Cheerless Ewood but Spidery Sparkle

Forty years ago this very week, on Boxing Day Monday, I stood in cold, harsh, driving sleet on an uncovered “away end” (in reality a few steps of crumbling terracing with a sloping slag-heap behind off the top of which a row of parked-up double-decker buses seemed likely to slide down at any given moment) at Halifax Town’s Shay “Stadium”.
A corner came over and a fearsome bloke named John McNamee, Rovers’ shall-we-say “uncompromising” centre-half somehow made contact with it amid what they call up in his native Scotland “a right old stramash” in the mud and ensured that not only it and he, but also the keeper, about 18 other players and the ref ended up somewhere between the line and the back of the net, which collapsed, before emerging, covered in dirt and blood but triumphant, a bit like that famous picture of Rugby Union international Fran Cotton (or Frank Hotton as the ticket for a Church CC Sportsman’s Dinner once heralded him).
Later on in the afternoon the floodlights packed up extending our stay in the unsalubrious Yorkshire location for a further half-hour or so. Halifax in the dark, pissed wet through – even as an easily-impressed pre-pubescent I knew this was not a theatre of dreams.
McNamee was the kind of footballer other footballers feared. Not least his own team-mates.Signed a few weeks before after a 3-1 defeat at Torquay (yes, you read that right, that’s why I can’t regard current events as quite the end of the world) he had utilised his limited gifts but monumentally intimidating presence to bring about an upturn in results. Not only were opponents mortally scared of him, his own lot would not have wished to have been in an enclosed space in his company after a game having failed to give their all.
I relate this tale not simply because it’s an anniversary of one of my first away games without my dad there – he couldn’t bring himself to watch Third Division football for a year or two – but because it was possibly as low down the pyramid as I ever thought we’d slip. There were 7,000 on that day, most of them away support, but that was 2,000 more than had been at Ewood the week before. Halifax getting better gates than us!
The Fourth Division was beckoning and it didn’t feel far away that day.
Even at the age of 12 I realised that there wasn’t much further we could fall, that surroundings, atmosphere and ambience didn’t get much more prosaic than that. We won the game one-nil but hung around that division for another three seasons and fell to that level once more, briefly, before the decade was out.
So we’ve been lower than this. But have we ever had less reason to feel a glimmer of optimism?
As a 12-year-old I dreamed we’d one day get back up, maybe even back to the top division I vaguely recalled.
My dreams, unlike those of lots of other people, actually did come true. We did get back up, and up again, and we won the league that I thought only the likes of Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds ever won.
By then in my mid-30’s, I knew that it was to be savoured for the moment, memories stored away . I knew it might not last forever.
I accepted after Jack Walker passed away that we might lose our place at the top table and never return, at least not as a contender again.
But I never thought it would come to this. This desperate, devastating plight which seems only certain to continue to spiral down a dark vortex of suffering as we witness the systematic dismantling of a club whose well-being courses through our hearts and veins.
After Saturday’s miserable, horrible defeat to West Brom, not to put the clueless, hapless, unloved Steve Kean out of his misery would have been an utter dereliction of duty, if indeed anyone there was in any position of authority whose duty it is to see that Blackburn Rovers the organisation is run correctly.
But we don’t have anyone living in the same time zone disposed to make such a decision. The organisation, a big employer in a small, unprosperous town, is being administered by buffoons from a distant continent, people who have simply no idea how to do it nor the simple nous to realise that in the absence of any such abilities or credentials, what you do is get someone who has to do the job for you.
So on it goes. Tuesday night. If you were beleaguered Owen Coyle, having just presided over a humiliating FA Cup Semi-Final spanking followed by 18 defeats in 21 league games, what would your team talk be?
“Get set about this lot from the off, they can’t cope and you’ll have the home crowd baying for blood.”
In the most unpleasant atmosphere anyone can have ever experienced at a ground since the dark days of hooliganism, you actually feared for the wretched fellow.
The most awful thing was the inevitability of it all. Within five minutes Rovers’ collective paralysis had turned Bolton into Barcelona and the attendant outpouring of bile and spite and hatred and sheer nastiness enveloped Ewood.
In the second half, unlike against West Brom when even the completely unexpected and unmerited equaliser was barely enough to lift the feeling of numbed horror of the display, Rovers actually shaped themselves and exposed Bolton for the equally poor, nervy, waiting-for-it-to-happen-to-them fragile outfit they are.
But it was too little too late.
Incredibly, two days later, we still await news. Mama Chicken is said to have over-ruled Dumb and Dumber and the most inept chump ever to manage us remains in situ. Unbelievable.
I abhor what is happening to our club but watching the match on TV later, the most disturbing sight was a half-time row briefly caught on camera: one guy, probably an Anti-Kean protester, jabbing his finger aggressively at another lad, probably one of the “give him more time” brigade.
Fans of the same team at ugly loggerheads, this is what we are reduced to.
A pal, not a Rovers fan, who hails from this area and has fashioned a wonderful career in the media, told me: ”Whether he should go or not, the whole thing is making Rovers fans look ridiculous. I think I gave up caring when I saw some yellow T-shirt wearing fans celebrating WBA’s winner…it actually embarrasses me as a Northerner living Down South as it looks so petty and parochial…if someone wants to pigeonhole Blackburn as a small town full of hicks they’re getting ample opportunity.
“I just find it interesting that fans behaving that way can actually work against them. The idiots in yellow think the rest of the country agrees about Kean, and the irony is many did, but most now feel a bit sorry for the bloke.
“Obviously not good at his job but no-one deserves treatment like he got the other night.”
I don’t agree wholly with that but I concur that the pervading rancour shows no-one in a good light. Some of the scenes looked only small degrees removed from out-and-out lynch-mobbery and while everyone’s patience, loyalty, financial commitment and continued support is being stretched and abused beyond reasonable limits, the basic tenets of decent human behaviour must always apply, and I speak as someone ashamed to say I rather unkindly shouted at MGP to bugger off up the tunnel when in my opinion he rather unnecessarily (in my view!) came to applaud us Riversiders for our backing a couple of minutes after waving Odemwinge through last Saturday.
When even the LT, normally the only media outlet as Pravda-like in its party line as Radio Rovers (“Let’s look for positives in this defeat. The Yak scored another good goal, didn’t he?”) breaks ranks in a long-overdue but accurate assessment of the dire situation and calls for action, matters must have come to a head.
So as I sit awaiting the yellow “Breaking News” flash, there is little from a footballing point of view to cheer that little lad at Halifax now that he contemplates middle-age, or yet to comfort anyone who cares deeply about Blackburn Rovers.
We keep hoping we’ve hit rock bottom but I wouldn’t bank on it not getting worse.
I wish you all a Happy and Peaceful Christmas with your loved ones.
*Great to see that legendary “lost” TOTP footage of Bowie performing Jean Genie (and seguing into the harmonica riff from Love Me Do) which has emerged from January 1973.
Long thought to have been deleted, it has emerged that a BBC camera man retained a copy, never realising his was the only one remaining intact.
A dangerosly thin Bowie with those contrasting-coloured eyes and his Spiders From Mars stomp around in lurex and platforms to that glam-infused bastardisation of an old Yardbirds riff as Britain looked on agog and wondered was that a bloody bloke or a girl and what the world was coming to?
It is not hard to see watching it why The Dame’s emergence in 1972, transformed from the bubble-permed folk-rockish one hit fey Space Oddity wonder of three years earlier into a stick-insect shock-haired bisexual space invader in Yansai Kamamoto glam-chic, momma-poppa comin’ into the living rooms of Albion to recruit the youth of the day to listen to the Starman waiting in the sky, was a seismic clarion call and caused a tidal wave of outrage, horror but ultimately acceptance and tolerance the ripples of which lap around to this day.
Check out The Spiders and their main man – that was when pop stars were expected to look and behave weirdly, “They Came From Planet Bacofoil” one writer brilliantly recalled, and no band ever looked more like they had been beamed in from another galaxy than Bowie and his androgynous bunch of former Hull council workers!
The very same month as that performance was shot, Bowie played Preston Guildhall. I missed it. My mate Kieran from school,always way ahead of the crowd, was there.
He had introduced me to Bowie while wrestling with his own realisation that he was gay at a Catholic Boys’ School where understanding and tolerance were in criminally short supply from his contemporaries, older pupils and certainly from the priests and teachers who ran the joint.
The sight of a delectably made-up Bowie with his arm round Ronson doing Starman a few months earlier has been described as an epiphany moment for many youngsters who were hitherto unable to express or reveal their sexuality, a day when liberation and pride and not having to hide the truth seemed nearer than it did before.
To this day, whenever I see a young lad on a bus or in the street with mad coloured hair or ear-rings or tattoos or just looking the way he wants without fear of being beaten up or ridiculed, I still think to myself: “David Bowie did that for you” and I think of Kieran, eventually so flamboyant and ground-breaking.
Just five months later Bowie and The Spiders were back at The Guildhall. Imagine that – the biggest act on the planet, almost, twice in five months!
The second half of the show commenced with that Jean Genie/Love Me Do segue and during it, Bowie began to take exception to rough handling of some kids who were frenzied in their adoration, down the front by that curiously low-set stage.
With a magisterial wave of his bangle-adorned hand he stopped the beat and demanded that the thugs administering this treatment – this was the 70’s, anything went – remove themselves to the back of the punters before another note was played.
Thus banished, Woodmansey counted back in and Ronno’s riff and David’s wailing gob-iron upped the hysteria level still further into the stratosphere.
For a 14-year-old watching only his second gig (Bowie at KGH Blackburn a week earlier the first) from the seats down the side it was ecstatic stuff. It was ragged and naive, it was heaven.
I would like to say at this stage it set me on a path where school was out, I decided that being a rock star was the only way to go and I mastered the guitar and led a life marked by genius and debauchery in equal measure.
But I am not Ian McCulloch or Marc Almond or Roddy Frame or any of the dozens of other latent geniuses awakened and galvanised by such earth-tremoring moments.
What I actually did was made a bollocks of my O Levels as listening to and devouring every note, word and nuance of Diamond Dogs or Young Americans took precedence over any academic matters, and I never did work out how to make barre chords with having little hands.
I became Blackburn’s equivalent of “the accounts clerk in Middlesbrough who regards himself as more hip than anyone else he works or drinks or goes to the footy with” as someone once described the archetypal NME reader.
But seeing that Jean Genie footage and remembering how aghast my parents were that I idolised this spangly bunch of hermaphrodite renegades, I feel the memory of those wonderful stirrings of teenage rebellion all over again.
Every kid deserves to have a moment when that cusp between childhood and young adulthood gives them an empowering rush of excitement and amazement at the possibilities of life.
But few will have as charismatic and enticing a Pied Piper as Bowie was in those heady months of the early 1970’s.

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