Blackburn misplace their fighting spirit

FOOTBALL: Things have gone right and then wrong for Rovers in 1995. Glenn Moore looks at Ewood Park's highs and lows
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The Independent Online
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same..."

It is not known if any Blackburn players voted when Rudyard Kipling's "If" was chosen as the nation's favourite poem earlier this year, but few people will be as well-placed to appreciate its most commonly quoted sentiment.

In 1995, Rovers experienced the greatest highs and deepest lows (genuine tragedy apart) that the English game has to offer. In May, they won their first championship for 81 years, completing a four-year rise from the Second Division. By November, they were the laughing stock of Europe, a miserable Champions' League campaign reaching its nadir when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty traded punches in Moscow.

They have since won a game in Europe, but a 5-0 defeat by Coventry underlined their decline. They receive Tottenham at Ewood Park today, 17 points and nine places behind the leaders. The most obvious difference between last season and this is in the dug-out. Where Kenny Dalglish once stood, Ray Harford now sits. Under Harford, the team appears to have lost cohesion and commitment. There have even been chants of "Harford out" from the Rovers' supporters.

It would be nice to hear Harford's defence of his record, but having agreed to be interviewed at Blackburn's training ground yesterday, he left the complex before the agreed time.

A case can be put in his absence. The signs of decline were there in April. Blackburn tottered over the finishing line like a marathon runner who had been asked to run a mile too far. Only Manchester United's failure to beat West Ham gave them the title.

Since 4 April, when they gained a slightly fortuitous win at Queen's Park Rangers, Blackburn have won 14 and lost 17 of 37 matches. The away statistics are the most telling: played 20, lost 14, won two - both against Endsleigh League opposition.

Championships - and European competitions - are won away from home, that is where a team shows its character. That there is dissension in the side is obvious, the Moscow brawl underlined that. But teams do not have to like each other, there were players in the successful Liverpool team of the 1970s who could not stand one another, but possessed a mutual respect and aim and backed each other up on the field.

Jealousies and cliques only become a problem when a team begins losing. Suddenly players do not make that extra effort for a team-mate; they do not make that covering run, or pull defenders out of position.

Within the Blackburn side, there are players whose attitudes could be defined as "new lad" - the ones who spent a sightseeing trip around Moscow telling rude jokes at the back of the bus. Others possess either a broader outlook on life or a more focused, professional one.

The most obvious outsider is Le Saux. Dressing-rooms are conservative places and any form of intellectualism is frowned upon. Le Saux reads the broadsheets, lives in a cottage he is renovating (rather than on a mock-Georgian estate), and writes of being upset by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian dissident (hardly a household name in dressing- rooms).

But while Le Saux is not especially close to the likes of Alan Shearer and Tim Flowers, they respect his ability and are disinterested in his life outside the club. These are players who work on their game and are only concerned with Le Saux's contribution to the cause. However, others at Blackburn take a more malign view.

That is not the only divide. Mike Newell's supplanting of Chris Sutton in attack may not be entirely unconnected with his being Shearer's golfing partner. Then again, it may have something to do with Harford being unimpressed by Sutton's approach.

For his part, Sutton is said to be unhappy with Harford's stewardship. There is a feeling among some players that the manager has favourites: Shearer is particularly influential.

Since Shearer appears to be carrying the team virtually single-handed, one might say he deserves to be heard. After one defeat this season when Harford suggested the team thank the supporters, Shearer responded along the lines of "never mind that, get us in the dressing-room and sort out what is going wrong".

If Shearer has sometimes regretted not going to Italy during the summer, it has not shown in his play. A few others can be happy with their form - but not many. Injuries have not helped, but the biggest problem has been the absence of Jason Wilcox, especially with Stuart Ripley out of form on the other wing.

When Wilcox was injured in early March, Dalglish tried to sign Trevor Sinclair. He failed and the transfer deadline prevented any further signings. Blackburn then gambled on Wilcox recovering in time to play a part in Europe. They are still waiting. Harford's only summer signing was Matty Holmes - he later said he regretted not bringing more players in, but wished to give the championship winners first shot.

His loyalty was not rewarded. Within two months he suggested some players still thought: "they were on the beach in Spain thinking how good it is to be champions".

He has since made one excellent signing in Lars Bohinen, a promising one in Chris Coleman and an unproved one in Billy McKinlay. But his initial loyalty did lend weight to fears that the former coach was too close to the team. His reluctance to change also stemmed from not wishing to alter much. He admitted to BBC Radio Five Live last week that he studied Graeme Souness's approach when he replaced Dalglish at Liverpool and felt he changed too much. Harford has gone too far the other way.

Both he and Souness may feel, privately, that Dalglish timed his departure wisely. Liverpool were an ageing team, Blackburn a functional one who lacked the flexibility required to succeed in Europe. There was also a sense that their high-energy, hard-running style would be hard to maintain. Leeds had a similar problem after their 1991/92 title success. They came 17th and failed to win away all season.

Dalglish is still at Rovers as director of football. Critics say he is doing nothing to justify the title, or the salary. Supporters point to his work with the youth system, an area chosen both because of a personal desire to develop young players and also to avoid interfering with Harford.

However his work may help Blackburn's future, he has let them down in the present. When the Champions' League draw was made, Harford looked forward to Dalglish's advice. "This is where Kenny will come into his own. He will fulfil his role as director of football and be our European envoy," Harford said.

This never happened and Blackburn went into Europe virtually blind. It showed. But Dalglish still gives the club what Harford calls "presence". Without him, they would revert to being another provincial club.

Harford does not generate the same respect, not just because his reputation as a coach has yet to translate into managerial success, he also lacks "presence". This is not entirely his fault - replacing Dalglish was an onerous task. He at least treats the impostors of triumph and disaster the same - witness his unsmiling reaction whether Rovers score or concede. We will soon see if a couple of other lines from "If" also apply to him.

"If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

And if you can trust tourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting too

If you can bear to watch the things you gave your life to broken

And stoop and build 'em up

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