Friday, January 18, 2013
Appleton could be Blackburn's Mr. Right
After the final whistle blew at Molineux last week, Danny Murphy was accosted by an interviewer seeking his views on Michael Appleton. The next occupant of the Ewood Park dugout would be, he was told, Blackburn's fourth manager of the season. "Fifth," interjected Rovers' captain. Sometimes it is hard to keep track. Regime change has become so frequent.
But, after Steve Kean (who resigned), Eric Black (the caretaker who was then dismissed from his role as assistant), Henning Berg (no sooner appointed than sacked) and Gary Bowyer (the reserve-team manager who stood in when everyone more senior had left), enter the eloquent, impressive Appleton.
He arrives equipped for the job; partly with a host of coaching qualifications and partly because he, too, has a brief reign to his name. Berg, the manager who lasted 57 days, is replaced by one who, of his own choice, spent a mere 65 at Blackpool. Not that Appleton fears the sack.
"There was a lot of things said about the circus that revolves around Blackburn," he said, after opting to take the short journey along the M55 and M65 from Blackpool to Blackburn. "For me it wasn't about Henning Berg getting ten games so I'm going to get 11 or 12."
His task is to restore some constancy to a club that, before Sam Allardyce's departure two years ago, had only sacked one manager in a decade. How much rests on stability? "Probably everything."
The revolving door at Ewood Park, coupled with the unwanted reputation of owners Venky's, is a reason Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston branded Blackburn "a disaster shipwreck". Quite what that says about the Seasiders, whose manager opted to hop onboard the supposedly struggling vessel, is another matter.
With rather greater diplomacy than his former employer, Appleton added: "I had an honest and frank conversation with Karl and we shook hands and said goodbye on good terms. There's a lot of perceptions of why I left Blackpool. All I can say is an opportunity has come to manage an unbelievably fantastic club like Blackburn who have got great tradition and great support. I just wanted to be part of it."
A reason is their respective finances. Pool are likely to lose their £6 million winger Thomas Ince, with the probability their next manager will get little of the proceeds to reinvest, while Rovers have an £8 million striker in Jordan Rhodes. Oyston's incessant penny-pinching may have become a false economy. Venky's, having cut costs in Blackburn's relegation season, are now spending again.
"If they are prepared to back me as well as they backed Steve and Henning then surely that sends a big message," Appleton said. "The owners are very, very ambitious." But Blackburn is the club where ambition and reality took divergent paths the day Venky's bought out the Jack Walker Trust. Promotion was the expectation this season and, despite a rally under Bowyer, Appleton inherits a team in the wrong half of the table.
A swift return to the top flight, he believes, is just about feasible this season. "We have got 20 games left and we are not a million miles away from the play-offs," he said. "But a lot of work needs to be done very, very quickly for that to happen."
Work has already been done behind the scenes that Appleton believes is crucial. Ewood Park has been part football ground, part warzone between its competing factions this season. Berg was chosen by global advisor Shebby Singh, who also had an input in transfers; Appleton is the appointment of the coalition of managing director Derek Shaw and operations director Paul Agnew - dubbed "Shagnew" by some - although, bizarrely, Shaw was gagged and the PR company Venky's have engaged in a bid to prevent more bad press scored an immediate own goal.
If none of the powerbrokers were speaking, there is only one voice on footballing matters now, Appleton says. He has been granted complete control.
"I felt that was important," he explained. "In doing that, as long as they [Venky's] are prepared to back that, which they say 100% they are, we are going to give ourselves a ten-times better opportunity to get back to the Premier League."
It is where he spent the majority of his coaching career before embarking on a managerial tour of dysfunctional clubs, from tasting administration and relegation with Portsmouth to a brief spell under Oyston's auspices at Blackpool.
"A rollercoaster," he said; any reference to the Big Dipper on the Fylde Coast was presumably unintentional. Yet his grounding began under those constants, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, as a midfielder for Manchester United and Preston. "I had a fantastic education in football whether as a player or as a coach," he added. The latter began earlier than expected when his playing career was curtailed at 25. A place on West Bromwich Albion's coaching staff followed, giving Appleton more illustrious mentors.
"I have worked with some very, very good managers, the likes of Tony Mowbray, Roberto Di Matteo and Roy Hodgson," the confidant of the England coach said. "I still speak to Roy regularly. He is someone who, if I need an opinion, will be straight with me. He won't beat around the bush. When you have those type of allies in the game, when things are not going to plan, they give you an indication of two or three things you can do to rectify it."
His experience has given him a template for Blackburn to copy, a club that has made the opposite journey from Rovers, going from the Championship to the upper half of the top flight: West Bromwich Albion. "I was part of the module that was built then with [sporting director] Dan Ashworth. I have seen it first hand and been involved and know how it is done, and hopefully given a little bit of time we can do something similar here," he said. "I have been part of a set-up and an infrastructure and a club that many would probably say is run as well as any in the country."
Blackburn, in contrast, has a reputation as one of the worst run. It is a test of a young manager who has had to be a trouble-shooter since leaving the Hawthorns. "I have never shirked a challenge," Appleton said. That is just as well. He has another now.