Football: Walker has to suffer pounds 100m heartache

Rovers benefactor sees his team back in the First Division just four years after taking the title. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
ONLY JACK WALKER knows the precise moment his dream for Blackburn Rovers began to crumble, but it was not hard to detect the final blow that sent the team he had paid for into the First Division.

A pounds 100m is a lot of investment in heartache and Walker, who has spent that sum on players and ground improvements, had his delivered seven minutes from the end of last night's match with Manchester United. Blackburn had to win to have any hope of survival and in a few fleeting seconds the prize was there for the taking.

Damien Johnson hit a low cross of intent deep into the United ranks who were so disordered Ronny Johnsen could only backheel hopefully towards safety. Peter Schmeichel was stranded, Ashley Ward kept his head and then chipped the ball carelessly wide. At that moment Blackburn were down.

Four years after they won the championship and appeared to be creating a football dynasty they are back where they started in the dark days before the money mountain was first dipped into. The fans who stayed behind to applaud Walker and the manager, Brian Kidd, merely drowned the sound of Uncle Jack's breaking heart.

Kidd looked close to tears as he came into the press conference clutching Schmeichel's gloves, a momento from his time when he was No 2 to Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. "We started together. I became assistant manager the season he arrived and I wanted him to sign his gloves for me."

He was too upset to complain about his players, who he had berated after they lost to Nottingham Forest on Saturday. "I had my say at the weekend," he said. "I'm not going over old ground. It's done with. It's a huge disappointment. You think about the Southampton, the Charlton and Forest games and it could have been so different."

It was a mood that had been mirrored on the streets of Blackburn even before the axe fell. Supporters who were interviewed on the local radio stations were uniformly downbeat. "It's too late now," one said, "we might as well face the fact we're going down."

Losing to Forest had turned off hope in east Lancashire like a switch and caused Kidd to lambast his players for lack of heart. The anger simmered in the Blackburn manager's programme notes, the performance, he wrote, was "a bitter pill to swallow".

Heart of any kind was what Kidd, who has added pounds 20m to the hole in Walker's bank balance since his arrival in December, was demanding and he got an answer from the start. David Beckham loitered a fraction too long after 20 seconds and Callum Davidson thundered into the tackle.

The Blackburn players were motivated at last, but no amount of work can disguise a lack of confidence. The effort, the desire had arrived too late.

Rovers' problem is that they lack leaders. Ewood Park was once patrolled by players like Colin Hendry and Tim Sherwood, lions who would put fear into team-mates who shirked. There is no one left from that mould at Blackburn.

The players did a half-hearted lap of honour, but Kidd refused to join them. "Why should I go out and get applauded?" he asked. "What have I done? We have just gone out of the Premiership."

Blackburn were leaving as United, the team they pipped for the title in 1995 are closing on a treble. "The result will make Sunday a real nail- biter," said Ferguson, whose side will be champions if they beat Tottenham. "But if you had said at the start of the season you'll have to win the last game at home we would have settled for it." Had he spoken to Kidd? "We shook hands," he replied. "I'm not sure what you can say at a time like this."

Instead it was United's fans who passed verdict. "You're just one-season wonders," they sang at Blackburn and, just four years after brushing greatness, it was hard to disagree.