I am a Blackburn Rovers fan.
Whenever I meet someone from England who is not a Blackburn fan, I usually get the same reaction when I tell them that I support the Rovers: "Blackburn? Why?"
The Rovers are not a fashionable club to follow, at least not these days. Admittedly, I started rooting for the Blue and White in their second heyday, following their first (and, truth be told, likely only) Premier League championship in 1995. But I wasn't a bandwagon jumper, actually not throwing my support behind the club until it was on the decline, in 1997. Only two years later they were relegated and I stuck with them, proof of my stubbornness or stupidity.
It was not a decision that was made lightly. I began following the Premier League around 1996, a time coinciding with my beginning to coach my son's rec soccer team and with ESPN2's broadcasts of some Premier League games. I decided to follow one team, and set a few rules in choosing which one it would be. I wanted to root for a team that had enjoyed some success but was not one of the mega-teams. And I wanted to feel a connection with not just the team but its supporters.
Options for viewing soccer, and following foreign leagues, were much more antiquated 15 years ago than they are now, so the tools at my disposal to help figure out what team I would call my own were limited. I relied on the occasional match on ESPN2 and message boards and email lists on the Internet to help make my choice. For a time, I joined email lists of fans of Newcastle, Liverpool, and Blackburn.
All three were moderately successful in the '90's and had some promise of future success. Liverpool had enjoyed a long spell as the best club in England in the '70's and '80's and Newcastle had a strong fan base and fanatical following. Rovers had been the best team in England in the late 1800's and had enjoyed a revival under steel magnate and local boy made good Jack Walker, who had purchased the club in the early '90's and quickly steered it (or bought its way, depending on how you looked at it) from the Second Division to the Premier League and then champions in a remarkably short period of time.
I quickly struck Newcastle off of the list, finding their fans to be boorish and unintelligent. The Liverpool supporters were smarter but had an air of entitlement that I found off-putting. The Rovers fans, however, were smart, funny, and had a certain "us against the world" attitude that fit with my predisposition to root for the underdog (a trait I believe I share with many West Virginians).
My support for Rovers was cemented by two other factors: their fantastic blue and white halves, a kit that I think is the best looking soccer shirt in the world, and a 7-2 thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday on a Monday afternoon that still may be the most dazzling soccer game I've ever watched.
That was 13 years ago and it is still the most goals I've ever seen the Rovers score in a match. There have been some very low points along the way, including relegation in 1999 and two seasons in what was then called the First Division. As hard as it was to follow a club in the Premier League then, it was nothing compared to the wasteland that was news, let alone match highlights or live games, regarding First Division teams.
Rovers tried a number of miserably unsuitable managers while stumbling into and then through the wilderness before a savior arrived: Graham Souness. Although his departure from the club, inevitable for almost any professional team, was unpleasant, there is no doubt in my mind that Souness was the right man at the right time to lead Blackburn back to the Premier League, which he did in a season and a half.
During the first year back, Rovers reached their high point since I've followed them, winning the 2002 League Cup final 2-1 over Tottenham Hotspur at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I still have the video tape (yes, video tape) of that win, and pull it out and watch every so often.
Since then, Rovers have mostly struggled in the Premier League, although they did enjoy a spell in the top half of the league for a time under manager Mark Hughes, one of the heroes of the League Cup win. Hughes, however, bolted for the filthy lucre offered by Manchester City (he's since been fired there and was recently hired by Fulham, which employs Americans Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson) and were very nearly demoted again after a disastrous start to the next season under Paul Ince.
The past two years have been marked by mediocrity and dull play, due in part to the current manager, Sam Allardyce, a coach whose tactics and demeanor would be difficult for the most ardent supporter to warm to, and in part to the financial cost of "facing the drop" to the First Division (now called the "Championship") which makes survival in the Premiership the main goal for all but a handful of clubs.
Things are better from the standpoint of getting to watch Rovers live on FSC and ESPN2 these days when they play one of the "big clubs". But I can't say that I often enjoy the experience. That's part of being a true fan, particularly a fan of a perpetual underdog. And, unlike in baseball (I'm a lifelong Tigers and Cubs fan) or football (ahem, Lions?) at least professional soccer offers several different avenues, through cup competitions, for a team to shine even when the season isn't going all that well (Portsmouth were in the FA Cup final last year while slogging through a miserable league campaign that saw them practically relegated by Christmas).
The preseason hasn't gone well at all for Rovers this year, and I fear that survival may be an accomplishment rather than just a goal in 2010-11. But I'll be watching. Through thick and (mostly) thin, I'm a Rovers fan.