The best Blackburn Rovers XI of the 21st century - featuring former Man City & Liverpool stars

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The greatest players to play for Blackburn Rovers this century, featuring former Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool stars.

Earlier this year, when we were possessed by the cruel and uncharitable spirit that comes with the arrival of the grey Northern winter – around the end of July, this year – we put together a series of the worst XIs of the 21st century for a variety of different teams, including my own beloved Blackburn Rovers. But now that the festive period is upon us and our spirit has been lifted by the crackling of log fires, the harmonious sounds of carollers and excess consumption of chocolate, we find ourselves in more benevolent mood. It is only right, then, that I offer up the greatest eleven players to have graced the turf of Ewood Park since the turn of the millennium.

As you might expect, the team is entirely constructed of the greatest players of our Premier League years, a time in which East Lancashire was home to many fabulous talents, which isn’t to say that there haven’t been some cracking players in the blue-and-white halves during our long run in the Football League wilderness. But with apologies to the likes of Jordan Rhodes and Bradley Dack, it’s just hard to hold a candle to some of the greats of Ewood’s recent past. Let’s dive in…

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Brad Friedel - goalkeeper

Blackburn have had some fantastic goalkeepers over the years, and between Paul Robinson, Thomas Kaminski and David Raya there are some fine contenders – but there is only one possible winner. Big, bald and utterly indomitable, Friedel was the complete ‘keeper, a fabulous shot-stopper, superb in the air and blessed with unexpectedly quick reactions. How Blackburn got to enjoy all of his best years remains a mystery, as he would have been an easy number one for almost every team in the world at his prime – but happily, he was ours, and he saved our skins on more occasions than we could possibly recount. Thanks, Brad.

Stephen Warnock – left-back

If Blackburn have had a lot of luck in net, we’ve had less at left-back, and quite a few distinctly uninspiring players tried and failed to replace Graeme Le Saux in the years after the Premier League title win. By far the best was Warnock, a classy and technically talented player who could pick a pass, was excellent on the overlap and offered some superb deliveries from the left flank, as well as being a redoubtable defender who let little past him. Had he been that bit quicker and stronger, he could have been one of the best in Europe, but he was more than good enough for us.

Ryan Nelsen – centre-back

Perhaps the most under-rated centre-half of the Premier League era and the winner of the Most Mis-spelled Name Award several years in a row, Nelsen was a stern and steely presence at the back who brick-walled some of the finest forwards in the land over his Rovers tenure. Superb in the air with a forehead like a sledgehammer, he marked opposing strikers like they were in a vice. Perhaps my favourite memory of Nelsen is when a young Cristiano Ronaldo took him on one-on-one, flipped through a string of befuddling stepovers, and was then left bawling in a heap when the New Zealander stepped in with an inch-perfect block to take the ball away as though he was dispossessing a toddler in a family game down the park. Nicknamed ‘The Admiral’ and earned every inch of it.

Christopher Samba – centre-back

A massive figure whose gargantuan frame blotted out the sun but also belied graceful footwork and the ability to dribble the ball confidently out from the back at a time when few defenders had that in their locker. His sheer size meant many fans of rival teams assumed he was simply a massive bundle of physical attributes but he had plenty of skill and guile – although when he was outclassed by an opponent, he wasn’t shy about simply bullying them out of the game. If I had to pick a Blackburn player to arm-wrestle for my life, he’d be first man up, but I’d have him play out from defence for my life too. Although quite how that scenario would come about is unclear.

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Lucas Neill – right-back

The pugnacious Aussie left on a bit of a sour note when he made a big fuss of wanting to go to Liverpool to win trophies, only to choose then big-spending West Ham United instead so he could get a fatter pay-cheque. Which, looking back, was a perfectly understandable decision, and while it riled plenty of fans at the time, he’s now looked back on with immense fondness. Not the most technically-gifted player to wear the shirt by any means, but one of the toughest and surely the hardest-tackling. The kind of defender who won plenty of duels simply because opposing left-wingers were justifiably scared about having their shins snapped in two. Offered plenty going forward, too.

Damien Duff – left wing

Leaving Morten Gamst Pedersen out of this side hurts me to the very core, especially given that Duff only played for the first few years of the century before heading off to join Roman Abramovich’s richly-endowed revolution at Chelsea. But what a player the Irishman was – lithe, lightning fast, a devastating dribbler and with an accurate and surprisingly powerful shot. He was Blackburn’s top scorer in the 2002/03 season when he helped the team to qualify for the UEFA Cup, a period which basically marked the start of what turned out to be something of a golden era for the club. Injuries meant his prime years were relatively short, but perhaps only Ryan Giggs stands clear of him in the pantheon of Premier League left wingers.

Tugay Kerimoglu – centre midfield

My sweet, hairy prince. My one and only. Our Turkish delight. Tugay was lazy in training and prone to skipping pre-match team-talks in favour of a crafty cigarette in the toilets, but it never mattered – there was magic in those feet. One of the greatest passers in the game at the time and a midfield conductor who wove symphonies of soccer around him, linking up play and sliding forwards in behind the defence with endless grace, elegance and insouciance. Didn’t score many, but when his name popped up on the scoresheet you knew it would be an absolute banger. A true cult hero, and my favourite footballer of all time.

David Dunn – centre midfield

The feet of Paul Gascoigne combined with the voice and bluff, barrel-chested demeanour of a local butcher – a combination which guaranteed the adoration of the fan base. A horrible slew of injuries combined with the misfortune of playing at the same time as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard ensured he never became the England star he seemed destined to become, but at his best he was still a glorious player to watch, direct and dangerous around the box but with twinkling feet that could befuddle defenders. Spent a total of 14 years at Blackburn after coming through the academy and is the dictionary definition of a player who will never have to buy his own ale within the bounds of the town.

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David Bentley – right wing

Before he joined Blackburn, Bentley was an obviously gifted but frustrating young prospect at Arsenal. After he left, he lost all interest in football and could justifiably be put in an XI of Tottenham Hotspur’s worst players. In the middle, though, when he was ours? He was sublime, our version of David Beckham with a passing range to die for and the ability to drop a cross onto a twenty-pence piece from 40 yards. Like Beckham, he also scored a lengthy highlight reel’s worth of very good and very important goals, and also like Beckham, he probably fancied himself a bit too much. He was only here for three seasons, three years in the sun which amounted to the sum total of his peak years, but my word was he special for that brief and beautiful period of time.

Benni McCarthy – centre-forward

McCarthy rightly made it into our worst West Ham XI of the century, but before the wheels fell off he was something else. For starters, a Champions League winner at Ewood Park? A rarity and a luxury, to say the least – and he lived up to that lofty billing, scoring sackloads of goals in his first season with his quick bursts of acceleration, gossamer first touch and pinpoint finishing. Things ebbed and flowed after that glorious start, with patches of sublime form mixed in with injury-induced lulls, but he still hit double figures for three seasons in a row with a touch of class that very few forwards could boast of. Bit of a shame where it went at Upton Park, mind you.

Roque Santa Cruz – centre-forward

The festively named Paraguayan pin-up who was hugely hyped through his youth and who played for both Bayern Munich and Manchester City – but his best years were unquestionably at little old Blackburn Rovers. Technically adroit and superb in the air, he was more or less the complete striker, and he clearly had a point to prove when he flunked out of Bavaria and found himself in the damp confines of the English North west – and that fierce desire to prove himself a world-class player meant that he was, every inch of it, while he wore the blue and white shirt. The fire seemed to go out once he earned his second big move, making him another player (like Bentley) who burned bright at Blackburn but never really did it anywhere else. Somehow, that makes him even more special to us.

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