Football: Ripley relishing his Rovers return

Saints' winger visits his former club today in a game of surprise strugglers.
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WHEN THE working day ends with lunch and when a fast car then carries you through the rolling Hampshire hills back to the luxury family home, it is hard to concede that life has not always seen to your every wish. Stuart Ripley has much to be grateful for, but, left to him, it is unlikely he would have been lining up for Southampton today against his former club Blackburn.

The Ripley roots were firmly embedded in the Ewood Park soil. With two years left on his contract and three small children settled in Lancashire he was not looking to move. Then, last summer, Roy Hodgson informed him that a pounds 1.5m offer from Southampton had been accepted and it suddenly became an easy decision to join the old folks' home at The Dell.

"It's important to feel wanted by your club and the fact that Blackburn had accepted the offer told me everything I needed to know," said Ripley. "It was clear I wasn't going to be uppermost in the manager's plans and that disappointed me because last season had been one of my best for some time. To be fair to them, they said I didn't have to go but at the same time they weren't pushing out the boat to try and keep me."

For that reason, the player whose athletic prowess and crossing ability gave Blackburn a powerful right-sided presence over five successful years, and who proved an important ingredient in the 1995 championship triumph, is not anticipating a negative reaction from supporters on his Rovers return.

That might change should he choose to open his account for his new club on a day of considerable significance to the teams who occupy the bottom two rungs on the Premiership ladder. Football has a habit of turning up the unexpected, but a decisive strike from a player who spent three Ewood Park seasons studiously avoiding goalscoring acclaim has to be high on the least-likely list.

Having ventured south, encouraged by Dave Jones's achievement in steering Southampton's perennial strugglers into mid-table security, Ripley could not have foreseen that he would be in the thick of a relegation battle so soon. By the same token, a team which finished sixth in the League last time, which qualified for Europe, and then invested pounds 7.5m in Kevin Davies, from Saints, to improve their attacking options, ought not to be misfiring as badly as Blackburn have been.

"I've spoken to one or two of my old team-mates and it's as much a puzzle to them why it's all gone wrong" said Ripley, 31 yesterday. "Losing Colin Hendry just before the start was a big blow to them because, although Stephane Henchoz is a really good defender, they don't seem to have got it quite right at the back.

"We [at Southampton] were all over the place for the first few games but we've become more solid and have cut out the individual errors. The positive part of our situation is that we know the rest of the season is going to be a fight to the very end. We've enough quality and experience to get out of trouble."

His role has undergone some refinement, with Southampton content to save his energies for the final third of the field rather than give him the same defensive responsibility that Kenny Dalglish demanded from his wide players.

"There is no harder job in football than running back without the ball and that is why Ryan Giggs and David Beckham are so valued by Alex Ferguson, because apart from being great players on the ball they fight to get it back," Ripley said. "It was hard work at Blackburn for me and Jason Wilcox but you didn't mind if you were winning things.

"We played some fantastic football in our championship year and it grinds me down when I hear people say we were boring. We should have had the championship sewn up with 10 games to go but lost the plot a little because none of us had been in that situation before. You still hear it said that United lost the League because they failed to beat West Ham on the last day, but we were the only team in danger of throwing it away.

"Kenny Dalglish was a fantastic manager for me. At this level it's all about small detail and Kenny's knowledge of other players was phenomenal. Before every game he would run through the opposition left-back, telling me his strengths and weaknesses, his favourite turns. And it wasn't just with English players; he knew all about the foreigners as well."

A single winner's medal and two England caps. There are many in the game who feel the unflappable and consistently effective Ripley, a model professional in every sense, is deserving of more. When, at the beginning of last season, he appeared as a substitute for his country in the qualifying win over Moldova at Wembley, he looked on course for the World Cup finals. However, a torn hamstring just minutes after coming onto the field was a reminder that international recognition is not always a cloud-free sky.

His other cap came in 1994, against San Marino, in what proved to be Graham Taylor's final game in charge. "They scored after 10 seconds when I had hardly had time to put one foot in front of the other. We won the game 7-1 and yet we were slated for it afterwards. It was a strange experience all round."