Whole-hearted defender of the Blackburn faith

FOOTBALL: The redoutbable Colin Hendry epitomises the rise of the Rovers. Phil Shaw found him in good form
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The Independent Online
Imagine, if you will, a "before and after" commercial about the metamorphosis of Blackburn Rovers. Concrete and steel would feature prominently, the space-age chic of today's Ewood Park contrasting vividly with the homely old ground nestling amid cobbled streets.

But consider the story in human terms, and the one player who doubles as a symbol of continuity and progress is a former double-glazing worker from the Highland town of Keith.

Colin Hendry arrived in Blackburn as a raw-boned centre-back and occasional striker eight years ago. He lived in a tiny terraced house in Nuttall Street, so close to the Rovers that there was never any excuse to be late for training. It has since been bulldozed into oblivion to make way for the new stadium.

Now 29, and building his own home on the outskirts of his adopted town, Hendry attracted almost as many detractors as admirers in those days. Manchester City, who parted him briefly from Blackburn, were content merely to recover their £700,000 outlay. Scotland, whose defensive cornerstone he has become, first capped him only two years ago.

That doubts persisted seems astonishing in view of his awesome commitment and consistency during Blackburn's quest for their first title in 81 years. Like a certain drink, the 6ft 1in Hendry often appears to have been made in Scotland from girders.

Blackburn's transformation from Second Division perennials into potential European Cup contenders was, of course, forged in the fortune Jack Walker made from steel. However, the only metal that interests Hendry is a championship medal. Those who assume that money alone motivates Kenny Dalglish's team underestimate their sense of unity and professional pride to the point of strengthening it.

For "mercenaries", a description at odds with the fact that even Alan Shearer has to wash his own training kit, Blackburn show a voracious appetite for work. That, in turn, has contributed to their being labelled "boring". Both criticisms bring a wry smile to Hendry's face, though they will hardly be uppermost in his mind today, as the Premiership leaders visit in-form Leeds, the last club to thwart Manchester United three years ago.

Blackburn are eight points clear of United, both sides having six games left. Surely they can only lose it from here? "A reporter said that to me after our last match," Hendry recalled. "I replied that you can't lose what you don't have."

His caution echoes that of Dalglish and reflects a desire not to appear provocatively arrogant rather than any wavering of resolve. But a player would need an emotion by-pass not to have envisaged the moment when the silverware is theirs. Hendry's longer association with the area would, one senses, mean his appreciating the achievement more than most.

"One of the men working on the new house told me he saw Blackburn lose 7-1 at Shrewsbury in the Third Division in 1971," he said. "That made me realise how exciting the situation must be for our older fans."

They had their first sight of Hendry's distinctive mane in the pre-Walker era, after Don Mackay paid £27,500 to end his disillusionment in Dundee's reserves. Oddly, given his indestructible aura, his previous employers deemed him injury-prone and questioned his willingness to drive himself. "The management gave out a certain impression of me, so I was glad to make a fresh start in England."

In only his fifth game, the Full Members Cup final against Charlton at Wembley, Hendry volleyed the winner. Promotion was then the realistic limit of his own and Blackburn's ambitions. It did not materialise, and a contractual rift led him to Maine Road in late 1989.

"I was Mel Machin's last buy for City, 10 days before he was sacked. I did well for Howard Kendall, but when Peter Reid took over he introduced Sam Ellis as coach. He made it very clear he didn't rate me."

Hendry had continued to live in Blackburn and maintained an affection for Rovers. So when Dalglish offered the chance, three and a half years ago, to join Walker's revolution, he stepped down a division. The homecoming was not an instant triumph.

"I got an ankle injury in my third game back, in November, and was waiting until the close season for surgery. People said: `He's not the player he was, but he only cost 700 grand . . . he can play till we get up'. But when we won the play-off final I had my best game. That bought me time to prove to the management that I could play at the highest level."

What Hendry calls "the soul of the club", its backroom and administrative staff, was intact and remains so, even if they no longer share one cramped office. In other respects, Blackburn were in rapid transition. He remembers the point, in their first season back among the lite, when the scale of what was happening sunk in.

"I was walking round the pitch with Tim Sherwood, with half the ground being rebuilt around us. Tim turned and said: `People haven't grasped it yet, but this club is going to be massive'."

Another defining moment was the capture of Shearer for £3.3m, a fee which in the summer of '92 seemed exorbitant. "To be honest, it was," Hendry said. "But it's turned out to be one of the bargains of all time."

Dalglish subsequently lavished many more millions on Chris Sutton et al, which perhaps explains the lack of enthusiasm nationally for what ought to be a romantic revival of a famous club. The argument that Blackburn have bought success is intercepted by Hendry much as he would a pass to Anthony Yeboah this afternoon.

"In real terms our rivals have spent similar sums over five or six years - it's just that our buying has been compressed into a shorter time. If you look at our side in the play-offs less than three years ago, it hasn't changed dramatically."

Nevertheless, he asserts, the club's capacity to outbid all-comers in the transfer market has had a positive effect: "It puts pressure on the players to perform at their best all the time. You can't take it for granted you'll be here next year."

Hendry is equally forthright in tackling the allegation that Blackburn lack flair, suspecting it contains an element of jealousy. "I certainly don't feel bored, and nor do our supporters. We've scored more goals than anyone else. And there's a difference between being boring and being well prepared, which the manager and Ray Harford make sure we are."

The carping came to a head after the win at Everton a fortnight ago. Hendry is unrepentant: "We were under the cosh for once. They thought they'd steamroller us like they did United, but we played them at their own game. Someone told me we'd been booed off. I said `Oh, I'm sorry', tongue in cheek, and it was reported as me apologising to the crowd."

The canny Kenny invariably claims Hendry and Shearer for his side in practice matches, so that the Premiership's best centre-half and centre- forward seldom test their mettle against one another. It would be quite a contest: Hendry still takes a goal conceded as a personal affront, but no longer responds by marauding upfield like some latterday Rob Roy and leaving gaps behind him.

He attributes this new-found discipline to Blackburn's greater array of attacking alternatives - "They push anyone forward rather than me!" - as well as to Harford's coaching expertise and his own experience. The more responsible defender he has evolved into should, he feels, be capable of battling on well into the next century; recent partners Kevin Moran and Tony Gale were past 36.

Hendry hopes it will be with Blackburn, to whom he is tied for a further three years. "I know you can never say never in football, but I can't see myself playing for anyone else," he said. "I think it's always better to be in on the start of something than when it's the finished article."

It is the end of something, namely the arduous struggle with United, which currently preoccupies Hendry. He will not tempt fate by saying so, but just four more victories and the walls of restraint Blackburn have constructed around themselves can come tumbling down. Just like Nuttall Street.