In spite of an ever-growing injury list impacting squad depth, Ray Harford had at least steered the ship back on course with several solid domestic victories over the final few weeks of 1995. Sat in the maelstrom of a highly competitive Premier League mid-table, there is certainly an opportunity for Rovers to re-establish themselves as a top-end side should form continue to progress throughout the early months of the new year.
Any confidence built up throughout December would have taken a significant blow in early January when Blackburn ended their pursuit of the FA Cup at the first hurdle. Drawn away against first-division side Ipswich Town they could only muster a 0-0 draw at Portman Road, before losing the replay 1-0 at Ewood Park sending them crashing out of the Cup in abysmal fashion.
Rovers’ schizophrenic form continued when they lifted themselves to claim their first away win of the season, Alan Shearer striking to seal a 1-0 victory over QPR at Loftus Road. Two more home wins followed, overcoming Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 and easing past Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers 3-1, taking Blackburn to the heady heights of 6th spot.
Rovers closed out February with three games against sides in the top four, the first of which being a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford against Manchester United. Despite how close this scoreline may appear these were no longer sides fighting as peers. United had another front to fight in Newcastle, therefore eradicating any genuine threat that Rovers were likely to pose.
Next up was the visit of Liverpool to Ewood Park, where Stan Collymore opened the scoring with a memorable goal for all the wrong reasons. A tame effort from the Liverpool striker trundled toward Tim Flowers, who in turn kneeled to scoop up the ball presumably before launching a counterattack. Just as the ball reached Flowers it ricocheted off a divot in the turf, sending the ball into the corner leaving the keeper mortified with the outcome.
Collymore doubled Liverpool’s advantage in the first half, just before Jason Wilcox would mark his return to the Rovers side with a headed finish to reduce the deficit. The lesser-spotted Michael Thomas put Liverpool 3-1 ahead in the second half but despite a Tim Sherwood goal on 83 minutes Rovers finished with yet another defeat.
More disappointment was to follow in four days’ time when Villa Park was the scene of another 2-0 defeat, however, this paled in comparison to the news that David Batty was departing for table toppers Newcastle United in a deal worth 4m pounds.
While the Rovers’ fanbase would have been left disappointed with the move, it probably made sense for all parties that the transfer went through. Rovers were making just over a million pounds on their initial investment, having laid out 2.75m to Leeds United back in October of 1993. From the player’s perspective, Harford had Batty operating in several different midfield roles, much of which was away from his preferred central position. Therefore, a switch to an all-but-guaranteed starting berth under Kevin Keegan would’ve been too big an opportunity to turn down, especially at a time when competition for a place in the England setup was especially high.
Blackburn kicked off the month of March with a disappointing 1-1 draw with 17th-placed Manchester City. Their slump in form had seen them slip back down to 10th position, with a distance of 10 points between where they lay and European Qualification.
With Sutton and Newell plagued by injury, Harford turned to new signing Graham Fenton for some inspiration. Fenton would go on to score the only goal in a 1-0 win over Leeds United at Ewood Park, a match that saw 10 first-team players missing out through injury or suspension.
Rovers followed this up with a dramatic win over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, starting with two first-half goals from Shearer. His England strike partner Sheringham brought the match back to 2-2, however, Shearer would complete his hattrick in injury time to secure a 3-2 win. Taking his tally to 33 for the season.
In the weeks following Batty’s departure, Harford brought in Manchester City’s Garry Flitcroft as his replacement. Understanding of Rovers’ need for a player, allied to their recent transfer windfall, City priced their player at the lofty £4m mark. At 23 Flitcroft had shown promise, yet Blackburn agreeing to pay over the odds for a player perhaps characterizes the altered state of decision-making from those at the head of the club.
In some black-comedic twist of fate, Flitcroft’s rushed transfer failed to last even forty-five minutes of Rovers’ next league match with Everton at Ewood Park. In just three minutes of his debut, Flitcroft was shown a red card when he lashed out and caught Graham Stuart with an elbow in the face. The inevitable loss was soon to follow, with a goal from Daniel Amokatchi and a brace from Andrei Kanchelskis giving Everton a 3-0 win.
Another away defeat followed as Blackburn went down 1-0 to Southampton at the Dell, courtesy of a Matt Le Tissier penalty on 80 minutes.
High flyers Newcastle United were next up for Rovers’, and who else but David Batty was on hand to open the scoring upon his return to Ewood Park. The Yorkshireman had only ever scored one goal for Blackburn in his time at the club, but it was the home side who were to have the last laugh. With Rovers’ now landlocked in mid-table security their Jekyll and Hyde form continued when two second-half goals from Graeme Fenton gave Rovers a 2-1 win, all but ending the Magpie’s title ambitions as Manchester United’s win over Coventry stretched their lead to 6 points.
Clearly in a buoyant mood following the victory over Newcastle, Rovers would once again find that scoring touch when they traveled to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest. Goals from Shearer, McKinlay, Fenton, and a double from Wilcox, gave Blackburn a 5-1 win and take them to 7th position.
Fenton and Shearer combined again to win 3-2 over Wimbledon at Ewood Park, a match in which Shearer would become the first striker to score 30 goals in three successive English top-flight seasons.
A victory in Rovers’ penultimate game of the season over Arsenal at Ewood Park, would bizarrely put them in prime position to sneak into the final European Qualification spot. Kevin Gallacher opened the scoring, but Ian Wright slotted home a second-half penalty to level the game at 1-1, leaving Blackburn requiring other results to go their way on the final day.
Blackburn certainly did their part by recording a 3-2 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, however, both Arsenal and Everton won by a single goal, thus leaving Rovers to finish in 7th.
In a title race that went into the final day, Manchester United secured the League Championship with a 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough at the Riverside. Faltering challengers Newcastle United stumbled once more, ending their season with a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham.
The 95/96 season would draw to a close when Liverpool and Manchester United met at Wembley in the FA Cup final. In a match that was more memorable for the attire Liverpool players had arrived wearing, an Eric Cantona volley in the 85th minute helped seal a memorable League and Cup double.
Harford’s positive end to the 95/96 campaign would earn him a stay of execution as Rovers manager, but with another summer of change on the horizon, it was difficult to ascertain where Blackburn saw themselves in the summer of 1996.
The inevitability of Alan Shearer’s departure was quickly ratified, sealing a move to Newcastle United in a deal worth £15M. Rovers fans had largely accepted their star striker was set to leave the club, with rumors circling throughout much of 95/96 that he was headed to Manchester United. Shearer famously turned down the advances of Alex Ferguson to opt for his hometown club, but on the back of a memorable summer spent with England at Euro 96 its a touch surprising there wasn’t more interest from the continent.
With the income from Shearer’s readily available, Walker was naturally reticent to overspend given how market forces had elevated the prices of Coleman and Flitcroft during the last campaign.
With several players returning from injury during the 96/97 pre-season, Harford concluded that minimal additions were required to augment the squad. So only saw fit to add Greek winger George Donis from Panathinaikos, and Danish striker Per Pedersen from Odense BK. Both of whom arriving on free transfers.
Life began in the post-Shearer era with an opening-day defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Ewood Park. Perhaps a signal that the burden of goal scorer may be a weight too heavy for those remaining to carry.
On October 25th 1996, Ray Harford would tender his resignation as Manager of Blackburn Rovers. This followed a devastating run of results that would see his side fail to win any of their opening eleven league games, leaving them rooted at the bottom of the table.
His fate was ultimately sealed after Rovers were knocked out of the League Cup by third-tier side Stockport County, leaving his position untenable. He would be replaced by his assistant, and club legend, Tony Parkes, who in a cruel twist of fate seemingly only possible in football led Blackburn to a 3-0 home win over Liverpool in his opening game in charge.
Parkes navigated Rovers to 13th position at the end of the 96/97 season, with Jack Walker securing the services of Inter Milan Head Coach, and future England manager, Roy Hodgson ahead of the 97/98 campaign.
Join us next time as we close this remarkable story of Blackburn Rovers European escapades with a tactical analysis of Rovers’ decline under Harford, and take a closer look at Walker’s time as custodian of the club.