Happy Jack, pride of Blackburn

Town mourns millionaire who put them back on the map
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The Independent Online

When Ray Harford heard on Friday that the club's benefactor, Jack Walker, had died, the words that immediately struck him him were Walker's at the time Harford left Ewood Park in October 1996.

When Ray Harford heard on Friday that the club's benefactor, Jack Walker, had died, the words that immediately struck him him were Walker's at the time Harford left Ewood Park in October 1996.

"He said it was a sad old day, and that's how I feel today," said the man who joined Blackburn as coach when they were struggling in the old Second Division and left after managing them in the European Cup. Thus his period of exactly five years in Lancashire spanned the lows and highs of the club's recent history - and the town's too, for the two were inextricably linked - making him an ideal choice to assess the former steelman's impact.

Walker, the life-long fan, had got the process of rejuvenating a famous football centre under way a year earlier, in 1990, but suffered initial frustration. In the following summer, as the club's chairman, Bill Fox, and the Football League fought against the introduction of something called the FA Premier League - Fox regularly insisting that it would never happen - Blackburn had their audacious bid of £2m for England's centre-forward Gary Lineker rejected, and after only three matches of the new season, sacked the manager, Don Mackay.

The club approached the unemployed Kenny Dalglish, who stipulated that he wanted guarantees about Walker's financial resources and that Harford should be employed as his deputy.

Harford, now scouting for Millwall, believes there was a down-to-earth quality about the multi-millionaire and the club that appealed to Dalglish. "He was a very basic man, a very nice and a very honest man, who kept a low profile, which was the beauty of it as far as we were concerned."

Not that airs and graces would have suited Blackburn's status at the time as what Harford calls "a very basic old Second Division club", where people mucked in - literally: each day, dog's mess had to be removed from the training pitch before the players could begin their work.

The coaches ate at lunch-time in the old stand and press conferences were held in a terraced house across the street. The story is told of one visiting reporter who wandered in and only discovered after sitting on the sofa and requesting a cup of tea that he was in the wrong house altogether.

"Uncle Jack" soon solved that one, by buying the whole terrace as part of a ground redevelopment impressive even by the post-Taylor standards of English football. True to his word to Dalglish, he also continued to fund the purchase of players, while never attempting to trespass on the manager's territory.

It would not have been easy, even had he been so inclined, having based himself in Jersey for six days a week. "He'd fly over on match days and take his mum out for fish and chips, then come to the game," Harford recalled. "In fact the new suite in the directors' box is named after his mother, who died about five years ago. He'd come in the dressing-room at two o'clock to say good luck and be there less than five minutes, then he'd be gone. He let the professionals get on with it."

Within seven months of the new managerial team moving in, Walker had been rewarded with a win at Wembley, in the play-off final. Without his money, things might have stalled, or quickly gone into reverse, but Dalglish and Harford were able to keep up the momentum by buying Alan Shearer for a record fee, then finishing fourth and second before the crowning glory of the 1995 championship triumph. Second only to the emotional scenes on the Anfield pitch that day were the television pictures, much repeated on Friday last week, of Happy Jack in the directors' box, not quite managing to keep a tear from rolling down his cheek.

By then, Dalglish had already decided to remove himself once more from the pressures of day-to-day management, taking up a rather ill-defined position as a consul- tant. Harford, taking over the main role, is unhappy that people forget the team finished seventh in his first season, while playing in the European Cup; losing Shearer to Newcastle after that and suffering a bad run of injuries left him in a difficult position, but one that Walker sought only to improve.

"The word I'd use is supportive. He'd always be there for you if you wanted him, but wouldn't push himself on to you. We nearly got Oliver Bierhoff in, and I actually agreed £4m for [Zinedine] Zidane and [Christophe] Dugarry, but Dugarry wanted too much money." Even multi-millionaires - especially canny Lancastrian ones - will not be pushed beyond a certain point.

Yet by employing the right people to spend it, Walker was able to ensure that there was little waste: Harford claims that all of the millions he and Dalglish expended on transfers were recovered, with interest, when players like Shearer (£12m profit) and Chris Sutton (£5m profit) were sold on again.

Eventually, with the Schadenfreude from elsewhere running high and Rovers sitting low in the table, Harford decided to resign: "Jack phoned me that night and said, 'It's a sad old day, pal', which is what I feel today. He was a good pal, a local boy, a real Blackburn supporter, and I think what he did for the club was his way of thanking the Blackburn people and putting them on the map."

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