BLACKBURN Rovers were the champions of England when Derek Fazackerley returned to Ewood Park as Ray Harford’s first-team coach in 1995.
It was only eight years after his playing career at Rovers had come to an end but the landscape had changed dramatically.
He left a club mid-table in the Second Division, after a period when Rovers struggled to compete financially.
He returned to a club with a new look stadium, a new training ground and whose sights had been raised to such an extent that he was travelling to France to scout Zinedine Zidane.
The French ace would go on to become an all-time great, but not with Rovers.
He joined Juventus from Bordeaux for little more than £3m in 1996, later moving on to Real Madrid for £45.8m.
After winning the title, Rovers had reached a crossroads moment. To this day, there is a feeling of what if.
“I can remember going out to watch Zinedine Zidane and recommending him to come here,” said Fazackerley.
“He might not have wanted to come, but when you’re the champions that’s the time to cement it and go and get the best players you can.
“I don’t think Blackburn did that. They bought one or two players who found it difficult to get into the side that won the championship.
“I just felt the club lost a little bit of direction at that point. You just looked at Zidane and thought, ‘What a good player he is’. You just think what might have been.”
Fazackerley had left Rovers in 1987 to join Chester as player and assistant manager, moving on to York. There was then a brief spell at Bury before he made the move to Finland in 1990 as player-manager of Kumu.
Based in Kuusankoski, 80 miles from Helsinki, it was a club where Sami Hyypia was starting to emerge from the youth system.
“Even though it was only a very small club, I enjoyed it,” he said.
“I would recommend it to anybody, to go to places like Scandinavia to play. It’s a fantastic experience.”
He returned to England to link up with Jim Smith as reserve team boss at Newcastle. Ossie Ardiles soon arrived for a brief spell as first-team manager, before Kevin Keegan took over and promoted Fazackerley to first-team coach.
The duo helped Newcastle from the second tier to the top of the Premier League table early in the 1995/96 season.
But Fazackerley returned to Ewood Park just as Newcastle’s title bid was taking shape. That he opted to depart showed just how much of a lure Rovers was.
“I left probably around the end of September or the beginning of October to come back to Blackburn,” he said.
“Blackburn hadn’t started the season too well but there was the opportunity to come back to my old club and my own surroundings. I’d been living away for five or six years, spending most of the week in Newcastle and coming home at weekends.
“And the chance to coach in the Champions League was just too good to go down.”
Sadly, the Champions League campaign would be short lived.
Rovers went out in the group stage and Fazackerley sensed quickly that all was not well within the team.
That frustration boiled over in dramatic fashion during a 3-0 defeat at Spartak Moscow, as Graeme Le Saux and David Batty came to blows.
“It didn’t turn out the way we wanted but in general the experience of European football was fantastic,” Fazackerley says.
“To be involved in that campaign, it was a whole new world to me – going to Russia for the first time to play Spartak Moscow.
“But the scuffle on the pitch, that was poor. I’d only been at the club a few weeks and I was shocked by that.
“I wouldn’t say it was the happiest dressing room I’ve ever been in. It was something that surprised me. You read about the team spirit they had that won the Premier League.
“But I think it was down to the fact that they didn’t go out and get that extra couple of players to motivate them again”
Rovers finished seventh that season but Alan Shearer would be sold for a world record £15m in the summer of 1996 to Newcastle.
“Because there had been so much speculation during Euro 96 I think everybody expected him to go,” says the 61-year-old.
“But there was a period where it looked like he was going to stay. It was only maybe 24 hours.
“We weren’t involved in the negotiations about a new contract but Alan flew to Jersey with the chairman to meet Jack Walker and the vibes we were getting were there was a chance he might stay, “But within 24 or 48 hours it had all changed again and Newcastle had come in.
“I can remember the story that Kevin Keegan told me afterwards.
“The finances of it were mind-blowing and they were in the boardroom and the chairman of Newcastle was saying, ‘We can’t do it, it’s impossible’.
“But the bank manager was saying, ‘No, we can find a way of doing this’. He was a big Newcastle fan and he wanted Alan Shearer!
“But it was a blow to lose him. It affected the players.”
Harford left early in the following campaign, with Tony Parkes and Fazackerley taking over until the summer.
Then came Roy Hodgson and an encouraging first season for the current England boss, before he was sacked in November 1998.
Brian Kidd came in as manager, and immediately called time on Fazackerley’s three years as a coach at Rovers.
The club were relegated at the end of that season.
“To this day I don’t think Roy should have been sacked,” Fazackerley said.
“Had he stayed, I definitely think we would have stayed up.”