Blackburn Rovers vs Manchester United: What Could Have Been

Posted: May 29, 2011 in Previews

This was more a look at what could of been for Balckburn in the Premiership years after they had won the league. I Posted this on Bleacher Report on May10th 2011

When Manchester United takes the field on Saturday afternoon against Blackburn Rovers, the chance to overtake Liverpool’s title record is in United’s own hands.

At the beginning of the Premiership era, it seemed it would take decades for anyone to take Liverpool down from the throne of English football. United have dominated the Premiership so thoroughly that they’ve always looked the most likely to do it, but if the footballing Gods had played their hand differently, it could be a different team challenging the record. Fans could be getting fed up with a different club always winning, and complaining of another team always buying their way to the title. Step forward, Blackburn Rovers.

In 1992, Manchester United began the first ever Premiership season with an long overdue ascent back to the top of the mountain in England. In the same year United won for the first time since 1967, Blackburn Rovers finally achieved promotion back to top flight football for the first time in 26 years and were looking to make up for lost time.

Having acquired a reputation for being a yo-yo club in the old Second Division, (finishing in fifth place in 1990 then 19th the year later, for example), the club were never expected to be a serious threat for the title.  But then, Jack Walker arrived.

The takeover was too late to save Rovers from finishing in dismal 19th place in the Second Division at the end of the 1990–91 season, but the new owner immediately made millions of pounds available to spend on new players and appointed Kenny Dalglish as manager. Though they didn’t manage to win the league in 92, they still managed to reach the playoffs, keeping out Charlton Athletic by three points and going on to win the playoff final, defeating  Leicester City one goal to nil.

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Blackburn was finally back, just in time for the debut of the Premier League. In a statement of intent, they splashed out on £3.5 million, then an English record, on the hottest young property in English football, Alan Shearer. Walker also had Ewood Park refurbished, giving the ground a new look. Blackburn were building a star studded club as quickly as possible, turning themselves into the Manchester City of the early 90’s.

Many eyes were on Blackburn in their first season in the top flight, and they showed enough potential to hint that they could be a force in the years to come.  Finishing the season in fourth place, they landed just a point outside of qualifying for the UEFA cup. Blackburn recorded some quality victories, beating previous champions Leeds 3-1, which is impressive considering where they were playing the year before.

For the 1993-94 season, management strengthened the squad again, bringing in reliable goalkeeper Tim Flowers and David Batty, who had been part of Leeds United’s title winning squad. That season, they meant business. Manchester United retained the title, but Blackburn pushed them all the way, and after the two league games for both clubs Blackburn had won one and drawn the other. They had finished the season just eight points behind United, and if the past few seasons had shown anything, it was that Blackburn kept making progress.

Chris Sutton turned out to be the missing piece of the Blackburn puzzle. The young striker from Norwich paired well with Shearer, and the two (affectionately known as the SAS) scored for fun, netting 49 goals between them as Rovers won their first league title in 81 years.

The title went down to the wire on the last day of the season; it was either Blackburn’s or Manchester United’s to win. In one of the most remarkable days in Premier League history, Shearer netted his 34th goal of the season to give Blackburn the lead against Liverpool, and West Ham opened the scoring against Manchester United at Upton Park. United deservedly leveled through Brian McClair and Liverpool came back to defeat Blackburn in the final minute. United, however, failed to score the crucial winning goal, and Blackburn could finally celebrate the title and an illustrious spot in the Champions League next season.

When Jack Walker took over as owner in 1991, Blackburn were a struggling side in the old Second Division who had been outside the top flight since 1966 and had not won a major trophy since 1928. They were playing in antiquated surroundings at Ewood Park, with three of their four stands dating from before the First World War, and all of a sudden they found themselves the richest, star studded jewel in England’s footballing crown.

Taking a team from near the bottom of the Old Second Division to the top of England had only taken four years. The rest of the country wondered what could stop them the following season, and could only imagine who they would buy next. Blackburn Rovers era of dominance in English football had surely begun.

Then, it all went wrong. Things just didn’t go quite to plan in the 1995-96 season, with no big names coming into Ewood Park. In the summer of ’95, the great Kenny Dalglish left the managerial role, and after a disappointing season Blackburn finished in sixth place and embarrassingly crashed out of the Champions League at the first stage. The football they played was poor, Sutton was injured for most of the year, and they looked a completely different side from the one that had walked away with the title the previous year.  Blackburn promised to bounce back, but things were about to get worse.

In 1996, Blackburn’s prolific scorer Alan Shearer decided to leave Rovers to join his hometown club Newcastle United for a record fee of £15 million. It signaled the beginning of an even worse slide for Blackburn, this time finishing 13th. The title win just two seasons prior felt a lifetime away.

The Shearer sale was seen as the biggest factor in Blackburn’s lowest top flight finish since they returned to the elite in 1992, but his old strike-partner Chris Sutton helped keep the club alive. Sutton recovered well from a drastic loss of form triggered by a spate of injuries the previous season, and the acquisition of Swedish striker Martin Dahlin at the end of the season enhanced Blackburn’s attack and gave fans hope for a higher finish the next time ’round.

The climb upwards had begun again. After the lows of the previous season, Blackburn managed to climb back up the table and finish a respectable sixth, even looking like genuine title contenders again during the course of the season. The fans had something to cheer about again, sensing a return to the top. How wrong they were.

Four years earlier, Blackburn Rovers were Premiership champions. Just one year earlier, they had qualified for the UEFA Cup. They were still among some observers’ picks for title challengers, but this faith was badly misplaced. In 1999 Blackburn Rovers finished 19th and were consequently relegated from the Premier League. All the rebuilding work had been undone, and now management had to start again.

Blackburn managed to keep most of their squad, and were tipped for an immediate return to the Premier League, but it was not to be. Keeping with their recent tradition of under performing, they stayed in the second tier for several years before returning to the top flight. Blackburn have been a permanent fixture in the Premiership for ten years now, often flirting with relegation (like this year) and even finishing sixth a few times, but Rovers have never recaptured their status of one of the biggest clubs in the league. Attendance has fallen as well, but a League Cup win in 2002 reminded fans of that winning team in ’95.

So this Saturday, you’ll forgive the fans at Blackburn if a few look at the fixture with United and remember when it used to mean so much more. After all, it could have been them deciding the League title for themselves instead of feeling like a stepping stone, nearly everyone expecting a United Victory.

The 90’s was a stage made for Blackburn. All the work put into bringing the club back earned them a rightful championship, and it could have been Blackburn Rovers poised to become the most dominant team in Premiership history.

Blackburn Rovers could have been a feared name in European and world football, but sadly a lot of young fans won’t remember Blackburn as one of only four teams to win the Premiership. That one successful year has been well and truly been banished to the history books.

It could have been so much more for them, but it just wasn’t to be. I’m sure older Blackburn fans still greatly enjoy the memories and fondly look back to when, for one year, Blackburn Rovers ruled the land.

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