When you look at a 1971 picture of Ken Furphy, who passed away this week aged 83, you probably wouldn’t think you were looking at a bloke who’d just gone 40.
With his side parting, hair swept across, club blazer and tie, grey flannels, you would probably, by today’s standards, have him down as mid-50’s or early 60’s.
But when Furphy swept into tired, dispirited, almost deserted Ewood that summer, he brought more than a dash of modernity to a Blackburn Rovers club which had been spiralling downwards amid a general air of disillusionment and indifference and had led to a second relegation in five years with a home attendance for the final, academic 1970-71 Second Division game of 3,971.
I was one of those and even at 12 I knew that a weary, ailing club needed a shake up.
Furphy certainly gave it that. You could argue he actually revolutionised the institution.
Rovers had been taken down by a combination of past-their-sell-by date management pair Johnny Carey and Eddie Quigley.
They had swapped jobs in mid-season with Carey, who built a fine top flight Rovers side in the early 1960’s, first brought back as “General Manager” (a kind of Director of Football Role) only to replace the faltering Quigley doing the coaching when it was too late as Eddie, a revered Ewood hero as a goalscoring inside-forward of the 1950’s, was shunted to administrative duties.
The board men making these decisions were largely anonymous, elderly local business successes. You never heard them and probably wouldn’t recognise them if you walked past them on Richmond Terrace.
But fortunately, someone had remembered the young player manager whose Fourth Division Workington side had humiliated Rovers in an Ewood League Cup tie in 1964.
Furphy had by then had Watford promoted to the Second Division and steered them on a thrilling run to an FA Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea in 1970.
They lost that 5-1 but a 1-0 win over Liverpool at Vicarage Road in the Sixth Round, goal scored by a player to feature in Furphy’s Ewood odyssey, had stunned the nation at a time when the FA Cup really mattered and Shankly’s Liverpool were founding a dynasty.
You have to understand that there was almost no platform for a Second Division manager in what miniscule bits of media existed then. Two one-hour highlights shows showing maybe four of the weekend’s matches was football on TV.
Local radio was barely off the ground. There wasn’t even any ceefax or teletext.
I honestly can’t ever recall hearing the voices of Carey or Quigley. We might have got two minutes on Football Focus or On The Ball in 1969 when we played Man City in the FA Cup, our only real high-profile game between 1966 and 1971.
But suddenly, Furphy’s voice, or at least his rallying and inspirationally-worded cries to arms in the local press were everywhere and the few thousand who were ready to remain loyal in Rovers’ first ever delve into Division three couldn’t get enough of them.
I vividly recall a club open day in that summer of 1971 , a Furphy innovation which no 12-year-old boy could resist.
Round about the time of the first ever Glastonbury Festival, in the month Jim Morrison was found dead in a Paris bathtub and George Harrison was putting the line-up for the Concert For Bangla Desh together, Furphy opened the gates and doors of Ewood to anyone who wanted to come and watch the players train, then meet them and him and collect autographs in the ACTUAL DRESSING ROOMS.
No-one had ever heard anything like it. I still have my page of signatures from that day, I was probably the first down and the last to leave.
On a “tactics board” Furphy demonstrated to older, more knowledgeable fans how he intended to tackle the likes of Halifax, Rochdale and Torquay United. He was mesmerising.
An old mate no longer with us, Gordon Horne, who’d followed Rovers since the Second World War ended, told me years later: “I started off thinking, who’s this silly bugger? By the time I came out I was convinced he’d have us in Europe within five years.”
Of course Furphy didn’t but he had realised, in the drab, colourless world of relegated Rovers, the value of good PR.
The demographic of Rovers’ support over the four years we spent in Division Three would become much younger and it was largely the younthful, the dreamers, the uncynical that Ken’s pitch was aimed squarely towards.
Rovers had lost a generation of fans. The 1960 Cup Final fiasco had put a good many off and despite flickering brightly for a time under Carey, an accursed, woebegone relegation season in 1966 from the First Division followed by a series of failed and increasingly forlorn attempts to return had seen many more jump ship.
I remember my father telling me he could not stomach seeing some of the opposition coming to Ewood less than half a decade after the like Spurs, Man United and Liverpool had been our natural foe.
So Furphy knew he had to catch the young and wide-eyed before they found other entertainments.
And he pulled it off. He made watching even Third Division football seem glamorous exciting for those not old enough to be dismissive of the prospect.
At a pre-season reserve/youth game at Great Harwood in midweek before the season’s opener, legend has it he asked the youth coach in charge who the two lads in midfield were, a boy with long dark hair and a red-head who had caught the eye.
“McDonald and Bradford,” came the reply.
“Right, whip them off and get two subs on, “ Furphy is alleged to have said, “they’re playing on Saturday.”
Sure enough the two tyros played as the season began with 7,901 on at home to Rotherham. Rovers won 2-0 with McDonald scoring on debut after Eamonn Rogers had opened the scoring.
The other nine that day were all remains of the relegation campaign. Furphy hadn’t brought, nor been able to bring, a single player in yet.
A mixture of promising youngsters he had inherited like Derek Fazackerley and Tony Parkes along with old lags such as Fred Goodwin, Brian Conlon and a handful of saleable assets such as Rogers, Billy Wilson and Allan Hunter lost at Plymouth then won the next home game against Wrexham.
Two subsequent defeats and Furphy knew it need surgery.
How he went about it is the stuff of legend. Ten signings in 77 days had everyone’s head spinning in a manner I can only compare to the first weeks of Dalglish and Ray Harford’s Jack Walker-funded recruitment drive of the Autumn of 1991.
The cultured centre-back Hunter, a Northern Ireland regular far too good for the division, was sold to Ipswich for £65,000 plus Bobby Bell, also a central defender, valued at about £20,00.
The Watford captain Terry Garbett, a trusted and cultured midfield lieutenant, came in on the same day.
Both made inauspicious debuts as a Roger Hunt-inspired Bolton (who had dropped down with us) cantered to a 3-0 win at Ewood.
Bell played one more game, a draw at Walsall and was incredibly sold to Crystal Palace the next week – for £50,000.
More than just a magician’s trickery it freed up cash – buttons by today’s values but a treasure trove to Furphy – to embark on a mad two months of wheeler-dealing.
Johnny Price, a remarkably diminutive ex-Clarets winger came from Stockport. Danish full-back Ben Arentoft, a member of Newcastle’s last trophy winning side (Fairs Cup, 1968) was recruited.
Full-back Mick Heaton, destined to be a stalwart servant, came in from Sheffield United along with Wolves midfield man Gerry Farrell.
Not that everything was going smoothly. Much of this activity took place during a run of seven games without a win. That run even extended to one win out of 12 as Rovers hovered perilously close to an unthinkable descent to the bottom league.
The nadir was a 7-1 defeat at Gay Meadow when peerless goalkeeper Roger Jones had to be replaced by Don Martin and Shrewsbury yeoman Alf Wood helped himself to a nap hand.
Undoubtedly today there would be angry calls for a manager’s head with just three wins and three draws from the opening 17 games.
But I’ll be honest…you barely noticed the results as you awaited your Evening Telegraph for news of the next signing.
And what signings the next few were!
Tony Field, 25, had been kicking around the lower leagues scoring goals for years with prosaic names like Halifax Town, Barrow and Southport, from whom Rovers signed him for £17,500 and the modestly-talented Goodwin.
Field was destined to become the talisman hero of the terraces, scorer of some of the most wondrous goals I’ve seen by a Rovers player. He didn’t do tap-ins.
A week later the less extravagantly-gifted Barry Endean, scorer of that Watford winner against Liverpool, arrived from Charlton with the increasingly bored-looking Rogers, initially hailed by Furphy as “potential King of this division,” moving South in part-exchange.
But things had barely improved by a month later, late November, when Furphy found the last and most vital piece of what looked like randomly-assembled crazy paving but turned out to be his jigsaw playing out his career in Newcastle’s Reserves.
With a trip to Tranmere on a Friday night to come, this team needed a colossus and a commander….
Part Two to follow on Thursdat=y