Promotion Tales: The Rise of 'Unfashionable' Blackburn Rovers
A supplementary treat this morning. Regular contributor Phil Lloyd enjoyed our Promotion Tales series so much that he decided to come up with this own version charting Blackburn Rovers’ re-emergence as a force in English football over two decades ago now. Best wishes to all TTU readers for 2015.
Once, it seemed that Blackburn Rovers existed mainly to exemplify the word “unfashionable”. As with the TV advert that featured the “Rovers FC” sign above the old Blackburn End turnstiles, it was an icon for a bygone age. By the start of the 1990s, my early recollections of watching football were becoming increasingly hazy, as if nine seasons of Division One football and blue-and-white memories of Bryan Douglas, Ronnie Clayton and Keith Newton were no more than childhood fantasies.
As Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966, Rovers fans were preparing for what became an apparently endless spell outside the top flight. During the years that followed, the club not only had to “sell to survive”, as it had with Roy Vernon, Fred Pickering and Mike England to name but three from that era, it was also reduced (if the rumours were true) to sending the cheque for the electricity bill to the gas company and vice versa, to buy a little more time to pay its way. It was, truly, “grim up North”.
Strangely, even a four-year flirtation with the old Division Three is now regarded fondly by fans of a certain age, like me. With a nostalgic glow we recall Friday night battles at Tranmere, the silky skills of Tony Field and the prowess between the sticks of “Sir” Roger Jones, at a time before the pragmatic management of Gordon Lee and unlikely goal heroes such as Don Martin, Mike Hickman and Stuart Metcalfe helped to lift the team back into the second tier in 1975.
Even in the mid-1980s, promotion to the English hierarchy seemed an impossible dream and crowds sank below 4,000 in the Bobby Saxton era. It was ex-Forfar and Dundee United goalkeeper Donald Scrimgeour Mackay (to give him his glorious full appellation) who rekindled the fire in the hearts of the Rovers faithful and managed the team to three consecutive, unsuccessful play-off attempts. There the Rovers succumbed to Chelsea, Crystal Palace (still a bitter memory for many who cannot forgive referee George Courtney for his decisions in the second leg of the final at Selhurst Park) and Swindon Town.
In truth, the club was still nowhere near ready for top-flight football and, after a very moderate 1990-91 campaign and a poor start to the next one, Mackay paid the price with his job and was succeeded by popular former player Tony Parkes. In his quiet understated way, Parkes stabilised the team, made them harder to beat: two wins and a draw in the next three home games were underpinned by three clean sheets.
It was the previous December that rumours had begun to surface that there was suddenly some money behind the scenes at Ewood. Rovers signed goalkeeper Bobby Mimms for £250,000, a fee unheard of previously on the cobbled streets around the ground — unless it was for an outgoing player and earmarked to settle a few more debts. More new signings followed the next month, and Jack Walker became the club’s Vice-President and, in effect, its owner. Born and bred in the town, Jack and his brother Fred had made their fortune in steel stockholding and “Uncle Jack”, as he became known to the fans, now also owned an airline and commuted from Jersey to attend home games.
Jump forward three months and I awoke on an October Saturday morning to the scarcely credible news that Rovers were to appoint a new manager: none other than Kenny Dalglish, fresh from a sabbatical following his sudden departure from the hot seat at Anfield. Kenny was introduced to the media before that afternoon’s game against Plymouth at Ewood Park and, although Tony Parkes was still officially in charge for the fixture, the Dalglish aura inspired Rovers to a 5-2 victory.
Blackburn was still not a “fashionable” club, but it had suddenly become newsworthy. Why had Kenny Dalglish returned to football in the backwaters of Division Two rather than at the top table? Who was this benefactor, Jack Walker, whose silver tongue had persuaded the former Celtic and Liverpool star that his dream was an achievable one? And how would other teams in the division respond when the Blackburn Rovers circus rolled into town?
That last question was swiftly answered by Rovers’ next two hosts, Swindon Town and Southend United, both of whom inflicted defeats on Dalglish’s men, the Shrimpers by a convincing 3-0 on Bonfire Night at Roots Hall. The manager’s response was to add to the Rovers’ ranks two players with extensive Division One experience, Mike Newell and Gordon “Sid” Cowans, and after Southend, the team went on a run of 15 games that saw 11 victories and just one loss, away to Ipswich.
Newell’s broken leg in the final game of that run, against Newcastle United, coincided — or was it more than coincidence? — with an incredible slump that saw only one win the next 12 League games, the last six of that sequence all being lost. It’s hard to pick out one fixture that saw despair set in on the terraces, but those of us present in Burslem to witness a supine 0-2 defeat to Port Vale were convinced that Dalglish’s magic wand (or hat?) was sadly in need of repair.
From top of the table, Rovers had slumped to a position outside the play-off places. Then, with Newell restored to fitness and the starting XI, a late recovery produced two wins and two draws in the last four games of the regular League programme and a relieved scramble into sixth place. The final match, a memorable day out at Plymouth, sticks in my memory both for a David Speedie hat-trick and also as the day my elder daughter confirmed she was a vegetarian.
The first play-off fixture, at home to Derby who had finished third in the table, was one of those games that can bring back warm feelings years later, though not perhaps to Rams supporters. Within 20 minutes, the visitors were two ahead, with goals from Marco Gabbiadini and Tommy Johnson reviving among the Ewood regulars bitter recollections of past play-off failures.
By half-time the scores were level, thanks to Scott Sellars and a stunning 20-yard shot from Newell, with Speedie adding two more (it should have been three, but for an errant offside flag) to give Rovers a 4-2 advantage. The return at the Baseball Ground was an altogether tighter, more nail-biting affair. A mighty leap by Kevin Moran, ushering the ball over the line from under the crossbar, proved invaluable as Rovers hung on grimly for a 1-2 scoreline that was sufficient to see the club go forward on aggregate into the play-off final, against Leicester City at Wembley.
Just five years previously, in March 1987, Rovers had taken 28,000 fans to Wembley for a first appearance at the national stadium since 1960. That was the first chance to see my team play there since my grandfather had first taken me, aged six, to Ewood to begin my blue-and-white affiliation. The fact that it was for the final of the long-forgotten and little lamented Full Members’ Cup, against Charlton Athletic, detracted not one jot from the experience, nor from the joy of a 1-0 win thanks to a Colin Hendry goal.
I had convinced myself I would never see Rovers play at Wembley: now, in 1992, I had the chance to see them there for a second time: only this time, the prize was infinitely greater.
I don’t think anyone fully understood what the concept of the FA Premier League, to be introduced the following season, really was. Certainly no one could have imagined what a behemoth it would become. But the Rovers and Leicester fans in London on a hot May Bank Holiday Monday knew for sure that there was money, lots of money that would accrue to the victors. With delicious irony, it was that arch villain George Courtney who awarded Rovers a dubious spot-kick after Speedie tumbled under challenge from Steve Walsh. Newell slid home the 27th minute penalty and it did not matter much that Mark Atkins could not convert a much clearer penalty award late in the game. Blackburn Rovers would play in the new Premier League!
My clearest memory from that glorious day is standing at the end, applauding the team from the field and thinking: “Things will never be the same” at the club I had supported for over 30 years. And, to an extent, I was right.
The incredible years that followed saw the remaining three sides of Ewood Park totally rebuilt (one stand had been rebuilt in 1990 courtesy of Jack Walker and his company, Walkersteel), 130 goals in all competitions for the club scored by Alan Shearer and, of course, Blackburn becoming Premiership champions in 1995.
It’s not uncommon now for that success to be seen as a flash in the pan or, more uncharitably, a brief aberration by the perennial table-toppers of that era, Manchester United and Arsenal. But the fact is that Rovers finished fourth and second in their first two seasons back in the top flight, and even a disappointing seventh in 1995-96. These were heady days in the old northern mill town.
But it is in the nature of fashions that they tend not to endure. Around the end of the decade, Rovers spent two years out of the Premier League, before returning for nine further seasons eating at the top table, with a best finish of sixth place and one further European adventure that enabled me to fulfil one more dream, that of seeing in person my team play in Europe.
Then, thanks largely to credulous new Indian owners, avaricious agents and an incompetent and over-promoted (there are other words I could use) manager, the dreams came to an abrupt and painful end. It was back to obscurity, back to “unfashionable”, back to the backwaters of mid-table Championship life for Blackburn Rovers.
I think it is hard for those who grew up in the era of success, those who had only known Rovers as a leading English club, to come to terms with its current existence (and the demands and restrictions of FFP could make even these days seem like sunlit uplands in times to come).
But for those brought up on a diet of regular disappointment and on centre-forwards such as Bryan Conlon, Barry Endean and Jack Lewis, in some ways it’s harder to believe that Blackburn Rovers were, for a short but glorious time 20 years ago, the height of fashion.