Game Changers: Blackburn Rovers and Jack Walker’s Millions
In 1995, Blackburn Rovers were crowned Premier League champions. That success was financed by industrialist owner Jack Walker, who was in many ways the last of his kind.
This article is from our Game Changers series. You can read previous entries here.
When we look back at the top-flight champions of the nineties, one club stands out. Liverpool secured their final title to date in 1990, a revived Leeds United did the same in 1992, and every other season ended in triumph for either Manchester United or Arsenal, bar one slap bang in the middle of the decade. The standalone season in question is 1994/95, when an unfashionable Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League inspired by the likes of Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and, strange as it may now seem, a combative midfielder by the name of Tim Sherwood. Rovers could never have won the league that year, nor accrued the talent they did, were it not for their owner, Jack Walker. He was a multimillionaire, an industrialist and a northern grandee with a passion for football. In many ways, he changed the face of the game in England, and unintentionally ensured that he would be the last of his kind.
Prior to his involvement with Blackburn Rovers, Walker had supported the club from the terraces of Ewood Park, having been born and raised in the Lancashire town. Having taken over his late father's sheet metal business, Walkersteel, in 1951, Walker built on its humble origins to create a giant of the steel industry with thousands of employees and huge profitability. In the late eighties, on deciding it was time to pack it in, Walker sold to British Steel for a reported £360m, a gargantuan figure for the era and indeed the highest price ever paid for a private company. It was around then that he started to plough money into his beloved football club, even if he no longer resided in Blackburn but in the rather more tax-friendly environs of Jersey.
Walker was certainly a canny operator, as was abundantly apparent when the British steel industry went into rapid decline in the nineties, making his sale of Walkersteel seem like something of a coup. When it came to Blackburn Rovers, however, he had little thought of a return for his money – or not in his own lifetime, at least – and rather invested with a most unbusinesslike sense of sentiment, motivated by what almost all would agree was a genuine love of the club. He began by donating building materials for the new Riverside Stand at Ewood Park in 1988, while the general consensus at the time was that he subsidised the signings of Ossie Ardiles and Steve Archibald at roughly the same time. Having remained actively involved in the club, he took full control in January 1991 and was soon threatening to make Manchester United look "cheap" by comparison.
While Walker might not quite have fulfilled that promise – many have since pointed out that, even in Blackburn's most opulent era, they were still outspent by their Mancunian rivals – the manner in which he invested in the club was seriously unusual at the time. English football was far from unaccustomed to wealthy clubs with massive outgoings, but few had an individual benefactor who was both willing and able to spend so lavishly. By the time Walker took over at Blackburn, Manchester United were just about to become a public company with a series of investors, while Arsenal were owned through various shareholdings held by North London notables and local bigwigs. This was that state of play for Blackburn's rivals, and the traditional behemoths of English football more generally. They may have been able to spend a few quid, but that was ultimately down to their far superior revenues, as opposed to a single, figurehead owner who was ready to furnish them with tens of millions of pounds.
Practically Walker's first move at the club was to renovate and rebuild Ewood Park, expanding it to a capacity of just over 30,000 at the cost of around £20m. His next great achievement was to tempt Kenny Dalglish out of retirement, not long after he quit as Liverpool manager on grounds of stress in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. While Dalglish was doubtlessly attracted by Walker's ambition, not to mention the money he was willing to spend on infrastructure and players, it was reported in the press at the time that the Scot was seriously well remunerated. Dalglish inherited a club in the Second Division, but seven months and some considerable outlay later they were promoted via the play-off final to the inaugural season of the Premier League.
Over the course of his first three years in charge of Blackburn, Walker spent around £25m on transfer fees. He broke the domestic transfer record with his most famous acquisition, nabbing a young Alan Shearer from Southampton in 1992 for a then-prodigious £3.6m. He broke it again in 1994 when he procured Chris Sutton from Norwich, this time forking out a cool £5m. There were also smaller, and perhaps even shrewder, fees paid for forward Kevin Gallacher, Norwegian defender Henning Berg and soon-to-be England left-back Graeme Le Saux, who had at that point fallen down the pecking order at boyhood club Chelsea. All in all, Walker and Dalglish colluded to bring in a squad with flair up front and endeavour at the back. Throw Jason Wilcox, Stuart Ripley and an armband-sporting Tim Sherwood into the midfield mixer, and they had a team ready to compete at the summit of the Premier League.
Having been promoted from the Second Division ahead of the 1992/93 season – a return to the top-flight after an absence of 26 years, no less – Rovers immediately got into their stride. They finished fourth in their first campaign, missing out on UEFA Cup qualification by a single point, with a combination of Dalglish's cunning management and 16 goals from the boot (and hirsute head) of Shearer inspiring them to the upper echelons of the table. Shearer's goals came despite the fact that he was restricted to 21 appearances that term, having torn his anterior cruciate ligament in a match against Leeds in the winter of '92. Had he been fit for the entire campaign, Walker's dream of Blackburn winning the league might well have been realised in their first season back in the top tier. Instead, he would have to wait two more years, which wasn't so long in the grand scheme of things.
By the end of the 1993/94 campaign, Rovers had risen as high as second place. While they finished eight points behind hated rivals Manchester United, Blackburn had pushed them close all season, even managing to level their points tallies in early April before Alex Ferguson's men pulled away. Shearer had come back from his cruciate injury better than ever before, hitting a whopping 34 goals in all competitions. He had reached his imperious peak as a goalscorer, and Rovers were about to reap the rewards.
Though there was a certain sense of romance to Blackburn Rovers – the provincial club with the fairytale rise, managed by a three-time league winner with Liverpool and spearheaded by an iconic English forward – there was much resentment from the rest of the Premier League over the way in which they went about their business. In a precursor to the debates which raged in the mid-to-late noughties regarding the mega spending of Chelsea and Manchester City, there was much contemporary hand wringing over what the effect of Walker's spending would be. While he did not have the near-limitless petrodollars of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, there was still much talk of him inflating transfer fees, driving up wages and the like, much as there was for his 21st century successors. It was a different time for English football, and Walker's manner of spending was not the norm. Whether that limits Rovers' romantic credentials, or attests more to their competitors' envy, is a matter of perspective and club allegiance, and bound to be debated forevermore.
Come the 1994/95 season, Blackburn fans were far too occupied to worry about the long-term consequences of Walker's spending. Rovers built up a head of steam early on, going unbeaten in their first seven games and hurtling towards the top of the league. While their momentum was tempered by a couple of setbacks in the form of losses to Norwich and Manchester United, they went on a seven-match winning run from the end of October, and wouldn't lose again until the end of January. That defeat came, once again, to Manchester United, which suggested that their two-way title race would almost certainly go to the wire.
By this time, the 'SAS' partnership between Sutton and Shearer was flourishing, and producing almost ludicrous numbers. Shearer would eventually end the season with 34 league goals, Sutton with 15, and together they formed a striking duo which Premier League defences simply could not handle. Rovers finished the campaign having failed to score in only five games and – industrious as the rest of the team was – it was ultimately their prolific front men who fired them to their long-awaited title. That said, they could so easily have fallen at the final hurdle, and handed the accolades to their fiercest foes.
Having stuttered and stumbled in the last few weeks of the season, Rovers went into the final day two points ahead of Ferguson's United. Dalglish found himself back at Anfield, where his side lost 2-1 in what could have been a devastating result. Thankfully, despite their defeat to Liverpool, Blackburn were rescued by events in East London. United were held to a 1-1 draw with West Ham at Upton Park, and so the league title returned to Ewood for the first time since the start of the First World War.
When he realised that his ambitions for Rovers had been realised, it must have been the happiest moment of Jack Walker's life. He had promised that he would bring peerless glory to Blackburn, and he had delivered, both for the football club and his hometown. While the title could not have been won without the ingenuous contributions of Dalglish, nor the flair and commitment of his beloved Shearer, Blackburn might never have been in the Premier League in the first place had it not been for Walker's contribution. He had nurtured the club root and branch, and seen it blossom at the pinnacle of the league.
Unfortunately, in the time since, Blackburn has not been quite so well treated. Having continued to bankroll the club, if not to quite the same levels of success, Walker died in 2000, missing an era of mid-table stability over the course of the next decade. While he left provision for the club in his will, those funds were managed by the trustees of his estate. The aim was always for the club to become self-sustainable, and so benefit from some form of return for Walker's investment in the future. Self-sustainability never materialised as a financial reality, however. Instead, the club continued to cost, and cost, and cost, and so eventually it was put up for sale.
What has happened since is well documented, with the dereliction of Rovers under their new ownership apparent for all to see. Since Indian poultry company Venky's bought the club in 2010, Rovers have been relegated to the Championship in farcical circumstances, and seem more likely to drop down to the third tier than to earn promotion any time soon. Jack Walker could never have been expected to foresee that, and it would doubtlessly have broken his heart if he had. That said, as a businessman and astute reader of markets, he might have foreseen the effect his spending had on the economy of the Premier League.
Whether or not one feels that Walker's expenditure was incompatible with romance, there's certainly a compelling case to be made for it ushering in the financial excesses which came afterwards. It's hard to deny that, in the aftermath of Walker's huge personal outlay, transfer fees did indeed start to spiral, and wages started to go through the roof. While this wasn't entirely down to Walker, with Blackburn's rivals also spending big, the effect of two record transfer fees in almost as many years as well as serious wage packets – Sutton alone was reported to be on £10,000 a week – cannot easily be swept under the carpet. This was not money generated by Blackburn as a football club, but money lavished by Walker as an individual. In that sense, he was a precursor to the modern era of super-wealthy individual owners, even if he was a local lad as opposed to an overseas oligarch.
With the age of Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and the like, the dream of men like Jack Walker is over. The Premier League is now a global brand, and it attracts global money on a planetary scale. Local grandees in provincial towns can no longer afford to bankroll Premier League football clubs, or at least not to compete with the enormous finances generated by the raw resources of foreign investors. In spending as he did, Walker played his own significant part in the inflation of transfers, wages and the like, and so in some ways paved the way for the resultant rise of the super-rich owner, not to mention the ever-increasing financial onus on clubs the size of Blackburn Rovers. In that sense, he helped to change the face of the game with Blackburn, for better or for worse.