The supposed romance of the world's greatest domestic cup competition was thin on the muddy ground yesterday. The state of Luton's pitch might have been considered something of a leveller but, in front of Kenilworth Road's lowest crowd of the season, the Premiership visitors rose above it by producing a perfect mixture of finesse and Jack Walker steel.
Matt Derbyshire, a slim young striker whom Luton have regularly tried to sign on loan, scored two excellent goals and set up another, and Blackburn's place in the last 16 was secure long before Morten Gamst Pedersen drove in an exquisite fourth.
Benni McCarthy was a fine foil for Derbyshire in attack, David Bentley and Aaron Mokoena provided the satin and steel in central midfield, and Stephen Warnock from Liverpool had an excellent debut at left-back. So the Premiership side were able to make light of injury problems depriving them of Robbie Savage and Andre Ooijer (both broken legs), Tugay, Jason Roberts and Steven Reid.
Down at the bottom of the Championship, the going is harder - much harder. Luton were already struggling in 19th place at the start of the transfer window when the much put-upon Mike Newell was forced to sell his two leading goalscorers, Rowan Vine and Carlos Edwards. He will not see much of the resulting £4m, being forced largely to beg, steal or borrow new recruits. Worse, half a dozen players were missing with injury, including the influential Croatian Ahmet Brkovic, who was taken off in the midweek replay against Queen's Park Rangers.
Even with three home games in eight days, live coverage on BBC television and an inconveniently early kick-off for visiting supporters, it was worrying to find only 5,887 present. A year ago, in front of a full house, Luton went in at half-time 3-1 up on the European champions Liverpool, who recovered to win a classic tie 5-3. There was no such excitement yesterday, the muted atmosphere being further diminished when Blackburn scored after only 10 minutes. McCarthy's pass sat up nicely for Derbyshire to drive in.
Losing their captain and centre-half Chris Coyne with a knee injury only made Luton's predicament worse and when their one chance in the first half, a header by Drew Talbot, produced a corner, the visitors immediately broke out to score again. Brad Friedel collected the ball and bowled it out to Warnock, who made rapid progress down the left and fed Pedersen. The Norwegian's cross was met by Derbyshire's brave header, falling perfectly for McCarthy to tap in.
Only if Luton scored the next goal was there any hope of a contest breaking out, but 10 minutes into the second half, Derbyshire rose well to head in Brett Emerton's cross for his fifth goal in six games. There was another touch of class to come, Pedersen meeting Zurab Khizanishvili's deflected cross with a perfectly placed low shot inside the far post.
"Blackburn's extra quality shone through," admitted Newell, who once won a Premiership medal with them, adding enviously: "They've got strength in depth. But I'll get on with the job, I'm not one to jump ship." Rovers manager, Mark Hughes, the FA Cup warrior who pocketed an unprecedented four winners' medals at Wembley, even allowed his thoughts to drift to the third Saturday in May. "There's a real prize this year with the final back at Wembley with Her Majesty the Queen presenting the trophy so we'd love to be part of it," he said. Much stranger things have happened, especially in the Cup.Reuse content