A VBer's tribute to Jack
Once in a lifetime someone comes along who touches the hearts of thousands, Someone who as every day goes by continues to touch generations with his Legendary status.
As children growing up we here about Legends and tales like King Arthur and Robin Hood, and sometimes these are used as goodnight stories for our children.
I was born on the 1st May 1978 in a town called Blackburn which runs through my blood. Being one of four children money was very tight in our house, and flash clothes, toys and holidays where just pipe dreams. However when I was around 6 I fell in love with a piece of leather which I would take everywhere with me, I was probably the only child in my street who wore wellies to play football, I would sneak down to Nuttall Street to take a look at what was my Holy Grail which was Ewood Park hoping that someone had left a turnstile open so I could peer inside.
During match days I would stand outside with my ball kicking it against the wall, listening to the atmosphere and praying that a ball would fly over the stand so I could have a memento from hero's who were playing in those beautiful Blue and White halves. All I ever wanted was to be close to the pitch and feel what the lucky fans who were in the ground were feeling.
Rovers never had any money and the crowds were low, but this did not bother me, as they were the only team in the world in my eyes.
Here begins the Legend behind the Man we like to call UNCLE JACK WALKER
Jack was a successful local business man who owned Walkers Steel a Business which he and his brother Fred took over following his fathers death in 1951. Together, they transformed Walkersteel from a back-street scrap metal business started by their father after the war into a steel stockholders concern. By 1990 they had built up the business so successfully that it had become the largest steel stockholder in Britain, employing 3,400 people at 50 sites. In 1956 the turnover was £46,000. In 1988 the business was making an annual profit of £48m. The Walker brothers bought GKN and then sold it to British Steel for a reported £360m, the highest price ever paid for a private company at the time.
In 1986 Jack donated the money to build the Walkers Steel Stand at Ewood Park which is now known as the Riverside stand, I remember at the time thinking wow look at our shiny new stand, unbeknown to me that this great man had paid for this out of his own back pocket. Around this time too, as I was managing to get on a few games by doing a few odd jobs here and there to raise the money to buy a ticket.
In 1987 Ossie Ardiles and Steve Archibald joined the club for short spells, this was also financed by Jack
In 1990 Jack sold Walkers Steel for a £360 Million to British Steel which was a record for a private company. In January 1991 in a move which would see Blackburn Rovers change forever Jack took full control of the club. He had in the previous five years always given Rovers donations which were not public knowledge at the time to help keep the club afloat but now he wanted to make Blackburn Rovers the best team in the land.
He had many motto's but the one that is always quoted is 'THINK BIG'
The press went to town with Rovers in the early months ridiculing us as unsuccessful bids for some of England's best players including Gary Lineker were lodged by the club. Rovers were struggling in the second tier of English football and had cruelly in previous seasons on a shoe string budget narrowly missed out on promotion to the top flight via the play-offs. Don Mackay was Rovers Manager back then, But Jack felt if people were going to take us seriously we would have to bring in a Manager who could sell his vision to the rest of the world.
In October 1991, Jack pulled off the master stroke, a move which would see the whole world stand up and take notice, Don Mackay was replaced as Manager by Liverpool Legend Kenny Dalglish, In no-one wildest dreams would they have ever thought that Kenny would of entertained a club of Blackburn's stature, but Jack made it happen, Jack could make anything happen he was the man of very few words but the man with the Golden touch.
Jack immediately started making any funds Dalglish wanted to get Rovers promoted available, and new players started to arrive on a weekly basis, this also saw the team move up the table rapidly, by the end of the season Rovers had once again made the play-offs. Was this finally going to be our year? The re branded top division for the following season was the promised land, Could Rovers who are founder members of the football league be one of those lucky 20 clubs to be a founder member of the very first Premier league?
You bet they could, I remember going Wembley that day against Leicester City with my Uncle just pinching myself all the way there that me Glen Mullan was going to see my hero's at Wembley, Jack was there just like me and 32000 screaming Rovers fans, He did not care about the fame or gratitude, he was a fan and the biggest fan any team could have.
There's only one Jack Walker rang out around the stadium drowning out the sound of the City fans screaming Rooster Rooster, in acknowledgement to their talisman Kevin Russell.
The game kicked off, I was shaking with nerves, Speedie takes a dive, Wow Penalty, is this our year I remember thinking as Mike Newell smashed the ball home.
The noise was not like anything I had experienced before, There's only one Jack Walker rang out again amongst the fans. It was a nervous game but when that whistle went it was one of the best feelings I have ever had or will probably ever have again,
My dreams had come true, Blackburn Rovers was next season going to be in the Premier League and the man that had made that happen was Jack Walker.
From that day on Blackburn Rovers grew from all recognition, Jack continued to put his own wealth into the club, but this time he wanted us to be the best team in England. Again everyone tried to write us off but Jack's response would always be
Rovers assault on the Premiership was fairytale stuff as Kenny Dalglish backed by the greatest fan on the Planet started to assemble 'The Team that Jack Built' ,Rover broke the British Transfer record in the summer of 1992 by bringing young England International Alan Shearer from Southampton for a record £3.3 Million, what was even more shocking than the record fee, was Rovers beat the Mighty Manchester United to his signature. The press would flock to Ewood Park on a weekly basis as more and more players arrived for big fee's, People were beginning to realise that Jack Walker and Blackburn Rovers were deadly serious and we was not going to go away or be halted in our journey to the top.
Off the pitch things were rapidly changing too, Jack financed a new Training centre/Academy whilst Ewood Park was transformed beyond all recognition as the old terraces were pulled down and the NEW EWOOD PARK was born, a 30000 all seater stadium which was one of the finest stadiums in the country when finished.
On the pitch Rover finished 4th in their first season in the top flight, just two years later after even more investment from Uncle Jack on a glorious day at Anfield in May 1995 Blackburn where crowned Champions of England. In just four years Jack had taken a struggling second division team on the verge of financial ruin and made them the best team in England this was a feat which had never been done before and will never ever be matched again.
Blackburn as a Town was put firmly on the map due to one Man's passion and love for it. He loved Blackburn the Town, He loved the people of Blackburn, but most of all he loved Blackburn Rovers.
Over the next 5 years Jack continued to back the team, Players and Managers changed a few times but Jacks commitment to Rovers never, Rovers went through a decline on the pitch and were relegated at the end of the 1998-1999, season, following a home draw with Manchester United. As fans we all shed tears that day, but its the pictures of Jack's tear's which will forever live in my memory. We was all heartbroken but none so than this great Man.
On the 17th August 2000 exactly eleven years today it was announced that 'Uncle Jack' had lost his battle against cancer, he was 71.
Tributes poured in from the world of football and beyond. One of the most fitting coming from Jack Straw the Home Secretary and Blackburn's Labour MP. He said:
'Jack Walker did more than any other individual in the last century to enhance the self-confidence and the prosperity of his home town. He was completely committed to the town and its people. Blackburn Rovers was in many ways the love of his life. His contribution to the club was enormous but that was based in turn on the prosperity he created through his astonishing development of Walker Steel and of many other investments in the area. I salute a great local hero and shall miss him very badly.'
On hearing the news my heart sunk, as did every Rovers fan Worldwide, This was not just any man, he was one of us, he had spent the last 10 years making all our dreams come true. Everyone felt like they knew him, like he was family.
I could'nt accept it, I could not and would not believe it, I raced down to Ewood Park, and it was just a sea of flowers and people everywhere, Crying and hugging each other, even people they had never met before. Why?, was all I kept thinking, Why has he been taken away from us all?,
Jack touched so many people with his kindness and generosity, and even in death he ensured that Rovers would live in as he set up the Rovers Trust to ensure we would be Okay.
Jack has left us all many memories, and I share these with my children, Real life fairy tales that no-one can ever take away from me.
Around Blackburn his legacy lives on in each and everyone of us, His spirit will always be at Ewood Park, as he kicks every ball with each fan and player alike.
Jack was my hero, but he is such a big hero that there is enough to go round for us all to share him and cherish his memory.