Trust submission to Fan-led review of football governance – Response from Tracey Crouch MP

Sent to Chair of Fan-Led Review Tracey Crouch MP on Tuesday 8th of June

OVERVIEW

  • Owners not been seen at Ewood Park for 7 years
  • Spring 2021 failed attempt to sell 50% of Training Ground
  • Annual Accounts 2019/20 not been filed
  • Open appeal to Owners to reveal plans –gone unanswered
  • After 10 years ownership the Desai Family still do not acknowledge they are running a highly-treasured Community Asset

Blackburn is a town situated in East Lancashire with a population of around 118,000 (1). Crucially in terms of the club’s catchment area, the north west of England is also a hotbed of other professional football clubs with AFC Fylde, Accrington Stanley, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Bury, Everton, Fleetwood Town, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Morecambe, Oldham Athletic, Preston North End, Rochdale and Wigan all encircling the town of Blackburn and within easy commutable distance on a match day.

Blackburn Rovers Football Club was established in 1875, becoming a founding member of The Football League in 1888 and of the Premier League in 1992. The club has been English champions three times, most recently in 1995, and has won six FA Cups, one Football League Cup and one Full Members' Cup. The club has spent much of its existence in the top flight of English football but currently competes in the second tier, The Championship. The club is famous world-wide and our iconic blue and white halved shirts remain one of the few football kits that is immediately identifiable. The club’s motto is ‘arte et labore’ which is taken from the town motto and means ‘by skill and hard work’. These are the very values that most Rovers’ fans, the majority of whom have a local connection of some description, identify with and we take great pride in this most successful of town football clubs.

The Rovers have played at Ewood Park since 1890, with the current capacity being a shade over 31,000. A newly constructed purpose-built stadium was funded by the club’s then-owner, Jack Walker, in the early to mid-1990s. This was in conjunction with a state-of-the-art training and academy facility in the Ribble Valley, and as is perhaps more widely known, a cash injection into the playing staff and management team to transform a lower table second tier side into Premier League champions within the space of four years. While we might understand why some fans of other clubs might take a ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’ attitude to a Blackburn Rovers supporter complaining about club ownership, we very firmly and clearly see the intervention of Jack Walker in purchasing the club in 1991 as quite distinct from many of the modern-day ownership situations. Jack was a born-and-bred local man and a life-long Blackburn Rovers supporter who chose to spend his nest egg to chase a dream. More importantly, he understood the club and the people as well as anybody. We certainly do not subscribe to the theory that Jack Walker was in any way responsible for creating the financial situation professional football now finds itself in. Indeed, Blackburn Rovers only spent what was required to transition from second division relegation candidates to the upper echelons of the top flight, and other clubs outspent the Rovers by some distance (2).

In the noughties when the Rovers was an established, well-run and relatively successful Premier League club, average attendances were between 22,000 and 26,000. Since our relegation to the Championship in 2012, this average attendance has halved. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the club was also relegated from the Premier League while Jack Walker still owned the club, and indeed were a second-tier club when he sadly passed away in 2000. However, home attendances remained at an average of around 20,000 during that period away from the top flight. For the decade after Mr Walker passed away, the club was owned and run by the Walker Trust before being sold to the Indian poultry company Venkys in 2010. What followed, and remains to this day, was a change in the dynamic of the club from being owned and run by people who understood the history of the club and the psyche of local people to distant, absentee owners who didn’t seem to understand either the game of football or the culture, economics and traits of East Lancashire. The Rovers Trust could easily submit the equivalent of War and Peace to this review in respect of the damage that a decade of absentee ownership and the subsequent disconnect with the fanbase has done to both our football club and the local business community. Within 5 years of take-over our then Managing Director was in Court being told by the presiding judge that he was incompetent and disobeyed Owners’ instructions –he stayed in post a further one year! We had gone from being a universally regarded well-run Club to having no Executives, no Board meetings and no Financial and Contractual Control. Whilst we think we have stabilised since then, our problems serve as a timely reminder and a prime example of how things can quickly go very badly wrong.

With this in mind, the Rovers Trust was established in November 2012 with the objective of bringing Blackburn Rovers back to the community. While the Trust’s current overall aim is to support the Rovers returning to the Premier League by the 150th anniversary of the club in 2025 including holding part ownership in the club, to retain its relevance to both members of the Trust and also the wider Rovers fanbase the Trust has also developed four supporting aims;

  • Securing the assets and heritage of the club
  • Preserving the long-term health of the club
  • Regenerating support and encouraging the return of 'stay-away' supporters
  • Helping to mitigate a lost generation of supporters.

The Rovers Trust is firmly in agreement with the Football Supporters’ Association’s (FSA) excellent 2018 proposals to improve the regulation of professional football clubs (3) as well as its Sustain the Game (4) initiative, which was also written before the recent European Super League shenanigans, the principles of which are;

  • Protect our clubs. Football clubs like Blackburn Rovers are community assets and an important expression of individual and local identity, they deserve legal protection and urgent support to secure their future;
  • Transparency. Every supporter has a right to know who owns their football club, and how clubs and the authorities operate. Owners are custodians of clubs on behalf of all supporters. This is something that the Desai Family have never got to grips with in over a decade of owning Blackburn Rovers;
  • Financial controls. Fans want rules with real teeth which are independently enforced, clubs and leagues can’t be left to regulate themselves; The Rovers Trust wishes to see an end to the self-governance of both the Premier League and the EFL, with an independently chaired sub-group of both to be established to oversee a robust fit and proper test for owners similar to those proposed by the FSA.
  • Strengthen the pyramid. Football as a whole is wealthy, but we need a smarter and fairer use of the money in the game to encourage sustainability; The Rovers Trust feels that this should include arbitration between the Professional Footballer’s Association and all UK professional football leagues on a wage cap, an agreement for 25% of Premier League TV income to be dispersed among the lower divisions, and an end to parachute payments. To use the Blackburn Rovers example, Championship clubs chasing the Premier League dream ticket have become totally unsustainable and this will eventually kill the lower leagues. The current set-up can only lead to those clubs in receipt of parachute payments dominating the promotion and play-off spots more and more each season if it is allowed to continue. Supporters of Championship clubs are fast waking up to the realities, unfairness and financial disparities of the current system and any clubs who ever make it to the Premier League without parachute money will probably need to risk financial ruin and/or rule breaking to achieve it.
  • Supporter engagement. Fans are the lifeblood of the game and they need a voice in their clubs on all issues that affect them and their communities. The Rovers Trust would favour a business plan prepared for all takeovers which would include a compulsory supporter buy-in of, say, a minimum of 20% of share value.

Professional football clubs cannot be regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ businesses. They have a special status as community hubs, built upon the loyalty of fans over many generations and the important part football clubs like Blackburn Rovers play in the lives of ordinary people. Professional football clubs are arguably the greatest expressions of community identity in our nation, particularly in places like Blackburn. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, if you tell people you come from Blackburn, they will likely associate you with the Rovers.

Recently, however, it seems that too many club owners have disregarded the over-riding welfare of the clubs themselves and their community significance, matters over which they, for the time being, have custody and treat their supporters’ interests as subordinate to their own commercial interests. The recent European Super League fiasco is ample evidence of this. However, there are examples much closer to home for a Blackburn Rovers supporter, and the chasm that exists between the club’s owners and its supporters is seriously threatening almost 150 years of mainly proud history. It is the Rovers Trust’s firm view that reform is needed to apply better protection to certain key aspects of football clubs, which owners should be obliged to cherish and sustain, in the long-term interests of the fans and the communities the clubs represent, and we fully endorse all that the FSA has to say on these matters.

Blackburn Rovers Trust
John Murray (Chair); Andy Young (National Rep) on behalf of Rovers Trust members

1 2011 Census https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census
2 Perspective on 1994/5 premier league spending Blackburn didn't buy the Premier League title in 1995 – they earned it | Football | The Guardian
3 https://thefsa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FSA-Proposals-to-improve-football-regulation.pdf
4 https://thefsa.org.uk/our-work/sustainthegame/


Response from Tracey Crouch MP on Friday 11th of June

Dear Andy

Further to our previous exchange I have read your evidence and, as said previously, will ensure it is shared with the entire review panel and fed into our considerations when it comes to the drafting of the review's interim report.

It is precisely this sort of well-informed and considered input from supporters that has helped shape the thinking of the review, and indeed given it its unique "fan-led" character. We are all very grateful for the time and effort that your Trust, along with all the other contributors, have invested, as volunteers, and that speaks very strongly about the commitment that fans have to the health of the game.

Your explanation of the long history of Blackburn Rovers really underlined your points about the importance of the club to its community and its fanbase, and your description of the ups and downs in the club's fortunes in the course of those years, from the highs of the Jack Walker-inspired Premier League success (which I had to suffer as the friend of a mad Rovers fan!) to the more difficult challenges of recent seasons, provided an excellent illustration of some of the issues that we will be grappling with during our considerations.

I note your support for the proposals put forward by the FSA in 2018, which of course retain their validity, and we have already been able to identify several areas of concern that seem to be shared across the supporters' movement at all levels of the game. Your point about football clubs not being "ordinary" businesses and having huge importance to their communities is very well made, and understood, I am sure, by all involved in this review process.

We have limited time in the review to receive what could no doubt be an unlimited amount of heartfelt testimony, and so having looked at the diary I don’t think it will be possible to offer a personal meetings.

You can rest assured however that with your submission you have succeeded in getting across the views of your members in a clear and meaningful way, and on behalf of the panel I would like to thank you once again for your support of the review process and your valuable input into it.

Best wishes

Tracey
Tracey Crouch MP, Chatham & Aylesford
House of Commons, London


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