On Monday 4th May 1959, Blackburn Rovers won the FA Youth Cup for the first, and to date, only time in their history. A crowd of 28,000 witnessed a thrilling, if tense encounter and saw the young Rovers, “Carey’s Chicks“ defeat West Ham United 1–0 in the second leg of the Final.
The first leg ended 1–1 at Upton Park, with local schoolboy, Alan Bradshaw scoring the Rovers goal. The dramatic events at Ewood reached a crescendo in the 11th minute of extra time, when the Rovers inside left, Irishman Paddy Daly scored the only goal of the game to give an aggregate score of 2–1 to the Rovers. Included in the West Ham line up were two eventual World Cup winners, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst and, the old Millwall war horse, Harry Cripps.
Of the eleven young Rovers who played that night seven went on to make League Appearances for the Club, whilst notably three; Fred Pickering, who was captain of the team, Michael England and Keith Newton played a combined total of 605 League games for the Club. Not only that, but all three were capped by their respective countries – Pickering and Newton for England and England for Wales.
You can almost guess what happened next – all three were eventually sold for big transfer fees, and not one of them was adequately replaced.
What were the reasons behind these sales? Was it purely a case of the Club cashing in on a saleable asset? Was it player pressure? or simply a lack of ambition by the Directors?
Hopefully we can discover the reasons and circumstances which prompted these departures.
Fred Pickering was a Blackburnian born and bred who, having pursued a successful schoolboy career with Islington St Mary's RC Secondary School in Blackburn and Blackburn Schoolboys, joined the Rovers ground staff, on professional forms in 1959. Pickering had played as a centre forward at School, but the Rovers saw him as a left full back in those early days and it was from this position that he captained that successful Youth Cup winning team. Fred made his full Rovers debut in 1959/60 season when he was selected at left full back in a 3 -2 win over Leicester City. One game earlier, Fred’s youth teammate, Michael England had made his debut in the most difficult of circumstances in the local derby defeat by Preston North End (1-4) at Ewood, when the great Tom Finney almost single-handedly dismantled the Rovers. Following his debut the young Pickering made just 3 League appearances that season.
The following season 1960/61, Pickering racked up 21 appearances scoring 7 goals in the process. Excellent figures for a full back one might think, the truth was, however, that the Rovers manager, Jack Marshall, turned not only the Rovers fortunes on their head but those of Pickering too. Following some promising displays in the Reserves in the Central League, Mr Marshall, who had by this time gambled with Pickering, mainly because of his physique and abilities to receive and hold up the ball, as a centre forward. Playing with “the stiffs” was one thing but the adjustment to league football in this pivotal position was another thing entirely. Pickering it seemed had lost none of his nous from his schoolboy days in playing the position and so on 18 March 1961, Fred Pickering led the Rovers line against Manchester City at Ewood. It was a Marshall masterstroke, the Rovers won 4 - 1 and Pickering hit a double. Before the season ended he had scored 5 more goals. In the last 18 games of that season the Rovers lost just 2 matches and finished In a more than creditable 8th place.
In the 1961/62 season, Pickering at times shared the No 9 shirt with new signing from Sunderland, the Northern Ireland International, Ian Lawther, whilst the wing positions were occupied by Bryan Douglas (and on occasions Roy Isherwood) on the right and another new signing, the diminutive and unconventional, Joe Haverty, a Republic of Ireland international on the left. Signed from the Arsenal, little Joe, whilst always entertainment value never remotely reached the heights of his Highbury career. Pickering played 29 games, all at centre forward but failed to match his goal tally (6) of the previous season. He did, however, score 2 FA Cup goals and 3 in the League Cup where the Rovers mis-fired in the second leg semi final; and lost out to Rochdale. This was at a time when the League Cup was in its embryonic state.
Season 1962/63 saw Pickering start to deliver the goals hitting 23 League goals in 36 matches and 5 Cup goals. Sadly, he was somewhat of a lone wolf with only the pocket genius, Bryan Douglas getting into double figures with 13. The cavalry, however, was coming over the hill, in the shape of a quiet Irishman, Andy McEvoy. True to his instincts Jack Marshall did it again – he took a player out of his natural habitat and converted him into the best technical finisher I have seen in a blue and white shirt. “Marshall’s Misfits“ crowed the press during the 1963/64 season. In harness with McEvoy and prompted by the incomparable Douglas, the pair hit 55 goals between them – McEvoy 32 in 37 and Pickering 23 in 34. In the Cups Pickering hit 3 and McEvoy 4. That season saw Pickering score 3 hat tricks and the Rovers finished 7th. A creditable 7th Right? Wrong.
The 7th place finish didn’t exactly tell the season’s true story. Back-to-back wins at the end of February and the beginning of March, when a 5-0 at home to Bolton and 5-2 at Leicester ended a spell of indifferent form and rekindled supporters belief that the club could have a genuine tilt at the title, with just 8 games to play. The belief was mistaken as the Rovers won just one of those remaining games, drew one and lost five on the bounce. Was the difference the sale of Pickering in March 1964? To some supporters that would have been too simplistic a reason for others it signalled that the Club did indeed lack ambition. Whatever the reason there was no mistaking the fact that from a position of real possibility the Rovers somehow managed to capitulate in spectacular style by losing those games including all three Easter fixtures.
It cannot be denied that to lose one of your key talisman at any stage of the season is far from ideal but when you are at the business end of the season and in a title shake up that loss was doubly compounded as we will see.
So it was, on Saturday 7 March 1964 that Fred Pickering played what was to be his final match in his first Rovers spell. A fine 5-2 win at Filbert Street, Leicester in which the two arch goalscorers McEvoy and Pickering gave them the points – McEvoy 4 and Pickering signed off with 1.
Within days Pickering realised his ambition when he signed for Everton for a fee of £75,000 – the local boy had made good. This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was a full back turned master goalscorer. Worse, however, was to follow, when Andy McEvoy, playing for the Republic of Ireland in Spain, sustained ankle ligament damage which subsequently side-lined him for four matches, three of which were lost and the other drawn. Reg Blore and George Jones were the two replacements. The latter an England Youth International was purchased from Bury. Jones was touted at the time as a precocious talent but truth be told he was not to set Ewood alight and drifted out of the Club in 1966 to rejoin “the Shakers “, where he recaptured hIs goal scoring form and salvaged his reputation and career in the process.
Perhaps there in a nutshell is why the Rovers managed to somehow to snatch being also rans from the jaws of genuine title contenders. The transfer of Pickering was indeed a contributing factor, as was McEvoy’s enforced absence. That their replacements didn’t amount to much was a further example of a club selling off their best player(s), in this case Pickering and not recruiting a suitable replacement. Add to that the Rovers were now firmly in the grip of a battle against the changing momentum in the game, particularly at the top level and with those teams who had the money to ask the right questions and that combination was sufficient to jettison, what seemed at face value, a genuine run at the League title.
League title aside if we concentrate on Pickering’s departure it appears somewhat clear cut. As identified earlier, there was a strong belief, prevalent at the time, from some mainly town clubs, Rovers included, that any player called up for international duty appeared to be exposed to the stark truth that other international colleagues were being paid more money. The result of which, very often, meant that they would return to their clubs somewhat disillusioned. As Pickering began to agitate not necessarily for a move but an increase in pay, the more the club’s directors considered this to be the case – “he’d been tapped up”.
As a precursor to the transfer and, following much speculation, Pickering eventually handed in a transfer request and confirmed with the local Press “It is just about the money that is making me do this. I want to cash in on what I’ve got. The money I can earn with another club, Everton (who had declared their hand) compared with what I get here doesn’t bear thinking about.” The Board also had to decide whether any unauthorised approach was made to the player and how the news was leaked before an official transfer application had been received.
With the granting of the transfer, Rovers supporters were confronted with the sober realization that Carey, Vernon and now Pickering in each instance that the Rovers faced stern criticism, or at least misgivings, about parting. Once again they had succumbed to the power of money. On completion of his transfer Pickering said “Just the job. Everton are the club I wanted to join.”
Speculation and assertion locally surrounded the simple but ugly truth that the Rovers were in a bitter struggle against the forces of a football revolution. There was little doubt that the underground “tapping” of certain players had the desired effect on giving them wanderlust.
Pickering opined, years later and in reflective mood, that he wasn’t interested in a king’s ransom from Rovers but just a little bit extra to satisfy his growing reputation and value to the Club. Like Vernon before him, Pickering was in no doubt that this Rovers team could and should have become “Champions of England” well before it was subsequently achieved in 1995 under far different circumstances.
The net result amongst supporters was disenchantment at the title anti climax, Easter being the end of the line and “a terrible flop”.
Mike England joined the Rovers as a junior and had attended trials along with his school friend, Ron Davies. Whilst Davies was rejected by the Club, young England was invited back and was signed on to the ground staff. Ron Davies needn’t have worried because he enjoyed a very fulfilling career in football most notably with Southampton. Under the initial guidance of Johnny Carey, England had developed into as classier a defender as you are ever likely to see in any footballing lifetime. He was imperious, magnificent and any other superlative you might like to throw at it. His predecessor, Matt Woods had held that high esteem until the arrival of young England who was to cement his place at the pinnacle of Rovers elite. Such was his progress and rise to fame that he was seriously being considered as a potential surprise addition the Rovers FA Cup Final squad at the end of the 1959/60 season
England’s Rovers career encompassed 165 League games with 21 goals and 13 Cup games. His debut was in the 4-1 baptism of fire reversal against Preston North End in October 1959, where he played right half, couldn’t have been tougher. Altogether that season he made just seven appearances which involved him playing in four different positions – right half, centre half, left half and inside left. England’s final Rovers appearance was at Ewood in a 4-1 defeat to Manchester United – by this time Rovers were already relegated and England was substituted during the game to be replaced by Malcolm Darling. Ironically Rovers final game that season was at Tottenham, and you can readily understand why England was an absentee. It said much about the Rovers desperation and lack of fire power that during that ill-fatedseason, England played 13 of his 36 games at centre forward scoring seven times.
If the Pickering debacle stirred the natives, just 4 months after his departure there was an even greater seismic shudder around Ewood as Mike England slapped in a transfer request. It was to be the first of four requests which the Rovers Board were to receive over time from the Welshman.
This was not what the Rovers supporters wanted to see or hear.
The Rovers Board no doubt buckling from the Pickering saga, side-stepped the issue by insisting no consideration of England’s request would be taken until the return from holiday of manager Jack Marshall.This latest development was also being played out against a backdrop of a players' pay revolt with at least three Rovers players signing only holding contracts for July at £15 per week. In hindsight the Welshman had been looking to get away from Ewood for 2 years and the opening overtures in 1964 laid down the script which would culminate at the end of the 1965/66 relegation season. No one had done more to keep Rovers afloat in that difficult period both as a defender and as a makeshift goal scoring centre forward than Mike England. The weight of opinion was stacked against the club particularly in their track record of allowing their top players to leave.
England had made no secret of his desire to leave and it seemed inconceivable that he would have a change of heart – relegation was the final straw. Despite the odds, when it came to crunch time, the Rovers, to their credit offered England new and improved terms which even the player acknowledged “The Rovers have offered me fabulous money but I want a bigger club. I want to better myself. I am ambitious. It wasn’t just the money, I want prestige as well.” Echoes of Pickering but with the addition that England was looking for success and further development as a player.
Two years and four transfer requests later, the Rovers admitted defeat and accepted an offer from Spurs at a British record fee for a centre half of £95,000. This put other suitors, significantly Stoke City and Manchester United out of the running. England was elated and later commented “I like the idea – it would be great to play for Spurs. I hope everything will be satisfactory so that I can sign for them”.
Despite attempts to retain England’s services the balance sheet pointed elsewhere, and, notwithstanding Rovers earnest and best efforts, an almost seamless deal was completed, without the recriminations displayed in the Pickering transfer.
Manager Jack Marshall phlegmatically summed it all up when he said “Nobody likes to see such a talented player go. We did everything possible to try and persuade Mike to stay but we failed. There was no alternative but to transfer him.”
Remarkably, and unlike today, England, just like Pickering, was absolved from any criticism by the Rovers supporters. That criticism was reserved for the Board and led to the usual heavy postbag of letters addressed to the Sports Editors of the local papers. Within the space of a couple of years supporters had seen two of its brightest and home-grown talents leave, albeit for big money transfers. The Club had, as the Blackburn Times best captured, gone from “Riches to Rags.”
Perhaps boosted by the “want away” culture of his peers, Keith Newton started to suffer the pangs of restlessness, which whilst unsurprising, did nothing to allay the fears of the Rovers faithful. Supporters’ anxieties were hardly quelled when Newton put in a transfer request which was countered by the Board who immediately triggered the two-year optional extension largely one felt to buy themselves time and, at the same time, placate supporters.
There appeared to be an uneasy calm around Ewood the negatives from which didn’t transfer on to the field of play where Newton continued to give full value for money and where he remained unchallenged as the best right full back I’ve seen in a blue and white shirt. Newton’s sheer athleticism set him apart from others and he was arguably the first of the attacking full backs gifted with abundant and dynamic energy, plus his powers of recover which were second to none. He was a high-octane player with a silky touch whose economy of effort translated into letting the ball do the work. These qualities rendered him as the classiest of footballers.
Despite any misgivings Newton may have had about his Rovers career, it had not impacted on his involvement with England for whom he had debuted against West Germany in 1966 and throughout his time at Ewood, Newton was to play for England on 19 occasions including the World Cup Finals in Mexico in 1970. In total he won 27 England caps.
The ’ phoney war’ between the Rovers and Newton took a quite unexpected turn during the 1967/68 season when the Club, certainly mindful of the Pickering and England debacles, and completely unprecedented, put a 6 year contract in front of Newton in an honest attempt, one feels, to tie him down for the rest of his career at Ewood.
Perhaps feeling blindsided, Newton duly signed only to believe, even before the ink had dried, that he was uncomfortable about certain aspects of what, in effect, was a deal for life.
That discomfort grew and, following the Scotland v England game at Hampden Park, that season, he perhaps, unwisely, broke his silence through a national newspaper interview with James Mossop, in which he expressed misgivings at his decision. “I signed up for the money. “ said Newton “ …it seemed a great thing at the time… now I am definitely having regrets.” The Reporter even threw in his own thoughts which basically painted the Rovers as a club in decline and even Ewood Park he suggested, in need of a make-over. As can be imagined these revelations and observations didn’t exactly go down well with the Rovers Board and Newton was fined by the Club, one week’s wages, for his public disclosure.
In March 1968, the Board obviously exasperated by Newton’s stance transfer listed the England full back which once again opened old wounds amongst Rovers supporters. Mrs Newton, in response to anonymous letters received by her husband, publicly moved to assure the Rovers faithful that Keith had not asked for a transfer and was happy to stay at the Club.
In an age where only the local newspaper could become a media to vent their spleens, some supporters went to the heart of the Club by using the outside of the Nuttall Street Stand and the players' entrance as a canvas to express their displeasure at the club, by daubing , in red, “PICKERING, ENGLAND, NOT NEWTON”, and “DIRECTORS OUT” slogans, which whilst hastily created and, in one instance misspelled, nevertheless summed up their feelings and pent up emotions.
As perhaps expected, Johnny Carey, Newton’s mentor (like Pickering and England), and by now manager of Nottingham Forest, prepared a £90,000 bid which was accepted by the Rovers only for Newton to ask for more time to think over the move. The thought of moving away from their now Blackburn roots cast seeds of doubt in the Newton family group. As is very often the case when a player asks for more time, the deal and the move was rejected by Newton.
Time wasn’t a great healer and led to the player posting another transfer request in the Summer of 1969. A near-miss move to Southampton followed almost immediately.
The Newton saga was finally put to bed in December 1969 when Rovers accepted a bid from Everton in the region of £80,000, falling £20,000 short of Rovers somewhat over ambitious £100,000 valuation. Newton’s final game for the Rovers was in the Lancashire Derby with Preston North End at Ewood on 13 December 1969, in which the Rovers triumphed 4–3. It was perhaps a fitting conclusion to events that Johnny Carey, now Rovers administrative manager, should be the person to escort Keith Newton to the Everton Training Ground at Bellefield to complete the move.
So, there we have it, some 10 years after that emotional and electric Youth Cup winning success in front of a rapturous Ewood audience, the last of the international trio of “Carey’s Chicks” had flown the nest.
Despite their grievances, it is fair to point out that all three players never lost their love and affection for the Rovers. Pickering returned briefly and although he had his disagreements with the Club, as a Blackburnian, he was a Roverite at heart, whilst England was always grateful for the opportunities, he was given at Ewood and Newton had made Blackburn his home and as such was an honorary ‘Blackburnian’.
The one thing you could never level against all three was their professionalism and their standards and performances on the pitch.There was never any doubting their commitment to the cause and their respective skill sets were testimony to the moves they were able to make and the transfer fees they were able to generate and command.
With the odd minority exceptions too, the Rovers supporters clearly recognised and were convinced that it was the Club at fault and all three players and supporters deserved a better outcome. With common sense and acumen in short supply perhaps the Rovers could have been celebrating a title success much earlier than was the case.
For those of us who were privileged enough to see the growth and development of these three wonderful footballers and their journey from that Monday night in May 1959 to becoming full internationals and masters of their respective crafts, we are left with that imponderable question of whether Rovers fortunes would/should have been all so different had foresight and sound judgements been employed by the Rovers.
Fred Pickering passed away on 9th February 2019 aged 78 years.
Keith Newton passed away on 16th June 1998 aged 56 years.