Football: Daldlish keeps his head as the summit looms: Blackburn display encouraging freedom

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The Independent Online
Pressure once made Kenny Dalglish's head explode. Now, almost exactly three years after the grim-faced leaving of Liverpool, both his own Blackburn side and Manchester United are entering a week to test the combustibility of the most composed cranium.

Rovers, who were 16 points behind the champions in January, would trail only on goal difference in the event of victory at Wimbledon tomorrow. United could regain their advantage by beating Liverpool at home 24 hours later, although even that meeting of monoliths pales by comparison with the collision of the top two at Ewood Park next Saturday.

For Dalglish's team, summit success would open up mind-blowing possibilities. Two years after they scraped up from the old Second Division, and backed by fans still parochial enough to cheer lustily the news of Burnley's misfortunes at Hartlepool, their thoughts are turning to Milan, Barcelona and the European Cup.

Thoughts, maybe, if not words. As is his wont, the Blackburn manager played a Boycottian straight bat after a 3-1 victory over the bottom club, Swindon, that can only have intensified the twitchiness manifest in performances and pronouncements emanating from Old Trafford lately.

Showing all the emotion and animation of a Thunderbirds puppet, while looking as relaxed as Alex Ferguson would have us believe he feels, Dalglish refused to be coaxed out of his shell on United. 'It's up to us to get our own house in order,' he mumbled, apparently a favoured phrase. 'We'll just look after ourselves.'

Along with tactiturnity, spending like there is no tomorrow is Dalglish's best-known trait. So much so that if Blackburn do finish top for the first time in 80 years, the part played by Jack Walker's wallet will probably prompt many to play down the scale of his achievement.

With the exceptions of Alan Shearer and Tim Flowers, most of the personnel on whom Dalglish has lavished pounds 20m-plus have raised eyebrows over his wisdom. Colin Hendry, for example, was widely regarded as an undisciplined defender who had pulled up few trees at Manchester City; and the competition for Tim Sherwood's midfield talents came from Derby rather than Arsenal or United.

Dalglish's success has therefore been one of judgement, as well as coaching and re-education. In the latter respect, Ray Harford is a crucial ally, though it was not his reputation on the line when Blackburn paid pounds 2.75m for a player perceived by many as a modestly gifted member of the clattering classes whose role was to win the ball for those who could play.

David Batty remains to goalscoring what Nora Batty is to eroticism, yet every other aspect of his game is blossoming. Overshadowed at Leeds by first John Sheridan and then Gary McAllister, and talked of in England terms as interchangeable with Carlton Palmer or a 'minder' for Gazza, Batty confirmed against Swindon that he has few peers in the English game when it comes to sheer range of passing.

If Blackburn overhaul United, the crop-topped Tyke might make an equally late and implausible challenge to Eric Cantona for the Footballer of the Year trophy which had seemed to be the fractious Frenchman's for the taking (though Shearer would arguably have a better claim).

It is a big 'if', but they are playing with an encouraging freedom. Swindon's back line, disciples of the Red Sea School of Defending, were parted repeatedly once the hosts had overcome the shock of an early goal by the impressive Jan- Aage Fjortoft. Only a series of exceptional saves by Fraser Digby, one denying Batty his first goal for Rovers, kept the outcome in doubt until the final minutes.

Stuart Ripley, another who has improved beyond recognition under Dalglish and Harford, then won a penalty, allowing Shearer to add to his 20-yard opener and a slickly worked second by Sherwood. The England striker, who had not scored in six matches for club and country, now has 27 goals in 25 Premiership starts.

Shearer later spoke with an optimism fuelled by 11 successive home wins and a haul of 50 points from 21 games since Batty's arrival: 'It's going right to the wire. People said United had won the championship and they've proved the best team until now. But the season doesn't end now.'

If it did, Swindon could at least say they bowed out with guts and grace. John Gorman, a picture of Canute-like defiance all season, seemed to be acknowledging that his team are in desperately deep water. His reaction to Fjortoft's goal was, he confessed, to turn to his deputy, Davie Hay, and say: 'Oh no, there's 86 minutes to go.' There was refreshing self-deprecation, too, in his suggestion that Swindon had 'another easy one next week . . .

Arsenal away'.

Having seen his team take a point from United a week earlier, Gorman is well placed to assess the mood and credentials of the two contenders. 'Both great teams,' he said. 'I watched United against Sheffield Wednesday and thought they were unstoppable, but now I just don't know.

'Blackburn have plugged away all season and are starting to get the rewards. United are still in the driving seat, but I think it'll go right to the end of the season.'

So the heat is on. Dalglish might argue, with some justification, that Blackburn have been playing under a different type of pressure all along: keeping their eye on the ball when everyone told them it was a lost cause. But this week is something else, and - a sobering thought - they have not beaten United since Jack Walker was pulling pints in the Rovers Return.

Goals: Fjortoft (4) 0-1; Shearer (7) 1-1; Sherwood (28) 2-1; Shearer pen (82) 3-1.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Hendry, May, Le Saux; Ripley, Sherwood, Batty (Marker, 89), Wilcox; Shearer, Newell (Warhurst, 85). Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Swindon Town (4-5-1): Digby; Whitbread, Kilcline, Taylor, Bodin; Summerbee, Moncur, Nijholt, Sanchez, Ling (Scott, 73); Fjortoft. Substitutes not used: Fenwick, Hammond (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).