By the time Blackburn Rovers arrived in Pune on a promotional tour in October 2011, they were already familiar with the eccentricities of the club’s new Indian owners.
Venky’s had make their mark on one of the founding members of the Football League and not in a good way.
One incident in particular on that trip, however, demonstrated just how much the Rao family still had to learn about running a football club.
It has been 10 years since the Venky’s brothers (above) took over Blackburn Rovers
The takeover has been one of the tumultuous in English football and has included fan protests
A member of Blackburn’s ground staff travelling with the squad noted that the pitch for an exhibition match was too long. He asked for the grass to be cut, reasonably expecting that the blades on the lawnmowers would be lowered accordingly.
The groundsman was shocked to say the least when he returned to find a small army of female employees from Venky’s on their hands and knees, sheltered from the searing Indian sun by parasols, meticulously cutting the grass using scissors and rulers.
‘He thought it was some kind of joke,’ says one insider. ‘At that point we really knew we were in trouble.’
Rumours persist to this day about just what Venky’s thought they were getting themselves into. Did they really not grasp the concept of relegation? Who knows.
But 10 years on from the most tumultuous takeover in the history of English football, the Indians have certainly learned some harsh lessons.
The Venky’s brothers – Balaji (right) and Venkatesh Rao (left) – have learned some tough lessons
They are still here though. Still in charge at Ewood Park, still investing. The mad, bad old times are in the past and there is an air of stability around Rovers at last. Some of the club’s fans will never accept it, but Blackburn could be far worse off without Venky’s.
Truth is, they probably were from the start. Blackburn’s glory days were well behind them 15 years after beating Manchester United to win the Premier League title with a team bankrolled by benefactor Jack Walker.
It was still a solidly run local club but one that couldn’t keep on selling its best players like David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz to stay afloat. The Walker Trust were keen to sell and new investment was needed.
Step forward Venky’s, disrespectfully written off as ‘chicken farmers’ when in fact the VH (Venkateshwara Hatcheries) Group is a £1.5billion conglomerate whose business interests stretch across Asia and into the pharmaceutical industry.
The Venky’s brothers came in after the The Walker Trust – the family business of former popular owner Jack Walker (left) – decided to sell in 2010
The family – headed by the matriarchal Anuradha Desai (known as Madam) – paid an initial £53m on November 19, 2010 and two days later her brothers Venkatesh and Balaji appeared on the pitch before Rovers played Aston Villa at home.
Venky’s have ploughed an additional £140m into Blackburn over the last decade for very little reward, resisting any temptation to sell even though they have not been seen at Ewood for eight years now.
‘Never accuse them of not supporting the club financially,’ says Blackburn director Robert Coar, the only survivor of the old board. ‘But I think they realise they did get some pretty poor advice and made some pretty poor appointments early on.’
Venky’s didn’t help themselves. They came in vowing to bring back Champions League football to East Lancashire. There was talk of getting a star player like Ronaldinho and a manager like Diego Maradona. Instead they delivered David Goodwillie and Steve Kean.
Venky’s promised managers such as Diego Maradona – they ended up with Steve Kean (above)
Venky’s believed £5m-a-year would be enough to make it happen, yet within a year the Bank of India stepped in to pay the wages after Barclays refused to extend the club’s credit.
Further ridicule was heaped on Venky’s after the players appeared in a TV advert for the company’s fast food outlets, filmed eating fried chicken in the dressing-room.
But their biggest mistake appeared to be trusting the advice of football marketing agency Kentaro and the Sport Entertainment and Media Group headed by Jerome Anderson.
What happened next is well documented. Venky’s swiftly sacked manager Sam Allardyce with the club in 13th place in the Premier League and replaced him with Anderson’s man, first-team coach Kean.
The Venky’s sacked Sam Allardyce despite the club sitting safely in the top-flight’s mid-table
Team sheets were being sent to Pune for approval and staff summoned for monthly audiences with Mrs Desai in the Indian city 70 miles south-east of Mumbai.
Kean was there instead of training on the Monday before Blackburn faced Survival Sunday in May 2011, results having taken a dramatic turn for the worse since Allardyce’s departure.
Blackburn survived but it was only a temporary reprieve. The team that had finished 10th under Allardyce the previous season was slowly disintegrating, replaced by a stream of new players that included Anderson’s own son Myles whose CV amounted to two minutes’ first-team action for Aberdeen. He never played for Blackburn.
In came Shebby Singh, the TV pundit, former Malaysia international and Venky’s global advisor, followed by no fewer than six Portuguese players. It had turned into a total car crash.
Shebby Singh (above) came in as a global advisor to the club and influenced club signings
‘Venky’s entrusted Jerome Anderson and Shebby. I feel sorry for them, they got taken advantage of,’ says one former member of the coaching staff.
‘Shebby had crazy meetings with the players. ‘Come in lads, sit down, I’m Shebby Singh, I’ve been a player, listen to me, I’m telling you how to play football’.
‘Jerome took over Steve Kean’s office. He was running the show. Jerome’s son signed but he was nowhere near good enough.
‘The Portuguese lads were no good either. You go to Leigh Sports Village to watch the reserves and you’re thinking, ‘wow, he’s rubbish’. They’re that forgettable that you can’t remember their names. It was p**s poor. Embarrassing.
Fans turned on their owners and criticised the hiring of Kean, who got Blackburn relegated
A chicken was released on the pitch as Blackburn were relegated at home by Wigan in 2012
‘There were so many bad apples. They were all on fantastic money. Younger lads couldn’t get into the reserves because the Portuguese lads and Jerome’s son were playing. There was a toxic atmosphere.’
Blackburn were relegated from the Premier League the following season. Fans paid to fly an anti-Kean banner in the sky over Ewood, and on another occasion released a chicken on the pitch in protest at Venky’s.
Kean was given a bodyguard after 50 fans besieged the club’s Brockhall training ground, but quit seven games into the new Championship season saying his position had become untenable.
The boardroom was equally chaotic. Stalwarts like long-serving chairman John Williams and managing director Tom Finn had gone. In their absence, Singh and new MD Derek Shaw waged a power struggle.
Henning Berg was hired as manager to try and get Blackburn promoted back to the top-flight
Singh got his way and persuaded Venky’s to appoint Henning Berg, the former Blackburn and Manchester United defender as manager.
It lasted 57 days, ending not long after Berg stormed out of the club’s Christmas party when he was made to get up on stage and dance in a Michael Jackson wig.
Advantage to Shaw, an Anderson ally, who talked Venky’s into appointing Michael Appleton. That lasted 67 days.
‘We’ve not had any contact from Shebby,’ commented Appleton during his brief tenure. ‘If he’s global advising, he’s certainly not advising me.’ The two men never spoke.
Berg was sacked and Michael Appleton (left) succeeded him – but he lasted just 67 days
Including two caretakers, Eric Black and Gary Bowyer, Blackburn went through no fewer than five different managers in the 2012-13 season.
The court case brought on by Berg’s claim for £2.25m in compensation (meaning he was paid £375,000 for every point he won) included allegations from the owners that Shaw had effectively gone rogue and was running the club against their wishes.
Maybe because, by then, Venky’s had stopped coming to Blackburn amid fan protests and opposition from local MP Jack Straw.
Mrs Desai has not been back to Ewood since her husband Jitendra was hit in the face by a snowball thrown by fans before a game in January 2013. The brothers stopped coming after their chauffeur died from a heart attack after driving them to a home game two months later.
They had enjoyed their visits from India – particularly Balaji, the most flamboyant member of the Rao family. He of the ponytail, Bollywood links, extravagant parties and penchant for carrying a holstered pistol when at home in Pune despite the team of bodyguards.
Balaji Rao (above) is not your typical owner – he once asked a Blackburn player to go clubbing
On one occasion, star striker Santa Cruz received a call asking him if he wanted to go out on the town in Manchester. The Paraguayan declined assuming a fan had got his number, but club staff confirmed that the caller was in fact Balaji.
Venky’s would have their chauffeur drive them to London where they would go shopping at Harrods, dine at the best restaurants and invoice the club. ‘It was a bloody nightmare for the finance department, there were random bills coming in from all over the place,’ says a source.
Club representatives visiting Pune, meanwhile, would return with jewellery and saris for their partners. One executive was even asked to travel back to England with a blood sample from the Rao family dog to deliver to a vet.
Those days are over, and it’s probably for the best that they are. Sanity has returned to Ewood Park, albeit slowly and not necessarily smoothly.
Gary Bowyer steadied the ship for Blackburn in the Championship despite a transfer ban
Bowyer steadied the ship but the parachute payments were coming to an end and the huge contracts handed out by the owners led to serious losses and a transfer embargo for breaching Financial Fair Play Rules.
He went and so did Paul Lambert and Owen Coyle as Rovers diced with relegation, eventually tumbling into League One in 2017 for the first time in 37 years with new manager Tony Mowbray unable to avoid the drop.
However, Mowbray led them back up the following season and began the rebuilding process. Saturday’s home win over Barnsley saw Blackburn move into ninth position, three points off the play-off positions.
The club is being run locally again by football people with Venky’s happy to take a back-seat. It feels as though the promised land of the Premier League might soon be in sight once again.
Rovers were relegated from the second tier with Tony Mowbray unable to keep them up in 2017
Look around the north-west and clubs like Wigan, Bolton and Blackpool are under new ownership yet significantly further away from returning to the top-flight than Blackburn.
Venky’s have stayed when others would have cut their £190m losses and run. Some fans will never forgive them. Others are coming round to the view that the Rao family might not be so bad after all.
‘I see some comments on Facebook that maybe it’s time for the leadership in India to come back and put things to bed and move on,’ says Dan Clough, editor of Rovers fanzine 4,000 Holes at the time of the takeover.
‘They have continued to invest and the club is being run by the right people in Blackburn, not from India or through an agent.
With Blackburn now a fixed Championship team again, perhaps a top-flight return beckons?
‘When you look at other clubs, the fact we’re a relatively stable Championship club that could be pushing for the play-offs is not a bad position.
‘Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t taken over? The Walker Trust were desperate to sell and there were a couple of other Indian names that popped up.’
Ten years on, Venky’s might turn out to be Blackburn’s saviours after all. It has just taken time and one of English football’s great dramas to get to this point.