Rovers Chat talks to former Lancashire Telegraph Rovers reporter Paul Wheelock about his time covering Rovers and his hopes for the season.
How was your time at the Lancashire Telegraph?
“I loved being the paper’s Blackburn Rovers reporter. It’s a privileged position and one that I was honoured to hold. I remember being interviewed for the job and being asked by the sports editor whether I was ready for it ‘to take over my life’ – he wasn’t kidding! It was 24/7 and it did drive me – and more specifically my wife! – up the wall at times. But every time I walked into Ewood Park, into Brockhall, or spoke to a Simon Garner, a Kevin Gallacher, a Bryan Douglas, a David Dunn, or any number of the great players that have served this great club with distinction, I always remember thinking how lucky I was to be doing what I did.”
Do you have any regrets about your time covering Rovers?
“No regrets whatsoever about taking the job, but of course there are regrets that I was unable to report on the club’s revival rather than its continuing decline under Venky’s. I genuinely believe Rovers would have gone up through the play-offs in Gary Bowyer’s first full season in charge had they managed to sneak into the top six. And, don’t forget, had they not conceded that late goal at home to Brighton in April of that season, they would have finished sixth. And, despite FFP beginning to bite, I still believe that the 2014-15 season was a wasted opportunity given the squad that Gary Bowyer, to his credit, had moulded out the wreckage of the 2012-13 season.
But probably the biggest regret I had was the way Paul Lambert’s tenure unfolded. There was genuine optimism around the time of his appointment and I’ll never forget the scenes at the end of his first match in charge at Preston. But as the months went by it became clear that the guarantees that he maintained had been made to him when he took the job were not going to be met. Alan Myers, who was always a great help to me, also left the club, and from around March 2016 until I moved on in September of that year was pretty miserable.
The appointment of Owen Coyle was completely perplexing and it served only to increase the divide between the supporters and Venky’s. The paper’s relationship with the club, which was always up and down, also suffered. I always tried to express the fans’ feeling in my reports and opinion pieces but I could also understand why some wanted the paper to go further, too.
I was a club reporter for 13 years but I’ve never felt as low coming out of a match than I did that night at Cardiff when Shane Duffy scored two own goals and was sent off. At that stage I just could not see how it was ever going to turn around for Rovers with Venky’s in charge.”
What was the greatest moment of your time as a Rovers reporter?
“Jordan Rhodes’ derby equaliser at Burnley in my first match for the LT; a David Dunn masterclass at Watford; Josh King ripping Stoke to shreds, and seeing the away end in full voice after that win at Preston all stick in the memory. But my greatest moment as the paper’s Rovers reporter was the 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup. The performance was excellent and the tribute to Jack Walker, 20 years on from the club’s greatest achievement, sent shivers down the spine. It felt like Rovers were truly back that day.”
Which player did you have your best interview with?
“I had the pleasure to interview Kenny Dalglish, Alan Shearer, Tim Sherwood and most of the members of the 1994-95 title-winning squad and I always loved interviewing David Dunn and Bryan Douglas.
But my best interview has to be with Tugay. We were contacted by his agent about the possibility of doing an interview as he was planning to move back to England and get a job over here. At first I thought it was a wind-up as it was well known that Tugay didn’t do press. I still had my doubts until the moment I met him at Ewood Park one sunny afternoon in September 2014. I don’t get starstruck, even though I remember the first time I interviewed Alan Shearer thinking, ‘Christ, it’s really him’, as I idolised him growing up, but that day with Tugay was something else. He could speak perfectly good English and did so with me before the interview started. But once the dictaphone was turned on, he reverted back to Turkish, with his words being translated to me by one of his team. All the while he was smoking away, sitting in the Ronnie Clayton Blackburn End, overseeing the pitch that he use to grace with such style and swagger. It was like interviewing a king or a big film star. I floated back to the office.”
Was there any players who you didn’t like interviewing?
“I can genuinely say there wasn’t. Certainly under Gary Bowyer they were a great bunch of lads who, nine times out of 10, would always stop and chat even if they had lost.”
What are your hopes for Rovers this season?
“Promotion. It was good to see Tony Mowbray being backed in the summer and even better that he was not made to sell a Charlie Mulgrew or a Darragh Lenihan. For all the myriad of reasons why Rovers have gone backwards under Venky’s one of the biggest in recent years has been a lack of investment in the playing squad. When you sell Tom Cairney, Rudy Gestede, Jordan Rhodes, Josh King, Grant Hanley and Shane Duffy in the space of 18 months and fail even to attempt to adequately replace them, then you are asking for trouble. That said I still think Tony Mowbray would have kept the club up last season had he been appointed sooner. Therefore, I’m confident he can get Rovers back up this season. Fingers crossed.”
Anything else to add?
“Just that I was delighted to see Venky’s keep the club’s category one academy status in the summer. The Rao family must carry the can for what has happened these past seven years but it is heartening to see their support for the academy remains. It is the club’s lifeblood and is Jack Walker’s greatest legacy.”