Rovers takeover trouble coming home to roost

Former Premier League winners suffer from headless chicken syndrome as Indian poultry group oversee slide down table.

Venky’s chairman and Rovers’ co-owner Anuradha Desai ponders her next transfer target [GALLO/GETTY]

In November 2010, it all looked so rosy for Blackburn Rovers fans when the club was bought by the wealthy Rao family of India – more commonly known as Venky’s.

The tongue-twisting Venkateshwara Hatcheries Group – or VH Group – is the trading name of the Rao family’s poultry business, which originated in Hyderabad in 1971.

According to their website, “The VH Group is a 1 billion USD conglomerate, the largest fully integrated poultry group in Asia”, and the Forbes business magazine of USA ranked Venky’s as 67th among the 100 best global small companies in the year 2000.

Back in November, nobody had heard of them in England and it was strange but comical to see Blackburn Rovers in cahoots with an Indian poultry company.

Now, the image of headless chickens running around a pen is not far removed from what you are likely to see at Ewood Park this season.

Indian investment in English football is nothing new – just ask Premier League-bound Queens Park Rangers, whose major shareholder is Indian billionaire and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal.

Clearly, Venky’s aren’t small fry and the unassuming town of Blackburn in the northwest of England officially welcomed their new owners on November 21, 2011 when the moustachioed Rao brothers, Venkatesh and Balaji, were paraded on the pitch before the Aston Villa game.

Rovers fans cheered and clapped and it brought hope to thousands of supporters in the stands who prayed that the glory days of the 1994/5 Premier League-winning season would be returned to Ewood Park.

Before the takeover there had been a sense that the club was losing its direction under the stewardship of the chairman, John Williams, and it became apparent that serious investment would be needed to take the club forward in an increasingly aggressive market and highly competitive Premier League.

Investors were sought, and in the current climate of Premier League clubs attracting foreign investment, it was only a matter of time before somebody came pecking at the door.

At the time, Liverpool were the previous Premier League club to succumb to foreign ownership when the club was bought by the American billionaire John W Henry in October 2010.

Blackburn are currently languishing in 15th spot in the EPL and face Everton this weekend [GALLO/GETTY]

But nobody really expected Blackburn Rovers to be on the shopping list of the mega rich.

Venky’s London Limited, which is now the holding company of Blackburn Rovers FC, came into the football world and purchased the club for around £23m and eradicated the club’s existing debt which was in excess of £20m.

Shortly after buying the club the Indians promised investment in the team and set out ambitious objectives for the club.

Venky’s co-owner and chairwoman, Anuradha Desai, told the Lancashire Telegraph: “We want good football and Blackburn to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better. The fans should trust us because this is in the best interests of the club.”

What has happened since is not what the Rovers faithful expected.

The newly-formed board sacked the experienced manager, Sam Allardyce, and appointed an unknown quantity in his place – namely the first team coach Steve Kean.
As it stands, with only a handful of games left, the team is currently languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League and are at risk of relegation to the second-tier Championship.

The excitement generated by the takeover has now subsided and has well and truly reached an anticlimax. 

Although nostalgia exists at Ewood Park, there’s no Alan Shearer around these days to score the club out of trouble or a Kenny Dalglish to manoeuvre the side up the table.

And then there’s the transfer speculation at the club which followed after the takeover which made many cringe.

The legendary but outlandish Diego Maradona was touted as Sam Allardyce’s successor to the hot seat. The club’s owners insisted that this was a viable option and were reported to be in serious talks with him.

“We thought about Maradona as a coach after we took over. Talks were at the initial stage then, but there is no development on that front yet,” said Desai.

As expected, Maradona’s appointment never materialised, and the board imposed Kean as the new manager until the end of the season.

What baffled was how a club could aim so high in terms of personality and calibre, then stoop so low in reality, which led many to think that the board were simply engaging in a rather disastrous publicity stunt.

The embarrassing Ronaldinho saga followed shortly after, with Blackburn reportedly putting a substantial offer on the table to capture the Brazilian playmaker.

Ronaldinho shunned the bright lights of Blackburn for Brazilian club Flamengo [AFP]

Ronaldinho’s brother and agent, Roberto de Assis, informed the press that the club had been in contact with him about signing his sibling.

“Blackburn have contacted us. There is also other interest in England but this is confidential,” said De Assis.

However, the former World Player of the Year thought that Blackburn’s offer was a no-brainer and left AC Milan to join Brazilian side Flamengo.

It was at this point that Rovers fans began to question the integrity of the board. Were they realistic about attracting and recruiting world class players or were they just intent of raising the club’s media profile by linking themselves with every Tom, Dick and Harry?

The Daily Telegraph at the time reported that the Venky’s Twitter account and Facebook page claimed the Brazilian had been offered a whopping £6m-a-year ($9.7million) to play for the club.

Their Twitter page, bragged: “Venkys trying hard to get Ronaldinho for 2 years contract. Offered 7.2 Million Euros as salary per year to Mr Assis.”

That was doomed to failure as was the club’s wild approach to sign former England captain, David Beckham, from LA Galaxy.

The move was never going to happen as the bright lights, fashion shows and boutiques of Blackburn did not appeal to his wife, Victoria, and that was that.

So where does the club go from here? They must avoid relegation at all costs this season and, should the club survive to tell another Premier League tale, Venky’s will need to be realistic in the transfer market.

Co-owner Venkatesh Rao has told the Lancashire Telegraph that, although he is worried about the club’s league position, he will continue to back the club should they drop into the second tier of English football.

“We are absolutely committed to the club and that won’t be changing any day,” said Rao.

“Of course we are worried but we have to play well and get together as a team, and we have to get out of the situation.

“You have to win sometimes and you have to lose sometimes, but we have to come out of this situation, that’s very sure.

“But we are always positive and we will be positive.”

Only time will tell if the takeover by the Indians has been a success.

But failure to invest properly next season will undoubtedly turn the Rovers into chicken feed for the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal should they remain in the top flight.

Source: Al Jazeera