HomefootballThe Dark Horses Who Became Title Contenders in the EPL 1990s

The Dark Horses Who Became Title Contenders in the EPL 1990s

Several dark horse teams in the Premier League had become title contenders in the 1990s.

The Premier League in the 1990s was not the same as today. Back then the title races were more open with the dark horses meddling from time to time, although Manchester United remained the dominant side in the end, except for the 1994/95 campaign. Unfortunately, it became less common when Arsene Wenger took charge of the Gunners in 1996. The Premier League was more of a duopoly in that decade, with United and Arsenal as the main contenders. 

Here are some dark horse teams that were able to join the title race in the 1990s Premier League.

Norwich City

The Canaries had a surprising campaign in 1992/93. In this inaugural Premier League season, they managed to finish third, below Manchester United at the top and Aston Villa at the bottom. Mike Walker’s men collected 72 points, trailing 12 points from the league leader but only two points adrift from Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa. 

Norwich city 1992:93
Credits: Norwich city FC

Norwich’s squad did not have well-known stars. Yet, they did have underrated players who then became the mainstays of their next clubs: Chris Sutton, Efan Ekoku, and Fuel Fox. Both would then be leaving Carrow Road to sign for Blackburn, Wimbledon FC and Newcastle United respectively. Sutton netted eight goals and one assist, whereas Fox contributed four goals and eight assists. Meanwhile, Ekoku bagged three goals in four games. The Nigerian international was not yet the mainstay in Norwich until the following season. All of them left in the summer of 1994. 

Their campaign in the Premier League was fairly impressive, including in the big games. They were unbeaten against Arsenal and the runner-up, Aston Villa. Mike Walker’s men snatched a 4-2 win on the road in Highbury, London, and were held to a 1-1 draw at home. Ruel Fox and Co. were even able to defeat the Villans in both fixtures, 3-2 in Villa Park and 1-0 on their home turf. Norwich also managed to beat the reigning English champion, Leeds United, 4-2 and Liverpool 1-0 at home. 

Such a result led them to qualify for the UEFA Cup the following season. At that time, only the league winners were eligible to play in the Champions Cup (UCL’s old name), while the spot in the second-tier competition, the Winners Cup, was given to the FA Cup winner or the one who finished second, should the FA Cup champion have been the league winner too. 

That was Norwich’s best finish in the English top flight during the Premier League era. It has yet to be repeated ever since.

ALSO READ: The Unexpected Winners of FA Cup Finals Since 1990

Blackburn Rovers

The Rovers were a one-era wonder in the Premier League. They had a meteoric rise under Kenny Dalglish after their promotion to the top flight in 1992. Blackburn managed to finish fourth in 1993 and second in 1994 before eventually lifting their first EPL title in 1994/95. 

EPL Blackburn Rovers 1994-95
Credits: Blackburn Rovers FC

Blackburn’s campaign in that season was fairly impressive despite not being able to beat their strongest contender, Manchester United, in both fixtures. Yet, they managed to stomp on Liverpool and Arsenal at home with 3-2 and 3-1 wins, respectively. Kenny Dalglish’s men also thumped Newcastle 1-0 at home. 

Colin Hendry and Co. became an unlikely contender for Manchester United before beating them in a thrilling title race, as it was decided literally till the last minute of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were unable to pick up a victory against West Ham at Upton Park, which was a very unlikely and unlucky result. Should they have secured the three points on the road, Blackburn would not have been the champion since they slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Anfield. They were just one point clear of the Red Devils on the table.

What’s more, their prolific striker, Alan Shearer, won the Premier League Golden Boot too with 34 goals, sealing his place in the national team as their new number-one frontman after the decline of Gary Lineker. 

Unfortunately, their form declined in the 1995–96 season as Blackburn failed to secure a spot in Europe. They only sat seventh in the final standings.

Newcastle United

The Magpies are probably the most consistent dark horses, as they have been able to meddle with the elite in three different decades, including joining the title race twice in the 1990s. 

Under Kevin Keegan, Newcastle United had turned into a dangerous dark horse in the Premier League. They finished third in 1994 and became runners-up consecutively in 1996 and 1997. Keegan’s squad in the 1993/94 campaign relied on a combination of unknown local talents, such as Andy Cole, who also won the Golden Boot in the same season; Gavin Peacock; Lee Clark; Robert Lee; and the senior name, former England international Peter Beardsley. In 1996, they had Les Ferdinand and the Colombian sensation in the 1990s, Faustino Asprilla, upfront, supported by the flamboyant David Ginola, Steve Watson, and Pavel Srnicek between the sticks. In 1997, they even bought Alan Shearer. 

Newcastle United 1996/97
Credits: Newcastle United FC

Kevin Keegan even led them to be the league leader in the 1995–96 season before their form started to deteriorate in the final phase of the competition due to a lack of depth in the squad when the injuries disrupted their campaign. Sadly, Manchester United toppled them twice in those very seasons. In 1996, the Magpies were only four points behind United, whereas in 1997, they only collected 68 points, 10 points short of the previous season, and seven points behind Peter Schmeichel and Co.

However, during their superb campaign, Newcastle also had wondrous results. The 5-0 rout against United and the 7-1 win over Tottenham in the 1996/97 campaign were some of the memorable victories at St James Park. They also managed to pick up a narrow 1-0 win on the road against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the same season. 

Unfortunately, Keegan’s sudden resignation in January 1997 shocked the club. This was the beginning of their decline. They did still finish second with Kenny Dalglish in charge at the end of the 1996–97 season. Yet, they were unable to reach the same heights until Sir Bobby Robson was in the dugout in the early 2000s. Despite their success in reaching FA Cup finals twice in a row in 1998 and 1999, which put Newcastle United tickets in high demand, the Toon Army were stuck in the mid-table.

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