Blackburn pay price for naivety

Phil Shaw and Glenn Moore on British clubs' lack of European nous
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The Independent Online
Elimination for Blackburn, humiliation for Rangers. Whatever tricks the warm weather may play, you know autumn is here by the now-annual outbreak of breast-beating about the fate of British clubs in the Champions' League.

For fate, read failure. Pundits like Mark Lawrenson and Trevor Brooking lined up to deliver damning verdicts yesterday. They also spoke constructively of the need to foster technical excellence from the age of eight, as is the practice on the Continent, and of reducing crowded fixture lists.

The analysis is as accurate as it is familiar, but in the case of Blackburn, too convenient a smokescreen to hide behind. For all the mistakes made by Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds in recent seasons, none embarked upon the European Cup adventure with quite the same naivety and wilful lack of readiness.

A return of a single point and a solitary goal renders their remaining games, away to Spartak Moscow and home to Rosenborg Trondheim, mere academic exercises. Despite splashing pounds 32m on players in four years, Blackburn will go down in history as one of England's least distinguished ambassadors.

Malcolm Allison may be tempted to instigate libel proceedings over the comparison, but it is arguable that only his Manchester City side of 1968 (beaten in the first round by Turkish opposition) and the Ipswich team of six years earlier (who had the excuse of losing to Milan) made as little impact.

Blackburn's campaign has been marked by poor planning off the pitch and a dearth of imagination on it. It was revealing that, several days after buying Lars Bohinen, Ray Harford had to ask reporters whether he would be eligible for the quarter-finals.

Legia Warsaw, whose draw at Ewood Park on Wednesday gave them four points against Harford's team, had battled through from the preliminary round. Not that the Poles will worry Juventus or Ajax. Nothing has happened to challenge the initial impression that Group B was the weakest section.

Harford, a likeable man whom the players regard as the coaching architect of their title triumph, should not shoulder all the blame. More than anyone, Kenny Dalglish ought to have known what lay in store. However, he seemed happy to rest on his laurels during the summer, taking a meaningless title and a back seat.

That was when the seeds of Blackburn's demise were sown. At a time when Dalglish's reputation and Jack Walker's millions could have been used to take them on to the next phase in their development, they allowed the likes of Arsenal and Newcastle to outflank them in the transfer market.

The error was compounded when, after all the hype about the former Liverpool manager being the ideal person to scout their opponents, Blackburn's "boot room" settled for watching them on video.

Having apparently learned nothing from United's experiences, or their own trauma against Trelleborgs, they thus went into the Champions' League "blind". The result was embarrassment by average teams from middle-ranking European powers.

In the aftermath of Rangers' second thrashing in a fortnight it was a startling, and somewhat sobering, thought that they are still in the competition.

They would need to defeat Borussia Dortmund in Germany, and Steaua Bucharest at home, while hoping both teams lose to Juventus. The second is the more likely prospect.

Walter Smith, the Rangers' manager who awoke to headlines like ''Tallies . . . 8, Wallies . . . out'', ''Nightmare'' and ''You're pasta joke Gers'' would only say ''we'll see'' when asked about the future.

He did say there would be no drastic overhaul, blaming selection problems rather than lack of ability. While he had a point, Juventus' own injury problems forced three changes to their Turin line- up.

Should Rangers qualify, one shudders to think what could happen in the quarter-finals - at present the draw pits them against Ajax. The Dutch were held to a draw by Grasshopper Zurich on Wednesday but remain on course for a mouth-watering final with Juventus.

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