END OFTHE CHICKEN RUN

In­dian poul­try gi­ant Venky’s, the owner of Black­burn Rovers, faces a fan back­lash and an un­cer­tain fu­ture with the club’s rel­e­ga­tion from English Premier League

India Today - - SPORT - By Aditi Khanna in London

The fate of Black­burn Rovers Foot­ball Club was sealed long be­fore a chicken draped in the team’s flag was let loose on field dur­ing the all- im­por­tant game against Wi­gan Ath­letic at Rovers’s home turf at Ewood Park, Black­burn, on May 7. The stunt was pulled off by an­gry fans dur­ing the Bar­clays Premier League match as a sym­bol of protest against the club’s In­dian poul­try ty­coons. It was prob­a­bly wise that the chicken chiefs were nowhere in sight when the 1- 0 score­line in favour of Wi­gan Ath­letic rel­e­gated the Lan­cashire club from the League.

Venkatesh­wara Hatch­eries, or Venky’s as the Pune- based VH Group is bet­ter known as, had ac­quired Black­burn Rovers for £ 23 mil­lion ( Rs 195 crore) back in Novem­ber 2010. The his­toric pur­chase was hailed as sym­bolic of In­dia’s grow­ing global might and came with a host of prom­ises from the bil­lion­aire fam­ily to in­vest large sums in the strug­gling team to ac­quire world- class play­ers, such as Ronald­inho, to help re­store the team to its for­mer glory as 1995 Premier League cham­pi­ons.

But un­der the new own­er­ship of broth­ers Balaji and Venkatesh Rao and their sis­ter Anu­radha De­sai, the prin­ci­pal owner of Black­burn Rovers as chair of Venky’s London Limited— the sub­sidiary which owns the club — the team’s for­tunes took a sharp turn for the worse within months. It nar­rowly es­caped rel­e­ga­tion last sea­son be­fore suf­fer­ing the ul­ti­mate, and widely feared, blow of drop­ping down to the Cham­pi­onship this sea­son.

On the op­po­site end of the spec­trum is Manch­ester City, which beat Queens Park Rangers 3- 2 to bag the Premier League tro­phy at the end of the sea­son on May 13. A sim­i­lar fate of rel­e­ga­tion back in 1996 has been long for­got­ten as a re­sult of a com­plete turn­around un­der the own­er­ship of Sheikh Man­sour bin Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, mem­ber of the rul­ing fam­ily of Abu Dhabi. The ti­tle triumph vin­di­cates his decision to plough in mil­lions into the club to ac­quire big- ticket play­ers since his reign be­gan in 2008.

For Rovers, the ig­no­min­ious end to its 11- year run in the top rung of English pre­mier­ship foot­ball has sparked a long- drawn post- mortem by fans and ex­perts. It kicked off soon

Do the own­ers know any­thing about foot­ball? Yes they do. I’ve had sup­port from Anu­radha, Balaji and Venkatesh ev­ery day.

STEVE KEAN, Black­burn Rovers man­ager

af­ter the May 7 game with a leaked email writ­ten by Rovers’s Deputy Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Paul Hunt to De­sai as far back as De­cem­ber 2011. The se­nior of­fi­cial had warned against pos­si­ble rel­e­ga­tion un­less un­pop­u­lar man­ager Steve Kean was re­moved. Hunt has since been re­port­edly sacked, though the own­ers claim he left as part of cost- cut­ting mea­sures.

In the prophetic email made public by Sport­ing In­tel­li­gence web­site, he wrote: “He ( Kean) has lost the crowd and as a re­sult of this evening’s game ( 2- 1 de­feat to Bolton on De­cem­ber 20, 2011) has lost the dress­ing room as well— the play­ers no longer want to play for him... We must act now to save the club... I feel that I must now write to you to ask you to make some sig­nif­i­cant changes to save the club, per­haps from rel­e­ga­tion but also per­haps from ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

De­sai’s close re­la­tion­ship with the Kean fam­ily, es­pe­cially wife Mar­garet, was then dredged up by Hyn­d­burn MP Gra­ham Jones as the rea­son be­hind her dis­mis­sive at­ti­tude to­wards such a stark warn­ing of things to come. This just added to the echoes of the fam­ily’s com­plete lack of foot­ball ex­per­tise, re­flected in a string of clearly ill- ad­vised de­ci­sions. Sack­ing man­ager Sam Al­lardyce, who had led the club to a 10th- place fin­ish in the 2009- 2010 sea­son, at a time when the team was in 13th place in the Premier League back in De­cem­ber 2010, is con­sid­ered the first big blun­der by the new own­ers. They then re­placed him with Kean, who has strug­gled to win the re­spect and sup­port of Black­burn Rovers fans ever since.

Kean, how­ever, in­sists the team is fully be­hind him and that his re­la­tion­ship with the own­ers is ex­tremely pro­fes­sional and above board. “She ( De­sai) watches ev­ery game. You’re ask­ing me, do they know any­thing about foot­ball? Yes they do. I’ve had sup­port from the own­ers ev­ery day,” he stressed, fol­low­ing the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Hunt’s leaked email which has failed to elicit a re­sponse from De­sai so far.

IN­DIA TO­DAY’S re­peated at­tempts to con­tact her have also been met with a wall of si­lence.

Mean­while, calls for Venky’s to grace­fully sell its stake in the team reached a crescendo, forc­ing com­pany di­rec­tor and footie fan Balaji Rao to cat­e­gor­i­cally deny any such plans. “Me, my brother Venkatesh and my sis­ter ( De­sai), our en­tire fam­ily, have fallen in love with the club. We can­not sell it,” he said. But it is doubt­ful that love will be enough in this case, as ma­jor fi­nan­cial con­straints come into play even­tu­ally. The fam­ily, which strongly be­lieves in the po­ten­tial of foot­ball to ri­val cricket as a sport in In­dia over the next five years, did come onto the pitch with a hefty wal­let. They re­port­edly paid off £ 10 mil­lion ( Rs 85 crore) of club debt when they took over and a fur­ther £ 5 mil­lion ( Rs 42.5 crore) in­ter­est- free loan was paid soon af­ter. Over­all, they are be­lieved to have in­jected around £ 25 mil­lion ( Rs 212 crore) on top of the fig­ure they paid to buy the club. But this failed to pre­vent the down­ward spi­ral and exit of se­nior play­ers, a trend likely to carry on fol­low­ing the club’s re­cent rel­e­ga­tion.

The VH Group tried to cash in with a high- pro­file tour of the Rovers to play Pune XI in Mum­bai in Oc­to­ber 2011 on the back of a con­tro­ver­sial advertise- ment show­ing the play­ers tuck­ing into juicy Venky’s chicken in the dress­ing room. The ad­ver­tise­ment not only fur­ther di­vided opin­ion among club fans but play­ers as well.

With Venky’s In­dia’s third quar­ter net profit plung­ing 81 per cent yearon- year to Rs 2.93 crore, it is un­likely that the Rovers own­ers will be in a po­si­tion to plough in the kind of ex­tra cash that the club des­per­ately needs fol­low­ing the added fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of rel­e­ga­tion. They al­ready have a dan­ger­ously high wages- to- turnover ra­tio of around 86 per cent and their Sky tele­vi­sion money, an­nu­ally worth at least £ 35 mil­lion, will also be dec­i­mated. The club’s av­er­age at­ten­dance also went down 11 per cent this sea­son, from 24,999 to 22,332.

Given this sce­nario, the only el­e­ment likely to grow is the protests led by the club’s diehard fans. On May 15, nearly 4,500 Rovers fans signed and emailed a ‘ Kean Out’ pe­ti­tion di­rectly to De­sai in time for cru­cial talks be­tween her and the man­age­ment in In­dia. Co- owner Venkatesh Rao ad­mits: “It’s how they ( the fans) feel and nat­u­rally they are go­ing to do that ( protest). We need to come out of this sit­u­a­tion and the fans have ev­ery right to do what they want.”

GETTYIMAGES

ROVERS FANS LET LOOSE AHEN DRAPED IN THE TEAM’S FLAG DUR­ING AMATCH ON MAY7

BLACK­BURN ROVERS CLUB CO- OWN­ERS ( FROM ABOVE) ANURADHADESAI, VENKATESH RAO AND BALAJI RAO

GETTYIMAGES

ROVERS FANS PROTESTAGAINSTVENKY’S

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