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Clayton was my inspiration, says Blackburn Rovers advisor
4:20pm Monday 25th June 2012 in Football
AS Shebby Singh slid Ronnie Clayton’s autobiography across the desk to cite it as his footballing inspiration, the immediate thought is of a painful attempt to ingratiate himself with an angry Blackburn public.
After all, who would really believe that a Malaysian 11-year-old would fall in love with football due to reading a book about a footballer he had never heard of before. And then end up running that club some 40 years later?
The phrase ‘oldest trick in the book’ springs to mind and I can already imagine the cynical response of hoardes of Rovers fans as they read these words.
It has to be pointed out then that ‘Shebby’ was on the record hailing Ewood Park legend Clayton as his inspiration in 2009 – long before Blackburn Rovers and Venky’s had ever crossed paths.
Proof then that the former Malaysian international and new ‘global advisor’ at Ewood Park isn’t just attempting to win favour and that Blackburn Rovers has in fact played a huge part in his life.
He said: “English football shaped my life, shaped my career, and for the last 15 years I think I have been most critical of English football because I think you should have won a World Cup already since the introduction of the Premier League.
“The autobiography about Ronnie Clayton: ‘A slave to soccer’ was my inspiration. I read this book when I was 11 years old. It left an impression on me, all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was to be a footballer. That is it.
“I think I have achieved a lot of what Ronnie achieved in this book.
“As an 11 year old reading a book that you thought was a story book and then realise it is a true story. This book is awesome. It is about being a professional footballer, the big games, the big crowds. Playing for the national team.
“This is simply wonderful and that was it from 11 years old I just wanted to play football.”
It may sound a romantic fairy tale to football outsiders but, for most Rovers supporters, it is what he can bring to the club that really matters.
Fans are already asking what credentials Singh has to be running a Premier League football club because, make no mistake, that is what he has been brought in to do.
After a detailed look at Singh’s life story the answer doesn’t exactly spring to mind either. Playing the game in and for Malaysia, while spending the last decade as a pundit for Asian TV, isn’t the normal route to take for football club supremos.
“I am a Malaysian, born in Malaysia and brought up in Malaysia,” said Singh. “I started my football career in Malaysia and I played for 18 years – from being an amateur, to semi professional, to professional. I have been through the mill.
“From 1982 to 1991 I played for my country. I have very, very fond memories and some very important people in English football helped to shape my career.
“One of my earliest coaches in 1983, playing for the national team, was Frank Lord. Winning the 1989 South East Asia gold medal with Trevor Hartley was brilliant as well. Trevor was in a class of his own.
“I also worked for a short spell with Keith Burkinshaw during a pre season break in 1991. Keith came to Malaysia at a request of the Sultan. I worked with him for two months.
“Trevor Brooking was once my team mate. I don’t know if he will remember but if you meet him remind him. It was at Kuala Lumpur in about 1986 or 1987. He guested for Kuala Lumpur.
“I very much enjoyed my time as a pundit. From day one as a footballer I was considered rebellious. I had my own thoughts and ideas about how we should play.
“I am a student of the game and am very, very passionate about football and like talking about it. I like innovative football and the way football has evolved has just been amazing.”
The now 51-year-old may be a new name for the majority of Rovers fans but he had been combining his media duties with working for Venky’s for the past 12 months as head of football development in Asia.
He said: “It is surreal now that I actually sit here and am going to run the club. This is really weird. For me it was wow, it was coming back full circle.
“Now one year on it gets weirder. It is like a story.
“In the last September when I visited Ewood I met Mrs Clayton and I had to tell her my story and when I told her my story she was in tears.
“It is just a pity. If things had happened one year earlier I would have met Ronnie himself.”
If Singh was not aware of the size of the challenge on his hands when he arrived in England last week, you can be assured he is now.
We are talking about a club divided. A club whose supporters have lost all faith in owners Venky’s and who are furious at their decision to stick with boss Steve Kean.
Singh’s appointment has understandably done little to ease the unrest and he is the first to admit it will be a ‘long battle’ to turn things around.
“The past is the past,” he said. “When I recall the past, the past is about that book. When you talk about the past you want to remember 1995 and the Premier League win.
“So when we talk about the past, we talk about the glory of the past rather than the antagonism of the past. Then there is a lot of unnecessary emotions wasted from all side and eventually it affects everyone. The club as a whole is the loser. I don’t want that.
“It is an absolute necessity we get back to the Premier League, it is the aim. I think we can not put undue pressure on ourselves though. Timelines would do that and raise the hope and expectations.
“There have to be expectations but silent expectations. You have to build a spirit, build a determination first, rather than start shouting from the rooftops because that can work against you.
“It is exhilarating for me personally. I know when I was given the job and my friends in Singapore and Malaysia said ‘are you mad?’ I replied ‘I have always been mad’.
“It is a challenge. Fully explore yourself. No one said life was easy. I never shirk a challenge and it is not to prove anything to anyone. It exploring what I can do.
“I will call a spade a spade. I don’t know if I am honestly brutal or brutally honest but that is the way I have always been."