Football: Rovers reaping return on investment

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER United said last week they had no regrets about not signing Alan Shearer for what they considered to be an inflated price. Pennywise, pound foolish. With England's most complete centre-forward to lead their attack, United would be odds on for that elusive title.

Instead, to much tut-tutting about spiralling transfer fees, the bounteous Jack Walker stumped up the pounds 3.6m, and Shearer's goals have taken Blackburn Rovers to the top of the Premier League.

Early days these may be, with barely a quarter of the programme gone, but, with the more fancied runners in some disarray, it is time to take Blackburn seriously as genuine championship contenders.

Annihilating Norwich City 7-1 might be considered a freak result, and in some ways it was, but it is solid consistency which has seen Rovers displace Norwich at the head of the table, and behind the magnitude of Saturday's win lies persuasive evidence why one team will not win the League and the other just might.

Norwich are sellers - a nursery for those with real ambition. Their modest aspirations were articulated recently by the manager, Mike Walker, who said a top six finish and a place in Europe would do nicely, thank you.

Blackburn are bigger than that, or at least intend to be. Their patron, he of the bottomless pocket, will not rest until he has bought the title for his home town club. As the crestfallen Walker said before boarding the coach home: 'This lot could do it. If a weakness appears, Jack Walker will buy someone to cure it. We can't do that.'

Money, and the courage to spend it, is the difference, which brings us back to Shearer. United's Alex Ferguson balked at the fee, but 12 goals in 11 Premier League appearances have made it seem more reasonable by the week.

On Saturday the abrasive 22- year-old Geordie was everything a centre-forward should be - powerful, aggressive and single- minded in the penalty area. He scored twice, made two others for his partner, Roy Wegerle, and panicked Chris Sutton into conceding the free-kick which enabled the renascent Gordon Cowans to curl in a lovely 20- yarder.

It was a marvellous, rampaging performance from a player who said from the outset that he was not going to let his record fee bother him, and never has. Rarely can a big-money buy have settled in so quickly, Shearer enjoying a hero's popularity in the old mill town, and on the Ewood terraces, where they alternate his name and Walker's, when they are not chanting 'We're gonna win the League'.

Due homage is also paid to Kenny Dalglish, who is about to celebrate the first anniversary of his appointment in the most agreeable way, as manager of the country's top team.

Gone is the careworn, stressed Dalglish who buckled under the burden of expectation at Anfield, replaced by a man who is 'perfectly happy' with his lot.

The taciturn growler of old ('You saw it, you write it') is in expansive mood these days, chatting about the back-pass ('I don't think it's making players more skilful'), paying tribute to the work of his coaches, Ray Harford and Tony Parkes, and expressing sympathy for Norwich ('There is no way there is six goals difference between us').

Dalglish has good reason to be happy, of course, having jumped ship at the right time. While Liverpool struggle to find the funds needed to keep the old monolith upright, the manager who failed to spot, and stop the rot has all the money he needs to renovate his reputation.

After a dodgy start, he is 'King Kenny' again. Quite why the richest club in the country made such hard work of getting out of the old Second Division last season is even more of a mystery in the light of what has happened since, but Dalglish and Harford, his tactician, are clearly on the right track now.

They have a decent defence, which somehow adds up to more than its constituent parts, a well- balanced midfield, a tasty winger in Stuart Ripley - and Shearer.

England's principal striker was too strong for Norwich, chivvying and bullying them to the point of disintegration. Ian Butterworth, their centre-half, is sufficiently muscular to be nicknamed Spartacus, but the strapping defender was Shearer's slave, contemptuously shouldered aside twice as his master set up Wegerle's two goals.

Shearer went on to show that he is much more than a battering ram, scoring with a delicate chip, as well as a typical centre-forward's header.

His international displays to date have been disappointing, but England should persevere. He may be no Gary Lineker, but he just might be another Geoff Hurst.

With poor old Spartacus getting the thumbs down, Norwich might easily have conceded 10. The competitive edge a new manager has brought to their play disappeared with the loss of Gary Megson, their midfield scrapper, who is injured, and a flaccid performance was littered with all the bad habits of old.

Walker admitted as much. 'We had a lot of possession, played in nice little triangles and never hurt them.' It was straw-clutching time, and he made a grab for Sheffield Wednesday. 'They were beaten seven by Arsenal and six by Leeds last season, and still finished third,' he said.

Second now, Norwich would settle for that. Blackburn, in their present bullish mood, would consider it failure.

Goals: Wegerle (9) 1-0; Sherwood (27) 2-0; Wegerle (33) 3-0; Newman (40) 3-1; Shearer (43) 4-1; Cowans (63) 5-1; Ripley (68) 6-1; Shearer (75) 7-1.

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; Brown, Wright, Sherwood, Hendry, Moran (Marker, 80), Ripley (Wilcox, 80), Atkins, Shearer, Wegerle, Cowans. Substitute not used: Collier (gk).

Norwich City: Gunn; Culverhouse, Bowen, Butterworth, Sutton, Sutch, Crook, Newman, Robins, Goss, Phillips (Power, 63). Substitutes not used: Polston, Walton (gk).

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).