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Thursday, May 10, 2012
The team that Jack built

Alex Livie

Blackburn are facing a bleak future with relegation confirmed, but back in 1995 they were involved in one of the great days of sporting drama on the final day of the Premiership season - which could be repeated this year as Manchester City and Manchester United are separated by goal difference with one game to play. Rovers are now owned by a company that specialises in chickens, but in the 1990s - before oligarchs and Middle Eastern oil money - Blackburn owner Jack Walker was football's big-stakes player. Walker made his money in steel and, as a lifelong Rovers fan, wanted to do something special at his club. He took control in 1991 - with Blackburn in the second tier of English football - and pumped money in to turn them into title challengers. Kenny Dalglish was handed the reins and a major spending spree saw the likes of Tim Flowers, Tim Sherwood, Colin Hendry, David Batty and, most significantly, Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer brought to the club. Shearer was signed for a then English record fee of 3.5 million and he and Sutton formed what became known as the SAS strikeforce. Having finished runners up the previous season, Dalglish added Sutton to his ranks in what he felt was the final piece of the jigsaw. It turned into a two-horse title race between Dalglish's Rovers and Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. United were the slicker of the two, easier on the eye, but Rovers had the SAS. Between them Shearer, with 34, and Sutton, with 16, plundered 50 goals and they ensured Rovers were ahead going into the final game of the season. Rovers held a two-point advantage but had the harder game on paper as they travelled to Liverpool while United were on the road at West Ham. There were mixed emotions for Liverpool fans, given their ties with Dalglish as a player and manager and their rivalry with Manchester United. Indeed, there were some Reds fans calling for their side to lose to ensure United did not get their hands on the crown, but there was never any likelihood of them rolling over. With Blackburn having seen what was an eight-point advantage whittled away, nerves were jangling as they took to the field. Shearer - it could be no-one else given such a stunning season in front of goal - settled the nerves by exchanging passes with Stuart Ripley and firing home. In the days before mobile phones, let alone smartphones, it was the radio that was king and fans were huddled together awaiting updates from Upton Park. Rovers fans, and large swathes of Liverpool supporters, were dancing for joy when news filtered through that West Ham had gone ahead through Michael Hughes' stunning volley. With the title within reach, Rovers players - many running on fumes at the end of a draining season - started to wilt and John Barnes stroked home Mark Kennedy's cross. If that wasn't bad enough, Rovers fans had their heads in their hands moments later when word spread that Brian McClair had drawn Manchester United level. Liverpool, with Barnes, Nigel Clough and Jamie Redknapp in superb form, were far superior to Blackburn on the day and they were rewarded as Redknapp curled home a superb free-kick to secure a 2-1 win. With the destiny of the title out of their hands, Rovers' focus shifted to Upton Park. It was an Upton Park where Manchester United threw not only the kitchen sink at West Ham but the pots, pans, cups and saucers as well. While Blackburn had Shearer, Manchester United had Andy Cole. For all Cole's qualities - he bagged 21 goals in the season, though nine had been for Newcastle before his January move - a Shearer he was not. And while Steve Bruce complained bitterly to referee Alan Wilkie that United should have had a penalty when Tim Breaker handled in the box, it was the profligacy of Cole that ultimately cost them. On two occasions in the second half he saw the whites of Ludek Miklosko's eyes only to snatch awfully at the chances, dragging one shot wide and hitting the 'keeper with the other. The siege of Upton Park did not reap dividends for United and, as the whistle was blown, the news was relayed to Anfield where Blackburn and Liverpool celebrated as one. What happened next? United bounced back from the setback and won the title the following year, and are now up to a record 19 league titles. For Rovers, they failed to repeat the feat and the Dalglish team was steadily broken up. They were relegated in 1999.


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