Sunday 22 September 2019

Dion Fanning: Rise and fall of club that changed face of football

Blackburn rewrote the rules with Walker's cash and Dalglish's magic

Jeff Kenna of Blackburn
Jeff Kenna of Blackburn

Dion Fanning

Jeff Kenna had never known anything like it. As the Blackburn Rovers team bus approached Anfield on May 14, 1995, he became aware of a warm, generous feeling from Liverpool fans on the streets around the ground.

The feeling increased as he walked from the coach into the stadium. "I've never felt such a welcome at an away ground before."

Blackburn Rovers were at Anfield to win the title. They were managed by Kenny Dalglish, but that wasn't enough on its own to encourage the affection of the home supporters.

They also had the opportunity to deny Manchester United a third title in a row and "the pure hatred", as Kenna puts it, between the two clubs ensured an affectionate welcome.

The afternoon would be the culmination of all that Blackburn had worked for in the previous five years, work which had accelerated once Dalglish became manager in 1991.

"The first time I signed a player - Alan Wright on my first Thursday to catch that week's registration deadline - the then secretary of Rovers, John Howarth, got a bit of a sweat on," Dalglish wrote in his 1996 autobiography.

"Soon it was, 'Come on lads, it's Thursday. Who are we signing'?" In the days before the transfer window, Dalglish used signings to set a mood. Between October 1991 and March 1992 - the old transfer deadline day - he signed nine players, including Duncan Shearer, a £700,000 purchase from Swindon. There were bigger names and bigger versions of the same name to come.

Pat Devlin remembers it as a time like no other. Devlin was brought into Blackburn by Dalglish to bring Irish players to the club. Damien Duff and Shay Given were the two most successful, but his friendship with Dalglish meant he was never on the periphery.

One day in 1992, Devlin was at Ewood Park when Dalglish asked him to accompany him to a game in Barnsley.

On the drive, Dalglish took a call on the car phone. When he hung up, he turned to Devlin and said: "We've got Alan Shearer." Blackburn paid £3.3million for Shearer, and when Dalglish told Devlin the fee, he remarked that it was quite a lot of money. "He'll bring a lot more than that into the club," Dalglish replied.

Four years later, after 131 goals in 172 appearances, Shearer joined Newcastle United for £15million.In those four years, Shearer's effect was extraordinary. "We didn't like to concede, but if we did, you always felt Alan was capable of scoring a couple," Kenna recalls.

Kenna arrived at the club from Southampton for the title run-in in 1995.

He knew Shearer and goalkeeper Tim Flowers from his old club, but settling in was never a problem. Like so many, he credits Dalglish for much of it. "I love him to death - I wouldn't have a bad word said about him." Kenna says.

"Kenny Dalglish is not the person that the public perceive," Devlin adds. "He loves the game and he loves being around players."

If Dalglish created the atmosphere, then Ray Harford was the details man, the coach who Dalglish had insisted was hired if he took the job. "He was a fantastic man," Devlin says.

Blackburn's system was, not surprisingly, designed to get the best from Shearer. "We got the ball out wide, we put in crosses and we knew that Shearer would do his stuff," Kenna says.

Blackburn had signed the striker the summer they were promoted to the Premier League, and, driven by his goals, they moved closer to the top every year. They finished fourth in their first season, second in 1994, and at the beginning of April 1995, they were eight points clear of Manchester United.

United, meanwhile, were learning to cope without Eric Cantona, who had been suspended after attacking Matthew Simmons at Selhurst Park.

But Blackburn faltered at the close, winning only two of their previous five games before the match in Liverpool. On the final day of the season, they were two points clear of United. If they lost at Anfield and United won at Upton Park, United would retain the title.

When Shearer put Blackburn ahead, everything was going to plan. United first went behind at Upton Park, but Brian McClair equalised and, at Anfield, Blackburn began to tire. John Barnes brought Liverpool level, but if the results stayed the same, Blackburn would be champions.

As Flowers took a goal-kick in injury-time, the Blackburn fans behind the goal let him know that it was still 1-1 at Upton Park. Then David Batty fouled Steve McManaman, and in the third minute of injury-time, Jamie Redknapp stood over a free-kick.

"I remember Redknapp's free-kick whizzing past my ear and into the net," Kenna says. "All I was thinking at that moment was 'Oh my God, it's gone'."

As the cameras cut to Dalglish standing by the dug-out, the atmosphere changed almost immediately. The game had finished at Upton Park and Blackburn Rovers were champions.

On the pitch, Shearer headed wide in front of the Kop, but as he turned away, his face broke into a smile.

Kenna remembers the pandemonium. There were celebrations on the pitch, a return to the away dressing-room where Liverpool players joined them for a drink and then a lap of honour in front of their supporters as well as the home crowd, who rejoiced that Manchester United had been beaten to the title by a club managed by Liverpool's greatest figure.

There was another party in Blackburn later that night but, Kenna says, that "is a bit of a haze".

The title was supposed to be the beginning of something, but instead it became a high-point never to be matched, perhaps understandable because the Premier League became something global, something that was out of reach of a simple multi-millionaire like Jack Walker.

"I remember when I joined seeing how much Jack was worth and thinking, 'Wow, £400million is a lot of money'," Kenna says. "Now they're all billionaires."

Walker's money and Dalglish's nous would be used to create a dynasty and a Lancashire rival to Manchester United.

"We were supposed to be signing Zidane," Kenna says, "but, bless him, he eventually decided to join Juventus instead."

Things changed quickly. In his more recent autobiography, Dalglish detailed how he was planning to leave before the title was won.

He became determined not to extend his contract after Walker asked him to convince him about a signing in 1992.

"From that day on I was just serving my time at Ewood," Dalglish wrote. In 1994, he agreed to stay for one more season, but that was it.

Once the title was won, Dalglish moved to a new position as director of football. Harford became manager, but something had gone from the club. Blackburn lost five of their first seven matches and David Batty and Graeme Le Saux fought on the pitch during a Champions League defeat in Moscow.

A year later, the club announced that Dalglish was leaving. As importantly, a month earlier, Shearer had been sold to Newcastle. "There was a domino effect," Kenna says. Players felt the club was no longer upwardly mobile.

They signed Martin Dahlin and Kevin Davies in an attempt to replace Shearer's goals. "Davies was a young lad and it was unfair that he should be compared to Shearer," Kenna says.

The player was bought for £7million, but he scored just one goal in 23 games before he revived his career at Southampton.

There was no revival for the club. In 1999, Blackburn were relegated. They returned after two seasons, but if that period outside the Premier League was bad, worse was to come when current owners Venky's - an Indian corporation - bought the club.

In 2012, they were relegated once again, the inevitable conclusion of the Steve Kean years. Venky's replaced Kean with Henning Berg, but he left the club after 57 days.

Current manager Gary Bowyer took over in March 2013 and has brought stability. Last season, they came close to making the play-offs, and in the summer, Venky's apologised for their failure to bring success. "

"We have learned some very valuable and costly lessons in our quest to make you, the fans, happy and proud of Rovers and the desire to achieve our mutual dream will benefit from that," stated an end-of-season report..

The play-offs are unlikely this season, but they have still managed to knock Swansea and Stoke City out of the cup.

Today, they play at Anfield. Blackburn are weakened by injuries and defeat against Liverpool is probable.

It won't be greeted with the same joy that accompanied that defeat 20 years ago, but today Blackburn Rovers is a very different club to the one that, very briefly, changed the face of English football.

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