Football: Moran gets down to business: Joe Lovejoy on the Premier League's oldest player who is determined to bow out at the top

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The Independent Online
Alan Shearer has scored three times and Stuart Ripley looked fully capable of following him into the England team, but Kenny Dalglish looked elsewhere to epitomise the spirit of Blackburn Rovers on their return to the Big League. Kevin Moran, the old warrior, had been an 'outstanding' captain in the first two games.

Arte et Labore: Skill and work, reads the club motto. A mite heavy on the labore, perhaps, but Dublin's favourite son embodied the renascent Rovers.

Everyone tells him he is playing as well as ever in his 37th year, but the Premier League's senior professional is threatening to retire at the end of the season, possibly to emulate 'The Gaffer'. The real boss, that is - not just the manager.

The playing style may be ruggedly simplistic, but off the field the dreadnought centre-half becomes K Moran, Bachelor of Commerce and wheeler-dealer extraordinaire. If there are footsteps to be followed, they are more likely to be the size nines of Jack Walker, Blackburn's seriously rich patron, than Dalglish's well- worn path into management.

He is on his way, having put his business degree (from University College, Dublin) to profitable use in assembling a burgeoning empire which includes fast food franchises (three), greetings card outlets (four) and leisure centres (four).

The Moran family financially secure, the head of the household can concentrate on savouring every minute of what he insists will be his last season. It promises to be quite a finale. He had always intended to bow out at a decent level ('you won't find me dropping down the leagues to hang on'), but is still pinching himself after joining a run-of-the-mill Second Division club in the throes of a metamorphosis which would make them the talk of football.

Unsurprisingly, the budding tycoon has nothing but praise for the finished article. Suggestions that Walker's pounds 20m investment in his home-town team had inflated the transfer market, and was therefore bad for the game as a whole, are given short shrift.

'Pure jealousy,' Moran snorted, adding that there would have been no complaints if, as usual, it had been Manchester United or Liverpool doing the spending.

'People should be delighted that someone from outside the game is willing to come in and put so much of his own money into it. It's all the more praiseworthy because he is a real supporter, doing it with the club he followed as a boy. For the sort of money Jack Walker is putting up, he could have bought Manchester United or Spurs.'

Two years ago, Moran had an inkling, but no real idea what was about to happen when he chose Rovers, in preference to Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle and West Brom, for his last hurrah on returning from Spain, where he had been playing for Sporting Gijon.

'The club had been getting to the promotion play-offs and missing out, and everyone in the game was saying: 'Poor old Blackburn'. They were trying hard, though. You could see that. They had real ambition and yet they were a friendly lot. I liked that.'

Don Mackay, manager from 1987 until September last year, had been unable to put Walker's fortune to good use. A catalyst was needed to make the right things happen. Enter Dalglish.

Like everyone else, Moran was impressed. 'Appointing Kenny was the key to everything that has happened. Don Mackay had the money, but couldn't persuade the top players to come here. He was always on the verge of taking the club up, but even if he had done so, he would have found it much harder than Kenny to attract the sort of players we've got now.

'People tend not to turn down Kenny Dalglish. The first stage was getting him as manager, the next was signing Mike Newell from Everton - a top player from a top club. That showed that we could attract the right calibre. After that, the big one, of course, was Shearer. If the most expensive striker in England will come to Blackburn, anyone will.'

There are times when everyone seems to be, Dalglish's frequent forays into the market strengthening his reputation as an impulse buyer - a builder of big squads rather than definitive teams.

It is an assessment Moran is inclined to support. 'It does help the players if you have a settled side - I certainly prefer it - but I don't think Kenny has ever worked that way. Not even at Liverpool. He likes to change things around a lot and, at the moment, no one knows what Blackburn's best team is. It is still in the melting pot.'

The same is probably true of the tactics, which Dalglish leaves to his assistant, Ray Harford. Blackburn's ballistics are mostly medium range rather than stratospheric, but they are not shy about using the long ball, and their leaning towards it is reflected in the omission of their cleverest passer, Gordon Cowans.

After 10 years in the Manchester United first team and 62 caps with the Republic of Ireland, Moran has played it all - from the composed passing game favoured by Dave Sexton's United to the siege-gun attrition Jack Charlton calls football. Experience has taught him that direct long passing, as distinct from the hit and hope punt, is not only a short cut to success, it is also what the public want.

'There is a lot of talk - more since the European Championship - about how we should play more like the Italians or the Dutch, but our spectators wouldn't stand for it. The slow, patient build-up would bore them to death. We tried it at Old Trafford, under Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, and the crowd wouldn't stand for it. They barracked Arnie Muhren for taking too much time on the ball and slaughtered Ray Wilkins, calling him 'The Crab' for passing sideways.

'The only team who can play that way and get away with it are Liverpool. The people on the Kop are unique over here, in that they appreciate short passing and the importance of keeping possession. They don't mind if their players knock the ball about at the back, or across midfield and back into defence. When we did it at Old Trafford, there were 40,000 shouting 'Get on with it', and you've got to be very strong, mentally, to ignore that and take your time.

'If supporters of Manchester United, watching the best players in the country, can't adjust to it, you need re-education on an impossible scale to get people to accept the Continental way of playing.'

Far from going down that road, Moran has found the domestic game getting faster and more physical in the 14 years since he turned his back on chartered accountancy, and a heroic career in Gaelic football, to seek fame and fortune with Sexton's United.

'Players coming into the game now are stronger, more physical types. I've had a good career, but someone my height, 5ft 10in, wouldn't get a look in at centre-half these days. They all want lads of 6ft 2in.

'Ask yourself why there are fewer creative midfield players, whose strength is passing the ball. It could be that, with the emphasis so much on fitness levels, more pressure is applied more quickly on the players in midfield, and they don't get the room to play. Or, possibly, it's because fewer teams are set up to play through midfield these days. Many prefer to bypass the midfield, and hit the front men direct. Either way, the modern game, more than ever, is all about pace and power.'

If the point needed any proving, he had spent the morning pumping iron at Ewood Park, and was feeling every one of those 36 years. The old legs were slowing up; one last biff-bang season would definitely be enough. Not that the doyen is disillusioned. Far from it. 'I'll carry on going to as many games as possible when I retire. I enjoy everything about it so much. There's a lot more to football than just the match. Like meeting people.'

As with any self-respecting Irishman, socialising - 'The Crack' - has always figured high on the Moran priority list, and there is no shortage of invitations from the Mancunian enclave in which his near-neighbours include Bryan Robson, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside.

There was only one cloud on the horizon as he downed his pint and threaded his way through the endless well-wishers to witness United's 3-0 defeat by Everton in midweek. 'I hear there's a book coming out, telling tales of drinking at Old Trafford in Ron Atkinson's day. I'll probably have to sue - but only if I don't get a good mention.'

Not that long at Ewood, but he's been a wild Rover for many a year.

(Photograph omitted)

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