In 2004 a bronze statue of Jack Walker was unveiled outside Ewood Park in tribute to the man who transformed the fortunes of his team. On hearing of his death four years earlier the town's long-serving MP, Jack Straw, observed that:
'Jack Walker did more than any other individual in the last century to enhance the self-confidence and the prosperity of his home town. He was completely committed to the town and its people. Blackburn Rovers was in many ways the love of his life. I salute a great local hero'.
Walker's insistence that the team could compete with more illustrious local rivals, and his obvious passion for the club, resonated with his fellow supporters who recognised that he wasn't in it for the money, nor for the prestige of ownership, but for the simple pleasure of seeing his team win football matches. His name is still sung with gusto at every game and his contribution will never be forgotten.
Like Straw, Walker realised the importance of the football club to the town. Blackburn has suffered a similar fate to many of its Lancastrian neighbours with Victorian prosperity yielding to industrial decline and higher than average unemployment and social deprivation. When Walker took charge he understood that the town was crying out for a focal point that could bring the community together and restore some of the civic pride that was clearly lacking. That he achieved this in only a few years is testament to both his determination and to the power of football. Blackburn continues to have significant socio-economic problems with the nearby cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Preston attracting levels of investment and offering cultural and educational opportunities that Blackburn can only dream of. But in having a well-run and relatively successful football club that was deeply rooted in the history of the town, people felt they had something to be proud of that represented them to the rest of the country, and to the wider world.
It was in this context that the club was sold to Venky's Group, a poultry production company based in Pune, India. On completing the takeover in November 2010 Anuradha Desai, Venky's chairwoman, stated that they would:
'absolutely respect the Jack Walker legacy and will be actively supporting the organisation to ensure that Blackburn Rovers remain one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League.'
Nineteen months later the club has descended into farce. Relegation has been confirmed and an experienced board of directors has been decimated by the new owners. The fans are disillusioned and frustrated, and feel alienated and powerless in the face of such inept management.
Much of the press coverage of this season's debacle has concentrated on the supporters' treatment of the manager, Steve Kean. Appointed by Venky's after they dispensed with the services of Sam Allardyce, Kean has been defended by his fellow Premier League managers and many journalists, who felt the level of criticism to be unprecedented and unwarranted. That his agent (Jerome Anderson of SEM) was also Venky's adviser during the takeover proceedings has been less frequently observed. Kean had no managerial experience whatsoever and an extremely limited playing career. Whilst acquiring a reputation as a decent coach, did his CV really merit his appointment?
Reports of training ground bust-ups, his drink-driving conviction, his promise that the team would 'definitely not be relegated', his terrible record in the transfer market and his latest ludicrous assertion that Rovers 'are moving forward and it is a very exciting time for the club' have destroyed his relationship with the fans to the point where there is nothing left to salvage. Many pundits suggested that Kean was 'brave' to stick with it and not resign in the face of mounting criticism, but to do so would be to sacrifice a £4.5 million pound contract and to return to obscurity. It is highly unlikely that any other club would have considered him for a manager's position and he could never have dreamed of achieving such wealth prior to the arrival of Venky's. To label his conduct as 'brave' is an insult to the thousands of supporters who hand over a significant proportion of their income to follow the team.
Rovers have been relegated before (1998-99 season) and the fans were disappointed, but they accepted that it was an inescapable and necessary part of football. The difference this time around is that the supporters can see that the organisational and financial stability of the club is being jeopardised by a series of inept and impetuous decisions made by people who have no experience of such matters. As supporters of Portsmouth will testify, relegation from the Premier League is not the end point of the situation, but merely the latest step down a ladder that can lead to the possible extinction of the club. Lower income from prize money, sponsors, gate receipts and TV revenue will threaten its financial competence and place jobs at risk. The casual indifference of the Premier League in rejecting Jack Straw's call for an enquiry into how Venky's were allowed to pass the 'fit and proper persons' test of prospective new owners only serves to heighten the supporters' frustration.
No-one outside of Blackburn will shed any tears as a result of our relegation and nor should they. Most supporters never have the chance to see their team compete in the Premiership and Rovers fans will be the first to admit that to be an established team in the league, and to win it, were extraordinary achievements that seemed impossible only twenty years ago. The majority feel privileged to have enjoyed this relative success and understand that times change. What we can't accept is that we should be criticised for trying to protect a 137 year old football club that is so fundamental to our town's history, confidence, aspiration and pride. We've seen our stability and success quickly destroyed by the wanton carelessness of owners who have made no effort to understand the club's position within the community, no effort to communicate with the supporters, and no effort to utilise the experience of the directors. That will be Venky's legacy, and one that is unlikely to lead to any bronze statues.