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Rovers meet Wolves in clash of fallen giants

Golf - WGC-HSBC Champions Golf Tournament - Shanghai, China- 28/10/16 Hideki Matsuyama of Japan in action. REUTERS/Aly Song
Golf - WGC-HSBC Champions Golf Tournament - Shanghai, China- 28/10/16 Hideki Matsuyama of Japan in action. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Neil Robinson

LONDON (Reuters) - Two of English soccer's founder clubs meet in the second-tier Championship on Saturday, both gripped by turmoil and unsure of their future as foreign owners grapple with the problem of restoring their fortunes.

Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers were among the 12 clubs who competed in English football's first season in 1888, but are now outside the Premier League, with all its riches, and in danger of sliding further down the pyramid.

Wolves lie 18th, having this week sacked Walter Zenga after 87 days, and are now seeking their eighth manager in four years.

Blackburn are 22nd, in a relegation position, and facing a supporters' protest against their owners at the televised home game which will see many Rovers fans arrive 18 minutes late and exit after 75, a reference to 1875 when the club was formed.

Besides their lowly position and glorious past - each has been England's champion club three times and Wolves were also instrumental in forming the European Cup - they both have foreign owners: the Indian company Venky's at Blackburn and the Chinese investment group Fosun at Wolves.

Saturday's protest at Ewood Park is aimed at making the Rao family, which controls Venky's, sell up.

"The 1875 protest ... (will) deliver the message that supporters are united and want Venky’s to sell the club," said Glen Mullan, of the protest organisers.

The move follows a trend of activism at English grounds, which two weeks ago saw supporters from Coventry City and Charlton Athletic, angry at their respective ownership, release inflatable pigs in a joint protest.

Many Blackburn supporters have been unhappy at the club's direction since the Rao family bought it for 23 million pounds ($27.89 million) in 2010.

Relegation from the Premier League followed in 2012, seven managers have come and gone, and debts increased to 104.2 million pounds. A group of local investors known as Seneca have had an approach to help run the club rebuffed, leading to Saturday's protest.

FAR EAST INVESTMENT

The fans have been given public backing by Simon Garner, a popular former player who appeared 474 times for the club.

"I have sympathy with the fans," he wrote in his local newspaper column. "We’ve worried about it for two or three years, what’s going on at the club, and this season seems to be a bit of a backwards step again."

Fosun's 30 million pound takeover was part of a wave of Far East investment that has come into English football with two other nearby clubs, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, also in Chinese ownership.

Fosun have made a clear commitment to return Wolves to the Premier League, a source of untold riches where even this season's bottom club will earn 100 million pounds under the new 8.0 billion three-year media rights deal.

As yet, Fosun, like Venky's at Blackburn, has not delivered a clear strategy for promotion other than kneejerk sackings. Zenga was the seventh to depart in the division of 24 clubs with the season less than three months old.

"Fourteen games (with Zenga in charge) isn’t really long enough but Fosun must have seen that he couldn’t bring success,” said Steve Bull, a former Wolves player who, like Garner at Blackburn, appeared 474 times.

The club this week made great play of celebrating the centenary of the birth of Stan Cullis, under whose 16-year tenure they enjoyed a golden era in the 1950s. While Cullis was clearly given time to build success, the average stay for a manager in the Championship is 1.13 years, according to statistics released by the League Managers Association.

So whoever emerges victorious from Saturday's battle of the fallen giants, short-termism may prove the real winner.

($1 = 0.8246 pounds)

(Editing by Rex Gowar)

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