Once champions of England, Blackburn Rovers have fallen on hard times since their purchase by the deeply unpopular Venky's Group. An increasingly empty Ewood Park tells a sad story – fans of the club are gradually falling out of love with their team.
Rovers' EFL Cup clash with Crewe drew only the most ardent of fans to Ewood Park // PA Images
It's a Wednesday night in August 2016 and my club, Blackburn Rovers, are rock bottom of the Championship following a hat-trick of defeats. Shane Duffy has scored three own goals in two games, adding a red card in the second for good measure, and much of Twitter is now laughing at our expense.
The unrest surrounding Venky's – the Indian-based chicken meat processing company who own the club – rises to the surface once more. Robbie Savage promises Blackburn fans airtime on his BBC 606 show to "tell the nation what is happening" at his old club. An online petition surfaces, calling for an official FA investigation into the running of the former Premier League champions.
I should feel sad and angry about this sorry state of things, and to some extent I do. But the main emotion I am experiencing at this point is apathy. Can I actually bring myself to care anymore?
I visit my grandparents and talk about this. "You used to be so obsessed," says my grandma. "You got a lot of pleasure out of watching that club." She's right – I really was, and I did. So where did it all go wrong? How did I go from a young Rovers fan trying to persuade his parents to drive back for a home match mid-way through a holiday to Cornwall (they said no, selfish sods – it's only a 700-mile round trip) to falling out of love with the club altogether in the space of a decade?
Roy Hodgson's Blue and White Army
The first Blackburn game I saw live was in 1998, just three years after the club were crowned champions of England. Managed by Roy Hodgson, we lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City. Despite the result compounding a poor start to the season – for which Hodgson paid with his job two weeks later – the seeds were sewn for my infatuation with Blackburn Rovers.
My dad bought us tickets for other home games that season; before long, replica shirts, lampshades and pin badges followed. A group of family friends were always allocated my bedroom when they came to stay, and christened it 'Rovers Heaven' because of the sheer volume of merchandise.
At my eighth birthday party, hosted at the ground, I was even allowed to sit in the manager's 'hotseat' and select a backroom staff from my primary school peers (some are still bitter they didn't make the cut). Plenty of kids at my school supported Rovers, so Monday morning chats about whether Darren Peacock deserved to keep his place at centre-back weren't uncommon, even at a young age.
Rovers finished 19th in my first season watching, thus dropping into the second tier, but Graeme Souness took over in March of the following campaign. By the end of the next term we'd pinballed back up to the Premier League, and won the League Cup within the year. Watching that victory at the Millennium Stadium, I was convinced, was the best thing that had and would ever happen to anyone. I was bloody right as well.
Although I still went to matches during those couple of second-tier years, with Premier League status came season tickets in the Riverside stand, sat in row one so that we got an unobstructed view. It was only £60 for me for the year, and free for my seven-year-old brother.
Naturally, nine-year-old me started writing to Souness, suggesting formations for forthcoming matches and hinting that he should get a youth scout to sign me up. He replied – including a signed photograph – but declined to put me straight into his starting XI. Still, I probably broke the world sprint-round-the-garden record when I opened that letter.
For a good while, Rovers became and remained a formidable force, and we kept our season tickets in those same seats for years. The new millennium dawned and, on their day, Blackburn could hold their own against anyone. Under Mark Hughes we were branded 'the bully boys', and one memorable victory under his watch came against Manchester United: a 4-3 win thanks to a hat-trick from David Bentley.
Rovers also enjoyed European adventures during these golden years, taking on the likes of CSKA Sofia, Basel and Feyenoord in three dalliances with the UEFA Cup. As well as watching home ties against these sides – little old Blackburn giving some continental big-hitters a run for their money – I upped my game in terms of domestic away matches, going berserk in away ends at the likes of Stamford Bridge, St James' Park, and even a couple of Wednesday night trips to Craven Cottage. Would this small town club ever stop punching above its weight?
All Good Things
In 2009-10 Rovers finished a solid 10th under Sam Allardyce, but dramatic change was on its way. Venky's bought the club for £23 million in November of the next season; they immediately sacked Big Sam and replaced him with first-team coach Steve Kean. Kean's agent Jerome Anderson had earlier played a major role in advising Venky's during their takeover, so controversy surrounded the appointment.
Before long it became apparent that 'Agent Kean' – so-called by Burnley fans, as if he were their mole sent to sabotage our club – was far from up to Premier League standard. Everything started falling apart and we were soon pining for Allardyce's route-one effectiveness.
In Kean's first part-season as manager we went on a 10-game run without a win, but still clung to our Premier League status. The next season we struggled again. Following a run of five successive defeats in April, hostility towards Venky's and Kean reached fever pitch.
A 1-0 defeat at home to Wigan in the penultimate game confirmed our relegation, and the volatile atmosphere in the home stands was ramped up by a mixture of grief and betrayal. A chicken draped in a Rovers flag – the ultimate symbol of this sorry demise – was released onto the pitch in the seventh minute of the game. This protest held up the match while players caught and removed the subversive bird. Come the end, it was scarves being tossed onto the pitch, sending out the ultimate message that this no longer felt like our club.
Fans who had been season ticket holders for 40 years now boycotted matches. For what seemed like an age, the ever-stubborn Kean clung on to his position, only resigning part-way through the following season. Two more managers followed – Henning Berg was sacked after 57 days, then Michael Appleton lasted just 67. The farce didn't end there: Berg managed to scoop £2.25m in compensation for his short-lived stay. During his hearing, Rovers' own lawyers admitted that dealings between the club's managing director Derek Shaw and Venky's were "a shambles."
Gary Bowyer, the caretaker boss between these comings and goings, then took permanent charge. Much of the disquiet surrounding Venky's mellowed. In 2013/14 the club finished eighth in the Championship, and in the following season ended up ninth.
But Bowyer was sacked after a poor start in 2015/16; in his defence he had been unable to buy players since December 2014, due to the club breaching financial fair play rules. Paul Lambert came for a short while but soon realised it would be foolish to stick around. So, at the start of this season, Owen Coyle was appointed manager. Coyle has previously managed local rivals Bolton and Wigan, but his spell with our bitter enemies Burnley meant this appointment was met with disgust by many fans.
Losing touch with the Rovers
During Kean's first season I spent a few months in Australia, then spent four years at Sheffield University. Being away (and perhaps getting older) must have played a part in my slow severing of ties, but I kept my season ticket for the first two years in Sheffield and missed out on some good weekends there for the sake of travelling home to watch my team.
I didn't want to stop going just because we had dropped a division either. But, gradually, it became so devoid of enjoyment that my attendance dropped to almost zero. It just didn't feel worth going back for any more. The most potent thing I started to notice was a stagnant, apathetic feeling at matches played in front of dwindling crowds.
Ewood Park felt like the soul had been ripped out of it and the people still going only did so out of tradition or some sense of duty. I wouldn't mind if we had just gradually slipped down after a privileged run of punching above our weight. But it was the cause of our stagnation – distant billionaires buying the club and our fortunes plummeting with immediate effect, with nothing in the way of answers from these people – that eroded my will to sit through bad football.
Misguided greed had ruined everything, and you could probably write a book on the goings-on behind the scenes with Venky's, but this video from summer 2012 gives a pretty good flavour of their madness.
More recently, leaked emails have revealed even more: Rovers had paid around four times more to agents than on transfer fees. And, not only was Steve Kean getting excessive bonuses, he would still have received some had we dropped to League One.
Flustered by all of this incompetence, I had tried to get excited about our local rivalries instead. I hoped I could latch onto the partisan side of football, but a trip to Turf Moor was characterised by such volatility that this didn't seem worthwhile either.
"Do you go down much these days?" asked my home-town barber, referring to Ewood Park without needing to use the name. "I don't, much," I admitted. "I can't really bring myself to care."
"Aye, I don't think anybody can," he said, summing up the feelings of his Rovers-following customers. Even my Nan can't imagine going to the matches, and she lives a mere mile from the ground: "I wouldn't go down there if somebody paid me £100 – cash!"
A Sense of Decay
Arriving back at my parents' after just 3,348 had watched us scrape through a cup game at home to Crewe – no doubt distracting from 'Duffygate' and a poor home league draw against Burton – little clues to my former Rovers infatuation lay around my old room: an old autograph book, containing signatures from Mark Hughes and Craig Short; a crumpled postcard with Chris Sutton on the front; what hit me upon seeing these was how disconnected I feel from it all now.
Somebody who still feels connected enough to go, and has done so consistently since 1965, is 56-year-old Mick Robinson. He and my dad still have season tickets, and he was feeling decidedly glum after our 2-2 draw with Burton.
"I felt very sad watching that. It wasn't about the game – although they are poor, poor players – more the fact that when you looked around the stadium, six years ago it was vibrant, and look at it now. They've dismantled it. There's just a sense of decay around the place. All our decent players have been sold and we're not a buying club anymore."
Mick wasn't always this sceptical about Venky's. "At first I was optimistic. I heard they'd done good community work in India, and thought this would be great for Rovers, to create a vibrant football community.
"Even until quite recently I was optimistic, thinking they were keeping the club afloat. But now I've changed my mind. There's a lack of communication, nothing coming from Venky's. And one of the only times they actually turned up to a game, they came in a fleet of Rolls Royces. That's never going to go down well in a Lancashire mill town, rubbing wealth in people's faces."
My dad, who doesn't know who we're playing until he gets to the ground for matches, chimed in on the Coyle front: "When appointing him, if Venky's didn't understand the realities of the Burnley connection and rivalry, there's something severely wrong there.
"But if they did, it's one of two things: either they specifically wanted to use that to put two fingers up to the fans – who they see as always having a go at them – or they just thought he was the best person to appoint, and the fans would have to put up with it."
Still, Mick is keen not to let this shambles stop him attending games. "I will still go. It's Blackburn Rovers, it's in my blood. I understand why many don't bother, but if everybody did that, the club would disappear. I still get enjoyment from banter with other fans, despite getting very little from the football itself. Even if we got relegated I'd still go though – I used to watch them in the third division back in the day."
Hearing this, I start to question myself. As a teenager, I couldn't have imagined stopping going for any reason either. I decided to roll the dice another time and get down to the Fulham game the following weekend.
Given our sorry start to the season though, I still couldn't help but feel a bit pessimistic. The likes of Jason Lowe and Hope Akpan hardly inspire as much confidence as Tugay, Damien Duff or Craig Bellamy used to.
But as we pile into the pub pre-match, a teenage son of a family friend is there. He's just got the new kit with his name on the back. And, as kick-off draws near, he's fidgeting in his seat. "What time are we setting off? Five minutes everyone!"
I start to see my younger self in him. And whereas the old-timers around the table are as much there to see each other as the match, this lad is genuinely excited about the football. "It's the first time I'll be sat behind the goal, my first time in the Blackburn End, and the first time wearing this new kit!" he says.
But come the match itself, reality bites. 'Venky's Out!' chants ring out for much of the game, and a banner held aloft for the full 90 minutes reads 'Made in Blackburn, Destroyed in India'. The game heads for a very mediocre goalless draw but, in the fourth minute of added time, ex-Rover Tom Cairney devastates the home team by netting a dramatic winner. Almost everyone stands up immediately and makes for the exits, duly venting their frustrations towards the pitch before disappearing down the stairs.
"Fuck off Coyle!" shouts one bloke repeatedly, "you've always been a Dingle!" [a reference to the socially inept Emmerdale characters]. "We're selling everything we have and replacing it with shit."
People start to chant: "We want our Rovers back" and "We want Venky's Out". Betrayal is in the air once more, and there is even talk of a supporters' boycott for the televised game against Wolves.
Having barely taken away any enjoyment from the 90 minutes, and certainly gaining none from added time where 11 blokes in blue and white crumbled at the last knockings, we all traipse out of the ground. Fittingly, on the walk up the hill from Ewood Park to the pub, barely anyone says a word.