What a difference a year made.
Having won their first league title for 81 years, Blackburn Rovers were unsurprisingly among the favourites in the football betting going into the 1995/96 season, widely tipped to repeat their feat with an outstanding squad assembled from Jack Walker’s fortune.
In goal stood Tim Flowers, an England international at the time, behind a formidable centre-back pairing of Colin Hendry and Chris Coleman.
Down the flanks hared Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox, regularly servicing a front-line of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. One of the most famous striking partnerships of the Premier League age had fired a remarkable 49 goals combined twelve months prior.
It was going to be between Rovers and Manchester United again, that was the general thinking, though there was a concern about manager Kenny Dalglish moving ‘upstairs’ that summer, handing the reins to his assistant Ray Harford.
It was a concern that regrettably came to pass with Rovers starting their season as reigning champions in spectacularly poor fashion, winning only one of their opening six games. Worse yet, that’s when it all started to really unravel.
By mid-November, Rovers had yet to win away from home in any competition. In the league they floundered in mid-table, miles off the top six, while their inaugural Champions League adventure had quickly descended into outright disaster.
All of which meant that on November 22nd, 28 years ago today, Blackburn travelled to Spartak Moscow, in the chilly depths of winter, needing a victory to keep their slim hopes of progressing from their group alive.
Just a matter of months earlier, this team had been fully functioning and flying. A winning machine.
Now they were desperate and disorganised. Now they were entrenched in crisis.
We can only speculate as to how this dramatic decline had impacted on team togetherness, or at least we need to speculate up until just four minutes into this clash, when the ball was rolling out of play and David Batty stepped across to prevent that happening.
With Batty out of his eyeline, Graeme Le Saux also saw an opportunity to gain possession and charged towards the ball, accidentally colliding with his team-mate in the process.
The Jersey-born defender came off worse, forcefully hitting the deck and skidding off the pitch knees-first.
Unperturbed by the calamitous misunderstanding, a Spartak player retrieves the ball and takes a quick throw-in, the camera naturally following that.
So what we don’t see, until all hell breaks loose and the cameraman quickly pans back, is Batty berating Le Saux for being ‘selfish’, and the left-back taking exception to that accusation, throwing a punch at the midfield hardman.
By his own admission, not being a natural fighter, Le Saux fails to curl his hand into a proper fist and breaks his hand on impact.
Then come the recriminations, the pointing, shoving and the swearing, as Tim Sherwood dives in to try and defuse the situation and takes a wild punch to his head for his troubles.
Once each player is stationed back in their positions it has become crystal clear that Blackburn’s season has totally imploded.
What made the dust-up so perfectly perfect was the contrasting personality types involved, Le Saux known to be an erudite player, a thinker not a scrapper. Batty meanwhile probably tripped up his paperboy on the way to training just to get some practice in.
It has subsequently emerged that peace broke out between the feuding stars at the airport, following a dispiriting 3-0 loss in Russia.
What’s the betting though that Batty, quiet and forever brooding, took some private pleasure at seeing the state of Le Saux’s hand. Coming off best in a fight that saw him throw not a single blow.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to Alamy*