Gregg Broughton: Blackburn project on track despite season of strife

Gregg Broughton: Appointed Director of Football in June 2022

Gregg Broughton: Appointed Director of Football in June 2022

BLACKBURN ROVERS remain committed to a long-term plan for becoming a “sustainable Premier League club” despite a season of strife, insists Director of Football Gregg Broughton.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Training Ground Guru, Broughton gave the inside track on:

  • The exit of Head Coach Jon Dahl Tomasson, which had become “inevitable” by the end of January.
  • Why John Eustace is a good fit as his replacement.
  • Failure to sign forward Duncan McGuire in January because of an administrative error.
  • Sale of Adam Wharton, who will go onto "the very highest level."
  • Financial situation at the club, in light of ongoing legal issues for owners the Venky’s.

After missing out on the Championship play-offs on goal difference last season, this campaign has been very different for Blackburn Rovers. They currently sit 17th in the table, just three points off the relegation zone, meaning it’s likely to be a tense end to the season.

This only tells part of the story though. In February, Head Coach Tomasson left after 20 months because of tensions about the club’s finances and ambitions. In January, his best player, Wharton, had left for Crystal Palace for £22m. Meanwhile, an attempt to bring in McGuire from Orlando City ended embarrassingly because of an administrative error.

In India, owners the Venky’s have been struggling to release money to fund the club because of an ongoing legal case, which will not be heard until August. Speaking from his office at the club’s Brockhall training ground, Broughton was defiant though.

“The vision of the club to become a sustainable Premier League club hasn’t changed," he said. "How are we going to do that, no different. We want to integrate young players into a squad, have a particular style of football, have a Head Coach who buys into that model. All of that generates a player trading model.

“We are 18 months into that project now and you are seeing some signs of it. I appreciate the fans will say, ‘You are 17th in the league, how can we do that?’ But we really believe that will allow us to be competitive at the top end of the Championship and beyond that.”

He looks to Brighton, Brentford and Luton as inspiration for that player trading model, although Blackburn place more of a focus on bringing through homegrown players than that trio did.

“Very few clubs have the dual responsibility of trying to integrate players in from the Academy, while also trying to be competitive with a smaller budget," he said. "That is what we are trying to do and that is how we see our route back to the Premier League.”

Blackburn also operate with one of the lowest wage bills in the Championship.

“I think we are 17th to 18th as it stands currently," Broughton said. "The club has consistently overachieved over the last five to six years. Not in terms of the stature and history of the club, but in terms of those clubs that don’t have the parachute money it becomes increasingly hard."

Broughton arrived at the club in June 2022, having spent the previous four-and-a-half years at Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt as their Academy Director. Rovers hadn’t previously had a Director of Football and the appointment was recognition that a new approach was needed.

“One of the first questions I asked when I came into this was, ‘Why are you bringing in a Director of Football now? I think they understood that they had to approach it differently than how the cub had been run in the past because of how competitive the Championship had become.

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“Four players had left the club without a transfer fee coming back in (or were about to) - (Darragh) Lenihan, (Ryan) Nyambe, (Joe) Rothwell and (Ben) Brereton Diaz. We know we don’t have an enormous number of players coming out of contract coming into the summer, because of the good work we have done over the last 18 months, and are confident we can come out of the summer with the squad in a better place than it goes into it.”

As for the Venky’s ability to fund the club and their impending court case, Broughton said: “I have been told it won’t impact on our transfer business going into the summer. We already have clear plans of what we are trying to do. It is a geopolitical challenge the ownership group are facing.

“It’s not the football club that is being challenged, it's the enormous global business they run, of which we are a small but very significant part."

No-one from the Rao family, which owns Venky's, has attended a Blackburn match for many season, but Broughton said they remain engaged and committed.

"(They are) 100% committed to the club and to the plan," he said. "I do have direct contact with them. My day-to-day contact is through their representative here at the club. The way the club is structured is the decision making process always goes through the Board of Directors back to the owners, which would be the same at most clubs.”

In many ways, Tomasson had seemed the perfect fit for Blackburn’s model of developing young homegrown players and having an attractive style of play. However, tensions grew over the ambitions of the club and he left early in February. The Dane is now manager of the Sweden national team.

Broughton said: “When I came to the club last June I was presented with three Head Coaches they had shortlisted. We had agreed on what the strategy and vision for the club was and because of that, I asked for Jon Dahl to be added.

“I had never spoken to him before, but had been tracking him before for some previous work I had done for Head Coach recruitment. He did what we asked him to do - he made the game model come alive, he made us competitive, we came very close to the play-offs and had two fantastic Cup runs.

“The situation had come to an end by January, beginning of February, where a Head Coach change had become inevitable. My role then is to present the Board with a list. It was something we had been working on for the previous 12 months. Then they have to make recommendation to the owners.”

The new man at the helm is Eustace, who was controversially sacked by Birmingham in October, despite the club sitting in the play-off places. Now they’re four places below Blackburn. Rovers have become more defensively solid since Eustace’s arrival, but less adventurous as a result. However, Broughton insisted Eustace fitted the club’s game model and longer-term objectives.

“If you go back to his time at Kidderminster, they were very open, known as the Barcelona of non-league football,” he said. “And Birmingham City had a huge number of players break through in that Under-21 age group last season.

“The Head Coach has to be allowed to get on the grass and implement his style of play. This is the first extended period when he has been on the grass with the players (during international break).”

The botched attempt to sign McGuire in January proved particularly embarrassing for Broughton and the club, because an administrative error had also thwarted the attempts to sign Lewis O’Brien on loan a year earlier. Broughton admitted the situation was unacceptable.

He said: “We can’t have it where a situation is under our control and we still don’t get it over the line. We can’t have it where the recruitment department are working really really hard for maybe three or four months to secure a signing and we are unable to complete that because of the administration on that. That should be the most simple part.

“The Board are completely clear on what my feelings are about what we need to do going forwards.”

The deal had originally been a £2.3m purchase, but this fell through and later became a loan deal with a £3.2m option to buy. So why exactly did it fall through?

“It’s purely a human error that’s made that happen,” he said. “I don’t really want to go into the details of what will happen on the back of that - the Board know my thoughts on it.

“We know from previous lessons if we look back to last January, where something similar happened, there were three problems. The club had always worked with the admin at Ewood Park and the sporting side a the training ground.

“My first recommendation was we have to be in one place on transfer deadline day, so we brought the administration here. Secondly, because we had an FA Cup game against Birmingham on transfer deadline day in 2023, the Chief Executive and board weren’t here.

“As I’m not a Director of the club I’m not able to sign transfers off, so they have to be present when that challenge is going to be hit. There was also an IT issue, so they also have to be on site, they can’t go home at 5 o’clock. You put all those things in place, but ultimately you are still open to human error and in the future we have to make sure we can’t be vulnerable to that happening again.

“I still said I stand by what I said last January in that ultimately transfers have to come to me. One of the reasons I wanted to step out of the Academy positions I had worked in previously and go into this role is I have no issue accepting responsibility and you have to do that.

“But you have to ask to make sure the club gives you the absolute support to get the simple part of the transfer over the line. The Board are completely clear on what my feelings are about what we need to do going forwards.”

We’re speaking to Broughton during the EFL’s Youth Development Week and Rovers are one of the top two teams in the Championship (along with Bristol City) for fielding Academy graduates. This season, both clubs have given almost 30% of their first-team minutes to homegrown players.

“I think it’s probably why I got this opportunity, because of my background in Academy football, and I think we have just tried to continue that,” Broughton said.

“We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the work that had gone on for 10, 15, 20 years before the current structure took place 18 months ago and all we have tried to do is continue that. I think we have had 13 debuts from Academy graduates in that 18-month period and 19 players from our Academy have gone on to represent the first team.

"We just try to continue that work that has gone on before us. It costs about £3.5m a year to run the Academy and £2.5m of that comes from the owners or from the club, with the rest coming in from subsidies from the Premier League.

“To continue to fund that shows a great commitment from the club to Academy football and, to be fair, it has given the club great return, not only in terms of minutes played but also players who have left the club, both historically and more recently as well.”

The club’s Academy Director for the last seven years has been Stuart Jones and Broughton said: “Stuart works diligently in the background and is very good at what he does. He has built a great team around him and has continued the work of his predecessors before.

“He has taken the Academy to a really really good place. As someone who has come himself from a teaching background, he really understands pedagogy and learning, places that at the forefront of everything we do. He’s an excellent Academy Manager and we are very lucky to have him here.”

The flagship player for the Academy was, of course, midfielder Wharton, who joined at six-years-old. Broughton believes he go on to play “at the very highest level of the game.”

“I think Adam is irreplaceable in terms of his talent, which is why a Premier League club is paying such a large amount of money,” he said.

“He is brave in possession, goes and seeks it under pressure, is able to play forward under pressure, able to create opportunities, able to play key passes, has really worked hard on the defensive part of his game over the last 12 months.

“His data in possession of the ball is exceptional. Jon Dahl talked about him having Champions League qualities in possession - and this is from a man who has won the Champions League. Some of this stuff is through the roof.

“I remember speaking with the England U19 coach (Simon Rusk) when he was called into the camp at the beginning of last season and he said after one training session the coaching staff and other players were, ‘Wow, where has this player come from?’

“His ability to receive in such tight areas and be so comfortable to receive under pressure will see him play at the very highest level of the game. In terms of his passing percentage and passing percentage under pressure and key passes will be through the roof.

“He has worked tremendously hard on that part of his game over the last 18 months and what you have seen in his first five or six games with Crystal Palace are a player who can adjust to the most comp league in the world physically without any issues whatsoever.”

A big question now is what the club do with the Wharton money.

“My recommendation to the board are there are four areas we have to invest in,” Broughton said. “First of all transfer fees, then wages, thirdly is invest back into the academy and the infrastucture and don’t try and blow it all at once, because you can’t predict rocky moments in football or in life.”

As for his own future, Broughton said he remains “absolutely” committed to Rovers.

“This is a fantastic football club with a very proud history, proud way of doing things,” he said. “We have a clear identity of the way we want to develop players, the way we want to play football, and are focusing on the game against Ipswich on Good Friday.”

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