Football: Spiral of cheques without balances

Loose cash and looser thinking cost Blackburn dear. By David Randall
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BLACKBURN ROVERS are unbeaten and last week defeated Manchester United to stay comfortably top of the Premier League. They have already soundly thrashed Newcastle and Middlesbrough, put seven goals past Leeds United, and are, of course, Premiership champions. There was some disappointment that they did not do as well as last year against Sir Alex Ferguson's side, but then you can't expect to beat them 5-1 every time.

This, it should be pointed out, is not a report from the Magic Mushroom Munchers Society (East Lancs branch). It is the literal unvarnished truth; being the record so far this season of the enormously successful Blackburn Academy. Yes, if football was confined to under-17 and under-19 sides, then Brian Kidd would still be in a job and Ferguson would be sitting down to a meal of the relevant pages in his autobiography. Sadly for the newly departed Brian, it is not.

The phenomena that are Blackburn's youth sides (they also do well in Europe) was nothing to do with Kidd. It is the achievement of Academy director Bobby Downes, working out of an old mental hospital north of the town. But it is one indication that the situation at Ewood Park is more complex than it first appears. There are others, and they build into a story that is a lot more than the mere failure of a "first-class, honest man" to get results. It is a saga of how money and tradition collide in the modern game, and a tale, too, of a fateful impatience.

There is something almost Faustian about the rise and fall of Blackburn in the 90s. At the beginning of the decade they were a homely little First Division club. They were proud of their Victorian heritage, but knew in their heart of hearts that the removal of the maximum wage in 1962 had also taken away forever the means by which such Lancashire towns could compete with big city clubs. It had one of the best playing surfaces in the League, was noted for its long-serving staff, and provided the best press teas bar none. Not for nothing was its terraced, tram-lined surroundings used as the backdrop for Hovis commercials.

Then came Jack Walker, who returned in late middle age to the love of his boyhood bearing bags of gold. The club acquired a legend for its manager, erupted into the new Premiership, started building a plush stadium, signed a host of stars, and then, one May Saturday in 1995, the old cotton town of Blackburn (pop: 109,000) became champions of all England.

Then, just as rapidly, it all fell apart. Within a few months the legend left, there was humiliation in Europe, and one by one, the championship- winning side departed. In their place came lesser men (some extremely lesser), and stuttering performances became a headlong fall to the brink of the Second Division. It was as if Blackburn had done a pact, trading one year of glory for eternal deterioration.

And in a way, they had. In return for Walker's gold, the club had signed over their small-town soul to a wealthy man whose advancing years, pride, and passion made him impatient, too impatient, for big-city style success. Money may have been no object at Blackburn, but sound football judgement has increasingly become one. Walker, whose lifelong experience was of more straightforward enterprises, was, in the absence of chairman Sir William Fox (died) and Kenny Dalglish (departed), in total control. It had been Fox who brought Dalglish to the club, but left to his own devices, Walker appointed less wisely.

Harford was promoted and Hodgson and Kidd came. The first two had never managed British clubs, the third only at the lowliest level, and then not successfully. Kidd, it turned out, was a trainer with fancy associations. With he and Brian McClair added to Tony Parkes et al, Blackburn had more coaches than a bus company. What they did not have was a manager; and this, combined with Walker's well-heeled impatience, meant the club spent on players with the abandon of those possessed of limitless money but little taste.

Little idea of how to galvanise players, too. Colin Hendry and Tim Sherwood may have been almost legendary changing-room lawyers, but they could rouse their colleagues on the pitch as Hodgson and Kidd never could. In the last 18 months, the ability to fight on the field as the side did in humbler (and championship-winning) days has drained from them like blood from a cadaver. And so we had last week the absurd scene where the multi-millionaire owner, having watched his firm decline, fires the manager, and then marches off to tell the men that their indolence is to blame.

It is a strange story. Without Walker, Blackburn would no doubt be in much the same position as they are now. They would not, however, ever had had that glorious year.

But they are now paying the price. Not just for Walker's impatience and appointments, but for the suddenness with which this once-homely club had money and success thrust upon them, and the dislocation between their pretensions and their roots. They are the Lottery winner who finds his luxury surroundings less satisfying than his old terraced hearth. Maybe, like him, they would find that, rather than the manic pursuit of the gaudy, building something with continuity and stability, and truer to their background, would be a better use of the money.