Simon Hart describes the scenes as Blackburn play their first match under the watchful eye of their new owners
There are three Robbie Savages grinning in front of me as I take my seat in the press box high in the Jack Walker Stand. The one-time Blackburn Rovers midfielder is appearing in a book-plugging interview on his former club’s in-house TV channel, playing on monitors suspended from the ceiling of the stand. The sight of Savage, very much a man of his time with blond highlights and perma-tan, is juxtaposed with the more traditional spectacle unfolding on the hill behind the Riverside Stand opposite. This Sunday lunchtime kick-off is still over half an hour away and supporters trail down the brown hillside before crossing a bridge over the River Darwen and filing into the ground. Today is very much about the old and the new.
It is a curious quirk of Ewood Park’s layout that spectators enter the Riverside Stand from the front, via a perimeter path running behind the advertising boards, yet this modest, single-tier edifice is not as old as it looks. Built in 1988, it actually marked the first step in the makeover of Ewood Park made possible by the patronage of the late Jack Walker. The Walker Steel Stand – as it was then named – was subsequently dwarfed by the three two-tier structures that rose around it in the early 1990s when Walker, flush with £365 million from selling his steel works, really began pouring money into his home-town club.
Thanks to Walker, Rovers “lived the dream” during the first half of that decade and his legacy is so pertinent today because, only 48 hours earlier, Blackburn became the latest Premier League club to fall into foreign hands with a £23m buyout by the Indian poultry group, Venky’s. My copy of the previous day’s Lancashire Telegraph mixes its takeover coverage with a feature titled You’ll never be forgotten, recalling the highs under Walker. Blackburn had been absent from the top flight since 1966 when he took control yet, after Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as manager, they won promotion in 1992 and three years later captured their first League title in 81 years. Behind the Blackburn End is a statue of Walker, who died in 2000, bearing the epigraph “Rovers’ greatest fan”.
In today’s Premier League landscape, the manner in which Walker, the local-boy-done-good, bankrolled Blackburn’s success sounds almost quaint. Dalglish spent some £30m on players and the overall £80m estimate of a rebuilt team and stadium was less than Sheikh Mansour splurged on Manchester City last summer. Over 15 years on from Rovers’ title triumph, however, the decision to sell to Venky’s was motivated less by any desire to return to those table-topping days, than by the board’s fear that, without a buyer, the Lancashire club would eventually find it impossible to survive in the division.
Since the regular contributions from Walker’s family trust stopped after a final £3m injection in 2007, Blackburn – whose average crowd in 2009-10 was 25,428 – have had to generate their own income through player sales. Yet after a three-year search for fresh finance, there is a sense of cautious optimism about the future under Venky’s owners, the Rao family, who have also paid off a debt of around £20m and are reportedly ready to give manager Sam Allardyce about £5m to spend in January.
Among their pledges outlined in the Lancashire Telegraph is a push to “extend the Blackburn Rovers brand in India”, though it will also be intriguing to see the impact of the takeover on the 28,000 Asians who form roughly a fifth of the overall population of Blackburn and neighbouring Darwen (though my Pakistani taxi driver sounded distinctly underwhelmed when I quizzed him en route to the station after the game). While the terms of the deal include promises to look after Walker’s statue and not to rename the Jack Walker Stand without the trust’s permission, Anuradha J Desai, chairman of Venky’s, has already suggested the firm might be open to renaming Ewood Park if the price is right.
It is her two brothers, Balaji and Venkateshwara Rao, who are assuming places on Blackburn’s board and they are here at Ewood for what the stadium announcer informs us is “the start of a new era”. The pair make a brief pitch-side appearance before kick-off and the sight of the younger brother, “Bala”, is quite a revelation – he has a film production business, and his long ponytail, grey-flecked beard and earrings bring an unexpected touch of Bollywood to proceedings. The Aston Villa fans are less impressed – “Who the fucking hell are you?” they chorus as the biting wind sends teamsheets flying around the press box.
Villa recently embarked on their own new era, of course, with Gérard Houllier’s appointment. This is the third month of his reign and the previous week’s exciting display in drawing 2-2 with Manchester United hinted at a bright future. In the press room earlier, Villa old boy Stan Collymore spoke optimistically about the young talent coming through the club and though Marc Albrighton, a scorer against United is absent, they start with 20-year-old Barry Bannan alongside fellow midfielder Jonathan Hogg and centre-back Ciaran Clark, both 21. Indeed their teamsheet is a throwback with ten British or Irish outfield players, meaning there is only a place on the bench for Robert Pires, the French veteran newly signed on a short-term deal.
The match begins with an early chance for Villa as a flick by Stephen Ireland sends Stewart Downing racing into the box from the right. He gets in a low shot but Paul Robinson saves with his feet. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a rare moment of attacking enterprise in the first half. Villa’s next opportunity follows a moment of unwitting comedy when Rovers full-back Gaël Givet, eyes focused on a high ball, collides with the backtracking referee, Michael Oliver. The home fans are not amused as, with Givet prone on the ground, Richard Dunne finds Ashley Young with a crossfield pass and the winger turns past Michel Salgado before flashing in a shot that skims off Robinson and across the face of goal.
At the other end, Blackburn start the attritional business of pressurising their former goalkeeper, Brad Friedel. El-Hadji Diouf backs into the American as the pair contest one high ball and Friedel faces more of the same when, from Diouf’s inswinging cross, he finds himself blocked in by Phil Jones as Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba launch themselves at the ball. Oliver rightly whistles for a foul.
“I’m losing all feeling in my feet,” mutters a colleague in the press box as the TV cameras pick up Bala Rao looking distinctly less Bollywood with a blanket on his lap. When the home fans in the Darwen End’s lower tier – the upper section is empty – begin a rendition of “When the Rovers go marching in” in that slowed-down fashion currently favoured by Tottenham Hotspur’s supporters, it simply sounds like they are struggling to summon the enthusiasm. But, with half-time approaching, things liven up. Stephen Warnock goes down after a clash of heads with Diouf, and Dunne complains to the referee. Diouf, never a man to walk away from trouble, exchanges words with Dunne, head jutting forward aggressively.
Warnock at least gives it a go as he hacks Diouf’s left leg from beneath him in retribution. However, Villa pay a heavy price for the full-back’s lack of discipline. Morten Gamst Pedersen swings in a high, left-footed free-kick from the Blackburn right, Friedel flaps and misses, and the ball ends up in the far corner of the net. Coming in first-half injury time, the timing could not be worse for Villa and though they emerge for the second period determined to make amends, luck is not on their side. Young cuts in from the left and tests Robinson with a low shot that the goalkeeper parries. When Downing crosses back into the middle, Young is denied again as his header slams against the crossbar.
Of Villa’s young hopefuls, it is Bannan who catches the eye. After his Scotland debut against the Faroe Islands four days before, he told reporters that Villa’s former manager, Martin O’Neill, had doubted his prospects because of his stature. He is 5ft 7in, weighs less than ten stone and, with his pallid complexion and habit of tucking his hands into his sleeves, he looks like a schoolboy. Though Houllier will later say Bannan was tired, the midfielder strikes the ball sweetly with his left foot and, impressively for a player on his third Premier League start, never shies from it, showing a commendable willingness to take responsibility.
Not long after a chorus of “One Jack Walker” has rung around the ground, the home fans are celebrating a second goal. Pedersen’s long throw leads to a corner and when that is half-cleared, Pascal Chimbonda gets in a shot. The ball is blocked but Nelsen drills the rebound across the six-yard box where Pedersen sticks out a left foot to turn the ball home, before producing an air-guitar celebration worthy of Lee Sharpe in his pomp. “Are you Burnley in disguise?” sing the Rovers supporters as Houllier sends on Pires as a last throw of the dice. The 37-year-old has not played since leaving Villarreal last May and has had only two training sessions with his new team. Not surprisingly, his impact is negligible. In fact it looks like he is running in quicksand as he is outpaced by Salgado, of all people, who crosses from the right to Diouf who sends a free header wide.
Villa keep pushing forward yet Robinson is once again equal to Downing’s shot and the loose ball falls to a Rovers defender. I was given a statistic that some 30m Indian men between 24 and 35 take an interest in English top-flight football, yet this is the “world’s greatest league” at its most prosaic, stripped of the bells and whistles – a humdrum affair on a chilly afternoon decided by two set-pieces. It does, however, earn Blackburn a third win in four and leaves a downbeat Houllier reflecting unhappily on missed opportunities. Not that Allardyce cares – this is the third time the Rao brothers have seen Rovers play and their first victory. After three years where “this club has had to live under its own means”, Allardyce says afterwards he is hopeful that the new owners “would only want to take it forward”. A foreign journalist is less interested in Blackburn’s on-field prospects, than whether there is “any chance of losing your famous pie” with the Indians at the helm. “There is nothing wrong with that, we all like a good curry,” replies Allardyce, but time will tell if the fare remains as bland on the pitch.
From WSC 287 January 2011