Football: Rovers building to grand design

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The Independent Online
The timing, ominously, seems to be perfect. Week by week, as Blackburn Rovers tighten their grasp on the Premiership, so does the remodelled Ewood Park near completion.

Last season, as Rovers vainly pursued Manchester United, the ground so resembled a building site you half expected them to don hard hats and wear their shorts half-way down their backsides. The players changed down the road, were bussed to the ground andentered through an ugly, corrugated iron gate.

Now they dress for battle in the spanking new Jack Walker Stand, a glass, brick and steel monument to its namesake's wealth and commitment. It is not quite finished yet - builders' tape drapes over uncompleted sections and there is still some decorating to be done - but it will be come May. It will be a home fit for heroes and champions.

The former are already present, and not just in the shape of the SAS, as Sutton And Shearer have become known. Champions? Just possibly.

Saturday's 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest, once challengers themselves, both confirmed the Premiership lead Rovers first claimed in November and underlined their credentials.

The team have been designed, like the ground, to be functional rather than fancy. But, in both cases, some adornment is becoming apparent. On the pitch it is shown by a greater variety of approach with more short passing. Rovers' second goal - the only one achieved without the unwitting assistance of a Forest defender - would not have looked out of place had it been scored by Newcastle or Manchester United.

Mark Atkins, Henning Berg and Ian Pearce built patiently at the back before Robbie Slater delicately chipped a short pass to Sutton on the right. He cut in and angled a fine pass into the path of Jason Wilcox, who scored with aplomb.

The goal capped an impressive performance by Wilcox. The 23-year-old's contribution to Rovers' success, though doubtless recognised by Kenny Dalglish, is underrated by the wider world. A good crosser, he is also a cool finisher, neat passer and no lightweight in the tackle. A good all-rounder, like most of these Rovers.

The epitome of this is Chris Sutton, newly deposed as English football's most expensive item. "He got more tackles in on David Phillips, who is the hub of our midfield, than any other player this season," Frank Clark, th Nottingham Forest manager, said."

If you have got a £5m front man who is prepared to do that, you have got a chance. They have very good players who are prepared to work their socks off for the good of the team."

To an extent Rovers were forced to indulge in more close passing than is their wont by Clark's tactics. Rovers' two customary sources of goals, Alan Shearer and Sutton, usually receive the ball early as they break, or in the air from the flanks. To counter this Forest defended deep, denying Shearer and Sutton space to run into, and pulled Bryan Roy back to make a five-man midfield aimed at clipping Rovers' wings.

However, with Graeme Le Saux and Stuart Ripley - their main crossers - both injured Rovers would have had to adapt regardless. In the event Forest's tactics not only left Stan Collymore isolated in attack, but ultimately cost them the match.

Clark's comment about hard work may have been directed at his midfield, for Rovers' middle men, Paul Warhurst and Mark Atkins, were not closed down quickly enough. That gave them the opportunity to shoot; the forest of red shirts ahead of them gave them the justification. Both had gone close before; on 53 minutes, Warhurst's fourth attempt was inadvertently diverted past Mark Crossley by the unfortunate Carl Tiler, who was playing his first match of the season.

Rovers' third, also deflected, was more typical of their season, Wilcox crossing to Sutton at the far post, his header going in off Steve Chettle's thigh.

By then Forest, shorn of Stuart Pearce's passion and Colin Cooper's calm, were looking ragged. Clark, having admitted that Forest are poor at chasing the game, said: "There was only one winner after they scored," but he was being harsh. His team, who looked the better side for a poor opening half-hour, also shone for 10 minutes after Rovers scored and were unlucky not to level. However, they lack drive in midfield, someone with presence and power who could both have supported Collymore and broken up Rovers' offensives. Someone like their former midfielder, Roy Keane, now of Manchester United.

Of course, there was no way they could have kept him, not even if they had not gone down two years ago. Forest, as will be shown again when Collymore goes, are a selling club, and selling clubs do not win titles anymore. There is not just a gap between the haves of this section and the have-nots of the Endsleigh League, there is another between the haves and the have-a-lot-mores of the Premier.

The championship already appears destined, like the last, for Rovers or Manchester United. They meet at Old Trafford next week. Rovers, who nearly won there last year, will be keen to avenge the October home defeat by United. It is the only blot on an outstanding home record (10 wins, one defeat) and is still blamed locally on the contentious dismissal of Berg when Rovers were dominant.

They will travel in good heart. It is easy to forget that four years ago, Rovers were still in the old Second Division and failing annually in the promotion play-offs.

Not much survives - just Wilcox, and Atkins, reserve goalkeeper Bobby Mimms, the coach Tony Parkes, and the cherished wood-panelled boardroom which was dismantled, then reconstructed, panel by panel, in the new stand.

Now the supporters are living the dream and, at last, even Kenny seems to be enjoying it, smiling for the cameras and the press on his return from an appendix operation. His team are equally relaxed. When Warhurst accidentally bundled Atkins over during the match they exchanged grins as he got to his feet. Later, when the match was won, Tim Flowers exulted to all corners of the ground with genuine glee.

So, no sign of Rovers cracking under the strain of expectation yet. It would seem that if United want to keep their title they will have to win it. It will not simply fall into their hands.

Goals: 1-0 Tiler og (53); 2-0 Wilcox (78), 3-0; Chettle og (88).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Wright; Slater, Warhurst, Atkins, Wilcox (Newell, 90); Shearer, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Gale, Mimms (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-5-1): Crossley; Lyttle, Chettle, Tiler, Haland; Stone, Gemmill (McGregor 77), Phillips, Woan, Roy; Collymore. Substitutes not used: Webb, Filan (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).