On Saturday, Blackburn Rovers, powered by their burly Nigerian striker Yakubu, claimed a vital 4-2 victory over Swansea. But, as is becoming a familiarity when watching the Lancastrians this season, the post-match focus was not on the 22 men on the pitch, but on one man in the dugout, and two men in the stands looking very perturbed indeed.
The former is manager Steve Kean; whose lacklustre record thus far has seen him subject to almost unbroken criticism from fans (they took banners into matches; when they were stopped from doing this they attached one to a plane and flew it over Ewood Park). Even in Saturday's victory, many chanted '4-2, and we want Kean out'. The ferocious protests are decidedly harsh. To be clear, Kean isn't a Premier League manager, but an out-of-his-depth coach, shoved into a position he didn't ask for after the sacking of popular and successful former boss, Sam Allardayce. That was a decision made by the club's mercurial owners. Enter Venky's Limited.
Purchasing the club in November 2010, the Indian poultry conglomerate, co-owned by the moustachioed Rao Brothers, supposedly heralded a new era for the club. Fans (and Steve Kean) were promised transfer funds to attract star names such as David Beckham and Ronaldinho. Shockingly, Victoria wasn't convinced, whilst the bucktoothed Brazilian couldn't be persuaded to kiss goodbye to the beaches of Rio, and Kean had to turn to the far less imagination-inspiring likes of Simon Vukcevic and Jordan Slew (me neither).
Then came the advert. Oh the advert. If you are yet to see it, find it on YouTube immediately. The Rovers starting XI get pumped up for a big game by dining on a plate of chicken so luminescent it could well have been extracted from the Fukushima plant's canteen; portly midfielder David Dunn's all-too-convincing portrayal of the anguish of having his deep-fried drummer pinched from him by a teammate is a particular highlight. For the vast majority of supporters the 25-second-long commercial signalled the death knell and prostitution of their once dignified club.
These concerns have not been alleviated by recent revelations about the Rao Brother's financial actions. In recent weeks it has come to light that the owners have taken out large loans secured against the club; whilst controversial, this is a fairly common move, and one which the Manchester United owners, the Glazer family, have previously performed. However in Venky's case the ability to make the repayments is contingent upon the television rights and prize money the club would achieve for staying in the Premier League. Take a look at the table. Gulp.
This sort of deal is all-too-familiar for fans of Leeds United, whose chairman Peter Ridsdale made a similar gamble with supposedly guaranteed Champions League revenues. When the club missed out on the top four (and thus qualification for the competition) it missed out on the incomes necessary to repay the loans; implosion, both financial and footballing, was to follow, as Leeds dropped to the third tier of the English system and were forced into administration. If Blackburn go down, they may never come back up again.
Fans are rightly outraged and terrified. But interpreted another way, the seemingly bonkers dealings of the Rao Brothers may be incredibly shrewd. The advertisement is embarrassing, but promoted the club's tour to India. The side played several games there during summer (the first Premier League side to do so), and attracted huge crowds as they took on local outfits.
India is a potential source of revenue for Premier League clubs which has so far remained untapped; the nation has the largest emerging middle class in the world, and football, whilst increasingly popular (last month 120,000 spectators watched Mohan Bagan face East Bengal in a local grudge match), suffers from crippling under-investment. By turning Blackburn Rovers into a brand, Venky's could make them the side to change this; were an Indian player to turn out for Rovers, there could emerge a very lucrative fan base, mimicking the effect the South Korean midfielder Park ji-Sung has had when playing for Manchester United, with his appearance astronomically boosting Asian television audiences and being a constant source of merchandise revenues.
On the face of it, Blackburn's manager is a failure and their owners are nutters. And indeed, their financial gamble poses an existential threat to the club. But if Steve Kean can steer the club to Premier League survival, the potential rewards could be enormous. Rovers' fans think the poultry magnates are running their club like headless chickens; don't be so sure just yet.
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