Blackburn, a byword for what’s wrong with globalisation of English football
Manchester City come calling to Ewood Park for a Lancashire derby
Blackburn Rovers president Jack Walker with striker Alan Shearer after winning the Premiership in 1995. The local businessman took control of the club in 1991. Photograph: Allsport.
Providence Street, Blackburn, Lancashire. It was there that a couple of brothers – the Walkers, Jack and Fred – were raised in the 1930s. With £80 in 1945, along with father Charles, they set up a backstreet company called Walkersteel. Its aim was not to change English football, but it did.
Charles Walker died in 1951 but by 1989 his sons’ hard work had transformed Walkersteel into a business worth over £600 million. Two years later Jack Walker bought the majority stake in Blackburn Rovers, Kenny Dalglish arrived as manager soon after, Alan Shearer soon after that and the Premier League title in 1995.
Blackburn Rovers, who had not been champions of England since before the first World War, mattered again. And a local family had made it happen.
Jack Walker made Rovers a noise again and there were national newspaper obituaries when he died in 2000. Twelve years later there was rather less coverage when Fred Walker died, but the Lancashire Telegraph recognised the moment when it called it “the end of an era”.
It was. Fred Walker felt like one of the last real connections to a time when top-flight football was local.
At his funeral service at Blackburn cathedral, it was said of ‘FW’, as he was known: “He was a driven man. But what drove him was a need to provide for his family. And the upshot of that was helping to revive a tired post-industrial town.”
Fred Walker had lived long enough to see the tsunami known as free-market globalisation break all over English and European football. His club, Rovers, had not been immune to the sweeping change.
When Fred died, Blackburn, founder members of the Football League in 1888 and as traditional in feel as their quartered kit, were owned by a company east of Mumbai.
Not many clubs encapsulate the ownership revolution in the game quite like Blackburn. They have played at Ewood Park since 1890 and while it is neither particularly picturesque nor imposing, the ground evokes its own atmosphere. It is Lancashire. It is a long, long way from India.
Today, in the FA Cup – a competition first won by Blackburn Rovers in 1884 – Ewood Park welcomes Manchester City. In old money, this is a Lancashire derby; but we’re in the land of new money so it’s a club owned in west India against one fuelled by Abu Dhabi.
The expectation is that Rovers will not land a glove on City, who are on a run of 11 wins in 12. Blackburn did win their New Year’s Day game – at Leeds – but while it lifted them to 10th in the table, it is in the division below City. Globalisation may have inspired the blue corner of Manchester but its effect upon Blackburn has been erratic.
In the week of November 2010 that the Indian poultry company, Venky’s, completed their purchase of Rovers from the Jack Walker Trust for £23 million plus another £21m to cover debts, Rovers were 14th in the Premier League, just five points off fifth place. The manager was Sam Allardyce.
Venky’s stated ambition that week was “to focus on leveraging the global influence in establishing Blackburn Rovers as a truly global brand. We will absolutely respect the Jack Walker legacy and will be actively supporting the organisation to ensure that Blackburn Rovers remain one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League.”
One month later, one of the best-run clubs in the Premier League sacked Allardyce. Briefly, it seemed Venky’s had a plan, but when it turned out to be trying to lure Ronaldinho while employing Allardyce’s assistant Steve Kean, the cohesion established by the Walker brothers fractured. Locally the mood soured, and as matters worsened, Indian plans to leverage global influence, whatever that means, looked laughable.
Venky’s hopes of being lauded evaporated. Now they were mocked as chicken farmers and though with Kean in charge, Blackburn stayed in the Premier League that first, takeover season, the following one, 2011-12, brought relegation and all the financial chaos that comes with it.
Last season Blackburn finished 17th in the Championship. Kean, hitherto a Venky’s ally, was pushed to the point where he said his position was “untenable”.
Henning Berg followed Kean but lasted just 57 days. Michael Appleton came in and had 67 days. All the while Blackburn Rovers became a byword for what is wrong with the globablisation of English football.
And yet Blackburn had been relegated in 1999 when Jack Walker was at the helm; it happens.
Then there is Manchester City. City had a dizzy spell under Thaksin Shinawatra comparable to Blackburn’s under Venky’s, but City’s subsequent Abu Dhabi ownership is not dissimilar to the Walkers and Blackburn in the early 90s – they have both been criticised for throwing money at the club; they have both been successful.
The curiosity of modern Blackburn Rovers is that globalised money has not prosperously re-shaped the club. But progress is about something as humdrum as good and bad decision-making.
Money helps, but Venky’s have made costly decisions, and in the town aggravation stems from those being made elsewhere, in a place nowhere near Providence Street, Blackburn.
One dictionary definition of providence, by the way, is ‘foresight, thrift’. There were people in Blackburn who knew that.