Football: Reduced Rovers wriggle home

Blackburn Rovers 1 Gillespie 67 Sunderland 0 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance:30,125
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The Independent Online
IT COULD almost have been described as a Cup upset. An injury-ravaged Blackburn, low on confidence and reduced to ten men, contrived to conquer a full-strength and buoyant Sunderland side showing all the qualities of a Premiership outfit in waiting.

The Blackburn manager Brian Kidd, without four of his elite squad of six strikers and choosing to deploy Ashley Ward in a lone role, still had the tools with which to contrive a result. Nathan Blake, initially sacrificed in an experimental formation but introduced after a flaccid first half, emphasised the embarrassment of riches at Kidd's disposal in contributing to Keith Gillespie's winner.

Sunderland, although their industry deserved a draw, fashioned few clear- cut chances but still attracted fulsome praise from their manager Peter Reid. "There's an old cliche that if your name is not on the Cup, you are not going to get there. But I think that's the best we have passed the ball for a long time and I was very pleased. Blackburn made it difficult with the system they play," summarised Reid.

That initial 3-4-3 system was a product of the home side's deficiencies in the centre of midfield, with the playmaker Tim Sherwood suspended and Billy McKinlay injured. The teenager David Dunn and winger Jason Wilcox deputised but they struggled to find cohesion when attempting to feed early balls up to Ward.

If anything, Sunderland were too deliberate on the ball at times. Their best chance of a scrappy opening period resulted from a long ball over the top of the defence which the stretching Niall Quinn nudged wide. His aerial threat was again evident when contributing to a heavy collision between the home keeper John Filan and defender Marlon Broomes. Filan was taken to hospital where he was later released after treatment for a strained neck.

Blackburn finished the half with a flurry, Keith Gillespie volleying high at the culmination of a swift break from a Sunderland corner that created space on the left flank for the full-back Callum Davidson. Then Andy Melville deflected another fierce Gillespie effort narrowly wide of the post.

Kidd, in rationalising the first-half formation and display, said, "I was trying to get David Dunn and Jason Wilcox a wee bit of protection and looking to give them a bit of time. The first half certainly wasn't the player's fault and we knew they would put a press on us." Blake's introduction allowed Blackburn to raise the tempo and open up the game, although the dismissal of Jeff Kenna, with a quarter of the game remaining after a second booking for a trip on Kevin Phillips on the edge of the area, altered those ambitions.

Almost immediately, though, Blackburn broke the deadlock against the run of play. A long throw was flicked on by Ward and diverted towards Gillespie, whose header was again only partially dealt with by the Sunderland defence. Blake's thundering volley was brilliantly blocked by the Danish keeper Thomas Sorensen but fell at the feet of Gillespie, whose high drive left nothing to chance.

During the recent visit of Leeds United, Blackburn had acquired practice in defending a goal lead against the odds. They again looked comfortable as Sunderland threw men forward at the death. Quinn was presented with Sunderland's best chance of salvation, but a distinctive volley was off- target and, with the Blackburn defence massed behind the ball, there was precious little space for the winger Allan Johnston to torment the home side as he did in the first half.