Earlier this week Leicester City became just the sixth team to be crowned Champions of England in the Premier League era. For most of the league’s 24 year history Manchester United have had right of first refusal, with occasional incursions from the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and, recently, Manchester City. You’ve already heard most of the main talking points— that Leicester were playing third division just a few years ago, that they’ve accomplished one of the biggest season-on-season turnarounds in English football history, that they have a relatively modest wage bill compared to the rest of the established top teams.
You’ve also probably heard references to another improbable title campaign that happened earlier in the Premier League’s history. While they can’t quite claim similarly humble financial straits, many of the other ingredients were there— playing lower-division football in the very recent past, a brilliant manager, a striker who was on fire, and a story that gripped the country.
This week we look back at the last day of the 1994-96 Premier League season and the greatest day in the lives of every Blackburn Rovers fan.
Blackburn Rovers hadn’t been on anyone’s radar for a long time. At the dawn of the Premier League era, Rovers had been out of the top flight since 1966. They hadn’t won a major trophy since 1928, and they hadn’t won the top flight title since 1914. So, bit of a fallow period, is what I’m getting at.
All that changed in 1991 when the club was bought out by Jack Walker, a wealthy steel magnate. Within four years, the club was transformed. Ewood Park was rebuilt with modern amenities and an expanded capacity of 30,000. They were promoted to the Premier League. They finished as runners-up in 1993-94. The team that went into the 1994-95 campaign was nearly unrecognizable from the one fielded just five years prior, with a clutch of second-division strugglers reforged as one of the strongest teams in Europe.
Meanwhile, Manchester United were well into their golden years. They had finished every season since 1988-89 up to that point having won at least one major trophy. United looked on course to win the league that season, but Blackburn continued to nip at their heels throughout the campaign. Then in January, disaster struck; during their away fixture at Crystal Palace, Eric Cantona famously kung-fu kicked a fan. The FA ultimately suspended him for eight months, costing United their star forward for the remainder of the season and into the next.
With United unable to close the deal late in the season, Blackburn went to seize their opportunity.
Blackburn Rovers went into the last day of the season with 89 points. United had 87 points and a superior goal difference. Rovers knew they had to win; if they didn’t, they’d have to pray for a miracle.
The day was emotional enough for Blackburn. Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish left his managerial position four years earlier, enticed by the vision that Jack Warner laid out. While he couldn’t lead his beloved Reds to a title, a win at Anfield that day would seal it for his new team. One can only imagine what was going through his mind that day.
Meanwhile, United were away at West Ham. They needed a win and then to hope Blackburn dropped points.
The day started out pretty well for Rovers. Alan Shearer— the league’s eventual golden boot winner— scored in the 20th minute at Anfield. 11 minutes later, Michael Hughes gave West Ham the lead. The title was starting to taste just a little more real.
Yet the second half for both sides proved to be an emotional rollercoaster.
Brian McClair equalized for United in the 51st minute. 13 minutes later, John Barnes equalized for Liverpool. All of a sudden the dream was starting to slip.
Rovers and United both pushed hard for a winning goal, but could not break down their respective opposition’s defenses.
And then in stoppage time at Anfield, the hearts in the away fans’ section all seemed to break in unison. Jamie Redknapp scored from an incredible free kick, putting Liverpool ahead 2-1 with mere seconds to go. The live table when the goal was score had Rovers on 89 points and United on 88. If United found a winner— they had something of a reputation for late heroics— Blackburn Rovers’ title campaign would lie in tatters.
But West Ham held on. The game finished 1-1 at Upton Park, and Blackburn Rovers, despite losing on the day, were named Champions of England.
The intervening years saw Rovers unable to build on their success. They’re now back in the second tier, struggling under controversial ownership. United finished that season without a major trophy, thanks to their 1-0 loss to Everton in the FA Cup Final. Yet their golden age continued, through the 90s and 00s and into the early part of the 10s, when Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired. Though they have struggled in the past three seasons, it’s nowhere near as dire as Blackburn’s current situation.
Yet even knowing what we know now, and minding the big fat caveat that was Blackburn’s financial resources at the time, their title win in 1995 was still an incredible (and highly unlikely) sporting achievement. There are reasons why favorable comparisons are drawn between them and Leicester.
Speaking of, Leicester will host Everton on Saturday. Regardless of the result, the game will be followed up with a lovely ceremony during which they will be given a title most fans never would’ve thought possible: Champions of England. Kickoff is at 12:30pm EST on NBC.