Tuesday, September 27, 2022

‘Hope Begins In The Dark’ The Rise & Fall Of Blackburn Rovers And Benefit Of Staying Under The Radar

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Pratyay Maitra
A sports enthusiast in his mid-twenties who reads, breathes, as well as dreams (mostly) about football and attempts to share his views with the fanatics by jotting it down. Prefers to learn through extensive interaction, communication and exploration. So don't be in a quandary and SHOOT.

How many of you have watched Netflix’s ‘The English Game’? Even if you have not, the story of Fergus Suter must fascinate all the football fanatics. We live in a time where the players get paid in millions to play the game, but the whole concept originated almost 150 years ago when Suter plied his trade to Darwen from Partick and became the first recognised professional footballer in the process.

Representatives Of The Working Class

Football was pretty different back then. The working class were still fighting for their rights, and the Royal families solely dominated the sport. The introduction of Suter brought a new outlook, particularly when he decided to join Darwen’s local rivals Blackburn Rovers back in summer of 1880. Even though these transfer deals are arguably the most exciting event of the modern-day game; the hysteria, controversy and the raw emotion of the supporters are still the same when a player decides to join their fierce rivals for greater glory. Suter indeed set the trend.

But the write-up today is more about Blackburn though. A club that set several benchmarks down the years ended up in a mess over the past decade. The Riversiders, now a midtable second division side, are not in the headlines anymore. They are still struggling to reclaim their lost status but, at the same time, exhibited a ray of hope amid all the darkness that might not have drawn the attention of many ahead of the 2020-21 term.

Rise and Fall Of The Great Rovers

Blackburn, one of the pioneers and founding member of The Football League in 1888, are still admired for their legacy and heritage. They are the most successful town club in the history of British football who carried the baton of the working class, inspiring the others to embrace the game. They won the prestigious FA Cup thrice in a row (1884-86) that earned them a specially commissioned silver shield along with the unique honour of displaying their crest on all four corner flags. 

While we are taking a trip down memory lane, the ‘Peoples Champions’ have begun their quest for a playoff place finish in the Championship under Tony Mowbray. Although they are not the favourites to claim the same, one step at a time should still be the objective considering the damage done by the Venky’s since taking over the club’s ownership from the great Walkers ten years back.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – APRIL 29: A statue of Jack Walker is seen outside Ewood Park prior to the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa at Ewood Park on April 29, 2017 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The Jack Walker Legacy

Just when they needed a financial lift to come out of the second tier, lifelong supporter Jack Walker stepped in and bought the ownership in 1990. He made the funds available to bolster the squad and appointed Liverpool great Kenny Dalglish as their manager to claim a top-flight return. It took them 26 years to secure promotion and the club, coincidentally, became a founding member of the rebranded FA Premier League in the summer of 1992.

The spending spree did not stop though as they invested a record £3.5m to rope in promising Alan Shearer from Southampton. Sir Alex Ferguson was keen on securing his services for Manchester United, but the legendary manager was forced to return empty-handed failing to match Walker’s bid for the then 22-year-old who went on to become one of England’s greatest ever. The likes of Kevin Gallacher, Graeme Le Saux and Stuart Ripley were the other high-profile recruits, and the team eventually finished fourth making their presence known among the league’s elites.

MAY 14 1995: BLACKBURN ROVERS STRIKER ALAN SHEARER CELEBRATES AFTER HIS TEAM CLINCHED THE LEAGUE TITLE AFTER THE GAME AGAINST LIVERPOOL.

Their persistent rivalry with United in the transfer market was a fun watch. Ferguson missed out on Shearer but hit back a year later by snapping up Roy Keane (a man who needs no introduction either) from Nottingham Forest for a national record fee of £3.75m. Blackburn finished second this time behind the Red Devils but opted to spend £5m on Chris Sutton setting up a new English record fee. The rivalry was both on and off the pitch and Walker’s financial muscle-power resulted in the infamous ‘sugar daddy‘ status after conquering the league crown in 1995 under Dalglish.

Clubs (read Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain) these days, are run by oligarch and countries, but it was difficult to digest this 30 years back, particularly for the Manchester hotshots who were almost running a monopoly during that tenure.

Downfall, Demise And Further Damage

Walker was a visionary who not only invested for his beloved club but also constructed a high-profile academy to streamline the process of promoting the youth towards first-team football. Having said that, the English league started grabbing the attention of the business tycoons, which led to more investment and transfer spending among the various outfits. Blackburn, as a result, failed to keep pace with the so-called heavyweights and went down to the second tier four years since scripting the historic title triumph.

Amid their struggle in the Championship, Walker passed away a year later. The emotion all around Ewood Park inspired the players to step up and secure a top-flight return as a fitting tribute to the iconic industrialist. They also went on to win their first-ever League Cup (in 2002) defeating Tottenham Hotspur.

They were already on a decline since Walker’s demise, but the talents emerged through his academy played a key role in retaining their Premier League status for a few more years. After injecting almost £100m over all these years, the Walker Family Trust decided to stop funding the club. The Venky’s entered the scene with a lot of promises in the autumn of 2010, but what happened next was nothing short than a nightmare.

Venky’s: The Headless Chickens

The brewing frenzy of rage across Lancashire led to severe protest when the fans threw a chicken wrapped in a Blackburn flag on to the pitch. The relegation was confirmed when Wigan’s Antolin Alcazar netted a late winner in the 2011-12 season’s penultimate fixture and the controversial fulmination against the Indian owners (who run the poultry industry) was symbolically suggesting the Ewood Park faithful’s disapproval. We could rather write a separate piece on Venky’s reign of error.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – MAY 07: A chicken walks across the pitch during the Barclays Premier League match between Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic at Ewood Park on May 07, 2012 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The downfall was imminent, and the new proprietors were not smart enough to run a football team. They could have saved them from further damage, instead ended up accelerating the decline within months. Several bizarre calls and unfulfilled promises resulted in anguish and agony, whereas the departure of academy sensation Phil Jones to join Manchester United depicted how much they have fallen over the past decade. From once competing with the Red Devils for mega-money signings to enduring demotion to League One, the pain was indeed real for the fans.

They pledged to form a global appeal and announced an academy in India, to begin with.  It was supposed to be identical to Rovers’ training centre at Brockhall in northwest England. However, there’s no news whatsoever of the academy or stadium in the past eight years. The V H Group have failed miserably to do justice to Walker’s legacy at this prestigious football club.

Since taking over the ownership, Venky’s dismissed veteran Sam Allardyce and appointed a first-time manager Steve Kean to take up the colossal challenge. Even though they survived the drop in 2011, a series of dismal outcomes next season was not alarming enough for the owners despite growing anxiety. Relegation was inevitable but Kean, who used to summoned in India each month to discuss the progress, was still in charge. It was pandemonium all over, and they were finally forced to dismiss Kean despite a bright start in their quest to secure an immediate top-flight return. The alleged outside interference was the reason behind his ‘resignation’, and the owners failed to show authority by sticking to their decision.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – MAY 07: A fan protests against Blackburn Rovers Manager Steve Kean during the Barclays Premier League match between Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic at Ewood Park on May 07, 2012 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Just when the things were looking brighter, the impatience of a section of fans put Blackburn in further trouble. Shebby Singh, a Malaysian former footballer and television personality, was recruited as their global adviser following relegation. But he was as clueless as those who hired him, especially while choosing Kean’s successor. The appointment of little-known Henning Berg and Michael Appleton were terrible blunders, and the managerial unrest at Ewood Park ruined their reputation of being a stable outfit. Singh was never seen barring a brief visit to sack Appleton.

The appointment of relatively bigger names in Gary Bowyer and Paul Lambert restored stability to some extent. They were even fighting for a playoff place finish at one stage, but the owners failed to foresee the future once more as they decided to bank on Owen Coyle in June 2016. Blackburn went through a catastrophic run under the new gaffer, and it was already too late when they dismissed Coyle to bring in Tony Mowbray. The Riversides were relegated to League One on May 07 2017.

Fight Back And A Ray Of Hope

We might have been too harsh in the above section, but the Venky’s seem to have learned from their mistakes and are trying their level best to reclaim the lost pride. Although their decision-making was appalling in terms of sacking the previous manager, things seem to have calmed down of late as Mowbray has been allowed both time and space to reconfigure the squad. And he has not done a bad job so far!

Blackburn earned an immediate Championship return and finished 15th last year that deserves plaudits. A steady upsurge brought them a glimmer of playoff hope at one stage during the 2019-20 season before settling for an 11th-placed finish. The owners have done well to be compliant with the FFP rules and are following the strategy of relying on the youth as revealed in the report signed off by the club director Jitendra Desai (as revealed by the LancsLive).

“The focus of the company has been for the club to consolidate following promotion back to the Championship while remaining compliant with profitability and sustainability rules. Further significant changes were made to the playing squad to increase on-field competitiveness in a higher league whilst at the same time reducing the average age of the playing squad and increasing its potential resale value.” 

Despite the growth in the revenue, a worrying rise in losses needs to be mitigated soon. A minimal profit from the player sales did no such favour, yet the owners have done a commendable job in balancing the books avoiding reckless overspending. Mowbray has been smart in terms of acquiring loan signings and free transfers. Also, the exciting inclusion of Adam Armstrong, Ben Brereton and Lewis Holtby highlight their aspirations towards greater glory.

The signing of custodian Thomas Kaminski is a statement of intent following Christian Walton’s return to his parent club Brighton & Hove Albion. The squad is all set even though there’s still the time of reinforcements before the window is slammed shut, and the fans must take the positives despite their opening gameweek defeat against the heavyweights Bournemouth. Blackburn came back twice from behind at Dean Court before a late heartbreak due to Arnaut Danjuma’s winner, but the sheer passion, commitment and spirit showcased by the players were enough to encourage the supporters. That was followed up by 2 fantastic wins against Wycombe and Derby.

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