With relegation confirmed for Blackburn Rovers after a 11-year spell in the Premier League, their longest ever run in the top flight, in the post-war period, supporters, once again, turned their anger towards the owners, Venkys, and, manager, Steve Kean. As the dust begins to settle on the disastrous season, the mainstream media, for the first time, has taken an active interest in the on-goings at Ewood Park. Some of the “revelations” of the past few days have been well known to most of the supporters for the good part of the past 6 months. Nevertheless, with Steve Kean emphatically stating that “I’m here for the long term” as well as the owners being “100% right for the club” as well as how “these are exciting times for the club”, one has to wonder what happens next and whether Venkys are too out of touch with reality to be able to salvage the situation and stabilize a sinking ship.
If you ask any Rovers supporter whether there is anything Venkys can do to make them want to retain them as owners, the answer would be a resounding and instinctive “no”. However, if one approaches the situation as a realist, considering the fact that the ideal scenario of Venkys wanting to sell the club and potential buyers coming forward to make an acceptable offer to Venkys may not exist, supporters may have to reconsider the “no negotiation” stance that they rightfully hold. At this point, we want to present a “four-point plan” which is likely to “reset” the situation between owners and the supporters. The question, however, remains do the owners actually care what the fans think? And do they really want to make a success of their tenure? If the answers to those are yes, then they need to take a close look at the following, not for inspiration but for application.
1) Sack Steve Kean
Steve Kean undoubtedly has a poor results record in “management”, the primary criteria of judging a football manager. Whichever way he may want to spin the situation, the facts remain facts as highlighted as early as December 2011. Kean is, without a shadow of a doubt, beyond the point of no return with supporters and its not purely down to results on the pitch. His handling of the media, dubious transfers and team selection, the lack of acknowledgement of Rovers plight, and what fans see as a disrespect to their existence and views, combined with the circumstances within which he got the job in the first place, as well the “unsackable” tag which has been given to him have not made Kean a popular man. Whilst Kean survived the first wave of criticism which hit their peak during December 2011, the national media failed to look too closely at the facts, and Rovers supporters decided to “back off” in the interest of supporting the side in the most complete fashion. Instead of acknowledging that, Kean came out with ludicrous statements such as one where he said he receives “500 letters of support from fans everyday”. This time around, on the back of relegation, the national media is no longer as negligent and Rovers are under the microscope and so is Kean. Venkys should have sacked their man by now, but they must not waste another second in doing so and that is the first step towards “salvation”.
2) Acknowledge their Mistakes
Even before replacing the manager, Venkys must come out and finally communicate with the fans in a transparent and honest fashion. The whole footballing world is aware of Rovers plight and it is clear that the decisions that the owners have taken in the last 18 months have resulted in relegation. Yes, the owners are new to football and they have made mistakes, but if “no one is to blame” as Venkatesh Rao states during a telephone interview with Indian media only a few days after relegation, then Venkys are delusional. There is enough blame to go around and the owners need to acknowledge that before they continue promising success and achievement for the future, something which they have been doing, foolishly, from day one.
3) Hire an Experienced and Popular Manager
The title says it all. At this point, Venkys need to think long and hard about the next manager. Not only must he be the right choice from a footballing perspective but he must also be “popular” enough with the fan-base in order to quell the frustration, worries and apathy which Venkys and Kean have instilled onto the fans. Supporters have lost faith and have spoken with their feet. Approximately 3,000 fewer fans were attending home games from just before the end of December, compared to after it. That is a crushing blow to the owners, even though they do not seem to understand its implications yet. More fans are expected to “walk away” by the time the upcoming season begins largely of the post-relegation fiasco including Kean’s unbelievable press conference for the Chelsea game. Names like Avram Grant and Dave Jones, who has an SEM link are simply not going to work. The new manager must bring the fans together and there must be no inkling of controversy around his appointment. Alan Curbishley, a tandem of Graeme Souness with club legend Tugay, as well as Mick McCarthy may all have the experience, personality and character to get supporters “on-side” and would all be available for work. However, it would be a valid question as to who in their right minds would work for Venkys with the way they have been running the club, and that leads us to the next point.
4) Bring in the Professionals to Take Care of Business
This measure is on par with sacking Kean as manager in terms of its revitalizing effect and importance. Venkys must approach to re-hire John Williams and Tom Finn. Whilst it is unclear whether both men would be interested to return to Rovers in the first place, the Indians need to make it clear to them that they will have carte blanche in re-stabilizing the club and will have no interference from Pune. A communication line will be re-established with supporters, the media, and the owners and the club can be run the way any good club is supposed to be run. They will be popular appointments with the fans and bring back a feeling of familiarity as well as stability to Ewood Park. The playing staff will also be relieved and question marks over the “running of the club” would be quashed immediately just with their presence. Venkys will gain a sense of legitimacy in the process too. People can accept mistakes, but to repeat the same mistakes and to be oblivious to your responsibilities would be a fatal error on the part of the owners.
With a critical summer coming up for Blackburn Rovers, the right decisions need to be taken on who to sell, who to retain and who to buy in order to best position the club for the upcoming campaign. Williams and Finn have the background, experience and know-how to undertake those tasks as smoothly as possible whilst having as blind a support from fans as possible, in the process. With them at the helm there will be no question of vested interests over transfers either.
Blackburn Rovers is currently in the doldrums. Steve Kean and Venkys may not want to acknowledge it and may be promising “exciting times ahead” but delusions such as those do nothing but to infuriate an already tortured fan-base. In an ideal scenario, the owners would decide to sell the club. However, Venkys have been adamant that they would not consider a sale. If they are serious about that and they are serious about getting it right as they have been telling many people in recent months, then the time for change and action is here and now. The four point plan presented here does not guarantee success on the pitch. But it does promise to unify the fan-base and get people to focus on matters on the field instead of distractions, largely caused by mistakes undertaken by Venkys, during the past 18 months. It would also give Venkys as close a clean slate as possible with many fans, even though it may be a case of “forgive but not forget”. Digressing from any of those four points would negate the plan. This is emphatically true in terms of sacking Kean and approaching John Williams and Tom Finn. If one was a betting man, based on Venkys prior history at Rovers, you’d have to think that they would not go through with such a plan, but if they thought long and hard about it and found that their goals match those highlighted initially in this piece, then they’d be foolish not to. As much as they are the actual owners, supporters see Venkys as custodians, because after all, in their eyes, this is the club that Jack Walker built.
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Disclaimer: I really don’t know what will happen next season. Tito Vilanova’s reign at Barcelona might end in utter disaster after a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season and Sandro Rosell’s supposed dream might come true and “Big Phil” Scolari will take over on an interim basis until Muricy Ramalho becomes Barça coach in 2013, bringing in Neymar and Paulo Ganso as key signings, as Big Phil moves upstairs as Sporting Director. It might also end at the other end of the spectrum and Tito may become even more successful than Pep Guardiola ever was, if “bettering” his era is even remotely possible. This article is not a prophecy or prediction, but will try to objectively analyze why Tito Vilanova was appointed over candidates such as Ernesto Valverde or André Villas-Boas in a decision that no one, other than Pep, Andoni Zubizaretta and Rosell, knew about.
FC Barcelona took an extraordinary decision this week to replace their most successful coach in history with Tito Vilanova, someone who hasn’t coached a top division club anywhere ever. The decision is further surprising because it was stated, in the Spanish press, that one of the reasons pushing Guardiola to resign at the end of the season was Vilanova’s health. Tito had a tumor removed from his mouth and therefore his health was always a lingering issue over the season. As an example, he couldn’t join the team on their trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, looking towards the challenges ahead, which Barcelona face in replacing Pep Guardiola whilst maintaining their winning and convincing* form of the previous years, this decision makes more sense.
There are 3 pillars to Barcelona’s success over the short and long term future:
1) Make sure Lionel Messi stays happy
After the Champions League Final in 2011, Guardiola was asked about how Barcelona can continue their success and maintain Messi’s excellence. His answer was short and precise, “make sure he is happy”. Messi might be a genius, arguably the best player over the past 20 years, one of the all time greats and deserving of all the plaudits you read every week. However, Messi is also a “difficult” character. The difficulty comes from him being a very introverted person, who does not speak too much and his silence, not from his motivation for football or anything specific in particular. If Messi doesn’t feel well mentally, or he is not happy, or is frustrated as evident once in a while on the pitch, he won’t perform. There have been actions taken by the club in order to make Messi happy. Signing Javier Mascherano and the contract extension given to Gaby Milito are two clear examples, but the signings of his old friends Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas might have also been motivated by keeping Messi happy. Whoever was going to replace Guardiola would have needed to understand Messi and make sure he can get the maximum out of him. There might just be no one better to do this than the guy who knows him longest, the guy who coached him(as well as Cesc and Pique) when he was 14 years old and the person who was first to know about Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Maybe both Valverde and Villas-Boas would have been able to get along with Messi as well, but there’s almost a guarantee that Messi won’t have problems with Tito Vilanova.
2) Make sure success-ion and the La Masia philosophy continues
A lot of key players at Barça are coming into the twilight of their career, notably Puyol and Xavi. A couple of players are entering the best years of their career, Fabregas and Pique being the examples. There’s also a great generation of Masia “products” coming through the ranks or already there, notably Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. The idea of succession, bringing up players through the ranks, as well as the idea that the current playing philosophy the team upholds continue are key to the future success of the brand/sect/club called FC Barcelona. It’s arguable whether this is good or bad. Some might have the idea that football needs new influences and not altering your formula and relying too much on similar players is a mistake. However, this would ignore the fact that all of the players coming through from La Masia are different in one way or another. Sergi Roberto, for instance, is not the next Xavi or Fabregas, as he plays much more direct, is more a threat from the second line and prefers to move with the ball at his feet more than in any other way. If we take the recent examples of wingers coming through the ranks, Tello is not Cuenca and neither of them is Pedro, but they are all different players with different characteristics. The key to a successful La Masia policy is to know the players coming through, their characteristics as well as the needs of the first team squad in terms of which type of player should be integrated in order to add something new and different.
The La Masia policy wouldn’t work and make sense if Barcelona would allow players without the necessary quality to play just because they are from the youth ranks. It would put the whole policy in jeopardy. Instead, the key is to know which players have the necessary quality and which positions need to be filled from outside. That will only work with a coach who works for the long-term even, over the short-term period (as all coaching periods are these days), and who knows the youth teams well. While AVB seemed to know the Barcelona youth teams too, as his signing of Oriol Romeu suggests, he might have given up long-term interest over the short-term future of the club and went for the easy way, especially given the fact that he was burned once by following the alternative during his experience at Chelsea.
Finally, in Cesc and Pique, there are two players who are the natural successors of Puyol and Xavi both on and off the pitch, despite having different characteristics, again both on and off the field. With Cesc and Pique, the key will be to involve them more in the squad and simply load more responsibility onto them. Pique might be seen as some kind of rich celebrity party boy, but his passion for the club, his position as a team leader and his competitiveness are also beyond any doubt. Again, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the guy who knows La Masia and La Masia graduates best do the job.
3) Keep Guardiola at the club
How do you keep Pep at the club without him actually being at the club? You could replace him with his footballing twin brother. Guardiola and Vilanova share the same footballing ideas and philosophy, with the main difference being Vilanova seems more calm and relaxed. Guardiola is the Barcelona player who has been sent off more than any other other but not because of tackles but rather largely for arguing with referees and getting sent off for dissent. Vilanova, as his interviews, behavior and body language suggest, is much calmer than Pep, except maybe when he faces Jose Mourinho’s finger. This might have been a problem if Barcelona players needed motivation or a strong hand to accept the leadership of the coach, but remember that they have already been convinced and converted to the “Barcelona belief” by Pep. Tito doesn’t need to do anything in that respect, but what he needs to do is to guide the ship and keep the footballing ideas of Pep alive. In theory, he should have very little of the usual problems assistant managers have when they need to replace the first team coach with regards to respect and authority. So again, Vilanova, more than anyone else, makes sense in terms of an appointment. Furthermore, since he appears to be a much more calm and collected person, maybe that’s exactly the Guardiola version the team now needs. Maybe the players would do well with a manager who keeps the tactical and ideological approach but is a bit less tense, which Guardiola was, especially over the 2011/12 season.
With all that said, success for Vilanova is far from guaranteed, failure might lead to an implosion and Barcelona returning to their turn of the century self or even worse, to the eighties era. One should be aware that Barça is a snakes-pit with lots of vested interests by different groups and while battling a Madrid empire with all their media power is already difficult and tiresome, Barcelona has its fair share of internal strife and enemies through different political groups, such as Group Godo, a powerful media group in Catalonia, who have their own interests to follow and want their share of the power. Guardiola not only had to fight Madrid and the Madrid press, who he called “Central Lechera”, but he also had enough internal enemies in Catalonia, people who, during his time as a player, came up with rumors about his sexuality and ran stories about him being HIV positive. Tito Vilanova has a huge task coming up and it’s far from easy. However, he can be sure of the support of his Sporting Director and the whole squad. He is assured the moral support of Pep and he knows himself that he doesn’t have to change too much from the current squad and that no one expects radical changes as a tool to cement his own legacy, something Villas-Boas tried to do and failed at. After all, Tito is Pep’s twin brother and no one expects him to be anyone else.
*As they say in Spain, it’s not only about winning(vencer) but convincing(convencer) people of your superiority and style. For Barcelona, the second has always been as important as the first, as there is no winning without convincing. This might also have been the explanation as to why the Madrid press and Real Madrid are particularly hostile over recent years towards Barcelona and run ridiculous amounts of conspiracy theories.
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In general, Marti Perarnau is not only one of the best Spanish journalists, but also the best source anywhere with regards to information about Barcelona. His article on Cesc and why his signing was done can be found here(although only in Spanish). It’s highly recommended to visit his blog, also only in Spanish.
A good article by Simon Kuper on some tactical aspects of Barcelona
An old article by Pep Guardiola in El Pais from 2007 that was only about a cup game in a lousy season but that explains the importance of “feeling” and knowing the history and what to play for
Jonathan Wilson on why great teams come to an end for the Guardian