I went to my first match at Ewood Park the day after visiting Carlisle United’s Brunton Park. Comparing the two grounds, you really get a sense of how dramatically English football was transformed around 1990 in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Some clubs managed to make a succesfull leap into the new commercial football market, others were less successful.
Carlisle United’s fortunes had been on the vane ever since their only brief spell in the top tier of English football 1974-75. But still, they were in the second tier until 1986, when back to back relegations sent them to the bottom tier.
While Carlisle United flirted with the top tier, Blackburn Rovers went down to the third – before establishing themselves in the second tier in the 1980’s. So footballing wise, there was really nothing between them in the mid-eighties, before business man Jack Walker in 1988 put some of his money from Walker Steel into Blackburn Rovers. First, he built the club a brand new stand at Ewood Park in 1988, the Riverstannd.
And then, having sold Walker Steel, he vowed to make Blackburn Rovers a top club, buying a string of star players with Alan Shearer the top name – and building three more top-modern stands to transform Ewood Park to a top stadium. And amazingly leading Blackburn to the premiership title in 1995.
Carlisle United were hoping for a similar injection of enterprise, when business man Michael Knighton bought the club in 1992 – having failed his attempt top buy Manchester United. Twice Carlisle won promotion in the 1990’s, only to suffer immediate relegation. Knighton also started on the project of renewing the ground, replacing the first of the four stands as the first step in a plan to make Brunton Park a top stadium, just like Ewood Park.
Only, Knighton never succeeded, but left the club in disgrace. The one stand that he did build, stands as a monument over his failure, as the stand runs 20 yards behind the Waterworks End, as Knighton had planned to move the entire ground 20 yards in that direction. And the interior, allegedly, has never been completed.
Today, the two grounds as well as the clubs are leagues apart. Even though Blackburn has not been able to keep hold of their newly won status, as the money in football has increased to a level that makes Walker’s investment look like peanuts.
But this blogpost is about Ewood Park. And credit to Jack Walker for rebuilding the ground rather than building a new ground somewhere else. Most new grounds in the 1990’s seemed to build on cheap and therefore not very attractive land. Although Ewood Park is not quite in the city centre, it is just a short walk from there, and it is beautifully located near a brook.
The 1988-stand look small and outdated by modern standards. There are no executive boxes, the view is partially obstructed by iron pillars. But there are relative new features such as a multi faith room. Not that it looks welcoming – but you wouldn’t have put a multi faith room in a football ground much earlier than 1988.
By the corner of the Riverstand and the Blackburn end, next to the brook, there is small memorial garden. It is called the Jack Walker memorial park, as it was established in 2001 as part of the Jack Walker statue and monument, a year after his death.
Here, fans can have a grey granite cremation wedge fo £495, and they can organize to have their ashes scattered there with the club chaplain – who is also ready to lend an ear to the berieved. The club reception keeps a book of remembrance with the names of the people, with their ashes in the garden.
According to a newspaper report, the site for the monument was chosen, as Jack Walker grew up in terraced houses, similar to the ones that had given way to ground extension. And there is stainless steel fountain to symbolize the golden ore from which he funded Blackburn’s rise.
The Jack Walker monument makes the Blackburn end the gathering place of the home supporters. There is a fans area with a stage – and the souvenir shop and ticket office are conveniently located here. Here, I meet fellow groundhopper, Markus Moser from Switzerland, who I met last year at Oldham. And we are not the only visitors from abroad.
Despite the impressive setting, the atmosphere is a bit low-key. I had expected an FACup 5th round home tie against top Premier league opposition would have been a party time return to the spotlight at Blackburn, who are struggling in midtable in the Championship. But it is not. And it turns out that less than half the 24.000 seats for the home supporters has been sold.
Down the away end, it is quite a different story. The 7.000 travelling West Ham United fans are really in buoyant mood. They swarm round the away end, with the seagull like “IRONS” screams popping up everywhere. And when they move inside the ground, they are in full voice, repeatedly doing their new “We’ve got Payet” song.
Moving back towards the Blackburn End, I see a couple of local resindents look at the crowd from their backstair. They don’t look like fans, but there is something special about grounds in residential areas – areas that are suddenly transformed into a hub of activity on matchdays.
The stands from the 1990’s are so different from the 1988 Riverstand. They are bigger, more solid – and icons and items have been added to bridge the gap between the new buildings and the old history. You could argue that the Memorial Garden and Jack Walker statue are the main examples of this – but the historical timeline and a huge WWI commemoration with a giant poppy are other elements. They have probably not been there from the start. But somehow you would not attach these things to the Riverstand – it takes bricked walls or steel and glas to make it work.
I enter the ground – and the 1990’s feeling is even more predominant. Although the architects are not the same, the size and layout of the concourse reminds me of the Old Trafford stands from the same decade. They are not as tight as the old ones, but they are not as open and spacious as new ones like the Etihad, The Emirates or The King Power stadium.
I have a Steak and Pepper pie as my pre-match meal. Fairly standardized – nothing special about that.
Walking out in the stands, I really like the look of the ground. The three new stand are all much higher than the Riverstand, they are two-tiered and without pillars that obstruct the view. Looking down on the rather tiny Riverstand opposite me, feels like watching the stage in a theatre. The hillside behind the stand enhances this effect.
I do my 100 spectators count – and the result is almost identical with the one at Carlisle. 100 % white and 85% male. Only the crowd here somehow seems more affluent. Maybe it is because of the surroundings. The section next to me even have padded seats and not the ordinary plastic ones. There are also several executive boxes, although a lot of them stand empty.
My three previous matches in the UK had yielded a meagre two goals in all, with some of the football being really poor. My three previous matches with Blackburn as participants have yielded 17 goals – with Blackburn conceding 12 of them. So one of these two runs has to give in, and fortunately it is the first one! Although I doubt that Blackburn find it fortunate.
But Blackburn does have a go at it in the first half, and arguably there best player, full back Ben Marshall gives them the lead after a couple of decent attacks. But before Blackburn can build on that they concede a rather soft equalizer. And when West Ham’s outstanding Dmitri Payet curls in a freekick to put the Hammers 2-1 up, you sense that there is no way back for Blackburn.
Early in the second half, Blackburn’s Chris Taylor gets a stupid second yellow card and is off, and it doesn’t take West Ham long to make their superiority count and make it three. The referee seems to feel a bit sorry for the hosts and harshly sends off West Ham’s Kouyate. But there is no way back for Blackburn. In the end, Wst Ham make it 5-1 – and it could easily have been more.
Despite the outcome of the game not really being in doubt in the second half, it is a really exciting match. Lots of good moves, good chances. And a masterclass from Dmitri Payet. He is certainly up there with the Ronaldos and Messis of this world. Whenever he has the ball, you are on the edge of your seat, because he is bound to do something brillant. It may be precise 50 yard cross or little flick into space. He makes everything look so easy and natural. Pure class. A privilege to watch.
But just as impressive was the turnout and support of the West Ham United supporters. They were in full voice with their Payet song before kick-off. And even though they were momentarily dampened by Blackburn’s opening goal, they still sang “1-0 and you still don’t sing” at the home supporters. And once they had equalized, they were vocal throughout. I have seen West Ham away at Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. And they have not stood out as particularly vocal. But this was as good an away support as any, I remember.
All in all, a memorable day at a nice ground.