FOOTBALL: Flowers preserves Rovers' ambition

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FOOTBALL

BY GLENN MOORE

Blackburn Rovers 1

Newcastle United 0

On a weekend for celebrating heroes it was fitting that "Al of Rovers" - Alan Shearer - should be the man who set Blackburn Rovers back on course for the championship.

The England centre-forward is a footballing throwback to the era of boy's own comics and homespun heroes. Young and gifted, handsome and bright, brave, bold and decent. He embodies the values that were eulogised this weekend. While it is invidious to compare football to war, Shearer seems the type who would acquit himself with honour in any field of conflict.

Fortunately, for he and us, he is only required to do battle with nothing more dangerous than opposing centre-halves and goalkeepers. He does this brilliantly and last night his 28th-minute goal, his 36th of the season for Blackburn, put the Lancashire club one result from glory.

Rovers are now five points clear of Manchester United and, if they win at Anfield on Sunday, they will be champions, whatever Manchester United do at home to Southampton tomorrow and at West Ham on Sunday.

Their night of delight was capped when Shearer dispelled speculation linking him with Italy and said he wanted to stay with the club for at least another year.

"I am more than happy to stay, I never I wanted to leave," the England striker said. "I am three years into a four-year deal and I am sure we will sit down and discuss a new one when the contract comes up."

Earlier in the evening Jack Walker, the club's benefactor, in presenting the supporters' player of the year award to Shearer had pledged: "I want to keep Alan Shearer at Blackburn. He is the making of the new Blackburn Rovers."

Rovers, however, will know their real hero was not Shearer, but Tim Flowers, their goalkeeper, who denied Newcastle with a series of marvellous saves.

They will also remember Philip Don with unaccustomed fondness. The World Cup referee rejected a strong penalty appeal in the 88th minute after Keith Gillespie had fallen under Colin Hendry's challenge.

Afterwards Kenny Dalglish, the Rovers manager, said: "Sometimes in the season the luck evens itself out. Refereeing decisions are part and parcel of football."

He was not quite so sanguine when Gerald Ashby sent off Henning Berg and gave the penalty that preceded Manchester United's win at Ewood Park earlier this season; nor when Tim Sherwood's last-minute equaliser was ruled out at Old Trafford in January. But he does have a point and Gillespie later admitted: "In my own mind, I am sure it was not a penalty. I anticipated Hendry tackling me, I thought he would clip me but I got out of the way and there was no contact."

Dalglish - who added "it was the best night here since I arrived" - is now looking forward to collecting the title at Anfield, his spiritual home. Asked whether or not he expected any favours he merely replied: "We'll see what happens."

As Shearer, a Geordie, observed afterwards, no one could accuse Newcastle of making it easy for Rovers. But then, they have Europe in their sights.

Rovers seemed certain to win the title a month ago but, having dropped eight of the last 12 available points, their lead had been cut to two with two to play. With United possessing a superior goal difference Rovers had to win to retain control of their own destiny.

Newcastle arrived with the confidence of two draws and a win in the clubs' three previous meetings this season, but they were without Paul Kitson, Barry Venison, Paul Bracewell and the long-term absentee, Philippe Albert.

They took a long time to settle, and were just doing so when Rovers scored. After Steve Watson gave the ball away, Pavel Srnicek saved from Chris Sutton and Darren Peacock blocked David Batty's drive. But Graeme Le Saux kept the ball alive, nipped by Marc Hottiger on the flank, and crossed to the far post where Shearer climbed above John Beresford to head in.

Ewood Park, which had been a tumult of noise all night, erupted with a roar of mingled relief and joy. From then on, apart from a good Srnicek save from Shearer with 17 minutes remaining, it was the Flowers show. He warmed up with a magnificent fingertip save off Beardsley in the first half, then - after an impeccably observed two minutes' silence - produced the full repertoire in the second.

Robert Lee, with a rising drive, and Ruel Fox, with a near-post shot, both brought out excellent saves. Then, five minutes after Shearer's wasted chance, Flowers produced his best, twisting, off-balance to his left to stop John Beresford's shot after Gillespie had carved up Rovers' left flank. He needed a bit of help; Henning Berg blocked Fox's goalbound header with 10 minutes left, then Don kept his whistle quiet with two minutes to go.

The final whistle was met with bedlam. Rovers returned to mass acclaim and everyone began wondering how they could get tickets for Anfield.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Kenna; Ripley (Slater, 80), Batty, Sherwood, Le Saux; Sutton, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Newell, Mimms (gk).

Newcastle United (4-5-1): Srnicek; Hottiger, Howey, Peacock, Beresford; Fox, Watson, Clark, Beardsley, Gillespie; Lee. Substitutes not used: Neilson, Allen, Hooper (gk).

Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park)

Last night's results, page 31

Ken Jones, page 30

PREMIERSHIP TOP TWO

P W D L F A GD Pts

Blackburn 41 27 8 6 79 37 +42 89

Man Utd 40 25 9 6 74 26 +48 84

REMAINING FIXTURES

BLACKBURN: Sunday: Liverpool (A).

MANCHESTER UNITED: Tomorrow: Southampton (H); Sunday: West Ham (A).

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