Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton: the original SAS and one of English football’s most underrated partnerships

Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton: the original SAS and one of English football’s most underrated partnerships

This feature is part of Duology

Blackburn Rovers fans pine for the glory days when they used to be able to splash out on multi-million-pound signings, when winning silverware at the highest levels was achievable and when they had the sort of goal-scoring heroes that other teams in their division would kill for. In short, there’s no doubt that Rovers supporters, currently facing into another season in the doldrums of Championship football after hauling themselves out of League One, miss the devastating destruction a duo like Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton could bring to the fore.

Famed for the fact they led the line throughout the 1994/95 English top-flight season, they scored goals aplenty to help the Lancashire side secure the title. Their partnership, dubbed ‘SAS’ long before Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez borrowed the acronym, is widely renowned as one of the most clinical and effective to ever play in England.

Between them, they managed to net 49 league goals en route to the title, with Shearer converting the lion’s share, with 34, while Sutton bagged an important 15. However, outside of the league campaign, in the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, it was Sutton who scored more – six to Shearer’s three – but those goals are not nearly as fondly remembered given that their team never looked like winning any of those competitions. Nevertheless, they deserve to be remembered for what they say about Sutton’s resolve and clinical nature.

Out of all the 42 league games the club played that season, there were only 12 occasions when neither Shearer or Sutton got on the scoresheet, which is a quite remarkable achievement that attests to just how pivotal they were to Rovers’ system. Indeed, it is challenging to think of a more potent and effective goal-scoring machine of mid-1990s English football than the one Sutton and Shearer could ignite into life when they were in top form which was, by all accounts, most of the time. 

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Playing in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, it may have looked on paper like your archetypal hard-working British shape but Kenny Dalglish had put his own little stamp on it. The subtle genius of it regularly saw one of the two strikers drop deep into the midfield to disrupt the opposition’s ability to move the ball quickly out of defence; the other team’s central midfielders were normally the target of some hassling, harrying and nimble tackling. Sutton, a former centre-half during his early days at Norwich, was well used to putting a tackle in; often deputising as the midfield disruptor Rovers needed, applying pressure before setting his side up on a counter-attack with Shearer.

For many, Sutton sits in Shearer’s shadow for the simple fact he didn’t score as many goals that season and his 83-goal all-time Premier League tally is dwarfed in comparison to Alan Shearer’s 280 goals at the very top of the pile. Still, it is hard to ignore the notion that without Sutton alongside him throughout 1994/95, ‘Big Al’ may never have gotten his hands on a league winners’ medal at all. After all, it was the only time either of them won the English top flight, despite their collective and individual goal-scoring acumen.

Statistics prior to the arrival of Opta are not always the most reliable but, whatever source you inspect, one thing is clear: Sutton assisted Shearer marginally more than the other way around, and Sutton also contributed slightly more assists to the overall team. Shearer also benefited from being the team’s designated penalty taker – showing tremendous nerve and bravery to net 11 spot kicks throughout – meaning he had an advantage over his strike partner in the race to the golden boot. Statistics, numbers and contrasts aside, however, the bottom line is that they complemented each other so well and it didn’t take them long to gel.

In their first league fixture together, Sutton assisted Sheared with a header that the Rovers number nine duly dispatched beyond Bruce Grobbelaar in the Southampton goal, as the contest ended in a share of the spoils. Just days later, in a 3-0 rout of Leicester, it was Shearer’s turn to pay the ball on for Sutton to score; right from the off, the duo were in sync and it was a telekinetic bond they would continue up until the final day when they eventually claimed the trophy at a sunlit Anfield.

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In an explosive start to life alongside one another, Sutton scored nine league goals in his first 10 matches, with Shearer notching seven as Rovers lost just once in that period. The early signs were good that the Blue and White Army could mount a serious challenge and, although the fans were disappointed to witness their club get knocked out of every other competition, the general consensus has long been that it gave them the opportunity to commit everything to the league. By the turn of the new year, Shearer was well on his way with a stunning 17 league strikes to his name, while Sutton had brought his personal haul up to 12. Rovers were truly in the hunt.

Rovers had been on the cusp of making it to the very summit of the English game for a couple of seasons prior to 1994/95 and, while the Ewood Park faithful had long since enjoyed witnessing Shearer’s inimitable talents, it was the arrival of Sutton that really gave the team the added boost they needed to finally get the job done.

Make no mistake, Rovers had a strong spine to their squad. Tim Flowers, one of the best custodians of his time, struck an imposing, agile figure between the posts; Tim Sherwood was the talismanic skipper that gave the team direction and shape, barking orders with conviction and authority; Colin Hendry controlled the rear-guard with poise and determination, working efficiently alongside his defensive compatriots; Stuart Ripley provided blistering pace down the flank; but, up top, the majestic finishers gave the team the cutting-edge it needed.

Sutton’s arrival in Lancashire saw him come with the moniker of being ‘the five million pound man’ as his capture had seen Rovers break the British transfer record. Consequently, Sutton entered the Ewood dressing room with the heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders. But, as history went on to show, he handled it well.

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Shearer might have been the established Rovers man, with a penchant for beating with the sort of consistency celebrity baker Paul Hollywood would admire, but Sutton’s presence in the front two added stability, greater purpose and an extra shot of game-intelligence that was necessary to see them push for silverware, 81 years after the club had last got their hands on any.

Stylistically speaking, Shearer and Sutton were not too dissimilar, but they did have nuanced traits that set them apart. It could be argued that Sutton got more involved in the nuts and bolts of the game, putting in a graft around the pitch with tackles and hard running. Shearer was far from a goal-hanging poacher but he certainly reserved his energy for the final third which is likely the main reason he was the only Rovers ever-present. 

Both were superb when it came to the aerial game, however, sharing an ability to leap higher and hang longer in the air than most combatants they faced that season, often straining their necks to glance the ball deftly or power it aggressively beyond any baying ‘keeper.

They had pace and they could turn on the afterburners when they wanted to, but it was their composure – inside and outside the 18-yard box – that really set them apart from the rest of the forwards over the course of the season. They were physically so strong, stronger than they looked, at least, meaning they could outmuscle even the most stubborn, crafty and stocky of defenders inside the area before adjusting their shape to connect with the ball for an accurate finish. 

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Shearer scored far more goals – in one of the most remarkable seasons an English striker has ever had – putting away three hat-tricks in the process, compared with Sutton’s one, and although some put that down to Sutton being an average striker in comparison, he explained it best in an interview with Graham Hunter in recent years: “I was ruthless but, when I played alongside Alan at Blackburn and then Henrik [Larsson] at Celtic, I knew that they wanted to be number one, “Sutton described. “They wanted to finish as the top goalscorer and I don’t think that bothered me to the same extent that it bothered them.”

Their partnership peaked with the title win because the arrival of the 1995/96 season was to be the beginning of the end for what is often considered the club’s greatest generation. Sutton lost form with the resumption of the domestic calendar after the summer, thanks in no small part to a bout of injuries, meaning Shearer had to shoulder the responsibility in front of goal more than he ever had done before.

A great deal went wrong for Rovers in their attempt to defend their title and it was undoubtedly the gradual deconstruction of the famed SAS that proved the greatest drawback of them all. Devoid of that familiar threat up front, Blackburn finished sixth and never once regained their grip on the trophy.

While it was a sad and undeserving end for the Shearer-Sutton era, the fact the team struggled without them in full flow was perhaps the greatest, albeit most bittersweet, validation of their inimitable partnership. Sutton and Shearer were a partnership worth remembering.

By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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