“I THINK you know the club aren’t going to offer you another contract.”

These were the words Howard Gayle did not want to hear 25 years ago in the manager’s office at Ewood Park.

They were uttered by someone he knew well from his time at Liverpool, a man he had replaced in a European Cup semi-final, and they served as notice of the end of his playing career.


Not that Gayle is bitter towards Kenny Dalglish, the Blackburn Rovers boss who would go on to hold the Premier League trophy aloft just three years later.

“That’s the way football is and you have to move on,” Gayle says.

By then, the Toxteth-born winger had been pushed down the pecking order by new arrivals as Jack Walker’s dreams of making his club the best in the land started to take shape.

But Gayle, who recalls the five years he spent in East Lancashire as ‘some of my happiest times’, was a crowd favourite and there are still some regrets about how things turned out.

“It was tough,” he recalled of that chat with Dalglish. “When Kenny came in it was when I’d had a hernia operation and I’d missed pre-season.

“The club were bringing in the likes of Alan Shearer and Mike Newell, so I went into see Kenny one day and asked him what was happening.

“His answer was, ‘I think you know the club aren’t going to offer you another contract’.

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“I was surprised to hear that, the way he worded it. He knew me and, in fact, my claim to fame at Liverpool was replacing him in a European semi-final.

“I was disappointed in the outcome because I had given my all for Rovers.

“That’s what you did in those days and I was gutted when he used that phrase.

“I always think that if I’d have got myself properly fit I could have added to the promotion push to get into the top flight.”

Gayle, whose searingly-honest autobiography ‘61 Minutes in Munich’ was released in September, had arrived at Rovers in 1987 and found a very different set-up to the modern stadium and training ground players enjoy now.

“I’d just come back from America and I’d spent the last half of that season at Stoke City,” he explained.

“Then I saw an article in a newspaper with Don Mackay that Blackburn Rovers were looking to bring in players.

“I rang them up, he knew of me and said, ‘Come down for a week and we’ll have a look at you’. I got myself fit and I impressed.

“That first season was dogged with hamstring problems, but when I could play the club saw the qualities I had and they were gracious enough to give me a contract for a second season.”

Ewood Park, and in particular the pitch, was in a poor state. But there was an excellent team spirit under Mackay, who attracted some big names to drop down to the old Second Division.

Gayle said: “We were training in Pleasington Cemetery. I wouldn’t say it something we looked upon that we were a poor club, it was just the way it was.

“We’d be training and there would be funerals coming through the park, there were cows in there too, but we accepted it.

“We had a great dressing room, great characters. We gelled on and off the pitch and that’s probably one of the reasons for our success that we were a tight-knit group.

“Anybody coming in had to fit in, and that included the likes of Ossie Ardiles, Steve Archibald, Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran - players with huge reputations.”

The signing who ready stood out for Gayle, though, was a £200,00 buy from Aston Villa, who his former teammate claims was one of the few not affected by the playing surface.

“The one for me was Gordon Cowans,” he said.

“A contributory factor to the injuries we were having was the state of Ewood Park.

“The club laid what was supposed to be a new ‘tech’ pitch. It was an absolute nightmare.

“It was like laying an Axminster carpet on top of a wooden floor and when you were running on it it was just giving way “In one game I slipped, fell back and dislocated my elbow.

“So the pitch was poor and Gordon used to play all the time in ‘mouldies’ (rubber studs) and I used to wonder how because his balance was absolutely brilliant.

“I always admired ‘Sid’ when he was at Villa, so to get the opportunity to play with him was excellent.

“He impressed me, but it was the same with all of them.

“Normally you would get players who would come down to our level and be prima donnas.

“But all credit to Don Mackay because his charisma, his wisdom and his personality must have charmed those players to come and join in a revolution at Blackburn.

“That was taken over and developed by Jack Walker. Jack had a vision that he wanted to see Rovers in the top division before his days ended and he was able to achieve that, and not only to see his team in the top division but to win the Premier League.”

Also among that group was striker Simon Garner, still the club’s all-time record goalscorer, who struck up a great understanding with Gayle.

The pair will be reunited on Saturday at AFC Darwen’s Anchor Ground to talk about their time at Ewood Park, and Gayle still rates him as a class above.

“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him again,” Gayle added. “He’s one of the best players I’ve played with, a top finisher.

“We knew each other’s games. I know at one stage Liverpool were looking at Garns maybe as a replacement for Ian Rush when he went to Juventus.

“I’ve put in my book that he’s one of the best players never to play in the top division because he was a top, top, top finisher.

“If you gave the ball to him in the box it’s in (the net).”

While reflecting on the good times, Gayle is also disappointed to see his former club now struggling towards the bottom of the Championship.

He makes no bones about where he feels the blame lies.

“It’s really sad to see today the plight that Rovers are in, their fall from grace,” he lamented.

“I know the fans are disenfranchised by the owners and it’s a shame because it’s a club that’s steeped in history.

“It’s like having a museum piece that you give away to somebody and they don’t use it any more. You realise the mistake you’ve made and you want it back, but it’s too late and you can’t get it back. I think that’s the situation with Rovers.

“The Football League and the FA have to intervene in this. You can’t have owners who are rebuffing any approach.

“I know there is a fan group who have tried to contact them, but Venky’s are having no dialogue with anybody.

“Clubs like Blackburn would be better off being owned by a fanbase consortium rather than an investment consortium, because the fans have got the best interests of their club at heart.

“Some of the former players could play roles throughout the club, maybe use Bayern Munich as a model.

“There has to be that unity, that transparency and that connection between the fans and the club.

“What you’ve got now with Blackburn is a divide, and that doesn’t help with things on the pitch.

“Football is a confidence game and one of the biggest support mechanisms I had when I was at Rovers was a really, really good relationship with the fans.

“They saw the commitment that I had for the club and they appreciated that and got behind me.

“There has to be that unity and that connection between the fans and the club.”

  • Howard Gayle and Simon Garner will be discussing their time at Rovers at AFC Darwen this Saturday (7pm). The event is free to attend. Gayle’s book ‘61 Minutes in Munich’, published by deCoubertin Books, is available now. CLICK HERE TO BUYLancashire Telegraph: