Advertising boardings emblazoned in gaudy print with Sega, Gardner Computers and Lucozade laced the edges of the pitch, transistor radios littered the compact, yet unsettled crowd of just over 40,000, and a team in blue and white adorned with McEwan’s Lager took to the field to play the biggest match of their collective careers.
The 1990s were in their heyday and the romance of domestic football was coming to an end for another season. But on the last day of Premier League action nearly two decades ago, Blackburn Rovers ensured that same ardour would live on forever when they accomplished something incredible under the most intense of pressure.
All smiles for the camera at a jam-packed, sun-lit Anfield on May 14, 1995, Kenny Dalglish’s team slumped to a narrow 2-1 defeat on a final, cataclysmic day of combat away to a Liverpool side that boasted burgeoning legends like Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. But despite the mixed emotions of the loss, it would turn out to be the most dazzling moment in the club’s history which now stretches back over 139 years.
Reflecting on that heady day of delight and drama, the events still continue to enthral. Rovers needed to either beat the Merseysiders and take matters into their own hands to guarantee a first league title in 81 years or hope Manchester United, who were hot on their heels, slipped up against West Ham. And despite the Premier League’s all-time top goalscorer, Alan Shearer, eventually breaking the deadlock in typically clinical fashion, they were forced to rely on the Hammers holding the Red Devils to a 1-1 draw. It was a nervy final few minutes as fans chewed their fingernails waiting anxiously for news of the historic result they needed to trickle through in muffled transmissions.
Blackburn’s title victory is now widely regarded as a bolt from the blue. That said, their success story was one that had been in the making for several seasons. Relentlessly chipping away at the glass ceiling that had seen them barred for so long, they burrowed through the accepted hierarchy and convincingly challenged the footballing norms, transforming Ewood Park into a fortress in the process. Finishing 19th in the old Second Division back in 1991, narrowly avoiding relegation, their turnaround to secure promotion to the newly founded Premier League a year later was a whirlwind.
One of the founders of the Football League, the club has always prided itself on an industrious work ethic and good old-fashioned pragmatism on the ball, and they soon found themselves face-to-face with a resolution that they had poured a lot of effort into.
Musing on their progress during the early-1990s reveals a side that had achieved steady progress, reflected in their goal difference improvement from season to season – increasing from 22 to 41 in the space of just three campaigns; this was a side that had worked on their shortcomings with great success. And yet still to this day, those more unfamiliar with the history of top-flight champions in Britain’s most prestigious league will often feel a pang of confusion on discovering that Blackburn Rovers were once the best and most feared team in the land.
Unsurprisingly, directly preceding their biggest triumph was a long, hard-fought season which saw the club amass a total of 27 wins, eight draws, seven losses and 80 goals, as well as managing to halt Manchester United’s charge to a third successive domestic title. Furthermore, they did all this during a laborious, and now defunct, 42-game calendar. Interestingly, they lost twice to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, their fiercest of league challengers that season, going down 4-2 and then 1-0 in the New Year, but still kept their focus and managed to keep track of their objectives.
Notwithstanding a squad brimming with immeasurable talent and youthful exuberance, there was one man on the pitch that day who stood head and shoulders above all the rest when the normally shrill sound of the final whistle was drowned out amidst an explosion of rapturous celebration. His name is now synonymous with an illustrious past, and he remains the club’s biggest legend. It was his funding, support and command that brought such joy to the people and players all those years ago. The man in question, of course, is the late, great Jack Walker.
Not simply an investor with money to back a title challenge, the inimitable owner was, in many ways, before his time. Ploughing close to £97 million of his own money into the club over the years, he was passionate, involved and possessed a palpable interest in the well-being of the footballing institution. Walker gave his all to the cause, and most importantly, he had faith in the squad they had spent time and energy building, reportedly refusing to sign Zinedine Zidane because they already had Tim Sherwood in their ranks.
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Older than many of England’s great sides, and started by a grammar school through their founder John Lewis, Rovers reached their pinnacle in a highly condensed period and at a time when massive financial aid wasn’t as vociferously pursued or indeed relied on as it is today. In essence, although Walker built his empire with great care, it has often seemed as though in the aftermath of their title heroics nearly 20 years ago the club from the north-west simply didn’t know how to build on their fortunes.
The reasons behind their demise up until quite recently are manifold. Poor transfer activity in the off-season following their league triumph, their persistent instability in terms of management and playing staff, the lack of a clear roadmap, increased competition both financially and otherwise and a failure to capitalise on their new-found stature; Rovers certainly haven’t done themselves any favours.
If the fallout from their title win taught them anything, it was that stability counts. That was, perhaps, the biggest letdown in their failure; they didn’t know how to respond to reaching that zenith. There was no next move. Kenny Dalglish was replaced as manager by Ray Harford and their seventh place finish in 1996, as well as their poor showing in the Champions League, signalled a bout of trouble from which they have never fully recovered.
What we’ve seen since their ultimate triumph has been a series of lows, the fall of an empire that never had time to settle and an eventual demotion to the Championship – a division they’d like to believe they don’t belong in. And they’re currently under the control of Venkys, proprietors that have failed time and again to win over the fans through mismanagement and a lack of beneficial dialogue; an ownership best summed up by Rishi Sikka’s revealing documentary, ‘The Fall of Blackburn Rovers’.
Sandwiched between their league win and their current spell in England’s second-tier was a period of relative success when Graeme Souness led them to a League Cup victory, while Mark Hughes guided them to a series of European qualifications – four in six years, in fact. Mind you, even then it looked as though their capability to cajole another meteoric rise was spent, much like their money had been.
Today, it would be foolhardy for even the most dedicated of Rovers’ fans to wish for a revival in fortunes anywhere akin to their Walker-inspired era. Because since then, the hard truth is that it’s been the lofty, dream-like benchmark for them, as well as a depressing reminder to how far they’ve plummeted; a double-edged sword, if you will.
They defied the odds to win the league so quickly after promotion from the old Second Division, and while it’s highly unlikely to ever happen again, they’d do well to take strength from a past that has seen them punch above their weight. Cup successes or aiming in the long run at getting back into Europe are yearnings they should pursue.
As the aftermath of their historic capitulation continues, they can take solace from the fact that new seasons bring new possibilities and if they make the right moves over time, they might soon stumble back onto the pathway they lost sight of all those years ago. To put it bluntly, football has changed dramatically over the years; stylistically, strategically, technologically and tactically. And Blackburn have changed with it.
That is something that can either be fleeting or fixed, depending on how clubs react. After all, Blackburn is a side with an enormous following.
Harbouring a club honour that forever tinges their present with a melancholy reminder of the force they once were could be viewed as something negative but it’s not entirely farcical to suggest that they should take lessons from it instead. In effect, they’d be foolish not to draw heart from it, because it is a vitally integral strand of the fabric that is their history. Far from a practice that assures affirmative change by any means, it wouldn’t hurt Rovers to engage in a bit more introspection; their club motto, in itself, holds a great deal of inspiration.
After all, an ample amount of Arte et Labore could well go a long way to ensuring they again reach the heights they once scaled so effectively. Walker, himself a champion of endeavour and grand accomplishments would, no doubt, be indescribably proud.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90