On Sunday evening, as many a journalist scoured their thesaurus for hyperbolic statements to describe the spectacular events that had unfolded at The Etihad, The Hawthorns and The Britannia, fans up and down the country were left to reflect on their team's successes, or lack thereof. Those from the red half of Manchester were not the only supporters left commiserating in England's North West. Further up the A666 debates had already begun in the pubs of Bolton and Blackburn on whether Leeds would be too far to travel on a wet Tuesday night in October. It is a bitter coincidence for both that, prior to QPR completing their great escape, the last time all three promoted teams avoided relegation was ten years ago, following Rovers and Wanderers' return to the top flight. Trotters fans will at least take solace that despite a difficult season their team are (at the time of writing) joint favourites to make an immediate return to the promised land, whilst in contrast Rovers' season could more accurately described as, well, where is that thesaurus?
As Blackburn went down to a tame defeat to an understrength Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in their final game a small consolation was offered in United's failure. At the moment Sir Alex Ferguson's dream of sealing the title was shattered, former Rovers youngster Phil Jones was close enough to perhaps hear an angry "Football, bloody hell" muttered under his manager's breath. Blackburn's victory at Old Trafford in December provided one of few highlights in a bleak 19 months since the club were taken over by Indian poultry firm Venky's. The result proved crucial in the title race and though Rovers fans are not particularly prone to schadenfreude, or at least no more than any other set of supporters, there was a certain satisfaction in the result. Aside from the geographical proximity of the two clubs, a rivalry remains from the 1994-95 season when Blackburn edged United to the title and four years later when Fergie condemned his former assistant Brian Kidd's Rovers side to England's second tier in the final weeks of the Red Devils' treble-winning season. So where did it all go wrong this time around?
Venky's takeover of the club was at first greeted with cautious optimism. The sudden replacement of manager Sam Allardyce with Steve Kean, a member of his coaching staff with no previous managerial experience, resulted in concern amongst certain sections of the Ewood faithful. Big Sam was not universally liked by fans however; a significant number craved more flair and creativity than was ever offered in Allardyce's direct approach and wanted a return to the more entertaining brand of football played under the stewardship of Graeme Souness and Mark Hughes just a few seasons before. As a result many welcomed Kean's appointment, initially as caretaker, followed by a long term contract less than a month later.
Things soon turned sour. Moves for marquee signings such as David Beckham, Ronaldinho and Raúl were rebuffed. Of those transfers that did materialise, perhaps the most significant in defining the new era at the club was that of Aberdeen's Myles Anderson. The defender's father, Jerome, is head of Sport, Entertainment and Media Group (SEM), an agency Venky's consulted prior to the takeover and of which Kean is a client. Prior to his arrival in Lancashire the 22 year old's playing career had consisted of a solitary two minute substitute appearance at the end of a 5-0 victory. Despite being hailed by Kean as the new Chris Smalling, Anderson has to date spent longer on the pitch at Pittodrie than he has at Ewood Park. The relationship between Kean, SEM and the club led to apprehension amongst members of the board. This included figures highly respected in the football world such as then chairman John Williams, who had presided over a period of fiscally responsible stability since the death of benefactor Jack Walker in 2000. The board members raised a number of issues in a later-leaked letter letter to matriarch of the Venky's-owning Rao family Anuradha Desai in January 2011. A number of prominent administrators subsequently left the club and a replacement chairperson has yet to be appointed.
The management of the club's descent into chaos was soon matched by disorganisation on the pitch. A free-fall from the comfort of mid-table led to a relegation battle, with survival only confirmed on a dramatic final day of the 2010-11 season. Whilst Allardyce's detractors had long yearned for the team to do more than win ugly Rovers were soon struggling to win at all, and so began the unrest on the terraces that was to mar the next 12 months. What began as banners and boos quickly escalated. Planes, petitions and even poultry were eventually involved. Many in the national press were quick to criticise the fans' actions. Suggestions were made that a small town club such as Blackburn should not expect anything other than a fight against the drop, such assertions ignoring the team's recent history of four finishes in the Premier League's top half in the five seasons prior to Venky's arrival. Managers such as Ferguson and Everton's David Moyes voiced their opposition to Kean's treatment as the supporters' outrage reached a crescendo in the defeat to fellow strugglers Bolton. Rovers replaced The Trotters at the bottom of the league, not a pleasant Christmas present to fans from a manager celebrating a year at the helm. The question of whether Kean's two fellow Scotsmen would expect to remain in employment if their clubs were to produce such performances remained unanswered. Others alleged that the dissent was counter-productive, a fair point perhaps, though the protests were a symptom of Blackburn's poor form, not the cause. Indeed by the time a live chicken made its appearance in the final home game against Wigan, fans were as concerned for the future of the club as the team's top flight status.
Despite operating in such an acrimonious atmosphere Kean's post-match interviews retained a baffling optimism. Assessments of performances had more holes than the Rovers' defence, which itself was shipping goals. Only after relegation was confirmed did Kean acknowledge the significance of the experienced players that had been sold, these had not been lost as he stated however; a conscious decision was made by the manager and owners to offload them. In his handling of the young squad that remained Kean's Ned Flanders-esque positivity also clearly backfired. Like a good parent, a successful boss knows when to encourage and when to chastise but the latter was absent from Kean's repertoire.
Kean's defiance even led to nominations for manager of the year in some quarters of the press after his team achieved the remarkable feat of consecutive victories in March, this was followed by a solitary win in the following nine matches which sealed Blackburn's relegation fate. In view of the damning statistics that nearly half of all first-time bosses are never appointed to a second position and that Kean had the third-worst win ratio of any manager in the club's history, his attitude did follow some logic, however selfish. A dignified resignation was not an option for a clearly ambitious man brimming with self-belief. An expletive-ridden rant about former colleague Allardyce that has emerged since the season's denouement shows a darker side to Kean's character. The aftermath could find Kean spending another summer with numerous hours spent in his solicitor's office, following last August's drink-driving conviction.
The video of Kean is one of a number of dramatic revelations in recent days and follows a further leaked letter from deputy chief executive Paul Hunt which raised concerns over the management of both team and club including, perhaps most crucially, evidence of long-rumoured financial woes. Hunt was dismissed shortly after the six month old e-mail went public, for apparently unconnected reasons. The Rao family have been increasingly distant as the club crumbles, rarely attending games, perhaps not troubled by the prospect of one of their 198 companies imploding. What is yet to come is as easy to predict as a well-guarded soap opera storyline. A flicker of hope through the gloom has appeared in the form of discussions between ex-Accrington Stanley chairman Ilyas Khan and local investment firm Seneca Partners regarding a takeover, whilst a proposed supporters' trust still harbours hopes of a similar move for the club. Rovers' Academy prospects have shown cause for cheer too, reaching the FA Youth Cup Final. A semi-final defeat of local rivals Burnley was particularly sweet and the two first-team derby matches in the offing next season will undoubtedly have an atmosphere to savour.
Whatever the future holds for the club on and off the pitch, in contrast to the view held by most football supporters up and down the country, this season will be one Rovers fans will be keen to forget, no pun intended.
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