As the hangover in the aftermath of Steve Kean’s departure as manager of Blackburn Rovers subsides, Venkys and their infamous advisers have begun the search for his successor. Without going into too much detail in reviewing the Scots record, it can easily be stated that he holds the worst ever record of any manager in the club’s history. In the words of journalist Richard Jolly, “he was the most loathed manager I’ve ever seen, and arguably the worst one too”.
As fans began to rejoice in a Kean-free era, they have quickly come to the realization that the decision of who replaces Kean lay solely with Venkys and with their track record, at the helm, it does not bode well. Names such as unknown coach Judan Ali, a British coach with an Indian background, have been linked with the job. Some bookmakers have even listed Shebby Singh, Venkys “Global Football Adviser” as a candidate. The current man at the helm, at least in the interim, Eric Black is also among the supposed candidates.
Whilst, rational analysts of the Rovers situation are suggesting that the more time Venkys take in selecting a manager the better for the long-term future of the club, it may be a double-edged sword considering the history of decision-making that the owners have had. As they potentially move down through their short-list for a variety of reasons, what could begin as a well-planned search, could end up being a situation where crazier propositions are considered. A couple such scenarios were detailed above. Nevertheless, it is crucial to highlight the elements that must be considered in selecting the next permanent manager of Rovers.
Firstly, the supporters must be won over. However, insignificant this may sound under normal circumstances, the Blackburn Rovers/Venkys situation is anything but. This, though, does not mean that a crowd-favorite must necessarily be brought back to take over. Both Alan Shearer and Tim Sherwood have been heavily linked and are considered the front-runners for the job. However, fans have reservations about both, especially Shearer. What this does mean, though, is that the reputation of the new manager must not be open to debate. Secondly, management experience is virtually a must. That would appear to rule out Sherwood, although his track-record with Spurs as well as crowd-pulling ability may just about maintain him as a candidate. He does hold a reputation within the game which most ex-players have which may just about balance out their lack of management experience if they have the right coaching team alongside them. Think more Jurgen Klinsmann than Lothar Matthaus when it comes to how a rookie season could turn out for a novice.
Next, crucially, supporters must not link the new man with Steve Kean in any shape or form. Eric Black, whilst a respected coach within the game, was hired under Steve Kean. That, in itself, should be a red light to Venkys irrespective of results over the next game or two in between appointing a manager. Finally, despite the fact that experience is preferable, the new manager must have the motivation, desire and drive to do well for the club and not see it as a way back into the shop window, in case they have been out of the management merry-go-around for a while. The next Blackburn Rovers manager must tick as much out of the requirements laid out above.
Considering Rovers current squad, it is almost certain that with some organization, especially defensively, the individual ability of players should be enough to push the team to finish in the promotion spots at the end of the season. Any man who comes in would be expected to be automatically promoted if not win the league title. Rovers have not performed well this season but have picked up a good amount of points largely due to match-winning goals by players like Nuno Gomes among others, even when they were second best over ninety minutes.
So whilst there are four considerations to make, only one is a virtual “deal breaker”. At this point, we’ll run through some of the names mentioned and apply the logic illustrated above.
Alan Shearer, Tim Sherwood and Garry Flitcroft
Seen as the early front-runner for the job, it is rumored that Rovers approached Spurs over the weekend for Sherwood and may have been knocked back. Shearer and Sherwood have strong reputations within the country, albeit not as managers. They would command the respect of the playing squad instantly and the fans, despite all reservations, would start off completely behind either of the candidates if they are ultimately chosen as managers, even if neither may have been the automatic first choice for supporters. Their lack of management experience counts against them, but Sherwood has been part of a strong Spurs back-room in recent years. Neither may be the ideal candidate and they are definitely not “safe” choices but the factors highlighted previously mean that they are still viable and rational options for Venkys.
Flitcroft, on the other hand, has had his hand at management over recent seasons. He has formed a team with fan favorite Matt Jansen at Chorley. However, they have not set the world alight at the lower leagues yet. Whilst the potential may exist there, it may be a riskier appointment than either of the former two candidates and patience may be a little thinner than with either of the former two.
He has plenty of experience at both Championship and Premier League level. The Irishman definitely knows how to get his sides promoted. The problem lies with keeping them there. Is that an element Rovers should be focusing on right now? Probably not. He is definitely his own man and would have the squad and supporters behind him from the get go. Logically he has to be one of the first people interviewed but the key word used is “logic”.
As the days pass, more weight is given to the possibility that the unknown quantity has the sort of profile Venkys have been dreaming of. His Indian roots could be a match made in heaven for them, but neither the supporters, nor the players would be convinced of his appointment being anything but a fantasy choice by the owners. It is unlikely that supporters would get behind his appointment and the pressure would be on the young coach from day one. He does not hold the sort of reputation that would off-set his lack of experience at any level.
Purely for the fact that he has been involved as a member of Kean’s backroom staff, Venkys would be advised to give the supporters a clean break and avoid appointing Black. It is time for a fresh page to be taken out and bringing someone from the outside would be highly recommended. Supporters would certainly remain skeptical of his appointment as it would be seen as more of the same from Venkys.
Another “safe” choice like McCarthy. He would tick most of the boxes for Rovers but question marks remain over his motivation to return to management after 3 years out of the game.
Whilst he is more charismatic than the other two “safe” choices mentioned above, Holloway has a strong reputation in the game especially at Championship level. Question marks exist over his ability to offer a tactically astute side at the highest level but one thing that cannot be disputed is that he likes his teams to play an attractive style of football. Fans would be happy with his appointment and the players would fall in line too.
Whilst he was not a legend at the club, his Rovers past is a crucial part of the overall package that Hill offers. He has lower-league experience and worked wonders at Rochdale. Currently at Barnsley, the gloss on a potential future at Rovers has worn off to a degree as he has a losing record at his current club.
Joined Rovers during Paul Ince’s time at the club but since has moved on to manage MK Dons where he put one past Kean’s Rovers earlier this season, but who hasnt? He is only 32 years old but has extensive experience in management considering his age. He may be an outsider for the job and supporters would probably be hoping for the best with someone like him but he should be in the same sort of boat as an option for Venkys as Shearer and Sherwood.
The Lancashire Telegraph has largely been spot-on with its reporting of on-goings at the club in recent months and if their list of candidates is anything to go by then names like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may also be in the reckoning. He’s currently managing Molde in Norway but has a contract that is winding down in a month. Moving back to the North West of England so close to Manchester United may also appeal to a man who would surely be dreaming of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. His reputation is held in high-regard both in England as well as in Europe. However, considering his growing reputation and Manchester United links, would Rovers want to approach a manager who may not want to be at the club after a couple of years if he’s successful?
Henrik Larsson has also been linked but it is difficult to see that being anything other than speculation. One man who has not been linked to the job yet, but should be, is Simon Grayson. His Blackburn Rovers past means that supporters would get behind him from the out-set. Furthermore, he is probably the most successful ex-Rovers player who has tried his hand at management in the current era. He has currently taken a Jordan Rhodes-less Huddersfield side to near the top of the Championship and with his familiarity with Rhodes’ game it could prove doubly beneficial to approach Grayson. He has had a winning record at all 3 of the clubs he has managed winning almost half of the games he has been in-charge. If he is not on the Rovers short-list, he very well should be. Another name who has not been linked with the club is Brighton’s Gustavo Poyet. He got his club promoted and likes to play attractive football. His reputation in world football is up there due to his playing career and a bright future awaits the Uruguayan.
Whilst there is no candidate that stands out as the exceptional one, there are cases for most of the names that have been linked with the job. However, there are well defined reasons that should rule out some of the candidates from the out-set. If it was up to this writer to suggest a five-man shortlist then the names of Grayson, Sherwood, Solskjaer, Poyet and McCarthy would be on it, giving a fair balance in terms of the main factors that should be considered by the owners when it comes to appointing a permanent manager. It’s times like this when Rovers supporters were hoping the decision was being taken by John Williams, the club’s former Chairman.
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When Jack Walker officially took over Blackburn Rovers in January 1991, even the most day-dreaming of supporters could not have foreshadowed what lay ahead for the club. Threatened with relegation from the old Second Division (equivalent to Championship) at the time, the club would become champions of the English Premier League in fours years. Walker restructured Ewood Park, building the Jack Walker Stand, spending approximately £20 million to do so. Money was no issue, for a period at the club, with some of the best of British talents joining the club, from manager Kenny Dalglish to Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, David Batty, Graeme Le Saux, and Tim Sherwood among others. Supporters have had to endure taunts of having “bought” the Premier League title, even though the club spent just under £2 million more than second place Manchester United in assembling its squad. In fact, Manchester United spent more money on transfers that season than Rovers had. Uncle Jack, as he is affectionately known, would also invest in the town of Blackburn and is regarded as a hero within the community as much as within the football club.
Walker watched tearfully as his beloved Rovers side confirmed its relegation with a 0-0 draw at Ewood Park against Manchester United near the end of the 1998/99 season. He wouldn’t live to see Rovers gain promotion as he passed away, aged 71, at the start of their promotion campaign of 2000/01. Two of the players that played a key role in getting Rovers back to the Premier League had been David Dunn, still at the club today, having returned from a spell at Birmingham City, and Damien Duff, now at Fulham. Marlon Broomes, Martin Taylor, Damien Johnson, and Jonathan Douglas all played some role during that season. All 6 players were products of the successful Academy. As was Jack Walker’s ultimate goal with Rovers, he wanted to make it a self-financing club in the long-term, mirroring the Manchester United youth development of the early-to-mid nineties. It was in 1996, that an official “youth structure” was put in place at the club, bringing in players such as Dunn and Duff into the system even before the current facilities existed. The class of Dunn and Duff was losing finalists in the FA Youth Cup in 1998. However, it would be a few months after Jack Walker’s passing that his brainchild, the Academy would be inaugurated.
The Brockhall Village Academy, opened in 2001, cost approximately £4.75 million as state of the art facilities on par with top training facilities anywhere in Europe. It includes 6 full-size pitches, indoor training facilities, indoor running track, outdoor running “hill”, a swimming pool, goalkeeper training facilities as well as accommodation for the youth players. In the 2001 FA Youth Cup, Rovers would be losing finalists again. In terms of league activity, the Rovers youth side won the U-17 Premier Academy League in the 1998/1999 and the U-19 Premier Academy League in 2002/3 before the U-19 and U-17 leagues were merged to form the U-18 Academy Premier League in 2004/5, when Rovers won the inaugural edition. In fact, when it comes to a roll of honor in the Premier Academy League, Blackburn Rovers are the second most successful side after Arsenal, winning 3 leagues, compared to Arsenal’s 5. Rovers and Arsenal are the only ever sides to have won Academy Premier Leagues in all 3 age categories. Even West Ham’s heralded Youth Academy, has not tasted any glory, in the aftermath of producing the “Golden Generation” of 1998-2000, boasting the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard, when they lifted 1 FA Youth Cup and back-to-back U-19 Academy Premier League titles.
In terms of coaching and managing the set-up, Bobby Downes, formerly involved with youth football at Aston Villa, Port Vale and Watford, where he was Director of Youth Football, under former England manager, Graham Taylor, was recruited in 1997 to a similar role at Rovers, eventually being the man responsible for running the Academy when it was officially set-up. The thinking ahead was important in terms of strategic planning from the club in the mid-1990’s, putting into place the tools necessary to maximize the output from the structure even before it may have physically been there. During his tenure, Downes oversaw numerous players from under his stewardship being promoted to the Rovers first team squad, some more permanently than others. They included Dunn, Duff, Martin Taylor, Jay McEveley, Paul Gallagher, Matt Derbyshire, Junior Hoilett, and Martin Olsson, who was recruited to the Academy at the age of 17 from Sweden in 2006. In some cases, even when certain players were deemed not good enough for the Rovers first team, they were sold off, usually to Championship clubs, and thus raised important revenue for the club. That list included players such as Damien Johnson, Ben Burgess, Neil Danns, Jemal Johnson, and Jonathan Douglas. Under his stewardship, Rovers youth excelled in competitive football as illustrated through their performances in both the Academy Premier League and FA Youth Cup. In the summer of 2009, whilst Sam Allardyce was manager, Bobby Downes left the club by mutual consent. Phil Cannon was recruited to become the new Academy Manager.
Cannon, boasting an impressive background in youth development, was previously Head of Youth Development at Swindon, where he oversaw the early development of Theo Walcott, but more recently was Head of Recruitment at Everton, who are widely regarded as running one of the best youth set-ups in the country, producing an endless array of players including Wayne Rooney, Francis Jeffers, Leon Osman, Jack Rodwell and most recently Ross Barkley among others. Cannon, interviewed at the time of hiring, by the official Rovers website stated, “If that first team was full of local boys, it would be fantastic because they are playing for ‘their’ team. I think the locals can identify more with them and I think the local boys do try a little bit harder”. Since then, Phil Jones, Grant Hanley, Adam Henley, Josh Morris, Jason Lowe, and Nick Blackman have been promoted to the first team squad, with some such as Jones, Hanley and Lowe playing integral roles during the last couple of seasons. Obviously, some of the credit for their development still lay with the previous regime under Downes, nevertheless, the good work that the current staff including Cannon, Alan Miller as Head of Recruitment, David Lowe as Head of Youth Coaching, as well as team coaches for the U-18 and U-16 sides, Terry McPhillips, Simon Ireland and Tony Grant cannot go unnoticed.
The current edition of the Rovers youth set-up has seen the U-18 side make the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup where they will play bitter rivals Burnley in a two-legged affair. Labelled by on-lookers as possibly the best batch of talent to come through Brockhall at once, a number of key players have alternated between Reserves League football and the Academy Premier League this season. Stand-out performers include the cream of the crop Hugo Fernandez, a young Spaniard, who only turned 18 earlier this year and can play anywhere along the middle of the pitch, from defence to an attacking midfield position. He has taken strides in his development this season as he has been given a more advanced role compared to his early times at the club. He has recently been making more regular appearances for the Reserves although still plays a crucial role at Academy level especially in the FA Youth Cup. John O’Sullivan is a young Irish midfielder who is comfortable across midfield and has played a few times for the Reserves this season too. He’s also been capped at U-19 level by Ireland. Jack O’Connell, a left sided defender comfortable at center back or left back was capped by the England U-18 side in March 2012. Robbie Cotton, long hailed as one of the best players that the Academy had produced, judging by the player’s potential, has been promoted to the first team squad this season, although he has yet to make an appearance for them. He is still involved in the FA Youth Cup and scored the winning penalty in a thrilling Quarter Final victory over Newcastle, and features regularly for Gary Bowyer’s Reserve side.
If Blackburn Rovers overcome Burnley, they would be a step closer to winning the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 1959, something that players such as Duff, Dunn, or Jones failed to do, as well as confirming their promise. Considering the club’s current fortunes on and off the pitch, it would not be beyond the scope of reality if some of the current Academy batch began featuring for the first team squad by next season. At the same time, the Blackburn Rovers Academy has helped fund itself and more-over through the transfer of players. All in all, just under £60m has been raised since 1994 through the transfer of players, an average of £3.3m a year. Some of the players have ended up winning Champions Leagues, Premier Leagues, and have gone on to play at World Cups and European Championships for their countries. Rovers hold 2 of the top 5 most expensive Academy transfers in English football history, with both Damien Duff and Phil Jones, who cost their future clubs a reported £17m each. Only Andy Carroll, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves (if you want to include cross-border transfers) have ever gained their respective academies more money. Considering the overall picture, coupled with Blackburn being a town in arguably the most hotly-contested catchment area for recruitment of youth players, with up to 30 clubs, in competing for youngsters in the North West, it becomes clear that the backbone of the Academy factory floor has been key in maintaining Blackburn Rovers position on and off the pitch in the Premier League, in what was Uncle Jack’s parting and, hopefully, eternal, gift to the club.
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