Football: High rollers fall on hard times

Blackburn's free-fall from Premiership contenders to a depleted, dispirited side has raised the first doubts about their manager, Roy Hodgson. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
AS USUAL the likeably direct Roy Hodgson did not duck the question. "No one involved with Blackburn Rovers would try to pretend that our start to the season has been anything short of disappointing," he said. No one did because these words were spoken in mid-September - before the real slump began.

Since then, Rovers have gone from disappointing to worse, winning one of their last nine League matches while slipping into the relegation places. The future does not look rosy either, as away matches against Newcastle, Manchester United and Liverpool do not normally launch revivals. By tonight they could be out of the Worthington Cup; by December they could be bottom of the Premiership.

It is an abhorrent prospect for the champions of 1995 and one made more grim by contrast. Spin back a year and Rovers were third in the Premiership, had walloped Sheffield Wednesday 7-2 and Aston Villa 4-0 and had lost only once, unluckily 4-3 to Leeds. On Remembrance Day the Blackburn public can remember only too well the giddy sense of excitement that had walked into Ewood Park alongside Hodgson as he became manager in June 1997 in succession to Ray Harford.

They prefer to forget 1998 altogether. Just seven wins and 26 points have been collected in 11 months of toil and frequent tears and the team looks dispirited to the point where you can almost see the self-belief dripping from their blue and white shirts.

On Saturday if the nadir was not reached then Blackburn moved into the neighbourhood with a 2-1 home defeat by fellow strugglers Coventry City. This time it was the performance as well as the result that looked ugly and isolated booing broke out as the team left the field.

"I've no quarrel with the result," Hodgson said afterwards. "I thought it was a very, very good Coventry side and they prevented us from playing. When you play against a good side and they play very well it always makes your side look poor."

No one disputed the last sentiment but Coventry a very, very good side? Gordon Strachan's team, it ought to be noted, had won only twice before they arrived at Ewood Park and if they deserve superlatives how do you evaluate Aston Villa and Arsenal? It is in those terms that, not so long ago, Blackburn were being referred.

The local paper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, found the standard lamentable. "There were questions to be asked after this shoddy performance which wasn't down to a few individuals performing badly," its match report read. "It was as a team they dismally failed to function."

What has gone wrong? The most obvious explanation is injury. On Saturday eight players and an entire midfield - Sebastian Perez, Garry Flitcroft, Billy McKinlay and Jason Wilcox - was missing while Rovers' best player, Kevin Gallacher, has played only once since 9 September.

Colin Hendry's unexpected pounds 4m move to Rangers has left a gaping hole in the defence. "It gave us real headaches," Hodgson said. "Not only was it totally unexpected and not of our making, it was also at a critical time in our build-up to the new season." You could argue that Blackburn could have done more to keep their captain but he was intent on going to Glasgow and to stop him would have been to keep a discontented player. An unhappy Hendry might have been a depleted one.

Yet Hodgson is regarded so highly Germany gave him serious consideration as coach for their national team and England would be looking up his phone number if anything, Eileen Drewery forbid, happened to Glenn Hoddle. Even this week there have been reports Internazionale are interested in taking him back to Milan where he took the team to the Uefa Cup final 18 months ago. With these credentials Blackburn ought to be beating the likes of Coventry, bolts from the blue excepted, even in a depleted state.

Which brings attention on Hodgson's moves to strengthen his squad, a policy that has had more failures than successes. Martin Dahlin, Anders Andersson and Patrick Valery have departed while barely leaving a mark and none of the players bought since last season has flourished yet.

Perez (pounds 3m) and Jim Corbett (pounds 525,000) have been injured and have alibis but Kevin Davies's performances since his pounds 7.25m transfer have not justified his fee and he has been dropped twice. A mystery virus had a debilitating effect on the former Chesterfield and Southampton striker but his chief ailment now is confidence. In 11 matches so far this season, he has yet to score.

Davies is young, 21, and is probably a goal away from rehabilitation, but the signing of Christian Dailly has caused wholesale bemusement among supporters. A pounds 5m-plus fee appeared expensive at the time but the cost seems astronomical given that he has yet to establish a regular position in the side.

Instead of dropping into the void left by Hendry, he has played at full- back, winger and central midfield and the job of replacing the rock of Scotland has fallen to a free transfer, Darren Peacock. "Why did Hodgson buy Christian Dailly for pounds 5.35m from Derby?" The Lancashire Evening Telegraph asked. "Which position is he intended to fill?"

Hendry's move has also had minds wondering about undercurrents of unrest. He had spent nine seasons in two spells at the club and appeared as much a part of Blackburn's structure as the Jack Walker Stand. His eagerness to join Rangers was odd and so was the disharmony that broke out on the day before Rovers' Uefa Cup tie against Olympique Lyonnais. Hodgson and his captain, Tim Sherwood, should have been concentrating on their French opponents, instead there was a public disagreement about the player's agent, Eric Hall, contriving a transfer to Tottenham.

Morale is fine if you take the statements of the players at face value, but the evidence on the pitch is not convincing. On Saturday the team looked anything but happy.

Hodgson, successful with Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax, Switzerland and Inter, concedes he has to go back to his time at Bristol City 16 years ago to remember a bleaker time. "That's football," he said. "One day you are reading you could be coach of Germany or England, the next you're fighting for your life. What can you do? Keep believing in yourself. You don't lose everything overnight, as a team or a manager."

Blackburn have to recapture what is missing and quickly. As Hodgson said on Saturday: "We need to start winning yesterday."



P W D L F A Pts

Man United 21 14 4 3 49 16 46

Blackburn 21 11 8 2 38 21 41

Chelsea 21 12 3 6 46 21 39


P W D L F A Pts

Blackburn 12 2 3 7 12 17 9

Nottm Forest 12 2 3 7 8 18 9

Southampton 12 1 4 7 9 26 7


Jan 98 to May 98

Played 17, won 5, lost 10, drawn 2, goals for 19, goals against 31

August 98 to Nov 98

Played 11, won 3, lost 6 drawn 2, goals for 12, goals against 17


Played 28, won 8, lost 16, drawn 4, goals for 31, goals against 48