Moussa Sissoko is probably not the first player that jumps into a person’s mind when they hear the phrase “European elite,” but there he was. The Frenchman was right, smack in the middle of a pivotal moment in the most elite match that European football has to offer: The UEFA Champions League final.
Let’s set aside the fact that Sissoko’s crucial contribution to the 2019 final was to concede a penalty via a handball within 30 seconds of kickoff, and consider just how remarkable it was that the middling Tottenham midfielder was there participating at all.
Actually, let’s consider how remarkable it was that Tottenham themselves were in Madrid vying to be crowned European champions. At the beginning of the decade, Spurs were spending the concluding months of every season scrambling just to qualify for Champions League competition. And for much of the previous decade, the Lilywhites from north London were forgettable midtable fodder. The club has generated more off-pitch headlines than on this season, but with a flashy new stadium, a handful of great players, and a very high-profile new manager, Spurs are a legitimate European contender.
Speaking of former laughingstocks turned legitimate: Tottenham’s opponents in Madrid, Liverpool, were also more punch line than powerhouse just a half-decade ago. Justifiably hyped as one of the most fearsome attacking trios’ football has seen in recent years, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah were so tactically astute last season that one could be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t terribly long ago that the Reds believed Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam hitting long balls to Andy Carroll was a great way to win matches.
Flush with money, stellar players, and virtuoso managers, the Premier League is such a force in 2019 that even two of its teams that have never lifted its trophy can contest Europe’s showcase match. We are truly in a golden era for Premier League football. When England’s most irrepressible export was still in its infancy however, this degree of continental supremacy would have seemed unfathomable.
The most unpopular man in English football
In today’s world of oligarch and oil-state funded teams, the idea of a Lancashire man from the steel industry shifting the balance of financial power in the Premier League sounds downright folksy, but that’s more or less what Jack Walker did during the league’s nascent years in the early 1990s.
After his father’s death in 1951, the lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan took control of his family’s sheet metal business. Fast-forward to 1990, and Walkersteel was the largest steel stockholder in Britain and Walker was one of the United Kingdom’s 25 richest men.
In 1991, as a retirement hobby, Walker took over the club he’d supported all his life and set out to transform Rovers (who at the time were languishing in the lower reaches of England’s second division and hadn’t played first division football since the 1965-66 season) into a serious topflight contender. Well, “serious topflight contender” may be selling Walker’s ambitions short. In his own words, Walker said he wanted to make even the mighty Manchester United look ‘cheap.’
Regardless of era, when Manchester United are made to look cheap, many of those involved in football’s discourse spiral headfirst into existential crisis. Manchester City are the current agitators of the established order and Chelsea were last decade’s primary nuisance, but Jack Walker and Blackburn were the Premier League’s original nouveau riche upstarts that got everyone tsk-tsking and wagging their fingers in disgust.
Check out this sentence from Norman Fox’s 1992 Independent profile on Walker: “His aim is to buy success for Blackburn Rovers no matter the cost to himself and, his critics say, to the future of an industry that can ill afford to let him send transfer fees through the roof.” The future of the football industry was being put at risk by Walker’s transfer plans. With those being the perceived ramifications of Walker’s spending, it should come as no surprise that Fox’s profile also mentioned ‘outside of Blackburn, Walker is the most unpopular man in English football.’
Inside of Blackburn, any uneasiness supporters may have felt about their provincial club being injected with cash and turned into editorial fodder was likely quelled when Rovers began their rapid rise up the English football pyramid.
Blackburn first signalled they were serious about being taken seriously when they appointed Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish as manager in October 1991. Dalglish was a serial winner. He had won six first division titles with Liverpool as a player (in Liverpool’s 1985-86 title-winning season he was both a player and the team’s manager). More relevant to Blackburn’s interests, Dalglish also lifted two first division titles with the Reds solely as a manager in 1988 and 1990. By 1991, there were few names in football bigger than Kenny Dalglish.
There was also probably no one more burnt out from the sport itself. Following a 4-4 draw with Everton in the FA Cup that February, Dalglish abruptly stepped down as Liverpool manager. Shockingly, his team was three points clear at the top of the table at the time of his resignation.
“I’ve been in the frontline for 20 years, and it’s just really a result of 20 years’ active involvement in football at a very high and successful level…it would have been wrong to mislead people that everything was fine with me,” Dalglish said at a press conference to announce his decision. Those do not sound like the words of a man that would end up back in football management just months later, but luring Dalglish back to the dugout (the dugout of a club in the second division!) was just the first of several stunning moves for Jack Walker’s Blackburn.
Walker wasted no time breaking Blackburn’s transfer record with the £1 million signing of striker Mike Newell from Everton a month in to Dalglish’s tenure as manager. Financially emboldened, Dalglish was able to guide Rovers to Premier League promotion via a 1-0 play-off final victory over Leicester City that May, setting the stage for an eye-watering spending spree.
Not content to just surpass his own club’s transfer record, Walker elected to fund the most expensive transfer in British football history by signing Alan Shearer from Southampton for £3.3 million in July 1992. Two years later, the British transfer record fell again when Chris Sutton was signed from Norwich for £5 million.
Who was Manchester United’s record signing at the time? Roy Keane, acquired from Nottingham Forrest for a paltry £3.75 million – Blackburn’s illustrious enemies to the south were being made to look, if not exactly cheap (heading into the 1994-95 season, United’s regular starting eleven still cost around £5 million more than Blackburn’s), then perhaps less monetarily dominant than before.
United weren’t, however, being made to look bad at football. The Red Devils won the 1993-94 Premier League title, finishing eight points clear of their newly rich rivals, who ended the campaign right behind them in second. And as the 1994-95 season began to unfold, it became clear that the race for the title would be of the two-horse variety: Manchester United representing the old guard insistent on maintaining its supremacy versus Blackburn, the polarizing insurgent seeking to antagonize and disrupt a football world that had long treated it as little more than an afterthought.
As much as debate swirled over the acquisitions of Shearer and Sutton, there was no arguing to be had regarding the duo’s actual performances on the pitch. The two strikers were immense as Rovers assertively stormed to the top of the Premier League table. There was scant subtlety in how Dalglish wanted his team to play: get the ball to the front two as quickly as possible. It was simple and it was effective. Shearer netted an absurd 34 league goals, while Sutton chipped in 15. Combined, the Shearer/Sutton partnership accounted for over 60 percent Blackburn’s league goals in the 1994-95 season.
But Alex Ferguson’s United weren’t going to relinquish the trophy without a fight. In fact, a quite literal ‘fight’ would prove significant in how the title race would ultimately unfold. Just days after scoring the winner in a marquee match against Blackburn at Old Trafford, United’s enigmatic talisman Eric Cantona kung-fu kicked a heckling fan at Selhurst Park during the Red Devil’s 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace. It was an inexplicable moment of madness that ensured Cantona would be suspended for the remainder of the season. Had United won against Palace, they would have gone to the top of the table (albeit with two matches in hand).
“I don’t care about being some sort of superior person,” Cantona later reflected. “I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do. If I want to kick a fan, I do it. I am not a role model. I think the more you see, the more you realize life is a circus.”
With a lead in the standings – and United without their most influential player – the title was Blackburn’s to lose. ‘Squeaky-bum time’ (a term Ferguson himself has so eloquently applied to a season’s pivotal concluding stretch) can wreak havoc on even the calmest of nerves, however. At Blackburn, where the idea of a first-division title challenge had long been nothing more than a fanciful dream, the anxiety was palpable.
Blackburn dropped points in four of their final six matches, including a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at Dalglish’s old haunt, Anfield, on the season’s final matchday. Rovers had wilted under the Premier League’s searing spotlight. But something odd happened after Jamie Redknapp curled in Liverpool’s free-kick winner to condemn Blackburn to their campaign-ending defeat: Merseyside icon Dalglish enthusiastically celebrated.
Had Dalglish forgotten which team he was managing? No, he had just gotten word that United were held to a 1-1 draw against West Ham (in the season’s second half, a Cantona-less United also were held to costly draws against Tottenham, Leeds, and Chelsea, and suffered defeats to Everton and Liverpool). Dalglish didn’t care if Redknapp and Liverpool curled in five more free kicks; his Blackburn Rovers were Premier League Champions by a single point.
And then fairytale was over. Blackburn descended from football’s elite class almost as quickly as they had arrived in it. Scruffy, inconsequential Rovers had crashed a hyper-exclusive party, knocked over the prawn sandwich tray, spilled champagne on the host’s tie, and then stormed right back out before anyone could comprehend what they had just witnessed.
Dalglish stepped down as manager to take over a nebulously defined Director of Football role (Dalglish’s assistant, Ray Harford, was then appointed manager), and the freewheeling Walker suddenly felt that an austerity-laden approach was the way forward in the transfer market. It all led to Blackburn slumping to a seventh-place finish in the 1995-96 Premier League season (Blackburn have never finished higher than 6th in a Premier League season since 1994-95 and have even spent a season in England’s third tier). Inconveniently, Rovers’ return to reality coincided with their debut in the Champions League.
It’s amazing how quickly it all began to unravel
To see how far the Premier League has come from its early days of muddied penalty areas, lumbering midfielders, and ubiquitous 4-4-2s, it might be best to look at two separate Champions League matches that each occurred at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. In 2008, the cosmopolitan squads of Manchester United and Chelsea contested a rain-drenched final that represented the culmination of several years of Premier League omnipresence in the knockout rounds of European competition. Prior to Liverpool and Tottenham’s showdown this June, it was the only time two English clubs had met in the final of the European Cup.
If Manchester United and Chelsea’s trip to Moscow provided a grand example of Premier League progress, then Graeme Le Saux, David Batty and Blackburn’s visit to the Luzhniki Stadium to play Spartak Moscow in November 1995 showed just what exactly the league had progressed from.
On a brutally frigid night (temperatures were below 20 degrees Celsius, making the rain and positively balmy 14-degree temperatures of 2008’s final sound preferable), Rovers knew they had to win against Spartak to stand any chance of turning around what had been a dreadful inaugural Champions League campaign.
A lone, solitary point and a lone, solitary goal was all Blackburn had managed from their previous four group stage matches, and Rovers weren’t exactly in a Group of Death. Russia, Norway, and Poland don’t currently produce club teams expected to challenge for Europe’s highest honours, and they didn’t do so in 1995, either. But Spartak, Rosenborg, and Legia Warsaw haplessly bullied Blackburn in a quartet of embarrassing encounters. Dismally, a nil-nil draw at Ewood Park against Warsaw where Shearer had a potential winner saved in the match’s final moments had to be considered a highlight.
Perhaps dismayed by their repeated failures against the continent’s also-rans, a pair of Blackburn players decided they’d had enough of scuffling with feisty underdog teams in Moscow, and instead decided to scuffle with each other. Minutes into their match with Spartak, Batty and Le Saux collided as they both challenged for the same ball on the left-wing. The two were always an odd pairing for the left side of Rovers’ 5-3-2 formation. Le Saux, a cultured full-or-wing-back, typically sought to push forward into attack, and Batty, a classic defensive midfielder during his prime at Leeds, was never going to get too adventurous. Thus, they were frequently occupying the same space. They were also frequently arguing about it.
After colliding, Batty glowered towards Le Saux, shouting. Le Saux, clearly uneasy at the sight of his angrily and rapidly approaching teammate, launched his left fist into Batty’s face. The impact of the punch broke Le Saux’s hand. “Hitting him was more of a pre-emptive strike than anything,” Le Saux recalled in his autobiography Left Field. “If I had not hit him, I felt he was going to hit me.”
“I knew immediately that I had broken my left hand. I am not a fighter. I hadn’t closed my fist properly.” Mild-mannered Graeme Le Saux had just socked tough-guy David Batty square in the face. Batty looked more shocked than angry. Le Saux’s actions were so out of character, he said he felt “nothing but regret” after the incident. “I talked to my wife Mariana on the phone. I told her I felt like I wanted to die.”
Fortunately, Blackburn captain Tim Sherwood was able to intervene before the altercation got any worse. Let’s not create an image of Sherwood as the evening’s saint, however. Around twenty minutes later, he and centre-back Colin Hendry (who would later be shown a red card in the 75th minute for an aggressive challenge that denied Spartak’s Andrey Tikhonov a goal scoring opportunity) had an intense stare-down after Sherwood had conceded a free kick in a dangerous area.
Blackburn were a dysfunctional mess and would go on to lose 3-0. After his team’s victory, Spartak coach Oleg Romantsev said, “Before the match I told my players they will be playing against eleven guys ready to fight for each other…not with each other.” There isn’t a better microcosm for the chaos that had engulfed the English champions than the humiliating evening that transpired in Moscow.
“It was amazing how quickly it all began to unravel for us,” Le Saux reflected. “Ray Harford had replaced Kenny Dalglish and there was an edge between the players. Groups started to form…I could feel the atmosphere changing. It was breaking down and we began to turn on each other. Suddenly, we were desperately vulnerable.” Le Saux called Blackburn’s Champions League campaign “doomed.”
They play in little triangles and keep it there
Looking back on the early to mid-1990s, it’s unlikely any English team would have entered European competition bursting with optimism. For the second half of the 1980s, English teams were banned from playing in Europe. The ban was the result of crowd trouble during the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus that led to the tragic deaths of 39 fans at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Upon their re-entry into the European Cup, English clubs struggled mightily.
During a three-year period from 1991 through 1994, Arsenal, Leeds, and Manchester United were all defeated in the tournament’s second round (this was back when the European Cup was strictly a knockout competition, and when only one team per country was allowed entry). Manchester United didn’t fare any better the following year when group play was introduced, as the Red Devils finished third in a group comprised of Barcelona, Galatasaray, and IFK Goteborg. Particularly disconcerting was a 4-0 dismantling United suffered at the Camp Nou.
Tactically, English teams lagged behind their continental counterparts. “The problem is that we don’t have a tactical game in England,” Alex Ferguson said after United’s Barcelona bashing, per Michael Cox’s The Mixer. Unlike in England, where the primary objective was to service the strikers with maximum efficiency when possession was won, Europe’s best were controlling matches by moving the ball around in midfield.
“In Europe they pass to each other in midfield,” Ferguson marvelled. “They play in little triangles and keep it there, they play one-twos against you in midfield, whereas our midfielders service the wide players, the full-backs and the front men.”
Eventually, Ferguson’s United – and other Premier League teams – wised up. It’s telling that the manager most associated with possession dominance via burying the opposition under an avalanche of passes now plies his trade at the other big team in Manchester. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are currently the team to watch to witness football’s cutting-edge tactical trends. The Premier League caught up with the rest of the continent’s big thinkers and now the continent’s big thinkers have all come to the Premier League.
When Blackburn were celebrating with the Premier League trophy at the conclusion of the 1994-95 season, Manchester City were simply thankful they hadn’t been relegated. The Citizens finished the season in 17th place, just four points clear of the relegation zone. Financial investment beyond Jack Walker’s wildest dreams from the Abu Dhabi United Group has helped transform Manchester City into the most sophisticated club European football has ever seen.
“Rule One: I am always right. Rule Two: When I am wrong, read Rule One,” was the motto that hung on Walker’s office wall. In the early 1990s, the right way to disrupt English football was to spend a bunch of steel money on a pair of really good strikers and then sit back and watch the rest of the country grumble in annoyance. To disrupt the Premier League today, an unfathomably wealthy person or persons would need a plan of far greater complexity. Elements of Blackburn’s financial flexing echo on in contemporary English super clubs, but Walker’s Rovers, like a baggy blue and white Alan Shearer kit, were a distinctly mid-90s phenomenon.