We parked in the same spot as always and walked the same route to the ground, avoiding the same piles of dog shit in the cobbled back alleys and contemplating the same burger van, the same smell of sizzling onions. It was raining and cold, the sort of weather reserved for midweek football in February.
Outside the stadium a group of young fans kicked a plastic bottle around while others huddled at the gates, reluctant to go in. If we were wondering what sort of shambles would greet us on the pitch, it didn’t augur well that the ticket office was advertising tonight’s game against QPR. Hopefully the manager and players knew they were playing Leeds.
We entered through the same turnstiles, walked past the same familiar faces, and took our seats as we always did in the Riverside Stand. A ritual spanning hundreds of matches over decades of feast and famine. Once a pilgrimage, then an act of self-punishment, and now…something different.
Blackburn Rovers’ decline has been well documented. Bought by Venkys in 2010 with the ambition of becoming a Champions League club and talk of hiring Diego Maradona as manager (which genuinely would have been brilliant) it quickly transpired that the owners had no idea what they were doing. They took poor advice, made terrible appointments, burned millions and eventually just disappeared. What was then a circus is now one of those depressing zoos in a Chinese shopping mall, a forlorn polar bear slumped in the corner of its glass cage trying to remember the feel of real snow.
The thought of going back to Ewood Park has weighed heavy on my mind for almost five years. The idea of propping up Venkys’ regime by paying to watch them run Rovers into the ground was enough to drive many fans away, some that will never come back. But I was in Blackburn on a Wednesday night in February, and there was f*ck-all else to do. It wouldn’t be right for a 31-year-old to go bowling with his dad.
Watching the players warm up, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I was here or which of the seven permanent managers under Venkys had been in charge. Was it Kean or Berg, Appleton or Bowyer? Given that Appleton lasted 67 days and Berg 57, it’s no surprise it’s all a bit of a blur. At least the owners cared enough to make a mess of things back then. They haven’t been seen in Blackburn for two years, leaving Rovers to gather so much dust that the weight of it is now pushing the club down into League One.
The decision to hire former Burnley manager Owen Coyle last summer was met with dismay by the fan base. The ineptitude of Rovers’ hierarchy still has the propensity to surprise. A failed manager at a failing club, it was a recipe for disaster. And now, despite miraculously beating Newcastle home and away, the team sit three points from safety with one win in their last ten Championship matches.
It may seem a lost cause, but on Wednesday night I didn’t find the hollow husk of a club I feared. Instead, Rovers fought a brave battle against promotion-chasing Leeds, succumbing only at the death to Pontus Jansson’s unstoppable header. The spirit was there, piercing the air of resignation in the stands, and no little creativity going forward. Rovers have scored as many goals as fifth-placed Huddersfield, after all, and three more than Derby.
As the team strived to find a vital win on the pitch, somehow it didn’t seem right to sit and grumble. On Saturday, the supporters joined forces with their counterparts from Blackpool to stage a protest ahead of the FA Cup fourth round tie at Ewood Park. Another demonstration is planned for the high-profile clash against Manchester United in the next round, when Venkys will surely be hoping to put Rovers in the shop window. There’s a reason they’ve changed the position of the TV cameras this season to hide the Riverside.
For the supporters who go every week, watching the club die before their very eyes, there are no other obvious means of recourse. It is their right, some would say responsibility, to protest. But it is a war of attrition in which the owners haven’t budged an inch. There is no sense of urgency or even willingness to fix the situation.
I’ll always support the protests, the inexorable howl of football fans that the game belongs to them, but the dispiriting futility of events at Blackburn is part of what drove me away. The defeat to Leeds, wholly unfair, was another sign that the slide can’t be stopped.
There are bigger issues at play than what happens on the pitch, yet at the same time nothing is more important. On Wednesday I felt a sense of belonging reignited. This team deserves the fans’ support. The manager too, for stoking the embers when faced with an impossible task.
The club deserves the protests, the constant reminder that it will outlive the current owners and the looming threat of relegation. The battle for Blackburn Rovers’ soul will be long and exhausting, but it is one the supporters will win.