankfully, the players responded to Gary Bowyer in both of his spells as caretaker, crucially taking 11 points from the final six games to narrowly avoid a second successive relegation. His permanent appointment, on a 12 month rolling contract, is the right one in the circumstances.
Without Jordan Rhodes’ contribution, next term would undoubtedly be spent in League One. His eye for goal overrides a lack of pace and established him as one of English football’s most clinical finishers. His hat-trick at London Road will linger long in the memory as will his 25 yard left foot half-volley at Pride Park which arrowed in to the bottom corner. It would take a considerable sum, certainly more than the club record £8m paid, to prise the Scottish international away from East Lancashire this summer. Scoring 27 of Rovers 55 league goals, Rhodes’ importance cannot be underestimated but the over reliance on him must be addressed.
In addition, the central defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Grant Hanley proved instrumental in helping the club concede no more goals than eventual playoff winners Crystal Palace. 21 year old Jake Kean also deserves special mention, looking every bit the natural successor to Paul Robinson. Other highlights included the party atmosphere away at Charlton after Kean’s departure and the victory over Arsenal at the Emirates which harked back to happier days under Mark Hughes.
In the end relegation was avoided, much to the fans’ relief, but the long term implications of failing to achieve promotion at the first time of asking could be hugely significant. Under-performing players on premier league wages and long contracts are not conducive for the financial security of a club of Blackburn’s size outside of the top flight. The financial predicament is unknown but would most likely compound the fans’ deepest fears.
For years, Rovers have been the second best supported club per population in the football league, achieving gates of almost a quarter of its inhabitants, but no longer. Attendances this season have dropped by around 11,000 from previous seasons’ averages despite a drop in ticket prices. Even in its most successful times, the club was never able to run at profit which begs the fundamental questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. Why did Venky’s buy Blackburn Rovers and are they aware of the extent of the crisis at hand?
The club and its community are as inextricably linked as any in the football league which makes the decline all the more galling. Although the owners have been poorly advised, they are wildly out of their depth so it is imperative for the mere existence of the club that they act fast to bring in the right people with defined roles and responsibilities who are able to make decisions locally.