The focus was on Paul Ince becoming the first black Englishman to manage a Premier League club but, believes Bruce Wilkinson, the headlines masked what is going on behind the scenes at Blackburn

Under the sensible stewardship of chairman John Williams, Blackburn Rovers have become the model of how far a well run team can be taken on limited funds. This stability is now threatened. With an increasing number of clubs prepared to risk millions to cling on to a Premier League place, Blackburn fans have been demanding more activity in the transfer market. But this pressure has come at a time when the trust that owns the club, set up by the late Jack Walker, is looking for buyers. The trust is said to be close to selling up to a consortium led by Chris Ronnie, chief executive of JJB Sports, which makes it unlikely that significant cash will be released over the summer. Ex-manager Mark Hughes admitted in a recent interview that he might have shunned Manchester City’s approach if the prospective takeover of Blackburn had gone through.

The search for a replacement was the first indicator that the pursuit of outside investment is affecting the running of the club. Ronnie’s relationship with Newcastle’s owner added some intrigue to the name of the first candidate to be approached. Despite Alan Shearer’s claims on Match of the Day, it has been widely reported that negotiations between Blackburn and his representatives reached an advanced stage. Mike Newell and Tommy Craig were contacted to join his coaching staff and talks had progressed as far as outlining transfer targets, before being scuppered by Shearer’s budgetary demands.

Left with a choice between a proponent of the dark arts of Charles Hughes and a man made a laughing stock by his management of the England team, Blackburn fans quickly began a Facebook campaign while websites and message boards were bombarded. A poll in the Lancashire Telegraph revealed the unpopularity of Sam Allardyce and Steve McClaren and, probably for the first time, the fact that Paul Ince had significant support among the locals. Despite John Williams’ claims that he would ignore the clamouring of fans in the best interests of the Rovers, there is no doubt that the anti-Big Sam petition handed in at Ewood and phone calls to the club threatening the non-renewal of season tickets did affect his thinking.

This left Henk ten Cate and Ince. The next twist saw the ex-Chelsea man agree to manage Panathinaikos while still privately indicating that he would be open to an offer from Blackburn. However, Ten Cate was tied by a proscriptive contract that prevented him from working immediately for another English club. This cleared the way for Ince, although wrangling between the club and the Premier League over his lack of coaching badges then dragged on.

Meanwhile, news leaked that the chairman was in Austria talking to a mystery applicant, who turned out to be Getafe coach Michael Laudrup. Williams insisted that the board were simply seeking to be thorough in their search for a new manager, but many wondered whether the sudden lunge for Laudrup was an attempt to appear more attractive to prospective buyers.

Finally, one quiet Sunday afternoon, supporters were put out of their misery with the announcement that Ince had been given the job. His fame as a player undoubtedly worked in his favour – it seems unlikely that a young manager with less than two seasons’ experience would get a chance to move from the fourth level to the top if he hadn’t also been a renowned ex‑international. Then again, Ince must have felt that he had to start at the bottom because he wasn’t going to get the sort of opportunity in a higher division routinely offered to white colleagues.

What most of the country saw as an historic step towards a new age for black British managers has left many Blackburn fans feeling exhausted by the journey – and concerned by the influence that the impending sale of the club had at various stages of the process. Another positive element to the whole affair, though, has been the realisation that supporters can still have some impact in preventing an unpopular managerial appointment. Big Sam will have to sit on the TV studio sofa for a little while longer.

From WSC 258 August 2008

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