It’s nothing new to see a mega-rich owner come in and transform the fortunes of a football club. Tycoons have been blowing their figurative wads on the game since time immemorial, from John Henry Davies to Robert Maxwell to Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The only difference between past and present is scale.
Which brings us to Jack Walker, the sheet metal worker turned industrialist who took control of second-tier Blackburn Rovers in January 1991. The money Walker put into Blackburn was as transformative as Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea, bringing an also-ran outfit to the summit of English football within a matter of years.
Unlike Abramovich et al, Walker had genuine ties to the club in which he invested. He was a supporter and a Blackburnian. He’d watched Rovers from the terraces in the 1950s and, decades later, used what was effectively his nest egg – the small matter of £360m he earned from selling British Steel – to revamp the team he loved.
By 1994 Walker had already parted with £25m worth of transfer fees, a huge sum for the time. Unquestionably, the most important of these acquisitions was the British record purchase of Alan Shearer in 1992.
Signing Shearer was a triumph for Walker. Big Al had lit up a mediocre Southampton side in 1991/92 and earned an England berth for his troubles. The aristocrats Manchester United and Liverpool circled The Dell, hoping to swoop, but Shearer chose Blackburn. Partly because of the pay packet, but also because Walker had already convinced Kenny Dalglish to reconsider retirement and take charge of the team.
Dalglish had inherited a modest Second Division outfit in October 1991 and led them into the top tier via the playoffs within a season. The former Liverpool manager was a colossal figure at the time and his presence in the dugout was surely as influential as Walker’s millions in attracting talent like Shearer to Lancashire.
Alan Shearer's debut goal for Blackburn at Palace, 1992. pic.twitter.com/uVwTyKgK21
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) January 3, 2018
Under Dalglish, Blackburn finished fourth in the inaugural “Premiership” in 1992/93, their first season in the top flight in 26 years. They were runners-up in 1993/94 and it was now clear to everyone watching that Rovers were a serious force in the league.
The owner, however, was still willing to dig deep to upgrade the squad. England internationals Tim Flowers (then the most expensive goalkeeper in English football) and David Batty had already arrived by the time Walker set another transfer record with the £5m he spent on Chris Sutton ahead of the 1994/95 season. Sutton would go on to combine with Shearer in one of the most lethal forward partnerships the league has seen.
As it turned out, 1994/95 was an iconic year, dotted with several (in)famous moments. Jurgen Klinsmann arrived and dived; Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd in January 1995; Dennis Wise had a scrap with a taxi driver and was given a prison sentence, subsequently overturned; Chris Armstrong failed a drugs test and George Graham was sacked as Arsenal manager after nine years in the aftermath of a bung scandal.
And, after all that was said and done, Blackburn won the league on the final day of the season despite suffering a defeat at Anfield in their last match. Alex Ferguson’s United had pushed them all the way and had even gone so far as to splurge £6m on Andy Cole in January, breaking the record set by Sutton in an attempt to resist the Rovers machine.
But Blackburn were simply too strong. Shearer scored 34 goals in the league and Sutton added 15. In Flowers, they had one of the best keepers in the country and boasted a rock-solid defence helmed by the ginger Scottish totem, Colin Hendry. There wasn’t a weakness anywhere in the side and Dalglish’s men ended the season as worthy champions.
"It was a fairytale. You never forget the success that you've had and for that to be achieved by #Blackburn was unbelievable"@KennethDalglish reflects on guiding @Rovers to the @PremierLeague title in 1995. #BBCLancsSportArchive pic.twitter.com/zSLvc31h4e
— BBC Lancashire Sport (? #StayHomeSaveLives) (@BBCLancsSport) March 31, 2020
Unfortunately for supporters of the club, Walker’s money hadn’t paid for a dynasty. Blackburn slipped to seventh in 1995/96 and Shearer upped sticks for his own hometown side, Newcastle. Dalglish had “moved upstairs” at Ewood Park after the league win but would go on to join Shearer on Tyneside in 1997, taking over from Kevin Keegan as Magpies manager.
In 1999, four years after their title-win, Blackburn were back in the second tier. A year after that, Walker died at the age of 71. He’d done more than anyone to give his beloved club the greatest moment in their modern history.