Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1995. Most people, even the most casual of armchair football fans, are fully aware of this fact. What most fans might not know, though, is Blackburn’s pre-season training camp in the summer of 1994 took place in Pleasington playing fields. To those who don’t live in Blackburn, that’s the local park – the sandy pitches normally reserved for the still-p*ssed, half-time-smoking members of the local pub league.
While the new state-of-the-art training facility was being built in Brockhall on the outskirts of the town, Kenny Dalglish and his band of future champions spent the summer, as Nick Hancock once put it while standing on bog pitches in Hackney Marshes, ‘dodging the dog turds in places like these.’ King Kenny said it himself recently, ‘On the first day someone said to me “do you want to train on the sand pitch or the grass pitch?” I said, “I don’t know what a sand pitch is. That season the players were still taking their kit home to wash.”’
It was a dry, hot summer in 1994, in the way that all summers are prone to be through the lens of nostalgia, no doubt a trick of the memory. This really was the pinnacle though; it was Stephen King’s coming-of-age summer of 1960, the wisdom of Mary Schmich’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’, Daniel Stern’s narration, ‘those really were the wonder years for us there in the suburbs – it was kind of a golden age for kids.’
A lot happened that summer; Oasis released their debut album Definitely Maybe, Roberto Baggio skied his World Cup final penalty, and Forrest Gump first ran and ran and ran, along with the OJ Simpson saga. Meanwhile in Blackburn, following a second place finish behind Manchester United in the 1993/94 season, optimism had engulfed the town. Jack Walker, the local-born steel magnate, had transformed the club from relative obscurity to genuine title challengers, in the hope of winning their first league championship since 1914.
Even at such a young age, I knew this was a big deal. I recall my dad helping my brothers and I cut strips of printer paper into autograph-sized sheets, we were armed and ready for signatures. Colin Hendry, as my mum recalls, always had time for an autograph or a photo with young fans. Every day, even during the training session. The photo below is one of me and my older brothers with Braveheart himself, each holding our autograph collection. Out of shot the rest of the team are doing customary stretches at the start of the day’s session.
Pleasington played home to such optimism and fanfare. The park is open all year round, and has 12 full size football pitches and 14 cricket wickets. A road runs through the centre of the park, leading to the town’s crematorium. In Graeme Le Saux’s autobiography, Left Field, he recalls the training matches stopping abruptly when funerals were taking place. It was a peculiar sight – a cluster of some of the leading footballers in the country, their heads bowed out of respect for passing hearses.
The newly signed Chris Sutton, one of the hottest properties in football having scored 38 goals in two seasons for Norwich, was bought for a British record fee of £5m, forming one half of the deadly SAS partnership with Alan Shearer. On the morning of his arrival at Pleasington, I recall him cutting a weary figure, far from the eager and willing presence you may have expected. I have since found out the reason for this jaded appearance, he’d spent the night in a police cell. Following a heavy drinking session on his leaving night with his Norwich team-mates, he was so p*ssed from the pub crawl that he caused damage to the steering wheel and indicator of a passing convertible car by jumping headfirst into it.
The mischief of the team seems consistent throughout all accounts, there seemed to be an inherent boisterousness and an optimism mirrored by the fans. The coach driver, known as Stoney, was often the butt of the jokes. During a stuffy team dinner the night before a match, captain Tim Sherwood played the foil by breathing on a spoon and seeing how long he could hang it off the end of his nose. Stoney was next up. Le Saux recalls, ‘Shearer had been heating the spoon while no-one was watching. Stoney grabbed the spoon and put it on the end of his nose and then started screaming. He ran off and dunked his head in a bowl of water. He had a scar on his nose for about three months.’
Mark Atkins, perhaps one of the most unsung heroes of the season with 6 crucial goals in 34 league appearances, recently recounted the dressing room culture in an interview with the Lancashire Telegraph, “When I signed there was no gym and we were training at Pleasington Field. The changing rooms were falling to bits, bits were dropping off the roof and Ewood Park was a real old looking ground. What a turnaround things have been.’ Atkins also attested to the family nature of the club, ‘It was always a very friendly club…and that never changed throughout my time there. That is what made the place so special.’
Jim Bowen, one of Blackburn’s most famous sons, alongside Jack Straw and the recent Dr Who, summed up the feeling quite neatly, ‘Rovers have always been, win or lose, succeed or fail, an integral part of Blackburn life. Jack Walker gave the people of Blackburn a shrine to football. All he wanted to do was to see the boys do well.’
Although the conditions weren’t exactly what the players were used to, for a seven-year-old just getting into football, the notion of your favourite team training in the local park, including true giants of the game, still seems like a dream. The varying personalities of the team amounted not only to success on the pitch, but also the requisite camaraderie needed for a genuine title challenge.
It seems fitting then, at this stage, for Jack Walker to have the last word, ‘I’ve always loved Blackburn, and Blackburn Rovers. Money doesn’t come into it. Once you’re down there, you can’t get the players and you can’t get the atmosphere. I decided I had to do something, and that’s what I did.’
Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here