It seemed as if the worst was over. After 24 months of turmoil, acrimony and inefficiency – both on and off the pitch – it felt that they would finally crawl their way up the hole they had dug for themselves. Steve Kean’s dismissal as the manager of Blackburn Rovers was long overdue and he was finally given the boot. His ineptitude had driven a mid-table Premier League club to the darkness of relegation. That he stayed in the job for so long was a big surprise; the owners’(Indian chicken giants, Venky’s) backing – though admirable – was misplaced.
The onus was now on the beleaguered owners and the director of football operations, Shebby Singh (yes, you all know him from his “punditry” on ESPN Star Sports) to appoint the right person. They had already got one decision wrong (two if you consider Sam Allardyce’s sacking) and could not afford another wrong one. Another wrong decision and their credibility(if it exists) with the fans will hit a new low. So it was only fair that they took their time to find a successor.
As interim manager Eric Black took charge of first team affairs, the process of finding the new man began. After almost a month of searching – with big names like Ian Holloway and Alan Churbisley being linked to the job – former Blackburn captain, Norwegian Henning Berg was appointed.
On the face of it, it looked like a good appointment. Here was a man who was an ex-Blackburn player, who was also part of the title-winning side of 1995. He also went on to captain the Rovers side later, and was part of the famous treble winning Manchester United side and was a name that resonated with the fans. After two years of turning a deaf ear to the pleas of fans, it looked as if the owners finally were willing to get things back on track and repair their fractured relationship with the fans.
But often in football, as in life, the best laid plans don’t necessarily work out in the manner you expect them to. Having been in the job for 45 days and taken charge of nine games Berg’s record makes for poor reading. He has won just one game, drawn three and lost five so far. He is yet to win a game at Ewood Park. Results notwithstanding, and more worryingly, there has no visible sign of improvement in the general performance, attitude of the players. Fans who rejoiced after Kean’s dismissal, and were cautiously optimistic that the tide will turn, have been left to cope with more misery. The discontent is simmering and a perfect illustration of that came as Blackburn crashed to a 4-1 defeat at home ( a match broadcasted in India) to table-toppers Cardiff City. As the visitors scored their fourth goal in injury time, a chorus of boos filled the stadium even as a glum looking Berg tried his best not to show any emotion.
Fans had already stopped coming to Ewood Park and the paltry crowd of about 15,000 started leaving the stadium. An old Blackburn supporter threw his club scarf on to the turf as he was leaving. The Rovers faithful have experienced so many low points over the past 24 months that it was difficult to even guess if the defeat was the nadir. Before this game, they were thoroughly outplayed at home by their fellow rivals Burnley in a 1-1 draw. That one of the biggest spenders in the Championship were outplayed by one of the lowest spenders did not escape anybody’s attention.
In reality, the results under Berg haven’t been totally surprising. Questions about his managerial pedigree/record were raised when it became clear that he was the front-runner for the job. His previous managerial stint at Norwegian side Lillestrøm was average at best. He finished 11th and 10th in his first two seasons in charge and was sacked at the fag-end of his third season. The argument that he knows the club by virtue of being an ex-player also does not hold much weight. Too many changes have taken place since then. Interestingly, Henning Berg was highly critical of the owners, Venky’s, while working as a pundit on Norwegian TV last season. He was quoted as saying –
“There are no real managers with credibility who would accept a job like that”.
When grilled on the same after his appointment he said –
“That was me looking at it from the outside without knowing really what was going on in the inside. I think this club at the moment is going in the right direction”.
Whether he knows what the owners are doing or not, one thing is for sure: Berg is under pressure.
To be frank, the complete mismanagement of the Venky’s since taking over has reached appalling proportions. As the search for the new manager dragged on in October, there were reports that the Venky’s wanted someone who was not too strong and would toe the line of Shebby Singh(read Venky’s). Even as the club was clearly crying out for a dynamic, experienced manager after the disastrous reign of Steve Kean, according to media reports the candidature of Ian Holloway was rejected by Shebby Singh. The names of Juande Ramos, Alan Shearer, Sven Goran Eriksson and Harry Redknapp were also making rounds. The pursuit of former midfielder Tim Sherwood – now a coaching staff of Tottenham Hotspur – ended hitting a roadblock as they found the compensation too high. Berg was considered somewhat of a compromised appointment.
The mystique surrounding the working style of the Venky’s continues. Since their downward spiral last season, they are rarely seen at the ground ( may be they can’t stand the unsavoury chants directed at them) and while they intermittently talk about their continued faith in the players and making necessary financial investment, they have rarely backed it up with concrete, decisive action.
The appointment of Shebby Singh as the global director of Football operations too has met with mixed results so far. While he must be credited for engaging and communicating with the fans, his propensity to shoot his mouth off (as Indian viewers can vouch for) has not gone down well with everyone. At a fans meeting at the start of the season, he called Morten Gamst Pedersen a “pensioner” and declared that Steve Kean would be sacked if he did not win the first three games. The comment against Pedersen left the players seething with anger and prompted one of the funniest moments of the season as, after scoring a goal in one of the games, Pedersen ran up to the corner flag, took a walking stick and mumbled “Not too bad for a pensioner”. It was also reported in the Lancashire media that the players do not get on well with Shebby and they asked him to get off the team bus after an away game.
While the Venky’s have indeed invested in buying players this season – Huddersfield striker Jordan Rhodes’ acquisition has been a success – the club seems to be on a slippery slope – both on and off the field. Their latest defeat, a 2-0 away loss at Blackpool, prompted the now routine abusive chanting against the Venky’s, Shebby and Berg reach shriller tones. Steve Kean, despite all his shortcomings, had made a decent start to the season with Blackburn and his side looked like they would definitely be pushing for a promotion to the Championship. When he left they were in 7th place, 2 points off the playoff spots. Nine games into Berg’s reign they stand a lowly 15th, 8 points off 6th place and 11 points off the drop zone. For a club of Blackburn’s stature, to be left lying in mid-table without even challenging for playoff spots would be unacceptable. But for now any sign of revival looks quite a distance away.
Written by Guest Author Chaitanya Lakkapragada
Follow the author on Twitter: @chaitugooner