Curious as to whether certain former footballers stir the same emotions in others as they do in me, I regularly ask friends for the first thing that comes into their head when I mention various obscure players from the 1990s. It’s one of my favourite pastimes.
The beauty of the question is that it asks its recipients, often without realising, to summarise a footballer’s legacy in a single word or short anecdote. That the response has to be instantaneous rather than considered should produce the fairest reflection of a career. Or so my theory goes.
There are of course those infamous for specific incidents. It would be very rare, for example, to mention David Busst without reference to his horrific leg break at Old Trafford. There are also the club hopping journeymen and one club stalwarts recognised for being so in an otherwise nondescript playing career.
However, for many ex-pros, this game deals them a cruel hand. None more so than former Blackburn Rovers and England international goalkeeper Tim Flowers.
Apparently for many, the name Tim Flowers conjures images of the man staring down at the edge of his own six yard box, bemused and embarrassed, wondering how a speculative Stan Collymore shot has suddenly leaped over his shoulder and in to an empty net.
For others, he evokes memories of nothing more than the fluorescent ‘rainbow’ jersey worn by most keepers with kits made by Asics in the mid ‘90s and for a small number, Flowers is remembered as somewhat of a joke figure for his post-match interview after beating Newcastle United in the penultimate match of the 1994/95 season.
Flowers, responding indirectly to Alex Ferguson’s questioning of Blackburn’s nerve in the title run in, passionately made his point with five separate references to his side’s ‘bottle’.
Not only do these recollections completely undermine my theory, but they are unjust. Not least because his performance before the ‘bottle’ interview is conspicuously absent.
Having lost at home to Manchester City and away to West Ham in April, Blackburn Rovers’ title charge was faltering, letting a six point lead over Manchester United slip to just two by the time they played host to Newcastle.
With the reigning Champions favourites to pick up all three points at home to Southampton two nights later, this fixture was arguably the most important in the club’s history. Owing to United’s superior goal difference, anything but three points and Rovers’ destiny would no longer be in their own hands
Midway through the first half, Alan Shearer headed Graeme Le Saux’s left wing cross past a helpless Pavel Srnicek to put Rovers one up.
This is where the story ends for most. Blackburn win 1-0 and go on to clinch the title at Anfield courtesy of United’s failure to beat West Ham at Upton Park. That Tim Flowers produced a career defining performance is widely overlooked and remarkably under-celebrated.
Acrobatically tipping over a rising Peter Beardsley drive, getting down low to his right to keep out a Ruel Fox snapshot destined for the bottom corner, sharply changing direction to push away John Beresford’s angled strike – just three of a string of fine saves made under the most intense pressure when it really mattered.
“The best performance I’ve seen live in any sport, not just football,” said a friend of mine recently. An exaggerating Blackburn fan re-living former glories, you might think. Perhaps, and who can blame them in the context of the club’s current decline, but the quality of the saves and timing of the performance cannot be underestimated.
Any less of a display and the title would have remained in Manchester for a third consecutive season rather than making the journey 35 miles further north.
Put simply, Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper (at the time) was determined to keep a clean sheet that night. In doing so, he effectively won his team their first championship in 81 years.
By all accounts, Flowers was an excellent professional. An exemplary trainer in his early years and impeccable role model for younger pros in the latter stages of his career (turning a blind eye to the time he was sent off as an unused substitute for foul and abusive language towards a linesman at the now defunct Highfield Road in 1998).
Yet, despite his stellar reputation built on 11 England caps, and Premier League and Le Tournoi winner’s medals, he’s mostly remembered for ranting to an interviewer and conceding a freak goal shown on every bloopers compilation made since.
He can take some solace from the fact that the Collymore goal did not affect his career in the way that Paul Robinson’s similarly unfortunate episode for England in Croatia did for him. Neither were at fault and neither should be defined by such incidents.
Unlike Kevin Keegan’s public overspill of passion a year later, however, Flowers’ expression was one of triumph which should accompany rather than overshadow a superlative individual performance which brought unbridled joy to the blue and white of East Lancashire.