A bewildered chicken is flung onto the pitch. 25,000 Lancastrians scream together, united by hatred. Overhead, a plane hums, the banner it pulls behind it bearing a provocative message: ‘In Venkys We Trust’. Welcome to Ewood Park circa 2012, where chaos reigns supreme.
All this took place on one particularly loopy evening in May as Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League. Dressed in a Rovers flag, the chicken was a reference to the club’s owners who had made their millions in the poultry industry. The airborne goading was too an allusion to the Venkys family. It came courtesy of Burnley Supporters Union who were glorying in their old rivals’ misery. The match was a circus, apt considering the goings-on off the pitch at the time.
Watching on somewhere was a medalled right-back who, at the age of 36, had just experienced his first relegation as a professional footballer. Michel Salgado was still under contract with Blackburn Rovers at the time but played his last game for the club some five months earlier. It was an ill-fitting end for a two-time Champions League winner and cult hero, both in Madrid and East Lancashire.
That Salgado played no part in Rovers’ relegation battle in the 11-12 campaign was the result of poor financial planning and not a lack of ability. Once asked in an interview what would be his chosen superpower, Salgado answered tellingly: “Fire – so I could burn down the line.” And while he no longer possessed the pace which made him so great in the early 2000s, the Spaniard was a semi-messianic figure for Rovers fans and still a bullfighter of a player.
Salgado lumbered like a silverback, but there was a culture and brevity in his play which made him an incredibly effective full-back. He was the physical embodiment of the club’s motto ‘Arte et Labore’: ‘By Skill and Hard Work’.
When Salgado told the press that he would play no further part in Rovers’ fight against the drop that season because doing so would trigger a one-year extension clause in his contract, it was a death knell for the club. “I want the fans to know all I want to do is help the team and help Blackburn survive in the Premier League, but the owners and manager aren’t allowing me to do this,” he explained. It was a shambolic state of affairs. But unfortunately, at Blackburn Rovers, the shambolic had become the norm.
When Salgado arrived in Blackburn in 2009, he was blissfully unaware of what was to come. After a decade’s service at Real Madrid, then Rovers boss Sam Allardyce agreed to take the Spaniard on trial. He impressed with his aggressive approach to the game (while with Los Blancos, teammate Steve McManaman described Salgado as a “genuine psychopath”) and signed permanently on a two-year deal.
In doing so, Salgado had fulfilled a long-held ambition to play in the Premier League, a dream which led him to turn down more lucrative offers from Real Zaragoza and a number of clubs in the Middle East before signing for Rovers. Sam Allardyce added a vastly experienced full-back to his roster and sated his appetite for signing big-name veterans (see also: Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff).
For a while, life in Lancashire was as rosy as the flower on his new club’s crest. Salgado’s virtues – his blood and thunder attitude, irrepressible work rate and superstar heritage – ensured that Rovers fans took to him instantly. “He came from Real Madrid; he didn’t cost a quid,” they sang as the grizzled full-back helped them to a 10th place finish in the Premier League.
Rovers reached the semi-finals of the League Cup that year too, with Salgado scoring his first goal on English soil in a 4th Round tie against Peterborough United. Latching on to a Brett Emerton pass after a thunderous run from the edge of his own area, Salgado walloped past the keeper from an acute angle. A player who made a career for himself putting out fires in his own defensive quarters, Salgado was more than capable of starting them in the opposition’s final third too.
The most high-profile example of Salgado’s distinguished attacking play came in Real Madrid’s 3-0 Champions League Final victory against Valencia in 2000. Bursting forward from right-back with characteristic vigour, Salgado played a one-two with Nicholas Anelka, wrestled with Javier Farinós, then chopped the ball to the back-post where Fernando Morientes was waiting. Salgado fell on his backside in the process. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing goal in Champions League history, but it was a showcase of Salgado’s deceptively powerful offensive presence. Roberto Carlos, as extroverted a player as you’ll ever see, often stole the show on the opposite side of Real Madrid’s defence, but Salgado is remembered just as fondly at the Bernabéu.
In fact, Salgado’s bond with the royal club was beyond skin deep – it was by blood. In 2000, Salgado married Maluna Sanz, daughter of the late Lorenzo Sanz. Míchel’s father-in-law was president of Real Madrid between 1995 and 2000 before he was succeeded by Florentino Perez.
Salgado lost his spot in Los Blancos’ starting 11 in 2007 when a future Real Madrid great, Sergio Ramos, began to prove his worth. But he remained a fantastic ambassador for the club. Even in a dressing room which Raúl once described as “a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers,” the boyhood Madridista was an upstanding and cathartic figure.
For a while in East Lancashire, the former Galactico must have thought he was back in the Spanish capital. When Blackburn Rovers was taken over by the Venkys in 2011, the names linked with the club bordered on the surreal. Much to the befuddlement of the media, Allardyce was dismissed in December. This was despite Rovers sitting comfortably in mid-table. A few eyebrows were raised when Diego Maradona was linked with the vacant managerial position, a few more when the board eventually settled on First Team Coach Steve Kean.
In the weeks and months that followed, Rovers fans must have felt like they were living in a fever dream. Kean talked openly in press conferences about the desire to bring David Beckham and Ronaldinho to the club with Salgado’s ex-teammate Raúl also supposedly in the crosshairs. Distracted by the transfer rumour carnival, Rovers found themselves sucked into a relegation battle which they would only narrowly escape.
In the closing stages of that campaign, Salgado featured in the 1-1 draw with Manchester United which saw Alex Ferguson’s side win a record-breaking 19th Premier League title. Rovers’ opposition needed just a point that day and were trailing up until the 73rd minute when Rooney hammered in a contentious penalty. With both sides content with a point, United proceeded to pass the ball around the back virtually unchallenged, leading to a sequence of 174 uninterrupted passes – a Premier League record. Visibly frustrated by his team’s acceptance of the situation, it was Salgado who eventually ended the passing procession with a reducing challenge on Jonny Evans. Ewood was appreciative.
In the following season, Salgado would feature just nine times before he was frozen out. His career came to a frustrating end. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his last professional appearance would come in a 2-1 loss to Sunderland in December 2011. Rovers led 1-0 with five minutes to go but ended up going home with zero points thanks to late strikes from David Vaughan and Seb Larsson. Before the collapse, Kean used all three substitutes, making like-for-like switches involving three of his back-four. A bizarre tactical decision in a bizarre match, emblematic of bizarre times for Blackburn and Salgado.
It was a piteous end to an otherwise prestigious career. But despite being used to a more salubrious setting, Salgado won hearts in his time in Lancashire, perhaps more than any other player in such a short period of time. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the owners since his enforced departure. “It is outrageous,” Salgado said of Rovers’ tailspin decline after his exit. While they were dark days for the club, Salgado always shone in the shadows.