Ever since the Premier League announced the hare-brained scheme of playing a 39th fixture in different corners of the globe, it has become fashionable to knock the likes of Blackburn, Bolton or Wigan. It’s not easy to ‘sell’ those clubs as part of a ‘global brand’, they are quick to tell us. As if small-town Lancashire clubs have no real part in this brave new world – when in actual fact they are the hotbed of English football. It’s been sad to see that trio of clubs in the bottom three for much of the season and it would be very sad if they were wiped off the face of the Premier League.
When I was playing, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Blackpool and Preston were all regular members of the top flight – and they often made up the majority of the England team. With Stan Matthews at Blackpool, Tom Finney at Preston and Bryan Douglas at Blackburn, they had three of the best dribblers of a football the world has seen, all playing within a few miles of each another. Those clubs all suffered a major downtown in the 1980s and early ’90s but they have defied the odds to play at the top level and the Premier League has been richer for them.
Blackburn’s season so far has been a staggering story. In all my years in football, I can never recall a manager suffering quite the level of abuse which has been piled on Steve Kean. I’m delighted to see that Kean has begun to turn things around in recent weeks and I can tell you that if a group of footballers do not believe in their boss they can use the mass protests as a convenient excuse not to perform. That hasn’t been happening at Ewood Park and it speaks volumes for Kean’s man-management abilities.
I’ll readily admit that I don’t understand – or care to understand – this culture of unrealistic expectation which has sprung up among supporters of most clubs, fostered by the internet. I saw a couple of Arsenal fans crying and hugging one another after the defeat at Swansea last weekend – as if it’s their God-given right to beat a decent mid-table side away from home. This sort of culture certainly hasn’t helped Kean and although the Venky’s people who own the club are spectacularly naive in many ways, they have had the guts to stand by their manager, when most would have pulled the trigger.
These Lancashire clubs used to be owned by prominent local businessmen, who knew their clubs intimately and who instinctively understood what supporters expected and wanted. Bob Lord, the Burnley butcher, was the epitome of these owners, who did so much to make Lancashire football clubs punch above their weight. Dave Whelan, of Wigan, is very much of that old school. I played against him when he was a full-back at Blackburn but a broken leg in the 1960 Cup Final ended his career. It turned out to be probably the best thing he’s ever done, as he became a multi-millionaire in the sportswear trade.
Wigan have been a remarkable successful story – they are now in their seventh successive season in the Premier League, despite a small support and none of the history of their fellow Lancashire clubs. You wonder whether their time is running out, but you have to admire the way their manager Roberto Martinez sticks to his footballing beliefs and I wouldn’t bet against them staying up. Bolton, like Blackburn, are enjoying an 11th straight season in the top flight but look to be in the most parlous state of all, in terms of finances and playing resources.
Personally I’d love to see all three stay up – if only to annoy those big-time chairmen who think that playing Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan is beneath them.