Back in November 1995, during a Champions League encounter between Blackburn Rovers and Spartak Moscow, Graeme Le Saux did something remarkable: he punched David Batty.
It was remarkable not only for the fact the two were supposed to be team-mates but also because Le Saux punched the tough-tackling Yorkshire hardman and lived to tell the tale.
Here’s a look back at the unfolding of events which led to that moment and the aftermath that followed.
Blackburn were still riding high from their Premier League title success by the time the 1995-96 season began. Kenny Dalglish had moved upstairs to become Director of Football with assistant manager Ray Harford viewed as the perfect replacement.
Yet by September any hopes of a second successive Premier League crown had all but evaporated with Blackburn taking just four points from the first 15 available. Alan Shearer continued to find the net, scoring in four of those first five games, but Blackburn’s previously solid defence was starting to wobble.
The Champions League at least offered some respite.
Drawn in a winnable group alongside Rosenborg, Legia Warsaw and Spartak Moscow, hopes were high for the Premier League’s sole participants. However, three consecutive defeats left Blackburn on the brink of an embarrassing early exit from the competition going into November as the team continuing to stutter in the league.
Though a drab 0-0 draw with Legia Warsaw at Ewood Park on November 1 stopped the rot, three weeks later Harford’s side faced Spartak Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium knowing only a win would keep their slim chances of reaching the knockout stages alive.
It didn’t exactly go to plan.
With Spartak already safely through to the quarter-finals, Blackburn had more than a glimmer of hope going into the game and came out fighting – in every sense of the word.
They harried and hassled Spartak from the first whistle, tackling with tenacity and chasing down every ball as if it were the last. Blackburn’s battling qualities would soon spark the game’s first major flashpoint too, but it was in a manner few could have predicted.
Four minutes into the game, Le Saux and Batty collided after going for the same loose ball. Arriving at speed, Le Saux undoubtedly came off the worse of the two, with the clash sending the left-back sprawling to his knees at the side of the pitch.
Batty stayed on his feet, but he could do little to prevent the resulting comedy of errors that had ended with the ball going out. Evidently unhappy at what had transpired, he directed his ire toward his team-mate; that was when things started to go wrong.
Taking the throw quickly, Spartak broke forward, but neither Le Saux nor Batty appeared especially concerned with atoning for their collective error and stopping the attack.
Instead, an angry exchange of words began, off camera. When play eventually stopped for a foul on captain Tim Sherwood, it became apparent that the exchange had turned ugly as the pair traded pushes and shoves.
Le Saux threw the first punch with a left hook to the approaching Batty’s throat and appeared to be winding up for another before Sherwood intervened, with the Blackburn captain getting an almighty thump of his own for his troubles.
Batty, for his part, didn’t shy away from the confrontation, continuing to trade barbs with Le Saux even after Sherwood’s intervention and repeated requests to go away, albeit in slightly more colourful terms. Footage of the incident perfectly captures Batty’s angry, grimacing face as he reacts to the punch and hints at the even uglier scenes that could have unfolded had Sherwood not stepped in.
In any case, the war of words between the pair continued for several minutes before the additional intervention of team-mates Henning Berg and Colin Hendry finally saw things calm down.
Batty and Le Saux were sent in opposite directions, like squabbling siblings sent to different ends of the house by exasperated parents, and they continued to trade insults from 40 yards away even once the match finally got back underway.
In most instances, this kind of ugly encounter would have resulted in one, if not two red cards.
In this instance, however, it resulted in a free-kick to Blackburn, with referee Pierluigi Pairetto either oblivious to what had unfolded or eager to avoid a potentially game-altering double sending off.
But while both players avoided an early bath, Blackburn’s team unity and fighting spirit appeared spent. Another angry exchange of words between Sherwood and Hendry after 23 minutes threatened to spill over into another incident before Dimitri Alenichev gave Spartak the lead five minutes later.
Spartak added another two goals early in the second half as Hendry was indeed sent off with 14 minutes to go, but it was Le Saux and Batty who emerged as the villains of the piece.
Substituted off on the hour mark with a broken hand, Le Saux was arguably at fault for all three Spartak goals. Batty was not beyond reproach, of course, having wound the mild-mannered Le Saux up to the point of violence and then refused to back off. In truth, Blackburn might have stood a better chance had Harford taken both players off after the incident. But he didn’t.
Speaking after the game, the Rovers manager refused to be drawn on the matter, preferring to deal with the issue internally.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” Harford told reporters. “You write it then. Write what you saw. If action needs to be taken it will be, and I do not think I really need to look at the evidence.”
However, with the pressure mounting after a poor start to the season, there were increasing concerns behind the scenes at Blackburn that the inexperienced Harford was struggling to control the sizeable egos of the squad. He would be sacked within a year.
Spartak manager Oleg Romantsev, for his part, was bemused by the incident. “Before the match I told my players they will be playing against 11 guys ready to fight for each other for 90 minutes – not with each other,” he quipped.
Not everyone saw the funny side, though. The Independent ran their match report under the headline: “Le Saux and Batty shame Blackburn.”
Though the two players buried the hatchet, Batty left for Newcastle two months later. Kevin Keegan described the signing of the combative midfielder as “the last piece in my jigsaw”. The England international would go on to narrowly miss out on winning back-to-back league titles with different clubs – a feat later achieved for the first time by N’Golo Kante with Leicester and Chelsea.
Blackburn, meanwhile, eventually recovered some form to finish two points off a UEFA Cup place in the Premier League that season but never returned to the Champions League, with Le Saux and Shearer leading the Ewood Park exodus in the years that followed.
Le Saux would later revisit the Batty incident in his autobiography Left Field: A Footballer Apart.
“I hit the deck and, as I got up, he came at me very aggressively. He was being threatening and screaming things. His face was contorted with anger, as if he was going to rip my head off,” Le Saux wrote.
“Hitting him was more of a pre-emptive strike than anything. If I had not hit him, I felt he was going to hit me.”
He also dismissed any suggestion the fight was sparked by the kind of homophobic taunts Robbie Fowler famously directed at the defender during his time at Chelsea.
Instead, he attributed the fight to weeks of simmering tensions between the players, with Batty often a vocal critic of Le Saux on the pitch and Le Saux not especially receptive to his team-mate’s criticism or choice of words.
“It is a myth that he was hurling a stream of homophobic abuse. It wasn’t the words that got to me, but a combination of four or five things. I was upset at what he said and that he was accusing me of being selfish again. I was upset that we were not doing well as a team and I reacted because of the way he behaved.”
Le Saux also revealed how he ended up the worse for wear from the incident.
“I swung at him, connected and knew immediately that I had broken my left hand. I am not a fighter. I hadn’t closed my fist properly. I was in a lot of pain, which just made me feel more ridiculous,” Le Saux wrote.
Despite the ugly scenes witnessed on that cold November night, Le Saux insists it didn’t take long for the pair to make peace.
“I apologised to David after the game in the dressing room in front of our team-mates, then I sat with him in the airport lounge and we talked about it,” he said in the book.
“He was absolutely fine, absolutely calm. He told me not to worry.
“We were just two men who were deeply p*ssed off at what was going on at our football club and who felt powerless to stop the slide.”
Batty, for his part, has never commented on the incident or any other from his glittering career, with the former Leeds favourite shunning the limelight since hanging up his boots in 2004.
A typical Yorkshireman, Batty always did prefer to do his talking on the pitch – whether his team-mates liked it or not.