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Blackburn taking Europe by stealth

As the UEFA Cup group stage draw nears, one-time big spenders Blackburn Rovers FC are enjoying a purple patch under the softly-spoken Mark Hughes.

When Blackburn Rovers FC wrested the Premiership title away from Manchester United FC back in 1994/95, it was, perhaps surprisingly, not a result that pleased football's romantics.

Nouveau riche
The Lancashire outfit had not won the league title since taking the crown in 1912 and 1914, but with multi-millionaire owner Jack Walker having provided the unfashionable club with manager Kenny Dalglish and the funds to buy seemingly any player they chose, it hardly seemed like a fair fight. The signings of Alan Shearer from Southampton FC for £3.6m (€5.3m) in 1992 and Chris Sutton from Norwich City FC for £5m (€7.4m) two years later showed that they were the only club capable of competing with - and indeed outgunning - Sir Alex Ferguson's employers in the transfer market.

Stark contrast
Such sums seem reasonably paltry in the light of modern transfer fees and as far as benefactors go, steel tycoon Walker - who died in 2000 at the age of 71 - was hardly on a par with Roman Abramovich at Chelsea FC, but the club that he helped revive are continuing to thrive today, albeit in a more modest style. A 2-1 win against Wigan Athletic FC on Sunday left Blackburn, now managed by former United player and Welsh international Mark Hughes, ninth in the Premiership table.

Salzburg success
That completed a hugely satisfactory week in which they reached the UEFA Cup group stage after completing a 4-2 aggregate win against FC Salzburg with a 2-0 home victory last Thursday night. "We dominated the game and we are in the group stages now," reflected Hughes matter-of-factly after that match. "In the second half my only fear was that we were playing so well and were so comfortable that we might over-indulge and get caught out, but in fairness to the guys, they were excellent."

Attractive signings
Despite the gold-rush days of the Walker era, Blackburn's image remains resolutely unfancy. However, they have stocked up on classy players in recent years, a counterpoint to their more rugged stars like Welsh midfielder Robbie Savage and captain Andy Todd. The likes of Dutch defender André Ooijer, former Arsenal FC trainee David Bentley, Congolese striker Shabani Nonda and South African forward Benni McCarthy might not have appealed to Europe's top-tier clubs, but all have found their feet at Ewood Park.

Unassuming coach
Hughes remains an underappreciated figure. A steady rather than charismatic figure, the former Wales manager's sides are always well-organised, and his current Blackburn outfit may be one of his best yet with tidy passing in midfield and plenty of power up front - not bad considering that he was never marked out for a career in management. "Why?" he said once. "Because I am quietly spoken? There's nothing I can do about that; I suppose it's better than having a squeaky voice." He may not have the resources that made Blackburn champions of England in the mid-1990s, but as the UEFA Cup group stage draw approaches with his side in splendid form, the quiet man has put together a team worth shouting about.