An elemental Lancashire day, rain sheeting down from the west Pennine moors, and one which reminded you that Sam Allardyce is a man who has come home to his natural milieu. There was the usual no-nonsense demeanour - the new Blackburn manager turned two small circles, walked off to take a seat and threw away his Rovers scarf after the big introduction on the pitch - but even he was struggling last night to take in the events of his first half hour in an Ewood Park home dug-out.
He had been hoping for what he called the "Harry Redknapp midas touch" but what he got was more Harry Potter - his new charges spending the first quarter of an hour hemmed inside their own half, then in the space of 20 minutes nearly equalling the entire home goals tally of the Paul Ince era to take what, by the afternoon's end, was a massive step on what the match programme had described as "Sam's Mission."
Not even Roque Santa Cruz's latest badly timed declaration that he covets playing for a bigger club could throw Allardyce off course. The Paraguayan injured his calf five minutes into the manager's first training session but it proved to be a twist of serendipity. Allardyce instead played Benni McCarthy, an individual who found himself limited to three starts under Paul Ince but who, on his 100th appearance for the club, scored twice and should have had a hat trick. There were reminders here of the player who was the Premier League's second top scorer under Mark Hughes, two seasons back, and certainly a greater threat than anything from Santa Cruz of late. "Marvellous," was Allardyce's description of what he saw from the South African.
That said, Santa Cruz's declaration has clearly troubled Allardyce, who said on Thursday that he didn't want to lose his best players in January. "Will it bother me tomorrow? Yes," he said. "Will it bother my night out? No. I [need] to see the whole situation." He did not commit to picking Santa Cruz if he recovers in time for the Christmas programme.
The manager had been awake since 6.30am yesterday, nervous, "mooching around and waiting to meet the players" with a doctor's call reporting bad news on Santa Cruz's scan results not helping. What he saw will have told him there is still much work to be done. Rovers still showed too little of the bite which once made them defensively so impervious and Stoke will rue an afternoon of precious little luck, in which they hit a post and bar and perished after committing defensive (ital)hari kari(close).
But that's just the detail. The bigger picture for Rovers is that their 11-match winless run is at an end and even though Sunderland's victory at Hull leaves the task in hand looking as tough as ever, the side have remembered how winning feels in time for their journey into Wearside on Boxing Day. "Early days yet but it's a great start," Allardyce said, after only a third clean sheet for his side this season. "There's never been a problem scoring goals but there has been a problem defensively. We were heroic today against a side that's difficult defend againt. We almost played an away game at homs - sat back and soaked it up then used our talents on the break. It left Stoke's defence for dead. If we can get that mentality we can get ourselves out of this position."
The afternoon belonged to him from the moment a high, neat flick by McCarthy sent Morten Gamst Pedersen running into the Stoke area after eight minutes. It was slightly overhit but Ibrahima Sonko, whose first half was personally disastrous, felled the Norwegian as he chased it into the box and McCarthy converted the penalty.
Allardyce allowed himself the faintest smile and a semi crumpled fist but he brightened more when Stoke's implosion continued on 17 minutes. Ryan Shawcross's attempt to clear a Brett Emerton cross saw him slice the ball into the path of Jason Roberts who placed it in from a few yards. It was an equally poor goal to concede and ten minutes later, another McCarthy flick sent Roberts comfortably past Sonko into the left of the box and the shot beaten out by Steve Simonsen fell straight to McCarthy, to slot home again.
This all bred confident, one-touch football from Rovers. Simonsen saved with his feet when Roberts ran straight through and after a corner was defected back into McCarthy's path he slammed a shot against the outside of the right post. Pulis lamented the kind of "individual mistakes" he knows can relegate a side. Allardyce declared it his best start as a manager and headed out of Ewood for a friend's 60th birthday, fortified for the road ahead.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: McCarthy
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content