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Exactly what is this woman doing at Blackburn Rovers?

As the head of Venky's, Anuradha Desai knows a lot about chickens but little about football – proved by her stewardship of Blackburn's rapid decline

Ian Herbert
Sunday 24 March 2013 01:00 GMT

She is presiding over the interminable demise of Blackburn Rovers, but don't let it be said that Anuradha Desai is a pillager with no thoughts for Lancashire. She brought up the subject of job losses at the British Aerospace factory at Salmsebury, located on the top road to the Rovers training ground, with one of the few concerned individuals from Blackburn who has made it beyond the security checkpoints to secure an audience at her "Venky Farm" bungalow in Pune, South-west India.

On top of that, after the agent Jerome Anderson had convinced her that owning the club was a very good idea, she had to be reined in from responding to all the hand-out requests which came piling in from North-west England: a £17,000 minibus needed here, hardship support required there. She even had ideas about funding a renovation of Blackburn Cathedral. Visitors to the bungalow, where she conducts her business, are encouraged to call her "madam", but this individual is intelligent and thoughtful, with concerns which are often pastoral.

Desai, her husband, Jitendra, and two brothers, Venkatesh and the more glamorous Balaji, preside over a group of companies, Venkateshwara Hatcheries, which are striding out across to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and Brazil and whose performance on the Mumbai Stock Exchange reflects their market dominance in India – all of which you don't achieve without a little emotional, as well as entrepreneurial, intelligence. But that is why, at the end of the week in which Michael Appleton became the third manager in a season to be pushed out the Ewood Park door, the motives which drove this disastrous episode in football-club ownership are so baffling. Why on earth are they here?

Anderson's encouragement had much to do with it. The Jack Walker Trust had let it be known that there would be commission for anyone who found them a buyer, and in the autumn of 2010 an expanding Venky's were looking to move beyond their small-scale local cricket, tennis and football sponsorship which saw only the occasional star, such as the Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva, wear their name.

At the time Venky's, expanding out of the nitty-gritty business of supplying 80 per cent of chicks to farmers and hatcheries in India, were also actively looking to open London outlets for their Venky's Express fast- food outlets (a downmarket KFC). They were cash-rich and had money to burn. They looked at sites in Leicester Square and Covent Garden.

The financial downturn, allied to the dreadful trouble that relegation-threatened Blackburn Rovers brought to their door, seems to have dissuaded them from proceeding with the outlets, though they have never said why. Desai's husband – a very serious financier who has masterminded the company's expansion – is also rumoured to have harboured doubts about buying into Ewood Park from the start, though his wife seems to have been persuaded that Blackburn Rovers would give the firm the global branding hit they sought. A £26 million investment for a group of companies worth billions was hardly a big gamble. If it failed, it failed. The worst the Desai family could experience was a little embarrassment.

The hole in the strategy was the same one which afflicts so many foreign owners of British football clubs: an apparent lack of knowledge about how these businesses are run. The story about no Desai knowing there was relegation from the Premier League may be apocryphal. Managers have certainly been on the receiving end of less intelligence from foreign proprietors than those in the Blackburn hot seat (one took a call a few weeks ago from the owner, who wanted the team to score "more goals from long range").

But an examination of the club's dealings in last summer's transfer market reveals the crippling effects of the civil war which has broken out at the club in the vaccum left by an absent landlord. On one side are two British executives, the managing director, Derek Shaw, and former press officer, Paul Agnew. On the other side is Shebby Singh, an Indian TV personality and now the club's so-called "global adviser", appointed by the Desai family to get a grip.

Singh was driving the transfer business last summer when QPR were convinced they had secured the signing of Danny Murphy from Fulham on the kind of low-wage, short-term, incentivised salary which 35-year-olds must expect. Mark Hughes was expecting Murphy to turn up for a medical, and inquiries were made when he did not. To the surprise of all concerned, he had been offered a remarkable two-year deal by Rovers, with an option to extend for a year, worth up to £45,000 a week.

There was also a sense of money being thrown away when QPR turned up at the tribunal appointed to agree the transfer fee to buy Rovers' Junior Hoilett. Blackburn's lawyers said they would begin negotiations at around £5m. But Singh had already agreed a fee closer to £3m. The first the Rovers contingent heard of that was in the tribunal room. Singh has not responded to phone calls from The Independent on Sunday this week.

The businessman who beat a path past the roadblocks to Desai's door, Ian Battersby, a lifelong Rovers fan, thought he had persuaded her of the need for professional expertise. She spent three-and-a-half hours listening to him, he says. "The meeting finished with photographs on the bungalow steps and a promise that she wanted to meet again in precisely 15 days. I never heard from them again."

Those trying to engage with Desai, such as the Rovers Trust, do so with diplomacy and try to prevent the situation becoming attritional. All have hit a wall of silence.

The family are losing millions in Lancashire – Battersby estimates that £7.5m has gone on players who have never kicked a ball – but that is chickenfeed for a company with 150 subsidiaries, of which the club are only one. Getting out now would be an admission of failure and bring a loss of pride.

So Desai staggers on, still spending, with some vague hope that the wind will begin blowing the other way. Meanwhile, Blackburn Rovers sit just four points off relegation from the Championship.

Poor old Rovers have been out of cluck

November 2010

Venky's agree deal with the Jack Walker Trust to buy Blackburn Rovers for £23 million.

December 2010

Blackburn sack Sam Allardyce with club a comfortable 13th in Premier League. Steve Kean given manager's role until the end of the season.

January 2011

After just one month's work Kean is handed a three-year contract.

May 2011

Blackburn beat Wolves 3-2 away to narrowly avoid relegation.

September 2011

Blackburn fans protest against Kean and the board before 4-3 win over Arsenal.

November 2011

"Week of Mourning" – fans protest by laying wreaths at the ground.

February 2012

Kean hires bodyguard as Christopher Samba is sold to Russian club.

May 2012

Blackburn succumb to relegation after 11 years in the top flight.

September 2012

Kean's position becomes "untenable" and the Scot resigns with a win ratio of just 28 per cent.

November 2012

Henning Berg is hired as manager, but sacked after just 57 days.

January 2013

Venky's hire their third manager of the season but Michael Appleton lasts just 67 days, despite an FA Cup win over Arsenal.

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