The farcical way Blackburn Rovers are run was laid bare in a court of law when the club were pilloried by a presiding judge who described their way of operating as “utterly unforgivable,” as they launched a last-minute fight to stop sacked manager Henning Berg being awarded £2.2m in unpaid wages.
Having initially agreed to meet Berg’s demands for the payment of his three-year contract in full, Rovers revealed at a High Court hearing that they had changed their minds, by filing papers after a pre-agreed deadline in a way Judge Mark Pilling said was “woefully inadequate” and “entirely contrary to the way justice is supposed to be served”.
The club’s principal owner, Anuradha Desai, has hired new solicitors who, the court heard, will now claim that the club’s managing director, Derek Shaw, had no authority to give 43-year-old Berg – who was sacked after 56 days in December – a contract entitling him to such lucrative severance terms, rather than the one-year of pay she sanctioned. The court, sitting in Manchester, heard Shaw is now at the centre of disciplinary proceedings instigated by Desai, for defying her orders.
But Desai’s claim that Shaw had no authority is deeply undermined by a press release – still accessible on the Rovers’ website last night – which claimed earlier this month that Shaw has the “complete backing and support” of the owners and that there was “no investigation” into the Berg contract.
The club claimed in court that the press release, entitled “Owners respond to Berg rumours” and issued by the club’s press department on Shaw’s orders, was “not true”.
A disciplinary letter, fundamental to Desai’s lawyers’ new case, was sent 24 hours before the press statement and directly contradicts it, the judge said.
The initial Shaw disciplinary process was hamstrung by another hitch to the running of the club: Rovers' "global adviser" Shebby Singh had been unable to obtain a travel visa quickly enough to return to Blackburn to tackle Shaw. Singh and Shaw's power struggle has been the principal reason why Berg and Michael Appleton have been sacked in quick succession, during a wretched season.
Judge Pilling left Rovers in little doubt that they are likely to fail in their attempts to defeat Berg's action, details of which were revealed by The Independent last month. He did grant the club's barristers the chance to argue, at a later hearing, that Berg's contract is not binding because Shaw lacked the authority to offer it. But the judge also concluded that the case was "borderline arguable" and said: "I've come close to dismissing this application out of hand but I'm just persuaded [to allow it]." The owners' case was "contradicted" by the website press release, he said.
Yet it was also the manner of the 11th-hour change of course by Desai's lawyers which infuriated the judge, who said it was "guaranteed just to waste time and money". Only late on Monday did the club's new solicitors lodge a draft application to withdraw the initial agreement to pay Berg in full. The application discussed the inclusion of a witness statement supporting the club's case, though no witness statement was attached. After close of business hours on Monday, an unsigned witness statement was sent. Yet another, signed version of the witness statement presented to the court differed from the original one. The club's barrister, Neil Berragan, said that the delay stemmed from the need of the club's owners to discuss the case with their solicitors.
The club's attempts to prevent Berg securing the full £2.2m will depend on their lawyers making the case that the former Rovers player and his agent should have known that the owners – not the managing director – held the ultimate authority. Shaw appeared to have further undermined that position by taking the decision to pay Berg an initial £562,500, though the court heard that he did so without informing Desai. His thinking was he "might as well do it and ease her into it gently". Berg is still owed £1.6m gross.