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The 1994-95 Premier League season saw Blackburn Rovers top the table and pick up the trophy as champions of England. Looking at the club’s current position in the Championship, it seems an incredible feat – and so it was. Of course, the club was driven at the time by Jack Walker’s money, and Kenny Dalglish’s management, but the partnership that made the difference was the two-pronged attack that contributed 49 of the club’s total 80 league goals that term. These were the glory days for Blackburn Rovers, fired by the dynamic partnership of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton – The SAS.
Shearer was already in situ at the club when Sutton arrived. Legend has it that Sir Alex Ferguson believed he had convinced the then Southampton striker to move to Old Trafford before Dalglish persuaded him to change his mind. The club would prosper with their new acquisition in the number nine shirt, but it wasn’t until Chris Sutton was brought in to partner him in July 1994, that the club truly achieved liftoff. It took £5 million of Walker’s hard-earned brass to persuade Norwich City to part with the striker – then, a British record transfer fee. In the following season, the glut of goals accumulated between the strike partners – Shearer with 34 and Sutton contributing 15 – would more than pay back the outlay as Blackburn secured their first domestic title since 1914.
Things boded well from the start of the season. In the opening fixture, it was Sutton setting his partner up for a goal, and then days later, the compliment was returned. Even at that early stage, Dalglish must have been basking in the warm glow of confidence that he had created something special and that silverware would surely follow. Although his strike rate would drop off comparatively later, it was Sutton who set the early goalscoring standard, netting nine goals in his first ten games in those famous halved shirts of Blackburn. By the end of the year, a mere three more had been added, but Shearer’s tally took up any slack as he netted 17 times.
It’s often said that strike partnerships are best achieved with opposites. The big man, small man set up is traditional, as is the situation where one player does all of the physical work, whilst his partner adopts the ‘fox in the box’ role, exploiting the space created by his muscular comrade in arms. With Shearer and Sutton however, that was hardly the case. Both players had a devoted work ethic and despite being deployed on what was considered as a traditional 4-4-2 formation Dalglish added an extra dimension. Both would, in turn, drop back into a more midfield position to overload in that area of the field creating options moving forward. For Sutton, originally a centre-back by trade, this element of the game, ‘getting a foot in’ as the saying goes, was hardly anything revolutionary, and certainly something that came easier to him than his partner; not that Shearer shirked his duties as well.
How well did it all pan out? Well, across the 42 games season, there were only a dozen games when one, the other, or both of the SAS partnership failed to find the back of the net for Blackburn. Was there a more potent strike force in the mid-nineties? Some would argue that perhaps there was. Cole and Yorke at Old Trafford or Quinn and Phillips at Sunderland, but none surely had a more talismanic effect on their clubs than that delivered by Shearer and Sutton.
In any partnership, there’s going to be a senior partner, or at least, someone who is perceived so to be. Shearer’s goal record in that title-winning season suggests that in this particular duo, he was Batman to Sutton’s Robin, and there may be both logic and merit in such an assessment. It bears saying however that it was only after the arrival of Sutton that Shearer’s light shone brightest. Batman needed Robin. Eric Morecombe needed Ernie Wise, and in this partnership, if Blackburn were to prosper, Shearer needed Sutton. Would Shearer ever have got his hands on that League winner’s medal if his partner in crime hadn’t arrived? All such things are open to an opinion of course, but the fact that the only season when the two played consistently together was the one that landed the title offers compelling evidence.
One shouldn’t, of course, lose sight of the fact that there was plenty of other talents in the Blackburn line up to support the SAS. Tim Sherwood was enjoying the best form of his career. Stuart Ripley was tearing up and down the flanks and the imperious Colin Hendry had the back door locked and bolted. Each fulfilled their role with merit, but there’s surely little doubt that, for all that, they were merely the supporting acts to the stars of the show.
The problem for Blackburn was that although the SAS were a glorious and highly successful partnership in that 1994-95 season, their light was quickly dimmed. The following season saw Sutton suffer a lack of form, partly due to a series of injuries and, without the SAS in tandem, the club’s performances dipped. A sixth-place finish at the end of the term was hardly a disgrace, but having reached such heights, perhaps it felt like it.
Both players would eventually leave Ewood Park, Shearer to the delight of the Geordie faithful went ‘home’ to St James Park. It was an emotional time, but bereft of silverware. Sutton moved to Chelsea, where a disastrous time saw him notch a single league goal in 28 appearances. Now torn asunder, neither profited as well as they had during that season in tandem. The phrase that if you can only burn briefly, then burn brightly seems an apt summing up for the season when Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton came together in an explosion of goals for Blackburn Rovers. What else would you expect from the SAS?