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When Blackburn conquered the Premier League

Since the inception of the Premier League, the landscape of English football has undergone a profound transformation. The league ascended in power, elite teams amassed wealth, the quality of play and stadium experiences improved. However, ascending to the pinnacle became an arduous task, reserved for only an exclusive club of teams. It’s no coincidence that until just a few years ago (prior to Liverpool’s resurgence and Leicester’s remarkable feat), a mere five teams had clinched all the championships. Preceding Leicester’s extraordinary achievement, the most significant “shock” was Blackburn Rovers’ triumph in 1995.

Situated in the northwest of England, Blackburn stands in an area with several cities boasting populations hovering around 100,000. It may not be a typical tourist hotspot; rather, it is a quintessential industrial town in England that, like many others, grappled with a severe economic downturn during the 20th century as job opportunities dwindled. And, as is often the case in England, the city proudly harbors its local football team, Blackburn Rovers, with a storied history dating back to 1875, standing as one of the founding members of the inaugural championship and ranking among the oldest football clubs in England.

Blackburn more or less followed the path of the town. They clinched championships in 1912 and 1914 and consistently held their ground in England’s top football tier. By 1928, they had lifted the English Cup six times. This isn’t a trivial achievement by any means. However, after the wars, the team began losing its strength. The 1950s were spent in the Second Division, and while they managed to stabilize in the 60s, from 1967 onward, they found themselves distanced from the top tier, even slipping into the Third Division. This decline persisted for about 25 years and likely would have continued if not for a man named Jack Walker.

Walker was a true Blackburnian, leaving school at 13 to work as a metalworker, eventually taking over his father’s business, which initially dealt with metal scraps. Walker gradually expanded it into a major steel industry, boasting thousands of employees and a colossal business turnover. However, where Walker truly stood out was in his ability to foresee the bleak future of the industry. He sold his businesses for a record sum, approximately 360 million pounds, and gracefully bowed out.

Beyond being an industrialist, Walker was a football enthusiast. From a young age, he could often be found in the stands at Ewood Park, passionately supporting Blackburn. His love for the team was so profound that in 1988, he donated materials for a new stand. Legend has it that he financially supported certain transfers, including that of Ardiles. During this period, Blackburn had a relatively competitive team, reaching the playoffs but falling short of promotion. The idea lingered in Walker’s mind and eventually became a reality.

In January 1991, the 21st richest person in England made a move that many dream of, but few can execute: having enough funds to buy their beloved football club. Walker not only had enough to purchase Blackburn, but also to elevate it. He declared his intention to transform Blackburn into one of England’s top clubs, to bring it to where it deserved to be, making Manchester United look “cheap.”

When Walker took over, the Rovers were having an abysmal season, eventually finishing in the 19th position of the 2nd division, not far from relegation. In Walker’s first “complete” season as the owner, a significant move was made. Kenny Dalglish was convinced to take over the team and return to football after the unfortunate events that largely kept him away from Liverpool. Blackburn had an excellent run, reaching the top of the table, but a slump towards the end landed them in the 6th position and the promotion playoffs. They reached the Wembley final in May 1992, defeating Leicester 1-0 and securing promotion to the “fresh” Premier League. It was the first time Blackburn would play in the top tier since the distant 1966. The city experienced moments of unique madness, and the club’s future seemed bright.

Walker was the man spending money on his beloved team, but as a savvy entrepreneur, he wasn’t afraid to make expensive sales. In his years, Blackburn broke the record for the most expensive transfer in England twice. In 1992, they acquired the 22-year-old talented Alan Shearer from Southampton, and in 1994, Chris Sutton from Norwich. The amounts of £3 million and £5 million might seem modest now, but back then, they were enormous. Simultaneously, renovations at Ewood Park continued, with capacity increasing, and Walker became the club’s reformer.

Blackburn’s first season in the Premier League was very good. They finished 4th with a record of 20-11-11 and the best offense in the league, even surpassing the champions United. Naturally, Shearer played a significant role, scoring 16 times in just 21 games, as he missed half the season with a serious knee injury. With Shearer present, things would have gone even better. Blackburn made some excellent transfers without always going overboard with massive amounts. They spent when needed, and that’s how players like Graeme Le Saux, Henning Berg, Kevin Gallacher, and Stuart Ripley joined the Rovers.

The second season was even better. United stood out again, Blackburn capitalized on a major dip in Ferguson’s team but couldn’t make it in the end. They finished 2nd, eight points behind United, with Shearer scoring 31 times, and Blackburn secured their first-ever European qualification. How much better could things get? Answer: much. In the summer of 1994, Walker brought in Chris Sutton, as mentioned earlier, with a new record, and Blackburn had the most expensive striking duo on the island. The whole town dreamed of what, until a few years ago, sounded like a joke: the championship.

The truth is that Dalglish’s team did not start well. They lost the Charity Shield to Manchester United, which had achieved the double (Blackburn played as the 2nd). A month later, they were out of the UEFA. Their first European attempt turned into a fiasco, as they were eliminated in the 1st round by the obscure Tromsø. In the League Cup, things were somewhat better, but after two qualifications, it was Dalglish’s great love, Liverpool, that sent Blackburn out of the competition with a 1-3 victory at Ewood Park. Disappointment certainly existed, but the goal of the championship was by no means lost. Blackburn was leading for a large part of the season and after the last elimination in January, losing to Newcastle in the FA Cup, Walker’s team dedicated itself to the championship.

There, they started exceptionally well and had a great unbeaten run during the season, naturally exploiting their super attack. Shearer finished the championship with 34 goals, and Sutton scored another 15 times. United, of course, never gave up. They defeated Blackburn and closely followed a team that, despite its quality, was inexperienced in winning championships. And indeed, Ferguson almost made it. On the last matchday, Blackburn traveled to Anfield with a two-point lead over United. Dalglish’s favorite, however, would hurt him again. Shearer put Blackburn in the lead in the first half. The championship was heading to Blackburn, as in London, West Ham won 1-0 against United. However, the finale was dramatic.

Manchester United pressured, created chances, and eventually equalized 1-1 against West Ham. And when John Barnes brought the match to 1-1 at Anfield, the camera caught Ferguson smiling. United sought the crucial second goal. Liverpool, despite potentially gifting the title to their rival, couldn’t do anything but win, prioritizing their own history. In the 93rd minute, Jamie Redknapp, almost out of nowhere, scored an incredible free-kick, sealing a 2-1 victory. Blackburn’s fans couldn’t believe it, and Dalglish looked dismayed. Meanwhile, in London, United missed late opportunities to make it 1-2. Within moments, the shock of Liverpool’s goal turned into relief.

81 years later, Blackburn clinched another championship. Their achievement was different from Leicester’s, a few years later. The Rovers had signaled their potential in previous seasons. Although they emerged from relative obscurity, they heavily relied on Walker and his finances. Truth be told, Blackburn wasn’t very likable in those years. Walker invested significant sums, inflated salaries, and turned football into something disliked by the English fans. However, it was a far cry from what would happen with Russians, Arabs, Americans, and those who would buy English teams in the years to come. Walker did things differently from English culture but always ensured the team’s financial stability without constant infusions of money. Crucially, it wasn’t a “bought” team. Dalglish didn’t have galacticos. He had good and expensive players but put in a lot of work to secure the championship. In 1995, with Walker, Dalglish, Sherwood, and others, they etched themselves into English football history.

Blackburn couldn’t replicate their success. Their European journey the next season was a failure, finishing last in their Champions League group behind Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw, and Rosenborg. Dalglish, perhaps losing enthusiasm, stepped down, seeking a more administrative role. The team couldn’t challenge for the title again. Yet, they remained a stable force in the league, thanks to prudent management. It was evident that Walker’s presence made the difference, and his health problems played a role in what happened afterward. Blackburn were relegated in 1999, but didn’t face destruction. It took them two years to return to the Premier League, but Walker wasn’t there to witness it. He passed away in 2000 after a battle with cancer, and the entire club dedicated the 2001 promotion to their reformer. Typically, a team relying solely on one person collapses, but Walker, the fan/owner, had planned for his team. He left it financially healthy, with enough money to navigate through the future. Indeed, that’s what happened. The team had a decade of stability, thanks to Walker’s trust, consistently in the Premier League. However, all good things come to an end.

In 2010, the Rovers changed hands, passing to a giant Indian poultry company. Theoretically, this seemed good, the new owners were wealthy. Practically, those who took over Blackburn ruined it. The club was soon relegated, reaching even League 1, and today, they play in the Championship. This is how many fans abandoned their team, as what was a family club became a possession of clueless owners who destroyed the team financially. Fans protest the club’s woes, wanting Blackburn under new ownership, but the days of ’95 are a memory.

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