How Leicester City would fare in their inaugural Champions League campaign was one of the most intriguing aspects in the aftermath of the most Hollywood season English football has witnessed for years. Would Wes Morgan have to mark Robert Lewandowski? Would Jamie Vardy do battle with Sergio Ramos? Would Danny Drinkwater be able to handle Andrés Iniesta?
When the draw was finally made, they could rest assured that even in the darkest scenario, they’d have to go some way to do worse than the last ‘surprise’ Premier League champions to enter the competition. This is the story of Blackburn Rovers’ Champions League nightmare.
Things were already going fairly catastrophically for the newly crowned champions. Mere days after Tim Sherwood lifted the Premier League trophy, Kenny Dalglish stunned his players by announcing he was resigning to move upstairs into an ill-defined, ill-starred Director of Football role. Worse, owner Jack Walker, having bankrolled the club’s first title for 81 years, now felt that self-sustainability should be a long-term goal, and turned the taps off just as the rest of the league was beginning to catch up with their spending.
Dalglish’s successor, loyal assistant Ray Harford, had been a successful, trophy-winning manager in his own right. Yet at Blackburn he struggled to shake off the matey straitjacket of the number two position, never quite managing to develop the authority or distance the top job demanded.
There was a feeling around the club that once was enough, with little hunger to lay the foundations for sustained success. Chairman Robert Coar told the players, to their astonishment, they’d won the league “a year too early”. Heads turned by such lack of ambition and certain senior players began to act up, with no disciplinarian to stop them.
Unsurprisingly, Rovers made a dreadful start to the season, losing four of their first six games as injuries mounted. An on-field discipline problem led to three red cards in the first six weeks. Off the pitch, factions developed in an increasingly unhappy dressing room, as did a drinking culture.
David Batty’s autobiography recounts an occasion in a Tyneside hotel the night before they played Newcastle in which the Toon’s assistant manager, Arthur Cox, stumbled across the Blackburn lads on the ale and cheerfully got them another round in, unable to believe his luck.
Firmly ensconced in the bottom half, it was the worst start to a title defence for 25 years.
Luck of the draw
At least they had the Champions League. Blackburn’s entry into Europe’s premier club competition was exciting enough on its own, but it also gave them the chance to atone for the embarrassment of their maiden voyage into European waters the previous season, when a collection of Swedish auditors, truck drivers and pest exterminators knocked them out of the UEFA Cup. There’s a reason why ‘Welcome to Burnley’ road signs were once adorned with the message ‘Twinned with Trelleborgs’.
Having avoided the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and holders Ajax in the draw, there was real optimism that Blackburn could make an impression on the European Cup. On paper, Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg provided negotiable obstacles.
Blackburn, though, were hopelessly ill-prepared. Scouting Champions League opposition was supposed to be part of Dalglish’s brief, but he seemed to spend more time running the rule over golf courses. The players went into games knowing little about the teams they were playing, and the failure to bring in anyone with European experience only exacerbated the problem. UEFA’s short-lived ‘three foreigners’ rule, which was so strict that it extended, like a tasteless ‘70s joke, to Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen, further depleted their ranks and forced Harford to select YTS trainees on the bench.
Nevertheless, even defeat in their opening game at home to Spartak Moscow yielded hope. This was an excellent Spartak side, featuring the talents of Onopko, Alenichev and Yuran (no sniggering, Millwall fans), but Rovers dominated the game, peppering their goal with over 20 shots before falling to a Yuran goal, courtesy of a rare Tim Flowers howler.
Less encouraging was the trip to Warsaw that followed. Blackburn were comprehensively outplayed by the Poles and Flowers had to be in inspired form to ensure Legia only went into half-time with a single-goal lead. Though they improved after the break, they couldn’t find a way through.
Rovers would complete the set of opening round defeats with another Scandinavian humiliation. Norwegian champions Rosenborg were supposed to be the group’s whipping boys, but their line-up was a who’s-who of future Premier League imports – Kvarme, Bragstad, Soltvedt, Heggem and Iversen – and it was the last of these who struck an 88th-minute winner to condemn them to a 2-1 defeat.
Despite losing to all three opponents, Blackburn could still qualify from their group, but they really needed to start racking up some wins. The visit to Lancashire of a severely depleted Legia side, missing half of their first choice back four through suspension, seemed to offer a timely opportunity to get some points on the board.
For all they poured forward, the hosts were constantly denied by Warsaw’s makeshift back line. In the game’s dying embers, Alan Shearer was presented with a sitter but goalkeeper Maciej Szczęsny (Wojciech’s dad) was equal to his shot. With no Champions League goals and an England goal drought stretching back well over a year, there were question marks at the time over whether Shearer possessed the quality to lead the line at that summer’s home-soil European Championship.
A first point when they needed three, Blackburn now had to go to Russia and win.
Moscow Fight Night
And so to Moscow, and the most famous fight in the city since Rocky Balboa went toe-to-toe with Ivan Drago.
With their European failings the biggest sore point among an increasingly splintered squad, and the austere minus 20 Celsius November temperatures in the Luzhniki Stadium only worsening the bad feeling, it was an unhappy bunch that sought to defeat a Spartak side that were yet to drop so much as a point in their European campaign. And it was somehow fitting that in sub-zero temperatures, two members of the side should engage in a bit of mortal combat.
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Just four minutes had elapsed when Batty and Graeme Le Saux had the famous punch-up that came to symbolise the champions’ decline. The two had collided as they both went for the same ball on the left wing. Words were exchanged, Batty stormed towards his left-back and Le Saux, to the shock of everyone, drilled him with a left hook before Sherwood could break it up.
Rather than exacting the expected brutal revenge, Batty wore a mask of disbelief, like Bishop Brennan after being kicked up the arse. Less surprisingly, Le Saux broke his hand on impact.
While Batty, to this day, remains confused as to why the incident happened, dismissing their preceding coming together as “a bit of lip”, the ever-sensitive Le Saux recalled in his excellent autobiography Left Field a lengthy breakdown in relations.
A bizarre and unwanted shunting of Batty to the left wing had brought the two, who’d never had problems previously, into a closer working relationship, and a clash of styles soon became evident, with Batty liking to come short for the ball and Le Saux preferring to move forward quickly. Soon the pair were rowing in training, with Batty accusing the full back of being “selfish”. Another training ground incident saw Batty react badly to being nutmegged by the Channel Islander and single him out for rough treatment. Still, Le Saux insists the eventual blow, when it landed, was nothing more than a pre-emptive strike, his body going into fight or flight when advanced on by a furious Yorkshireman.
The enmity on the night was not just confined to those two, however. Twenty minutes later, Sherwood and Colin Hendry squared up to each other after the captain lost the ball and gave away a free-kick in a dangerous area. War-torn Rovers were picked off with ease by Spartak, who’d sealed an effortless 3-0 win before the hour mark. Completing the misery, Hendry was sent off late on.
In the aftermath, Blackburn’s elimination from the competition was barely mentioned. Spartak coach Oleg Romantsev expressed his bewilderment: “Before the match I told my players they will be playing against 11 guys ready to fight for each other … not with each other.”
Harford issued an unfortunately phrased rallying cry, insisting his players had to “keep punching on”. Both Le Saux and Batty were fined by the club and received two-match bans from UEFA. Defeat to Rosenborg in their final game really would be the final indignity of their Champions League hell.
With the pressure off, Rovers could now unshackle themselves against the Scandinavians. After being trolled by Rosenborg, whose players had ridiculed Blackburn in the press following the earlier group game, Blackburn were determined to take them down with them at Ewood.
Shearer finally broke his European Cup duck from the penalty spot, before Iversen levelled. Parity was not in place for long, though. A 14-pass move played in Mike Newell, who duly let rip into the top corner from 25 yards. The former Everton striker and future scourge of female referee’s assistants quickly followed up with a thumping header before making it 4-1 with a left-foot tap in. A perfect hat-trick, scored in nine minutes, Newell set a Champions League record that would stand for 17 years.
Not even a second-half red card for Paul Warhurst could spoil their day; at long last they had their first (and last) Champion’s League win. They celebrated by sleepwalking into a 5-0 defeat by bottom club Coventry.
Domestically, things would improve for Blackburn, though they would do so without either Le Saux or Batty. Their contretemps actually cleared the air between the two and they got on fine from then on. Yet Le Saux’s season would end a month later when he suffered a terrible leg fracture at Middlesbrough after being caught mid-Cruyff turn by notorious hardman, Juninho. It was perhaps the most Graeme Le Saux injury ever.
Batty, meanwhile, had grown frustrated at being played out of position and was incandescent at being fined for being punched in the face. When he learned that Newcastle wanted him, he made known typically plainly his intention to leave. Frozen out and made to train with the kids, when he finally got his move he spent his last day at the club berating the chairman at length, before spying Harford on the car park and declaring: “And you can fuck off and all!” It was perhaps the most David Batty exit ever.
Nevertheless, Blackburn embarked on a run of form that saw them climb from relegation outsiders to in the mix for the European places, losing just five times after that November pasting from Coventry. This was due in part to Walker realising he would need to open his wallet after all, sanctioning a freshening up of the midfield that brought in Billy McKinlay, Garry Flitcroft and a touch of Bohinen rhapsody in the form of Nottingham Forest’s classy Norwegian playmaker.
Primarily though, the reason for the upsurge was Shearer. Though Champions League goals were hard to come by, domestically he was without parallel. A petrifying trifle of speed, power and the unerring ability to find space in the box (or else bludgeon his way into some), he could score any kind of goal, anytime, any place, anywhere. He struck 31 times in the league alone (37 in all competitions) – and he did it all with a groin injury. Signing off three games early to get it fixed in time for Euro 96, he left Rovers in seventh, where they stayed – a poor finish for the reigning champions but a minor miracle given how they’d started.
In Jack Walker’s office hung two portraits: one of Winston Churchill and one of Alan Shearer. Blackburn’s owner was under no illusions about the extent to which his team relied on the number 9. So when Shearer went into supernova at the Euros he knew he faced a struggle to hold onto his jewel in the crown.
Attempting to quieten interest from all over Europe, he flew the striker out to his Jersey mansion where, in an insane last throw of the dice, a desperate Walker offered the 25-year-old the role of player-manager. Harford, he insisted, would be only too happy to stand aside.
Shearer actually thought about it for longer than he should’ve done, even consulting Dalglish. The chance to join his boyhood club, however, provided the clarity he needed. The jig was up.
Blackburn pocketed a world record transfer fee but for the second consecutive pre-season they’d lost a major architect of their success, and the wheels of their decline were set in motion. By October, Harford was out of a job. By the end of the decade, four years after winning the Premier League, Blackburn Rovers had been relegated.
By Rob Doolan. Follow @90sfootballblog