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It’s simple for Simon, Rovers cup joy was his finest time
IN a way, playing in a Wembley final is like having a school picture taken.
If your tie is a daft colour or if you have not had a decent haircut for weeks too bad.
That’s the way you were – that’s the image that goes on the mantelpiece or is filed away in the football archives for a fresh generation to remember.
There is a striking black and white photograph on the stairway at Ewood Park, which requires further poignancy each year for Simon Barker, the Professional Footballers’ Association assistant chief executive.
Blackburn’s man of the match is stood on the Wembley turf, fists clenched together in triumph, celebrating Blackburn’s victory over Charlton Athletic in the 1987 Full Members Cup Final.
“Blackburn were in the Second Division and had no money, but that was probably the best weekend of my football career,” said Barker.
“It wasn’t the League Cup or the FA Cup, but we didn’t care, it was still a magical moment for the people who were there.
“It seemed like the whole town had gone to Wembley that March afternoon.
“Dusty (Ian) Miller charged down the line and crossed for Colin Hendry to score with five minutes left.
“That moment will always play a special moment in my life.”
Barker’s a friendly man with a warm sense of humour, but most of all his love for Blackburn shines through quarter of a century after leaving Ewood behind.
“We danced on the pitch with the trophy in front of the Rovers fans, wearing our silly hats, and it was incredibly special because that was Blackburn’s first silverware for many years,” he recalled.
“I thought there’d be other occasions, but there wasn’t and it was my only appearance at that great old stadium.
“We had a re-union of the Wembley team at Ewood a couple of years ago and seeing old colleagues, Scott Sellars, Alan Ainscow, Derek Fazackerley and Vince O’Keefe, who played brilliantly in the final, brought those Rovers memories flooding back. I loved playing for Blackburn.”
Just talking and sipping tea on a weekday morning inside Simon Barker’s office, does more to rekindle the old deep enthusiasm for football than half a dozen afternoons watching the sometimes incoherent energy of modern football.
Barker had made his Rovers debut four years earlier under the watchful eye of Bobby Saxton, a few days short of his nineteenth birthday.
A slender 1-0 win at Swansea where, typically, Simon Garner scored the only goal of the game at Vetch Field, marked his baptism.
He smiles when I ask him how much he earned then.
“I drove a blue Ford Fiesta car and I got £65 a week. You’d have to hammer on the manager’s door for a £10 pay rise - and he would usually tell you to go away.
“But I owe a lot to Bobby, he was an old school manager who taught me how to be a man in a very different era.
“He was a tough centre half with his nose splattered across his face, but most of all he was as straight as a die and knew the game inside out.
“I was a naïve youngster, and there was a lot of hard men in the game.
“We played against Oxford United, who had some fearsome characters, Billy Whitehurst, Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton.
“I tackled Bobby McDonald, but he was a bit more wily and timed his tackle a touch later and I had to be carried off.
“The next day, Bobby Saxton said, ‘Listen son, I need to show you how to look after yourself, how to tackle.’ “He spent hours working with me. You’d think it was a simple thing how to tackle properly, but there’s an art to it.
“There was a great camaraderie at Blackburn and I loved that sense of belonging.”
The game has changed beyond recognition of course since Barker’s duties as an Ewood apprentice included shining the boots of quicksilver Irish winger Noel Brotherston.
“Noel could have played in any era, he was a great talent and a kind soul who was taken from us far too early.
“We’d train together as a team and go out together as a team.
“We’d turn up at a pub in Darwen or Blackburn, push a pile of pennies over for charity, have a pint and a chat with the fans, and the following day the photograph would be in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.”
Barker quickly established himself in Blackburn’s midfield engine room.
He was not only comfortable in possession, and an excellent passer, he had a happy knack of scoring vital goals.
Barker laughs when he recalls Blackburn’s beer drinking, chain-smoking goal machine Garner, whose obsessive hunger for goals defined his Ewood career.
“Simon had quick feet, a short back lift and he nearly always hit the target,” he said. “His finishing was very instinctive and he will always be remembered as a Blackburn Rovers legend.”
Remarkably, when Barker left Ewood for QPR in July 1988 for £400,000, it was the largest fee that Rovers had received for a player at that time and a club record signing for the Loftus Road club.
While the record has long since been overtaken, Barker’s standing at Ewood remains intact.
“I often go back to Ewood through my role at the PFA and last season it felt like Blackburn was ripping itself apart, which was desperately sad to see.
“I’ve talked to some long-standing fans who don’t go to games anymore and I do understand that to a certain extent because that is the only way supporters can show their displeasure at what has happened.
“From the outside looking in, it would seem they have been badly advised from the start by people who they have trusted.
“The men in place before, John Williams (chairman) and Tom Finn (secretary) knew the business and I think they should have left them to run the club for them.
“But the owners made the change and they had to live or die by the decisions they make.
“Regardless of what has gone on before it needs everybody to come together again and that is beginning to happen under Gary Bowyer.
“Gary is a good man and a true football man. He did great work at the Academy and has a real passion for the game, and that is beginning to show in the first team’s results.
‘I hope they stick with him because he seems to be healing the wounds of the past and Blackburn Rovers feels like a football club again.”