Blackburn battles to join civic premier division

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The Independent Online
TREAD SOFTLY if you find yourself in Blackburn this weekend. They've not yet emerged from a particularly painful wake. On Wednesday night the football team was relegated from the Premiership, four years after winning it, and tears were shed in the streets.

Worse still, some of those in the know here are already admitting that expulsion from football's elite might dent Blackburn's other great aspiration - to become the last city created this millennium.

The assembled ranks of Brighton, Stockport, Wolverhampton and Croydon all stand in Blackburn's way but the town is desperate to win. It first tried to leave the townies behind in the Seventies. Then in 1992 it had another shot, only to lose out to Sunderland, whose football team will, in a cruel twist of fate, take Blackburn Rovers' place in the Premiership next season.

The football club is preparing for pounds 10m in lost revenue and a 5,000 drop in attendance levels after this week's calamity.

Like everyone else, council leader Malcolm Doherty cannot bear to consider anything but promotion for the team at the end of next season but he isn't denying it is a blow to the town's aspirations: "Business people here used to go abroad and get asked `Where the hell is Blackburn?' Then suddenly everybody knew us and we took advantage of the fact."

City leaders await guidance from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw (as Blackburn's MP he will have to withdraw from involvement in the final decision) before submitting a detailed case for city status but they will base their proposal along the lines of 1992's grand plan - minus the attraction of a Premiership team.

"Ignore the references to the Premier League Football Club," said a council official, tellingly, when offering a copy of the old proposal.

The Home Office insists there are no criteria for achieving city status and, contrary to popular myth, a cathedral is not imperative. Sunderland doesn't have one, so Blackburn dare not pin too many hopes on the fact that it does.

It's going to be nip and tuck, though. Blackburn's population is easily the lowest of all the contenders at 140,000, though it is less sprawling and has been regenerated - perhaps fittingly in the context of its bid, by City Challenge grants. Happily, such grants have allowed it to escape the worst stereotypes of northern England's old mill towns. The banks of grey-slated terraces overlooking the old Thwaite brewery are neat and respectable, not slums.

But respectable housing is no eye-catcher. Search for the famous sons of Blackburn and you'll need to name snooker player Dennis Taylor (Irish, but a resident) motorbike champion Carl Fogarty and Red or Dead's Wayne Hemingway. There's no theatre here and the squat, brown-brick Blackburn Arena is the best of the live venues.

In short, says one commentator, Blackburn is a little short on colour. "Other than the football, the town tends to do things by halves," he said. Mr Doherty is unabashed: "We are still the only town to have won the Premier League."

And if it takes a couple of seasons to get back there, there's always a 2002 city bid to aim for. It will mark the Queen's 50th anniversary on the throne.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the town's grandees should ask whether city status really matters. It offers little more than letters patent from the Queen and vast local pride in the council chamber. Premiership football, on the other hand, is a prize worth fighting for.

Kevin Davies fined, page 28

Towns With Ambition

Brighton

Motto: Between Downs and Sea We Flourish.

No cathedral but the Royal Pavilion is a good substitute. The town can count Samantha Janus as a famous former resident.

Croydon

Motto: Let Us Strive After Perfection

The site of the first London airport, Croydon grew rapidly after 1945. Famous daughters include Dame Peggy Ashcroft. It has the largest population - 320,000.

Stockport

Motto: With Courage and Faith.

Determined to give Blackburn a good run in the North-West - the towns will meet on the football pitch next season. Tennis player Fred Perry hails from here.

Wolverhampton

Motto: Out of Darkness Cometh

Wolverhampton hopes city status will put it on an equal footing with Birmingham. The town lacks famous sons, though the council mentions "the pop group Slade".

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