x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Owners on a different planet

Proprietors of Blackburn need to realise the club¿s main fan base is England not India, writes Dileep Premachandran.

The owners of Blackburn Rovers arranged a friendly in India, days before games against Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers.
The owners of Blackburn Rovers arranged a friendly in India, days before games against Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers.

Legend has it that King Canute once placed his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to stop. When it did nothing of the sort and wet his feet and legs, he stepped back, saying: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws."

There is a lesson in there for folk everywhere, but especially for deluded football club owners and presidents who think they more powerful than Mother Nature.

Jesus Gil, who presided over a league and cup double and relegation at Atletico Madrid, may be dead and gone, but there are plenty of other eccentric owners who seem to inhabit a parallel universe.

A couple of them own Blackburn Rovers, three-times champions of England. When Venky's, an Indian company whose core business is poultry, paid £53 million (Dh302.1m) for the club last November, it raised more than a few eyebrows.

Grandiose statements about becoming a top five Premier League side and major players on the European stage followed. The fact that modern football has innumerable roadblocks that prevent a provincial club with a small fan base from ever again scaling the heights that Blackburn did in the early 1990s appeared to have escaped the new owners.

Within weeks, they had sacked the experienced Sam Allardyce, apparently disillusioned with his direct methods, and appointed the rookie Steve Kean as manager. They escaped relegation on the final day of the season, and the biggest transfer news this summer was the loss of the gifted Phil Jones to Manchester United.

Six games into the new season, Blackburn have four points. Escaping relegation, rather than European qualification, is already the name of their game. Yet, during the international break in October, they will be winging it to India to play an exhibition match in Pune that is utterly devoid of meaning.

Most owners and sponsors extract a pound of flesh when they can, but it is usually during the off-season. Manchester United cross the Atlantic to fulfil their commitments in the United States. Chelsea toe the Samsung line and Arsenal play in the Emirates Cup.

Blackburn were to have played in India on July 22 only for bomb blasts in Mumbai a week earlier to cause those plans to be shelved. No one expected, however, that the rescheduled date would be just a week before an important Premier League clash against Queens Park Rangers. Rovers are currently in the relegation zone and, as they face Manchester City this weekend, will likely still be there come the QPR match.

Announcing the tour, Balaji Rao, one of the owners, said: "Security is paramount, but so is our commitment to bringing Blackburn Rovers to India. And this visit could not have been better timed. The club is riding on a high after its big win over Arsenal, and the players are eager to share their glory with their Indian fans."

He neglected to mention that the 4-3 win over Arsenal, marked by Keystone Kops defending from Arsene Wenger's side, was followed by a 3-1 crash at St James' Park against Newcastle United. Talk of "Indian fans" is wishful thinking, too. By the time the Premier League permeated the consciousness of middle and upper-class urban India, Blackburn had begun the slide from the heights scaled under Kenny Dalglish.

The late Jack Walker's open purse strings had provided the framework, and a Tim Sherwood-led side fired by goals from Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton pipped Manchester United to the title in 1994/95. By the time United, Arsenal and Chelsea shirts became commonplace on the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, Blackburn no longer inhabited the higher echelons.

The friendly against Pune FC, a team with a four-year history whose owners are Liverpool fans, on October 7 will have free entry into the 12,000-seat stadium, but the more worthwhile event takes place a day earlier.

The first-team players that Kean decides to risk - how much freedom will he have in the matter? - will play as part of eight Under 16 teams featuring boys from Pune, Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata. Four of the youngster that most impress will then be trained at the Rovers' academy.

"This is an attempt to develop world-class footballing talent at the grassroots levels and create opportunities for young talent in India," said Rao. "We will also disclose our plans for a training academy and development activities."

Barcelona have an academy in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and top Premier League clubs have engaged in talent-search competitions in India. Tottenham Hotspur are associated with an initiative called Slum Soccer in nearby Nagpur.

If Venky's investment is ever to pay off, the best way would be to develop talent that can one day grace the best leagues of the world. Bringing players in the other direction in the middle of the season isn't clever, and if Blackburn end up in the relegation zone as a result, both Kean and Venky's will have to answer to irate fans. Despite what Rao thinks, they are in Lancashire, and not in Pune.

sports@thenational.ae