Winter is Coming

While the month of October had led to a resurgence in positivity, with a relative upswing in performances leading to four wins in six matches, Blackburn faced the daunting task of a packed November and December schedule that would likely define their season.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 4

1st November 1995

vs Legia Warsaw

Ewood Park

Ray Harford welcomed back Stuart Ripley into the side for the return match with Legia Warsaw in the Champions League. With Paul Warhurst and Tim Sherwood continuing in the central midfield positions, David Batty was once again moved to a wide position, this time operating off the left.

Legia were without starting striker Cezary Kucharski, which saw Head Coach Pawel Janas alter his side’s formation to a 3-4-3 in attack and a 5-4-1 in defense.  

Legia dropped their lines of confrontation and flooded the wings with pressure to limit the attacking threat from Ripley on Blackburn’s right side. While Ripley wasn’t able to generate service from open play he was a threat from set plays, as shown when Colin Hendry combined with Shearer from a Ripley corner to fashion a powerful strike on goal from close range. The quick reflexes of Maciej Szczesny were more than a match for the Scotsman, however, it certainly went down as a big chance.

Legia’s solid defensive shape not only proved tough to break down, but it gave them a solid foundation on which to build attacks on the counter. During one moment of transition, Jacek Bednarz raced down the left wing to collect a through pass and then delivered a cross into the box which landed at the feet of striker Jerzey Podbrozny, only for his effort to be saved by the feet of Tim Flowers. This served as a wake-up call to Blackburn who had not only been wasteful in possession but were far too slow to track back and pick up runners.

Blackburn finished the half with a flurry of chances, the first coming from Ripley cutting inside onto his left foot and unleashing a strike that was saved at the near post, followed up by a Shearer volley that saw him connect with a wonderful driven cross from Batty, only for his strike to flash across goal and miss the target by inches.

Graeme Le Saux returned to the action in the second half, after an injury layoff had seen him miss matchdays two and three in the Champions League, as would Chris Sutton, but neither could help break down this stubborn Legia defense and the match played out in a 0-0 draw.

In Group B’s other match three goals in the opening 20 minutes for Spartak would lead to a 4-1 victory over Rosenborg at the Luznikhi Stadium in Moscow, further cementing the Russian’s place in the next round with four wins out of four. With Legia now on seven points the Polish champions stand the best chance of progression in second spot, with Rosenborg requiring two victories from their last two matches and needing Legia to drop points in the process.  

Following Blackburn’s 0-0 home draw with Legia, they faced a trip to Goodison Park, where they would take on an Everton side firmly in the relegation mix. Their hosts had only recorded two wins from their opening eleven matches, so it perhaps illustrated where Blackburn’s season was headed when Toffee’s striker Graham Stuart scored after 23 minutes to give Everton a much-needed 1-0 win.

Three days later Blackburn traveled to face league leaders Newcastle United, where a 13th-minute goal from midfielder Rob Lee was all it took to hand the Magpies victory. Newcastle’s lead was extended at the top of the table to 5 points when 2nd place Manchester United dropped points against Arsenal at Highbury.

Alan Shearer’s England drought continued despite a 3-1 win over Switzerland at Wembley, in what would turn out to be a precursor to the opening match of the following summer’s European Championships. Meanwhile, Colin Hendry was part of Scotland’s 5-0 win over San Marino to secure their qualifying for Euro 96 as one of the best runners-up.

During the international break Ray Harford bolstered the attacking options in his squad by completing the signing of Graham Fenton from Aston Villa. He was a player who mainly operated as a supporting striker but had also been used as an outside right during his time on loan with West Brom.

Blackburn’s return to league action brought visitors Nottingham Forest to Ewood Park, and in the opening stages, Forest defender Colin Cooper nearly had the ball in the net only for his header to be cleared off the line by David Batty. Any fears of a third straight defeat for Blackburn were soon removed when Alan Shearer and Lars Bohinen put Rovers two ahead in the first half. The second half brought a remarkable performance, with Shearer scoring twice, to complete his hattrick, as well as late goals from Bohinen, Newell, and Le Saux to finish off an emphatic 7-0 victory.

With the tailwind of an impressive performance behind them, Blackburn quickly turned their attention to a trip to Russia to face Group B leaders Spartak Moscow.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 5

22nd November 1995

vs Spartak Moscow 

Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

With the Russian Premier League ending in late October, Spartak found themselves in an unenviable position of maintaining fitness levels during a period of domestic inactivity. The overlap in calendars does little to help eastern European sides, especially on the back of an international tournament summer, but in Spartak’s case, the Champions League had in many ways taken priority given that their title defense had all but evaporated by the season’s midway point. Their final competitive domestic game was a 4-2 home win over FK Kamyshin on October 26th, which saw Spartak finish in fourth place behind winners Alania Vladikavkaz.

With the Russian economy still in a period of recovery, after the fall of the Soviet Union and Spartak’s failure to secure future Champions League revenue, this meant players would have to be sold midway through this year’s European campaign to balance the books. In January of 1996, we would see upwards of 12 players leave the club, with notable departures including captain Viktor Onopko moving to Real Oviedo, goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov departing to FC Tirol, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Sergey Yuran and Vasiliy Kulkov moving to Millwall in England’s 2nd tier.

In the inaugural Champions League season it had been agreed that CSKA Moscow would move their home matches in Germany, with UEFA citing the harsh Russian winters as prohibitive to matches being played in the region. By 1995 this ruling was no longer in place, leaving Spartak to play at their home stadium like all other participants. This only served to illustrate UEFA’s initial concerns, with mounds of snow piled up around the perimeter running track at the Luzhniki, along with the visible exhale of breath forming from the player’s mouths. The home side would certainly be more acclimated to the frigid temperatures, however, it would be a stretch to say it gave them an advantage on the night.

Blackburn’s only omission heading into the match was Lars Bohinen, who missed out due to being signed after the registration deadline. Paul Warhurst would come back into the starting lineup, with Ray Harford naming the same team that faced Legia Warsaw on Matchday 3.

An early passage of play would see Le Saux make a forward pass into Newell, who in turn laid it back for Le Saux to run onto. David Batty, who was operating as a left midfielder, misread the situation and moved onto Newell’s pass causing a minor collision with Le Saux on the touchline. What began as an innocuous coming together quickly progressed from a verbal argument into a physical altercation, as Le Saux landed a punch onto Batty’s jaw. Tim Sherwood, who had just been fouled and had gotten up to take the free kick, quickly intervened to break up the scuffle, attempting to defuse the situation.

There is no question that under the current laws of the game, Le Saux would have been sent off for striking out. Yet on this occasion, Italian referee Pierluigi Pairetto simply asked the players to calm down and got on with the match. Perhaps more shocking was the fact Harford failed to remove either player, choosing to replace Le Saux for Matty Holmes in the 57th minute.

This flashpoint has become emblematic of Blackburn’s capitulation this season, a sure sign that a side that had once enjoyed a consistent trajectory was now in very visible decline.

Spartak capitalized upon their opponent’s lack of focus, taking the lead in 28 minutes, which for the fourth game of the campaign would see Blackburn concede the opening goal.

Dmitry Alenichev picked up a loose ball in a congested midfield but quickly found himself in behind the Blackburn back line courtesy of a precision through pass from midfield partner Ilia Tsymbalar. Alenichev’s left foot strike was almost thwarted by the recovering tackle of Henning Berg, but if anything the Norweigan only helped the ball on its way past Tim Flowers.

Despite the halftime reset, the second half was only minutes old before Spartak struck a second. Center-back Yuriy Nikiforov strode forward into the Blackburn half, completing a give-and-go with teammate Yuran and moving totally unmarked as he charged into the box. To the disbelief of the Blackburn back line, Nikiforov applied a cultured right-foot finish past Tim Flowers, a strike that any striker would be proud of.

If the opening two goals were examples of the levels between Blackburn and Spartak, then the third goal in 54 minutes only served as yet more conclusive evidence. Nikiforov’s pass out the back sparked a series of combination passes on the right flank between Mamedov, Kulkov, and Tikhonov, gradually moving play into the final third. With Blackburn appearing transfixed by the ball movement, Mamedov danced past the advances of Hendry, Sherwood, and Le Saux, then combined with Yuran at the edge of the area before calmly slotting home a terrific finish making it 3-0.

At this point Spartak visibly eased off the gas, which allowed Batty and Matty Holmes to create chances for the visitors, however both would fail to get on the scoresheet.

In the closing stages of the match, Blackburn’s misfortune was compounded further, when Colin Hendry was sent off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity. Valeriy Kechinov would play a defense-splitting pass to find the run of Dmitriy Alenichev, who had found space behind Henning Berg but remained onside. As soon as Alenichev collected the ball and dribbled in on goal he was flattened by the recovering run of Hendry, for which the Scot was shown an immediate red card.

Chris Sutton would come on for Stuart Ripley to add defensive cover in what was an increasingly uncomfortable closing 15 minutes of play, but after 90 minutes Spartak would officially secure the top spot to advance to the knockout round with a 3-0 win.

This game serves as the perfect distillation of the differences between British club football in the 90s and the type of game that was being played on the continent. Blackburn’s style is simultaneously chaotic and repetitively linear, with the strategy centering on testing their opponent’s ability to defend direct attacking passes. Le Saux and Ripley carry much of the creative burden for Blackburn, with the remaining midfielders essentially positioned to recycle the attack should the opposition win an aerial duel. Shearer and Newell work well as a strike partnership, however, this is on the predication that they are competing against a defensive duo. With Spartak adding in a third central defender it makes traditional twin striker play extremely difficult, with the spare man often reading ground passes early and mopping up attacks. Beyond the constant flow of crosses into the box Blackburn very quickly ran out of ideas.

In a match that would see Blackburn soundly beaten it appeared that very little had been learned from their experience in the competition thus far, or perhaps a willful acceptance that their style just simply didn’t translate to the contemporary arena of Champions League football.

Elsewhere in Group B Legia Warsaw would travel to Trondheim to face Rosenborg, with the Polish champions requiring a win or a draw to book their place in the knockout rounds. Unfortunately for Legia, Rosenborg were in no mood to settle for an early exit and would revive their own hopes of qualification with a resounding 4-0 win over their Polish guests.

A return to domestic football saw Rovers travel south to face Bruce Rioch’s Arsenal at Highbury, who after 15 matches found themselves in third place in the Premier League table. Despite the best efforts of Arsenal’s John Hartson, Dennis Bergkamp, and Paul Dickov, Blackburn would leave North London with a creditable 0-0 and a point to boot.

Three days later and Blackburn were on the road again, this time facing Leeds United at Elland Road in the 4th round of the League Cup. Two early strikes from Brian Deane and Tony Yeboah would put Leeds ahead, however, a Gary Kelly own goal in the second half gave Blackburn hope of a revival. Try as they might Blackburn couldn’t find an equalizer, leading to their exit from League Cup and their 12th loss of the season in all competitions.

Rovers kicked off December with the visit of Harry Redknapp’s West Ham United, and after only 3 minutes Shearer fired them into a 1-0 lead. Another from Shearer and a third from Mike Newell followed to give Rovers a 3-0 halftime lead, but the rout appeared to be complete when Shearer completed his hattrick on 64 minutes to take his tally to 21 in 25 matches. West Ham showed some late fight and hit back twice, with goals from Julian Dicks and Robbie Slater cutting the deficit in half. Blackburn would finish 4-2 winners which saw them leapfrog West Ham in the table to move back into 10th place.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 6

6th December 1995

vs Rosenborg

Ewood Park

With Colin Hendry suspended and Ian Pearce injured, Ray Harford was forced into fielding a make-shift central defensive pairing for the final game of the Champions League group stage, bringing together Chris Sutton with Nicky Marker. Sutton had operated as an auxiliary central defender throughout various spells in his career, so there was perhaps less anxiety over his selection than his defensive partner. Marker was a veteran who had spent much of his time at Blackburn as a squad player, however, this was his first involvement in well over a year due to a lengthy injury layoff.

Jeff Kenna and Henning Berg were selected in the full-back positions to complete the back four, with a midfield four of Ripley, Sherwood, Warhurst, and Holmes in support of a strike pairing of Shearer and Newell.

Rosenborg entered matchday 6 in pursuit of a result that bettered that of Legia, who were hosting group leaders Spartak in Poland. Unlike the typically more cagey approach that Rovers had experienced thus far in the Champions League, Rosenborg’s approach was more akin to the ebb and flow of a Premier League contest. Both sides enjoyed several early sweeping attacks, launching balls into the box and entering into multiple aerial duels.

Inside the 15th minute, a turnover in midfield afforded Sherwood space to play a forward pass into the stride of Paul Warhurst, who upon receiving the ball was upended by Rosenborg defender Bjorn Otto Bragstad. After a penalty kick was awarded, Alan Shearer duly applied the finish that would put Blackburn ahead for the first time during their six Champions League matches.

Just as Blackburn were starting to build upon the confidence of the opening goal, a mistake from Sherwood inadvertently set up a crossing opportunity for Rosenborg left-back Stale Stensaas. His whipped cross was met at the back post by Steffen Iversen, later of Tottenham Hotspur fame, who skillfully stroked the ball across Tim Flowers and into the far corner, leveling the match at 1-1.

The Ewood Park faithful didn’t have long to wait for a response, as from the kickoff a long ball forward from Henning Berg saw Shearer link up with Newell, who unleashed a world-class strike into the top corner of the Rosenborg net. A mixture of elation and disbelief filled the air, coming from a fanbase that was never truly sure what version of their side would turn up week to week.

Newell’s strike sparked an immediate vitality in Rovers, a verve and purpose appeared in them that hadn’t done so throughout the campaign. On 38 minutes a slick passing move from the back found Ripley on the right wing, who true to form delivered a sumptuous diagonal pass over to Matty Holmes on the opposite flank. Holmes’ quick control allowed him to look up and pick out the central run of Mike Newell at the front post, who in turn powered home a header to make it 3-1.

Two minutes later and Ewood Park was on its feet again, this time after a flowing counter-attack move that began with Tim Sherwood’s through pass to Alan Shearer. Rovers talisman cut the ball across the box for his strike partner Newell, who finished off the move with a clinical left-foot finish. Not only had this put the home side into a 4-1 lead, but it also saw Newell set a UEFA record for completing the fastest ever hat trick in just 9 minutes.

The second half would pale in comparison to the fervent nature of the first, with Rosenborg slowing down the overall tempo of the possession, purely as a means of damage limitation. Shearer would go close for Rovers with a header that kissed the bar, however, the complexion of the game changed when Rovers were reduced to ten men following Paul Warhurst’s dismissal. Kevin Gallacher made a substitute appearance on 73 minutes, which was a welcome return to a side that had sadly lacked his quality in attack throughout the first half of the season.

While the final 4-1 result did little to impact what was a legacy of failure upon Blackburn’s maiden voyage into European football, it was however a much-needed shot of confidence within a side that was clearly lacking in any.

In Group B’s other Matchday 6 encounter Spartak would travel to Warsaw to take on a Legia side that needed to equal or better Rosenborg’s result with Blackburn to ensure their passage into the knockout stages. Spartak defender Ramiz Mamedov would open the scoring on 42 minutes for the Russians, however, as news filtered through that Rosenborg were 4-1 down at halftime it certainly made for a less stressful second half for Legia. Spartak would finish 1-0 winners to finish top of Group B, emulating AC Milan’s unblemished record from the 92/93 competition. Legia would also progress in second place, ensuring their place in the knockout rounds of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in their history.

The high of a resounding victory over Rosenborg quickly evaporated when Rovers returned to Premier League action with a trip to Highfield Road to face Ron Atkinson’s Coventry City. Near-freezing temperatures in the midlands had brought snowfall on the day of the match, leaving a playing surface that was more reminiscent of a school playground and not a professional football ground. With Hendry now joining Pearce on the injury list, Marker and Sutton continued in central defense, with the only change to the starting lineup being the re-introduction of Lars Bohinen for Matty Holmes. After 40 minutes David Busst put Coventry ahead, but a second-half capitulation would see Blackburn eventually fall 5-0 after second-half goals from Dion Dublin, David Rennie, Peter Ndlovu, and John Salako.

Suffering their 8th loss of the league season, Blackburn had now lost more times in 17 games than they had in all of last season’s 42. This was undoubtedly a significant low point in a season strewn with plenty of opportunity to wallow in self-pity.

An injury to Chris Sutton in the second half at Highfield Road added further to Rovers’ growing list of absentees, forcing Ray Harford to dip into the transfer market once more. A bid was accepted soon after by Crystal Palace for their young Welsh defender Chris Coleman, who was then thrust into the lineup in Rovers’ next league match with Middlesbrough.

Alan Shearer finished off a wonderful passing move to give Rovers a 1-0 win over Bryan Robson’s Boro side, but the major talking point from the match was an incident on 55 minutes when an innocuous lunge to block the ball resulted in Graeme Le Saux suffering a horror leg break. This injury not only affected Blackburn’s squad options for the remainder of the season, but an onlooking Terry Venables would need to reassess his selection at left-back ahead of the upcoming European Championships.

Blackburn began the festive period with a trip to Selhurst Park on the 23rd of December, drawing 1-1 with Wimbledon after a late Marcus Gayle equalizer left Rovers in search of their first away win of the season.

Returning home on Boxing Day Manchester City traveled to Ewood Park, where they would go down 2-0 thanks to a double from Alan Shearer who recorded his 100th goal for the club. Two games in three days came up next, starting with a 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur on the 30th of December followed by a 0-0 draw away to Leeds on New Year’s Day.

Despite a highly disappointing end to November, that threatened to derail their season completely, Harford appears to have turned a corner with results significantly improving throughout December. It has to be said that Shearer has been central to much of Blackburn’s domestic upswing in performances, which given the rate of injuries the squad is accumulating they must live in hope their top scorer doesn’t suffer the same plight.

Join us next time as we cast an eye over the remainder of Rovers 95/96 season, as well as assess how the lasting legacy of this campaign impacted the future of the club.

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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