Fallen Giants of the English Game

ewood park blackburn rovers stadium

Photo © Steve Daniels (cc-by-sa/2.0)

In 1995 when Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League, it seemed like they would embark on a period of footballing dominance. Financed by the millions of steel-magnate and boyhood fan Jack Walker, how could they not? Although this title triumph was a fairy-tale, it was one entirely dissimilar to Leicester’s odds-confounding victory under Claudio Ranieri in 2015-16. Blackburn had become a mega-club thanks to money. Nowadays, this status would surely have booked their seat at the top of English and European football for decades.

But fast forward a little over 20 years and the historic club were plying their trade in the third division of English football after two relegations in five years. Rather than Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, Rovers were brushing shoulders with Southend United, Shrewsbury Town and Plymouth Argyle.

They have since climbed back out of League One and into the Championship but their decline is still almost immeasurable. The story of their fall from grace is a long and painful one and one that echoes the uncertainty which surrounded all clubs during Blackburn’s glory days in the mid-90s. Back then, a team could go from winning the league to relegation in a couple of seasons, a state of play which is almost unthinkable in today’s game. These conditions began to deteriorate when the Premier League’s purpose of concentrating wealth in the hands of an elite few got into full swing.

Blackburn’s situation was made infinitely worse by the selling of the club to Indian poultry billionaires the Venkys. The businessmen took charge of Rovers in 2010. Upon their arrival, there was understandable exuberance and excitement from the Ewood Park stands. For years they had been a well-run but financially sensible club, living within their means, occasionally achieving relative success – such as winning the League Cup in 2002 or finishing in 6th place in the 2005-06 Premier League season – but never persistently challenging in the top half of the Premier League table.

Then came the Venkys who almost immediately sacked an arguably over-achieving Sam Allardyce whose football was seen as regressive and not conducive to pushing on to the next level. The assumption was that the owners would replace Big Sam with a more exciting dynamic manager. They started making all sorts of mad transfer promises too and Blackburn were linked to the likes of Ronaldinho, Raul and David Beckham, while none other than Maradona was approached concerning the vacant managerial position.

Instead, the club appointed Steve Kean — who had previously been working as a youth coach for the club — and signed very few players of any note. Those that they did sign, it emerged, were often the results of opportunistic agents trying to rinse a club that was being run by people who hadn’t the faintest idea how football worked on the pitch or off it. Believe it or not, when they took over, the Venkys didn’t even know it was possible to be relegated from the top-flight.

The most famous example was agent Jerome Anderson — who by all accounts was practically running the club at one point. Anderson managed to land his son, Myles, a contract rumoured to be around £15,000 per week, despite the fact he had made just one substitute appearance for Aberdeen at that point in his career. He has not made a single top-flight appearance in the decade since, which further illustrates the

Eventually, the crippling burden of lecherous opportunists and over-paid players took the ultimate toll and Blackburn Rovers were related from the Premier League in 2012. However, they are far from the only side to have experienced this dramatic drop.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the troubling financial times for certain poorly-run football clubs in the mid to late 2000s is Portsmouth FC. Just a year or two prior to their relegation from the top-flight in 2010, Portsmouth were regularly competing for European places in the Premier League and had spent seven consecutive years in the top-flight.

The Portsmouth squad boasted genuine household names like Peter Crouch, Niko Kranjcar, Jermaine Defoe, Glen Johnson and Lassana Diarra. Even in the year of their relegation, they still had a wonderful squad of players.

Their last hurrah was a magnificent FA Cup run which saw them win the competition after victory over Cardiff in the final. They were under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp that day who was considered one of the most competent managers in the game at the time. He would later go on to manage Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League a few seasons and be relentlessly linked with the England job before the FA instead opted for Roy Hodgson.

In 2008, one of the most iconic moments for Portsmouth in the modern era came about when they played AC Milan at Fratton Park in the UEFA Cup (later renamed the Europa League). Portsmouth went 2-0 up against one of the most successful teams in European footballing history but were the victims of a stunning comeback in the final six-minutes which saw them drop two points in this crucial group stage game. The scorers that night? Ronaldinho and Filippo Inzaghi, indisputably two of the finest players to ever play the game. A little over a decade later and their opponents’ goalscorers would be the likes of Kyle Bennet and Conor Chaplin — a far cry from the glamour of that famous night.

From 2010 to 2017 they were relegated again and again, eventually winding up in the fourth tier. While this was unbearably painful to watch for Pompey fans, they are, in a way, some of the lucky ones.

The dire financial straits they found themselves in could easily have led to the club falling out of existence as has happened to other clubs in recent years. Portsmouth, with debts of almost £150 million at the time, were almost forced into liquidation while they were still playing in the Premier League, but were able to avoid this dreadful fate by going into administration and entering a state of managed decline.

Clubs like Bury, who were playing in League One as recently as this season, did not have this luxury and have dropped out of football entirely. Their only chance of re-emergence is as a phoenix club in a few years, should they find the financial clout necessity for this kind of rising from the ashes to occur.

Portsmouth’s fall was almost biblical in its suddenness but there are plenty of other clubs who have suffered similarly but in a more gradual fashion. Take for example, the nosedives of both Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Since they were last in the Premier League – before the turn of the century in 1998-99 – Nottingham Forest, like Blackburn Rovers, fell as far as League One and are yet to reclaim a place at the summit of English football since.

They have flirted with promotion from the Championship on a number of occasions but have been unable to seal the deal. This lack of success is put into perspective when one considers that they won the European Cup twice in two seasons in 1979 and 1980, a miraculous feat which they achieved under the managerial leadership of the enigmatic and charmingly hubristic Brian Clough. Clough was like what Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho are to the game nowadays, a bonafide superstar.

It seems astonishing that a club can go from having that kind of name at the helm to having the likes of Mark Warburton in charge in more recent years. With that being said, Forrest’s decline actually started to happen during Clough’s tenure when they were relegated from the newly-formed Premier League in 1992.

Derby are another of Clough’s former clubs who have struggled intensely to recapture the glory of yesteryear. Clough led the Rams from promotion from the Second Division in 1969 and within three seasons helped them to a First Division title in 1972. Over the course of the next five years or so they were a semi-permanent fixture in the European Cup, reaching the semi-finals in 1973 only to be defeated by Juventus who were aided greatly by an injury crisis at Pride Park.

After Clough left they managed to keep their heads above water for a number of seasons before eventually being relegated in 1980. In the next ten years, they would drop all the way to Division Three and then back to Division 1 again. Becoming something of a ‘yo-yo’ club they spent a number of seasons bouncing around the first and second tiers before settling in the Championship in 2002 until 2007.

In 2008 they returned to the Premier League but endured one of the worst seasons on record, winning just one game and amassing only 11 points. For the past ten years or so, they have been on the cusp of promotion from the Championship but have been unable to make the final lap.

Leeds Untied are another former-mega club who are desperately trying to reach the dizzy heights they once scaled. As recently as 2001, Leeds were playing in the Champions League semi-finals, one of the grandest occasions in the footballing calendar. In fact from 1998 to 2003, Elland Road hosted European football every season without fail.

They were the last team to win the old First Division before the Premier League rebrand in 1992 and, although they never won the top prize under the new order, they were often thereabouts in the top six in the league’s first decade. But, in 2004, the club finished 19th under Eddie Gray – who had replaced Peter Reid at the midway point of the season – and was consigned to the Championship and they have not returned since.

In fact, just three seasons after their fall from the top-flight, Leeds found themselves in League One, the lowest they had fallen in the club’s entire history. They stayed there for a further three seasons before being promoted to the Championship where they have been fighting desperately to rise to the Premier League for the best part of a decade.

They nearly did it last season under Marcelo Bielsa but were pipped to the post by Sheffield United for 2nd place. Unlike many names in this piece, however, they look set to complete their rebuilding project at some point, whether it be at the end of this season or beyond.

In contrast to Leeds, another fallen giant, Sunderland, look as though they are headed in the complete opposite direction. In a situation similar to their Yorkshire counterparts, Sunderland slumped into the third tier for the first time in their grand history at the end of the 2017-18 season.

It was a blow made all the more crushing owing to the fact that they had been relegated from the Premier League the season before. But while their collapse was dramatic, it had been coming for several years. With a lack of well-spent investment, Sunderland had been struggling in the bottom half of the Premier League for well over a decade. Their retirement into League One was, even at that stage, grimly predictable.

They threatened to push for automatic promotion from League One last season but never built up enough speed to do so, instead finishing 5th and losing in the Play-Off Final to Lee Bowyer’s Charlton Athletic. This season they got rid of their ex-manager Jack Ross and replaced him with Phil Parkinson but to no avail, as they’re still struggling and are well off the pace they need to set if they are to begin their desired ascension back to the second-tier.

Football is a notoriously tribal sport; fans love to see their rivals suffer. But in the grand scheme of things, seeing a loyal group of supporters continually let down by their clubs’ hierarchies is not a good state of affairs. Unfortunately, as the vast majority of fans do not have a stake in how their clubs are run, we are likely to see many more Blackburns, Portsmouths, Leeds and Sunderlands in the future. Tragically, this is far from a closed book.