A quarter of a century ago, Blackburn Rovers lifted the Premier League trophy.
The football may not have been that attractive – it mainly consisted of Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer throwing themselves at crosses – and they may have been bankrolled by multi-millionaire owner Jack Walker, but the triumph will never be forgotten by the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the proud Lancashire town.
It so nearly did not happen at all, with Rovers securing top spot by a single point due to second placed Manchester United’s failure to beat West Ham on the final day of the season.
The title win was the finest day in the club’s modern history but the good times did not last forever. Within four years Blackburn were relegated to the second tier.
You may be wondering how this could have come to pass? How did Premier League title winners regress into relegation fodder in such a short space of time. Well, strap yourselves folks as 90min recalls what happened next for Kenny Dalglish’s legendary side.
The the title win heralded a significant restructuring at the club. Daglish handed the managerial reigns to his assistant Ray Harford and moved into a short-lived role as Director of Football the following season.
The Scotsman’s summer transfers looked good on paper but big money recruits Chris Coleman and Matty Holmes were both hampered by injuries and struggled to break into the first team.
Still, Rovers had managed to retain the entirety of their title winning XI so surely they must have done alright? Not really, no.
The club’s Champions League campaign was nothing short of disastrous. Harford’s side managed just one victory over lowly Rosenborg and failed to get through a straight forward group.
As if the results weren’t bad enough, left-back Graeme Le Saux and midfield enigma David Batty – who would depart for Newcastle soon after – engaged in some fistycuffs during a game against Spartak Moscow. The pair had to be separated by Tim Sherwood – the same Tim Sherwood who registered a 59% win percentage while in charge of Spurs by the way. That’s second to none.
Domestic performances weren’t much better. Blackburn fell at the first hurdle in the FA Cup and failed to pull up any trees in the Coca-Cola Cup either. In the league, Rovers finished seventh despite Alan Shearer netting an outrageous 31 goals. The problem was that he received little support with his SAS partner in crime Chris Sutton struggling for fitness.
Overall, a pretty feeble title defence then. Little did Rovers fans know, things were about to get a whole lot worse.
You know what’s not a good way to bounce back from a disappointing season? Selling your best striker to a title rival, even if it is for a world record fee.
It wasn’t just Alan Shearer – sold to Newcastle for £15m in case your mind needed refreshing- that departed, with his strike partner Mike Newell also moving on. This left Sutton and expensive flop Per Pedersen as the club’s only top class striking options. Rovers started horrendously, failing to win any of their opening 12 games with Harford paying with his job in October.
Though they improved significantly under caretaker boss Tony Parkes, Blackburn suffered from goal-fright all season. Sutton was no Shearer, only managing to notch 11 goals and he received little help from elsewhere. Kevin Gallacher was the only other player in the entire squad to score more than three times with Pederson netting just once.
Rovers finished 13th in the league, a full 33 points behind champions Manchester United. The title win of just two seasons prior now seemed a lifetime away.
Parkes’ temporary stint as manager finally came to an end at the beginning of 1997/1998 with the nomadic former Inter boss Roy Hodgson taking control.
Title winners Graeme Le Saux and Henning Berg were sold to Chelsea and United respectively with those funds being reinvested into the likes of Stéphane Henchoz, Martin Dahlin and Callum Davidson.
Under Hodgson Rovers got off to flying start, losing just two of their opening 21 league games – even smashing Sheffield Wednesday 7-2 in August. Though they faded badly during their second half of the season, Blackburn managed to hold on to sixth spot to ensure their progression into the early rounds of the UEFA Cup.
Sutton found his scoring boots again racking up 19 goals while Gallacher was also prolific, netting 17 times. Things were finally looking up for the Blue and Whites. Surely nothing could go wrong now?
Despite this pre-season optimism, things do go wrong. Very wrong indeed.
The worst thing about Blackburn’s relegation was that nobody – and we mean nobody – saw it coming. Rovers flexed their financial muscle in the transfer market during the summer, sanctioning big money moves for the likes of Kevin Davies, Keith Gillespie, Christian Dailly and several more.
First, Hodgson’s side were knocked out by Lyon in the UEFA Cup. Oh well, disappointing to be sure, but not the end of the world. At least they could focus on pushing for the Champions League places right?
The thing is, Blackburn just kept on losing. At the halfway point of the season they sat in 16th placee with Hodgson having already been replaced by Brian Kidd in December. Under Kidd they experienced a mini revival – like, microscopic to be honest – before hurtling back towards the relegation zone.
Their fate was sealed rather poetically by Manchester United – the team they had pipped to the title in 1995 – on the penultimate day of the season.
It was shambolic and the following campaign wasn’t much better with Rovers only securing a mid table finish in the First Division, despite possessing the most expensively assembled squad in the league. They did return to the top flight one season later, though they have never come close to replicated those dizzy, title winning days.