THE story goes that after the Blackburn Rovers players finally made their way back to the away dressing room at Deepdale after sealing their place back in the Premiership with a 1-0 win at Preston North End on that memorable midweek May night in 2001, a physically drained Garry Flitcroft told his team-mates they had just gone through the hardest season of their life.
Fast forward 13 years and the inspirational skipper of Graeme Souness’ promotion-winning side is making it clear to the current Rovers crop that they too will have to put their bodies on the line and form an unbreakable bond if they are to end their own exile from the top flight.
They would be wise to heed his words.
As Flitcroft, as the last Rovers captain to lead the club up from the second tier of English football, achieved exactly what they will be trying to do this season.
And while the division now known as the Championship has changed since that unforgettable 2000-01 campaign the former box-to-box midfielder firmly believes the key to getting out of it remains the same.
“They’re going to have to battle it out,” said Flitcroft, who made 280 appearances and scored 20 goals in 10 years for Rovers after making a £3.5m move from Manchester City in March 1996.
“There are always some good sides in the division, who all have the aim of going up and claiming the prize of a place in the Premiership and all the money that goes with it.
“So my advice to them would be is they are going to have to dig in for every single one of their 46 games and battle it out.
“It’s such a tough division. When we went up we had to grind a lot of results out.
“It’s not one of those tippy tappy divisions like the Premiership.
“Yes there’s a place for skill but you’ve got to get lads who are going to give you everything every single week.
“It’s a physical league and while you need players who have that ability you really need the ones that are going to fight for you.
“That’s what they’re really going to need this season and I think the way Gary Bowyer is doing it is right.”
Like Souness before him Bowyer has assembled a squad mainly made up of players from Britain and Ireland.
But whereas Souness had the money of Jack Walker – who to the devastation of the town, died before seeing the club that he had rebuilt return to the Premiership – behind him, Bowyer is restricted by Financial Fair Play and the after effects of a disastrous summer of overspending in 2012 following the club’s relegation from the Premier League.
Flitcroft, now carving a name for himself as a manager with ambitious Conference North outfit Chorley, has respect for the job the current Rovers boss is doing.
“They’ve had to get a lot of players who have earned a lot of money out of the club off the wage bill and get lads in who are on less money but can do a better job,” said Flitcroft, who ripped off his shirt after the victory over Preston to reveal a T-shirt carrying a message to the late, great Walker, who had passed away the previous August.
“That’s hard to do when you’ve got lads on long-term contracts who don’t want to leave.
“But they’ve moved the majority of them on and managed to kick on and reduce the wage budget.
“But not only that they’ve got a dressing room that is more closely knit together.
“And that is key to everything you do. If the dressing room is right, you’ve got a chance.
“It’s like any job. If you go into work every day and enjoy working with the people you work with, then you get the best results.
“We showed that. There were a lot of English, Scottish and Irish lads and we just had a really strong team spirit that drove us on – and to be fair to Graeme Souness, he was the man behind that.”
Flitcroft, now 41, went on to spend another four full seasons at Rovers.
He lifted the Worthington Cup in 2002 along with stand-in skipper Henning Berg – but only after having had to watch the final from the Millennium Stadium stands through suspension – and twice led the club into Europe.
But his best memory of his decade-long stay at Ewood Park was that evening at Preston 13 years ago.
And he jokes it would have been even better had it not been for a certain Matt Jansen.
“It was massive highlight in my career,” said Flitcroft, a former England youth international.
“The other big highlight was playing for England Schoolboys against Brazil in front of 78,000 at Wembley.
“But that night at Preston will stay with me forever – especially the way Matt Jansen took the ball off me and scored the winner when I was ready to put it in!
“It was a long season so it was great to get up.”
Flitcroft certainly does not hold any grudges with Jansen as the pair now work side-by-side at Chorley.
While another of his big friends from the team that finished second in Division One in 2001, defender Craig Short, is now Bowyer’s first-team coach at Rovers.
Flitcroft said: “Craig is as honest as the day is long and he’s one of those people you want to go into battle with.
“I shared a room with him for seven years when I was at Blackburn and Gary has got a great coach there.
“Craig’s very loyal and he’ll get it out of the lads – they will know exactly what’s expected of them this season.”