Football: Rovers hunt for harmony

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The Independent Online
TO DESCRIBE the last time Blackburn Rovers got into Europe as unfortunate would be to downplay the experience. Tetchy to the point where Graeme Le Saux and David Batty were trading blows and Colin Hendry was sent off in icy Moscow, they finished bottom of their Champions' League group and did little for the image of English football.

It would be nice to report a more harmonious atmosphere as they approach tonight's Uefa Cup first round first leg game against Lyons but, sadly, problems seem to be mounting at Ewood Park. Blackburn are in the Premiership's relegation places and cracks in their composure are appearing over Tottenham Hotspur's prolonged pursuit of their captain, Tim Sherwood.

Yesterday Sherwood's representative, Eric Hall, said on television an increased offer, pounds 5m, would be forthcoming from White Hart Lane, which provoked an indignant response from Blackburn's manager Roy Hodgson. "It's not a matter of bids being refused," he said, "He's not for sale and I find it disturbing and unsporting that an agent is forcing me to talk about the subject on the eve of an important European tie.

"Our position remains the same, we are not interested in an approach. I've had a 30 second conversation with David Pleat in which he told me Tottenham would go to a certain price or else forget it. I replied `Great, because we are not interested in any offer you make'."

Sherwood, who signed a contract in January that would keep him at Blackburn until 2002, has said he does not want to move but was disgruntled yesterday that the matter was being aired. "This is an internal dispute," he said. "And, no, it's not been sorted out."

If Blackburn were playing well, the issue could be dismissed as a beneficial outlet of creative tension but the team have under-performed miserably since the turn of the year, winning just six League matches and losing 13. On Saturday they were abject, losing 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday while creating only one chance - and that was gifted to them. "By our standards we were awful," Chris Sutton admitted yesterday.

Lyons, by comparison, are on the crest of a wave in second place in the French League. Last season in this competition, they defeated Internazionale 2-1 in Milan before losing narrowly in the second round. Their principal striker, Alain Caveglia, has scored more goals than anyone else still playing in France, while Marco Grassi played under Hodgson for Switzerland.

To further underline the size of Blackburn's task, Kevin Gallacher, who has scored both their goals this season, has a calf injury and might not play while Damien Duff is definitely out with a thigh strain and Martin Dahlin has a stomach bug.

More importantly, Blackburn will be going into the tie relatively short of knowledge. Matches at Tottenham on Wednesday and Hillsborough at the weekend prevented Hodgson, whose last European match was the Uefa Cup final with Inter in 1997, travelling to France. "This is the first time I have been in a European tie without seeing the opposition," he said, "and that disturbs me. But I know we are playing a top-class side."

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