At the start of the 2000/01 Division One season, Blackburn Rovers were one of the favourites for the title – and rightly so considering their squad boasted a host of experienced Premiership players, in addition to several exciting young talents, notably Matt Jansen, David Dunn and Damien Duff.
They started the campaign solidly, but being unbeaten in five matches – as Rovers were – pales in comparison to your promotion rival’s 11-game winning streak. Blackburn were in Fulham’s shadow and finding it difficult to get out. Under new Manager Jean Tigana, the Whites were winning plaudits left, right and centre as our slick football catapulted us to the top of the table.
By the time the first meeting between the two sides came around, the Whites had slipped to second, while Rovers languished in 15th – although each side had played less matches than those around them. Fulham came from behind to defeat Graeme Souness’ side at the Cottage, with Fabrice Fernandes cancelling out Jansen’s opener, and Louis Saha grabbing the winner from the penalty spot.
When the reverse fixture arrived, Fulham were in touching distance of securing promotion to the Premiership. Two wins would do it, starting with a trip to Ewood Park. Our hosts could still mathematically win the title, and Souness made the bold decision before the game to insist that Blackburn were the division’s best side, despite the 13-point cushion that separated them from Fulham.
“I admire Fulham because I think they are a good footballing team - but so are we,” he is quoted as saying in The Lancashire Evening Telegraph. “Up until now they have proved they are the best because they're above us in the championship. But I feel that we've been the best team, certainly in the second half of the season. Now we have to go out and show that on Wednesday.”
It looked as though Souness’ men were proving him right, as Jansen opened the scoring on six minutes, before the home side took a firmer foothold in the game when Rufus Brevett was sent off shortly before half-time.
But Saha found an equaliser in stoppage time and the two sides went into the break level at 1-1. Since that game, several Fulham players have spoken of how Souness’ pre-match claim had motivated them to prove him wrong, and that passion in the away changing room was high that evening.
“There were a lot of heated people in the dressing room at half-time,” midfielder Sean Davis recalled. “Clarky [Lee Clark] was kicking off saying ‘we can’t lose this game, we’re top of the league.’ It was all heated and I just knew that we weren’t going to lose that game, not in a million years.”
Davis was spot on as he grabbed the winner right at the death to complete a remarkable turnaround and all but guarantee promotion. It was a momentous win that meant the world to the players, with Clark emphasising its significance after the game, with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek.
“I thought we did brilliantly in the second half when you consider we were down to 10 men and up against the best team in the league,” he said. “There was always going to be a bit of hype but we just tried to do our talking where it mattered, out in the middle.”
Souness, meanwhile, was defiantly sticking by his previous statement: “The fact that they have done the double on us and the number of points they lead by may suggest otherwise, but I still believe we are the better side. Fulham are having a fantastic season and when that’s happening you sometimes get points and wins when you don't really deserve them.”
Fulham secured their return to the top flight with another late away win at Huddersfield Town three days later, while Blackburn also sealed a deserved promotion – just without finishing in the top spot that Souness believed they deserved.