WORDS: SIMON HARRISON
Born during the season that Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League, this young supporter has seen Ewood Park turn from the hopeful den of ambitious overachievers into a grumbling pit of unease in little more than a decade. He explains how enthusiasm turned to suffering after the Venky’s takeover…
To be a Blackburn fan is refreshing more than anything. For me, anyway.
It’s common to find Manchester United supporters nationwide – as we all know – and I have a sneaking suspicion that in the next decade there will be plenty more Manchester City fans around too. As a Rovers fan born in Wolverhampton, I’ve never really experienced being the majority and, except in the vicinity of Ewood Park, I can only speculate that northern Blackburn fans haven’t either. Even my dad will quietly admit that in his youth he supported United, though he’s quick to reassure anyone who will listen that he always went to Rovers games too.
As a Wulfrunian, it would have been easy to support Wolves. I live only ten minutes away from the Molineux, but there was never anything which compelled me to don gold and black and pay homage to Billy Wright on a weekly basis. With Rovers, it was very much the polar opposite. Each Christmas, I would travel up to Lancashire to be met with the sight of a Christmas tree swathed in blue and white tinsel – which in hindsight looked rather tacky – and to hear northern accents chatting constantly on the topic of football, and most importantly Blackburn Rovers.
My granddad typifies the attitude of the majority of Rovers fans, in my opinion anyway. The attitude that consists of a having zero tolerance for any player in blue and white who shirks a tackle or doesn’t play for the rose on his shirt. Both of which Rovers players do nowadays, might I add.
But before you feel compelled to ask, my favourite Blackburn player unquestionably has to be Kerimoglu Tugay. The maestro.
I was at Ewood when he netted his first goal for the club. Coasting to a 4-0 win with 15 minutes to go, my dad wanted to leave early to avoid traffic, claiming there was nothing left to see. How wrong he was. Tugay lobbed Shaka Hislop merely five minutes later, before a further two goals in the last few minutes sealed a 7-1 victory. That match re-affirmed my decision to stick with Blackburn, with Tugay certainly the main man, despite all of the temptation as a young lad to support more illustrious clubs.
I didn’t, however, get to see Rovers in their glory season: the 1994/1995 Premier League championship win, though I’m still sure to mention it to Liverpool fans on a regular basis. That being said, as I was born in the first half of that very season, I’d like to think that I had something to do with it.
Something that I’ve always been jealous of is my uncle’s opportunity to venture into the Ewood Park changing rooms in the late Nineties. The VHS tape that captured this opportunity has been played to death, poor thing, despite horrendous camera work by my granddad. Kicking a ball around with the famous SAS – not Sturridge and Suarez thank you very much, but Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer – he was able to witness first-hand our unbelievable success, made possible by the legendary Jack Walker.
Yet, despite failing to appreciate our glorious new silverware through the efforts of drooling and learning to talk, I grew up compelled to following Rovers, with the naivety that perhaps one day we’d lift that Premier League trophy once again. Relegation was a blip – of course it was – but anything still seemed possible. Sat here in 2013, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, I feel embarrassed for considering even as a child that maybe, just maybe, we could win the Premier League once more.
I visited the Millennium Stadium to witness our Worthington Cup Final victory over Tottenham, as things looked up once again under Graeme Souness. Could it be possible that we were vying to snatch back our previous reputation? We never had a star-studded side – yes we had some great players -but it seemed to be through collective discipline and teamwork that things would be achieved, though Lucas Neill was never one for staying particularly level-headed. Tugay was installed at the hub of the team – how he wasn’t bought by a top European club I’ll never know – and I don’t think the town of Blackburn will be blessed with such a technically gifted player for a very long time.
Mid-table mediocrity ensued, but during the Mark Hughes era, things were also looking particularly peachy. Names like Benni McCarthy, David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz rang out in goalscoring announcements with surprisingly regularity.
Morten Gamst Pedersen was unearthed from Tromso; Brett Emerton from Feyenoord; Christopher Samba from Hertha Berlin Reserves and Ryan Nelsen from DC United. Signings that never made headlines, often for low fees, and were nothing compared to the record-breakers of Jack Walkers’ day. And yet it worked.
McCarthy rattled in 18 goals in his first season; Roque Santa Cruz bagged 19 in his. European football! High finishes in the Premier League. Seventh! Things were too good to be true, Ewood was a fortress, but the style of football never mattered – not to me, anyway. We were branded an aggressive team, who’d rough any visitors up and finish bottom of the disciplinary tables annually, but it didn’t signify much. If you didn’t like it, get out of our town, as the chant goes.
Performances did inevitably begin to tail off after Mark Hughes was permitted to go onto bigger and better things at Manchester City, but after an originally terrible transition into the realm of Paul Ince, the much criticised, yet effective, Sam Allardyce stepped in to even the keel.
Even under Allardyce, I enjoyed watching Rovers, as long as we stayed in the fabled Premier League nothing truly mattered. Naturally, like any team Big Sam takes control of, we were labelled negatively as ‘an Allardyce team’ who apparently existed merely to frustrate away sides and kick the living daylights out of anything which moved.
In my eyes, there was never anything wrong with percentage football, throwing Chris Samba up front for the last five minutes of games when we were trailing. We didn’t have Tugay any more, we couldn’t expect moments of brilliance to unlock opposition defences, or fantastic ball retention. I was happy to stay up, happy to sit in mid-table obscurity and buy players that nobody had ever heard of, happy to watch Andre Ooijer play every week.
“Who are they?” people would ask.
“The Venkys, apparently,” was my stock reply.
The unknown was alluring and bred expectant curiosity, and sickeningly I was lulled into the false sense of security that perhaps we’ll be the next Chelsea. Perhaps we’ll be making recognised, expensive signings. Maybe we could dare to dream that past successes can be rekindled. We had a squad capable of staying in the Premier League, which was a suitable foundation, and the sky looked to be the limit. At Ewood, there was a warm buzz in the atmosphere, fans were happy to welcome their new owners, even if they were essentially India’s answer to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But then Big Sam went. Steve Kean replaced him. Everyone thought the decision odd, except for those who hated his brand of football, but the decision to appoint an inexperienced coach seemed bizarre.
Truthfully, this was when I became more of a Rovers sympathiser than a Blackburn fan. Of course I was glad when we managed to stay in the Premier League by the skin of our teeth against Wolves; of course I was ecstatic the following season when we’d pick up the occasional win – never more so than our 3-2 victory at Old Trafford.
But things didn’t quite feel the same anymore. Ewood felt devoid of positivity during the final months of Kean’s reign, becoming a grumbling pit of unease rather than a football stadium. All of the negativity was compounded by defeat against Wigan, meaning certain relegation, and as the rain poured down I could feel my enthusiasm for the following season washing away too.
Not even the most precise instrument would have been able to pick up even a drop of enthusiasm in Ewood that evening – aside from the travelling Latics. Powerlessness and helplessness seemed to encapsulate Rovers, as we were made to watch an inadequate captain steer our club straight onto the rocks. And that’s where we’ve stayed.
The Championship has been a total rigmarole. The focus has shifted from football. Shebby Singh, multiple managers and boardroom splits take the soap opera-esque headlines – for none of which I make my weekly pilgrimage to Ewood.
Football is undoubtedly my biggest passion, it always will be, and it’s only when you are put through the wringer as Rovers have been under foreign ownership, that you realise quite how attached you are to the squad of players who don blue-and-white halves every week.
Despite it all, I’m a season-ticket holder; I’m always going to support my club, through thick and thin. But I can’t help but wonder when thin becomes breaking point.