Over the years many of Junior football’s biggest names have bitten the Murrayfield Park dust. Linlithgow Rose, Kilbirnie Ladeside, Annbank United, Clydebank and Newtongrange Star have all tasted defeat in Blackburn.
Blackburn and its surrounds are steeped in football history and have often punched above their weight. Last summer marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of Blackburn United, the town’s current representative in the Junior league, though the semi-professional level of football goes back more than a century in the town. United has its origin in the town’s many earlier Junior clubs, with the first formed in 1887 under the name of Blackburn Thistle, but whose flirtation with football in West Lothian lasted only a mere season before they disappeared.
Following this, a number of Junior teams, such as Blackburn Rovers, Blackburn Juniors and a previous incarnation of Blackburn United came and went before the name Blackburn Rovers was resurrected in 1921 when they stepped up from Juvenile level, playing at Mosshall Park in the Linlithgowshire Junior League, but they too folded some five years later. Blackburn Athletic stepped into the gap in 1932 and were an instant success. The new side sparkled on the pitch and brought the Midlothian League Championship and the Marshall Cup back to Murrayfield Park. But in conformity with what seems to have been something of a town tradition, their success was short-lived and they too folded in 1937.
With the world at war Junior football took a back seat and there was no established team in the village until New Blackburn Athletic arose in 1963, playing for a decade at Murrayfield Park before folding. The current Junior club was formed in 1978 and their 30th birthday was passed back in July, 2008.
It was in July, 1978, when a new ambitious Blackburn United team was officially formed by the merging of the Welfare side with a Blackburn Thistle youth team. The team continued to compete for two seasons in the Welfare league while the club and the Council invested heavily in the renovation of Murrayfield Park. In the summer of 1980 the ground was inspected and given the seal of approval by officials of the Scottish Junior Football Association, which meant that the dawn of a new era for Blackburn United had arrived.
The team were prepared for their first season in the B Division of the Eastern Region of the SJFA by Jim Irvine. The former Hearts, Middlesborough and Dundee United star, who lived in Blackburn, took up the coaching role, with the selection committee consisting of Arthur MacDonald, Eddie Roberts and Tam Shaw. The first chapter in this exciting new era for Blackburn at their newly refurbished home was a League Cup tie against Bathgate Thistle on August 16, 1980. A large crowd attended and were treated to a five-goal thriller, which unfortunately ended with the home side losing out 3-2.
The early years proved to be a learning curve for the club on and off the pitch and Blackburn narrowly avoided going out of business in 1984, with only an influx of new committee members and players from Blackburn Juveniles ensuring the continuation of Blackburn United. The 1984/85 season began in disastrous fashion for the team, as they were forced to field mostly players drawn from the former under-21 side after the list of retained players was lost in the post. But fortune favours the brave and the season ended in glorious fashion for Blackburn, who clinched promotion to the top flight for the first time and knocked favourites Yoker Athletic out of the Scottish Junior Cup. Blackburn retained their First Division status but were relegated a year later.
In the 1988 MRS Cup they went down 2-0 to Ormiston Primrose at Albyn Park, Broxburn, while in season 1999/2000 the team progressed to the final of the Millennium Cup at Almondvale Stadium in Livingston, knocking out League Champions Linlithgow Rose at their Prestonfield home on the way, but only to go down 2-0 to another First Division outfit, Fauldhouse United.
A key cog in the Blackburn machine of the early 80s was Alec “Kitty” Dunnigan. Kitty, a former striker in the colours of Linlithgow Rose, Fauldhouse and Armadale, was drafted in to boss the ambitious new Blackburn United side in 1984. He remembers his tenure at Murrayfield Park fondly but insists much of the credit should be laid at the doors of Malcolm Shields and Jim Henderson. “Malcolm Shields started it all off,” insists Kitty. “He was the mainstay of Blackburn Juveniles. It was him who got it all sorted out and along with [current Armadale Thistle manager] Jim Henderson they took me on in a training capacity. “I ended up doing it full-time and we did quite well.”
Dunnigan’s Blackburn Juveniles side surpassed even their manager’s expectations and enjoyed a double winning debut season together, picking up the Lady Darling Cup and the Insurance Cup. “I have always felt the Lady Darling was harder to win than the Scottish Juvenile Cup as it took 10 games to win the Lady Darling, which is more than the Scottish Juvenile. “To be entered into the Lady Darling you had to be eliminated before the third round of the Scottish Juvenile Cup but we won that and the Insurance Cup in 1980, then the Lady Darling with a team which was predominantly an under-21 juvenile team at that stage. “Blackburn United was packing in the Juniors at the end of the 1983-84 season due to lack of money and committee, and only had one man left, President Jimmy Robertson. “Bruce Clouston was the only player we retained at the club but we managed to get a team together after going through the amateurs and the under-21 pools.” Later the ambitious boss persuaded Jim Chalmers, Jim Grant and Des Gallacher to re-sign from the previous season and his new blend of youth and experience earned Blackburn United promotion in their first season together.
Dunnigan combined his role on the bench for Blackburn Juveniles with that of coaching the County’s under-21 team. And his WLSJFA County team boasted several Blackburn players. Dunnigan continued: “I loved coaching the County team and one of my favourite memories was one weekend I spent on the same park with Blackburn and the County select. “The Elliot Trophy was one which we contested against Dumbarton every year. One year would be in Blackburn and the following in Dumbarton. “We won it in 1981 on a Sunday on the same park which I had won the Lady Darling with Blackburn just two days earlier."
“Personally it was fantastic to win two different trophies on the same park on the same weekend. “I still go to all of Blackburn’s Scottish Cup games with ex-coach/physio Brian Meechan, especially if they’re playing a First Division club and I like to see them doing well.”