Blackburn march on to a chorus of disapproval

Rovers' 2-1 victory at Everton strengthens their position at the top, but Guy Hodgson thinks they would be unloved champions
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The Independent Online
The chorus of derision that poured from the Goodison Park stands confirmed one thing: Blackburn are threatening to become the least applauded champions of the last two decades.

In most supporters' eyes, the one good point about the Premiership leaders is that they are not Manchester United, but take away that dubious accolade and most neutrals feel fairly antipathetic towards them. This match merely confirmed the trend.

The first caller to Six-O-Six on Saturday, an Everton supporter, voiced the distaste, accusing Blackburn of gamesmanship and negativity. "I never thought I'd say this," he said, risking accusations of heresy on Merseyside, "but I hope United win the title. At least they attempt to play with a bit of style."

A lot of the aversion stems from jealousy - Jack Walker's money can buy a championship, not love - but for all their breathtaking moments, particularly at Ewood Park, there are matches like this, when Blackburn are charmless. The less than edifying sight of the best striker in Britain, Alan Shearer, booting the ball anywhere just to waste time summed up their play.

Blackburn won the match in the first six minutes and then clung on to their prize through a mixture of luck and naked pragmatism. The game had its exciting peaks, but the mood was wholly uncompromising with neither side willing to abandon their physical approach for something more cerebral.

"It was a fortunate three points," Kenny Dalglish, the Blackburn manager, agreed. "Everton have every reason to feel disappointed they didn't get anything from the game. We didn't reach the standards we have set for ourselves, but I couldn't fault the players for their commitment and effort. At this stage of the season, results are more important than the performance."

The tone for the game was set by its opening. Everton tried a three centre- back formation, and within 14 seconds the experiment had failed as Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer won balls in the air for the former to beat Neville Southall from 10 yards. Everton claimed Sutton had handled the ball while controlling it, but the televison pictures were not conclusive.

They were more so for Blackburn's second goal, showing that Earl Barrett was harshly treated when he was ruled to have fouled Shearer near the right touchline. His feelings will not have improved when Graeme Le Saux's free-kick rebounded off a combination of Sutton and Gary Ablett to Shearer, who showed wonderful precision to thump the ball in from the edge of the area.

That, as far as Blackburn were concerned, was that in terms of attack, and for 84 minutes they were pummelled on to the ropes by Everton's robust response. Duncan Ferguson and Paul Rideout were missing, but clearly no one had told the home players because they insisted on using the high ball as their main weapon.

In theory that should have been a waste of time against the air force that is Colin Hendry and Co, but such was the ferocity and frequency of the onslaught that Blackburn's defenders began to buckle. Graham Stuart scored with a delightful chip after 23 minutes, and Everton were unfortunate when Stuart Barlow hit the post soon afterwards and Andy Hinchcliffe's shot was cleared off the line by Hendry.

The results leaves Everton back in the relegation mire they had hoped they had left, while Blackburn have an altogether more pleasant prospect ahead of them.

"If we can be as fortunate for the next seven matches I'll be happy," Dalglish said. Whether the football-watching public share that happiness remains a contentious point.

Goals: Sutton (1) 0-1; Shearer (6) 0-2; Stuart (23) 1-2.

Everton (3-5-2): Southall; Watson, Barrett, Ablett; Jackson, Horne, Parkinson, Stuart, Hinchcliffe; Amokachi, Barlow (Grant, 47). Substitutes not used: Holmes, Kearton (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Kenna; Ripley, Sherwood, Atkins, Le Saux; Shearer, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Witschge, Newell, Mimms (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

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