BY MARK GODFREY
The last few years haven’t been too kind to Blackburn Rovers; Steve Keen’s disastrous tenure in charge of the team was swiftly followed by relegation from the Premier League in 2012. Current owners the Venky family may have made a success of their poultry business in India but their time as custodians of this proud old Lancashire club has left a poor taste in Rovers’ fans mouths.
This season has hardly got off to the most auspicious of starts either. Having lost star striker Jordan Rhodes to Middlesbrough during the last campaign and captain Grant Hanley to Newcastle United this summer, many were predicting a long a difficult year ahead in the Championship; a notion backed up by the opening day hammering they suffered at Ewood Park by an admittedly very decent Norwich City.
Twenty-two years ago it was all so very different. Local boy done good Jack Walker ploughed millions of pounds of hard earned money from his years in the steel industry into his boyhood club; a once struggling Second Division team was transformed into one of the most dynamic in the land, ready to challenge Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United, while the ageing Ewood Park also underwent a much needed facelift, readying the club for the 21st century and the summit of the Premier League for a prolonged period.
Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish was persuaded to end his brief sabbatical from management – much needed after a troubled last couple of years at Anfield in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster – to convince the best players around that this previously unfashionable provincial backwater would become English football’s most exciting project. By the summer of 1994 all the pieces of the jigsaw were seemingly in place.
It had taken approximately £30million – a veritable fortune by the standards of the day – to assemble a genuine title challenging squad. The jewel in the crown was ace striker Alan Shearer; he possessed power, pace, aggression, desire and a shot that could burst a net from any distance or angle.
Dalglish glued together a side that conformed to a typical British 4-4-2 formation using square pegs in square holes; out-and-out wingers Jason Wilcox and Stuart Ripley supplied the bullets for the famous SAS strike partnership of Shearer and Chris Sutton. Tim Sherwood and David Batty patrolled and cajoled in midfield, while centre back Colin Hendry was a no nonsense traditional defender ready to throw his body in the way of anything that threatened keeper Tim Flowers’ goal.
Eventually, of course, Blackburn toughed it out in a mammoth title battle with Manchester United, dramatically winning their one and only Premier League crown at Anfield on the last day of the season, despite losing – ironically – to Dalglish’s old club, Liverpool. They also have West Ham United, and in particular Hammers goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko, for repeatedly denying United a win in their final day game that would have seen them snatch glory away from the East Lancashire club in dramatic fashion.
Looking back through Rovers’ results that season, one is glaringly rogue; and although it was a hefty knock to the team’s confidence early on, it probably helped contribute greatly to the historic final outcome.
Blackburn’s 1993-94 final placing in the league earned them a place in the following season’s UEFA Cup, then still in its old two-legged, round-by-round knockout format. The first round draw paired them with the Swedish club Trelleborgs FF. It was a name that had the previewers – and no doubt Blackburn’s scouts – scurrying desperately to discover more. Back in the dark days before the internet could pinpoint any information you wanted in milliseconds, Trelleborgs were, to put it mildly, an absolute mystery. Sure, British audiences knew all about Malmo and IFK Gothenburg thanks to their exploits in European football throughout the 1970s and 80s, yet beyond that, Swedish club football made very little impression on our collective radar.
Trelleborgs had only made their debut in Sweden’s top flight ten years earlier and after finishing fourth the previous season, won through a preliminary round against GI Gota of the Faroe Islands before being handed their ‘glamour’ tie against the wealthy stars of England’s nouveau riche.
Despite the first leg at Ewood Park being Blackburn’s European debut, they were overwhelming favourites to get the job done comfortably before the return trip to the most southerly town in Sweden two weeks later. Dalglish paid the part-timers of Trelleborgs due respect and chose a virtual full strength team, no doubt with that very thought in mind.
It was clear from very early on that Trelleborgs – managed by Tom Prahl – hadn’t just pitched up for the ‘experience’, comfortably thwarting Blackburn’s initial advances. It was a pattern that stuck.
As the game wore on, Rovers were unsure whether to stick or twist and consequently did neither as the Swedes settled in and matched the more fancied English side pound for pound (that’s lbs rather than £££). Again and again Blackburn’s tried and trusted methods of attack foundered on the defensive rocks of Trelleborgs. Particularly stoic at the heart of the Trelleborgs rearguard was Christian Karlsson whose commanding performance that night drew instant interest from Everton, Spurs and Middlesbrough amongst others.
Far from sitting back cautiously, the Swedes launched their own raids on Blackburn’s goal and as the home side became more desperate to take the lead, the more gaps appeared, and sure enough on 72 minutes the previously unthinkable happened.
Blackburn lost the ball in the Trelleborgs half, once again Christian Karlsson’s well timed intervention helped launch an attack. A long ball was flicked on into the path of striker Fredrik Sandell who evaded all attempts to peg him back. He then calmly proceeded to slot the ball neatly past Flowers. The shock was on.
Rovers tried in vain to equalise and whenever they did find a way past Karlsson and his defensive colleagues, Polish international keeper – and Trelleborgs’ only full time professional – Ryszard Jankowski was there to thwart them.
After the final whistle the gravity of the result was not lost on either of the managers.
“We would never have imagined this,’ Trelleborgs manager Prahl said. ‘It is the biggest moment of my career – the biggest of all our careers.
“I am so happy. A 2-0 defeat would have satisfied us. To win 1-0 is unbelievable. It is very good for Swedish club football. People over there don’t think we can play, most of our international players go abroad.”
Prahl’s career highlight to that point did his future prospects no harm whatsoever; he later moved on to bigger jobs at Halmstads and subsequently Malmo, winning the Swedish league title with both.
For the usually publicly dour Dalglish, the unexpected defeat did little to elevate his gloomy affectation ahead of the second leg:
‘They are the favourites now and they deserve to be,’ he said. ‘They won on merit and they deserve the credit.
“We did not play as well as we have in the past, everything starts to pile on top of you when it gets like this. We did not produce the goods on the night but we have a second chance.”
The Scot had to wait a fortnight to plot his revenge on Prahl. A full house of almost 7,000 at Trelleborgs’ modest Vångavallen stadium were eager to see if the underdogs could repel their high profile visitors and advance to the UEFA Cup second round.
What transpired was another cracking end-to-end encounter with Trelleborgs giving as good as they got. However, it was Blackburn who took the lead on 17 minutes and levelled the tie on aggregate when Sutton pounced on a rebound from a Shearer free kick.
Joachim Karlsson struck for the home side five minutes after the break, skinning Hendry before unleashing a blistering 20-yard drive low past Flowers’ flailing left hand. It still left Blackburn needing just one more goal to progress on away goals. Their task was seemingly made easier just three minutes after they conceded when Trelleborgs’ skipper Jonas Brorsson was given his marching orders for a second yellow card offence.
Much huffing and puffing ensued with Rovers again finding Christian Karlsson and Co. unwavering in defence.
Then, with barely seven minutes left, Shearer – so often the saviour – reacted first at a free kick to a loose ball in the six yard box to bundle home from just a couple of feet out to give Blackburn the lead on away goals. The relief from the potential embarrassment of an exit to the part-timers was palpable. However, it would be short-lived.
Just two minutes later Joachim Karlsson latched onto a skewed shot across the box to fire past a static Flowers and complete the humiliation for the expensively assembled Premier League winners to be.
While it may have been a night to forget for Blackburn, in the grand scheme of things that season, bowing out of European competition so early probably helped their ultimately successful assault on the championship, leaving their first XI less susceptible to injury and fatigue and giving Dalglish the luxury of a more settled side for the rest of the campaign.
Trelleborgs’ reward for knocking Blackburn out was a match up with another club used to throwing cash around to secure the best players from around the world. Paul Gascoigne’s Lazio (although Gazza did not appear in either leg of the second round tie) included such names as Aron Winter, Beppe Signori, Diego Fuser and Pierluigi Casiraghi in their line-up. The first leg in Sweden ended goalless. Sadly for Trelleborgs, heartbreak awaited them in the second leg. With extra-time looming after another blank 90 minutes, Croatian superstar Alen Boksic bagged a last minute winner to abruptly end the Swedes’ dream.
Blackburn’s European travails persisted into the following year in the Champions League. The newly-crowned English champions were given what on paper seemed a favourable draw for the group stage, avoiding any of the big names. Yet, just one win was gleaned from Legia Warsaw, Rosenborg and Spartak Moscow – against whom, in the game in the Russian capital, team ‘mates’ David Batty and Graeme Le Saux famously came to blows on the frozen pitch. Blackburn were never the same again.
Dalglish – who had moved into the Director of Football role after the League victory in the summer of 1995 – and his replacement Ray Harford left at the end of the 95-96 season. Within four years of winning the ultimate prize in English football, they were relegated back to where they began before Jack Walker’s millions started that incredible, but short-lived journey.