An Outsider’s View of Rovers History

Thursday, 2 May 2024

I usually write historical pieces about Leicester City, but it’s fun to spread the net a bit wider and cover other teams too. With Rovers coming to the King Power on Saturday, I’d like to present an outsider’s view of a few stand-out moments in the club’s history. You might find the selections a little biased towards the distant past, but please comment and tell me what you think. I’ll present it as a top ten:


10) Forget Haaland. What About Harper vs Halliday?

No-one knows when the phrase ‘fill yer boots’ originated, but my money would be on 1925, when the laws of the game changed. The FA decided that an attacker would now only be offside if he was in front of the last defender when the ball was played. 

At that time the record for most goals in a season in Division One was 38, shared by Bert Freeman and Joe Smith. But early in 1925/26 it was clear that the record was under threat. 

In the first four games, Dave Halliday scored TEN for Sunderland as they roared to the top of the League. At the other end of the table were Blackburn Rovers, who started with three straight defeats, and looked like they might be relegated for the first time ever.

That prompted Rovers manager Jack Carr to make a change in the forward line. He brought in Ted Harper at number nine for the trip to Newcastle United. Harper responded by scoring five in an astonishing 7-1 victory. 

When Sunderland came to Ewood Park two weeks later, Harper scored twice as Rovers won 3-2 to continue their climb up the table. Harper now had nine, just one behind Halliday.

The following week Harper got a hat-trick as Rovers beat Cardiff 6-2. He now had twelve in just five games, while Halliday scored twice as Sunderland beat Spurs. The goal-machines were level on a dozen apiece. 

And so it continued. The two of them went head-to-head for the whole season, the race capturing fans’ imagination just as much as the battle for trophies.

The crucial day was April 10th. With three games to play, Halliday had 38 and needed just one more to break the record. Harper was one behind on 37. At Highbury, Sunderland won 2-1, but Halliday was sent off, and left the field without adding to his tally. Meanwhile at Ewood Park, Rovers hammered Manchester United 7-0, with Harper unstoppable. He helped himself to four, taking his total into the 40s, where no striker had ever been before. 

He finished on 43, and Halliday was stuck on 38. 

It’s a largely forgotten story, thanks to the exploits of George Camsell and Dixie Dean in subsequent years. But in the mid-twenties, Rovers fans could justifiably claim that they had by far the greatest goal scorer the world had ever seen.


9) They’ll Never Do It In The Top Flight

There’s nothing quite as thrilling as a late surge to promotion. And there may never have been a surge quite like Blackburn’s in 1958. 

On March 22nd, Rovers lost 2-1 to Bolton in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Maine Road. It was a shattering defeat, but they had no time to feel sorry for themselves. They had to pull themselves together for the promotion race. 

This was the top of Division Two (no play-offs then, of course):

Just two days after the semi-final, Rovers hosted Bristol City at Ewood Park and somehow had the energy for a crushing 5-0 victory. That was the first game in a blistering sequence in which Johnny Carey’s team scored 5, 3, 5, 5, 3, 3, 4, 1 and 4. Thirty-three goals in nine games climaxing with a famous all-or-nothing victory at Charlton. After a decade away, Rovers were back at the top level.

The forward line was Douglas, Dobing, Johnston, Vernon, MacLeod. And that climax to the season took Rovers into the top flight with their confidence at Scotland 1978 levels (when MacLeod told everyone his team were going to win the World Cup).

Wiser heads doubted whether that attacking force would be as effective against First Division defences, and when the fixture list came out, Rovers were given a tough opener – at Newcastle.

The game must have brought back sweet memories for Ted Harper, then in the last of his 58 years. Three decades after that 7-1 win at St James Park, Rovers came away with another stunning victory – this time by five goals to one.

Two days later, Leicester City came to Ewood Park and were beaten 5-0. The following Saturday, Tottenham were the visitors, and they too were hammered 5-0. 

There can’t have been many moments in the club’s history when fans were dancing in the streets quite as joyously as that weekend, Rovers sitting proudly at the top of the League with the ridiculous goal average of 15.00.

It’s another moment largely erased from history due to subsequent events. But dreams that don’t come true are just as real as those that do. And the hopes of recapturing former glories that Rovers fans cherished at the start of that season shouldn’t be forgotten.


8) Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham – I Don’t Care

Leicester v Blackburn might be called ‘The Upstarts Derby’ – the only teams to break the monopoly of the big clubs in the Premier League era. Unlike Rovers though, Leicester can’t look back on a distant past when they were a member of the elite. 

On only one occasion has Leicester been chosen to stage an FA Cup Semi-Final*. That was back in 1928 – and it was a historic day for Rovers too. They faced Arsenal at Filbert Street, and came away with a narrow victory thanks to Jack Roscamp’s goal. At Wembley, Rovers won 3-1 against Huddersfield, their sixth FA Cup win to go with two League titles. They were truly giants of the game. 

But what followed was nearly 70 years of hurt without a major trophy, and those who enjoy a bit of wallowing in self-pity might appreciate this piece of trivia. The community singing at Wembley in 1928 kicked off with Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, the song which opens the Smiths’ classic album The Queen Is Dead.

*Filbert Street also staged a replayed FA Cup Semi-Final in 1962. Ewood Park has staged five, plus one replay, the last being in 1947.


7)  The Five-Second Final

It’s one of the best-known stories in North-West football. Dave Whelan’s leg fracture in the 1960 Cup Final leaves Rovers with just ten men, and Wolves run out comfortable 3-0 winners before being booed off the field for their boring tactics. But the key moment in that match was arguably straight after the kick-off.

Derek Dougan, two-goal hero of the semi-final, went into the game less than fully fit. He’d injured a muscle in his thigh the week before the final at Birmingham, but he convinced manager Dally Duncan he was OK. 

Just five seconds into the game, a Wolves player came straight through Dougan and aggravated the injury. Dougan, barely half-fit now, then spent the whole game in the pocket of Wolves’ captain Bill Slater, the man who’d just picked up the Footballer of the Year award. 

You can see Dougan spin round as he feels the force of that challenge:


6)  Club or Country?

Rovers’ manager at the time of that 1928 FA Cup win was Bob Crompton, a name that most Blackburn fans will know, and one that ought to be known more widely. His record of 41 England caps stood for nearly half a century until Billy Wright surpassed it. He was a full back, and the story of the last of those caps is fascinating. 

On the morning of April 4th 1914, Rovers were six points clear at the top of the League, seemingly cruising to the title. But that day the team in second place, Bolton Wanderers, were the visitors to Ewood Park. They also had a game in hand. If they could win, the race would be wide open.

It seems unbelievable now, but Rovers went into this crucial game without Crompton due to an international call-up. He was on duty for England at Hampden Park. Back then, and in fact right up to the 1960s, internationals were often scheduled on the same day as a League programme, and country generally took priority over club. 

It wasn’t only Rovers that were affected. Bolton lost two players - Joe Smith of England and Alex Donaldson of Scotland.

The Scots won 3-1 at Hampden, with Crompton and Smith combining to set up England’s goal. As a disappointed Bob came off the field, he’d have been anxious about the result at Ewood.

Bolton were 2-1 up at one stage, but two second half goals saw Blackburn take the points. Six days later, a point at Newcastle sealed Rovers’ second title in three years, with three games to spare.

Coming later is another 3-2 win that preceded title celebrations.


5)  Jimmy Brown – Rovers Legend

If you've never read Arnold Bennett's book The Card, then you've been missing out. It's a fantastic, comic novel with a climax that features some of the best and most authentic writing about football in English literature (not that there's much competition).

In that final section there’s a reference to a famous moment in Rovers history:

Every reader will remember with a thrill the match in which the immortal Jimmy Brown, on the last occasion when he captained Blackburn Rovers, dribbled the ball himself down the length of the field, scored a goal, and went home with the English Cup under his arm. Callear intended to imitate the feat. He went on, and good luck seemed to float over him like a cherub. Finally he shot; a wild, high shot; but there was an adverse wind which dragged the ball down, swept it round, and blew it into the net.

Brown’s goal came in the Cup Final replay at the Racecourse Ground, Derby in 1886, when Rovers won 2-0 to complete a hat-trick of triumphs.

He did indeed retire shortly afterwards, but came back briefly two years later to play in the first season of the Football League.

If you have eight hours to spare, you could do worse than listen to the whole of Bennett’s novel, read by the wonderful Andy Minter.


4)  Throwing It All Away

On Leicester City forums recently, after the club had allowed a 14-point gap over the third placed team to be gradually eaten away, there was a lot of talk about whether any other club had ever collapsed so spectacularly. One instance mentioned was Blackburn Rovers in 1991/92. It’s the opposite of the late-season surge mentioned earlier. 

For Kenny Dalglish, it was the first time in 25 years as player and manager that he had experienced anything resembling a slump. 

They missed out on automatic promotion, but then came the play-offs, with Leicester involved too. It was a great story, and you can read about it in some detail here:

The City Went Absolutely Mental - Leicester City Forum - FoxesTalk


3)  Slow Starters in a Season of Tragedy

That play-off triumph came four decades after Jack Walker had witnessed one of the most traumatic days in the history of the club. He was there when Rovers fan William Hargreaves died and nearly 200 were injured after a game at Bury as a footbridge over the railway at Knowsley Street station collapsed on to the line 20 feet below. It’s another story that is surprisingly little known outside Lancashire.

That was a remarkable season for Rovers. After nine games they had just two points. A drop into Division Three beckoned. 

They were still bottom in November, but that didn’t stop full back Bill Eckersley retaining his place in the England side. He was chosen to partner Alf Ramsey for England against Austria at Wembley. 

It was then that Rovers’ form completely turned around. Throughout the winter of 1952 they were one of the best teams in the country, winning fifteen games out of nineteen in League and Cup, which saw them pull clear of relegation danger and reach the Quarter-Finals of the FA Cup. The game at Bury which preceded the bridge collapse was right in the middle of that run, Rovers winning 2-0.

In that quarter-final Rovers beat Burnley 3-1 at Ewood Park, and it was only after a semi-final replay at Elland Road that they lost to eventual winners Newcastle United. This is a wonderful clip. Perhaps one of you can manage what I couldn’t and identify the Rovers player who misses a great chance just before United’s winner:


2)   The Football Association Backs Down

Jack Walker was delighted to be part of that very first Premier League season back in 1992/93. He was in favour of the project, unlike Bill Fox, Blackburn chairman and Football League president, who died just before the new era began. He was against any break-up of the football family. 

More than 100 years earlier, in October 1884, there was nearly an even bigger schism in the game. 14 northern clubs met at the Bay Horse Hotel in Blackburn to discuss breaking away from the FA over their stance on professionalism. 

The threat was real, and would have meant all those clubs pulling out of the FA Cup. This was just after the first of Rovers’ hat-trick of Cup wins, so history could have been very different. Thankfully, the FA saw sense, allowing players to be paid from the following season. Without that compromise, the Association game – soccer – might have gone the way of rugby, split into north and south, professional and amateur, losing the unity that allowed it to grow so spectacularly in the coming decades to become the world’s favourite sport.


1)   The Beautiful Game

We finish with 1994/95, the season when everyone apart from Man U fans (and some in Preston and Burnley) were cheering Rovers over the finish line. Allow me to introduce that season with a personal reminiscence.

I had fallen out of love with football in 1994. I was actually living just south of Blackburn at the time, but even though Rovers were top of the League, I couldn’t be bothered going to watch them, even against Leicester.  

Then, one Saturday afternoon in December, Rovers had a home fixture against Southampton, and for some reason, at about 4 o’clock, I thought ‘I wonder if they still allow you in free for the last fifteen minutes, like in the old days?’

It was a freezing early winter afternoon, but I decided to take a stroll down to Ewood Park.

At about 4.30, I got to the ground and peered through the gap between the Darwen End and the Jack Walker Stand, just as Alan Shearer let go a shot with his right foot. I couldn’t see the goal itself, but the noise told me instantly what had happened. Shearer then ran straight towards me, his arms (yes, both of them) raised in celebration. 

It was a revelatory moment, like he was beckoning me into the ground. 

I couldn’t see any way in, so I walked round to the other end, and reached the Blackburn End just as a steward pulled open one of those huge exit gates, allowing me, for the first time in a long time, to walk into a football ground.

I quickly found a seat just to the right of the goal, and asked what the score was. ‘We’re three one up’, someone said. 

The next moment, Matt Le Tissier weaved a magic circle in the middle of the park, then let fly a gorgeous, looping 35 yarder - a shot I might have caught had its trajectory not been interrupted by the top corner of Tim Flowers’ net.

This was more than revelatory. It was utterly mind-blowing. People talk about being struck by a metaphorical bolt of lightning. This was like a message from the Footballing Gods (or should I say 'Le God') reminding me just how beautiful this game is. 

Even today I wonder whether I’ve twisted the facts of the story. It just seems too good to be true. But if I check online it says ‘Shearer 74, Le Tissier 77’, confirming the timeline.

Just after Le Tissier’s goal, he was through one-on-one and looked certain to equalize, but Flowers made a crucial save, and Rovers held on to win 3-2. That turned out to be very important come the spring. Had Rovers not won the League, it could have been United five times in a row in the nineties, and that might have turned everyone off football forever.

For me, the passion was rekindled, to such an extent that I now find myself writing long historical features about clubs I don't even support.

Here are those moments from December 10th 1994:


Well, I hope you enjoyed that, and please tell me if I’ve made any factual or contextual howlers. 

BRFCS Premium Membership Support our independent Rovers content and go ad-free

Latest Articles

    League Table