The “Big Four”: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and……… Blackburn Rovers of course. In the 18 years since the establishment of the Premier league, nee Premiership, only these four clubs have enjoyed success in getting their hands on the top prize in domestic football.
Rovers’ victory in the 1994-1995 season, sandwiched between two periods of back-to-back league successes for United, was every bit as much as a shock back then as it would be today. In the last season before a new era in British Football began with the groundbreaking formation of the Premiership, Rovers had finished a dismal 19th place in the old second division and few could have foretold the rapid upturn in fortunes that would be experienced by the Lancashire club who last tasted top-flight success in 1914.
In the middle of their lacklustre 1991-92 campaign, a local business man (and life-long Rovers fan) named Jack Walker chose to inject some of his hard earned cash into the club and by doing so sparked one of the greatest periods in the history of the club. In his first full season as chairman (1992-93) Walker drafted in the managerial expertise of Kenny Dalglish and the duo were not long in giving fans a taster of the effect they would have on the club as Rovers were promoted to top-flight for the first time in 26 years. Funded by Walker, Dalglish was able to bring in some players of true quality and in their maiden Premiership season they managed a more than respectable 4th place finish, only just missing out on a UEFA cup spot. Given the dark days that fans of the club had suffered through in the not so distant past, an air of undoubted positivity was emerging at Ewood Park and in just their second season in the upper echelons of English football, Blackburn Rovers ended an 81 year wait and once more got their hands on the top prize in domestic football.
In a season in which they fought long and hard with emerging giants Manchester United, it took until the last day of the season for the battle to be decided. Losing 2-1 to Liverpool, Rover’s dreams seemed to have come to a shattering conclusion until news trickled through that United, needing a win to take their third League title in a row, could only manage a 1-1 draw at Upton Park. Within four years of taking control of the club, Jack Walker had delivered the unthinkable.
Below we take a look at what became of the main men of the Blackburn side who helped deliver this feat.
GK: Tim Flowers
Having risen to prominence during his spell at Southampton Flowers became England’s most expensive goalkeeper by completing a £2.4m move to Rovers in 1993 as part of Dalglish and Walker ‘s revolution. Flowers went on to win the League in only his second season and was a pivotal part of the team in doing so, receiving much acclaim for his performances and giving back-up keeper Shay Given little sight of the first team. Flowers picked up 11 international caps during his time at Rovers but was never able to make a permanent claim on a starting berth for the national team although he was in the squad for both Euro 96 and WC 98. He remained at Ewood Park until 1999 when Rovers dropped from the top division and Flowers moved on to Leicester City where he collected a League Cup winners medal before retiring in 2003 following a series of loan moves to Stockport, Coventry and Man City. Following his retirement, he began a new career as a goalkeeping coach working first with Leicester and Man City before taking a role as assistant coach to Iain Dowie at Coventry, before joining him at QPR aswell. This season, when Dowie somehow landed the task of keeping Hull City in the top-flight following the sacking of Phil Brown, Flowers was once more drafted in as his sidekick.
RB: Henning Berg
Berg was a relative unknown before his move from Lillestrom for £400,000 in 1993 however a series of solid displays quickly resulted in him being regarded as a top-class defender throughout the league. Able to play both at right-back and centre-half, Berg’s versatility was one of his most attractive features and was vital for Blackburn in the succesful 94-95 season when he missed only two games. Having been part of the team to deny Manchester United league success in that season, Berg soon become a Red Devil when Alex Ferguson swooped for him in 1997. Berg went on to add two more league titles to his collection along with an FA Cup and a Champions League, famously being part of United’s 1999 treble success (Berg actually missed both cup finals through injury). Berg moved back to Blackburn in 2000 and lasted three years before moving to Rangers for the 2003-2004 season before calling time on his playing career. In 2005 he took the reins of Lyn Oslo in his native Norway and has since gone onto manage Lillestrom where he remains to this day.
CB: Colin Hendry
The title winning season of 94-95 came in Hendry’s second spell at Blackburn having first joined them from Dundee in 1987 before also going on to play for Manchester City. Hendry earned a reputation as a tough tackling centre-half and was instrumental in Rover’s success. He remained at Blackburn until 1998 before moving back up north to play for Glasgow Rangers for two years, during which he managed to win a domestic trouble but also fall out with manager Dick Advocaat. Before moving back to his native land Hendry captained the national side at WC 98.
Hendry moved back to England in 2000 to play for Coventry, Bolton, Preston and Blackpool before hanging up his boots in 2003. He entered management in 2004 when he took control of Blackpool which was ultimately unsuccessful and he was sacked in 2005. A two year break followed before he became manager of Clyde however he lasted only five months when he was forced to retire due to the death of his wife.
CB: Ian Pearce
An inspired signing by Dalglish, Pearce made the move from Chelsea in 1993 having played only four games in three years for the London side. Pearce went on to form a formidable partnership with Hendry in the 94-95 season the pair were the bedrock of the side with their no-nonsense approach to defending. Pearce moved away from Ewood park in 1997, signing on the dotted line at Upton Park for West Ham, with whom he went on to make 142 appearances. Pearce then moved across London to join Fulham in 2004 and played for four years at Craven Cottage in a spell that was often hampered by injuries. In 2008, now in the twilight of his career Pearce was forced to undergo trials at Southampton and Brentford as he looked for a club before ultimately rejoining Oxted & District FC, the club where his career had begun. Oddly, in 2009 he then re–entered the football league as a player/assistant manager with Lincoln City, serving as deputy to Chris Sutton.
LB: Graeme Le Saux
Another Walker/Dalglish signing when he came in 1993 from Chelsea, Le Saux became a virtual ever present for Rovers as they laid siege to the top spots in English football. His performances were noted by national boss Terry Venables and Le Saux went on to make 36 appearances for his country, including a period of being first choice left-back left-back for the 1998 World Cup. In 1997, Le Saux became the most expensive defender in English football when he moved back to Chelsea where he won an FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners Cup before moving to Southampton as part exchange for Wayne Bridge in 2003. Despite being married with two children, Le Saux frequently experienced abuse from opposition fans and players who tormented him with homosexual allegations, most famously Robbie Fowler in 1999 who bent over and repeatedly pointed at his backside as Le Saux prepared to take a free kick during a game against Liverpool. Le Saux vehemently denies these claims and still feels immense anger against Fowler, who he says has never apologized. Having ended his playing career in 2005 whilst at Southampton, Le Saux went on to do some punditry work for BBC however he quit once replaced by Mark Lawrenson. He has also appeared on Dancing on ice and Working Lunch.
RM: Stuart Ripley
Ripley waited until the twilight stages of his career to eventually fly the Ewood Park nest when in 1998, aged almost 31, he moved to the south coast to join Southampton. Ripley made 53 appearances for the Saints, but as his playing time began to run out he was forced to undertake loan spells at Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday before eventually calling it a day in 2002.
As one of a rare breed, a footballer with a few brain cells, Ripley went on to graduate with a first class degree in Law and French and also open up a Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinic. Good on you, Stuart.
CM: Tim Sherwood
One of Dalglish’s first signings for Blackburn Sherwood had a difficult start to his Blackburn career before eventually finding his feet and putting in a string of fine performances for the club. Such were the level of these performances that when King Kenny expressed an interest to sign two little known French players by the name of Christophe Dugarry and Zinedine Zidane, Walker asked him “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?”. What could have been?! Feeling unsettled up north, Sherwood moved back to London with Tottenham in 1999 where he remained until 2003 when a bust-up with then coach Glenn Hoddle sealed his exit. Sherwood moved to the south-coast and joined Portsmouth with whom he enjoyed promotion success in his first season. An important member of the squad at Fratton Park, Sherwood was enjoying considerable amounts of first team action in the Premier League in 2003/04 before a broken leg ended his Pompey career. He moved back to the Championship in 2005 to join Peter Reid’s Coventry City but could not help them gain promotion and made only 11 appearances. At the end of the 2004/05 season his contract was terminated by mutual consent. Since leaving the game as a player, Sherwood has remained closely involved working both as a pundit on various channels and holding down a backroom position at White Hart Lane under Harry Redknapp.
CM: David Batty
Now making his second appearance in such a feature on BPF, Batty has enjoyed a colorful career. Having won a league title at Blackburn the tough tackling centre-mid went on to taste more (relative) success at Leeds United when he helped them challenge for domestic and European honours during the club’s golden period of the early 2000′s.
Batty’s time at Blackburn may be best remembered for the on-field fracas he had with then teammate Graeme Le Saux during a game against Spartak Moscow in 1996 that ultimately led to him submitting a transfer request and making his way to Newcastle, however this should not detract from an excellent career in which the player represented his country 42 times and rarely shirked responsibilities during battle.
LM: Jason Wilcox
One of the last of the league winning team to hang around, Wilcox made over 300 appearances for Rovers since beginning his career with the club in 1989. In leaving the club in 1999, Wilcox also has the strange record of tasting league victory and relegation with the same club. An excellent player in his day, Wilcox never had a shortage of clubs sniffing around him but his loyalty to the club who had given him everything was unremitting until a drop to the second division of English football gave him little other option. He moved to Leeds in a £4m move and, along with his old team mate David Batty, went onto enjoy some of the finest days of the clubs history, featuring prominently in their journeys into the business end of the UEFA Cup and Champions League in the early 2000′s. In what may seem to indicate some form of curse, Wilcox’s exit from Leeds was once more prompted by a relegation. In 2004 he moved to Leicester on a free transfer where he lasted two seasons, interupted by a potentially career ending cruciate ligament injury, before moving to Blackpool where in a nice twist of fate he tasted the joy of avoiding relegation before calling time on his career in 2006 following a bust up with some of the club’s backroom staff. In his day, Wilcox was often touted as the long-needed solution to England’s left midfield problem however frequent injuries ultimately held him back and he managed just three full England caps.
CF: Alan Shearer
Strongly considered as one of the greatest English players of all time, Shearer’s career is a model of consistency. Upon leaving Southampton to join Blackburn in 1992, Shearer would go onto become one of the most prolific strikers in Premier League history bagging a phenomenal 130 goals in 171 appearances for Rover’s and another 206 for Newcastle United as well as averaging almost a goal every two games for the international side. Shearer’s partnership with Chris Sutton over the 1994-95 season, dubbed the SAS, was every bit as clinical as its name suggests as the strike-pair shot Blackburn to league glory.
As Euro 96 came to a close, Shearer was edging nearer and nearer to an exit from Ewood Park and admits to very nearly signing for Manchester United only for the transfer to be halted by Jack Walker who refused to sell his prize asset to a main rival.In july 1996, Shearer became the most expensive player in world football when he moved to Newcastle United, his boyhood club then managed by local hero Kevin Keegan, for £15m. Despite some heroic performances and a raft of personal accolades, Shearer’s time at Newcastle was characterized by “nearly, but not enough” as he was a runner up in the Premiership (96), twice a runner up in the FA Cup (98 and 99) and made suffer a series of European disappointments including a semi-final defeat in the UEFA Cup in 2003. A reversed decision on his retirement in the summer of 2005 extended his playing career to the end of 2005-06 season when he eventaully called it a day after tearing a mdeial ligament in his knee with three games of the season to go.
Shearer’s incredible career saw him bag an incredible 379 club goals in 733 appearances and a raft of personal honours which I cannot begin to list here. A hero at Rovers and at Newcastle,, where a statue (and a bar) are present in his honour, it seemed the only thing missing from his time as a player was more silverware.
Immediately after his playing career ended, Shearer took up a punditry role with the BBC working on both Match of the Day and the coverage of major tournaments. He is also hugely involved in various charities and is a patron of the Bobby Robson foundation and a supporter of other charitable oganisations like UNICEF, the Dream Foundation and the NSPCC, holding regular fundraisers for each.
Widely tipped to go into coaching at some stage of his career, Shearer frequently resisted the offers (from both England and Newcastle) until April 2009 when he stepped up to the plate to try save a struggling Newcastle from relegation. Given an 8 week break by the BBC he was seen as a messiah and his return to the dugout was hugely celebrated by the Toon faithful. His efforts to keep his much beloved club afloat were not enough however (he managed just one win and two draws in eight games) and Newcastle dropped out of the top-flight for the first time in sixteen years. Specualtion immediately turned to his future at the club and with fans and players proclaiming his desire to stay, Shearer came out and said he would continue as manager if owner Mike Ashley would sell the club. This did not occur and Shearer’s temporary appointment remained exactly that.
CF: Chris Sutton
The other half of one of the most feared strike partnerships in top division history. Sutton became the most expensive British footballer ever when he made the £5m switch from Norwich to Blackburn in 1994. Although a pricey acquisition, Sutton’s fee was in no means a waste of money, scoring fifteen league goals in his first season and often acting as the perfect foil for Shearer.
Injuries frequently blighted the remainder of his Blackburn career but high points included a haul of 18 goals in the 1997-98 season before the fateful relegation in 1998-99, a season in which he featured just seventeen times in the league and scored only three goals. Sutton was sold to Chelsea for £10m following the relegation and he failed to make much impact at Stamford Bridge, managing only one league goal and three in total as he struggled to fit into the Blue’s system. He did however pick up an FA Cup winners medal with them in 2000, despite not even being on the bench in the final.
Sutton was to last only one season in London, as in the summer of 2000 he moved to Celtic for £6m, where he was to have a much happier time of it. During his time there he formed another irresistible strike partnership, this time with Henrik Larsson. He picked up three SPL titles, two Scottish Cups and two Scottish League Cups aswell as a UEFA Cup runners up medal scoring 60 goals in 130 appearances for The Hoops. His efforts were recognized in the 2003-04 season when he was named SPFA player of the year. In 2006 he moved back to England, signing on a free transfer to Birmingham but once more had to experience the pain of relegation after making just 11 appearances and being criticized as being over paid by owner David Sullivan. Strangely, Martin O’Neill signed him in October of 2006 on a season long contract to feature for his Aston Villa side but only three two months later Sutton suffered blurred vision in a game and was told that there was little option for him but to announce his retirement, which he did in July of 2007. Sutton currently manages League Two side Lincoln City, taking up the post in September 2009. His first season as a manager has seen some mixed results, he brought The Imps to the FA Cup third round for the first time since 1999 but has made little impact in terms of league position, although survival has been achieved.