WEDNESDAY lunchtime and the sun is shining in Blackburn. A glorious spring afternoon, the kind to leave you feeling hopeful, but optimism is in short supply round Ewood Park.
The club shop has huge posters advertising a kit sale but nobody is taking advantage. Other than club staff, there is not a soul to be seen. The silence around the stadium is dispiriting. This is what Blackburn Rovers have become.
It is a scene that jars when you look up to the Jack Walker Stand. Flanking the structure named after the benefactor who made a little club in Lancashire’s dreams come true is a timeline with historic photographs and the period from 1992 to 1995 leaps out.
In that spell, Blackburn went from the old second division to champions of England. Under Kenny Dalglish, they defied the odds and broke the transfer record twice to sign first Alan Shearer and then Chris Sutton.
‘It seems like yesterday,’ recalls Mike Newell, the man whose penalty at Wembley 25 years ago propelled Blackburn into the newly formed Premier League.
‘We wouldn’t have got Shearer if we hadn’t won at Wembley. It was difficult to attract superstars but Kenny had a magnetism and that is why we got Shearer.’
Now the one-time high-rollers stand on the brink of League One. Blackburn have not played in English football’s third tier since 1980 but they will be relegated on Sunday at Brentford if they cannot better Nottingham Forest’s result against Ipswich.
The bleakness of that scenario matches the despair among supporters about the way the club have been run since Venky’s Group bought the club in November 2010, with frequent manage- rial changes and little investment in the playing staff, and there will be economic implications if they are relegated. A sign of what the future may hold arrived last Saturday when cleaning staff at Ewood Park were laid off after the final home game against Aston Villa; the club’s debt is now £100million, five times what it was when the current owners arrived.
The drop in the number of fans turning up will impact on the fortunes of small local businesses, such as Leaver’s, the bakery across from the stadium. It was founded by Derek Leaver, who played for Blackburn in the 1950s, and still produces a chicken and bean pie in homage to Shearer’s favourite pre-match meal.
Locals believe crowds have dropped by more than 10,000 over the past six years. It is a sorry tale, one which has left Newell — a stalwart of the Walker era — in dismay at the Venky’s, who have not been to a game since 2014.
‘It hurts,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘The five years I had there were the best of my career and it’s galling to think where we were then and where they are going now.
‘Jack would be turning in his grave if he knew what was happening now. Anyone can get relegated but it is the state of the club that is so depressing.
‘I remember going there, before I signed in 1991. You were guaranteed a warm welcome; it’s the nature of the people. But when I’ve been back, the atmosphere’s gone. It’s torture for the fans.’
All, however, is not yet lost. A small glimmer of hope remains and tickets for the away section at Griffin Park have long since been sold. The diehards are not prepared to wave the white flag and that attitude is embodied by club captain Jason Lowe. Lowe has been at Blackburn for 13 years and knows what is at stake.
‘The result is going to have a huge impact on the club,’ he said. ‘We have to try and forget everything that is going on and get the result. We won’t give up.’
Acknowledgement to Dominic King Daily Mail.