Problems at Blackburn, Leyton Orient and Charlton symptomatic of a more acute issue in the English game

By Will Jennings

The sentiments echoing from the Brook Road Stand at Griffin Park last weekend could not have disseminated a clearer message. As Tony Mowbray’s battling Blackburn Rovers departed south London with three defiantly-earned points, events in Nottingham had rendered their efforts futile. Mark Warburton’s red army were jubilant, inflicting a relegation upon Mowbray’s side to English football’s third tier for the first time in 37 years. Over 120 miles south, Rovers’ loyal following were witnessing their once great club having its soul torn callously apart.

The Venky’s are culpable. While the 1,600 strong Blackburn contingent who had made that long and laudable journey down the M6 suffered, the club’s owners were absent, 4,500 miles away administering a chicken company in the Indian city of Pune. This isn’t what the fans deserve. This isn’t what our nation’s historic game should be about. Something has to be done.

The notion of foreign ownership is a plague to the English game, an epidemic running pervasively from the rustic terraces of Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road to those undesirable scenes in the capital last Sunday. The ineptitude and disregard of the ruling elite is solely detrimental to those dedicated fans who have spent years spectating, travelling, believing. These people are genuinely affected, investing thousands of pounds each year into watching their beloved clubs but being repaid with nothing other than fundamental contempt. The FA must act now.

These fans are long suffering. The recent travails of Blackburn have been characterised by misjudged appointments, insufficient recruitment and conspicuous shortcomings on the pitch. The tenure of Steve Kean must surely go down as one of the most comical of recent years, condemning Rovers to a campaign that constituted the antithesis of those glory years of 1994-5 that witnessed the ruthless finishing of Shearer and Sutton and the leadership of Tim Sherwood. The fans will always have this nostalgia. They can only dream for a return to such success.

The ramifications of incompetent chairmanship are visible and ubiquitous. Leyton Orient’s season saw the poor club leak more goals than even the Labour Party would be capable of in light of this week’s events, while Coventry City’s finish eleven points adrift of League One safety made the severity of the problem all the more palpable. That sunny Sunday at Wembley where they toppled Michael Appleton’s developing Oxford United will offer little consolation to those long-serving fans. The Sky Blues have plummeted down to the ground.

These owners are apathetic. They do not travel home and away, analysing their respective clubs’ serial shortcomings and working tirelessly to resolve them. They do not respect their teams’ loyal fan bases, not aware of the genuine and understandable misery they are inflicting on these peoples’ lives. In many cases, they do not care. Their continual inability to run a football club comes at a profoundly emotional cost.

We must not homogenise the issue. Events at Ewood Park and Brisbane Road represent the very worst instances of foreign ownership, with Francesco Becchetti’s tyrannical hegemony at Orient taking the club from League One ascendency to non-league oblivion in little more than thirty calamitous months. That tenure has witnessed eleven managers appointed, ten million pounds of debt accumulated and one assistant manager physically assaulted by the hapless Becchetti himself. Since the collective protests of Orient and Blackpool fans in November, Becchetti has failed to turn up to a single match. He must be sanctioned.

The situation at Charlton is no better. The supremacy of Belgian organisation Staprix NV and their owner Ronald Duchatelet has prompted a wave of persistent protests, with Duchatelet’s imminent presence at the Valley being about as likely as a UKIP resurgence at the impending election. Fans have staged mock funerals, thrown pigs onto the pitch and even travelled to their indifferent owner’s home town of Saint-Truiden in an attempt to force him to sell up. He does not listen. The problem continues.

Action has to be taken. Rather than allowing the issue to escalate and descend into even greater catastrophe for these historic clubs, the FA, Premier League and Football League must unite to combat this unedifying rampancy of foreign chairmanship. Not all overseas owners are this inept, but the ubiquity of those that do not care – and those English owners who are affecting clubs equally harmfully such as Blackpool’s Owen Oyston and Coventry’s Tim Fisher – must be tackled.

These owners see fans as customers rather than supporters. They view clubs as business enterprises as opposed to a sense of genuine adoration and affection in people’s lives. They do not realise that football functions as a form of escapism for the masses, liberating normal, working people from the frequent toil of their everyday lives and enabling them to express their passion on terraces up and down the country. They must learn.

The authorities need to monitor these instances of incompetent chairmanship more closely, ensuring that they receive the necessary advice, guidance and leadership on how to govern a football club effectively. They need to hold owners such as Bechetti, Duchatelet and Venky’s properly to account, condemning their incompetence and decisively enacting change. Fans such as those in the away end at Griffin Park last weekend cannot continue to suffer. We as a football nation collectively sympathise. Something has to be done.

Photograph: Geograph

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