Blackburn Rovers – The most under appreciated Champions of the Premier League era
On May 14, 1995, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League title, which stands as arguably one of the most underrated achievements in modern-day English football. Most sporting fans were quick to credit this triumph to the then owner of the club- Jack Walker, whose deep pockets enabled their title-winning manager Kenny Dalglish to break the British transfer record, not once, but twice while securing the services of marquee players in Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton.
While Rovers owe a huge debt of gratitude to their lavish benefactor – which their fans continue to enthusiastically acknowledge, the emphasis on monetary influence is unfair and the claim that they only won the league because of it, is ignorant of actual facts, thus holding no ground. Now rooted in the Championship following a 15th place finish last season, their return to the top-flight seems ever so operose.
For the first time in the Premier League era, the trophy was not held by Manchester United as Blackburn Rovers ended their 81-year wait for the top-flight title, emerging victorious in only its third iteration. The journey to the top was indeed onerous, with the Rovers finishing second the previous season, four points off the champions Manchester United.
Blackburn had a chance to secure silverware in the FA Charity Shield before the season began as Manchester United had completed the Double in 1993–94. Rovers faced them in the season’s annual curtain raiser as they finished as runners-up in the 1993-94 Premier League campaign. United won the match 2–0, with goals from Eric Cantona and Paul Ince, who eventually came to Ewood Park to take the reigns from Mark Hughes in 2008.
Blackburn started the Premier League campaign with a 1-1 draw away to Southampton; it was the home side that took the lead in the fifteenth minute through Nicky Banger. Blackburn equalised in the second half when in the 60th minute, debutant Sutton headed the ball down to Alan Shearer who side-footed the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. This was the first goal of the original ‘SAS’ partnership between Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer.
Blackburn recorded their first victory of the season just three days later against Leicester City, at Ewood Park. Chris Sutton got the first goal of the game as well as his first goal for the club in the 19th minute when he headed in Shearer’s delicately flighted chip. Berg and Shearer fired in from close range in the 59th and 74th minute and the game ended 3-0. Rovers faced Coventry City and Arsenal in the remaining fixtures in August and ended the month with a win and a draw, respectively. Sutton was leading the ‘SAS’ battle with 4 goals, ahead of Shearer, with just half as many. However, September was Shearer’s month, who notched up 4 goals with Sutton grabbing 2 goals. The tally was equal, at 6 goals each and this was just a sign of things to come. Blackburn also exited the UEFA Cup in September in a two-legged fixture as they lost 3-1 on aggregate to Dutch side Trelleborg.
October started with the Rover’s first loss in the Premier League after an unbeaten start. Kenny Dalglish returned to Anfield in Gameweek 10, right after a draw away to Newcastle United. Blackburn were back to winning ways against Liverpool, coming out 3-2 winners in a match between the teams that were placed third and fourth in the Premiership. Liverpool took the lead through 19-year-old Robbie Fowler’s deflected 30th-minute shot. The match was turned on its head soon after halftime when Shearer twice fired in crosses from the right flank that was tucked home by Atkins in the 52nd minute and Sutton in the 57th. The lead did not last long as Barnes scored an overhead kick only two minutes later, but Sutton scored the winner in the 73rd minute by blasting in from a tight angle.
Rovers faced the champions the following week and were handed a 4-2 defeat as Cantona kicked off the comeback by scoring a penalty. Post which Blackburn took the lead in the 13th minute through a cheeky chip from Warhurst, some 30 yards out beating Peter Schmeichel. Blackburn took a brief lead again; however, Andrei Kanchelskis canceled it out the very next minute. Post 66 minutes, it was 3-2 when the ball fell to the unmarked Mark Hughes, who then dexterously chipped over the stranded Flowers because he happened to be way off his line. Kanchelskis broke away in the 82nd minute to score his second and United’s fourth to secure the 3 points for the Red Devils.
The last game in October against Nottingham Forest marked the beginning of a 12 game unbeaten run for Blackburn, as Chris Sutton’s brace gave them a 2-0 victory. Rovers were resilient in the last couple of months of 1994, heading towards the winter transfer window. Dropping just 2 points out of 12 games in pole position at the winter break with Manchester United breathing down their necks in second place. Alan Shearer scored two of his three hattricks in the league between November to January. The Riversiders notched up 29 goals in 12 games with Shearer scoring hattricks against Queens Park Rangers in November and West Ham United in the first Gameweek of 1995.
Dalglish’s tactical style
Kenny Dalglish always favoured the 4-4-2 with the Rovers, as it gave the two forwards enough space to link up with Stuart Ripley and captain Tim Sherwood, opening up the wings to the wide midfielders Jason Wilcox, and Mark Atkins, who was originally a right-back. Dalglish habitually rotated his back four with Tony Gale and Paul Warhurst with Ian Pearce on the bench. The Blackburn Rovers midfield was also subjected to alteration recurrently due to suspensions or injuries.
In such a premise, Dalglish turned to Tony Gale, and slotted him in between the two centre-backs to form a back three. The full-backs were turned to wing-backs giving them the freedom to move up and about the flanks in support of the two forwards. This system proved to be clinical as Dalglish predominantly played the 5-3-2 formation after their loss to United at home. This new formation paid instant dividends as they not only shone in offence but also stood out in defence as they conceded just 4 goals in their 12-game unbeaten run. This splendid streak started and ended after a defeat to Manchester United but this time around, at the Theatre of Dreams. Blackburn did not incur any damage with respect to their top spot. Dalglish’s men did bounce back the very next game against Ipswich Town with Shearer bagging his third hattrick of the season. United were held to a draw at Selhurst Park and the gap went back to 5 points at the end of January.
The Riversiders dropped points in their first two games of February as they drew at home to Leeds and lost away at White Hart Lane. United closed the gap with back to back victories in February and found themselves on top of the Premier League for the first time in 1995. After the loss at White Hart Lane, Blackburn went on a 10-game winning streak, which saw them etch their name on the podium for the rest of the season.
Losses to both Merseyside teams in the space of a month saw Manchester United sit firm at second place 6 points off the leaders. The Rovers were set to clinch their first title in 81 years with 5 games to go and 6 points in front of the incumbent champions Manchester United. In Gameweek 38, the blue side of Manchester visited Ewood park and did their neighbours a favour by beating the hosts 3-2. Paul Antony Walsh snared the winner in the 71st minute. Manchester United did not capitalise on this slip-up as they were held to a draw against Chelsea at home. Blackburn eased past Crystal Palace on the 20th of April but ended up losing 2-0 at Upton Park, against West Ham United. Blackburn were on top with an 8-point lead, but having played two games more than United. United crushed Coventry City and Sheffield Wednesday in their next two fixtures and suddenly the gap was down to 2 points with two games to go.
The final run in
All Blackburn had to do was to see through the next two games carefully if they had wanted to be crowned as champions. Both United and Blackburn were playing their penultimate games at home, Blackburn played the Magpies whereas United played Southampton. Both came away with a win and as a result, the title was going to be decided on the final day. United faced a relatively easier opponent in West Ham United when compared to the Riversiders who travelled to Anfield to face a Liverpool side fighting for a European spot.
Both Liverpool and United needed a win to achieve their respective targets. Just in case the day didn’t have adequate drama, both games were scheduled to kick off at the same time. Blackburn drew first blood and broke the deadlock as Alan Shearer slotted home in the 20th minute from a Stuart Ripley assist. This was his 34th goal of the season, leagues away from Robbie Fowler who came in second with 25 goals for the season. Meanwhile, in London, Michael Hughes got the crowd roaring at Upton Park, and at half time, United were trailing and the Rovers were leading. It was all good for the Riversiders, as a Liverpool win and a United win was the only way that United could win the title, and at half time, this scenario was highly unlikely
The second half began, Liverpool and United equalised in their respective games and now there was everything to play for. Brian McClair had equalised for the Red Devils in the 52nd minute, and Bryan Barnes scored in the 64th minute to send a few jitters down the Riversiders’ spines. Liverpool were irrepressible in the second half and tried to get the winner that would book them a spot in the European places. Jamie Redknapp came in clutch and curled the ball past Andy Flowers from a free kick from outside the box in the dying moments of the game to win 2-1. Cameras pan to Kenny Dalglish who seemed to celebrate this beauty from Redknapp, some thought he was to be reminded that he’s not representing Liverpool anymore.
Dalglish was celebrating alright, but not because of the free kick, but because the final whistle had been blown at Upton Park and the game ended 1–1. United fought against the clock to score a winner, but West Ham remained resilient up until the final whistle. West Ham managed to hold back United to a draw, owing to two blunders late on by Andy Cole which could’ve put the game to bed for the Red Devils. But that was that, by the time the final whistle was heard at Anfield, the Blackburn faithful were already celebrating their first Premier League title. The chants were so loud that nobody cared about the result at Anfield because their result was decided moments before when the news arrived that Manchester United had drawn against West Ham in the capital. A single point separated the two sides after 42 games. Both Rovers and United, for more than half of the season, enjoyed a wide gap in terms of points between themselves and the rest of the league.
Alan Shearer won the Golden Boot for most goals scored that season, 34 goals in 42 appearances, his first of three Golden Boot awards, He won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award as nominated by his fellow professionals, for his 47 goal contributions of 80 league goals scored by Blackburn that season. Shearer also bagged the highest number of assists for the club; 13, followed by Chris Sutton with 10 assists. Sutton went on to win the Golden Boot himself for Blackburn Rovers, right after Shearer won it at Newcastle. Kenny Dalglish was awarded the Manager of the Season award, for leading Blackburn to success.
What happened after 1995?
Blackburn’s success was built on steel – the commodity from which Jack Walker drew the personal fortune that enabled him to fund his local club.
“We weren’t stock listed. We were privately owned by Jack, a local guy who had put his money in and said, ‘I want to see my football club go forward.’ said Dalglish in a radio interview. He went on to add “Manchester United were listed on the Stock Exchange. They were a global club. We were just a small town that happened to have a good football team.” – Kenny Dalglish
Dalglish’s argument is certainly reinforced by ensuing advances in football and particularly in the Premier League. Gigantic salary and transfer-fee inflation extended debt to a degree that provoked the introduction of the Financial Fair Play code, which all but ensures that small regional clubs with limited fan bases cannot splash the cash required to win the league. Shearer, shares Dalglish’s view that Blackburn’s championship was a once-only achievement. “They can’t do it now because of the rules – Financial Fair Play,” he said.
Rovers spent relatively less than the incumbent champions, Manchester United. Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Andy Cole cost £19.33m. Whereas Tim Flowers, Henning Berg, Colin Hendry, Ian Pearce, Graham Le Saux, Stuart Ripley, Mark Atkins, Tim Sherwood, Jason Wilcox, Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton set the Rovers back a comparatively low sum of £14.7m. Given that these squads – in particular, United’s – took almost three years to assemble, perhaps an impartial estimation would be to look at the 1994-95 expenditure in isolation. On both counts, United’s expense exceeded that of the Rovers. Comparisons with other clubs are also favourable. Blackburn’s entire defence cost less than half of the sum required to bring Phil Babb and John Scales to Anfield and cost less than the sum Newcastle paid to secure the services of Darren Peacock.
Hence granting stories of ‘Walker bought the title’ echoed for the next few months, it’s safe to say that, that was NOT the only case. Although Blackburn had a financial push in the form of their owner, it was Dalglish who made the transfers possible. The only reason Alan Shearer refuted interest from United, and chose Ewood Park because Dalglish was at the helm.
Money is not the primary requirement to secure the league anymore as demonstrated by Leicester City in the 15/16 Premier League campaign. Claudio Ranieri’s men showed that a team only needs to invest in the right talent and the dividends hinge on the magnitude of talent not the extent of investment. Blackburn had a similar philosophy in choosing their talent astutely. There is a mistaken assumption that the club spent heavily on Graeme Le Saux, Colin Hendry and captain Tim Sherwood. This assumption is perhaps based on the fact that they became indispensable so quickly and were sold on for immense profit. In fact, all three were acquired on the cheap; Hendry for £700,000, the same price the club sold him for two years earlier; Le Saux, who was out of favour at Chelsea, and Sherwood from Norwich City for a mere £400,000.
The club’s transfer policy grabbing the limelight rather than the performances of the players week in, week out was certainly why the credit was not given where it was rightfully deserved. This one-time victory, as many claim, to date stands out as one of the most unrecognized triumphs in modern football history, for the very same reason.
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Feature Image via ComeOn! Promotions