Football: Unlucky Rovers touch wood

Blackburn Rovers 0 Newcastle United 0 Attendance: 27,659
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The Independent Online
IT DID NOT take long for Brian Kidd to experience the conflicting emotions of the managerial lot. Last week, victory and a role as the conquering hero; this week, a frustrating afternoon of missed opportunities and outrageous ill fortune.

But for an inspired save by Steve Harper, the stand-in Newcastle United goalkeeper, and a missed penalty, the second by Jeff Kenna in three weeks against these same opponents, Kidd would have a 100 per cent record and Blackburn Rovers a neat launchpad for the Christmas rush. The woodwork saved Newcastle's blushes three times.

Having failed to turn intense pressure into goals, Kidd was able only to savour a second clean sheet, the coach's delight, and two games unbeaten. The Blackburn defence were helped immeasurably by an inept Newcastle side who failed to give Duncan Ferguson any decent service, by ground or through the air.

"We passed the ball in the first 20 minutes and the last 15," moaned Ruud Gullit, "but what happened in between?" Most of the crowd could tell him - a scrappy, muddled affair between two sides desperately short of quality and confidence.

One double act did feature for Newcastle, but it was not the one the Toon Army wanted to see. Douglas Hall and Freddie Shepherd, returning to the boardroom after a six-month exile in disgrace, were not the same as Ferguson and Alan Shearer. A late fitness test put paid to the England striker's hopes of a much-awaited comeback and, in his absence, Ferguson struggled to get an inch of space out of Stephane Henchoz and Christian Dailly at the heart of a steely new Blackburn defence.

"We've been working on defensive principles all week," Kidd said. "I thought we handled big Duncan well. We've not been scoring goals, but we've not been leaking them either."

Nothing, though, should detract from an encouraging start by Kidd, whose brief flirtation with the sartorial style of his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, lasted all of one half. Kidd was back to basics this week, wearing the tracksuit which has been his trademark through a distinguished role as Alex Ferguson's sidekick. Judging by his media presence, Kidd is enjoying the freedom of his new role and, after United's gag orders, the chance to speak his own mind.

Last week, on his managerial debut, he had alternated sartorial overcoat with tracksuit top as if uncertain whether to remain one of the lads or become the boss. This time there was no doubt. His pitchside appearances in full coach's kit became increasingly frantic, but reflected his style. "Last week I know I embarrassed myself rushing down from the directors' box, but we needed to get the defence organised. This week has been spent on the training ground. That's where I'm happiest and I think that's my strength."

Gullit's odd stroll to the touchline had all the urgency of a Sunday afternoon amble in the park. The game, he probably realised, was on a career path all of its own. "All of a sudden certain players disappear and don't do what they have to do for the team," said the Newcastle manager, who used all his substitutes in an effort to inject some belated life into the team, but only Temuri Ketsbaia showed the necessary urgency. "I couldn't really point out who to take off. For two thirds of the game we weren't in control."

Like the Dutchman, Kidd has not taken long to master the art of lowering expectations. Because they pay big, Blackburn have mistakenly begun to think big. Kidd knows about big clubs and his talk of needing a "siege mentality" and "grinding out results" bore all the hallmarks of a manager buying time.

The absence of some seasoned strikers did not help the managers, nor the afternoon's entertainment quotient. Kevin Davies, goal-shy for so long before opening his account against Charlton last week, came into the starting line-up in place of the injured Kevin Gallacher but the absence of the SAS, now on opposite sides - Chris Sutton with an ankle injury and Shearer failing a late fitness test on a troublesome hamstring - deprived Ewood Park of an extra storyline. Davies figured in most of Blackburn's best moments, his right-foot shot bringing a flying save from Harper in the second half and a left-foot drive just curling past the post.

The return of Tim Sherwood balanced the loss and the Blackburn captain, such an influential figure in midfield, could have given his side the lead within the first 10 minutes. Released on the right side of the penalty area by the quickfire Damien Johnson, Sherwood's first-time shot skimmed the top of the crossbar. It did not take long, though, for the elementary defensive errors which cost Hodgson his job to surface again. A slip on the edge of the penalty area by Dailly let in Dietmar Hammann, whose low shot was well saved by Alan Fettis, the less prominent of the two replacement keepers on show.

As the game ground on Newcastle rode their luck. A shot by Jason Wilcox slammed against the crossbar, then the post came to the rescue in more dramatic fashion in the 72nd minute. At the end of an intense period of Blackburn pressure Nathan Blake was fouled in the penalty area. Sherwood knocked the loose ball into the net, but the referee had already pointed to the spot. Kenna's kick ricocheted to safety off the inside of the post.

Newcastle began to wonder if this was to be their day after all. Kidd knew by the end it was not going to be his.