Great Football League Teams 29: Blackburn Rovers 2000-1
After a two month hiatus, our Great Teams series is up and running again with this account of Blackburn Rovers’ return to the top echelon in 2001, a third Lancastrian study in a row after Fiona Martin and myself considered matters Blackpool and Bolton in turn. You can follow Phil on twitter here – and look out for further entries in the series throughout February.
The 2000-1 season was only five days old when the death was announced of Blackburn’s “Number One fan” and long-term benefactor, Jack Walker. Despite, or perhaps to some extent because of that fact, it was a campaign that ended in mixed emotions of joy and relief for Rovers fans. Joy; because the team assembled by Graeme Souness finished second (albeit ten points behind champions Fulham), and relief; because those close to the club knew that this was the second and final chance to achieve promotion and retain a Premier League set-up at Ewood. Relegation in 1999 under Brian Kidd was an expensive aberration for the Lancashire outfit, renowned in these heady, money-fuelled days for ‘punching above its weight’, as its well-respected Chairman John Williams was fond of saying.
In its first season down in the Football League, the club had dispensed with Kidd’s services as manager, transferred out several of the players at whose door a large portion of the blame for relegation had been laid – among them Darren Peacock, Ashley Ward and Per Frandsen – and in March 2000 turned to Souness, after Tony Parkes had yet again served in a ‘caretaker’ capacity.
Walker, though his health was failing, had made it known that he would underwrite two seasons at Championship level before the club would have to ‘cut its coat’ according to its lower status. The pressure was on for Souness and his players after a disappointing eleventh place finish in 2000.
Reflecting over ten years later on the first full season under the Scotsman (a decade that has seen Blackburn achieve their longest-ever unbroken run in the top division; even if that run seems highly likely to end in 2012), I would pick out four matches that seem to stand out above all others from season 2000-01.
In August, the first home game after the death of Jack Walker was against Norwich City; an understandably emotional affair with a tribute to the self-made steel millionaire aired on the giant screen before the game and floral tributes laid by both teams. David Dunn (penalty), Nathan Blake and Matt Jansen scored the goals in a 3-2 Rovers victory that was deemed a tribute to the legacy left behind by ‘Uncle Jack’ – a title win, a rebuilt stadium and a training centre and youth academy at Brockhall that was for years the envy of others and the foundation stone of the club’s success and reputation.
Souness wheeled and dealt widely during the course of the season and it would be fair to say that not all his acquisitions paid dividends: he acquired Henning Berg and Brad Friedel, but also Marc Keller and Kaba Diawara. Nevertheless, he built a side that grew in spirit and confidence after a faltering start and became a real force as the season progressed. After defeat at Fulham in mid-October, they were to lose only three of the remaining 36 League games.
As ever, it was a solid and effective spine to the team that was key. When Friedel was signed from Liverpool, most fans felt it was unnecessary: it was known that the American had not had the best of times at Anfield, and Rovers already had two capable keepers in John Filan and Alan Kelly. Berg, who had been part of Rovers’ Premiership winning team as a right-back in 1994-5, was brought back from Manchester United to partner Craig Short in the centre of defence; n midfield, Garry Flitcroft’s combative nature was complemented by the home-grown skills of Dunn, while in attack Jansen provided rapier sharpness to balance the physical presence of Blake or Marcus Bent.
Two more names with United connections deserve special mention: John Curtis at full-back was the team’s only ever-present that season, despite a calamitous own goal in the home defeat to Gillingham; and Mark Hughes, whom Souness bought in October to provide the know-how and sheer will-to-win helped ensure that the goal of promotion was achieved. In doing so Souness unwittingly brought to the club the man who would be his successor in the manager’s office.
The other three games that defined this season for the Rovers all came after the turn of the year. In late February 2001, a Friday evening away fixture at promotion rivals and near neighbours Bolton Wanderers was one of those games to live long in the memory of the travelling Blackburn supporters. The team stole a march on their rivals that ultimately proved the difference (Rovers ending the season four points ahead of third-placed Wanderers), with a comprehensive 4-1 victory, courtesy of goals from Bent, Dunn, Jansen and a last-minute shot curled into the top corner by Craig Hignett that sent the away end wild.
Beating Burnley on April Fool’s Day was a different matter entirely. Burnley and Bolton are more or less equidistant from Ewood Park, but Blackburn’s bitter rivalry is with the Clarets, not the Trotters. The Turf Moor squad were having a decent season (ending in 7th place) but were not serious promotion contenders. Their last League visit to Ewood, 18 years previously, had resulted in much mayhem on the terraces, but the Rovers fans were keen to extend their record of not having lost to Burnley in any senior fixture since the grim days of 1979.
When Craig Short opened the scoring and then had another effort deflected in by Burnley’s Steve Davis, the result was a foregone conclusion, but two further goals from Jansen and one from Hignett left Rovers fans in ecstasy at a 5-0 victory and gave the club the excuse to commission a special video of the occasion.
Losing at home to Fulham just ten days after that Burnley game meant the Londoners had effectively sewn up one of the promotion places and it transpired that Blackburn’s penultimate League game was away to yet another local rival, Preston North End, who were to finish fourth that season). In front of the Sky cameras on a Wednesday evening, a tight encounter was decided by a Matt Jansen header, his 23rd League goal of that season and one that secured their passage back to the Premier League.
The core of that promotion-winning team went on to lift the 2002 League Cup (then the Worthington Cup), beating the highly-fancied Spurs 2-1 in Cardiff, but all that mattered as the darkness descended on that May evening was that Blackburn Rovers, under the guidance of Graeme Souness, had achieved the target set by their late, great benefactor. As captain Flitcroft’s T-shirt revealed, ‘Jack, this is 4 U’.