Coming through the youth system, Jason Wilcox saw a lot during his time at Ewood Park. From winning the Premier League to competing in the Champions League and experiencing relegation, he experienced it all. We speak to him about his time at Ewood.
How would you summarise your time at Ewood?
“I had a fantastic time. I still consider it in many respects to be my football club. Obviously, I was homegrown, I came through the youth system. I saw the club and the transformation from a Championship club to winning the Premier League and then compete in the Champions League to getting relegated. So, I’ve seen everything, to be honest.
“I saw the transformation of the training ground. The staff were unbelievable, it’s a really special football club. It’s a shame what’s happened to it in recent years but they look to be on the cusp of returning to the Championship so it would be fantastic if they could because I had an unbelievable time there. I still consider it in many respects to be my club in some, small way.”
Do you think certain sections of the Rovers fans didn’t quite take to you at the start of your career because you were competing with a fans favourite in Scott Sellars for a starting role?
“It goes without saying that I had sort of a funny relationship with the supporters.
“I was a young lad who was very, very thin and very gangly. I don’t think it was anything to do with Scott Sellars to be honest. I think it was just that I got in the side, did extremely well, but the demands of Championship football at the time, playing two games a week, I suffered because I just wasn’t physically able to cope with that – mentally as well.
“I had a dip in form, sections of the crowd started getting on my back, then the performances slipped even further and it was a vicious circle. In the end, rather than trying to please everybody, I found a way to focus. I turned it around and I’m glad I went through it at that time. I was only 19. I probably split the crowd, it’s part and parcel of football.
“I’m glad I went through it at 19 because it prepared me for everything in my life after that. But I’ve not got anything bad to say about any of the Blackburn Rovers’ supporters, they paid their money, they were entitled to their opinion.
“When you look at any football crowd or ground, there are opinions all over the place and I think that’s the beauty of football. I don’t look back with any regret, I only have fond memories of my time at Blackburn. Even when we got relegated, I still try to look at it as a positive because I think then the staff had to regroup and the players had to regroup and then they got promoted again.
“Unfortunately, I’d already moved on then to Leeds United. But I thought I was going to be a one-club man to be honest. It didn’t quite turn out that way but when I go back there now and see the staff I just look back with only fond memories. I haven’t got one negative thing to say about Blackburn Rovers.”
Who was the best manager you played under during your time at Rovers?
“I think I would always say Kenny Dalglish was the best manager. I think that period of time when we won the Premier League was extra special. Ray Harford, I hold him in the same breath – they were so compatible and we had unbelievable times.
“But I also played under Don Mackay who gave me my debut, I’ll never forget what he did for me. Brian Kidd, who came in and gave me the Blackburn captaincy, I’ll never forget what he did for me either. Roy Hodgson was an amazing coach, ahead of his time actually at Blackburn. I learned an awful lot from him that I now transfer what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis in terms of what my view of the game is. He is an extremely intelligent guy and like I said, I learned a lot from him as well.
“I was very fortunate but I would have to say Kenny Dalglish because he was my idol as a young boy and then to get the chance to work with him was like a dream come true.”
How underrated was Tony Parkes’ contribution to Rovers having played under him so many times as Caretaker Manager?
“He certainly wasn’t underrated by anybody within the football club. I think everybody would consider Tony to be a Blackburn guy. He’s been at other clubs but I think the main focus of his career, playing, coaching and managing would have been at Blackburn Rovers. He was a top guy, knew what he was talking about, was able to pick up the reins when managers were leaving or they’d been sacked. He was fantastic for me as a young player, he spent a lot of time with me on the training pitch and again, I’m really grateful for the time that I spent with him – a fantastic guy. Outside of the football club you could say he was underrated but within the football club, supporters, staff, players, he’s not underrated at all, everybody knew what we were getting from Tony.”
Who was the best player you played with at Rovers and why?
“I think I’d have to say, Alan Shearer. To score the goals he did, he was a leader, had every attribute to be a top number nine.
“If you saw him in a general training practice, I don’t think anyone would’ve cherry-picked him and said he’s a top player but actually, come a Saturday he was smashing big centre-backs around, running the channels and scoring the goals that he did, every type of goal – an exceptional player.
“He’d come back from different injuries and the biggest thing about a number nine is to keep coming back year on year and scoring over 30 goals. People look at it as if it’s easy but sometimes I watch on TV when they have programmes around top players and when you see Alan, the number of goals that he scored, and the different type of goals. But he was a humble guy as well.
“Of all the players I’ve played with, and I’ve played with some really good ones at Blackburn, I would have to say him.”
As our readers will know, you were a part of the title-winning squad. That season wouldn’t have happened without the great late Jack Walker. How influential was ‘Uncle Jack’ during your time at Ewood?
“Extremely. Again, he just epitomised everything about Blackburn Rovers at that time. A hugely successful guy but you would never guess it – he was really humble.
“Blackburn at that time was just a special football club in the respect that we were a young group of players who hadn’t won anything, none of us, and we had a group of staff that had been there when we were down the lower leagues. To grow together and have this guy at the top who could attract Kenny Dalglish and then he started investing in the club, the training ground and the infrastructure.
“It was just an unbelievable time, you can’t explain it to anybody. We were almost caught off-guard in many respects that once we’d won it, we took our foot off the gas. I must admit I thought we were just going to win the league so many more times. And something happened, we lost the manager, we’d lost Alan and we never really quite got it back for one reason or another.
“But Jack Walker, he’d just come in the dressing room before the game, shake our hands, come in sometimes afterwards. He was a demanding guy, an unassuming type, but ruthless with it because you don’t achieve what he did in business or in football if you’ve not got that personality as well.
“He had it, but we didn’t really see it. He was really thoughtful. The way he looked after his staff, the way he treated the players in equal measures with the people who were cutting the grass or cleaning the stadium. He treated everybody the same and that was a really endearing quality and probably one of the reasons why he was successful.”
How much easier was your job knowing that balls into the box were being met by Shearer?
“One of the big strengths of the team at the time was we all knew what we were capable of, and what we weren’t capable of.
“We all knew what our teammates were capable of too. Without the service from midfield players like Tim Sherwood, David Batty, Mark Atkins, without the support from Graeme Le Saux behind and without the strikers being in the right positions, they knew that when I had the ball out wide, it was coming in the box.
“Every time, my only focus was to get the ball in the box for the strikers. Stuart Ripley was the same on the other side. Alan took all the credit but the first person who would congratulate everybody else, in terms of he couldn’t do his job without the support of the team, was Alan.
“There was no way I could’ve done my job without the service from the midfielders, the overlapping runs from Graeme, just the general support from Graeme. We just clicked on the pitch. At that time they were saying Kenny Dalglish bought the title but he didn’t buy the title at all because he just put a squad together. Alan cost a lot of money but everyone else was just part of a jigsaw puzzle and he did an exceptional job in putting the right pieces together.
“We didn’t have a team of superstars – we had one, and everyone else was the supporting act.”
How useful was swapping wings with Ripley during games, and how did it affect the defenders?
“One of the main strengths about me and Stuart was going on the outside and crossing.
“I would say Stuart was a winger who liked to go on the outside more than me. I could go on the outside but I liked to come on the inside as well. We didn’t use to swap very often, in fairness, we just used to do it at times if we weren’t getting any luck or maybe to come inside and shoot with our strongest foot. But I’m not too sure whether the strikers liked it because obviously, they weren’t getting the crosses on a regular basis.
“Sometimes Ray Harford and Kenny were really hard on me and Stuart, ask us how many crosses we’re getting in a game, because sometimes if I was coming inside a bit too often they knew that Alan wasn’t to get the service with me coming inside all the time.
“So they used to really put a lot of pressure on us in terms of letting us know what our job is. They used to educate the team to get us in the right areas to produce our bits. They used to say “we need the wingers in these areas as many times as we can” and we had to deliver. There was real accountability. When we were in those areas we knew what our job was and I think that was a real strength of the team – that we knew what everybody’s jobs were.
“Without the back four and without the goalkeeper, and Tim Flowers was incredible, we had Colin Hendry. But we also had a lot of players who fell outside the first eleven, who were extremely beneficial that year. Lads who weren’t spitting their dummy out when they weren’t in the starting eleven – I think that’s really special.”
This interview was originally published in February 2018.