Reality Check

It’s fair to say that Blackburn’s trip to Anfield to face Liverpool on September 16th 1995 had an altogether different atmosphere than their previous encounter in May. While hope and expectation remained in the hearts of their supporters, this time it was more directed towards their fear of dropping into the relegation zone. In what was only the 6th game of the new Premier League season, Blackburn’s three losses represented just under 50% of the total defeats they had suffered throughout the entirety of the previous campaign.

Liverpool were a team predicted to do big things in 95/96, with their recent purchase of Stan Collymore from Nottingham Forest for 8.5M pounds viewed as a credible statement of intent.

Injuries to both Kevin Gallacher and Jason Wilcox saw Ray Harford experiment with the likes of Mark Atkins and Matty Holmes on the left of midfield, but for his side’s trip to Anfield he would elect to go with Stuart Ripley. Jeff Kenna, a full back comfortable on either side of defence, would slot into the right of midfield and Mike Newell continued to partner Shearer as Sutton was once again left on the bench.

If Blackburn did carry any physical or mental weariness from their game with Spartak Moscow, Roy Evan’s side certainly seized upon their opportunity, with Jamie Redknapp scoring from the edge of the area to open the scoring after only 12 minutes. Liverpool doubled their advantage after 22 minutes when a Rob Jones cross was finished off by Robbie Fowler, fresh with his peroxide blonde locks, who had ghosted across Henning Berg at the back post to head past Tim Flowers. Stan Collymore added a third on 29 minutes when he finished off a passing move across the top of the Blackburn area with a wonderful curling finish into the top corner.

While Rovers were able to stem the tide in the second half and leave Merseyside with only a 3-0 loss, a red card to Henning Berg after two yellow card offenses compounded what was a miserable day for the Lancashire club.

Rovers stumbled into the League Cup the following Wednesday evening and found themselves 2-0 behind in quick succession to second-tier side Swindon Town. Sutton and Shearer would spare Blackburn’s blushes with two goals before half-time, however, Shearer would score once more in the second half to give Rovers a 3-2 victory and progression to the next round.

Blackburn found themselves in 17th position as they welcomed Ron Atkinson’s Coventry City to Ewood Park, therefore a win was absolutely crucial in building some League momentum as well as preparation for the upcoming Champions League match in four days’ time.

Harford would alter the side’s tactics for this match, with Newell, Shearer, and Sutton forming a narrow front line that had Kenna, Batty, and Sherwood in support. The width would come from Le Saux and Berg at full-back to set up a 4-3-3, however, the front line’s movements to drop deep and link the game had more of a diamond 4-4-2 feel at times.

Two early goals from Shearer and Hendry, both of which were headers from set pieces, would settle the nerves of the Ewood crowd. Coventry striker Peter Ndlovu would miss a penalty midway through the half, however, he would make up for his error by scoring on the stroke of halftime to get the Blackburn supporter’s heart rate pacing once more. Any fears of a Coventry fightback were extinguished by two second-half goals from Shearer to claim his hattrick before Ian Pearce completed the rout on 75 minutes to make it 5-1. The only slight blemish on the result was an injury picked up by Le Saux on 34 minutes, which would force the England international onto the sidelines for several weeks.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 2

27th September 1995

vs Rosenborg

Lerkendal Stadion, Trondheim

In 1995 Blackburn’s opponents Rosenborg had formed an impressive home record in European competition, turning their moderately sized Lerkendal Stadion into something of a fortress. With only two defeats in their last 14 home games in European competition, Rosenborg are a true success story of a club with modest means punching well above their weight.

Rosenborg were coached by the legendary Norweigan football figure Nils Arne Eggen, who in 1995 was in his fourth and most successful stint as manager. He would return on two more occasions in the future, serving from 1999-2002 as full-time manager and in 2010 would take over as caretaker after Erik Hamren left to coach the Swedish national team.

Rosenborg were famed for developing a group of locally sourced players who were schooled in the very specific style and system of the club, many of whom would go on to have careers in British football as well as making appearances for Norway at the international level. Stale Stensaas and Harald Brattbakk were a few years away from moving to either side of the Old Firm in Scotland, with Bjorn Kvarme, Bjorn Otto Bragstad, Trond Soltvedt, Vegard Heggem, and Steffen Iversen all destined for stints in the Premier League with varying levels of success. The Norwegian Champions had navigated past Besiktas to qualify for this year’s competition and, like Blackburn, were in search of their first win after a disappointing loss to Legia on Matchday 1.

Ray Harford would begin with the same 4-3-3 system he had utilized against Coventry, but with youngster Lee Makel making his European debut to replace the injured Graeme Le Saux.

Rosenborg set up in a 4-5-1 out of possession, however, when the ball turned over the fluidity of their attacking movement illustrated their strategy was far more forward-thinking than the simplicity of the formation suggested.

Rosenborg’s patient build-up play would create a guilt edge chance inside Blackburn’s box in the opening 10 minutes, but Brattbakk’s effort was expertly saved by Tim Flowers. On 29 minutes Flowers couldn’t save Blackburn from going behind, as a sweeping cross from the left was flicked on twice before landing to Loken at the back post, whose sharp finish brought Rosenborg the opening goal.

Blackburn’s inability to break down a well-organized defense was once again evident, with a passage of play that began inside their opponent’s half ending up in a miss placed pass across the back line and presenting Rosenborg with a chance on goal.

As play entered the final 5 minutes of the half Shearer would sting the palms of Ola Rise in the Rosenborg goal, but no sooner had the game appeared to shift in Blackburn’s favor that their hosts would be awarded a 43rd-minute penalty. Even by today’s standards, the decision was very harsh on Blackburn, however, lady luck shone on them as Mini Jakobsen struck the crossbar and missed an opportunity to double his side’s lead.

Rosenborg continued to control the majority of play in the second half, generating a number of early efforts on Tim Flowers’ goal including a strike from Roar Strand that hit the crossbar. On 63 minutes Blackburn was able to flex their attacking muscle from set plays, as half-time substitute Stuart Ripley was brought down on the touchline. A Sherwood free kick was lofted into the penalty area and was met by the head of Shearer, whose attempt on goal turned into an assist when Mike Newell was on hand to tap in the equalizer from inside the six-yard box.

Ripley had brought more width to Blackburn’s attack play and was once again on hand to fashion a scoring opportunity on 69 minutes. A pass played out to the right wing from Newell created a 1v1 between Ripley and Stensaas, with the Blackburn winger beating his marker on the outside before whipping a cross onto the head of Alan Shearer. His powerful header toward the bottom corner looked like a certain goal, but Ola Rise was able to get down and make a wonderful save to keep the game at 1-1.

With both sides fighting end to end the game would be decided on 85 minutes, with a simple clearance from the Rosenborg back line creating a counterattack. With the ball entering the Blackburn defensive third, Henning Berg slid to prevent Jakobsen’s initial attack on goal but his tackle didn’t quite put the ball out of play. This allowed Steffen Iversen to keep the attack going and his dribble to the byline set up a cutback for defender Stale Stensaas at the top of the box. With Blackburn appearing woefully understaffed in defense only David Batty was on hand to step out and press the ball. This wasn’t enough to stop a powerful effort from Stensaas as his shot whistled into the bottom corner past Tim Flowers.

A resilient Rosenborg side managed out the remaining minutes of the match to take a 2-1 victory, before accepting the applause of their jubilant home support upon the final whistle.

This was yet another utterly deflating goal for Blackburn to concede, especially considering how well they had attacked in the second half. While their style is perhaps a little rudimentary in attack at this level, it strikes me that Harford’s bigger issue is his side is being routinely exposed in defensive transition and the top-heavy tactical framework isn’t especially capable of coping with them.

In Group B’s other match, Spartak Moscow came out on top against Legia Warsaw at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the 2-1 win putting the Russian’s top of the table with 6 points.

Blackburn’s return to Premier League play saw them travel to face Bryan Robson’s newly promoted Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. Second-half goals from Nicky Barmby and Craig Hignett would see Blackburn record their 7th loss in eleven games across all competitions, and for the second time, they would return from European action to lose without scoring.

Blackburn kicked off October with a 2-0 League Cup win over first-division Swindon at Ewood Park, thanks to a double from Alan Shearer on either side of halftime. Blackburn’s talisman had scored 11 in 12 matches so far this season, however almost unbelievably after featuring in England’s 0-0 draw with Norway on October 11th he would complete a full calendar year without a goal at international level.

In light of Rovers’ disappointing start to the season, Ray Harford would use the international break to capture the signing of Lars Bohinen, a creative Norwegian midfielder who had played an integral role in Nottingham Forest’s 3rd-place finish in the 94/95 season.

Bohinen was thrust into the lineup to face Southampton in Blackburn’s return from the international break, with Harford reverting back to his tried and tested 4-4-2. David Batty moved to left midfield to accommodate Bohinen’s partnership with Tim Sherwood in central midfield and the new signing didn’t take long to make a positive first impression, scoring after 19 minutes to give Blackburn the lead. Alan Shearer would put his former side to the sword with a well-struck free kick in the second half, giving Rovers a 2-0 victory and lifting them out of the relegation zone.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 3

18th October 1995

vs Legia Warsaw

Stadion Wojska Polskiego

Given the economic climate in the region, Legia understood the limitations of recruiting players from outwith Poland, so instead they set about building a team from within the national league and neighboring provinces. This process brought them two domestic titles in 94 and 95, which were the club’s only league successes since 1970. At the start of the 95/96 campaign, Legia had 5 Polish national team players on their books, the most prominent of which was center-back Jacek Zielinski.

Harford continued with his 4-4-2 formation for this match, however as Bohinen wasn’t eligible Paul Warhurst would partner Tim Sherwood in midfield. David Batty would operate on the right of midfield and Matty Holmes on the left, while Mike Newell would drop to the bench as Sutton once again joined Shearer in attack.

It was evident from the early moments of the match that Legia had assessed, from their scouting, that Blackburn lacked the quality to control possession when building from the back. Pearce, Hendry, and Flowers were far more comfortable in by-passing the midfield then squeezing the back line forward, however, Legia would negate this threat by using an aggressive forward press that would pick up each of the Blackburn back four. By forcing Rovers into shorter passes into midfield, Legia’s superior numbers centrally caused turnovers that resulted in attacks closer to their opponent’s goal.

On 26 minutes Blackburn’s frailty in defensive transition was on display once more, when striker Leszek Pisz picked up the ball behind full back Henning Berg, who had stepped out of the back line to press a turnover. Driving forward on a diagonal dribble, Pisz pulled Pearce and Sherwood from central positions, leaving four Legia attackers inside the box against 3 Blackburn defenders. Pisz’s initial effort was saved by Flowers, however, his strike partner Podbrozny was on hand for a simple tap-in to give Legia a 1-0 lead.

Blackburn’s failure to prevent the attack behind Berg was a symptom of their zonal defensive system, as their reliance on coverage opened up spaces elsewhere that they didn’t have recovering players to fill in. Both Pearce and Sherwood stepped over to cover Berg, but when neither was able to prevent Pisz from shooting, they left a break in the chain that Legia was able to ruthlessly exploit.

A Batty header from a Sherwood set piece and a Shearer strike from inside the 18-yard box was all Blackburn could muster in the first half, giving them forty-five minutes in which to rekindle any hopes of a European revival.

Sutton got Blackburn off to a solid start in the second half, with a header that brought out a magnificent save from Legia keeper Maciej Szczesny, the father of current Juventus and Poland keeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Legia would register two guilt edge chances in the latter stages of the match, firstly through Pisz whose sliding effort was saved from Flowers, and laterally through Podbrozny who failed to hit the target from close range despite it appearing harder to miss.

Into injury time and with Blackburn valiantly throwing crosses into the box Sutton would connect with a Matty Holmes cross, only for the ball comfortably nestle in the arms of the Legia keeper Szczesny.

Swedish referee Anders Frisk brought a close to the match, with the 1-0 loss dashing any hopes of Blackburn progressing beyond the group stages of this year’s Champions League. Albeit Spartak’s 4-2 victory over Rosenborg in Trondheim had left qualification mathematically possible, it was perhaps time for Rovers to focus their attention on building some momentum domestically.  

Blackburn returned from Poland to face fellow midtable dwellers West Ham at Upton Park and within the opening half hour, they found themselves behind thanks to an Iain Dowie header. New signing Billy McKinlay would come on to make his debut in the second half and would set up Alan Shearer who headed home an 89th-minute equalizer to salvage a valuable point.

Rovers had another trip south just three days later as they traveled to Vicarage Road to face Watford in the 3rd round of the League Cup. An incredible mistake from Ian Pearce would gift a young Kevin Phillips with a simple finish to put Watford ahead, however, two second-half goals from Shearer and Newell were enough to see Blackburn through to the next round.

Blackburn would finish the month of October with a home match against Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea. In the summer of 1995, Hoddle had recruited Ruud Gullit from Sampdoria to take up a sweeper role in his 3-5-2 system, a concept that appeared well before its time in British football. Despite controlling much of the possession Chelsea’s free-flowing football was let down by their porous defense, which led to goals from Sherwood, Shearer, and Newell to complete a 3-0 rout.

This win placed Blackburn in the throws of a congested mid-table pack in the Premier League, displaying a healthy goal-scored column but perhaps undermined by a defensive record that was in such stark contrast to previous campaigns.

Join us in part four of our Blackburn Rovers miniseries as we pick back up with Legia’s return trip to Ewood Park, as well as two crucial away games against Everton and Newcastle that would shape how the winter months would look for Ray Harford’s side.

About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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