Blackburn Rovers have a host of problems - but Jon Dahl Tomasson's departure may not be one of them
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It was hard not to root for Jon Dahl Tomasson – love him, even. The former Blackburn Rovers manager, who departed Ewood Park on Friday after 18 months, was energetic, enthusiastic, and went about his work with a twinkle in his eye. He loved the game, and it shone through with every word. He wanted to play beautiful, technical, passing football. Now, after narrowly missing last year’s Championship play-offs, his project has unravelled, he has moved on, and the blame game has begun.
After a respectable start to the season which saw Blackburn fluttering their eyelashes at the play-off places once more, performances fell off a cliff. The club went two months without a league win and suddenly found itself sucked towards a relegation battle. Individually and as a team, Rovers were playing some extremely poor football. The question is whether Tomasson moving on will prove to be a remedy or whether recent failures were a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Or, perhaps most probably, both.
The former Newcastle United and AC Milan forward’s departure was the culmination of a drawn-out divorce proceeding between him and a chaotic ownership that he had grown weary of some time ago. As transfer budgets changed, financial goalposts shifted and incompetence in the front office repeatedly scuppered transfers, Tomasson clearly decided he would be better off elsewhere. He had reportedly offered his resignation twice before he was finally able to persuade Venky’s to let him go, likely to the Swedish national team. It is hard to blame him for forcing an exit.
Yes, Venky’s, the Indian chicken and pharmaceuticals conglomerate that bought the club back when they were in the Premier League and sent them spiralling down the divisions with one bad decision after another, their cluelessness about football exposed at every turn. They’re still there, still deeply unpopular, still providing rival fans with a good laugh and still apparently immovable. Recently, after a few quieter years when the ship sailed through some comparatively calm Championship waters, they have brought their own brand of poorly coordinated chaos back with a deafening bang.
When they took over, the mistakes made by the Raos – the family behind Venky’s - came in the form of ill-considered staff appointments and blundering attempts at public relations, such as promises to sign faded former superstars like David Beckham and Ronaldinho. Now, the concerns are of a different ilk. New tax laws passed in India, intended to prevent business owners from spending their wealth outside of the country, have disrupted the cash flow into the club, as has an investigation into Venky’s over allegations that money earmarked for the club had been illicitly spent elsewhere.
Blackburn are now in a situation where the owners are forced to go through the Indian high court just to get routine funding through to the club. It has worked thus far, but a delay in the latest case, an attempt to secure funds for the first part of next season, has made a lot of Blackburn fans deeply jittery. At any point, the plug could be pulled on the funding stream, and a team who are propped up by a mountain of debt might find themselves in very dire straits indeed. For now, the debt is managed, but if the owners’ investment dries up then it will become unmanageable very quickly.
The result of this has been uncertainty as budgets shift at short notice and belt-tightening across the board. The club’s wage budget was slashed by 15% ahead of the new season to allow financial breathing room, and on Monday a report from The Daily Mail even claimed that the club were querying expenses claims from the scouting staff for parking charges and use of the M6 toll road. Apparently £8.90 per trip is a stretch, these days.
All these economic jitters have had ripple effects, too. At the end of the January transfer window, a deal to sign Orlando City striker Duncan McGuire was thrown in the bin while the player was in mid-air over the Atlantic, apparently because the owners were concerned the money from the club record sale of Adam Wharton to Crystal Palace wouldn’t come through in time. Then, a day or so later, the deal was suddenly back on – only for it to fall apart after someone at the club pressed “save” instead of “submit” on his registration forms and thus missed the deadline to send the EFL the requisite details.
One confused, comical moment of incompetence might not set too many alarm bells ringing in its own right, but it has happened before – twice. The signings of Lewis O’Brien from Nottingham Forest and Ethan Brierley from Rochdale both collapsed in near-identical fashion a year earlier. It hasn’t helped perception of the entire mess that the club CEO, Steve Waggott, under whose purview all of these foul-ups ultimately fall, is a rather unconvincing figure. The esteem with which he is held by the fanbase can be summed up by a recent quiz posted on a Blackburn supporters’ website which asked participants to guess whether certain quotes came from the mouth of Waggott or David Brent.
In short, Tomasson had many good reasons to want out. He was not properly backed in the transfer market, partly because funding was limited but also due to sheer incompetence. Stability was in short supply and the apparent lack of confidence the former Champions League winner had in his bosses was deeply justified. That has led many supporters to place the blame squarely on the ownership and front office for the last couple of desperately messy months, but there is more blame to go around than that.
Tomasson had a very clear vision for how football should be played – a fluid, passing style, building from the back and attempting to make the most of quick switches of play in attack. Technical quality was prioritised over old-fashioned grit. It took a while for his methods to sink in, especially with a defence not used to passing the ball out under pressure, but for a time they worked very well indeed and Rovers came achingly, agonisingly close to the play-offs in the 2022/23 season, as well as making the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
But it all collapsed spectacularly, and quickly, this winter. As injuries mounted, a lack of depth was revealed, but Tomasson decided against compromising his style to better reflect the qualities of the players he had available. He proved to be dogmatic and lacking in a recognisable Plan B.
As wins turned into losses, the lack of steel in the Blackburn squad became brutally apparent. Lost causes were not chased, tackles were missed, and possession was lost far too easily in the heart of the park. Lewis Travis, a ferocious ball-winning midfielder who was one of the team’s most consistent performers under former coach Tony Mowbray, was sidelined and eventually loaned out to Ipswich Town at a time when his tough tackling and raw determination were obviously missing from the side.
Tomasson’s methods needed a squad sculpted precisely to his requirements, but Blackburn never had the money to make that happen. They have the third-smallest wage bill in the division, with only newly-promoted Plymouth Argyle and Rotherham United spending less, and the transfer budget was minimal. It put Tomasson in a position where he had to find a middle ground to make it all come together successfully, but never appeared to try.
Perhaps he would suit a wealthier club who can buy all the toys he needs to make his vision come to life – but that wasn’t what he had at Ewood Park. In any case, there are plenty of reasonable doubts over that vision. Passing fluidity was often stilted by a lack of structured build-up and forwards frequently found themselves isolated and forced to improvise. The best managers of passing teams have distinct positional and passing schemes which ensure players on the ball always have options, but Rovers’ players too often found themselves cut off from the next pass.
This is not a bad Blackburn team. There are question marks over depth, but man for man there are only a handful of Championship clubs who are blessed with evidently superior starting elevens. In other words, there is no excuse for a squad of this calibre to have been anywhere near the bottom three – and it is perhaps telling that in the first game since Tomasson’s departure, with new manager John Eustace watching on, a simpler set-up which essentially involved the best players available in obviously suitable positions resulted in a 3-1 win over Stoke City.
Tomasson failed in many regards. His vivacity and charisma, combined with the hopeless farrago unravelling at board room level, provided excuses for his many ardent supporters who were understandably desperate for him to succeed and who were willing to focus all of the blame on the owners and CEO, but the Dane has to bear some of the culpability. When a rethink and a back-up plan were required, they were missing.
It’s all a crying shame. The idea of Tomasson was intoxicating. He was easy to love and wanted to elevate Blackburn’s play to a higher level. Now, he is gone. Perhaps his eventual work with Sweden will shine a different light on his time at Blackburn – in international football, after all, he will have no choice but to work with the resources at hand, and either he will find a compromise between his ideals and available players or he will fail. If he succeeds, then maybe more of the blame for this season’s failures on the pitch should be placed on the players and upper management of the club.
Equally, Eustace’s tenure may tell us the extent to which Tomasson was truly at fault. The former Birmingham City manager was cruelly and farcically fired by his former club in favour of Wayne Rooney, a decision which proved utterly disastrous for the Blues – and all evidence suggests that he is a competent and intelligent head coach. If he gets more out of this team in spite of all the issues in the front office, then it will reflect poorly on Tomasson’s reign.
Whatever percentage of the fault for a difficult season lies with Tomasson, it doesn’t change the fact that Blackburn will always feel as though they are just a millimetre away from the edge of the precipice for as long as Venky’s continue to control the club. Even with legal issues now challenging their capacity to fund the club, they do not seem to be interested in selling. If there’s one thing almost every Rovers fan would agree on, however they felt about Tomasson, it’s that their departure would make everything a great deal easier.