Who: Blackburn win the league in 1995 in the greatest last-day of the season in the Premiership era.
He said what? “West Ham made an obscene amount of effort,” Alex Ferguson.
What happened? These days Blackburn are known by one broadsheet as ‘Fight Club’; their reputation as a plodding somewhat robust side fairly assured by their number of fouls, red cards and Robbie Savages; in the latter category they’re way ahead of anyone.
But in the early to mid-nineties Blackburn were Chelsea.
They were the team who bought the best talent from around the Premiership: Alan Shearer from Southampton; Graeme Le Saux from Chelsea; Batty from Leeds – I know it’s hardly Drogba, Robben and Shevchenko but then this was a decade ago and light years away from the current Premiership.
They won the First Division in 1992 under the guidance of the now relaxed and calm Kenny Dalglish, who had recovered from the stresses of managing at Liverpool, and were ready for the first season of the Premiership. With the backing of their multi-millionaire chairman, steel baron Jack Walker, in their first season back in the top division they held their own finishing in the top ten.
In their second season they even managed to push Manchester United a little before Alex Ferguson’s side ran out comfortable winners of the league – an early lead of over 10 points proving too much to overhaul.
At the start of the 1994-95 season though, Dalglish’s men were seen as the main side that could knock United off their fucking perch, to borrow a Ferguson phrase. They started in trailblazing form winning games, scoring goals and conceding little. Though United and themselves would trade the league lead throughout the year.
It was a weird season all over though – Paul Merson announced he was addicted to gambling, alcohol and cocaine; Bruce Grobbelaar and a few others were accused of match fixing; and most importantly when it comes to the title, Eric Cantona got banned for nine months in January for his kung-fu attack on a Crystal Palace fan/yob; and that same month Andy Cole signed to the champions for a record £7 million from Newcastle.
After all that madness, the season was heading towards its climax with Blackburn looking as if they had the title sown up. But a few awful defeats left them facing a frantic final day to decide if they would end their 81-year wait to be champions. It was to be one of those days that the Sky Sports team of pundits would describe as some kind of Grand Slam Superbowl Royal Rumble Sunday… understated fellas that they are.
The table looked like this – Blackburn were on 89 points after 41 games, with United on 87; Blackburn were away to Liverpool knowing a win would give them the title, but anything less could allow Man U, who were playing away to West Ham, to sneak the title after being second best for the majority of the season.
What resulted was not only significant in the sense it decided the champions of that year but the fall out would have ramifications on the Premiership that are still being felt today.
Blackburn went to Anfield – where a season that started well had left Roy Evans’ side finishing in fourth behind Nottingham Forest – and all their main lynchpins were in top form. Goalkeeper Tim Flowers was England’s best at the time along with David Seaman (actually this was Seaman’s ‘Nayim season’ so perhaps Flowers was actually out on his own); they had a great central defender in Colin Hendry; a decent midfield with captain Tim Sherwood marshalling the troops and up front they had Shearer and Chris Sutton. The strikers had already hit 50 goals that year.
Man United meanwhile had Ince, Keane, a young Scholes, Cole, McClair, Hughes, Kanchelskis, Giggs, Bruce, Pallister, Schmeichel and more. They had also bought David May (stop laughing) from Blackburn at the start of the season but he was injured.
Or Ferguson had already realised how bad he was.
Or he was practising how to jump on top of a crowd of players; just to make sure he was in every photo when they won yet another trophy he didn’t contribute to winning.
Phew, glad I got that out of the way.
The game at Anfield started at a fairly genial pace with Blackburn obviously nervous and Liverpool obviously waiting to go on their summer holidays. Everything was going along without too much happening when just after the half-hour Shearer ran on to ball from Warhurst just inside the box and swept it past David James.
The Anfield crowd, despite supporting their team, were in an odd position. Desperate for somebody else to win the league – particularly someone managed by Kenny Dalglish – they were also hoping to win the game as much any other. In the seconds after Shearer’s goal there was a lot of quiet but noticeable cheers from the crowd in red shirts. The strange day was getting stranger.
Down in East London Man United were throwing waves of attack at West Ham, although they had few clear-cut chances before they were hit by a sucker punch. A ball whipped in from the left was met by Northern Ireland international Michael Hughes, whose controlled volley from 15 yards beat Schmeichel to put the Hammers one nil up.
Blackburn, it seemed, were on easy street.
As the second half started this would bring 45minutes of pressure from Manchester United that had to be seen to be believed. The game seemed to have reverted to a training ground exercise of attackers against defenders; it was inevitable that West Ham would buckle. Brian McClair bundled over the equaliser early on.
Then the news came of happenings in Anfield. In Liverpool’s first bit of coherent play in the match a left foot cross from Stig Inge Bjornebye was met by the onrushing John Barnes inside the Blackburn penalty area. His shot beat Flowers easily (cue very muted cheers from the Liverpool fans), and with the sun in the England goalkeeper’s eyes he threw the ball back at his players. They all seemed shocked and for the next 30 minutes the game was played at a bizarre pace as Blackburn got more scared and Liverpool decided they were going to win this game whether their fans liked it or not.
Back at Upton Park Andy Cole was missing chance after chance: one on ones, overhead kicks (yes that’s plural, he did at least three of them), half chances, scrambled chances; every kind of chance you could think of he found a way to miss. Scholes had a beautiful run through the defence – aided by a hand when he received the ball – but shot over. Giggs fired in corner after corner but the relentlessly booed West Ham old boy Ince missed a few headers, as did the normally reliable Bruce and Pallister.
The BBC pictures on Match of the Day that night showed Ferguson continually urging his players forward and indicating 1-1 with his fingers. It didn’t take too much lip-reading ability to see him mouthing “fuckin move it Incey, it’s one, one up there”.
He did fuckin move it… to Cole. Who missed. Again. In fairness though West Ham performed with a defensive resilience on a par with Liverpool v Chelsea in 2005 or Ireland v Holland in 2001. When you take into account that all they had to fight for was pissing off Man United fans you really have to take your hat off to them. Czech goalkeeper Ludo Miklosko in particular was magnificent.
As the final few minutes approached the cameras switched again to Anfield, which was getting considerably noisier as Blackburn fans chewed their nails while Liverpool chants rang around the stadium. The clock ran into injury time and Liverpool got a free on the outside of the Blackburn box.
Former Liverpool treatment room favourite, turned guff publisher and guff pundit supreme Jamie Redknapp stepped up and from the right hand side smashed a free into the top left corner. Blackburn fans were left stunned.
The Liverpool fans cheered but a few seconds after that had died down they cheered even louder. The game in London was over, United had drawn, what happened on Merseyside didn’t matter. Dalglish found himself embraced by Liverpool fans and the Blackburn coaching staff as the referee, upon hearing the commotion around the ground, blew the final whistle. Blackburn were champions.
Of course, I did mention ramifications for the future after this great triumph for Blackburn…
Fergie decided he’d had enough of the “big time Charlie” Ince, who along with Kanchelskis and Hughes were let go. He put faith in the Neville brothers, Scholes and Beckham. The effect of this decision to give youth a chance is still felt today as Scholes leads the march for yet another title.
Shearer, happy with is ‘horde’ of one league medal, left Blackburn for Newcastle a year later where his presence carried so much power it can be argued he held them back during his trophy-less time there. Some of the ex-managers would certainly attest to that.
Dalglish left Blackburn straight after the title win, with the uninspiring Ray Harford taking over. The even less inspiring Roy Hodgson then took over until November 1998. When he failed, Man United assistant Brian Kidd came in. During the managerial farce Blackburn lost a golden opportunity to become established as one of the top sides in England and instead were relegated only to come back up and be the league’s, admittedly somewhat successful, bruisers supreme.
Indeed Kidd leaving meant that he would never be Man United manager. Had Dalglish decided to stay in 1995, Kidd might not have been tempted out of Manchester three years on and instead stayed on until 2002. That’s when Ferguson reneged on his decision to quit; apparently because he found out United had lined up Sven Goran Eriksson as his replacement.
Had Kidd been there and, as previously expected, been the choice instead, perhaps Ferguson might have stuck to his original plan and be on a vineyard right now sipping some decent red and telling everybody “I dun’t need fuhbal”.
(Saying this through gritted teeth and abandoning journalistic credibility, if I ever had it of course, but…) It’s a funny old game eh.