Amidst the high of winning the Premier League title, in June of 1995 Kenny Dalglish stunned the fanbase by announcing he was to step down with immediate effect to take up a role as Director of Football. This prompted the promotion of his assistant Ray Harford, who would take over as the club’s new manager.
In season 95/96 Blackburn would face the prospect of balancing their title defense with participation in the UEFA Champions League, which required a number of critical structural decisions from Jack Walker as to how the club would approach it. On the one hand football had not entered the squad game as we know it today, therefore how you build a squad to compete on this level while allowing for sufficient rotation requires meticulous planning and buy in from the players. On the other hand, Jack Walker had spent circa 40M pounds in building this team, so with crowds averaging only 27,000 at Ewood Park and Champions League prize money being far more modest in 1995 to what we’ve become accustomed to today, did he have the resources to keep plunging money into the side?
After a summer of deliberation Walker and Harford settled on retaining the title winning team and would not add any new first team players to the squad. Matty Holmes would arrive from West Ham as part of the deal to take Australian Robbie Slater to East London, however this was to play a supplemental role in the team.
This team had been carefully recruited to fit within a 4-4-2 framework that Dalglish had implemented right from the start of his reign, and Harford would continue to use throughout the season.
In Tim Flowers, they had an England international that was a solid and reliable pro with vast league experience behind him. Blackburn’s central defensive pairing of Hendry and Pearce complimented each other well, with Hendry being the aggressor in how he attacked the ball and Pearce mopping up behind him almost like a sweeper. Henning Berg was a no-nonsense right back who covered the spaces behind right midfielder Stuart Ripley, frequently defending 1v1 on the sideline with little coverage and doing so with great effect. Le Saux was more attack-minded at left-back, working with the left midfielder who typically was asked to move inside to allow for the overlap.
On the right of midfield, Stuart Ripley’s default role was that of a classic outside right, using his pace and dribbling ability to fashion crossing opportunities for the strikers inside the box. He also worked well with the target striker on the right side of the front line, reading their knockdowns or flick-on’s to then provide service to Alan Shearer at the back post. On the left wing, the system favored players who could move inside to combine centrally, which Jason Wilcox did to great effect during his early years at the club, but in 95/96 Harford would also use Kevin Gallacher as an attacking option from this position. In central midfield Sherwood and Batty served as the engine room of the team, forming a typical midfield partnership of the time which saw both operate box-to-box roles in service of each other.
In attack, Chris Sutton served as a traditional target man in a duo alongside Alan Shearer, whose athletic prowess and deadly finishing rightly held him as one of Europe’s top marksmen. The pair combined to score 49 goals in season 94/95, forming one of the country’s leading strike partnerships. Sutton had also served time as a center back in his career, dating back to his days at Norwich City under Mike Walker, so when deployed in defense Mike Newell would partner Shearer in attack, operating more as an all-round striker who could link the game but was also a clinical finisher.
On the 13th of August 1995, Ray Harford’s reign as manager would begin with English football’s curtain-raiser, with Blackburn as title holders facing off against FA Cup winners Everton in the FA Charity Shield at Wembley. In a match of very few attacking opportunities Vinny Samways would give Everton a 1-0 lead on 59 minutes, and despite a late call for a penalty on Alan Shearer Blackburn would finish the match without reply.
Appearing undeterred by the loss to Everton, Blackburn Rovers would open their Premier League campaign six days later with a 1-0 home win over Queens Park Rangers courtesy of an Alan Shearer penalty. Alan Shearer would get on the scoresheet again the following week, however, this would not be enough as goals from Chris Waddle and Mark Pembridge would give Sheffield Wednesday a 2-1 win at Hillsborough. Blackburn would then travel to face newly promoted Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park in the Lancashire derby, a side who had narrowly lost out to Liverpool in the League Cup Final just a few months earlier, and whose manager, Bruce Rioch, would leave to join Arsenal in the July of 1995. In what would prove to be a major upset, Blackburn would lose 2-1 to their local rivals due to goals from de Freitas and Stubbs giving the Wanderers all three points.
Another side who had made a relatively slow start to the 95/96 campaign was Rovers title rivals Manchester United, who had suffered an opening day loss away to Aston Villa after an uncharacteristically poor performance. Alex Ferguson had responded to the disappointment of losing out on the 94/95 title by removing many of his senior players in favor of a group of exciting youth prospects, now commonly referred to as “the class of 92” which is in reference to their involvement in the FA Youth Cup winning team of that year. Former Liverpool player and then BBC Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously remarked, “You can’t win anything with kids” which even by week four of the season was beginning to look rather foolish.
On the 28th of August 1995, Manchester United would travel to Ewood Park to face Blackburn, with the match already being billed as a must-win encounter. With the contest finely balanced at 1-1 after goals from Lee Sharpe and Alan Shearer, United would fashion a move that finished inside the Blackburn 18-yard box by falling to 20-year-old David Beckham. Without the need for a steadying touch, Beckham spun towards the ball before applying a beautiful curling finish into the far corner past Rovers’ keeper Tim Flowers. Despite Roy Keane’s dismissal in the closing stages Manchester United would take the win, keeping them in touching distance with runaway league leaders Newcastle United who had 4 wins from 4.
Blackburn would end their run of 3 consecutive defeats the following week, but only after salvaging a point from a home encounter with Aston Villa. Savo Milosevic would open the scoring for the visitors with a wonderful left-foot strike on 32 minutes, but in the second half, Alan Shearer would draw Blackburn level with an equally clinical strike into the top corner past Villa keeper Mark Bosnich.
One win from the opening five Premier League matches was hardly the start to the season that new manager Ray Harford would have wanted, but to compound matters they began their European campaign against arguably their toughest opponents.
UEFA Champions League Matchday 1
Wednesday 13th September 1995
vs Spartak Moscow
By season 95/96 the UEFA Champions League was only comprised of the national champions of the top 24 nations in the UEFA coefficient rankings, with the remaining national champions from the associations ranked 25–47 only allowed to participate in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League).
Further to this, the national champions of the associations ranked 1–7 plus the Champions League holders (in this case Ajax who would have placed in the top eight because of Holland’s ranking anyway), all received a bye into the group stage, while the national champions of the associations ranked 8–24 entered a qualifying round.
The Champions League group stage had doubled in size since its inception in 1992, evolving into a 16-team competition with four group sections that progressed into an 8-team knockout phase to crown the eventual winner.
Given England’s UEFA co-efficient ranked within the top 7 Blackburn would receive a bye into the group stages, being placed into Group B alongside Spartak Moscow of Russia, Legia Warsaw of Poland, and Rosenborg of Norway.
Both Spartak and Legia had competed in the 94/95 Champions League, with Legia falling to Hajduk Split in the qualifying round and Spartak finishing third in Group B behind eventual semi-finalists PSG and Bayern Munich. Rosenburg had taken part in the 93/94 Champions League but would lose 5-4 on aggregate to Austra Vienna in the 1st round. Despite winning the Norweigan Tippeligaen in 1994 Rosenburg would have to enter the UEFA Cup as Norway’s co-efficiency fell out with the top 24 countries. They would eventually exit the competition in the 2nd round after a 4-2 aggregate loss to Deportivo La Coruna. Blackburn Rover’s first experience of European football had come in the shape of a UEFA Cup 1st round exit at the start of the 94/95 season, falling 3-2 to Trelleborg of Sweden.
On Wednesday 13th September 1995 a modest crowd of 20,940 would see Blackburn Rovers take on Spartak Moscow at Ewood Park for Matchday 1 of the Champions League. The Russian champions fielded four current Russian internationals, goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov (who would later go on to manage Russia at the 2018 World Cup), central defensive pairing of Viktor Onopko and Yuriy Nikiforov, and creative midfielder Ilia Tsymbalar, all of whom would feature for Russia at the upcoming Euro 96.
The Champions League was still under the 3 + 2 foreigner rule at the time, which meant teams could only field 3 players of foreign nationality and two players of assimilated nationality (a player who had 5 or more unbroken years in a specific country or had been within a club’s youth program). With the rump of Blackburn Rovers squad being of English nationality, this wouldn’t concern their starting lineup too much, however, as players from within the home nations (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) were classed as foreigners this would impact their options off the bench.
An injury had led to Chris Sutton missing the last Premier League game with Aston Villa, however, he would return to the bench for this one as Mike Newell continued to partner Alan Shearer in attack. Injuries to Gallacher and Wilcox had reduced Harford’s left midfield options significantly, so he would turn to utility man Mark Atkins to slot into the wide left position.
With both sides testing the gloves of their opposing goalkeepers in the opening exchanges, it was a counterattack almost on the stroke of halftime that would bring the game’s opening goal. An Atkins corner would be cleared from the front zone by Spartak defender Nikiforov, as the ball was contested at the top of the box a further clearance reached Valeriy Shmarov near the halfway line. His insightful first-time pass found the run of Sergey Yuran, who had managed to evade Henning Berg and Graeme Le Saux who had been covering in defense. As Yuran advanced to the top of the Blackburn box Tim Flowers raced off his line in an attempt to cut out the attack, however, Yuran applied a first-time lobbed finish over the Blackburn keeper to give Spartak a 1-0 lead.
Spartak almost doubled their advantage a minute later when midfielder Ilia Tsymbalar flashed a strike across the face of goal, but it was deflected out for a corner kick.
With Spartak ahead at the break it was all on the hosts now to take the game to their opponents in the second half, and Blackburn did exactly that through an early curling cross from substitute Lee Makel into the six-yard area. Despite making a solid connection, Colin Hendry’s powerful header was saved from point-blank range by Spartak keeper Cherchesov. The follow-up strike from Atkins was bravely blocked by Dmitri Khlestov in the six-yard box, who in averting the danger from the Spartak goal only heightened Blackburn’s sense of frustration.
Throughout the second half, Blackburn’s wide players would launch cross after cross into the Spartak box, only for their attempts to be thwarted by the Russian’s solid backline. On 75 minutes Harford would add Sutton to the attack and changed shape to an aggressive 3-4-3, later becoming a 2-4-4 with Colin Hendry joining the front line. In their search for an equalizer Rovers would leave themselves exposed at the back, which presented Yuran with a glorious opportunity inside the 18-yard box but he blazed over Tim Flowers’ cross bar.
Blackburn’s direct approach play was failing to convert into anything beyond hopeful entries into the box, which Spartak was more than a match for as they saw the game out 1-0. The bigger issue for Rovers was the blueprint on how to defeat them in Europe had now been etched, such as their inability to break down a stubborn defense and failure to sufficiently cope with counterattacks.
In Group B’s other opening match, Legia would welcome Rosenborg to the Stadion Wojska Polskiego in Warsaw, and after a goalless first half, it was the visitors who would take the lead through a Mini Jakobsen penalty in 64 minutes. In less than a minute Leszek Pisz would bring Legia back on level terms, which was closely followed by a Staniek strike on 69 minutes and the winner from Leszek Pisz on 74 minutes to give Legia a 3-1 win.
By mid-September, any sepia-tinted memories of a summer spent toasting the champions on a sun-kissed May afternoon were soon replaced with the harsh realities of a dull grey thundercloud perpetually hanging over Ewood Park.
In four months, Blackburn had gone from a team fighting all competitors to a team fighting itself, completely losing the mojo that had led them to the top of English football. Harford’s appointment may have been understood as a simple continuation into a new season, but even he was perhaps overlooking the factors that almost led to Blackburn’s title capitulation in the closing weeks of the season. Shorn of confidence and an ability to solve problems Blackburn’s early season form was showing real cause for concern, at a time when the excitement of competing on the European stage should be breathing new life into the club.
We pick back up in part three of our miniseries with Blackburn’s daunting trip to Anfield to face a resurgent Roy Evans Liverpool, a side that was generating as many column inches on the front pages as those on the back.