Football: Rovers survive siege of Ewood

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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers 1

Gillespie 22

Leeds United 0

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance:27,620

ROVERS HAD their skipper Tim Sherwood sent off after only 24 minutes - two minutes after they had gone ahead - but mounted a superbly organised rearguard action to protect their lead and stretch their unbeaten run to seven matches since Brian Kidd became manager last month.

The home side spent almost the entire second period encamped in their own half but although they had John Filan to thank for an excellent save from Jimmy Hasselbaink's header near the end, they restricted Leeds largely to half-chances and earned a generous tribute from Kidd, this week named Premiership manager of the month for December.

"It was a magnificent effort," he said. "This is a good Leeds side and to defend like that for three-quarters of the game required a lot of discipline and concentration and everyone did his bit. I thought John Filan's handling was superb and, considering that it was his debut, Ashley Ward was magnificent in the way he responded to the circumstances. He defended with as much spirit as anyone."

After a tentative opening that reflected both sides' lack of firepower - Leeds started with only Hasselbaink playing as an out-and-out striker and Blackburn with only Ward - the match exploded into life with a goal and a red card midway through the first half.

Although Alf-Inge Haaland had squandered a good opportunity for Leeds, the home side were looking dangerous on the counter-attack with Jason Wilcox, Damien Duff and Keith Gillespie lending enthusiastic support from midfield as Ward ploughed a lone furrow on his debut (his fellow strikers Chris Sutton and Kevin Gallacher were injured, Nathan Blake still getting over flu).

The midfield trio all played their part in Blackburn's 22nd-minute goal, Wilcox taking advantage of Danny Granville's poor control before releasing Duff, who in turn squared inside as Gillespie arrived at the 18-yard line. The former Newcastle winger wrong-footed David Wetherall but seemed to push the ball too far ahead of himself. However, as he stretched a leg forward Lee Bowyer launched a last-ditch challenge and it was probably their combined impetus that propelled the ball past Nigel Martyn. Gillespie claimed the goal, his first in a Rovers shirt.

But controversy followed as the home crowd celebrated, and with it came another example of over-zealous refereeing. Sherwood and Bowyer had both been cautioned after only nine minutes following a scuffle of no real consequence in the centre circle. When Sherwood led with his elbow in another challenge on Bowyer, the referee Rob Harris reached for the yellow again and was compelled, of course, to follow it with red.

It was tough on the Rovers captain. Indeed, he lingered on the field long enough to express his opinion forcibly to Mr Harris. Naturally, the match became instantly unbalanced and Blackburn ended the first half under some pressure as Leeds sought to cash in on their numerical advantage. Even so, Ward managed a shot that required Martyn to move sharply to his right to save.

Kidd adjusted his tactics, taking off Duff and bringing on a more defensive midfielder in David Dunn, but O'Leary was not satisfied to wait for weight of numbers to tell in Leeds' favour. He replaced the defender Jonathon Woodgate with an attacker, Alan Smith, and Kidd responded by pulling all nine outfield players back. Among them, Stephane Henchoz was flawless at the heart of the back line but Wilcox was equally heroic. Indeed, Blackburn's commitment reflected the respect Kidd has clearly generated among his new charges.

Blackburn organised themselves so effectively that, for all the promptings of Bowyer and David Hopkin, Leeds found the way to goal blocked. When chances did open up, Filan was always there and his save from Hasselbaink in the closing moments was crucial.

"I wish we had been playing against 11 men because they pulled everyone back to defend their lead and rightly so," the Leeds manager, David O'Leary, said. "But the goal was an embarrassing one for us to concede and with all the possession we had we should have got something from the game."