Football: Moran gives Blackburn a head start

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Blackburn Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Sheffield United. . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

OTHER clubs would not recognise it, but if there is a disadvantage in having access to Jack Walker's millions it is the expectation it brings. Normally, promoted clubs would donate a centre-forward for a place in the Premier League top four at Christmas. For Blackburn it is only just above the low-water mark of their season.

Fifth place before yesterday's match is the worst position Blackburn have occupied since they arrived in the top flight, money bulging from their pockets. Victory yesterday arrested a slide incurred during a spell in which they won only one of eight League games, but the jury is still out on whether it totally expelled the sinking feeling.

There are two ways of looking at yesterday. The ability to win matches when playing badly is the most over-used cliche in football in reference to title aspirants; a less kindly view would be that to struggle so much to beat a less than inspired Sheffield United team is further evidence that the rest of the Premier Division has worked Blackburn out. Certainly they played much worse in victory than they had in defeat against Liverpool last Monday.

Alan Shearer, who seemed incapable of missing in the autumn when Stuart Ripley was rampaging down the wings and Gordon Cowans was spraying the ball about like a latter-day Johnny Haynes, had barely a chance yesterday. He could not be faulted - the fact that John Pemberton and David Barnes were both booked for fouls on the England striker in the last 15 minutes illustrated the threat he posed - but the service he received had all the promise of a pre-visitation Christmas present from Scrooge.

Sheffield marked Cowans so enthusiastically that he had to go deeper and deeper for possession, handicapping a home midfield that looked short on ideas. Consequently it was hardly a surprise that the goal should come from a set-piece. Paul Beesley cut out a flick-on from Shearer in the 27th minute at the cost of a corner, but the reprieve was temporary as Jason Wilcox's cross was beautifully flighted and Kevin Moran headed in from close range for his second goal of the season.

Blackburn's breakthrough was against the run of play. There has been a little bemusement in Lancashire that Kenny Dalglish has spent over a million pounds this week signing the Scandinavian defenders Patrik Andersson and Henning Berg to strengthen a back four that has looked resolutely solid all season. But, as if to underline their manager's wisdom, Moran and Colin Hendry began as if they were under instructions to look as poor as possible.

Presumably one of them had been designated as Brian Deane's marker, but who it was seemed lost on both of them as he slipped by and between them in an opening spell in which Sheffield would not have been flattered by a two- goal lead. Twice in the first eight minutes passes from Kevin Gage allowed him space in the Blackburn area, but on neither occasion did he exude confidence.

His manager Dave Bassett has conceded that Deane is going through a difficult spell and his self-esteem will not have been improved by the slightly tame shot across the goal in the fifth minute and shot against defenders when he appeared to have the goal at his mercy from three yards soon afterwards.

Those apart, Sheffield's best chance came on the hour when Deane almost exonerated himself by dispossessing Alan Wright and then crossing perfectly. Jamie Hoyland had the freedom of the six-yard box but he manged to head wide.

That proved to be the high spot of a second half that, two late long-range efforts by Shearer apart, was forgettable with a vengeance. Neither side looked to possess the wit to break the other down and both had long since given up on scoring unless there was a defensive error when the final whistle came.

For United, they will hope their post-holiday improvement will extend to a third Christmas in peril while the result will encourage Blackburn that they have realistic hopes of the title. For all the money that Walker has invested in the side, yesterday they looked a couple of midfield players short of anything but pretenders.

Blackburn Rovers: B Mimms; D May, A Wright, M Atkins, C Hendry, K Moran, S Ripley (A Dobson, 70), G Cowans, A Shearer, M Newell, J Wilcox. Subs not used: T Sherwood, D Collier (gk). Manager: K Dalglish.

Sheffield United: A Kelly; K Gage, D Barnes, J Gannon (A Littlejohn 72), J Pemberton, P Beesley, C Bradshaw (M Ward, 78), P Rogers, J Hoyland, B Deane, G Hodges. Sub not used: K Veysey (gk). Manager: D Bassett.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Goal: Moran (1-0, 27 min).