Blackburn left facing uphill task

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The Independent Online
Football

Ray Harford, the Blackburn manager, faces a stern test of his motivational skills after any lingering trophy hopes for this season were extinguished by First Division Ipswich in the FA Cup.

Rovers, who need success and European football to justify their pounds 40m investment on players, went down 1-0 at Ewood Park during extra-time of their third-round replay on Tuesday.

Harford now faces the task of lifting his team's spirits for the rest of a campaign that features only the outside chance of a Uefa Cup place to play for.

Harford has already relegated his captain, Tim Sherwood, to the substitutes' bench, while Alan Shearer is again being linked with a move to Italy, and this latest humiliation could prompt an exodus from Ewood with Jack Walker, Rovers' owner, unlikely to be impressed by the poor return on his money since last May's Premiership triumph.

Walker had expressed a desire to see his team win the FA Cup for the seventh time, but Harford's earlier theory that "we've looked more of a cup team this season" fails to stand up in the light of Blackburn's failure to qualify for the European knock-out stages and their struggles to overcome Swindon and Watford before losing at Leeds in the Coca-Cola Cup.

Ipswich's victory echoed a similar Rovers defeat two years ago, when Charlton won at Blackburn after a goalless first meeting, and it did little to allay comments that Blackburn are one-season wonders. Tony Mowbray, Claus Thomsen and teenage goalkeeper Richard Wright did what no Premiership side has achieved this season and prevented Shearer from finding the net at Ewood.

Now Harford must decide whether to give his own signings such as Niklas Gudmundsson, Billy McKinlay and Graham Fenton an extended run at the expense of some of his more established stars such as Sherwood, Stuart Ripley and Mike Newell.

However, Colin Hendry, captain in the absence of the deposed Sherwood, said: "We've still got the Premiership to play for. The majority of people outside of Blackburn have written us off, but we're not concerned about that. We're only seven points behind Manchester United, so by the time we play them we could be breathing down their necks. There are 15 games left and 45 points to play for."

Despite the stirring words, Blackburn could yet be the only English side to regret the Association's decision to boycott the Intertoto Cup.

Andy Cole yesterday said that the misery of missing out on Manchester United's Wembley run last year had fired his FA Cup ambitions this time around.

The Cup-tied Cole was a spectator as the Old Trafford side advanced on Wembley last season, but the 24-year-old made his mark on this year's tournament in dramatic fashion with the last-minute winner at Sunderland which earned Alex Ferguson's side a fourth-round trip to Reading.

As he reflected on only the second FA Cup goal of his career, Cole admitted that the memories of 12 months ago were the strongest motivation for him.

"It was just so frustrating to have to sit in the stands and watch the lads last year," said Cole, who has now scored five goals in his last seven games. "They were going all the way to Wembley, but I couldn't really get involved and it wasn't easy. Everybody knows the FA Cup is something special and after last term it's great for me to be able to get involved this time.

"It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for me so far, but I've just kept on plugging away," Cole said. "I'm certainly not going to complain about the service I've had from the other players, because that's been first class. United play in a way that means every striker gets good chances."

If United are to put pressure on Cole's former club in the championship race, the Old Trafford side must continue to create those opportunities, with the onus on Ferguson's biggest buy to convert them.

The pain of Sunderland's Cup exit will be forgotten if the manager can lead them into the Premiership. Peter Reid is hoping to complete the full signing of Chelsea's on-loan Welsh international midfielder, Gareth Hall, within days to bolster a squad lacking real depth, and he said that Sunday's crucial match with promotion rivals Leicester means there is no time for wallowing in self-pity.

"It's history now," Reid said. "You don't win any League points for the two games against United. Having said that, we had them chasing shadows at times in both games and that shows how good we nearly are.

"I've said all along that the League is the important thing and everybody knows that. We performed very, very well in patches against United, but we've got to go into the League games with the same attitude."

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