The second round fixture of the EFL Cup between Blackburn Rovers and Crewe Alexandra proved to be an interesting affair, as the Rovers registered a thrilling 4-3 victory over the League 2 minnows to book their spot in the next round. But more significantly, the match epitomised what has been a turbulent six years at Blackburn Rovers.
The club recorded their lowest attendance in over 30 years for any Rovers fixture, as the match concluded itself in an environment growing with tension. Ewood Park, which once boasted attendances as high as 26,000, found itself almost empty, with an embarrassing turn-out of 3,400.
Flashback to November 2010, and things weren’t this gloomy. Blackburn Rovers had completed 11 years in the English top division and were regarded widely as one of the best-run clubs in the country. The takeover of the club by Indian poultry giant Venky’s promised to usher in a new era for the club, and was met with much media attention both in England and India alike.
India, by then, had already developed into a massive audience base for the English Premier League, and the Venky’s takeover – making them the first Indian company to take over a Premier League club – was seen as a matter of national pride. Talks of Champions League qualification and perhaps even a title challenge in the near future began to emerge. Football experts in India slowly started considering the possibility of Blackburn Rovers emerging as a global brand – much like their fellow Premier League compatriots Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and others.
But as fate would have it, the Rovers were destined for a far more contrasting, and less exalted, future.
Blackburn’s remarkable downfall from a stable mid-table club to the bottom of the Championship has raised a number of concerns over the last few years. The Indian owners went out of favour with the public quickly and lost the trust of their own supporters, in the midst of a fan rebellion, as early as 2012.
Yet, there was not much done to restore the landslide, and no apparent attempts were made by the owners to bridge the gap. This raised suspicions among the Blackburn Rovers faithful, and one among them was a certain Glen Mullan.
Mullan started a protest movement back in 2011 for the removal of Venky's and then manager Steve Kean from the helm of the club. He is the founder and former chairman of the BRFC Action group – an organisation that has been actively investigating the happenings at Blackburn Rovers since the takeover by the Venky’s. Mullan has also been the secretary of the Rovers Trust in the past.
The journey has certainly not been a peaceful one, as Mullan describes the numerous challenges he has had to face during this period.
“I have dedicated the last 5 years of my life, investigating the truth behind the corruption at Blackburn Rovers. This has seen many things occur - from threats to my life and well as my families, to allegations of me picking transfer targets, whilst also influencing things like substitions.”
Mullan has presented his case in person to the Football League, Premier League, Football Association and even the Parliament, but things haven’t changed much. Three weeks ago, Mullan made all his investigations public to thousands of Blackburn supporters, and the details coming out of them have been rather harrowing.
The growing shock of Blackburn’s turbulent decline has not been limited to just the club’s loyal set of supporters. Many former players have raised their voice against what has been an incredible story of mismanagement and subsequent downfall.
Former Premier League football players, including Robbie Savage and Stan Collymore, had publicly tweeted in support of the Blackburn Rovers fans and described the whole situation as “sad”. Football enthusiasts on social media have slowly begun to campaign against the mismanagement at Rovers, and the hashtag #VenkysOUT has gathered momentum on Twitter – even as Blackburn Rovers slumped to their fourth league defeat of the season in five games late last month.
The concerns, however, existed even in the initial days of the takeover by the Indian group – as the findings of Mullan suggest. An e-mail dated 4th January 2011 was apparently sent to Venky’s chairperson Anuradha Desai by the Blackburn board members, questioning their reduced role in key operations of the club since the takeover. A particular suspicion was raised on the role of SEM – a company headed by football agent Jerome Anderson – on transfer policies.
“Finally, our football secretary has, this morning, been instructed by SEM to issue a mandate to a third party without any reference or approval to the Board. We are not familiar with the player concerned nor is he one that has been mentioned to us by the Manager. Could you, therefore, please clarify the role of SEM in our transfer policy?"
It is worth noting that under Football Association (FA) and Premier League rules, a football agent cannot have a role in running a club. Anderson’s company had a significant influence in advising Venky’s to take over the club, which was perfectly within the rules and regulations. However, there was a growing indication that the association between the club and Anderson’s company extended to the critical functioning areas of the club, and tensions, inevitably, grew among the supporters.
The concerns soon spread beyond the club boundaries, and in an interview with The Daily Telegraph in January 2011, the then Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson expressed his displeasure on the involvement of Anderson in the affairs of Blackburn Rovers.
"You’ve got that issue at Blackburn of an agent involved and deciding the future of the club, Jerome Anderson, he couldn’t pick his nose. It’s baffling and it’s a serious threat to how clubs get run and how they conduct themselves.”
Steve Kean, who succeeded Sam Allardyce following his sacking in December 2010 as the manager of Blackburn Rovers, was in fact represented by Anderson. This further escalated the growing tensions, and things took a turn for the worse when the then club chairman John Williams resigned from his post – with Anuradha Desai claiming that he left because he “struggled to accept Anderson’s role in the club.”
In a letter sent to the FA, in March 2011, the owners denied any formal or informal agreement with the SEM-Kentaro group for running key areas at the club. However, they did mention that there was a non-exclusive agreement with The Kentaro Group under which Kentaro provides consultancy services to the Venky’s in respect of football-related business.
Just to make things clear, the SEM-Kentaro group is actually a partnership which came into existence when the SEM group established a corporate tie-up with Kentaro – a Swiss-based Sports rights business – in February 2009.
However, a few months later, a legal letter dated 22nd December 2011 – one of the many documents released by Mullan – from Rovers’ solicitors to Kentaro, indicated that Kentaro were advising Venky’s in all aspects of running the club and were indeed in contract to do so.
The solicitors’ letter was in direct response to the legal action Kentaro were taking against Venky’s for non-payment of fees.
There was further evidence provided by Mullan on SEM’s growing interference in club matters. In a Twitter conversation with Mullan, former Real Madrid and Blackburn Rovers full-back Michel Salgado claimed that the club had offered him, Ryan Nelson, Jason Roberts, Keith Andrews and Brett Emerton 80% of their contracts to be released on free.
By saving up the money, Salgado believed that Rovers had hoped to sign some players who were the clients of Jerome Anderson – thus inflating the commissions.
In the midst of all this, one person that seemed to extend a helping hand towards the Blackburn fans, was one who is very familiar to the Indian footballing community. Television pundit Shebby Singh was appointed the global advisor of Blackburn Rovers in June 2012.
He was, however, sacked from his position at the end of the season after what was termed a “farcical decline of the club.”
In a number of e-mail interactions between Glen Mullan and Shebby Singh during this period – copies of which were also released publicly by Mullan – Shebby seemed to have admitted many irregular happenings at the club.
One of the key events during Shebby’s tenure was the involvement of Rovers' managing director, Derek Shaw – who was labelled by Rovers' own barristers as a rogue element at Ewood Park – in signing a lucrative contract which paid off the sacked Rovers manager Henning Berg in full.
The fact that he had made a mess of the contract, causing substantial financial loss to the owners was well-known, but Shebby in an email dated 15th April 2013 drew more light on it.
[DS – Derek Shaw; HB – Henning Berg; PA – Paul Agnew (Operations director and former club press officer); Karen Silk – the then club’s finance director]
“Because of DS making a mess of HB contract and not wanting the Owners to find out, and after issuing a payment of half a million pounds without authorization from the Owners, Karen asked for an advance payment of the next parachute payment to pay the balance of 1.6 to HB and that is when the Owners found out and tasked me to sort it out.
“That is what I meant by irregularities which I said in the press. PA got his mate DS on a plane and flew to India uninvited to beg for mercy. DS confessed to the crime of lying and cheating. She is resigning because she cannot work with DS and PA doing things behind the Owners backs.
“They are crooks and she like all of us cannot understand why they are still there. There is no financial problem as the Owners put money in every month. That is a fact. The club accountants came to Ewood to try to understand as to how half a million was spent without authorization and to see if there was any more thieving.”
The former Malaysian footballer had, nevertheless, confirmed suspicion a month earlier about the misadventures of Paul Agnew and other senior figures of the club, in an email dated 16th March 2013.
Now you know why I backed off after the manager got appointed over my head. Your analysis is as good as mine. I am ready to step in again to get us out of the mire but that has to be Madam's call. And she could make it. Senior figures have been accussed of 'cheating' by Owners! The noose has tightened on all fronts.
Did Shaw mention evicting you as requested by the Owners? The bastard lied to India by saying I told you to stay put.....trying to get me into trouble. The shithead has absolutely no clue on how to run a club.
There was a lot going on at the club with Shebby at the helm that season. The club was fresh into the hard toils of the Championship and were immediately drawn into an excruciating relegation battle – only confirming their stay in the English second tier on the penultimate day.
Off-field, controversies were a constant feature at the club, and there was hardly any managerial stability – three new faces traded places on the hot-seat in the space of 7 months.
Yet, Shebby indicated that Blackburn’s troubles were not restricted to footballing reasons. In what was perhaps the most startling revelation by Shebby, he claimed that Blackburn’s relegation fight might be “by design.” Mullan, who has been a focal point of the investigation, insisted this was something that required greater attention from the media.
“The Shebby emails confirm the corruption behind the scenes and he suggests that relegation was by design. Agnew and Shaw were brought in by Anderson. This revelation is pretty explosive and must be brought to media attention as these documents were obtained legally.”
In an email sent by Shebby to Mullan on 8th April 2013, the former seems to have indicated the same.
“Nah ! Gary Bow was never here. The Owners know they will struggle to keep me now! They have to punish Shaw for cheating and lying to them and confessing as well. How much more guilty can you get!
“On a matter of principle alone, I will not work with a thief ......??????? We are in a relegation battle by design ...... With Shaw as the puppet and Agnew the mastermind ..... More when we meet.”
On 29th April 2013, Shebby followed that up by reiterating the same claim and further stating how Paul Agnew tried to defame him in the media.
“Ok, make sure you put that on your website (referring to BRFC Action group website). That is our chance to get at Agnew and wipe out the PR Dept ......Shagnew (referring to Paul Agnew) have worked hard to get us relegated ...... Relegation was designed .....but we managed to avert it .....why do you think Agnew has been stabbing me in the media .... Shagnew are the last of the Anderson/ Kean maggots .....”
However, the big question that now begs to be answered is: why would someone want their own club to be relegated in the first place? What could possibly be the motive behind this?
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Mullan explained what they could have possibly gained from their own club’s misfortune –
“As quite evident, Agnew and Shaw were controlled by founder of SEM – the football agent Jerome Anderson. They would have gained by players being sold and gaining commissions as players contracts – both new and old – had been negotiated by Anderson.
Whilst the betting market had rovers at 33-1 before a ball was kicked to be relegated.
The team selection had to be sent to India, where Balaji Rao would change it; Rovers going down would have been very profitable.”
It is perhaps difficult for me to draw a conclusion here, but reports of Glen Mullan and his organization’s investigations have certainly managed to connect the dots to their side of the story. I can only report what has been presented to me and state the facts as they are.
And the fact of the matter is that Blackburn Rovers are a side struggling for existence – the club is in £100 million of debt, has seen crowds go from 26,000 to just 3,400, and has sold all of its playing assets.
Blackburn Rovers are heading into the third tier of English football for only the second time in the club’s history next year, having made the worst start to a league season in their 141-year-old history. It has also been a disastrous transfer window for the club as they only managed to secure loans and free transfers.
Mullan fears that the story of the 2012-13 season might well be repeated this year.
“Owen Coyle (the current Blackburn Rovers manager) is also a SEM Kentaro client and his agent is Dave Sheron who again is SEM and he is now choosing all Rovers transfer targets. This is the story , that SEM-Kentaro have spent millions trying to bury, whilst the question remains, do Venky’s really own Blackburn Rovers? The club is in a lot of debt and having made the worst start to a season in our history, we could be in for another relegation dog-fight.”
He further adds that board members of the club – who traditionally had a greater role in the club’s distant years of glory – currently do not enjoy any such privileges in the club affairs.
“We have only signed loan players and free transfers, whilst we have a board of directors who freely admit they do not know what the owners’ intentions are, as they are frequently cut out the loop.”
Make what you will of it, but the facts put out by Mullan and his team are now out in public. It is a shame that a club of Blackburn’s stature is facing an institutional crisis like this, and Mullan believes that Venky’s mismanagement of the Rovers is creating a bad reputation for India in the United Kingdom.
“The evidence clearly shows Venky’s were fully aware they were breaking the rules, but despite this continued with the charade. Even now they continue to be advised by the same people who have assisted with the dismantling of a founder member of the football league which has 141 years of history.
“They have damaged the reputation of India with their couldn’t-care-less attitude towards the town of Blackburn.”
So what next for Glen Mullan and his fellow team of Blackburn Rovers supporters?
Despite limited success so far, they remain a determined bunch. Mullan intends to visit India in October this year to raise awareness about the issue in the country. Blackburn Rovers fans have made it clear that they want their owners out, and there will perhaps be a protest staged during an ODI match between India and England that is scheduled to be played in January next year.
“The Rao Family have not been near Blackburn in over two years – if mountain won't come to man, then man will go to the mountain – we will be coming over to Pune at the end of October in the first of a series of visits from different delegations of supporters, to share the story of how a well-respected football club has had its heart torn out , which has left the town and community in total devastation.
“The aim of our visit is to raise awareness of the effect Venky’s have had on our town and galvanise the good people of India to support us in our calls for Venky’s to sell the football club to people who care.”
In 1931, during India’s quest for independence from the clutches of the British, a movement led by Mahatma Gandhi encouraged Indians to boycott foreign goods, especially cotton textile. This affected the cotton mills in Lancashire adversely, which left a major percentage of their working class unemployed.
In a rather brave move, Gandhi decided to accept the invitation of Mr. Corder Catchpool of the Greenfield Mill to look into the plight of the workers in Blackburn and the adjoining areas. Surprisingly, however, Gandhi's arrival evoked an unprecedented interest among the people. It was perhaps his simple peasant-like image that managed to capture the imagination of the working class, and the local workers famously showed him solidarity in his political struggles.
In fact, he went on to stay overnight with a local cotton-weaving family living in the neighbouring town of Darwen. It is safe to say that such amicable relations between Blackburn and India are now a story of the distant past.
Mullan's has certainly been one of the most remarkable footballing investigations that I’ve come across. And it is important that the people concerned about football in the country get to know of it.
It is not for me to determine whether all the claims and allegations hold true – it is the job of the concerned authorities to pass the judgement. However, the least we could do is let the football fans be aware of what has been a very intriguing development.
Disclaimer: The documents presented in the article have been made public by Glen Mullan and the BRFC Action Group. Mullan’s memoirs were published on his own personal blog. Neither Sportskeeda nor the writer had any involvement in the investigation process or in procuring the documents.Published 05 Sep 2016, 15:00 IST