Football: Rovers' sheer relief

Coventry City 1 Dublin 30 Blackburn Rovers 1 Shearer 87 Attendance : 18,547
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The Independent Online
BLACKBURN ROVERS will kick themselves for this result, despite the inevitable euphoria a late equaliser by Alan Shearer would have generated. For with nothing but the Premiership to play for, and Manchester United diverted into FA Cup action, they should have played in the first half like they were obliged to in the second.

But a lethargic opening half-hour, which culminated in Dion Dublin giving a vibrant Coventry side the lead, left Blackburn chasing a match that true champions would have gone all out to win from the start.

Their lead over United is now four points, but the Mancunians have goal difference and a match in hand on their side.

The Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish admitted that "at the beginning of the game we just didn't play like we have been doing recently", but he refused to accept that Coventry had dominated the first half.

The facts say otherwise, as Ron Atkinson's side, coming off a seven-game unbeaten run, took advantage of Rovers' complacency by forcing the Premiership leaders on to the back foot with an inventive performance.

"That first half we played was the best football since I came here," Atkinson said. "But I warned the lads at half-time that we'd get an onslaught in the second half, and we did."

The foundations of Coventry's initial surge were the midfield promptings of Kevin Richardson - "best player on the park", according to Atkinson - who found great support from Sean Flynn and the youngster Willie Boland.

After twice going close with early free-kicks - David Burrows thumping a drive into Tim Flowers' chest, and Dublin heading Richardson's chip straight into the keeper's hands - Coventry began to fashion chances through tenacious tackling and non-stop running.

Their goal, on the half-hour, owed everything to both of these qualities as Mike Marsh harried Blackburn's Ian Pearce into a mistake on the edge of the box. As the ball squirted clear, Dublin was able to prod a shot past Flowers and inside the far post.

A goal finally stung Blackburn into something like championship action, and Shearer, well shadowed by Brian Borrows until that point, started to lead the fightback. To say that the centre- forward is in irrepressible form is to state the obvious. But when he has his quiet periods, as in the first 30 minutes, Blackburn simply look half a side.

So now, as Shearer stirred, so, too, did his colleagues around him. A curling free-kick beat Coventry's defensive wall, but was headed clear, and moments later Shearer was again denied when his low shot was hacked off the line by Ally Pickering. Even so, Coventry - via the ebullient Flynn - still forced two stretching saves from Flowers before Rovers could get a much needed half-time snarl from Dalglish.

Rovers' revival duly arrived in the second half as they finally remembered they were Premiership leaders, and began to take the game to Coventry with a vengeance.

Stuart Ripley was pushed in from the right to play alongside Shearer and Chris Sutton, and the Coventry defence began to show its first signs of structural stress. Sutton's looping header very nearly deceived Jonathan Gould as it dropped just wide, but the goalkeeper was only a spectator, as the substitute Robbie Slater, on for the injured Mark Atkins, blasted a venomous drive inches wide.

But Blackburn's best chance of an equaliser unfortunately fell to Ripley, without a goal all season. Shearer's headed lay-off sat up for him, but the footballing equivalent of "the yips" saw him volley over.

Blackburn kept coming but the necessarily frantic nature of their football could not summon the required accuracy.

With Mike Newell on for Sutton and the centre-half Colin Hendry thrown into attack, Blackburn had all the pressure but nothing to show for it. Until Shearer stepped up to claim his 32nd goal of what still could be a momentus season for him. Graeme Le Saux lofted a hopeful cross to the far post and Shearer climbed to head on to, and then over, Gould's gloves for the equaliser. "It might be the most precious goal of the season," Shearer said.