Cole and Yorke. Rush and Dalglish. Ravanelli and Vialli. It’s every football fan’s favourite game of word association. You know a strike partnership has made true impact in football history when one player’s name becomes inextricably linked to another. It becomes an unbreakable bond that defines not just the two players who make up the duo, but often the team in which they played. To be remembered as a pairing, it’s inevitable that the players concerned combined to bring their club enormous success and, as such, they often occupy a special place in the hearts of followers of the club where the relationship formed.
Most players will be fortunate – if that’s the correct word – to be remembered just once in these terms. Few will be remembered as part of two of the greatest striking partnerships in the history of the game. For Chris Sutton, however, that’s exactly the case. It certainly isn’t down to fortune, though.
Beginning his career as a centre-half, Chris Sutton was converted into a striker during his time at first club Norwich City. Despite being released by the club as a 12-year-old, he had no trouble making Carrow Road his home when he broke in to the first team, a few years after signing a new YTS form. He made his debut in the famous yellow shirt in May 1991, participating in a 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers. It was, of course, the penultimate season before the English First Division became the Premier League and, in what would become somewhat of a theme for Sutton in his career, he would establish himself as part of a Norwich side that over-achieved given their relative size and history. “In the 1992-93 season we could have won the Premier League,” he told Planet Football. “We finished third, but we had a chance. We played Manchester United over Easter, and I know it’s all ifs and buts, but we ended up losing that game 3-1 to a really good United team who went on to win it.”
Sutton started out his career at Norwich City
It wouldn’t be until the following season, however, that Sutton would really begin to make his mark. Scoring 28 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions, he was an integral part of a Norwich side that included the talents of the likes of Ruel Fox and Efan Ekoku. The team continued to exceed expectations in Europe, famously eliminating German giants Bayern Munich in the second round of the UEFA Cup after a 2-1 win at the Olympiastadion. Domestically, however, they faltered and, despite Sutton’s significant contribution of 25 league goals, finished in a lowly 12th place. It would signal a major exodus at the club, which included Sutton.
Sutton admitted seeing manager Mike Walker leave was a big part of his own decision to go, but said in the same interview with Planet Football, “But even bigger than Mike leaving really was when the club let Ruel Fox go to Newcastle. Ruel was a mate, which didn’t help, but that was when you thought ‘we’re not going to be as strong’.”
What Sutton craved was a place that matched his ambition. A place where trophies were sought. That place, he felt, was Ewood Park. Blackburn Rovers were a club seemingly on the up, having finished 10 places above Norwich in 1993/94. Bolstered by the considerable financial clout of owner Jack Walker, the Lancashire club looked like they would challenge a dominant Manchester United side for the title. Sutton’s move north didn’t go under the radar, however. At £5 million, he was the first British player in history to command a fee of that size and it left many questioning whether he was worth such considerable financial outlay. It was something the man himself was aware of. “Even before I kicked a ball at Blackburn people were asking the question ‘does he justify that sort of money?’” he told The Linc in 2009, “I felt that I was under a lot of pressure to perform. At first it was a whole different ball game to what I’d had at Norwich and it was difficult.”
It was a challenge that Sutton would more than rise to, however. And it would be the place where he would form the first of the two great partnerships that, in part, defined his career. Forming a duo that would be dubbed ‘SAS’, Sutton teamed up with perhaps the world’s most famous Geordie, Alan Shearer. Shearer was already a firm fan favourite at Rovers, having scored an incredible 47 goals in 61 appearances in blue and white.
Sutton would only go on to make Shearer more potent in front of goal. He would prove to be the former Southampton player’s perfect foil. They combined the perfect balance of physical presence, skill and lethal finishing in a combination that had defences across England and Europe fearing them. Though Shearer would go on to score an unbelievable 67 goals in his next two seasons at Ewood Park, it was far from a one sided affair in front of goal. Sutton, too, continued the striking form that had led to his move. He scored 15 goals in his first season with the club, playing a vital part in Rovers capturing their first and, so far, only Premier League title.
Sutton and Shearer led Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title in 1995
Like so many good things, though, the famous SAS partnership of Sutton and Shearer was short lived. Sutton would experience a succession of injuries that restricted him to only 22 appearances for the club in the following season. He would score a solitary goal all year, it being one of three in a 3-2 victory over Swindon Town in the League Cup. In a performance that harked back to the previous season’s triumphs, Shearer had bagged the other two. It would be one of the last times they would play together, however. Shearer famously transferred to boyhood club Newcastle United the following summer for a record £15 million, leaving Sutton to spearhead the attack in a Blackburn side still challenging at the upper end of the Premier League table.
It would be a role Sutton would take on well. In the following three seasons, a lack of injuries allowed him to return to form and, with new striking partner Kevin Gallacher, would continue to bang in the goals for the club. At the peak of his powers in 1997/98, Sutton bagged 18 league goals, his best for the club, and helped them to a respectable 6th place finish.
Sutton’s considerable form that season saw him enter contention for a place in the England World Cup squad for the finals in France that summer. Having earned his first cap the previous November in a friendly against Cameroon, Sutton would have been right to expect to be a front-runner to earn one of the coveted places for his national side. It wasn’t to be. Having been selected in the England B squad for a friendly against Chile, a 23-year-old Sutton saw the decision as a demotion. He informed manager Glen Hoddle of his intention not to turn out for the side and, as a result, never appeared for his national side again. It was a decision Sutton himself would later acknowledge he regretted. “To say I was angry would be an understatement,” he told Football 365, “I thought I reacted in the right way at the time, but then I used to think I reacted in the right way about a lot of things! It wasn’t right what I did, and Glenn Hoddle was quite right to put me away.”
Sutton would turn out only once for his national side
The decision would mark the start of perhaps the most tumultuous time in the striker’s career. The following season would see Sutton again suffer a number of injuries and, in 1999, just four years on from being crowned champions, Blackburn Rovers were relegated. Sutton, however, remained in demand with a number of clubs rumoured to be interested in his services, including Manchester United, Arsenal and Inter Milan.
Choosing Stamford Bridge and Chelsea as his destination, Sutton arrived in London facing similar pressures to those he had at Blackburn. With a £10 million price tag hanging heavy around his neck, his time with the Blues proved to be an unhappy one. Scoring only three goals in just one season with the club, the transfer proved unsuccessful and Sutton would soon move on. Perhaps without the events at Chelsea, however, the former Norwich man would not have been afforded his next opportunity. A £6 million move north would see him join manager Martin O’Neill at Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. Sutton was looking to revive his career at the Glasgow club, and O’Neill was tasked with challenging a dominant Rangers side. Neither could have foreseen what would occur and Sutton would go on to enjoy one of the most successful periods of his playing career.
In the same interview with Football 365, Sutton admitted he was looking to fall in love with the beautiful game when he arrived in Glasgow. “After the disappointment at Chelsea it was a big thing of trying to enjoy my football again,” he told the website, “I coasted through a lot of my younger years in that I expected things to be a natural progression and everything to be plain sailing. It took that shock at Chelsea for me to sober up if you like and really realise how lucky I was to be a footballer at a great club like Celtic.”
Sutton would not disappoint. In 6 years in the famous green and white hoops of Celtic, he would become part of the greatest era in the modern history of the club. Four league titles, three Scottish Cups, an appearance at the 2003 UEFA Cup final and multiple unforgettable Champions League nights would see Sutton find a place in the hearts of the Celtic faithful for life.
Key to all that success, however, was the second of Sutton’s famous partnerships. Teaming up with Swede Henrik Larsson, the pair terrorised defences both in Scotland and Europe. Any manager seeing ‘Sutton and Larsson’ on the team sheet knew their defences were in trouble. It’s a combination that has gone down as one of the best in Celtic’s considerable history. It’s due in no small part to Sutton that Larsson was voted into Celtic’s greatest ever eleven. Larsson, himself, has since acknowledged how vital Sutton’s role was, naming him up front with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the best 11 players he ever played with for Sky Sports’ Fantasy Football programme. Considering the calibre of players Larsson played with in his distinguished career, it’s no small feat for Sutton to have made the cut. Few who saw the pair in action would argue with the selection, though.
Sutton and Larsson formed one of the most formidable partnerships in Celtic’s history
Sutton was more than simply an also-ran in terms of scoring while at Celtic, however. In 199 appearances for the club, he scored an incredible 86 goals for the club, bagging the SFA Players’ Player of the Year Award in 2004. “I had the best five years of my career at Celtic,” Sutton later said. “A big part of that was Martin O’Neill, but the chance to play with Henrik Larsson was enormous, a bit like going to Blackburn with Alan Shearer.” Sutton is widely regarded as a fan favourite amongst followers of Celtic a decade on from his departure, as much for his evident love for the club as for his achievements there. His media work with BT Sport, in which he displays an in-depth knowledge and obvious interest in the Scottish game like few others, are the after-effects of a successful playing career north of the border.
There’s no doubt Chris Sutton was an exceptional footballer. Often lauded for his strength and physicality, he was also an accomplished player technically. He was a vital part of every team he played in and, even more so, gave football fans across Britain joy as part of two of the greatest strike partnerships in the game’s history. Whether it be in Scotland or England, Sutton is rightly remembered as one of the best strikers of the last 20 years and, as a Celtic fan myself, it was a pleasure to watch his work up close for so long.