Monday, January 9, 2012

When Enough Is Enough

Now that my coaching days are over, I've spent more time over the past two months being a fan - of music, of American football, but most of all of soccer and Blackburn Rovers.

These are not good times if you're a Rovers fan. In fact, they may well be the worst of times. For while I and many of my fellow supporters with whom I commiserate (or, to put it more accurately, whose commiserations I read on our list-serve without comment these days) have lived through the dark days of relegation and far too many inept players and managers in the past, we always had hope. Now, we have none.

That hope was provided by two means: first, strong, ambitious ownership provided by local-boy-made good steel magnate Jack Walker; and, second, dedicated, knowledgeable decision-making from the front office, led by long-time Rovers' employee John Williams.

A statute of Jack Walker outside Ewood Park in Blackburn.

Walker's love for Rovers was clear from the millions of pounds that he spent turning the club from a Second Division afterthought into the Premier League Champions. It was not a love shared by his family, however. After Walker died in 2000, his holdings, including the Rovers, were put in a family trust. For a time the trust operated Rovers with parsimonious oversight but not neglect, allowing Williams, who began working for the club in the 1990s and rose to the rank of Chairman, to spend enough money to keep Rovers afloat.

Eventually Walker's heirs tired of the drain on their fortune that Rovers created and sought a new owner for the club. After several false starts and many rumored interests, finally a buyer was found: Venky's. I knew nothing of the company at the time but learned that it is based in India, began as a poultry company, and is privately held, owned by a family named Rao. Several fans expressed concerns about Venky's true intentions for the club from the start (sell off all the "assets"? treat it as their play toy like some Indian version of the Beverly Hillbillies?) but I put it down to the "glass half-empty" nature of most Rovers fans, or, to be honest, perhaps a touch of bigotry.

There is no doubt, however, that Venky's ownership of Rovers has been an unmitigated public relations disaster. Soon after taking over they fired manager Sam Allardyce, claiming that he lacked the ambition that Venky's had for the club. While many Rovers' fans (me included) were dissatisfied with Allardyce's boring tactics we were comfortable Big Sam's ability to keep Rovers in the Premier League.

In his place Venky's appointed Steve Kean, the club's first team coach, as the new manager. Kean expressed what was apparently the requisite ambition for Rovers -- attractive soccer, a top five finish, and challenging for the championship. But he had no real managerial experience before taking the job and his ambitions seemed completely out of touch with small town football in the toughest league in the World. Kean's reign has been marked by last minute collapses, poor tactical decisions, and, perhaps most galling, toadying to Venky's (including frequent command performances in India at a time when he should be devoting his energies to his club).

Kean's summons to India are indicative of Venky's management style, which appears to be to trust the counsel of those who tell them what they want to hear and ignore those who don't. Particularly troubling is the relationship of Venky's to player agent Jerome Anderson, who, despite his fervent denials, seems to have considerable influence with the owners in player and managerial decisions (he represents Kean and his son is on the Rovers' roster).

Even more troubling than Allardyce's dismissal was Williams' departure soon after. While managers always come and go, especially at smaller clubs like Rovers who tend to either lose the successful ones to bigger clubs or fire the unsuccessful ones when at the brink of relegation, the chairman is hopefully the constant -- the one person in whom power lies who can be expected to do what is in the best interests of the club, not him or her self. Williams was certainly that person for Rovers.

Matters off the pitch reached a fever pitch this past week as Kean accused a growingly vocal majority of Rovers' supports calling for his (and Venky's) ouster of essentially not being "true" fans. This apparent effort by two Johnny-come-latelies to take it upon themselves to define who is or is not a "fan" follows on the heels of previous attempts to censor fan's statements about the club (under the disingenuous guise of safety concerns) by prohibiting anti-Kean banners at Ewood Park.

The beliefs of many supporters regarding Venky's ineptitude was confirmed earlier this week with the belated release of a letter that was sent by Williams and two other then-Board members noted that they were being by-passed and ignored regarding the most fundamental decisions made at the club: "We now find ... that the board are not even being consulted on some of the most fundamental decisions this or any other football club ever makes. This includes the termination of the manager's employment and the appointment of a new manager."

Venky's and Kean's actions and statements have sparked a discussion among Rovers' fans regarding what it means to be a fan and, when matters of The Club and Our Club collide, how a true fan should act.

This is, admittedly, an easier call for me to make than that of those who were born in Blackburn, or near there. Many figuratively bleed Blue and White and some, literally, will be buried in the Blue and White halves. The Club has been "theirs" for thirty, forty, fifty, or more years. They are season ticket holders who have invested their lives in the club.

But, simply put, it is no longer their club. It is Venky's, and they have made that very clear with everything they have done since they bought the club.

While fans are relatively powerless these days in the face of billionaire owners, multi-millionaire players, and millionaire agents, they do have one chit left. And that is the ultimate one. To not willingly pay one penny (pence?) to further the interests of those owners, players, and agents.

If they have already purchased their season tickets for 2011-12 I encourage them to attend the matches, root for the Rovers, cheer every goal, boo or whistle at every appearance by Kean, and hope for the best. But don't buy a pie or a pint or a shirt on the grounds. Do not give Venky's one more penny.

As for me, I laugh at the emails that I get from Rovers telling me about the latest sale at the club's on-line shop and scoff at the invitations to sign up for internet access to match commentary and video highlights. For now, I'll just have to console myself with my Tugay Rovers' shirt and my tape of the 2002 League Cup triumph over Spurs.

For me, enough is enough.

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