Blackburn beware the yips

Ian Ridley surveys the qualities needed to maintain the title pressure
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THE proximity of the prize can see the best betrayed: runners whose muscles tighten, golfers whose nerves jangle and footballers whose consistency is brutally broken. It happened to Blackburn Rovers last Sunday at West Ham. Tomorrow night they seek to run it out of their legs against Newcastle United and re-assert their claim to the Premiership title.

Before then, Manchester United take on Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford today, seeking to knock a few more nails into the bed that was so recently a comfortable cushion for Rovers. A win for United would take them to within two points of the leaders on level games played; they have Southampton at home in midweek to come and West Ham away next Sunday while, after Newcastle, Blackburn go to Liverpool in a week's time.

We have been this way before. Four seasons ago United surrendered such a lead to Leeds United, whose manager Howard Wilkinson recalls vividly the stresses involved. "The managers would like to go to bed and wake up with all the games played and won but it doesn't happen," he said.

Wilkinson's side have played both contenders recently, drawing 0-0 at Old Trafford and eking out a last-minute point at home to Blackburn. It may have been then that Rovers' self-doubt surfaced. "They looked in control, confident and happy with themselves," said Wilkinson. Having failed to take the three points they deserved, anxiety appears to have intruded.

Going to Elland Road, Blackburn had taken 23 points from nine unbeaten matches. Since, they have only four from four. For managers' long-term plans, performances are always more to be trusted than results. Now we have reached the short-term.

"I liken it to a major golf championship," said Wilkinson. "You are up there on the leader board after three and three quarter rounds. The worst thing you can do is alter your swing. You should go for important shots the way you have been doing; thinking about the consequences of the shot shouldn't affect your choice of club or shot."

As a keen golfer, the Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish will be thinking along similar lines, pressing his players to fight the yips and recall the virtues that had established their lead: solidity of shape and lack of inhibition in attack. Simply to deny chances to the opposition through hard work and to get the ball to Alan Shearer as quickly as possible at the other end. He will need to point out that the memory of an FA Cup defeat by Newcastle in January should motivate rather than unnerve. "You have experienced people like Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford in charge and experienced players like Colin Hendry and Tim Sherwood on the field who should recognise it all, so I would still be happier in Blackburn's position than Manchester United's," said Wilkinson.

Blackburn's pursuit of Manchester United last season, however, was spirited but ultimately forlorn; United went on to win the title the following season after their tussle with Leeds and have the greater experience. It will be the reactions to the metaphorical disasters and triumphs of last week that count for most. Blackburn were uncharacteristically porous in losing 2-0 at West Ham, United suprisingly bouyant in beating Coventry 3-2 without Bruce, Ince, Keane, Kanchelskis and Giggs.

"I'm tempted to keep the same side; they did so well," said Alex Ferguson, especially impressed by Paul Scholes, who is clearly picking up some Cantonaesque clues in training. It seems unthinkable, however, that Ferguson will not today recall Paul Ince after suspension and Ryan Giggs after injury.

The match against Wednesday should also inspire warm memories in United, whose 2-1 win with two injury-time goals by Bruce in the corresponding fixture at Easter two seasons ago did much to bring United their first title in 26 years.