It is one of the most remarkable title triumphs of the Premier League era.
On 14 May 1995, four years after finishing 19th in the old Second Division, Blackburn Rovers were crowned champions after pipping Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United by one point.
In a thrilling race, Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn surged eight points clear only to lose three of their last five games – before celebrating after a dramatic final day.
Those who recall that season particularly remember Rovers owner Jack Walker, the Blackburn-born steel magnate who stood on the terraces of Ewood Park before bankrolling his beloved club, as well as the explosive 49-goal partnership between Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton – dubbed the SAS by the media.
On the 25th anniversary of Blackburn’s greatest day, this is the story of their Premier League triumph, told by those who lived it.
How a broken leg sparked the SAS
It’s the summer of 1994 and after finishing runners-up the previous season, eight points behind champions Manchester United, Blackburn’s hierarchy is preparing for a third season in the Premier League.
Having already spent around £20m since 1991 – including a domestic transfer record £3.6m for Alan Shearer – Rovers pay Norwich City £5m for 21-year-old striker Chris Sutton, scorer of 25 league goals the previous season, after losing Scotland forward Kevin Gallacher through injury five months earlier.
Robert Coar, Blackburn’s chairman at the time: “Every club wanted Chris. We’d been trying to contact Robert Chase, the Norwich chairman, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I was at a Test match at Old Trafford on 1 July and I kept nipping out of my seat to call him. He eventually rang back and said ‘fine, I’ll come up and see you’. A couple of nights later he flew to Blackpool Airport and we sorted out the deal over a meal. We announced the signing a few days later and the SAS was formed.”
Midfielder Mark Atkins, who scored six goals in 34 league appearances: “It was a signing of real intent. We needed it because Kevin, who was our second top scorer the previous season behind Shearer, was injured. We needed somebody to push us on.”
Gallacher: “I always say tongue-in-cheek that if I hadn’t broken my leg then Blackburn wouldn’t have bought Chris and there wouldn’t have been the SAS. Jack and Kenny always told the new signings that the dream was to win the league.”
|1994-95 signings: Blackburn v Man Utd|
|Chris Sutton (Norwich)||£5m||David May (Blackburn)||£1.4m|
|Robbie Slater (Lens)||£300,000||Graeme Tomlinson (Bradford City)||£100,000|
|Tony Gale (West Ham)||Free||Andy Cole (Newcastle)||£6m|
|Jeff Kenna (Southampton)||£1.5m|
|Richard Witschge (Bordeaux)||Loan|
The court jester and a smashed coach window
As well as missing Gallacher, Blackburn also start the season without influential midfielder David Batty, who is recovering from a broken foot.
Sutton scores a 21-minute hat-trick in his third league game, a 4-0 home win over Coventry, while Rovers finish September second in the table, two points behind early pacesetters Newcastle United, where Andy Cole continues to impress in front of goal.
Dalglish’s backroom team includes former England Under-21 boss Ray Harford, as well as club stalwart Tony Parkes.
Coar: “Kenny was a magnet for the players because of his previous success. Shearer came to Blackburn because he wanted to play for him, Sutton wanted to play for him. Ray, as well as being a very good coach, was a bit of a court jester. He used to walk down the training ground corridor singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
Atkins: “We had a lot of fun under Kenny and Ray. Kenny was good at being one of the lads during the week. We went to West Ham on the team coach and some of the players were bored. Someone suggested getting the hammer you use for the fire exit at the back of the coach. You had to tap the window and pass it on to the next player who had to tap it harder. We were heading down the M6 when all of a sudden the window smashed. Kenny came down to the back of the coach to investigate but nothing was ever said. We travelled to London with a plastic sheet covering the smashed window. Mike Newell had to sit by it with about four coats on because it was freezing.”
Winger Jason Wilcox, who scored five times in 27 league games: “It was a healthy dressing room full of leaders under Kenny and Ray. I was 23 years old at the time and I got called out lots of times if I wasn’t getting in the right areas. I didn’t take it personally.”
‘I was forgotten about’
It’s January 1995 and excitement is building in the former mill town. Blackburn have opened up a five-point lead at the top after winning 11 out of 12 games. Manchester United react by spending a British record £6m on Newcastle striker Andrew Cole. Over at Ewood, Gallacher is nearing a return after almost a year out.
Atkins: “Signing Cole was going to make United a better team because he was scoring at a phenomenal rate.”
Coar: “Being Blackburn born and bred and a fan since the age of four, the excitement was growing as the season went on. I ran a construction business in the area, the town was buzzing because of what was happening at the club. It was the best lift Blackburn had had for a long time.”
Gallacher: “I was forgotten about after my injury the previous season. The incentive I set myself in 1994-95 was to get back to fitness and split up Shearer and Sutton. I wanted to be the one who played up front. I didn’t care whether it was with Alan or Chris.”
Helped by a kung-fu kick
On 20 April, Blackburn beat Crystal Palace 2-1 to go eight points clear of nearest rivals Manchester United, who have been without influential Eric Cantona since 25 January after being banned for a kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan.
Gallacher marks his long-awaited return by scoring the winner but does not finish the game after breaking his leg for a second time in 14 months.
Batty has also returned to the midfield after injury but Wilcox is out for the rest of the season after a career-threatening cruciate ligament injury, while Dalglish has strengthened his squad by signing Republic of Ireland left-back Jeff Kenna from Southampton for £1.5m.
Gallacher: “Kenny wanted me to play on the left wing against Palace. It was like scoring for the first time. Shearer cut the ball back for me to side-foot into the net. A few minutes later John Humphrey came in with a challenge which opened up the break. At the time, I didn’t know I had broken my leg again.”
Wilcox: “Players were retiring with the sort of injury I suffered. It happened in a home game with Arsenal in March and it was devastating. I was frustrated I couldn’t help the team for the last few games of the season. I had a young family and I was worried about my career.”
Kenna: “Southampton offered me a new contract to stay but as soon as they said I had permission to speak to Rovers, as much as I loved Southampton, I was half way to Blackburn. They were the only club challenging Manchester United. Jack Walker was the original Roman Abramovich and Kenny was the manager. It wasn’t a difficult sell.”
Atkins: “Cantona was a massive loss for United. It would have been difficult for us to get past them had he been involved all season. That was a big moment but United still kept going. They thrashed Ipswich 9-0 in March, which wiped out our superior goal difference.”
Coar: “When you have an eight-point advantage at that stage of the season then things are looking good.”
‘I thought we’d blown it’
It’s the final week of the season and Manchester United move two points behind Blackburn with two games remaining after a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday on 7 May. The following night Rovers keeper Tim Flowers is outstanding as Blackburn edge past Newcastle 1-0, before United overcome Southampton 2-1 in a must-win game on 10 May to take the title race to the final day.
Blackburn are two points clear with one match to go. While Dalglish takes Rovers back to his old club Liverpool, who sit fifth in the table, United are at mid-table West Ham on 14 May.
Coar: “United were catching up, it was getting really tight. United and Blackburn never kicked off at the same time towards the end of the season. I couldn’t watch United’s games on television so I’d take the dog for a walk.”
Kenna: “I was sat with the Southampton fans at Manchester United. We’d beaten Newcastle a couple of nights earlier to go five clear and it was a must-win game for United. I was hoping my old club could stop them from winning so that we would be champions. It wasn’t to be and it was on to Liverpool. As the Blackburn team coach approached Anfield, Liverpool fans were clapping us. They didn’t want United to win the title.”
Atkins: “There was myself, Kevin Gallacher, Tony Gale and Jason Wilcox standing in the away dressing room about 90 minutes before kick-off. None of us were playing that day. Kenny came over and said ‘it’s going to be hell for you if you just stand around, go to the bar’. We went into a sponsors’ lounge and we could hear some singing which wasn’t very good. It was Liverpool defender Neil Ruddock, who wasn’t playing, entertaining the sponsors. He came and joined us and we probably had one too many drinks because when the game started we were all sat on the bench and wanted the toilet. You couldn’t walk past Kenny during a game. It was a no-no. We had to wait until half-time.”
Kenna: “We started well and Shearer scored in front of where our fans were sat. We could have been 3-0 up before John Barnes equalised with 25 minutes left. The whole tone of the game changed and then Liverpool got a free-kick in the 90th minute. I was on the end of the wall when Jamie Redknapp hit it. It whistled past my ear into the net. I thought ‘oh God, we’ve blown it’.”
Gallacher: “United’s match finished about 90 seconds before our game ended. When we found out they had only drawn 1-1, our bench erupted. Our game was still going on and we were losing 2-1 but our players were celebrating on the pitch. We were champions.”
‘My mum and dad were on MOTD’
Walker’s dream comes true. Despite defeat at Liverpool, Blackburn are champions of England after finishing ahead of Manchester United.
Coar: “After the full-time whistle, Shearer and Tim Sherwood beckoned Jack to come down from the directors’ box onto the pitch. He was helped down by Liverpool fans. David Moores, the Liverpool chairman, had champagne waiting in the boardroom. He said to me ‘I’d have been really upset, Robert, if I hadn’t been able to open this champagne’.”
Wilcox: “I felt I didn’t want a medal because I was full of emotion and Kenny got a grip of me and said ‘don’t be so stupid’. It was quite a childish reaction, a mixture of being so proud but also being upset because I wasn’t able to contribute at the end.”
Kenna: “My mum, Kathleen, and dad, Liam, were sat with the Blackburn fans. During the Match of the Day highlights, when we found out we had won the title, the camera zooms in on the Blackburn crowd and you can see my parents. There was an endless supply of beers waiting for us in the dressing room after the game. I left Anfield feeling tipsy. We ended up spending the night at a restaurant in Preston. It was phenomenal for a small town club to win the Premier League.”