Working-class heroes? We were far too posh for that

Tracing Rovers' roots is a hit-and-myth business. Devotee David Randall suggests an elite answer
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The Independent Football

Blackburn. When East Lancastrians say it, an authentic-sounding second syllable requires the tongue to be lodged back in the roof of their mouths. When the rest of the country thinks of the club, especially in relation to a major final, their tongues are more liable to be in their cheeks.

Blackburn. When East Lancastrians say it, an authentic-sounding second syllable requires the tongue to be lodged back in the roof of their mouths. When the rest of the country thinks of the club, especially in relation to a major final, their tongues are more liable to be in their cheeks.

After all, isn't this the old working-class mill town club that money spoiled – a remnant of football's heritage that, save for Jack Walker's bequest, should be playing in the First, maybe even the Second, Division? A club so identified with mufflers and flat hats that Hovis once shot a sepia-toned commercial outside its ground. A bit of football's old England – all Gracie Fields, whippets, and toothless grins from terraces full of Woodbine smokers. Walker's money just took the club away from its roots, didn't it?

So the argument goes. It is a manifestation of that most widespread and insidious of modern ideas about football: that what was, historically, a spontaneous working-class mass movement has been subverted by money and the attentions of the fashionable classes. Well, it's time this concept of the "People's Game" was exposed for the myth that it is; and there is no better debunker than today's finalists, Blackburn.

Northern mill town it may have been, but there was nothing proletarian about the beginnings of Blackburn's football club. It was founded by the sons of the town's elite. The instigators of its first meeting in 1875 were a few old boys of Shrewsbury, and those who attended were largely former pupils of Blackburn Grammar School, then a public school in all but name. Old Malvernians were also in evidence among the early players, and the shirts Blackburn players still wear betray the club's antecedents. Halved or quartered shirts were then a distinct motif of the public school team, and the blue half of the Rovers' shirts is due to the influence of several Cambridge graduates.

The middle classes were leading Rovers for at least the club's first few decades. Men like Jack Bowdler, public school educated solicitor who went on to found Shrewsbury Town; Wattie Aitkenhead, later managing director of a local cotton firm; James Brown, still the only solicitor's clerk to score in a Cup final; Arthur Edge, a football blue; Lorenzo Evans, an architect; Billy McOwen, a dentist; Doctor Greenwood, member of a local wealthy family; Fred Hargreaves, the club's first cap and son of a coroner; James Haydock, a school-master; and Jack Horne, a chemist.

And it was an amateur, Herbie Arthur, son a local well-to-do family, who created one of the club's most enduring legends when he played Burnley all on his own and remained undefeated. The year was 1892, the scene was Turf Moor in a snowstorm, and all 10 Blackburn outfield players decided it was too cold. That left a lone Arthur William John Herbert between the Rovers posts as Burnley confidently bore down on him. He appealed successfully for offside, and took so long over the free-kick that the referee abandoned the game.

Arthur was one of a number of Blackburn players (who also included "Monkey" Hornby, the Lancashire and England cricketer), whose families owned large local businesses. Herein lies the secret of the club's success at luring professionals, especially from Scotland: apart from over (and under) the counter wages, they could be offered jobs, some not exactly taxing, at local factories, shops and mills. For an international half-back like Jimmy Forrest, getting time off from his work as a tape sizer in cotton mills was a great deal easier in Blackburn than elsewhere. So he came, and stayed to win five Cup medals and 11 caps. But, this being Victorian England, cushiness ended when playing days did. Joe Beverley, Cup winner and international, worked at a local mill when he retired, and died there too, a cylinder falling on his head when he was 41.

It is incidents such as this that make Blackburn's early years read like the notes for an Arnold Bennett novel. Here is the town's elite – the alderman's son, the vicar's boys – playing games with the local hatters and tinsmiths, dyers and painters, and plumbers and outfitters. Mixed in with these, and the new professionals, are the local characters: Charlie Watts, later a professional racing tipster; Tom Brandon, live-wire pub landlord; "Skimmy" Southworth, who, after winning two Cups with the Rovers, went on to play violin with the Halle Orchestra, Liverpool Philharmonic and on the Pier Pavilion, Llandudno; and John Lewis, founder, player and later referee, who donated all fees to charity, even that for the Olympic final which he presided over when he was 65.

Early Blackburn Rovers, then, was Victorian England at play. All of it. Every social strata engaged in an act of local patriotism; and somewhere along the line we lost it. It is, arguably, a more valuable thing for football to mislay than the, largely mythical, idea of a wholly working-class "People's Game".

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