Rover and out?
Is this the end for Blackburn Rovers?
Blackburn Rovers are the 10th most successful side in English football. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers.
Rovers are one of only five teams to win the First Division, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Charity Shield. If you throw in the Full Member’s Cup we join a select group of two, with Chelsea.
Rovers own the FA Cup after being gifted the trophy for winning it three times in a row, which no other club in existence has achieved. The FA didn’t have another trophy so we gave it back. That’s why we’re the only club allowed to have our crest on our corner flags, as a symbol of thanks.
Rovers are one of three teams to be founder members of the Football League and Premier League with Aston Villa and Everton, and have spent 72 years of our existence in the top flight.
And even though Europe wasn’t our finest hour – Trelleborgs, Batty-Le Saux- Moscow, Genclerbirligi – we played in the Champions League, UEFA Cup and the Intertoto in 2007… so it wasn’t all a disaster.
That’s an amazing feat for any team, let alone one from a town the size of Blackburn.
When we were Premier League champions we were the smallest town in the league. And with Preston, Burnley, Blackpool, Wigan, Bolton encircling us, and United, City, Everton and Liverpool close by, we were never going to sell out sixty thousand every fortnight.
But for a few years in the 1990s and 2000's we burnt bright and had crowds of over 25,000 – more than a quarter of the town – turning out for Rovers.
The golden period was the 4th place, second place and title win in 1995 under Jack Walker and Kenny Dalglish. It is said that after being offered a midfielder from Bordeaux Uncle Jack said to King Kenny….
Who needs Zidane when we’ve got Tim Sherwood?”
That quote sums up the era perfectly. We were one of the most prestigious and well run clubs in the world. Players wanted to play for us.
Those were great days but every Rovers fan knew it wouldn’t last. Football had changed and even Uncle Jack couldn't keep up with the money in the game. In the year after the title win Shearer left for £16m and then Sutton for £10m, Le Saux, Berg, Hendry, Sherwood, Batty, Wilcox all for about £5m each and were never replaced with the same quality. The team that Jack built cost £17m, but were sold for close to £56m.
We were relegated in 1999 after what I refer to as a period of Hodgson’s disease. Under Roy and Brian Kidd it went badly for a number of reasons but the infrastructure was there, the board and fans believed in the club and we bounced back in two seasons and won the League Cup, made FA Cup semis, and consistently finished in the top half under Grame Souness, Mark Hughes and Sam Allardyce.
We we’re a Premier League club in every way. Our finances weren’t brilliant – a consequence of being a small club with ticket sales and commercial activity to match – but we were respected.
The board were an exemplar for other clubs. We knew that when a Damien Duff or Roque Santa Cruz or Phil Jones or Christopher Samba or David Bentley came along they would move on for big money to keep the club going, but that was okay because we would have Tugay or Salgado or McCarthy or Gamst or Yakubu or Friedel or Savage. Good footballers and fans favourites.
I should make it clear that I’m not from Blackburn. I’m from Warrington. I have no connection with Blackburn. We are a rugby league family. Warrington is a rugby league town. My childhood was spent following Wire — the high point being the Regal Trophy final in ’91 with Dessie Drummond — and I loved it, but I loved football, probably more.
Warrington is a big town, 300'000 or so people smack bang in the middle of Liverpool and Manchester. If you’re from the east side of town you support City or United, if you’re from the west side its Everton or Liverpool.
I should be a Liverpool or United supporter. A relative knew Joe Worrall, the referee for the ‘86 and ‘89 Merseyside cup finals so I had lots of signed memorabilia. Roger Hunt, the ‘66 World Cup winner and Liverpool legend lived over the road from my grandparents and I kicked a ball around with him. Kenny Dalglish was my favourite player. Bobby Charlton watched me in a game and told me I had a sweet left foot. Old Trafford is the closest ground to where I was born.
Yet despite all the above and glory those teams had, and will have, I chose Blackburn and Blackburn Rovers - with a soft spot for the yellows, well you can see Cantilever Park from my bedroom window.
It started at school. My first game was in the last year of the old second division. I had a Blackburn Rovers duvet cover. I bought my first car so I could drive to games and not have to hassle my parents to take me to Ewood. I could have gone to Durham to study law but chose Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston so I was close to Ewood.
I took my brother to his first game — the 7–2 win over Wednesday. My passwords were all Shearer related until very recently.
After finishing university I went travelling. In South East Asia Rovers shirts were the most popular after United and Liverpool. After watching a game in Rio’s Maracana I bumped into a Fluminese fan wearing the title winners shirt from ‘95. It was the only European shirt I could see out of the thousands of Brazilian fans. It was 2002, Shearer was his hero.
Today, I don’t get to as many Rovers games as I’d like. I live in London, have a mortgage, two young children, but I get to as many away games as I can.
It used to be Highbury and White Hart Lane but now it’s The New Den and the Madjeski but the feeling is still the same. I want Rovers to win through skill and labour. I’ve even been known to make my local put on a Rovers game and watch it on my own. I even watched the derby with a Burnley fan. Not what you would expect in Streatham, South London.
But here’s the point of this post. It’s just passed 20 years since we won the title.
It is ten years ago since we did this.
What’s happening now is breaking my heart.
When Venky’s took over in 2010 – buying the club for £23m and clearing debts of £20m – I wasn’t one of the detractors. I was expecting them to invest and to want to develop the club.
We bought Jordan Rhodes for a club record fee. Ronaldinho almost signed – more for a marketing tie up than the football but still, Ronaldinho in a Rovers shirt!
And in all honesty Big Sam wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea so when he left – which I was unhappy with – supporters, including the new owners, were expecting an upward trajectory from the 13th place we held in the league at the time.
And therein lies the problem. I was caught up in what a group of billionaire owners could do for us. It was never going to be the same as Uncle Jack – a lifelong fan backing his club because he loved them. This wasn’t that world anymore, but after a period of uncertainty with Rovers, when things started looking rocky, new investment looked promising.
The end of the line for Rovers?
What has followed though has been nothing short of ridiculous.
We’ve had more managers in the last six years than we did from 1884 to the Second World War.
The Steve Kean debacle. Chickens on the pitch. Chicken adverts. Jerome Anderson. Berg and Appleton. Global football advisor Shebby Singh. Board members resigning/fired/leaving. Portuguese players that never played. Paul Lambert leaving. Owen Coyle arriving. I heard that Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu were given deals better than they could ever have hoped for and their agents asked for.
Rovers are getting deeper and deeper in to debt. The club is spiralling out of control under the influence of parties with let’s call them differing ideas, and the owners seem indifferent. Communication with the fans is non-existent.
We we’re relegated to the Championship, then almost got relegated to Division 1. We went into financial fair play because our finances were in such a perilous state.
Things started to look better with an 8th place finish but now we have debts of over £100m and gates as low as 3500. We sit bottom of the Championship. The Premier League parachute payments will end soon.
Some of our biggest signings of recent years, Leon Best, David Goodwillie, Rasosav Petrovic, Simon Vuckevic, Josh King, Dickson Etuhu left for nothing shortly after being signed for millions.
Others went for big money. Jordan Rhodes, Rudy Gestede and Tom Cairney were sold for £20m. Shane Duffy and Grant Hanley have been sold recently for £10m.
We have a youth set up but for how long for? As other teams catch-up in terms of facilities, and the attractiveness of Rovers to young players disappears, what will become of the set-up that reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2012 and were U21 Premier League Cup runners up in 2015?
There has been talk of takeovers, by Seneca partners, but nothing has materialised. The owners seem less interested now than ever before.
I don’t have a solution. I’m not sure there is a solution. All I know is that I love Blackburn Rovers and I fear the worst. I fear that our owners will become tired of the abuse and shut up shop. I’m fearful fans will stay away and the connection with the club — particularly with young fans — will ebb away, with the bright lights of Manchester beckoning them. I fear the acrimony between the club and supporters will become even more entrenched and irreparably damaged with supporters groups splintering off to form new teams. I’m fearful we will spiral down the league, costs will escalate and Ewood too expensive to run.
There’s a meeting this week of all the Rovers supporters clubs to discuss the future.
I fear we will be the first team to disappear in the modern era.
Maybe that’s what has to happen these days if you burn bright, live above your means and have inexperienced owners — advised by the wrong people - that have come in expecting a global brand in the richest league in the world.
Of course I want success, of course I want to be challenging for trophies and beating the big teams. But I don’t care we’re not a global brand. I just want the people who own Blackburn Rovers, run Blackburn Rovers, play for Blackburn Rovers and support Blackburn Rovers to love them as much as I do.
I just don’t think that’s the case anymore. And unless something happens soon, and the Rovers family pull together for the club I’ll be showing my kids videos on YouTube rather than taking them to Rovers games.
I’d like to lay to rest the misconception Rovers bought the Premier League in 1995. Manchester United spent more on the team that started at Upton Park on the final day of the season. I’ve run the numbers and Rovers starting eleven cost £17.75m and United’s £21.2m. And that’s doesn't include Cantona, or David May who United bought from Rovers for £1.9m at the start of the season.