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Mar 19, 2013

Appleton becomes Venky's latest casualty

"For two weeks, it was normal," said Michael Appleton. "For two weeks, it was brilliant." This isn't the first interview about his brief time as Blackburn. It is Appleton's own analysis of his spell at Portsmouth, where his honeymoon period was followed by administration and relegation. Renowned, until recently, as one of the most promising young coaches in the game, the latest addition to a growing group of managers sacked by Blackburn seems to have proved he possesses an uncanny ability for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps, too, he is the wrong man. His axing after two months at Ewood Park means judgements on his abilities cannot be definitive. What can be said with certainty is that he talked of promotion when he arrived and left Rovers in danger of relegation to the third tier, a depth they have not plumbed since 1979-80. He oversaw Arsenal's ejection from the FA Cup, less than five weeks before his sacking, but his team, even with a Wembley semi-final at stake, could only draw 8,635, thought to be the lowest quarter-final gate since World War II, to Ewood Park for the game against Millwall.

He had a squad that is, man for man, perhaps the strongest - and probably the most expensive - in the Championship but a team that is among the weakest. Despite possessing a prolific, £8 million, striker in Jordan Rhodes, his side failed to score in five of their last seven games and won none of them.

Where it becomes a matter of interpretation is how much of the blame lies at Appleton's feet. The reality is that, since their season started on August 18, his 67-day stint in charge is the longest of any of the five men to take charge of Blackburn. Henning Berg, the previous, supposedly permanent, manager, lasted for 57. Should Gary Bowyer, whose first caretaker spell in charge ranked as the most successful spell in a miserable campaign, remain at the helm until June, the interim appointment will have proved the most durable. Compared to Blackburn, even Roman Abramovich seems a paragon of patience.

Given the backdrop of instability and the behind-the-scenes infighting, therefore, three questions spring to mind: Was anyone really surprised to hear of Appleton's sacking? Could any manager succeed at Blackburn? And was it really wise to quit Blackpool, after a mere 65 days, to head east along the M55 and M65?

In January Appleton called the decision a "no brainer". But while the Seasiders are in decline and the penny-pinching chairman Karl Oyston grants his managers little money, he at least affords them job security. Colin Hendry, dismissed in 2005, was the last man unceremoniously booted out of Bloomfield Road.

That Blackburn are thought to have tripled his wages and possessed better players clearly proved persuasive to Appleton. An eloquent man who had been dogged by misfortune in both his playing and managerial careers, the 37-year-old made a positive initial impression.

Yet feelgood factors rarely last at Ewood Park. This was no exception. Appleton antagonised too many in his short reign. A reason why the stands were so under-populated for the Millwall game was that supporters were unhappy with the joyless, direct football - at least, as many have pointed out, when Sam Allardyce's tactics also lacked aesthetic appeal, he steered Rovers to 10th in the Premier League - and the clinical Rhodes was starved of chances. A focus was put on keeping clean sheets, prompting the theory that Appleton is not a manager as much as a defensive coach.

And having been appointed by one of the warring parties at Ewood Park - managing director Derek Shaw and operations director Paul Agnew who, like Appleton, are all alumni of Preston North End - he began purging Blackburn of the players signed or favoured by the other faction, headed by global advisor Shebby Singh. The exits of the creative contingent of Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina left Rovers short of invention. Appleton, having declared the squad he inherited had too many footballers who wanted to operate as a No. 10, may have ended up with too few.

The departures of several untried Portuguese players was largely overlooked but the marginalisation of Danny Murphy, stripped of the captaincy and omitted altogether for the Millwall game when nine players were either injured or cup-tied, seemed needlessly mean-spirited. Despite Murphy's decline, Blackburn do not have 27 better footballers.

Now his firing suggests the pendulum of power has swung back from Shaw and Agnew to Singh. Appleton's fate, after two wins in 10 league games, is to join Steve Kean and Berg on the list of those who have presided over an ignominious fall. It is headed, of course, by Venky's, whose three managerial appointments have all backfired and whose reputation, however many PR companies they hire, is damaged further by every blunder. Now Bowyer, the academy coach, is charged with ensuring that Blackburn, whose owners dreamed of signing David Beckham and Ronaldinho when they took the club over, are not welcoming Burton and Rotherham in League One next season.

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