Blackburn's search for new saviour

Alan Nixon considers the pressures mounting on Ray Harford at Ewood Park following the pounds 15m sale of Alan Shearer
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The Independent Online
The stellar sum of pounds 15m would, in normal circumstances, be considered a godsend by most managers. Even in today's inflated transfer market it would constitute an incredible fillip to even the most financially stable of Premiership clubs. Yet Ray Harford's unique - unenviable - circumstances are anything but ordinary, and even with such compensation replacing Alan Shearer has put the unassuming Blackburn manager in a position that none of his counterparts will envy.

This week's sale of the prolific England striker, and undisputed idol of Ewood Park, to Newcastle United has sparked discontent in east Lancashire unknown since the steel magnate Jack Walker began heaping benevolence on the club six years ago.

In the search for a scapegoat, Harford has been nominated in some quarters one year after he took on another unenviable role: succeeding Kenny Dalglish. In a local radio phone-in, an overwhelming number of callers blamed Harford for Shearer's departure, although few of the arguments were reasoned.

Harford wanted the job of manager when Dalglish moved upstairs in the surprise aftermath to winning the title. Perhaps he is now wondering if the wily Scot had seen the troubles coming, and got out quick to leave someone else to take the strain.

Last season would be regarded as a relative success in most quarters, but not at nouveau riche Blackburn. The club that has soared from Second Division mediocrities to Premiership champions due to a combination of Walker's millions and the former Liverpool manager's allure and tactical nous is not quite sure how to handle expensive failure. An abysmal display in the Champions' League combined with a seventh-place finish in the Premiership were seen by some as damning indictments of the inability of Harford - a lauded coach - to handle the demands of management.

Few find it easy to comprehend that Shearer - who this week described Walker as a "father figure" - could turn his back on the club that broke the English transfer record in 1991 to buy the Southampton striker, pipping Manchester United to the player's signature.

Criticism of Harford has centred on his failure to build on the team he inherited from the charismatic Dalglish. "If it's not broken don't mend it" is Harford's attitude, one that did not find agreement with Dalglish. The club's new director of football had wanted to bring in Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs from Bolton, as he felt the side had shown signs of weakness even in their 1994-95 championship campaign.

That McAteer chose Liverpool and Stubbs stayed at Burnden Park indicated that Blackburn's golden hue had dulled after Dalglish's elevation. Moreover, manager and director were clearly at odds.

Harford's signing policy has seemed hurried, in response to criticism rather than one of coherent team building. The signings of Billy McKinlay, a possible sop to Dalglish, and Lars Bohinen patently lacked Dalglish's eye for the spectacular transfer coup. Chris Coleman was signed only as a result of an injury to Ian Pearce, Niklas Gudmundsson merely padded out the squad while most of the money generated by David Batty's sale - to Newcastle - was spent on the precocious Garry Flitcroft. Harford, with the exception of Bohinen, has yet to sign a player capable of lifting the club, and appears content to recruit young talent as it becomes available.

Given that Walker's cheque book helped build the club, it is is doubly galling that Newcastle's financial muscle has now delivered a blow to Blackburn. With Shearer, and his 30 goals a season, gone, senior players such as Tim Flowers, Colin Hendry and Jason Wilcox may now regret committing themselves to long-term contracts. At Ewood Park there is clearly a shortage of goalscorers in the Shearer mould. Chris Sutton, briefly the other half of the feared SAS pairing, will surely be given his chance after a dismal season of form loss and injury. Paul Warhurst wants to play in attack but, after a long absence, is an unknown quantity. Kevin Gallacher has many qualities, but being a prolific goalscorer was never one of them. Gudmundsson is too lightweight while the young Graham Fenton is untried, although Newcastle themselves will testify to his talent.

The blatant option is to buy, to make the type of audacious foray that had until recently been Blackburn's exclusive reserve. Which is the core of Harford's problems. The timing of the Shearer sale, late in the summer spending season, means there are few quality attackers available. The likes of Patrick Kluivert are unlikely to choose Rovers ahead of Manchester United. Stripped of its prize asset, few will be eager to join Blackburn.

Of course, the Blackburn squad could respond with a display of defiance in the face of outside criticism, determined to prove they are not a one- man band. However, the lasting problem will be finding a marksman who can win the marginal matches with the kind of regularity that Shearer provided.

Crucially, if Harford fails to deliver and the modest crowds slip away, there is only one man at Rovers who could restore confidence, and that is Dalglish. When he was manager, it was often said that he made tactical changes after Harford had prepared the team for games. Now no one doubts the method that was in his occasional madness.

The capricious minority who have become engulfed by Blackburn's apparent ability to buy success will not hesitate to call for Harford's head and Dalglish's return if the club's fortunes are not markedly improved. And there is the more reasonable majority who will be more circumspect. However, Harford will remember that there is no bigger fan of Blackburn Rovers than Jack Walker.