23 Years ago, we were crowned Premier League Champions on an unforgettable day at Anfield. Much like today the sun was shining. The day was full of twists, turns and drama but in the end we prevailed.
Winning the league was down to having a brilliant manager, fantastic group of players but most of all having a benefactor who dared to dream and take on the established order. Thank you Uncle Jack for taking us all on an amazing journey. You will forever be our number one fan.
A few weeks ago, shortly after the nail-biting tension of our narrow away win at Walsall, I was asked by a young supporter, “How did you cope on that final day in 1995?” and my shorthand (but accurate) response was, “I cried...!”.
In the course of our dialogue it was quite extraordinary how all those feelings of excitement, nerves, tension, fear, despondency and finally utter elation all came flooding back, simultaneously. It was as if I was transported in time back to May 1995. I could feel exactly what I felt all that time ago, my pulse started racing, sweaty brow, gut-wrenching tension; an eerie sensation to be frank.
I didn’t have a ticket for Anfield; for me it was always going to be a long-distance affair. Neither back then did I have Sky. In the week leading up to the game I had pretty much made my mind up that I would go on a walk and ignore it, making sure that I came back home as adjacent to the final whistle as I possibly could, oblivious to the ebbs and flows of the afternoon.
A work colleague heard my dilemma and told me that the gym where he was a member had Sky, had multiple screens and he would sign me in on a guest pass to enable me to watch it. I couldn’t resist, this was I suspected, even back then, a once in a lifetime deal, now or never – for me, but more importantly for Rovers.
The story of how those two games unfolded has been told thousands of times but the remarkable aspect was when I recalled it, the feelings and emotions of the time just flooded back. The joy of Shearer’s opener, the Liverpool equaliser expertly caressed into the corner by John Barnes. The overwhelming sensation was that it was out of our hands now and that a higher power would decide our fate.
There were a number of screens set up around the gym; all but one showing the West Ham Utd v Man Utd match – partly a function of the high number of members claiming to be Man Utd fans, but also a high number of locals claiming to be “ABUs” – “Anyone But United”. The motivation of the latter being that it would be much more satisfying to watch Utd lose it, rather than another team winning it!
It’s never enough to see our own team triumph, we also have to see our rivals falter..!
The competing “oohs”, “aahs” and loud cheers for a goal rang around the room during the afternoon. As the clocked ticked down, it became abundantly clear that our fate was going to be decided not in Merseyside, but in East London. I too started turning around and craning my neck to assess the situation from Upton Park.
I was drawn in fatalistically, unable to take my eyes off Ludek Miklosko in the West Ham goal. Never before had I so wanted a West Ham keeper to turn in the performance of a lifetime and in fairness, never since. I fully expected a Utd winner at any point, almost certainly in the inevitable “Fergie-time”; but I’d made my peace philosophically & so I entered a Zen-like trance. Time is relative apparently, well it certainly slowed down on that afternoon.
When Jamie Redknapp scored, we knew categorically that it was now out of our hands and that somehow lifted the pressure. There was no more we could do except wait...tick, tock…ooh, aah…save, block, parry…over and over again.
The tears came not at full time, but in the car on the way home. I had the radio on as interviews of all the key protagonists were being transmitted and out of nowhere, I just started blubbing. I was sobbing, massive tears rolling down my cheeks but with a grin as wide as a canyon across my face. My little team had just become the best in all England.
Fast forward to this season. A lot of my rekindled joy for football has been watching our youngest fans truly enjoy their matchday experience as did I at the same age. Players that seem to care, a manager that oozes common-sense, pragmatism and ethics and let us not be coy, a significant number in the “W” column of the league table - it all helps.
Last season I was genuinely angry at our Venky’s-inflicted plight and couldn’t quite believe another stint in the third division was in store. I was sceptical as to our powers of recovery, fearing that our new level was that which endured in the early 1970’s.
Credit then to the powers that be for this immediate return. The scenes at full time at Doncaster Rovers will be etched into memory banks of our young fans in much the same way as 1995 still makes my spine tingle. As an 11 year-old back in 1975, I was ecstatic to see the word “Champions” and “Blackburn Rovers” in the same sentence. I was as proud of them as I was of the class of 95.
The moral of the story, if there is one; is that you never know what is round the corner. Enjoy what you can, when you can – big or small, Premier League, League Cup finals, the u23 squad winning their division. Drink it in my friends, life is short, scenes of pure joy at the final whistle at the Keepmoat are stored away.
Thinking about the last 8 or 9 minutes of that game now, the explosion of noise when Charlie’s header nestled in the back of the net, my pulse is already racing, I’m typing and chewing my fingernails consecutively…not recommended.
It’s no 1995 but it’s still special and for a new generation, it’s their first taste of glory and it tastes quite delicious thank you very much.
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Our grassroots expert Stuart Grimshaw's blueprint how England can catchup. In Part 1 he focuses on coaching.
With the World Cup looming in just a few months, that means we’re only a few months away from the usual outcry in the red tops, navel gazing from the FA and “Don’t look at us” shoulder shrugging from The Premier League and The Football League, as England inevitably leave Russia under some kind of cloud. And so we look for the reasons why.
There isn’t a single silver bullet to solve all the problems in grassroots football (which is good because it’ll give me plenty of things to write about!). Let’s start with coaches, and coaching, if we had better coaches we’d have better players, better players means more English players for our teams and more English players playing at the top level would mean better players to be selected for the squad.
In Iceland, every junior player has at least 1 UEFA qualified coach, that’s at least a UEFA B license coach, in the UK it’s mandated that each team has at least 1 level 1 FA coach, which is 2 levels below a UEFA B license, and works out at 1 coach per 15 or 16 kids. I can imagine some people saying how much smaller Iceland, with less players, so it’s easier to have more coaches per player. True, but the turnover of Iceland’s governing body, the KSI, was only £7m compared to the FA’s £318m for the same period.
Don’t get me wrong, the FA level 1 Coaching Award is a very, very good course to go on, but by it’s own admission it’s not there to teach you what to coach, it teaches you how to be a coach for young players. It focuses on how kids learn, on safeguarding and running a club. It’s very much an introduction to coaching and will not give you the skills to observe and guide technique, it covers nothing on tactics, formations, reading the game or anything you need to really improve players, it leaves them largely to pick the game up themselves.
The UK, at the last count, had just over 1500 coaches at UEFA A or Pro level, Italy had 2200, France had 3300, Germany 7000 and Spain a massive 15500! Is it any wonder with that many trained coaches they’ve found some good ones to coach their young players?
In the UK it would cost a coach £1200 to become a UEFA B coach (and nearly £4000 if they wanted to take the next step and get their UEFA A license) an astonishing amount for a volunteer to be expected to pay. Icelandic grassroots coaches, like coaches in the US, Iceland & Canada (and may other countries) are often paid for the time they commit to the club, rather than be volunteers
Once you have your basic coaching qualifications it can be difficult to progress any further. Having the qualifications is fine, but it’s only the start. A good coach will have a range of experience across multiple aspects of football, from junior to senior, disability football, womens' football, pub football, futsal, 5-a-side ... either professionally or as a grassroots coach.
Courses can be expensive for individuals, gaining experience at any level other than Sunday League is nigh on impossible, you can get a job with a local academy when you get your UEFA B (or level 2 if you’re lucky) award, but again that takes time & money and the jobs are of course the ones no-one else wants to do, Friday night at the centre of excellence that’s furthest away. I believe local clubs from the semi-pro level upward could benefit themselves and local coaches by sponsoring them to take the higher badges and then employing them afterwards to work with their own teams. It’s an easy solution to the problem of the cost and lack of coaches.
I’m a software consultant by trade, one of the most valuable things I do outside of actually working is “networking”, meeting and talking with other people who do the same job, other people who hire consultants like me. It’s a great way to stay up to date with what’s happening in the industry, but it’s also a great way to advertise yourself, get your name known. One of the best things about being a coach, in South Yorkshire at least, is the local Coaches Club and the CPD that they provide. It’s £10 a year and each month we get the opportunity to go and watch & learn from some of the top coaches in the professional game today. They travel the length and breadth of the country to come to Sheffield and show us sessions, ways of coaching, different formations and the basics of coaching them. It really is a fantastic resource and I urge any coach to go to as many of them as they can.
So there we go, I’ve put forward my thoughts on how to start fixing.
Football on TV – the good old days ?
On this FA Cup quarter final weekend, I was reminded of bygone days when all the ties would of course kick off at 3pm on the same Saturday; BBC would have the rights for highlights of two of them for that day’s “Match of the Day” and then on Sunday, ITV would show highlights of the other two – a rare opportunity for Granada viewers to see the LWT-produced “Big Match” with Brian Moore.
There is a strong whiff of nostalgia here of course as it harks back to my childhood, bringing with it a temptation to proclaim that everything was better then and the inexorable march of progress has served only to undermine the quality of football on TV.
My Saturday nights were mapped out for years; BBC 1 – light entertainment – usually Mike Yarwood, Two Ronnies, or Cilla/Lulu – crime drama – Ironside, Cannon (“a Quinn Martin production…”) or Starsky & Hutch - the news (“if you don't want to know the score…look away now..”) then Match of the Day followed naturally enough by Parky. I’m sighing now just typing this.
Match of the Day was absolutely essential viewing. It set the standard for all TV coverage of football. Jimmy Hill, as so many times in his mercurial career was ahead of the curve by introducing analysis, once memorably castigating Rovers’ Glenn Keeley for a challenge on Luton Town’s Lil Fuccillo which only just stopped short of GBH. The clip is available on YouTube and is well worth your time and energy in seeking it out.
The baton passed from JH & Bob Wilson, to Des Lynam to Gary Lineker – each Dr Who like reincarnation bringing something new to the mix. My personal “fantasy MOTD” line-up was probably Des Lynam assisted by Gary Lineker and Trevor Brooking…not Mark Lawrenson…NEVER Mark Lawrenson.
ITV on the other hand…there was always something of the “amateur talent show” vibe about their coverage, the imperious Brian Moore excepted. Gerald Sinstadt was a more than capable commentator but when presenting I half-expected him to set me some history homework.
In an attempt to revamp the coverage when ITV first won the rights to Saturday night football, a young Elton Welsby (real name, ask your parents/grandparent kids) took centre stage. Elton was young, hip and trendy, the coming thing and he was to be the studio-based anchor for Granada’s attempt to usurp MOTD.
“Match Night” was Granada’s answer to MOTD. Produced out of Quay Street by the late Paul Doherty (son of the Man City & Northern Ireland inside forward Peter) it tried to be innovative and creative but seemingly on a tight budget. It was the love child of “Kick Off”, the Friday teatime football magazine show that would not be entirely out of place on Sky Sports 3 even now.
It was a series of errors on an episode of “Kick Off” that started a chain of events that ended up with me, three days before my 17th birthday, sipping vodka & lime with Ray Clemence.
Rovers were having a great season. Hot on the heels of promotion from Division 3 the previous season, momentum had continued and the prospect of a second successive promotion to the glorious hinterland of Division 1 was a real prospect. But… The problem was, “Kick Off” kept getting vital facts wrong, league tables, line ups, highlights incorrectly captioned…but only to my (unbiased eyes) when it involved Rovers ! I did what any righteously indignant (read…pompous) teenager would do at the time – I wrote a letter of complaint. That’s right kids – a LETTER – paper, ink, envelope, stamp – addressed to Mr Paul Doherty at Granada TV.
I expected to hear nothing, but a few days later a crisp, typed envelope addressed to yours truly landed on the mat. Inside, a reply from the very same Paul Doherty acknowledging every item on my charge sheet, apologising profusely and inviting me (& a guest) to attend Granada TV studios to watch how the programme was put together and to meet the studio guest that night.
Saturday 28th February 1981 saw me and my compliant (Burnley-supporting…I know) uncle sat in Granada TV studios watching the editing team select the “highlights” from the game at Blundell Park that afternoon as part of their round up. Trust Rovers to deliver one of their standard away, Howard Kendall defensive displays but this time fail to score and register the usual 1-0 away win. I could hardly press the case for a 0-0 game to figure front & centre.
The main attraction that night was Liverpool’s 2-0 home win over Southampton and so the studio guest was the England goalkeeper Ray Clemence who was accompanied by the charming Mrs Clemence. I was allowed to be in the studio whilst the pre-news trailer was broadcast by Elton and was up “in the gallery” when the actual programme went out.
It was absolutely amazing. I loved EVERY second but it got even better when after the closing credits, we were invited to have our photographs taken on the set…I sat in Elton’s ACTUAL chair but, there was more.
“Would you like to join us in the Green Room ? Elton & Ray will be there and we can take your photo with them ?”
…and so it was dear reader, that I was ushered in and shown a cocktail bar and offered whatever I wanted. That was the only time in my life I think I have ever asked for a vodka & lime. The chap next to me (presumably from the production team) had asked for one and well, I didn’t want to rock the boat and more pertinently, I had not a clue what to order.
Elton was lovely, Ray was lovely, somewhere in the loft in my memories crate, I have a manila envelope with several photos in it, one of which is signed by Ray Clemence and of course; I have the memories, which more than 35 years later still make me glow warmly inside.
Is football on TV better now than it used to be ? Well, yes AND no. A little part of me will always belong to Paul, Elton, Gerald & of course Ray.
Rovers boss Tony Mowbray is expecting his team to fly out of the blocks against Oldham after the players were given a few days off from training this week. At his pre-match press conference Mowbray said
“This week has been a pretty down week, there has been a lot of rest, they have some days off, the training days have been pretty good. Because the players are coming back on the grass that has increased the excitement and intensity of that. It hasn’t been a normal week, the players have had a couple of extra days off and that’s my call really.
“Some days you have to recharge the batteries and understand the reasons you are giving them a rest, only so that they can burst out of the blocks and show everyone how dynamic we can be and how exciting we can be. Hopefully the next few teams feel the energy levels and the quality we possess and we can get back to winning ways pretty quickly. We’re looking forward to the weekend.”
Rovers are third in league one and face Oldham at Ewood on Saturday followed by a long midweek trip to Portsmouth on Tuesday.
The Evolving Nature of Fandom
I can still recall, clear as day, what it was like to walk into the old Nuttall Street Stand; the smell, the sounds and when I was lucky enough to have a pie bought for me, the flavours too. The creaks and groans from the wooden beams and staircases, the unique whiff emanating from the gents loos and the gloom around the snack bar. Even the low wattage light bulbs had a role to play, doing their bit to save a few pennies on the club’s electricity bill.
My first visits to Ewood actually were to the Riverside, sitting in the seats above that famous old terrace or more accurately on the bench seats in the wings. The admission was cheaper and frankly me wanting to go to the football was seen as a fad that would soon run its course. Not the first time, I confounded my parents with my unique take on the world and here we are more than four decades later, I’m still proving my point. Nothing if not tenacious, that’s me.
Football supporting back then seemed to be a whole lot easier though. As a kid I would have a fixture list sellotaped to the inside of the wardrobe door. Within a couple of days I would have pretty much memorised it, safe in the knowledge that fixtures would be rearranged only in the event of a postponement following bad weather or if we were to be particularly lucky, an FA Cup run.
It was cash on the turnstile, rarely a need for tickets in advance and in fact as a very small boy; it was not unheard of to be hauled up and over the stile with a modest cash adjustment (adjusted for inflation) being passed over in the other direction. This tactic seemed to work well especially at away grounds and made it more economical for me to be taken to a number of local away games. Terraces were not particularly welcoming to the diminutive me, barely able to see over the wall, so sitting in the stand was a treat that at least meant I could see the game.
I was taken to the likes of Gigg Lane, Spotland, Bloomfield Road, Deepdale and Burnden Park. Soon my tastes craved some exotic flavours and a trip to the Old Showground in Great Harwood to watch Ronnie Clayton, Bryan Douglas and Roy Vernon turn out for their new club gave my elders and betters a chance to regale me of their history and what a privilege it was to see them first hand. They were of course entirely correct, but it was a little while until I realised quite why. Some years later I would play on that very pitch in an U15s cup final* and the memories came flooding back.
Replica football kits existed even back then, but the great thing was, you could buy one shirt and have about 23 kits instantly. A red shirt with white round neck collar and cuffs was good for Liverpool, Manchester United, Barnsley, Swindon, Crewe, Doncaster and even Great Harwood if so inclined. Paired with an all white one, this opened up international options, England obviously; but also domestically, Leeds Utd, Spurs, Fulham, Millwall, Bury, Preston and so on. For a child with a vivid imagination, background kickarounds rarely featured the same two teams but no costume change required.
These days I really like to people-watch at football grounds but especially the young kids…oh hang on, no; not like that, what I mean is, I want to feel reassured that they are as excited by the whole experience now as I was back then. I am not one of those people who believes that “everything was better in the old days” but I wonder what our youngest fans make of the whole experience of being a modern day football fan ?
I would have relished the wall-to-wall availability of information, statistics, video clips let alone the amount of live TV, which sees games from all around the globe being available 24/7. No waiting for that week’s Shoot magazine to check up on the line ups of divisional rivals in last week’s games !
The state of modern grounds has improved beyond measure since the terrible tragedies at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough caused football to re-evaluate its principles and practices. Almost all grounds now have family sections and dedicated facilities for disabled spectators, although these can always be improved.
I can only imagine how over-stimulated the five year old me would be walking around a club megastore these days. The thought of personalised kits, matching training gear, tracksuits, coats and even boots would possibly have blown my mind. I was never short of anything as a kid but these places tempt me now !
The only real area of concern for me is the cost of all this. How do we ensure that the next generation is able to enjoy the match day experience, home and away ?
Their footballing future is obviously the future of our football – it therefore relies on all of us to do everything we can to pass on the baton. It relies on footballing authorities to use the TV millions to keep ticket prices sensible and stadiums full – with the average spectator age reducing, not as it is at the moment.
Football-supporting these days in some respects is fundamentally different to the experience I had as a kid but in so many other ways; the visceral excitement, the passion, the noise, the joy, the despair; that remains unchanged - long may it remain so.
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*we lost 2-1 but thanks for caring enough to read to this footnote. I still have the runners-up medal.
Rovers boss tony Mowbray is pleased with the way his squad is shaping up as Rovers head into the final months of the season.
Talking to the press ahead of the Northampton match Mowbray said “Not just in numbers or personnel but also an understanding of what it takes to win football matches, the camaraderie in the group”
“There was an uncertainty at the start of the season of whether this was the right environment for them to play their football, for reasons like having families and being able to earn money in the league up but as we’ve talked many times before I’ve said that if you played a part in us finding ourselves in League One and I felt you were good enough you should stay to help us get out of League One and back in to the Championship.
“Moving forward hopefully they can play in the Championship with us again.
“The strength of character, the team spirit and the camaraderie is so much stronger than it was at the start of the season when there were a few doubts and uncertainties about whether they would still be here at the end of the summer window.
“At this moment I’m happy with the group, they’re working extremely hard to try and get in to the starting XI.”