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
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.”
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
ROVERS FANS PROTESTAGAINSTVENKY’S