Blackburn Rovers – Jack Straw comments in today’s Times

“It’s character building, supporting a team like Blackburn Rovers”, I used to tell my two children in the 1980s when they were young and we were bobbing about the old Second Division. “So much better than supporting a glory team. With Rovers you’ll learn about life, its disappointments, as well as its triumphs.”

Their faith was rewarded. Jack Walker bought the club. Kenny Dalglish was appointed Manager. Four years later, in 1995, we won the Premiership.

We’ve never repeated that wonderful, ecstatic moment of glory, when in the final game of the season we lost to Liverpool, but won the prize that mattered thanks to Harry Rednapp’s West Ham holding Man U to a draw. We dropped into the Championship in 1999, Jack Walker died in 2000. But we got back into the Premiership, and stayed there for 11 years.

Apart from the League Cup, which we won in 2002, top-flight success eluded us – as it did many “town” clubs, without the financial backing of the big city clubs. But players, staff, and supporters alike had pride, and confidence in the club. Pride about the Club’s history, as a founder member of the Football League, which had done much better than most clubs in comparable areas; and confidence, that whatever the set-backs on the field, Rovers was by common consent one of the best run football clubs in the whole of the professional game.

We all knew that the trustees of Jack Walker’s estate, who had owned the club since Jack’s death, were bound to sell it at some stage. When the Indian company Venkys purchased the club in November 2010 for £23 million there was great goodwill for the new owners.

Tragically, it did not last long.  After the team had lost 7 -1 at Old Trafford to United manager Sam Allardyce was fired. I was at that game. Rovers’ fans just regarded a pasting by United as one of those things. There was no demand for Allardyce to go – far from it.

His removal was followed by the single greatest error of  Venky’s – to fire both the Executive Chairman John Williams, and the MD Tom Finn. They were  the reason for Rovers’ survival.  It was a crazy thing to do.

With Venky’s main business being poultry, metaphors about headless chickens are best avoided. But that’s how it feels. There’s no sense of grip by the owners or the board. We’ve now had more managers this season than we’ve won away games. Yes, Sunday’s critical derby against Burnley sent all the fans – my family and me included – into a near clinical depression until David Dunn scored the equaliser five minutes into extra time. But there were no cries for Appleton to go. It’s too serious for that. We’re only four points above the drop, with nine games to go.

It’s the financial eccentricity of the decisions which is the most puzzling. Once gifted, but (in football terms) elderly players like Nuno Gomes (38), and Danny Murphy (36) on two-year contracts. Expensive disputes with the sacked managers. It’s now nigh-impossible to discern anything resembling a business plan being pursued by the owners. The fans’ fear is that our fate will be a fire sale, or worse.

Rovers’ predicament now is sad, and senseless. It could have been avoided, first, if  Venky’s had understood that in purchasing the club they were not buying some soulless franchise, but buying into a loyal and committed community; and second, if our football authorities had tougher rules – and standards – on ownership. When will they wake up?

Steve Kean has shown strength of character

FOOTBALL managers and politicians are both in the public eye, and both have to put up with regular criticism, whether they like it or not.

It goes with the territory.

But there are limits. I no more approve of gratuitous insults against football managers, Steve Kean included, than I do against politicians.

I say two other things about Mr Kean.

One is that he has shown considerable strength of character in recent weeks.

The second is that, with a mainly young team, he has secured some remarkable results in recent days; the draw, away, against Liverpool; the fantastic win, away, against Manchester United; and the very fine result last Saturday when our ten-man team beat a determined Fulham 3 – 1.

I am happy to put on record that this was against my expectations of what I thought he, and the team, could manage.

If we could just win those six-pointers against the other teams at the bottom as well, we might still be in the Premier League next season, too.

The breathing space which these recent, better results give, should be a time for reflection by the club’s owners about how they can improve relations with the club’s many thousands of supporters.

I’ve been sitting in the same seats at the Blackburn End for at least the last 15 years. So have most of those around me.

They are a good cross-section of fans; and they don’t deserve some of the criticisms which have been made of them, either.

They are decent people, just deeply frustrated by an unnecessary absence of communication, and direction by the owners (which, by the by, has unfairly placed Mr Kean in the firing line).

Many of us have tried, so far without success, to make constructive contact with them. I live in hope that, despite recent difficulties, the owners will now positively engage with the fans and the community.

They would be pleasantly surprised by the result.

A moment’s thought should tell them that their interests are, in truth, the same as ours.

Open letter to Blackburn Rovers owners Venky’s

 

Dear Mrs Desai

As the civic leader for the area most connected to your football club, I am sure you will not be surprised that I have growing concerns about the reports that I am getting of the chaos that is currently surrounding Blackburn Rovers.

I speak for all at the Council, including those who support other teams, in recognising how important the Rovers is to the town and its people. When the team won the Premier League in 1995 it gave the town an enormous feel good factor and raised the profile of the area both nationally and internationally and benefited the local economy. Continuation in the Premier League has benefited businesses and local employment enormously.

I am therefore concerned to hear both in the papers and in the media that the club, which used to be one of the best run in the country, appears to have very few senior executives running the club in Blackburn on a day to day basis. This accounts for much of the frustration that has been repeatedly expressed by the fans (not just the ones calling for the manager to be sacked), the clubs commercial sponsors and recently the Sports Correspondent of the local Lancashire Telegraph newspaper.

I am sure you are aware of these matters and may be taking steps to address them. However, for whatever reason there appears to serious communication problems between the club and its stakeholders which are fuelling the frustration that people are feeling.

To that end I am inviting you and the other owners to meet with representatives of the Council together with any other interested parties that you feel would benefit from attendance. The purpose of the meeting would be to give all sides the opportunity to discuss the present problems being experienced at the Club. My wish would be to explore and agree better lines of communications between us and to get a better understanding of the approach that the owners intend to take to ensure the club goes forward. We would also be very happy to look at ways that the Council may be able to help in any way.

I am aware that you and your brothers are busy people but given the precarious position the club is now in a meeting at the earliest opportunity would be preferred.

As I and others in the Council are constantly being contacted about these issues I would appreciate a prompt response to this correspondence.

Yours sincerely

Cllr. Kate Hollern

Leader of the Council

Rovers – The importance of communicating with supporters

ROVERS have had a torrid time before. The 1970s were terrible.

But the end of the 1990s wasn’t pretty, either.

By this time in the 1998-99 season we had 9 points from 14 games.

Here we are again, with just 7 points after 12 games.

There is, however, one important difference – in the atmosphere among the fans.  In the late nineties, Jack Walker was revered; John Williams held in the highest regard.  When Jack tragically died in 2000, Mr Williams held the club together.  Since 2001 we have enjoyed the longest-ever post-war period in the top-flight.

In contrast, today it’s the owners getting it in the neck.  They appear distant and, frankly, unwilling, or unable, to understand that running a successful team is, yes, about money, but it’s also about intangibles, like spirit and sentiment.  It’s that which is frustrating so many fans, including loyal sponsors like Wayne Wild, Group Director of WEC Group in Darwen.

The owners have gratuitously hollowed out what was one of the best club administrations in the League. What was the point of that?

The irony is that this appears to be a better team than the one which dropped in 1999.  The football is better, they gel together better; and (as is often observed by the experts), they deserve better results.  It is genuinely the case that luck has not been on our side.

The owners need to appreciate that Rovers’ fans are not daft.  They want the team to win. Around me, that plane with its banner was not appreciated by the fans who simply wish to get behind the team playing well in the difficult fixture against Chelsea.  Fans can make a big difference to the result on the field.  John Williams recognised that when he cut ticket prices to get more fans in.

My strong advice to the owners – in their interests as well as ours – is to start talking to the fans, understand them, get them on side.  It will cost no money – and will reap dividends.

Venky’s deal good news for Blackburn Rovers

My wife and I spent our honeymoon in India. It was the late seventies.

Our family thought we were being very adventurous – and I’m not sure that we would even have made the trip if we had not had friends living in New Delhi at the time.

We went right round India. Bangalore, the capital of the south eastern state of Karnataka, was then just another provincial city, with wonderful gardens, good air, and – by Indian standards – a tranquil feel about it.

I went for my customary jog, and felt great after it.

I went out again for a run in the city – from the very same West End Hotel – 14 years later, in 1992.

I choked.

There had been a mushrooming of industry in the intervening years, and with it serious atmospheric pollution.

The last time I visited the city, five years ago, it had changed again.

The air was better, but that wasn’t all. Large parts of it looked like Silicone Valley, in California.

Bangalore had become not just the high-tech centre of India, but one of the technological powerhouses of the globe.

It is now ranked alongside cities like Geneva, Copenhagen, and Boston, in studies of city life.

Bangalore’s transformation to world class is a parable for what has happened to India in the last two decades – since the then Finance Minister, now Prime Minister Manmoham Singh, began India’s entry into the world economic system.

In two more decades, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country, and in slower time may overtake them in the size of its economy too.

The Prime Minister who appointed Singh as Finance Minister in the early nineties was Narasimhha Rao.

The founder of Venky’s, the poultry business now poised to take over Blackburn Rovers, was Dr B V Rao.

I’ve no idea whether they were related – Rao is quite a common name in India. There’d be a nice symmetry if they were.

For Venky’s growth, from next to nothing, is another story of the explosion of entrepreneurship which is turning India into a global power.

Britain was the pioneer in world economic dominance, as the first country to move from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the late eighteenth century – and East Lancashire was at the heart of this.

Napoleon correctly described us as “the workshop of the world”.

We exported far more goods than we imported, then used the surplus to invest abroad.

India, among others, is now returning the compliment – and we should welcome it.

Rovers’ great benefactor Jack Walker realised his fortune by selling his steel stockholding business to the then recently privatised British Steel.

They became Corus; more recently bought by the Indian giant Tata, who also bought Jaguar Land Rover, and are now investing heavily in the UK.

Even top-flight soccer was once entirely local. Its supporter base, of course, remains local, and nowhere more than in the UK.

But it’s now global too. If the Venky’s deal for Rovers passes the remaining hurdles, then in my view it will be good news for the club and its loyal fans.

And it may too have the bonus of encouraging a trend already there, of seeing many more folk of Asian heritage at Ewood Park.

Blackburn Rovers and Burnley: we’re all united by football

‘You must be Burnley in disguise,’ the fans around me in the Blackburn end suddenly started chanting during one of the few slack periods in Sunday’s game.

Almost without thinking, I was about to join in. Then everyone realised it wasn’t any team in disguise, it wasn’t Burnley in disguise, it was the real thing.

The first top flight contest between these two East Lancashire teams since 1963.

What a game. I aged ten years before, and during the game until the final whistle was blown, and we’d won!

The great Bill Shankly famously remarked that “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

Of course, Shankly was not being literal, but there was and is an essential truth in what he said.

In East Lancashire, whether Rovers’ or Clarets’ supporters (or neither) we were all able to witness Shankly’s essential truth.

It’s this; that what happens on the field can reverberate across whole communities, like a stone dropped into a pool.

East Lancashire, from one end to the other, has just a quarter of a million people within it.

That’s less than one two-hundredths of the population of England and Wales.

Yet we have one tenth of the Premier League teams – two out of twenty. It’s a great asset for our area.

The Blackburn-Burnley derby excited interest across the country, and has helped add, in a good way, to the definition and profile which East Lancashire enjoys nationally.

Above all, however, I think that the derby has helped to strengthen the already strong-sense of community of towns along the East Lancashire valley.

I’m sure Burnley was buzzing, though I thought it wise not to check out the atmosphere in person.

Blackburn was certainly buzzing. Everyone was talking about the game and I mean everyone.

If they were Blackburnian, the imperative of a win for Rovers was the first topic of conversation – and often the only one.

I attended a rather belated Eid dinner on Saturday. Half those present were Asian; half white.

If the conversations had been recorded, but without the name of the speakers, you’d have heard, virtually everyone talking about the game, regardless of ethnic background.

Rovers’ fortunes are part of what gives everyone in town part of their sense of place, their identity.

And, contrary to the utter nonsense we hear from the BNP, it’s possible to have layers of loyalties – we all do.

Back to the game itself. There was a dismal period (more than one) in Rovers’ recent history when if we’d gone a goal down we’d had it.

Five minutes into Sunday’s game I feared that’s where we were, again.

Like it or not, Robbie Blake’s goal was a corker – and so was the set-up, with our midfield falling apart and our defence deceived.

A millisecond after the goal there was that awful silence as hope collapsed into fear!

Every credit then to Sam Allardyce for the way he has the team fighting back whenever we’re down. What relief with Dunny’s equaliser, what joy with Di Santo’s second, and ecstasy with Chimbonda’s, the third.

Of course, success never comes easy at Ewood Park.

But like every Rovers supporter I’ve been walking on air ever since Sunday – and recalling, we really did beat Burnley.

Blackburn Rovers 3 – 2 Burnley

Pascal Chimbonda celebrates after scoring the third goal. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images
Pascal Chimbonda celebrates after scoring the third goal. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images

Congratulations to Blackburn Rovers in the East Lancashire derby, cheered on at Ewood Park by many of our members, the majority of our party officers and two Labour MPs.  Commiserations to Burnley supporter Alastair Campbell(!)

Jack Straw’s open air meeting in Blackburn town centre yesterday was the lead featured on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House this morning. We’ll put the audio up later today.