OUTSIDE of Blackburn, Jack Walker is the most unpopular man in English football. Probably only a handful of people who consider themselves influential in the new Premier League have met him, but he frightens them all. His aim is to buy success for Blackburn Rovers no matter the cost to himself and, his critics say, to the future of an industry that can ill afford to let him send transfer fees through the roof.
By the end of this season Walker could be on the verge of joining Europe's most ambitious entrepreneurs in the game and leaving the traditionally rich clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool among them, as poor relations who are no longer able to compete in the transfer market. Between then and now a lot of people in football will be hell bent on bringing about the downfall of this 61-year-old, almost reclusive multi-millionaire who is not chairman nor even a director of Blackburn Rovers but has already spent some pounds 12m on players and is prepared to offer at least another pounds 12m for the upgrading of Ewood Park to a 30,000 all-seated stadium. He has an obsessive determination to turn this once famous club into the greatest and most prosperous England has ever seen. He has threatened to make Manchester United look 'cheap'.
If he succeeds and Rovers eventually start to win trophies, he will not be found riding opentop buses or appearing in team pictures. Jack Walker opens his wallet more often than his heart. His name only began to creep into the national press as recently as October of last year when Blackburn persuaded Kenny Dalglish to return to management seven months after resigning as Liverpool manager, reportedly on the grounds of stress. The cost to Walker has never been officially revealed but it was the golden key to his enormously ambitious plans. Until Dalglish arrived, Walker's cash was only relevant in terms of the club's survival. Big-name players they approached had no confidence that Rovers were relevant to modern football. Ewood Park seemed set in time, like the subject of a Lowry painting.
The arrival of Dalglish was a statement of intent. It was said that Walker personally put up the million or so Dalglish demanded for a three-year contract plus an immediate pounds 10m to spend on players. But he had been quietly pumping money into Rovers for several years before that.
The Walker millions come from Walkersteel, the sheet-metal business he and his brother Fred inherited from their father in 1951. By 1990 they had built up the business so successfully that it had become the largest steel stockholder in Britain, employing 3,400 people at 50 sites. In 1956 the turnover was pounds 46,000. In 1988 the business was making an annual profit of pounds 48m. The Walker brothers bought GKN and then sold it to British Steel for a reported pounds 360m, the highest price ever paid for a private company. The deal placed Jack Walker among Britain's top 30 richest men. For obvious reasons he no longer lived in Blackburn but was exiled in Jersey. His roots were still in Lancashire.
He decided to invest and gamble in two of his consuming interests, the airline industry and football, or at least Blackburn Rovers. There was no guessing which would be the gamble. He spent about pounds 30m setting up Jersey European Airways, which last year carried some 600,000 passengers and keeps him nicely in funds to finance Blackburn Rovers, the football club has followed since a boy, then by bus, now by private plane from his luxurious but well-hidden island home.
When in January of last year he took his financial interest in the club to 52 per cent, his memories would have been of the days of Douglas, Eckerlsey and Clayton who regularly won England caps in the Fifties, but in reality the last time Blackburn had won any major competition for themselves was in 1928 (the FA Cup). He financed the buying of two or three useful but hardly headline players and instead of the club being threatened by the drop into the Third Division, a place in the proposed Premier Division became a possibility.
By the summer of last year Rovers had won their place. The then manager, Don Mackay, took a holiday. Tony Parkes, his assistant, stood in and confessed, 'I had to read the papers to find out who we were buying next.' Gate receipts the previous season would not even have paid the players wages. Walker was obviously footing the big bills but he remained firmly in the background, his name still a mere afterthought in the club programme, a vice-president, slightly more prominent in the list than Margaret Thatcher (vice-president). It was the same in the Eighties when, almost certainly, his money took Ossie Ardiles and Steve Archibald to Ewood Park. Archibald, on loan from Barcelona, cost pounds 4,000 a week for the then Second Division club, and Ardiles pounds 2,000. Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran were also big names to appear, and no one outside the boardroom knew for sure who was paying the bills. Only when Walker became the majority shareholder did his name begin to mean something in football. Other millionaire benefactors knew they were about to be upstaged. Lionel Pickering, chairman of Derby County, said that, while he would make money available, 'We won't be doing a Blackburn.'
If other clubs fear and envy Blackburn because of Walker's benefaction, many also fall prey to men with not only less to offer financially but spiritually. There is no disputing his total commitment to the club of the town of his birth. He believes in tradition (others may go in for Benidorm colours but this season, as in the previous 100, Rovers will still wear their 'blue and white halved shirts'). Until Walker's support, the club looked after itself in a down-to-earth Lancashire way, living within the constraints of their slender means. When Howard Kendall arrived to be manager in 1979 he was asked to reduce the amount of milk used in the players' tea and make sure his mail went second class.
Although Walker continued to follow Rovers throughout his days in industry, he moved to Jersey as long ago as 1974. One of his oldest friends, and school mate, was Bill Fox, the late president of the Football League and chairman of the club. Fox got him involved more deeply in the club, to the extent of paying for a new grandstand. Fox later found himself in the awkward situation of defending the Football League against the pressures of the Football Association and others who intended to set up the Premier League while at the same time conceding that Walker would not be satisfied unless Blackburn were themselves among the clubs in the breakaway division. 'It is his intention that we should be in the forefront not only of this country but also in European competition,' Fox said when it became known that Blackburn were pursuing Dalglish with Walker's money.
Fox died last December but Walker was determined to stay in the background. Rob Coar is the chairman. They speak on a daily basis but, apparently, Walker has little contact with Dalglish who nevertheless knows that he can outbid any other manager in the League for any worthwhile player who becomes available. There is no evidence so far that the untold millions he has spent so far on the transfer fees and contracts of, amongst others, Gary Lineker's suggested England successor Alan Shearer, has in any way dented Walker's resources, although the recession is hitting the airline business as hard as any other. Even yesterday, ironically, when Rovers were playing at Crystal Palace, they were pursuing one of their opponent's midfield players, Geoff Thomas, with offers verging on pounds 3m. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United had backed off.
Walker's way of life is quietly grand. His home is a former farmhouse in 20 acres overlooking St Helier. Jersey is full of the rich and reclusive who contribute nothing to the island's sport. Walker has sponsored the Jersey Open golf competition, supports local football and has sponsored local sportsmen.
His office is carefully situated so that visitors calling on business need not enter the house itself. Uninvited ones get short shrift, even such a well-known football personality as Jimmy Armfield, the former Leeds United manager and England player, got little more than a polite few words when he took the risk of going to Jersey on the off-chance of obtaining an interview for the Daily Express. Armfield recalls that Walker called him a 'cheeky bugger' and sent him packing after a few comments about 'money not buying success' and that 'yes' he had been behind the attempt to buy Lineker and 'no' he did not speak to Dalglish before the directors made the decision to take him on.
The decision to go for Dalglish cost Blackburn a considerable amount in compensation to Liverpool who were later not best pleased to see their former manager starting to outbid them on the transfer market. They, more than anyone, enjoyed watching Blackburn squirm towards the end of last season. Just after Christmas Rovers had been such clear favourites to reach the first Premier League that Ladbrokes refused to take further bets. In the spring the club slumped, just as they had many times before. This time, though, Dalglish had to justify Walker's expenditure on himself and his purchases. In the end the club gained promotion through the play-offs and then really went to work on buying more players.
Walker says he does not expect Blackburn to be first time champions, on the other hand a position below the top half dozen would not satisfy a man who is inconspicuous in his ambition but drives people very hard indeed. His motto is on his office wall: 'Rule One: I am always right. Rule Two: When I am wrong, read Rule One.'
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