Interview: Chris Flanagan
Blackburn Rovers paid £25,000 to sign me from Dundee back in 1987. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where Blackburn was at the time. Don Mackay brought me in to be a centre-back, but sometimes I’d play centre-forward in the early days. Not long after I arrived, I scored the winner in the Full Members’ Cup final against Charlton. Not many Scottish players have scored a winner in a Wembley cup final. We were a mid-table side in the Second Division, and never in my wildest dreams did I believe we could be champions of England one day. There were so many bigger clubs than Blackburn.
Soon, though, I became aware of Jack Walker. At first, he had more of a behind-the-scenes role. He had helped the club sign Steve Archibald from Barcelona and Ossie Ardiles from Tottenham – no mean feat for Blackburn back then. We made the play-offs two seasons in a row, but didn’t go up. We were competing with top teams – Chelsea beat us in the first year, then Crystal Palace with Ian Wright.
In 1989, I moved to Manchester City for £750,000. Blackburn needed the money and City were a big club. But a couple of years later, Peter Reid signed Keith Curle and wanted to let me go. I still had unfinished business at Blackburn, and they agreed to pay City what they’d spent on me – £750,000.
By then, Walker had officially taken over the club and Kenny Dalglish was the manager. Kenny had left Liverpool after Hillsborough and was available – but bringing him in was a big statement... a masterstroke. He was my idol as well. I think he’s Scotland’s greatest-ever footballer.
Kenny was always going to attract players to the club, and Jack was spending money. He was developing the club to bring it up to the top level, and had three new stands built at Ewood Park. There were other clubs trying to do it too, like Derby and Wolves – Sir Jack Hayward was throwing money at the latter – but both failed miserably.
We would train on playing fields at Pleasington, dodging the dog s**t and putting the goals up ourselves. Occasionally, a funeral procession drove past on its way to Pleasington Crematorium, so we would stop the session and show our respects. The facilities weren’t luxurious, but they never harmed us – and Kenny loved it. He had a great partnership with Ray Harford, who was an outstanding coach.
In Kenny’s first season, we beat Leicester in the 1992 Second Division Play-Off Final to get into the new Premier League. From there, I think Jack said there was a five-year plan to play in Europe. Within three, we had won the league.
Alan Shearer arrived after promotion – but to be honest, we didn’t know a lot about him at that point. David Speedie joined Southampton as part of the deal, and many people couldn’t understand why he had to leave – he’d been the catalyst for Blackburn getting promoted. But without Alan, we wouldn’t have won the title.
On Fridays, we played five-a-side and Alan would always be on the same team as Kenny – you can imagine how hard it was to play them, particularly as Harford wouldn’t let anybody put a tackle in! He’d say, ‘If anybody f**king tackles, you’re getting sent back in!’ How can you not tackle?! But it made me a better player – it was a test every time.
We came 4th in our first Premier League season, even though Alan did his anterior cruciate ligament against Leeds, and we missed him. In the second season we were runners-up to Manchester United, and in the third season we thought, ‘Right, let’s go again’.
We had a settled side: Tim Flowers in goal, Tim Sherwood in midfield, Graeme Le Saux and Jason Wilcox on the left, and Henning Berg and Stuart Ripley on the right. It was a stereotypical 4-4-2 formation, and everybody knew their job.
NOT A FAIRYTALE Why Blackburn's unlikely Premier League title win still matters
Upfront, Chris Sutton arrived from Norwich to partner Shearer. Sutty was a great player – he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea throughout the game, but he was a good foil for Alan. The two of them played a huge part in what happened that season. The team spirit was unbelievable, too. There were players who didn’t like each other, but we didn’t have to like each other – we simply had to respect one another. Sometimes things would happen – you only need to look at the fight between Le Saux and David Batty in the game at Spartak Moscow the season after to see there was an undercurrent.
Once, I had a scrap with Mike Newell and we were both sent home from training. Ray rang me and said, ‘It’s your fault, Colin’. I said, ‘I’m not f**king taking the blame!’ But a day later, we played a game – and we won. We were professionals.
Players would have banter as well. On the bus, there was a hammer that you’d used to break the glass and escape in an emergency. One day, some of the lads came up with a game where they would tap the window with the hammer, and each person had to tap it a little harder than the last one. Well, one tap too many and the window smashed. I wasn’t involved myself, but we all got fined.
In the season we won the league, we started really well, but then we lost to Trelleborg in the first round of the UEFA Cup. I think a part-time rat catcher scored and we got slaughtered by the media. We went out 3-2 on aggregate and, looking back, it’s just as well that happened or we’d have had even more games to play.
In the league, we built up an advantage. Some people talked about Manchester United losing Eric Cantona to suspension in January after the kung-fu incident at Selhurst Park, but that was an excuse. Cantona was a great player, but I didn’t mind playing him – he was one of the easier ones to go up against, if I’m honest.
For me, our key game was against Everton in early April. I’d been to Russia with Scotland in midweek, then we had a lunchtime kick-off at Goodison Park on the Saturday. Sutty and Shearer both scored, and we were 2-0 up within six minutes. Then Everton got a goal back, and the second half was a bit like the Alamo. At one point, they won a corner and there was a massive scramble. It went out for another corner, and when that came in, Shearer wellied it – and I mean f**king wellied it –as far away as possible into the top row of the main stand. Boos rang out all the way around the ground. People were shouting, ‘F**king title contenders and you’re doing that with half an hour to go!’ But we won the league by a point. If we had drawn against Everton, we would have finished second.
Three days later, Sutty scored at QPR and we won 1-0 – that was the week that did it.
We kept quite a lot of clean sheets that season – that was down to everybody, not just me, but it was a great honour to be named in the PFA Team of the Year. Defending was my job and centre-back is a very important position – if you’re weak there, you leave yourselves open. You need to know your job, push and pull people around and be well organised. Sherwood was the captain, but I would bark orders at him because I was facing the play and you need instructions from behind. The fans called me ‘Braveheart’ and I quite liked that. The film was on about that time and I was Scotland’s captain, 6ft tall with long blond hair – although I don’t know if Mel Gibson was as good looking as me! It was decent banter.
After the win at QPR, we stuttered in the last month of the season – but we had created a points advantage over the course of the year, so could afford to do that. Alex Ferguson tried to throw several different quotes out, mentioning Devon Loch and final hurdle falls. All the mind games were going on, but Kenny could handle it – they’d had run-ins before with the rivalry between Liverpool and Man United.
On the penultimate weekend of the season, United were at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday. If they didn’t win, we would become champions if we beat Newcastle on Monday night. I was friends with Jack Walker’s son, so went over to his house, and Sky asked me if they could bring a camera to show my reaction if United failed to win. You wouldn’t get that these days – United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Man City would say, ‘F**k off, you’re not getting that, no chance!’ But it was OK then. Looking back, I’m glad United won 1-0 because it saved me from going on TV and saying something that would be taken out of context.
We beat Newcastle on the Monday – Shearer scored – then went to Liverpool on the last day. United were at West Ham, two points behind us with a better goal difference. If United got three points, we had to win at Anfield. It was a crazy day. It was win-win for Liverpool, as their idol was back in town. If Blackburn won the title, Kenny Dalglish won it at Anfield. Liverpool didn’t like United either!
The game management thing wasn’t something I’d been involved in before, and I never was again. We went 1-0 up through Shearer and thought, ‘Right, let’s get a second goal’, because 2-0 would have been controllable. But Sutty missed a chance in the second half and John Barnes equalised. You can’t even begin to assess how to go about the rest of the game – f**k knows what was happening in United’s match.
We thought we needed a winner, and probably took chances looking for a goal. Then, in stoppage time, Jamie Redknapp put Liverpool 2-1 up with a direct free-kick. I can’t tell you how much despair I was in – I thought United would be winning, and we needed two goals.
In the end, things worked out well – in fact, things worked out really well. A few seconds after Redknapp’s goal, Sutty started celebrating on the pitch, dancing around with Shearer. It was surreal – the game was still going on, and at first I was like, ‘F**king hell, we need a goal!’ But they’d heard from the bench that it was all over at Upton Park.
United had only drawn 1-1. We were champions. We were winners.
As a kid, I’d grown up in the Highlands kicking a scrunched-up Coke can around the back yard. Now, I was a Premier League winner. Where I was from, it was unheard of.
The celebrations went on for a week – every day I was in a different pub. The following Saturday, Blackburn’s commercial manager called me and asked if I could do an event for charity in Blackpool, on live TV. Me and Judith Chalmers ended up on the front of the Big One – bear in mind I’d had a week of drinking before this! Kids were sat behind us, tapping me on the shoulder saying, ‘Big Braveheart s**tting himself on the Big One!’ It was a crazy time.
Sadly, we never challenged for the Premier League title again. Kenny moved upstairs that summer to become the director of football, which was a big shock for all of us. One minute he was the manager, the next he wasn’t. The balance had been great when Kenny was the manager and Ray Harford was his assistant. Ray had made his relationships with the players as a No.2, and it was hard when he became the manager. We didn’t really sign anyone that summer. We went in for pre-season training, and I think Christophe Dugarry and Zinedine Zidane had been there the day before, but the deals didn’t happen.
Our Champions League campaign was such a disappointment. When we were drawn in the same group as Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg, I thought we’d do pretty well. But we finished bottom of the group – we had so many chances at home to Spartak and Legia, and just couldn’t score. Then the Batty and Le Saux incident happened in Moscow, and I got sent off for two yellow cards in the same game.
In 1998, I went home to Scotland with Rangers and was part of the team that won the Treble – we won the league at Parkhead. It was so sad to see Blackburn get relegated straight after I left.
In 2012, I went back to the club for a spell as a coach – Steve Kean brought me in and a lot of the fans said, ‘How can you work for him?’ But I wasn’t going back for one man, I was going back because it was Blackburn Rovers. Unfortunately, they were crazy times for the club –Venky’s brought in Shebby Singh as global advisor, and in one season the manager went from Steve, to Eric Black, to Henning Berg, to Gary Bowyer, to Michael Appleton, to Gary Bowyer again. Gary steadied the ship, and now under Tony Mowbray they appear to be on the cusp of something. Hopefully they can get back to the top flight in the future, and do what teams like Wolves or Sheffield United have done.
Can a town team win the Premier League again? You never know, but I’m proud of being involved in the last side to do it. When I go back to Blackburn, everybody tells me the same thing – ‘Until my dying day, I’ll never forget what happened’. In 1995, blokes would say, ‘Even if I don’t see next week, I’ll die a happy man because of what I’ve seen the club achieve’.
There are some similarities with Leicester in 2016 – people said they would hit a bad patch and other teams would catch up, but they never did. People thought the same about us. Jack Walker’s input was really important, but I’ve always disagreed with those who say Blackburn bought the league. Man United signed Wayne Rooney for £25 million and Rio Ferdinand for £30m – both left on free transfers. We bought Shearer for £3.3m and sold him for £15m. We signed Sutton for £5m and sold him for £10m. Le Saux arrived for £1m and left for £5m. I cost £25,000 and joined Rangers for £4m. So yes, we paid transfer fees, but it was business. We assembled a team, and progressed every season until we won the title.
When I turned up at Blackburn in 1987, I could never have imagined that we’d become champions. But we did it, and nobody can ever take that away from us.
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