In Blackburn, they're having the best time of all

Five years ago Blackburn Rovers symbolised the area they represented: under-achieving and in decline. Now the Lancashire club are Premiership champions elect, and the locals are loving it. Jim White visited a town transformed. Photographs by Simon Wilkins
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The Independent Online
There is an episode in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch when, just after he has bought his flat near Highbury, he fantasises about what things will be like now he lives in such proximity to the focus of his life. He daydreams that he will be able, at five to three on a Saturday afternoon, to open his door and see his neighbours all doing the same, stepping out of their houses to join the short procession to worship at the red and white shrine.

What he discovers instead, among those who live around him, is total indifference to the institution on their doorstep. On match days, the trains arrive from the Home Counties, the buses pour in from the Thames Valley, most of the crowd come whence Hornby came. The London Borough of Islington, meanwhile remains, by and large, unmoved by the goings-on in its heart.

The sight of match day in Blackburn, then, would lift Nick Hornby's spirit. Last Thursday, walking to Ewood Park for the game, you could see, in every other house along the Bolton Road which abuts the ground, people putting on their scarves and hats and Asics-logo track coats and getting ready to walk the few yards to their seat. They came out of the doors of the terraced houses and greeted the people already strolling down the road ("all right, Tony. Three points tonight and it's ours"). As the surge of people closed in on the ground, it was swelled by hundreds of others pouring down over the moor from the estate at the top of the hill rising up above Ewood.

It looked as if the whole town was turning out to watch the Rovers. Which is not far from the truth. Blackburn has a population of 130,000; last Thursday there were more than 28,000 people at the match. In a recent survey, it was discovered that 96 per cent of Rovers season ticket holders live within five miles of the club's headquarters. Which suggests that, roughly, one in five of the local populace turned up to see their team play. Not bad, considering the opposition was Crystal Palace.

"Oh aye, this town's come alive since Kenny arrived," said Dave Howarth, a season ticket holder, a man in his forties weighed down by Rovers merchandise, as he made his way into the ground. "I tell you how much it's got us going, women worry about the results. My mother, my wife want to come to the match, that's how much."

It was not always like this in Blackburn. It is not that long ago that Rovers were something of a joke within the town: a symbol of decline and lack of achievement, a metaphor for a community which had long since seen better days, a place which had run out of luck. Year after year in the Eighties, Rovers would push for promotion from the then Second Division and fall in the final furlong. "The annual fight against promotion," their rivals from across the moors in Burnley sniggeringly termed it.

"Supporters genuinely believed we were doing our utmost to stay down," said Terry Gennoe, who played for the club throughout the years of frustration. "I remember a bloke came up to me after one time we'd blown it again and said, 'You lot have been told to blow it because the club knows it couldn't survive in the top flight.' Of course it wasn't true. We were flogging our guts out on the park. But there was this feeling in the town Rovers would never make it."

It was not just the team that appeared determinedly Second Division. The ground, too, was a source of self-deprecating joviality in the town: in 1989 it was used as a back-cloth for a Hovis advertisement set in the 1930s, that's how comic it was. And when one of the grandstands started to keel over into the river running behind it, it seemed that someone was trying to tell them something.

Bill Fox, the then chairman, approached the council for help in rebuilding it. Cash-strapped and rate-capped, the officials, although sympathetic, could not stump up the necessary. Fortunately one of the directors said he was willing to supply the building materials to construct it gratis from his local steel stock-holding business. His name was Jack Walker.

Four years after Jack Walker made a substantial portion of the £365m he accrued from selling his business available to Blackburn Rovers, the club are closing in on their first title since 1914. On the pitch they are so lavishly endowed that, against Crystal Palace, they could bring in David Batty and Kevin Gallacher - with a combined value of £5m - to cover for the suspended regulars, Tim Sherwood and Colin Hendry. And the ground, so recently collapsing, is now magnificent. Completely rebuilt, it is a muscular, modernist, appropriately steely structure, in which every seat has an unencumbered view of the pitch. Beneath the seats, the stands are crammed with restaurants and executive boxes, lounges and ligging facilities.

But the most striking thing about the ground is that, as it rises up from the surrounding back-to-back terraces and cobbled streets, it looks as if it is in the wrong place; like the space ship from Close Encounters has landed on the set of a 1960s kitchen sink drama starring Albert Finney.

And in a sense it is in the wrong place, or at least an unprecedented place. Until Jack Walker came along, small towns like Blackburn did not have teams or facilities like this. Glasgow, London and Manchester did, but not Blackburn.

"What's happened here is remarkable, truly remarkable," Gennoe said. "I remember when we had to sell Kevin Stonehouse to Huddersfield for £30,000 because we needed the money to stop the electricity being cut off. I remember the players used to be paid in advance, then one week, the chairman told us he was going to pay us in arrears: not having to fork out the wages for a week meant he could pay off a debt and keep the club from going under.

"I remember at the end of one season he came into the dressing-room and said, 'The door's open lads, if any of you want away I'll not stop you. But for them that's staying, I have to tell you there'll not be a pay rise for two years.' And now, suddenly, we're not playing at it any more. We're up there with the big boys."

The speed of the change Walker's money wrought has had a profound effect not just on the players at Ewood Park (among whom it will be at least two years before they stop having rises), but on the whole town. Quite unexpectedly this small, deprived backwater in east Lancashire has something of national significance in its midst. And the locals love it.

"There's no doubt that Rovers' success has put a spring in the step of the folk in this town," said Malcolm Doherty, the Labour leader of Blackburn Council, and a season ticket holder for 25 years. "Lots of older people say not only it's the best team they've ever seen, but that's it's the best time they can remember in this town. They just thought it would never happen."

Away from Ewood Park, Blackburn remains poor. Only one member of the well- remunerated playing staff has a house in the borough, for instance; most live in the Lancashire hill villages roundabout. Kenny Dalglish commutes from the baronial pile in Southport he bought when at Liverpool. Ten per cent of the population are unemployed, much of the housing stock is in dire need of regeneration, walking around the town centre, there is no sign of conspicuous wealth, and plenty of conspicuous poverty.

Yet if Government ministers need convincing what the feel-good factor can do to a place, they should visit Blackburn. The economic knock-ons of Rovers' success have been significant. Five years ago, the administrative staff at the club was two, now there are more than 30 local people engaged in full- time jobs; many more find part-time work on match days.

Pubs and shops near the ground have benefited enormously from the fact that 30,000 happy people pass their doors once a fortnight, instead of 10,000 depressed folk. Seamus O'Donnell's, a pub opposite the Jack Walker Stand, opened a new extension the night of the Palace game. It was packed, and the 10 barmaids had difficulty coping with the celebratory thirst. Taxi firms have seen endless new business since the conference and entertaining facilities in the ground became available for hire.

"There's a function down there most every night," said one cabbie, a Rovers mascot jiggling in his rear windscreen. "Folk get pissed and need a ride home. Sometimes as far as Burnley, ha ha ha."

And there are less tangible, longer term benefits. "One of the things we do when we try to impress people how go-ahead this town is, is take them to the ground," Malcolm Doherty said. "We had teams from Tredegar and Caernarvon councils up here recently to see how we're spending the money we got from the Government's City Challenge scheme. So we took them for lunch at Ewood, it's something we're proud of. We're not the only ones.

Businesses take clients there to clinch deals. The businessmen I talk to say since Rovers emerged it has opened doors for them. They don't have to explain where Blackburn is any more. We've always known what a great place this is. Now the country's waking up to it."

Having gate-crashed the top of the League, propelled by Jack's wad, the club seem determined not to let things slip, to take advantage of their pre-eminence. Walker was fortunate that, though never rich, Rovers were never encumbered by debt. Thus his money could be lavished on the things that will keep them at the top. On a nationwide scouting system, for instance, or the most comprehensive community development programme in the Premiership. Run by Terry Gennoe, this includes an educational trip to the ground (measure the size of the pitch, map the seats in the grandstand) and a ticket discount scheme for schoolchildren. For every match, except those against Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester United, Gennoe distributes 2,500 tickets to local schools at £2 each, including transport from their school. Most matches, the shrill shriek of "Shearer, Shearer" terrifies dogs all the way to Burnley. The benefit of all this youthful enthusiasm is not just one way.

"Five years ago if you went to a primary school playground in this area, you would have been lucky if half the kids were wearing Rovers tops," Gennoe said. "Most were wearing United or Liverpool. Now, it's 90 per cent Rovers. And these kids are our future. When the time comes when we're not top of the Premiership, they'll still be our fans, they'll still be here."

The scheme has also taken the club into a potentially lucrative territory it previously ignored: the local Asian community, which accounts for about a fifth of the Blackburn population.

"Going to football was not part of Asian culture," Gennoe said. "It's up to us to make it part; it's up to us to draw them across. We've done that by targeting Asian schools. Now you're beginning to see the community leaders bending a bit and seeing football as a wholesome, family thing. You'll see a lot more Asian faces in this ground. It'll take time, but it will happen."

Indeed, one thing the club has to be careful about, in its ambitious dash for the big time, is not to detach itself from the community from which it sprung. Blackburn does not have the metropolitan catchment area to sustain premium pricing of tickets: for the Palace match only nine of the 16 executive boxes were occupied, for instance. You cannot foresee many people from the Bolton Road stepping out of their front doors to sit in the £1,900 a season Premier Club seats, even if they do come with pre-match dining facilities in the restaurant overlooking the ground. As one local said: "It's a dear do that Jack Walker stand."

At present, however, there remains an oddly intimate feel about Ewood. Before the game against Palace, Radio Rovers - the club was the first to set up its own station - was broadcasting birthday wishes.

"And it's happy birthday to Sandra," said one of the two DJs.

"Is that Sandra in the club shop?" said his colleague.

"It is that."

You get the sense, standing in the refreshment bars before the game that this is the place Blackburn comes to gather, that everybody knows each other. Last year, after the match between the two teams, a Manchester United fan I know was attacked by a gang of young Rovers supporters outside the ground, one of whom hit him over the back of the head with a bottle.

He fell and, just as he was anticipating a kicking, half a dozen older Blackburn fans ran across the road and intervened. The thing that struck him almost as forcefully as the bottle was that they clearly knew all his attackers: "Stop that, Steven, we'll have none of that here," shouted one man, to disperse the group. And "right, Lee, I know your dad and I'm telephoning him when I get home." They then apologised to the victim, and offered to escort him back to his car. You would have to be of die- hard claret-and-blue persuasion to begrudge supporters like that their moment of glory. They have waited long enough.

"Sometimes I sit in my seat in the Walkersteel Stand, and look round this ground," Malcolm Doherty said. "And I wonder if I'm going to wake up and find it's all been a dream."