Chicken or egg? Venky’s plumps for Shebby
SEPT 5 — For some, he is the reason why football fans dislike football pundits on TV, but to the majority of them across the continent, especially in Malaysia and India, Shebby Singh tells it like it is.
With him standing up to the “gwailos” (not sure if Paul Parker can be called one, but he is included) — challenging them, especially Steve “Macca” McMahon, and qualifying his arguments — the pre- and post-match coverage and analysis shows on ESPN-STARSports have been anything but boring.
But now, the most widely-recognised Malaysian face of football in the region has taken a new step, nay a big leap, in his career.
After being the only Asian face on ESPN-STARSports for about 10 years now (he was previously on Astro SuperSports, from 1997), the sports network’s footprint in the Indian sub-continent has resulted in an unexpected surprise for Shebby. And here’s how it transpired.
No one could have expected an English Premier League (EPL) club, let alone any European club, to be top on the shopping list of an Indian company.
But that is just what happened last November.
Indian poultry giant Venky’s paid £23 million (RM115 million) for a complete takeover of Blackburn Rovers, the Lancashire-based EPL club previously owned by the Jack Walker trust.
The trust had been in charge of the club following the death of one of Lancashire’s own, steel tycoon Walker, whose purchase of the club in the early 1990s brought with it Blackburn’s third top-tier division league title in 1994-95, and the first since 1914 (Division One).
But what does an Indian company know about football was the question on everybody’s lips.
Well, that question is not relevant anymore as the Venky’s have engaged Shebby to manage the football portfolio under their multi-billion-dollar global organisation.
For the record, Venky’s may not be known in Malaysia, but in India the company has a 90 per cent market share in the poultry industry.
They sell 46 billion eggs a year in India alone, and are also said to have a 30 per cent market share of the global market for chicken and eggs.
Now, if you are thinking that India has a large vegetarian population, consider this — even if only 20 per cent (conservatively speaking, that is) of Indians are non-vegetarians, then we are looking at 240 million potential customers.
Serving 90 per cent of that number … well, you can figure out now how much moolah they’re bathing in.
That should give you an idea as to how they can afford to just go out and buy an EPL club without much thought. They may have had some notion of what to do with the club, but really hadn’t planned anything concrete.
Hence, having watched Shebby on ESPN-STARSports over the past few years in India, Venky’s surprised the former Malaysian national player in July when they made him an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
He was asked to come on board and head various initiatives intended to, among others, boost football interest in India, manage football talent development in India primarily (and Asia by extension) and help push the Blackburn Rovers brand across the continent.
After all, with 1.2 billion people, even if only five per cent of the population starts to follow football, India would surpass many established Asian footballing nations in terms of football support, talent pool and opportunities.
In as much as it would seem like Shebby is just a step away from direct involvement in an EPL club, he would like to make it clear that he and the club owners have got their priorities right.
“Branding and marketing the game and the Blackburn Rovers name is very important to Venky’s,” Shebby said in an exclusive interview, adding “but their main priority is football development in India and, to a larger extent, Asia.”
It is only natural that a comparison was made between the recent takeover of newly-promoted Queens Park Rangers by Malaysian tycoon Tan Sri Tony Fernandes with Venky’s Blackburn Rovers purchase.
Shebby answered: “I heard that Tony is considering offering national striker Safee Sali a tryout with QPR.
“Likewise, that national skipper Safiq Rahim has accepted an offer to undergo trials with second-tier League Championship side Cardiff City, owned by Tan Sri Vincent Tan.”
While Shebby believes it is a great move by the two local tycoons to respond to the desire of millions of football-mad Malaysians, he feels it does not mean that the owners of Blackburn Rovers should do the same.
“The opportunity these two tycoons are offering the two Malaysian players is great but Venky’s intention is to develop football in India/Asia via a slightly different route,” he said.
“Venky’s are well aware that an Indian (citizen) will never play at the top levels of club competition in England. However, English football via Blackburn Rovers will be able to help develop not just one or two, but many football stars for India.
“We are going to unearth potentially outstanding talent in India first, and send them over to be given the right guidance and coaching for a more enriching football education.
“Who knows, there might even be some ‘slumdog footballers’ who might emerge from such activity, as Venky’s are keen on starting with boys aged 10 to 14 who can demonstrate the right skills.
“They are also looking for kids in that age range from the rest of Asia too,” Shebby said, inviting Malaysians to get in touch with him if they know any young and talented footballer in that age group.
He added: “Even your readers in India, who knows... boys with a lot of football promise are welcome to knock on the door at Venky’s head office in Pune, India, and say, ‘Shebby sent me’!”
Finally, Shebby, who now makes a weekly trip to Pune in between all his ESPN-STARSports appearances, said he subscribes to the plans the new owners of Blackburn Rovers have outlined.
Most importantly, he loves their commitment, which Shebby stressed comes from having the right approach — having money to spend but willing to do it wisely.
Shebby ended on a simple note of what football now means to Venky’s.
“The development of football is now Venky’s commitment to Blackburn Rovers and also, more importantly, a promise to their country, India.”
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.