[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair] — Football Governance

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:50 pm on 9th February 2012.

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Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 3:50 pm, 9th February 2012

It is more than alleged; I think it is probably true, as nobody has come out and disputed it.

Clearly, there is a significant risk that Blackburn Rovers will regress rapidly while its owners have little understanding of football and the whole management of the first team and club administration rests with an individual as unqualified and inexperienced as Steve Kean. Mrs Desai, the club’s apparent owner and quasi-decision maker, confirmed in the Lancashire Telegraphthat Mr Williams did not get on with manager Steve Kean:

“I know that he did not get along with Steve (Kean) and he had struggled to accept Jerome (Anderson)’s role at the club.”

Ian Battersby, a well-known supporter and local businessman, flew out to meet Venky’s in Pune, India. Blackburn Rovers football club is just one of 170 subsidiaries in the Venky’s group. Each has a business head who reports directly to the Venky’s board. In the case of the Rovers, that appears to be Steve Kean. Ian Battersby said:

“The notion of a board executing the owners’ plans on a day-to-day basis is a complete anathema to them and many of our problems flow from that…We have a sporting director who nobody would know if they were sat next to him, and that’s a high-profile job allegedly responsible for player recruitment. We have a deputy chief executive—but no chief executive—whose effectiveness is, in the circumstances in which he operates, negligible.”

I place on record the manager’s statement that he had an irrevocable confrontation with the outgoing manager and that important questions persist about his involvement, as a client of Jerome Anderson, in a coup to oust the former manager, Sam Allardyce, bypassing the board of directors. None of that serves the club well.

Questions remain whether proper due diligence took place and whether Mr Anderson or his associates had a predetermined managerial change in mind and were interested not in the club’s assets and liabilities but in first team managerial contracts. The FA must look into it. What we do know is that the current board tasked with the responsibility of managing the club seems powerless to act in the best interests of the club. Serious questions now have to be asked about the owners’ ability to manage an English premier league club; their awareness of Premier League rules; their future intentions for the club; whether foreign business practices bring the club into disrepute; and whether such practices should be prohibited within the framework of the Football Association premier league’s fit and proper persons test.

Recent financial accounts have resulted in further destabilisation of the club, and newspaper reports have claimed that the club’s bank, Barclays, has initiated steps to protect its liabilities. Recent club accounts detail losses accrued up to June 2011 of £18.6 million; the previous year’s loss was only £1 million. The club’s value while it is in the English premier league is approximately £40 million. According to newspaper reports, Barclays is protecting its liabilities in the club by reducing credit facilities and discouraging asset sales of high-value players. In other words, the bank is determining transfer policy. That practice is not new. John Williams stated a year ago in his letter to the owners of the club:

“Brian Foreman from Barclays Bank is attending the Liverpool game tomorrow and has asked for a catch up meeting with us before the match. He will inevitably ask about our plans for the transfer window and at the present time not only are the Board unaware of these but it has been made clear that we will not have any input into the strategy. This is unacceptable and not in the best interests of the club.”

Why were Blackburn Rovers purchased by Venky’s? Were they purchased to promote football or to promote chicken burgers? Worryingly, during this period, fees paid to agents have risen approximately threefold. The £475,000 transfer of Ruben Rochina carried an additional agent payment of £1.65 million, which was during Jerome Anderson’s admitted involvement. Despite an alleged defensive injury crisis, an out-of-contract 28-year-old, Bruno Ribeiro—described by the manager as the next Denis Irwin—who had no caps and little top-flight Brazilian experience, was given a three-year contract and has yet to make a single appearance in the team or on the bench. Myles Anderson, who is Jerome Anderson’s son, was brought in despite having made only one appearance in the Scottish league. David Goodwillie, who is, to quote the manager, “the next Wayne Rooney,” was brought in from Scotland.

What has been destructive in this spiralling vortex is a smear campaign by the manager, his agent and other clients, which is aimed at ordinary Blackburn Rovers fans who seek only constructive dialogue with the club on the subject. To my knowledge, there have been no arrests or public disorder during the protests, which have always been conducted with the full consent of the police and dialogue with the club. The protests were suspended for seven matches to facilitate positive discussions, but those discussions have not taken place. Three pre-arranged meetings between the manager and organisers have been cancelled by the manager or by the club, the authority over which lies with the manager.

The Premier League is culpable in allowing the current trend of foreign ownership to continue without suitable safeguards; we have heard about Liverpool, Manchester United and Portsmouth. I welcome the comments of the Select Committee Chair that one can drive a coach and horses through the fit and proper persons test. That is clearly the case. This is coming from a completely different angle from Manchester United and Liverpool, and it should open our eyes to how we deal with football governance matters. As Mr Battersby, the Blackburn businessman, states:

“We hear an awful lot about the sham that is ‘fit and proper’…This is a major industry we are talking about here—it’s worth billions globally and there has to be something akin to licensing of owners. How can someone wing their way into the UK, take ownership of a club and within 12 months destroy a community? The warnings of Portsmouth, Notts County and now Blackburn must be heeded.

If the same had happened at Jaguar or similar, there would have been outrage in the House of Commons and yet we sit and watch this happening. In essence, the Premier League are watching one of their member clubs get savaged and haven’t batted an eyelid. It is nonsense.”

Venky’s management of Blackburn Rovers has raised a number of broader questions about the corporate governance of premier league clubs. The FA must look beyond its current ownership rules at arrangements for licensing prospective owners. Those arrangements must include, as Mr Battersby recommends, stricter compliance over financial strength and track record; the quality and strength of the management team; experience of delivery in the sector; the feasibility of the business plan and strategy; and corporate governance. There would need to be provision for the submission of quarterly or half-yearly accounts in addition to the annual ones. The fit and proper persons test in this case has failed. Dialogue with supporters has failed, because the owners have resisted all communication and have neutralised the board’s involvement.

I conclude with another remark from Mr Battersby:

“137 years of football heritage has been decimated inside 12 months. It is like watching a slow motion car crash.”