Blackburn Rovers didn’t buy the Premier League title in 1995 – they earned it

Ask anyone to summarise how Blackburn managed to win their first League title for 81 years and they will undoubtedly recall Jack Walker’s wealth, Alan Shearer’s goals and his partnership with Chris Sutton (the “SAS”) – probably in that order.

A quick internet search generates season reviews which invariably but frustratingly convey the message that “moneybags” Blackburn “bought their way to the title”. While Rovers owe a huge debt of gratitude to their generous benefactor, which their fans continue to vociferously acknowledge, the emphasis on money is unjust and the assertion that they only won the league because of it is ignorant of the facts and holds no weight.

To win a league, a team must invest in playing staff. Rovers admittedly spent a considerable amount on their strike force, twice breaking the British transfer record and parting with £8.3 million, while also signing Tim Flowers in a record deal for a goalkeeper. However, in terms of financial outlay on the first team that won the league, that is just about it.

There is a mistaken assumption that the club also spent heavily on Graeme Le Saux, Colin Hendry and captain Tim Sherwood, perhaps because they became indispensable so quickly and were sold on for big profit. In fact, all three were acquired on the cheap: Hendry for £700,000, the same price the club sold him for two years earlier; Le Saux, who was out of favour at Chelsea, for around the same and Sherwood from Norwich City for a mere £400,000.

However, based on calculations of the reported transfer fees for the roughly first choice starting XIs of both clubs in the 1994-95 season (taking into account injuries and long-term suspension), Rovers spent far less than the incumbent champions, Manchester United. Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Andy Cole cost £19.33m.

Whereas Flowers, Henning Berg, Hendry, Ian Pearce, Le Saux, Stuart Ripley, Mark Atkins, Sherwood, Jason Wilcox, Shearer and Sutton set Rovers back a comparatively low £14.7m. Given that these squads – in particular United’s – took years to assemble, perhaps a fairer assessment would be to look at the 1994-95 spend in isolation. Even on this basis, United’s outlay exceeded their rivals’.

Comparisons with other clubs are also favourable. Blackburn’s entire back four cost less than Newcastle paid for Darren Peacock and less than half of the sum required to bring Phil Babb and John Scales to Liverpool. In Carlton Palmer, Leeds United spent more on a single midfielder than Rovers did across their starting midfield four – illustrating that Rovers’ spending was largely limited to their front two and not wasted unlike so many others.

How Blackburn happened to accidentally hoodwink so many into believing this “bought the league” fallacy is partly because of their wilful blindness to some of Kenny Dalglish’s shrewd forays in the transfer market and abundance of unsung heroes. Take Atkins, for example. Signed from Scunthorpe United for £45,000 as a right-back, he filled in for the injured David Batty in central midfield and made 30 league appearances during the title-winning campaign, scoring six times – the well timed volley at home to Southampton being the pick of a number of sweet strikes.

Other astute additions to play major roles included Berg, who was a relatively unknown 23-year-old at the time of his move from Lillestrom for under half a million, and the largely forgotten Pearce, who had only made four senior appearances before he joined the club for £300,000 – both insignificant sums even then.

Also fundamental to Rovers’ success was the organisation and desire instilled in the side and, pivotally, the width provided by Wilcox (who incidentally came through the ranks as a trainee) and Ripley. Despite lacking natural pace, they both had the knack of being able to create the half a yard required to deliver crosses into areas where Shearer and Sutton thrived, scoring 49 of Rovers’ 80 league goals.

Rovers’ rise was remarkable. Dalglish took over an unfashionable club lying in the bottom half of the old Second Division and won promotion to the new Premier League at his first attempt. The following two seasons saw the club finish fourth and then runners-up, before being crowned Champions of England.

It is not disputed that the club were able to offer substantial wages to attract players, but they bought wisely rather than overly and deserved nothing less than the success they achieved. It is a story that is unlikely to happen again and one that should be celebrated with respect and admiration, rather than viewed as the 1990’s version of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea or present day Manchester City.

Published on When Saturday Comes and The Guardian:


Golaço: A tribute to the unforgettable Football Italia

With the nation‘s fascination with everything Paul Gascoigne after his exploits at World Cup ’90 showing no sign of abating, the production company Chrysalis quietly set about securing a deal to televise Serie A games in the UK in time for his arrival in Italy. Its innovative coverage would quickly entrench itself in the hearts of millions of football fans and influence their weekend plans throughout the 1990s.

The sight of the Italian flag themed Channel 4 logo, sound of Definitive Two’s evocative theme tune and the red, white and green of the ribbons and ticker tape covering our screens invited pure escapism. Never knowing whether the end of the opening sequence shouted “go Lazio” only added to the intrigue. For the record, it was “golaço”, Portugese for “fantastic goal” albeit pronounced in a way so as to allude to Gazza’s new team.

How James Richardson got the job that would elevate him to near cult status was more luck than design. Gascoigne himself was the intended presenter of the Saturday show and indeed fronted the first two episodes but after consistently arriving late for filming, the reins were handed to Richardson – in the right place at the right time. Cue the programme’s defining image of the impeccably dressed new host sat outside a café in a sun drenched Milanese piazza, sipping an espresso with a pink copy of Gazzetta dello Sport.

Not that you would have guessed it but Richardson had never worked in front of the camera before. Previously a producer, he took to presenting like a natural with a style all of his own.  His articulate blend of wit, in-depth knowledge of the Italian game and subtle comedy was in stark contrast to the cliché ridden dross rolled out by terrestrial broadcasters covering the domestic game. His out of studio features with the likes of Gianluca Vialli donning a wig and Attilio Lombardo dancing the lambada were as refreshing as his larking about with Gazza and kitchen utensils in the former Spurs man’s Roman villa.

Saturday morning’s hour long Gazzetta was the undoubted highlight with James talking the viewer through the main newspaper stories, interspersed with highlights of all the fixtures from the previous week described by the dulcet tones of Peter Brackley and Gary Bloom. For those unfamiliar with the show, think Transworld Sport but just football and much better. On Sundays they showed a live game: Piacenza v Reggiana; the Turin derby; Udinese v Foggia; it didn’t matter, everyone tuned in. Well, three million did for their first live match, making it the most watched programme in the UK showing a non-domestic league.

The series was also responsible for creating some long standing, if slightly bizarre, allegiances. One friend, so enamoured by a virtuoso performance from striker Dario Hubner, became an ardent Brescia fan and still makes the occasional trip to the Stadio Mario Rigamonti to see the Biancoazzurri. Another developed an unconditional love for Guiseppe Signori’s sweet left foot and meticulously followed the forward’s career from Lazio to Bologna via Sampdoria, buying each season’s replica shirt along the way. Without Football Italia or the widespread online media we have today, forming such loyalties would have been impossible.

There is no doubt that the presence of the English contingent added to the show’s charms, especially since there were very few home grown players plying their trade in other leagues on the continent at the time. We were able to see David Platt flourish in his new setting, scoring freely from midfield as he embraced Italian culture during his four years there. Although his teammate, Des Walker, struggled to adapt to life in Genoa, his followers could monitor his progress weekly.

Ultimately, Gazza was the star turn. His trials and tribulations captivated the both the English and Italian public, from the highs of his last minute headed equaliser in the Rome derby and majestic solo run and finish against Pescara, to the lows of his broken leg and the appointment of Zdeněk Zeman as Lazio manager which ultimately spelt the end of his turbulent time in Italy.

Admittedly, the football was at times less than thrilling. Stereotypically negative tactics from defensively minded coaches were commonplace yet Football Italia was somehow more than just the football. In addition to Gascoigne, it was the glamour of the league’s star players, originality of the production and brilliance of its host that bred such devotion amongst its fans for whom the Football Italia is eternally etched in their memories.

Why Mark Hughes is the right man for Stoke City

Mark Hughes’ appointment as the new manager of Stoke City was not received warmly by the club’s fans who have cited his final six months at QPR and the perceived disloyalty he showed to Fulham as the basis of their discontent.

Reactions have ranged from the mildly apathetic to the fiercely resistant, including one fan who staged his own protest by driving a car outside the Britannia Stadium displaying a “Hughes Out” banner. “It’s not just me, it’s the thoughts of 90% of Stoke fans,” he said.

Whatever the true extent of the anti-Hughes feeling, it is a short sighted view which disregards a consistently successful if not spectacular managerial record of a man with a renewed determination to prove his critics wrong.

The Welshman has rightly seen his stock fall after his failure at QPR but the notion that Hughes is no longer competent, like some supporters have suggested, holds no weight. Rather, he remains the forward thinking and progressive coach that Manchester City appointed in 2008 who will have learned a great deal from the mistakes he admittedly made at Loftus Road and improved as a result.

This is a viewpoint not lost on his new Chairman, Peter Coates, whose track record in appointing managers with a point to prove has paid dividends. Tony Pulis was far from the fans’ choice to take charge of Stoke for a second time in 2006 but this, in Pulis’ own admission, made him hungrier than ever.

A perusal at Hughes’ managerial record up to the start of 2012 makes healthy reading. He steered the Welsh national side from one its darkest eras under Bobby Gould to the brink of qualifying for Euro 2004, narrowly losing out to Russia in the play-off – a notable accomplishment given that Wales last qualified for a major international tournament in 1976 and have only competed in two in their history.

Hughes was even more successful in his first club role, at Blackburn Rovers. On the tightest of budgets, he guided the club to consecutive top half finishes in each of his three full seasons at Ewood Park whilst also progressing to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup – a club record in European competition. He delivered a level of success to Blackburn only bettered by the golden period of the mid 1990s and he continues to be held in the highest regard by the club.

The objective set by the new owners at Manchester City at the start of the 2009-10 campaign was to qualify for the Champions League. When Hughes was relieved of his duties, City occupied fourth spot in the Premier League with the Welshman paying the price for the increasing impatience of Sheik Mansour more than any other reason.

To most onlookers, replacing Roy Hodgson at Fulham was akin to taking a poisoned chalice after the current England manager led the club to an unprecedented first European cup final. However, in Hughes’ first and only season at Craven Cottage, Fulham finished eighth, up from twelfth from the previous year under Hodgson, and qualified for Europe once again.

It was at this point that the former Manchester United and Chelsea striker became a victim of his own ambition when he left Fulham to pursue management at “the top level”. Carlo Ancelotti had just vacated Stamford Bridge and although Hughes’ agent claimed that the timing of his resignation was coincidental, his client had clearly backed himself to take over at Chelsea. Given the widespread criticism levied at Hughes for his departure, it is unlikely that he would let history repeat itself at the Britannia.

It remains to be seen what financial resources will be at Hughes’ disposal in his new role. Regardless, he would be advised to take a lead from his Blackburn days and use the shrewd signings of Roque Santa Cruz (£3.3m), Chris Samba (£400,000) and Ryan Nelsen (free) as a benchmark and abandon the flawed transfer policy adopted at QPR.

There is an expectation at Stoke that mere survival in the top flight is no longer enough, that the club must now play more attractive football and regularly compete for European qualification. Provided that he takes the time to build the club organically without making wholesale changes too quickly, then there is no better candidate to achieve this than Leslie Mark Hughes.

Expect Stoke City to enjoy a prosperous next three years.

Tim Flowers: An unsung hero remembered for the wrong reasons

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.

2012-13 season in review: Blackburn Rovers

The charade at Ewood Park never ceases to sadden yet no longer surprises. As ever, Venky’s remain incommunicado despite the best efforts of the fans, but this season’s defining feature was the boardroom power struggle which contributed to an unprecedented five managers in a single season to which performances on the pitch played second fiddle.

During the court hearing to determine the compensation due to Henning Berg, Rovers’ lawyers openly confirmed what its fans have known for a long time. The club is “out of control” and a “shambles”. A damning indictment of what was regarded only three years ago as one of the most shrewdly operated and best run clubs in the game.

There is no doubt that since their return to the Premier League in 2001, Blackburn have punched above their weight by registering five top half finishes and qualifying for Europe on four occasions. Former Chief Executive John Williams and Managing Director Tom Finn earned widespread respect for the manner in which they kept the club competitive on the tightest of budgets and it was no surprise when Williams joined Manchester City after being forced out of his role at Ewood.

At the other end of the spectrum, Derek Shaw, aided by former PR man Paul Agnew, has been “continuing to act without authority and in his self interest” in direct conflict with Shebby Singh, whose bizarre and contradictory comments have infuriated and frustrated in equal measure.

These divisions are perhaps best illustrated by Berg’s appointment. Shaw and Agnew wanted Ian Holloway whereas Singh favoured Tim Sherwood and they compromised somewhere in between with the Norwegian under the misapprehension that a former player would appease the fans. On the contrary, the fans had vocally called for experience having already boycotted a move for another of Singh’s targets, Bill McKinlay. It became evident before the end of his 10 match tenure that it was the wrong choice.

His replacement, Michael Appleton, said all the right things but performances failed to match his rhetoric. Even so, he deserved much longer than 67 days. That no one at the club was held to account for such costly errors in judgment exemplified the incoherence of the current regime. Without a hint of irony, Singh has since labelled both managers as “clueless” and all three continue to mismanage the club.

On the pitch, Rovers dropped from top of the table in early September to the bottom three in April with a succession of insipid displays devoid of any confidence or conviction. The feeling of terminal decline crystallised in early March upon going three nil down inside half an hour at home to the then bottom club, Peterborough United. It is impossible to quantify the effect of the upheaval and uncertainty on the players but its correlation with results this season have been so pronounced that few could argue the two were mere coincidence.

Of the summer signings, Danny Murphy rightly lost the captaincy and his place after a string of abject performances. Dickson Etuhu also failed to impress whilst Nuno Gomes was not given the chance he deserved after scoring four goals in his first six appearances.

Thankfully, the players responded to Gary Bowyer in both of his spells as caretaker, crucially taking 11 points from the final six games to narrowly avoid a second successive relegation. His permanent appointment, on a 12 month rolling contract, is the right one in the circumstances.

Without Jordan Rhodes’ contribution, next term would undoubtedly be spent in League One. His eye for goal overrides a lack of pace and established him as one of English football’s most clinical finishers. His hat-trick at London Road will linger long in the memory as will his 25 yard left foot half-volley at Pride Park which arrowed in to the bottom corner. It would take a considerable sum, certainly more than the club record £8m paid, to prise the Scottish international away from East Lancashire this summer. Scoring 27 of Rovers 55 league goals, Rhodes’ importance cannot be underestimated but the over reliance on him must be addressed.

In addition, the central defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Grant Hanley proved instrumental in helping the club concede no more goals than eventual playoff winners Crystal Palace. 21 year old Jake Kean also deserves special mention, looking every bit the natural successor to Paul Robinson. Other highlights included the party atmosphere away at Charlton after Kean’s departure and the victory over Arsenal at the Emirates which harked back to happier days under Mark Hughes.

In the end relegation was avoided, much to the fans’ relief, but the long term implications of failing to achieve promotion at the first time of asking could be hugely significant. Under-performing players on premier league wages and long contracts are not conducive for the financial security of a club of Blackburn’s size outside of the top flight. The financial predicament is unknown but would most likely compound the fans’ deepest fears.

For years, Rovers have been the second best supported club per population in the football league, achieving gates of almost a quarter of its inhabitants, but no longer. Attendances this season have dropped by around 11,000 from previous seasons’ averages despite a drop in ticket prices. Even in its most successful times, the club was never able to run at profit which begs the fundamental questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. Why did Venky’s buy Blackburn Rovers and are they aware of the extent of the crisis at hand?

The club and its community are as inextricably linked as any in the football league which makes the decline all the more galling. Although the owners have been poorly advised, they are wildly out of their depth so it is imperative for the mere existence of the club that they act fast to bring in the right people with defined roles and responsibilities who are able to make decisions locally.