WHEN Blackburn Rovers take to the field tomorrow night for their Capital One Cup clash with Scunthorpe United it will no doubt evoke a few memories in Mark Atkins.
As Scunthorpe are the club where he started his career as a schoolboy. And Rovers? Well they are the club he now considers his own.
And that from a proud Yorkshireman born and bred in Doncaster who grew up watching his hometown team.
But Atkins’ heart, even 19 years after last leaving Ewood Park, now resides in Lancashire and with Rovers.
How could it not after he witnessed at first-hand the club’s dramatic transformation from one which was forced to train on playing fields to one which would go on to sit proudly at the top of English football.
Atkins was an integral member of the Rovers side which won the Premiership title in 1995.
But he admits a top-flight winners’ medal was a long way from his mind when he first arrived at the club in the summer of 1988, as an unknown 19-year-old from then Fourth Division Scunthorpe, to replace the departed Chris Price.
“Scunthorpe were my first club and I made my debut for them when I was 16, which was a great achievement for me,” remembers Atkins, who turns 46 on Thursday.
“I was really enjoying my time there but when a club like Blackburn comes in for you it’s an easy decision to make.
“At that time Blackburn were trying to get promotion to the old Division One and they always seemed to be in and around the play-off scene so it was a big step up for me.
“But I settled in really well and really quickly as it was back then what it still is now – a friendly and family club.
“But things did change quickly.
“I remember training on the park at Pleasington and I think the first time I played at Ewood Park, which was nothing like it is now, there was something like 8,000 there.
“By the time I left they were getting 30,000 so there were big changes while I was there and I just went along on what was a fantastic ride. When Jack and Kenny got involved you just knew that it was only going to go one way.”
Atkins, of course, is referring to Jack Walker and Kenny Dalglish, the men who inspired Rovers’ remarkable rise.
But it was not benefactor Walker nor manager Dalglish who was to have the biggest impact on Atkins’ career.
Instead it was a member of the old guard at Rovers, Tony Parkes.
As it was Parkes, during a caretaker spell in charge at the start of the 1991/92 season after Don Mackay had been sacked, who switched Atkins from right back to the centre of midfield.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
In that position Atkins was outstanding as Rovers won promotion with a play-off final win over Leicester City on that unforgettable Bank Holiday Monday afternoon in May 1992 – and he was as just as influential over the course of the memorable 1994/95 campaign which this season celebrates its 20th anniversary.
“I’ve got to give Tony Parkes a lot of credit for seeing the midfielder in me and putting me in there,” said Atkins, who scored 39 goals in 314 appearances for Rovers before moving to Wolves for £1m in September 1995.
“When Kenny came in he kept me there and that became my position.
“I’ll never forget driving to Wembley for the play-off final.
“We’d had a bad end to the season, and only just managed to scrape into the play-offs when we should have gone up straight away, but I just knew we would beat Leicester and I really enjoyed the day and I played some of my best football on the day.
“From then on the players just kept on coming in – and I’m not just talking about good players but world class players and ultimately we ended up winning the Premiership title.
“Whatever happens no-can take that season away from the players, the fans and the club.
“I don’t think it will ever happen again – a club in its third year in the Premiership winning it. It is unknown.
“We had some fantastic players but it was hard work that got us there – that and team spirit.
“There were obstacles put in our way but we worked our way through them.”
The same could be said of Atkins himself.
Despite the big name arrivals he remained a constant for Dalglish and his assistant manager, the late Ray Harford.
“I’m proud of that fact,” said Atkins.
“There were doubts whether I would be in the team and whether I would even stay but that just made me want to prove myself and I think I ended up doing that.
“It was difficult seeing new players coming in but I just had to believe in my own ability and I knew if I was doing my job for the team then that’s all that mattered.
“It didn’t matter who was coming in and how much they cost. As long as Kenny and Ray saw me doing what they had asked me to do, and doing it to the best of my ability, that was good enough.
“You can have as many flair players as you want but you also need grafters who will work hard to help the team out.”
Modest Atkins was much more than a midfield workhouse, though.
Blessed with great stamina and positional sense, he also scored six vital goals on the way to Rovers claiming the Premiership crown – his favourites being his strikes at home to Liverpool and Southampton – and, speaking to the Lancashire Telegraph last month, Tim Sherwood, the captain of the famous title-winning team, hailed Atkins as one of the best players he played with in his career.
The feeling is mutual.
“Tim was probably the best midfielder I played alongside,” said Atkins.
“He was outstanding, not just on the pitch, where he could do anything with the football, but off the pitch as well, as his character really got us all together.
“We just clicked.”
Atkins went on to play for Wolves, York City, Doncaster, Hull City and Shrewsbury Town before hanging up his boots and he now is set to embark on his sixth full season as manager of Evo-Stik League Premier Division outfit Matlock Town.
But his heart resides with Rovers.
“I’m a Yorkshire lad and always supported Doncaster Rovers as a kid but if anyone asks me who my club is now, I say Blackburn Rovers,” said Atkins.