All-Time Premier League: Blackburn Rovers
"Why would we want Zidane, when we have Tim Sherwood?"
After Arsenal and Aston Villa had taken approximately eight thousand words out of me, I hope it’s not an insult to the club if I say that the next team on my list was a welcome relief. After sorting, selecting and strategically synthesizing the stars and heroes of those heavy histories, something a little lighter was what I looked forward to.
But Blackburn Rovers did not make it easy for me. As the first FA Cup finalists from the north-country, and winners of the Cup three years consecutively, the Rovers were well-deserving of their invitation to become founder members of the Football League, and their achievements did not stop there. With three League championships, three more wins in the FA Cup, and most recently the League Cup in 2002, they have done more than enough to earn entry into this all-time league. Blackburn, a mid-sized Lancashire textile town, has been home to some of the game’s greatest names; and while one cannot pick a true great at every position, for most there are multiple good candidates, at least. Here, from goalkeeper to outside-left, are the eleven I’ve chosen.
1. The United States of America are not known for producing great soccer players; but baseball, American football and basketball do at least seem to be excellent training for goalkeepers. An All-State basketball player at his Ohio high school, Brad Friedel became the closest thing his country had to a star soccer player while at university. Keeping goal for the University of California, Los Angeles, he won the national collegiate championship in 1990 before being named to the NCAA All-American Team in 1991 and ’92. In 1993, he won the Hermann Trophy, the award given to the best soccer player in academic America. There being no such thing as a professional soccer league in the United States, he trained exclusively with the national team until landing a job in Denmark, as a backup at Brondby. When, in the summer of ’95, he returned to his home land for an international tournament, he hadn’t played a game.
Yet somehow, he got his big break. Having attracted the attention of Graeme Souness, who took him to Turkey, he played 30 games for Galatasaray in ’95-’96. The formation of Major League Soccer called him home, and while playing for the Columbus Crew he won all-star awards and the attention of Liverpool manager Roy Evans. Nottingham Forest, Newcastle and Everton had all attempted to sign him, but had failed to obtain a work permit. For Friedel, it would be fourth time lucky; but once he arrived at Anfield he found himself on the bench, and remained there for two years. Stuck behind David James, he struggled to get into games, and when James joined Aston Villa in ’99, summer signing Sander Westerveld jumped to the front of the queue. Liverpool let him go on a free transfer mid-way through the 2000-2001 season; and it was Souness again, now in charge of the Rovers, who rescued him from obscurity.
In Friedel’s first half-season at Ewood Park, he helped the team win promotion to the Premier League. In the subsequent seven seasons, his saves helped to keep them there. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the newly promoted Rovers had gone straight back down, but aided by Friedel’s fine goalkeeping they finished in the top half of the table, winning the League Cup into the bargain. Friedel was named as the Man of the Match in the final. The following season, his fifteen clean sheets earned him a place in the PFA Team of the Year. After a series of saves against Southampton, Gordon Strachan speculated that Friedel was in fact Superman in disguise. By the time Friedel left Blackburn, he had played in 287 top-division games, a club record for a goalkeeper. He had even managed to score once. He would play for seven more years, split between Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur, but it is at Blackburn where he is best remembered. In 2019, the club created its own Hall of Fame, and Friedel was one of just seven men to be inducted. It’s touch to make a pick at some positions for this team, but goalkeeper isn’t one of them. Tim Flowers, of the 1995 Premier League champions, takes a seat in the dugout.
2. Right-back is another no-brainer. Bob Crompton, another club Hall of Famer, spent his entire career in first-class football, from 1896 to 1920, in Blackburn’s blue and white. A motor engineer during the week, Crompton spent his Saturdays playing for one of the finest teams of the Edwardian era. Crompton, commanding his team from the back, captained his colleagues to two championships in three years from 1911 to 1914; and his 530 appearances in top-division games are still a club record. His 41 caps for England were also a record until surpassed by Billy Wright. Upon retiring, he became Blackburn’s manager, leading the team to the FA Cup in 1928. Player or manager? In this team, he’ll be both.
Should he need to fill in at centre-half, or substitute himself out, or remove himself from the lineup, he’ll have Keith Newton to call on. Newton, a star in the sixties team, won 27 caps of his own. His well-timed tackles and interceptions made him one of the best defenders of his day; and if a more attacking approach were required, his forays forward would a weapon well worth having.
3. Left-back is trickier. Walter Crook, who holds the club record for consecutive League appearances, and the adventurous Bill Eckersley, a great dribbling full-back who won seventeen caps for England, are each in with a claim; but both will take a back seat to a man who played only one game in League football. The lack of a League record makes any player’s skill harder to judge, but Fergus Suter leaves one in little doubt.
Suter, a Scottish stonemason, moved south to become what is believed to be the first professional footballer. No-one admitted it at the time; but when he gave up his trade it was clear that someone was paying him for something else. In 1878, Suter was in a fix, and football offered a way out. He had seen that some first-class cricketers were being paid to play; and if they could make money out of their talents, his special soccer skills were just as marketable. James Love, a teammate of his at Partick, had moved to Darwen in Lancashire and joined the local team there. Following his fellow Scotsman, Suter offered to do the same. No salary was stipulated, but subsidies from the directors sufficed to support him; and Suter and Love led Darwen into the FA Cup quarter-finals.
But if money could draw him to Darwen, money could lead him away; and in 1880 an improved offer from Blackburn Rovers, their regional rivals, did just that. Darwen’s directors could not complain to the FA, but they could fan the flames of their fans’ fury, straining whatever goodwill existed between the two sets of supporters. When, for the first time since the move, Suter’s new club faced his old one, he had a fight with a former team-mate, and a pitch invasion caused the game to be cancelled.
Suter, as one would expect from the first professional, seems to have had a somewhat stately style, dictating from deep like a modern-day sweeper. With him in the side, the Rovers went from strength to strength, reaching the FA Cup final in 1882. After their neighbours, Blackburn Olympic, won the Cup in 1883, the Rovers won three in a row. In 1884, 1885 and 1886, they conquered all competition. In the middle of that run, professionalism was legalised. Suter, the man who have paved the way, could now be paid openly. In 1888, the professional Football League was established, but by that point his career was winding down. He played in precisely one League game, filling in for an injured goalkeeper; but his status among the game’s greats was already made. In the All-Time Premier League, he and Crompton would form a formidable full-back pair.
4. Ronnie Clayton played his last League game in 1969, but Rovers fans who never saw him play still see his name every time they enter Ewood Park. At one end of the ground, at the base of the upper tier, a sign displayed prominently on a hoarding proclaims it the Ronnie Clayton Blackburn End. Spectators sitting in that stand will walk past a picture of him as they enter the turnstiles, and should a curious schoolboy, attending his first Rovers game with his grandfather, turn to his guardian and ask “who’s he?” the old man will be only too happy to tell a tale that will take them both back in time.
A reliable right-half, Ronnie Clayton was one half of a partnership that played together for Blackburn for seventeen years, and for England for three. His clever positioning, constructive passing and crisp tackling did not attract attention in the way the wing-play of his friend Bryan Douglas did; but Douglas knew that he could not have dazzled the crowds and dumfounded defenders without his wing-half’s support. So did the Ewood Park faithful, and so did the England selectors, their partnership being so successful that the two won international honours together while still in the Second Division. With Clayton and Douglas working wonders on the right wing, the Rovers at last won promotion in 1958, and they would subsequently spend eight years Division I, their longest such run since the thirties or until the twenty-first century. They never won any trophies, an FA Cup runners-up medal in 1960 the closest either of them ever came; but no Rovers team since then, not even the ’95 vintage, could boast a wing partnership that rivalled Ronnie and Bryan in Blackburn’s affections. Capable of holding the midfield, or raiding down the right wing to support the attack, he takes the Number 4 shirt in a team where flexibility is paramount. If he or another midfield man is indisposed, Tim Sherwood can be a capable substitute.
5. Geordie Dewar played 174 League games for the Rovers in the late 19th century, after impressing the club secretary during an England-Scotland match. He was the midfield pivot of a team which won two FA Cups in a row, scoring the opening goal in the 1891 final. His move from Dumbarton to Blackburn put paid to his Scotland career, but he was still good enough to be chosen for the Football League for an all-star game against its Scottish equivalent. He seems to have been a superb centre-half of the old-fashioned midfield variety; but the balance of this team, I think, needs the security of a stopper. Dewar deserves a place on the bench, but for our first-choice centre-half we will fast-forward a century. Supporting Suter and Crompton at Number 5 is Colin Hendry.
Looking as if one of Goscinny’s Gauls had been given a shave and a shirt, and told to defend Blackburn’s goal as if it were his own cartoon village, the combative Celt earned the nickname “Braveheart” for his outstanding courage – and for the flowing blond hair that swept down to his shoulders, giving him more than a passing resemblance to William Wallace, at least as portrayed in the film. The striker-turned stopper, famous among fans for baring his bottom to Blackburn’s crowds before kick-off, stood as a formidable physical presence at the heart of defence during two spells at Ewood Park.
The first began during the ’86-’87 campaign, when Blackburn bought him from Dundee. In one of his first appearances at his new club, he scored the only goal of the game as Blackburn beat Charlton Athletic to win the Full Members’ Cup. In his first full season, he was voted the club’s Player of the Year; and in his second, he was voted into the Second Division’s Team of the Year. Transferred to Manchester City in 1989, he would soon show that he could perform in the First. He became their Player of the Year in 1990 before being sold back to Blackburn in ’91. Hendry had had a taste of First Division football. and he played as if he wanted more.
With Hendry back in the team, the Rovers played their way back into what was now becoming the Premier League. For the first time since the sixties, Blackburn were back, and in the subsequent six seasons they would show that they belonged. Hendry, twice voted into the Team of the Year and twice more the Club’s Player of the Year, would play as big a part as anybody. Finishes of fourth in ’92-’93, and second in ’93-’94, were followed by first in ’94-’95 as Hendry and his colleagues reached their collective zenith in a campaign which concluded with one of the quirkiest twists in sporting history. In subsequent seasons, Hendry and Blackburn continued to play well, finishing sixth in 1998 to qualify for the UEFA Cup, but he would be sold in the summer to Glasgow Rangers. In the following season, while Hendry’s new team was winning a Scottish treble, the Rovers were relegated.
6. Graeme Le Saux, who wore Number 6 in the ’95 team, was as good going forward as he was at the back, but two things are against his selection. First, he played more games for Chelsea, for whom he was just as important; and second, while his vertical versatility is not in doubt, this team ideally needs wing-halves who can play inside as well as outside. Jimmy Forrest is no longer a name that sparks recognition among most football fans; but in his day, he did both with distinction.
Forrest, the first professional ever to play for England, earned eleven caps on the strength of his displays for the Rovers. A team-mate of Suter and Dewar, he played a part in both Blackburn’s three-in-a-row cup run from 1884 to 1886 and the two-in-a-row of 1890 and 1891. He scored in two of those finals, the first of which made him the youngest man ever to score in an FA Cup final until 1939, and reports of those matches show him to have played a key part in creating the chances for other goals. Judging by his League record, it was his promptings for others rather than his goals in finals which illustrate his game best, for in 148 League games for Blackburn he scored only twice. Those 148 games, over the first seven years of the Football League’s existence, made him a near ever-present in the days of only twelve, fourteen or sixteen teams in a division. His five FA Cup winner’s medals remain a joint record, and records from the time demonstrate his all-around flexibility. In his five FA Cup finals alone, he played left-half in a 2-2-6 formation, and both centre-half and left-half in the 2-3-5 pyramid. Surviving evidence shows that defence was much a part of his game as attack, describing him as a tough tacker and an intelligent interceptor of the ball. All in all, he seems an excellent left-sided complement to Ronnie Clayton.
7. From 1985 to 1992, Stuart Ripley played 249 League games for Middlesbrough, scoring 23 goals. But most of those were in the lower divisions, and it was at Ewood Park that he reached his greatest heights. In 1992, sold by one newly promoted club to another at the same level, he made the most horizontal move possible. But whereas the ’Boro would be relegated, the Rovers were on their way up. Briefly becoming Blackburn’s most expensive player, Ripley saw that record broken within weeks when Alan Shearer, signed from Southampton, became Britain’s most costly. With Shearer at centre-forward, Ripley’s right-wing crosses now had the perfect target. Jinking his way down the wing, Ripley would work enough space to centre, and the strikers would do the rest. With Shearer joined by Chris Sutton, this formula would play a big part in Blackburn’s championship win of ’94-’95. Just as important, however, was Ripley’s dogged defensive work, and it is this that earns him a place in Blackburn’s all-time XI. With only three dedicated defenders, wing-forwards who can track back are vital. If a change of emphasis is required, Crompton can call on Jack Bruton, the great goal-scoring outside-right of the thirties.
8. Brad Friedel wasn’t the only familiar face brought to Blackburn by his old boss. While managing Galatasaray, Graeme Souness had worked with the masterful midfield player Tugay Kerimoglu. In twelve seasons at Galatasaray, Tugay had won six Turkish championships and become the youngest man to captain the club in its history. Souness, in his solitary season in charge there, had clearly liked what he’d seen. Upon Blackburn’s promotion in 2001, Souness signed his old captain to play in the Premier League. Mark Hughes, who replaced Souness, rated Tugay just as highly. When asked whether he wished his playmaker were ten years younger, Hughes answered “no, because if he was, he’d be playing in a Barcelona shirt.” Tugay’s technical excellence and tactical expertise were as warmly welcomed by his fans as they were by his managers, and in his final game for the club he was given a round of applause. “Turkish Delight” would be worth his place in Blackburn’s all-time XI, but to put him in this lineup would over-stock the midfield. A more advanced inside-right is required, and the honour goes to Syd Puddefoot.
Puddefoot, born in Limehouse, London, started his soccer career with West Ham United, then of the Southern League, in 1912 as an amateur. He turned professional in 1913 and scored several goals in second-class competition, but had to wait until 1919 for his first Football League game. When West Ham was admitted into the newly expanded League, Puddefoot’s prolific goal-scoring soon got him noticed. While still a Second Division player, Puddefoot was picked to play for the England XI in three Victory Internationals, and scored in all three. Falkirk, for whom he had served as a guest player during the First World War, secured his signature for a world record fee of £5,000. He would struggle to live up to the record, later complaining that his Scottish team-mates had not wanted to work with him, and after three years his stock had depreciated by a fifth. Blackburn bought him for £4,000, and it was there that he would show his skill to the fullest.
Puddefoot, finally playing in England’s First Division, was, in the words of one Rovers historian, “the type of gifted playmaker that the club despearately needed…the man who made the bullets for others to fire.” With the creative Puddefoot feeding his fellow forwards, the Rovers’ football improved. Their successive seventh and sixth-place positions in 1929 and 1930 were their highest League finishes since the First World War, and their best until well after the Second. In Blackburn’s FA Cup final win of 1928, it was Puddefoot’s pass that put through Jack Roscamp to score the first goal. He could still shoot himself, too, with 79 goals for Blackburn in 250 League games. In the all-time Blackburn Rovers, Puddefoot plays as a second striker, his creativity supporting Number 9…
9. Alan Shearer. Yes, Shearer. Newcastle United’s record goal-scorer, a native son of Northumberland, is classed in this league as a Blackburn man. Why? Because although he played for Newcastle for longer, it is his record with the Rovers that stands out as his most impressive. In 1992, Shearer’s transfer from Southampton to Blackburn for £3.3 million broke the British record; his transfer from Blackburn to Newcastle in 1996, for £15 million, broke the world record. His record from the years in between shows us why.
In every one of his four seasons at Blackburn, he was voted into the PFA Team of the Year, an honour which he won one at Southampton and twice at Newcastle. It was at Blackburn that he won the League in ’94-’95, the only club honour he ever won. It was at Blackburn that he scored thirty or more League goals in three consecutive seasons, a feat he never achieved anywhere else. With 31 Premier League goals in ’93-’94, he was voted Player of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association. In ’94-’95, his 34 fired Blackburn to the championship, and both his fellow professionals and the Premier League itself gave him their own awards. In ’95-’96, with the Premier League season shortened from 42 to 38 games, his 31 goals led the League again and represented a still better strike-rate. He followed the campaign by scoring a tournament-leading five in Euro ’96 before being bought by his home-town club. He would score 206 first-class goals for Newcastle, but it was for Blackburn that he played his best. From two-yard tap-ins to twenty-yard torpedo shots, Shearer scored all kinds of goals, and in this team, he’ll have plenty of chances to do so.
10. In creating those chances, no-one will be more important than Bryan Douglas. Born within walking distance of Ewood Park’s Darwen End, the young Bryan excelled in youth football and was asked to play with the Rovers’ youth team as a teenager. Expecting to be a substitute, he was thrust into the starting line-up when a boy from Preston failed to turn up. He played well enough to be invited back for the next game, to be played at Ripton the following Saturday. This time, the other boy did show up, but he was late – not his fault, though. Because of a big match at Preston, the buses hadn’t been running to Ripton that day – they had all gone the other way. Ronnie Clayton would be given another chance, and Bryan Douglas would be signed up. The two would become best friends, and on the pitch they were the best of partners.
Military service delayed his debut for the first team, but in 1955 he got his chance at inside-left. He took it well, scoring a goal in a 3-0 defeat of Stoke City. In spite of that promising start, his performances usually underwhelmed until manager Johnny Carey switched him to outside-right. He scored two goals against Bury and Carey decided to keep him there. Playing in front of his friend, he became one of the best outside-rights in the Football League, his dribbling skills drawing comparisons with Stanley Matthews.
In due course, Douglas replaced his hero in the England XI, and following Blackburn’s successful promotion campaign, both he and his wing-half Clayton were selected to play in the World Cup in Sweden. England would be knocked out by Russia, but Douglas played well, and in the following season proceeded to take the First Division apart as easily as he had torn up the Second. In ’59-’60, as a roaming inside-left, he helped the Rovers to the FA Cup final, an inspired performance in the semi-final among his highlights. He was now capable of playing either inside or outside-forward with equal efficiency, and at either position there were those who said that he was the best in the country. In 1961, he (or perhaps Blackburn’s board of directors) turned down a transfer to Roma. In 1962, he played in another World Cup in Chile, and flummoxed the full-backs of Scotland at Wembley as England won 9-3. In 1963, the appointment of Alf Ramsey as England manager signalled the end of his international career. He would win a few more caps, scoring against Brazil; but his daring, dribbling style of play did not fit into Ramsey’s more cautious strategies. Nonetheless, he remained recognised as one of the best forwards in football, his creativity largely keeping the Rovers in the First Division; and if the England team could do without him, the Rovers could not. In ’65-’66, Douglas was injured and would miss most of the season. England would win the World Cup, but the Rovers were relegated. For the next three years, he would continue to struggle with injuries as Blackburn failed to win promotion.
In 1969, he and Clayton retired from first-class football as they had played – together. Today, the Darwen End, opposite from Ronnie Clayton’s end, is named after him. And it’s together that they go into the Rovers’ all-time team: Clayton at right-half, and Douglas as the link man in the forward line. As the principal playmaker, he’ll have more freedom of movement than anyone else, and he and Clayton will have plenty of chances to combine.
11. Jason Wilcox completes the XI. One of the only home-grown players in the championship-winning team of the nineties, Wilcox was present from its emergence to its demise. He joined the club at sixteen years of age after his father had asked for a trial, and after two years in the youth team broke into the first team in 1989. He helped the club win promotion in ’91-’92 and remained with the Rovers until after their relegation in ’98-’99. Wilcox, on the left wing, replicated the role Ripley played on the right. Like Ripley, Wilcox was principally a provider, sending in centres for strikers to score. Like Ripley, he protected the backs behind him by doing his share of defensive work. Like Ripley, he is selected for this team for this combination of skills. William Townley, outside-left from 1886 to 1892, and the scorer of the first FA Cup final hat-trick, is his substitute.
Thus, the team takes its shape. With wing-halves Clayton and Forrest holding the midfield, and wing-forwards Wilcox and Ripley running back and forth from defence to attack, the formation looks like a 3-4-3/3-5-2 system, with Puddefoot partnering Shearer and Douglas the man in the hole. However, this is a flexible 3-4-3. If and when needed, the wing-halves can move outside, the inside-forwards can drop into midfield, and the wing-forwards can push on, turning an A-M formation into a W-U; and creating a combination of the two, so that one wing was patrolled by a forward and one by a half-back, would be well within this team’s scope. The options offered by the substitutes add to its adaptability. The introduction of Dewar, for example, with the wing-halves dropping back, could turn the 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3. Blackburn’s all-time XI is not as star-studded as those of some of its rivals, but this flexibility could be its secret weapon.
Next: Bolton Wanderers