Football / The Race for The Premiership: United take title as Blackburn's chase ends: Darby inspires Coventry to deny denuded Rovers and ensure championship stays in Manchester

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Coventry City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

Blackburn Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

A YEAR ago to the day, Manchester United's first championship in 26 years was confirmed without their kicking a ball when Oldham's Nick Henry ended Aston Villa's hopes. At Highfield Road last night, when Blackburn required victory to prolong their pursuit, the similarly unsung Julian Darby scored twice for Coventry to ensure that the title stays at Old Trafford.

United's remaining fixtures, at home to Southampton tomorrow and Coventry on Sunday, will now become celebrations of another, richly deserved triumph. Nevertheless, English football owes Blackburn a debt - not a word one normally associates with Jack Walker's club - for turning the procession at the head of the Premiership into a race.

Darby's double means that Blackburn's first venture into Europe will be in the Uefa Cup rather than the Champions Cup. Chelsea also have cause to thank the 26- year-old former Bolton midfielder, Phil Neal's first buy on becoming Coventry manager, for as United's FA Cup final opponents they are now guaranteed a place in the Cup- Winners' Cup.

Coventry's match-winner, who had previously scored only three Premiership goals and was in Bolton's reserves when Neal gambled pounds 150,000 on him, had mixed feelings about his role. 'I am Bolton born and bred, and where I come from people have a hatred of Manchester United. Now I've gone and won the title for them. It was the last thing I wanted. I certainly won't be going home for a few days,' Darby said.

When Kenny Dalglish comes to look back over the season, he may well reflect on what might have been had Alan Shearer been fit enough to take a full part in the early games. Or indeed, on whether Blackburn would have run the champions even closer if David Batty had been prised from Leeds earlier than October.

The Blackburn manager was not about to offer excuses after last night's game, though he could not resist a barbed aside over his team's recent match at Southampton. Had they avoided defeat at The Dell they would have dislodged United, but the referee's 'diabolical decision' to award a penalty when the ball hit Tim Sherwood in the face had been 'a turning point.'

Dalglish quickly added that he did not wish to detract from United's success offering congratulations to Alex Ferguson only days after his fellow Scot had become a grandfather. 'I'm sure the granddad will enjoy himself,' he said with a grin, adding: 'We're disappointed over going so close, but delighted for the fans and Jack Walker, because the players have done them proud.'

In the end, Blackburn's makeshift side were well beaten. Injuries deprived them of Newell, Warhurst, Batty, Gallacher, Moran and Ripley, so it was perhaps not surprising that they struggled to contain a Coventry team free of relegation worries and playing with a passion that ought to guarantee them a warm welcome at Old Trafford.

Although it was Darby who applied the coup de grace, Blackburn were tormented throughout by Peter Ndlovu. The pacy Zimbabwean striker gave Andy Morrison, the reserve centre-half, a torrid time and came desperately close to scoring on several occasions.

Coventry took an 11th-minute lead when Colin Hendry's languid challenge on Ndlovu resulted in the ball rebounding goalwards off the Scot's shin. Darby seized upon the error in a flash, whipping a right- footed shot past Tim Flowers by his near post from 16 yards.

The equaliser Blackburn's spirited response merited arrived in the 29th minute. Steve Ogrizovic was at fault, allowing Graeme Le Saux's swerving daisy-cutter from 30 yards to pass under his dive.

But Coventry wrapped up the points 10 minutes into the second half with a goal which epitomised their splendid team play. Leigh Jenkinson's cross was headed down by Willie Boland and the ball sat up nicely for Darby six yards out. That his hooked shot squirmed into the net off Flowers' legs merely compounded Blackburn's woe - and, doubtless, United's joy.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Borrows, Atherton, Babb, Morgan; Boland, Rennie, Darby, Jenkinson; Ndlovu, Flynn. Substitutes not used: Pickering, Quinn, Gould (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; May, Morrison (Marker, 75), Hendry, Le Saux; Berg, Sherwood, Atkins (Makel, 69), Wright; Shearer, Wilcox. Substitute not used: Mimms (gk).

Referee: P Don (Middlesex).

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIERSHIP TOP TWO ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd (C) 40 26 10 4 78 38 88 Blackburn 41 25 8 8 63 36 83 -----------------------------------------------------------------

United's achievement, page 35