A new year, and a new Football Manager, but we are lucky enough to get the same treat: The MadScientist is bringing another of his brilliant retro databases. This time we’re setting the time machine to 1998 to relive the 98-99 season. If you’re absolutely lost for team pickings, be it because it was before your time or because nostalgia is overwhelming you, a new set of guides is here to showcase some of the best and most interesting teams to play. What better place to start then than in England, with the league that’s about to knock the Italians right off their perch and become the most dominant in the world. The team we’re looking at is a former champion that’s at a crossroads between a return to glory and a spiralling downfall: Blackburn Rovers.
The fan who had millions
There’s an age at which things settle in your head and become the norm, the standard against which you measure everything else. For me, when it comes to which are “the Premier League clubs”, it happened at some point between the late 90s and the early 2000s. Blackburn Rovers are therefore, in my eyes, a top-tier side; but it wasn’t always like that.
Founded in 1875, they were one of the dominant teams in the early years of English football. They became the first club outside of London to reach the FA Cup final and were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888. The Riversiders shined, winning the FA Cup five times between 1884 and 1891, and the First Division in 1911-12 and 1913-14. Relegation in 1935-36 (the last of the founding members to face the drop together with Aston Villa) turned them into a bit of a yo-yo club, eventually establishing themselves as a Second Division side. However, something was cooking on the horizon.
Born into a working-class Blackburn family on 19 May 1929, Jack Walker was a factory worker before inheriting his father’s business. The company in question was a small scrap company, which he turned into a steel giant, taking advantage of the UK’s post-World War II reconstruction. Walkersteel was at one point the largest steel stockholder in Britain, employing 3,400 people at 50 sites. This meant in the 1980s Jack Walker was among the 30 richest men in the UK; crucially for our story, he was also a Blackburn Rovers fan.
Walker had already put his money where his heart was when he contributed in 1988 construction supplies for a total worth of about £12 million so the Riverside Stand at Ewood Park, set to increase seating to 30,000, could be built. However, when (perhaps sensing the hit the steel industry would take in the 1990s), he sold Walkersteel for a record £360 million, Jack Walker went and took full control of the club in January 1991 and promotion hopefuls Blackburn Rovers became favourites when Don Mackay was sacked to bring Kenny Dalglish as manager.
With signings like Colin Hendry, Mike Newell, and Tim Sherwood, they shot up the table and by New Year’s Day they were top of the Second Division. However, they’d have to take the long way around as a run of lost six games in March and April caused them to fall out of the play-off places, eventually sealing their ticket to the brand new Premier League by beating Leicester City in the Second Division Play-off final at Wembley.
Jack Walker, however, was far from done. Blackburn spent a league-leading £11,4 million in 1992-93 and then £10 million in 1993-94 to sign the likes of Henning Berg, Graeme Le Saux, Stuart Ripley, David Batty, and Tim Flowers among others. Still, the most important piece was striker Alan Shearer, who was signed from Southampton for a British record fee of £3.4 million. An injury to Shearer’s right anterior cruciate ligament stopped the Riversiders’ momentum, but they managed a 4th place finish in the inaugural Premier League season. For 1993-94 Shearer would improve his tally to score an incredible 31 goals, enough to win him the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award and take Dalglish’s team to 2nd place in the Premier League.
However, it seems like it still wasn’t enough. For 1994-95 Jack Walker seems to have thought “If one British record fee striker is good, how about two?” and proceeded to spend £5 million on Norwich’s Chris Sutton. The 21-year-old had been in incredible form, scoring 25 goals the previous season, but there were doubts about how he would combine with Shearer. However, Dalglish set up a system good enough to keep them both scoring and the SAS was born.
Blackburn’s system was simple yet effective. They set up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation to ensure compactness. The defensive line of Berg, Hendry, Pearce and Le Saux provided solidity and allowed for strong play through the flanks via wingers Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox. Mark Atkins served as the anchor in the centre while Tim Sherwood was more of a conductor and provided a touch of class in distribution. Shearer and Sutton lead the line.
As Michael Cox explains in his book “The Mixer”, “There were three major approaches. Ideally, Blackburn found a winger in a position to dribble forward, their most obvious route to goal. If not, the wingers were instructed to come short, bringing the opposition full-back up the pitch and allowing Shearer or Sutton to drift wide into space. […] Finally, Dalglish and Harford recognised that full-backs were the players with the most time on the ball when 4–4–2 played 4–4–2, invariably the battle of formations during this period. Right-back Henning Berg was more of a converted centre-back, so there was a huge emphasis on left-back Le Saux to push forward […]”. Shearer and Sutton scored 49 of Blackburn’s 80 goals of the campaign, with Shearer being the Premier League’s top scorer with 34 goals as Blackburn Rovers went one better than the previous season and won the Premier League.
The title did not come without critics. Complaints quickly emerged that Blackburn had only become challengers through Walker’s wealth and that they were inflating the EPL market by paying exorbitant fees. It might have been a bit of truth to it, but it was also very unfair criticism. “Walker is a fan, not a glory seeker or a political animal. He doesn’t participate in football politics, he just wants to see Blackburn win. Unlike most fans, he is in a position to do that. Which of us, in the same position, would not be equally tempted?”, analysed The Independent after the Riversiders were crowned. Still, it was the beginning of the end.
There’s one line that has come to represent everything that went through in the post-title era of Blackburn Rovers under Jack Walker. After the title, and with a spot in the following year’s UEFA Champions League, Dalglish approached the owner to go over the signings needed to take on a season where they’d be playing in two key competitions. The former Liverpool man wanted none other than Christophe Dugarry and Zinedine Zidane, both at the time at Girondins Bordeaux. “Why would I want Zidane if we have Sherwood?”, is said to have been the reply. Indeed, from that point, onwards investment would be minimal.
Soon enough, Dalglish announced he was stepping down as a manager, going upstairs to become Director of Football. His successor, Ray Harford, had been assistant manager under the Scotsman and was one of the architects of the style that had won Blackburn Rovers the league, but he lacked the man-management skills of Dalglish; it showed when Batty and Le Saux came to blows during a crucial Champions League.
As Rob Doolan puts it in his article for These Football Times, “There was a feeling around the club that once was enough, with little hunger to lay the foundations for sustained success. Chairman Robert Coar told the players, to their astonishment, they’d won the league ‘a year too early’. Heads turned by such lack of ambition and certain senior players began to act up”.
The Riversiders European campaign proved a disaster, finishing last in the group they shared with Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw, and Rosenborg. Out-stretched, they would also fail to defend the title, finishing in a respectable seventh place but far from challenging Manchester United and Newcastle for the championship. But the biggest blow was still to come.
“In Jack Walker’s office hung two portraits: one of Winston Churchill and one of Alan Shearer. Blackburn’s owner was under no illusions about the extent to which his team relied on the number 9”, writes Rob Doolan, and so it was. Shearer’s form in Euro 96 meant his departure was a matter of when rather than if. The date was 30 July 1996, when the striker rejected offers from Manchester United and even Real Madrid to sign with his boyhood club Newcastle United, once again for a British record fee of £15 million.
The other member of the SAS would stick along for a while longer. Finally a lead actor in his own play, Chris Sutton initially struggled, finishing with just 11 goals in 25 Premier League games in 1996-97, but his class eventually shone through. He won the Golden Boot in 1997–98 and received his first and only England call-up, but it wouldn’t last. Recurring injuries threw him off course for the 1998–99 season, with just 20 appearances and four goals. He would leave at the end of that season, in a move to Chelsea that would prove catastrophic.
The 1998-99 season would also see Blackburn Rovers relegated from the Premier League. After Harford’s sacking midway through 1996–97, there was hope under new manager for 1997-98 Roy Hodgson, with the team finishing in a very respectable 6th position, and earning a spot for the UEFA Cup. However, they were quickly embroiled in a relegation battle that cost Hodgson his job, and would never recover. In the 100th season of top-flight football in England, one of its founding clubs would see relegation once again. It would be the last season of Premier League football that Jack Walker would see, as Blackburn were unable to return on the first time of asking. On August 17, 2000, the man who had willed the Riversiders to a first league title in 81 years, passed away.
Blackburn Rovers would honour Walker with automatic promotion in 2000-01, but their return to the Premier League was far from what it had been the first time. Blackburn won only four of their first 14 league games and got 2 wins and 10 losses between December 2001 and February 2002. However, manager Graeme Souness inspired his side to six wins in their final 12 games, which proved enough for 10th place. Far from the title-challenging of the previous era, instead, Blackburn managed to establish themselves as a mid-table side.
That would end on May 7, 2012, when relegation to the Second Division was confirmed. In turn, that would prove the start of a slippery slope for Blackburn Rovers, under the often controversial ownership of Indian company VH Group, who took over in 2010 for £23 million. It would become even worse in 2017 when they became the first Premier League winner to be relegated to the third tier of English. Despite immediate promotion to the Championship, it remains in a hole that Blackburn Rovers haven’t been able to dig themselves out of to this day.
Blackburn Rovers in the 1998/99 MadScientist Database
As you can see, we find Blackburn Rovers at the crossroads. Not yet so far removed from the title glory so that it becomes a distant memory, they’re also not the up-and-coming side that we would’ve found some seasons ago. We know what lies ahead if things continue to go the way they’re going, but it will take a brave and smart manager to change course.
Still, the hope is there. The 6th place finish in 1997-98 means the Riversiders will play in the UEFA Cup, and some people have them as outside title challengers. So let’s see what you’ll find in Ewood Park in 1998.
Economy and Facilities
Facilities-wise, Blackburn Rovers are in a great place. Long gone are the days of players driving to the Ewood Park dressing room to get ready for practice; superb facilities and even the kids have a place of their own. The only thing lacking is perhaps a better youth recruitment policy, so as to not lose ground in the fertile but deeply competitive Lancashire area.
At close to 30,000 capacity, Ewood Park is not among the Premier League’s biggest venues and could do with an expansion. With €53M in the bank, the club is on sound financial ground and looking good for the future… How about some investment Mr Walker?
When it comes to the goals for the future, we can definitely see that scaled-back vision. Despite having one of the best sponsorship incomes in the league, we’re only asked to finish top-half and reach the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup.
Shearer might be gone, but 50% of the SAS partnership remains (for now) in Blackburn. At 1,92m and strong as an ox, Sutton is a dream of a Target Forward, and still very much capable of carrying your attack.
With still three years of contract and a big part of your squad, he’s the kind of player you’ll want to build around.
Brian Kidd had to wait until January 1999 to enjoy McAteer’s services, but you’ll get the Irish midfielder from the get-go. Tireless, smart and technically proficient, he can play almost any role in midfield and even play emergency right-back.
Being your most adaptable midfielder, how and where you want him to play will largely depend on who and how you pair him with.
Stuart Ripley left Blackburn at the end of 1997-98, and while his replacement Keith Gillespie isn’t nearly as complete a footballer, there’s something he can do quite well: beat his man and put a cross.
Devilishly fast and an excellent crosser, Gillespie-to-Sutton should be your favourite phrase for the coming years.
While not exactly bathed in money, Blackburn Rovers have some money to make a few initial moves at the beginning of the save, so here are a few options.
The one thing that surprised me the most about the Blackburn Rovers squad was… how British it was. In a post-Cantona Premier League, when English football had already learned the value of a maverick from overseas, there were just 3 non-UK players, all in defensive positions. Enter one Fabián Alberto O’Neill Domínguez.
Dalglish might’ve missed out on Zidane, but since Tim Sherwood is no longer in the squad, perhaps we can afford his all-time favourite teammate. “The Magician” will bring flair and creativity to a position where Blackburn are deeply lacking. You can sign him from Cagliari for around €1,7M and on €1,35M p/a wages.
Cover at the left back is rather limited. Gary Croft is a solid if unspectacular option and Callum Davidson is young and unpolished. For attacking fullbacks, go to the Brazilians, and Sylvinho is at Corinthians.
Fast, determined and a masterful crosser, he’ll add danger on the left while also providing plenty of defensive capabilities. You can get him dirt cheap for €525k and around €825k p/a wages.
Your defence is in a curious place. Stephane Henchoz is excellent defensively but lacks the ability to bring the ball out of the defence, while Christian Dailly looks more like a Defensive Midfielder.
Sami Hyypia fixes both problems. A rock in the air, he’s a solid tackler while also being comfortable with the ball at his feet, being ambidextrous for an added bonus. You can sign him from Willem II for just €1,3M and €1,7M p/a in wages.
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