Venky's takeover threatening to end in tears at Rovers
As owners have failed to garner interest in free-falling Blackburn back in India, relegation could be calamitous
The unravelling continues at Blackburn Rovers. Paul Robinson, the goalkeeper who has become one of their finest playing assets, was too diplomatic to say he would be off if Rovers are relegated this summer but did not provide any great sense of expectation at the club whose sheer drop to within a point of the relegation zone makes for a monumental home derby against Bolton tomorrow. "As long as we remain a Premier League club, I will be here next season," Robinson said yesterday. "Otherwise, we'll deal with that in the summer."
The tone from Roberto Martinez, 15 miles down the M6 at Wigan, whose two wins in five must look like a treasure trove to Steve Kean, the Rovers manager who has not taken three points since mid-January, when West Bromwich Albion were beaten 2-0, was markedly different. "We don't expect to get relegation so it's very easy to plan for next season," Martinez said. "We have been watching a few players. We've been looking at different options home and abroad."
The remarkable aspect of Blackburn's decline since becoming the Premier League's first Indian-owned club is the sense that the Venky's Group, who bought the club for £43m last November, have had no sense of an impending doom. Their talk of a "landmark summer signing" is as prevalent as always – Kean mentioned it a few weeks back – while co-owner Venkatesh Rao promised only six days ago that Kean's job was "definitely... 100 per cent safe."
That assuredness provides a graphic contrast with the private agonies suffered in December 2008 by the club's former chairman John Williams – swept away from Ewood just like Sam Allardyce in the past five months – before he brought Paul Ince's short reign to a close. Ince's Rovers won three, drew four and lost 10 of his 17 games; Kean's have won three, drawn five and lost nine – remarkably similar records, except that Ince's dire run came when there was time to do something about it.
Williams' sense of desperation about Ince – whom he so badly wanted to see succeed – was borne of a conviction, which he never tired of relating, that Rovers would be years out of the top flight once they dropped. This was because of their limited means, desperately small fanbase in a former mill town of 105,000 people and an already worrying ratio of wages to earnings – which was around 85 per cent, even then. At least Rovers have enough good players to sell – defenders Phil Jones and Chris Samba would fetch £20m between them; Junior Hoilett, David Dunn and Robinson would find buyers – if the drop comes. This at least preserves them from Portsmouth's fate.
Venky's might have more resources to invest than the Jack Walker Trust, if calamity comes, though they have also have more reasons to fear relegation. These include the prospect of being immediately displaced as the Premier League's Indian flagbearers by compatriot Lakshmi Mittal, whose 20 per cent shareholding in QPR is currently of far more fascination than Rovers to the Indian nation's massive Premier League fanbase. Venky's are struggling to register much Rovers interest in India at all, despite the big investment. "It's the top four or five teams who people here are interested in; there's not a following for the Rovers," Alok Sinha, sports editor of the Times of India said yesterday. "They have to be a top-10 team, beating the top teams to catch the imagination of the young fans. "
Maradona, Ronaldinho and David Beckham have all featured on Rovers' forlorn list of "landmark signings", though the hyperbole does not seem to have embarrassed the Indian public in the way that Sulaiman al-Fahim shamed Manchester City's new proprietors with his outlandish talk in 2009. The Venky's stardust reflects the showbiz accoutrements of the Indian Premier League and is "the Indian way of doing things," said Rakesh Rawal, founder of the +91 Europe group of Indian entrepreneurs. Relegation would deliver a "serious dent" to Venky's aims of greater global brand recognition, Mr Rawal said, "though with 40m Indians watching the Premier League and Champions League on a regular basis there is a huge opportunity there for Venky's."
Rovers are not doomed yet and Kean's reputation as an excellent coach may yet be cemented into one as an excellent manager, though the town of Blackburn will take much convincing. A group of 100 fans gathered to protest after Monday night's 1-0 defeat to Manchester City and the mood is one of fury.
At least Robinson has the perspective provided by his part in the Leeds side which was relegated in 2003-04 with debts of £100m. He wept the day the club dropped but that was a very different situation, the 31-year-old reflected yesterday. "At the time the financial situation at Leeds was a disaster and the last four weeks of the season you wondered if you would have a team on Saturday," he said. "Here, it is such a big strong club and the strength of the squad means it's not really worth thinking about."
Ince's League record P17, W3, D4, L10, Points13, Points per game 0.76
Kean's League record P17, W3, D5, L9, Points14, Points per game 0.82
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