Twenty-five years ago, March 11th 1987, I finished work in Great Harwood at teatime and made my way to Ewood for a cup match attended by 12,060 souls.
Not that unusual or noteworthy, you may think, save for the fact that it was a semi-final I was heading for and cup semi-finals for Blackburn Rovers were even rarer an occurrence in the 1980’s than they are now.
And when you bear in mind that Rovers had only played before two league gates of five figures all season to that point (both away, 11,000 at Sunderland, 14,000 at Leeds – always check out a club’s low points when their fans tell you what a solid, traditional “football town” they come from) it was with some excitement and relief from the drudgery of league duties that I downed a few pre-match drinks, paid at the gate and watched Rovers and Ipswich run out under floodlights stood amid a healthy crowd on what were still the Riverside terraces ready to watch the two Second Division sides contest for a place in a final of a tournament which had run out of sponsors willing to put their name to it but which still offered the considerable glistening prospect of a final at Wembley Stadium.
For one reason, and one reason alone, I always trace the modern-day rebirth of the club, the moment when some kind of hope and ambition returned after decades of monochrome mediocrity, to that verynight.
I was long resigned, having grown-up in a drab, no-hope town, that my fate was to follow the fortunes of a drab, no-hope team as they floundered around below the top level.
But something changed that night.
Not simply because we won 3-0 and booked a spot in the Full Members Cup final at the Empire Stadium just 18 days later.
Not because Don Mackay, a charismatic, “ideas man” maverick of a manager in his early days, had begun to steer us away from very real relegation worries.
Not because a little bit of financial backing was rumoured to be filtering through from a certain noted local businessman.
Mackay had come down from a trip to Scotland with two new players to blood that evening, one a full-back, Chris Sulley, who gave the club sterling service.
But also making his debut that evening was a big, raw-boned, shock-haired blonde Scottish lad who threw himself into every challenge, tackle and header with an uncompromising zeal and fervour we hadn’t seen for years. Unafraid of making a mistake, unfettered by nerves or inhibitions, he won virtually every ball at both ends of the field.
More importantly, he captured hearts in a manner I had forgotten they could be captured since my hero-worshiping schoolboy days.
Here was the Rovers player you wanted to be as a kid – swashbuckling, fearless, standing out like a sore thumb, laying out forwards and causing mayhem among defenders.
In truth he would have stood out in any case, pale face, cheeks reddening with every effort extended, fair hair – he looked as unusual as Bowie in his Ziggy days amid the drab journeymen he inspired with his deeds.
I can remember thinking: “Wow – this is what’s been missing…this is what we’ve needed…” as he thwarted every Ipswich thrust in a maelstrom of physically-improbable lunges and dives.
Thus was born the legend of Colin “Braveheart” Hendry.
He was colossal, inspirational and I remember virtually every detail of the evening as clearly as had it been last night.
A couple of weeks later he was the Wembley matchwinner against Charlton, shoved up top to play centre-forward (replacing Paul McKinnon!) as he often was that season, and if he had disappeared of the face of the earth at that very point his permanent place in Rovers’ folklore would still be assured.
“Twenty-one years of age….greatest day of ma life..” he said to the Granada News people after slamming the only goal of the game into the roof of the net to send the 28,000 Lancastrians delirious.
It was a remarkable day out in the sun for a generation who had long forsaken any lingering hope that days like that were even possible. Little did we know that even headier times lay around the corner.
There were many triumphs to come for Colin Hendry, of course, highs lows, departures, second comings, promotions, titles, caps, World Cups and heartbreaking personal tragedies that we have all felt for a spiritual brother, one of us, a totem of our town’s footballing identity and tradition.
I’m proud to say that I was able to get to know Colin over the years, meet his family, travel back from games in his company, work at his houses on my day off, and feel that undeniable glow you feel as an ordinary mortal when someone you have idolised knows your name and asks after you.
His Ewood career ended in 1998 but he is still considered every bit as ever “one of us” a local hero who didn’t hail from these parts but made his home and raised his family among us.
Other than that debut, no game epitomised his unstinting devotion to duty and the cause more than the 2-1 win at Goodison in the nervy weeks which ran up to the Premier League title win eight years later.
He again threw his body, head and soul in front of everything a feverish Everton could unleash as they pinned us back for what seemed hours seeking an equaliser.
It was an individual display of courage and brilliance so entrenched in the psyche that virtually everyone who saw Burnley’s Ben Mee bravely throw his head amid boots in a recent televised game harked back to it.
These days, our local hero is David Dunn who made his own bow just a few weeks after Colin’s 1998 departure to Rangers.
Dunny’s priceless goal against Villa gave us a point we scarcely merited after a first-half that plumbed uncharted depths of ghastliness followed by a barely more-than-adequate improvement after the break.
At least his introduction injected some hitherto absent vigour and thrust to provide supporters with a focus for their backing after an opening 45 minutes during which they could only stare on numbed by the ineptitude of the rich young men paid so handsomely to represent Blackburn Rovers who have lately responded with stultefyingly little passion, without any of the skill, commitment or even ability to look all that bothered ,which is the tolerable minimum those fans are entitled to expect.
That point, and Wolves’ subsequent crushing by Fulham, took us out of the drop zone but the overall feeling after our game was that we had gotten away with a draw more through Villa’s inability to finish us off rather than any stirring resurgence on our own part.
We will need more than the incompetence of others to summon the requisite few wins to stay afloat. Even Wolves, whose sacking of Mick McCarthy and subsequent appointment of an inexperienced Terry Connor has so closely echoed our own managerial folly thus far, may have enough about them to take advantage if we are not right on our mettle.
The permanent dumping of the atrocious Petrovic would be a start.
He typifies the mediocrity of Kean’s procession of inadequate acquisitions, players who have added or contributed little or less to the cause.
What we really need is of course 11 men with the unquenchable lust for success and sheer force of will to make a name for himself that young Colin Hendry showed when presented with his opportunity on that March evening a quarter of a century ago. The very fact that it remains so vivid a memory so many years later illustrates that those who couple their ability, however prodigious or modest, with their fiery desire to do well are the ones we remember and cherish forever.