Ferguson injury mars vital win for Blackburn

Newcastle United 0 Blackburn Rovers 1
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The Independent Football

Graeme Souness has been an animated figure on and around the touchlines of the Premiership this season. There was the spat with Dennis Rofe at Southampton and the questioning of Graham Poll's allegiances at Tottenham. At St James' Park yesterday, the Blackburn manager was on the pitch midway through the first-half. There was nothing excitable in his demeanour, though, as he stood with head bowed over the stricken Barry Ferguson.

The loss of Ferguson with a broken right kneecap tempered a thoroughly deserved and desperately required victory for Souness and his Rovers. The Scotland captain was carried off after jarring himself when challnging Gary Speed on the halfway line. It is the last that will be seen of Blackburn's £7.5m summer signing in the Premiership this season.

"It's a big blow," Souness lamented afterwards. "Barry has been our outstanding player in the last few weeks. He'll be out for the rest of the season. He's in hospital now. We'll pick him up on the way home." At least Souness had the consolation of returning to East Lancashire with three points. The spotlight going into the match was trained on Michael Chopra, who was making his first start for Newcastle eight days past his 20th birthday, but it was the 19-year-old in the Blackburn forward line who won it. Slow-motion replays showed that Paul Gallagher used his left arm to beat Shay Given in the 72nd minute but the teenaged Glaswegian deserved his reward.

He was oustanding all afternoon, his poise and percep- tive play constantly unsettling a jittery home guard. Brett Emerton was excellent, too - a constant thorn down the right. The Australian might have joined Newcastle last season but an £8m bid was turned down by Feyenoord after he balked at the prospect of being used as a right-back.

The Magpies' vulnerability at the back on both wings was clear to see yesterday. So was their continuing lack of cohesion at the centre of defence, and a lack of zest in midfield. With just one win in five matches, Sir Bobby Robson's boys are losing ground in the race for the fourth place in the Champions' League. "We weren't good enough," Sir Bobby said. "We had a bit of a rough decision, with the way their goal was scored but it's a goal in the papers in the morning. We didn't score anyway, and if you're not going to score you're not going to win."

Blackburn looked the more likely scorers from the start yesterday.With just five minutes on the clock, Andy Cole fed a ball out wide to Lucas Neill on the right and the Sydneysider's dinked cross into the six-yard box was flicked on to the roof of Given's net by the razor-sharp Gallagher.

Newcastle responded with a Jermaine Jenas drive that forced a diving save from Brad Friedel but it was Blackburn who proceeded to dictate the play. Ferguson curled a free-kick inches wide, Cole struck a clear shot straight at Given and then the dithering of Aaron Hughes and Olivier Bernard very nearly let in Cole.

Rovers lost their momentum with Ferguson's departure, in the 26th minute. From then, until half-time, they had to rely on the sound reflexes of Friedel, who got his first foothold in the English game at Newcastle, when he trained with Kevin Keegan's squad but failed to gain a work permit.

The American kept out a downward header from Alan Shearer and a rasping low drive by Laurent Robert. He could only watch gratefully, though, as Shearer strred a header wide and as a linesman raised a flag when Chopra turned in a Nolberto Solano ball from the right. The video replay showed that the England under-20 strikerhad been a yard offside when he flicked a right-footed shot over the diving Friedel.

After the interval, Blackburn got back into their stride and firmly back into control. Newcastle got themselves increasingly into a twist at the back, Given having to react smartly to prevent an Andy O'Brien own goal and to thwart Cole on the edge of his area. The breakthrough came with 18 minutes remaining. At first sight, it appeared that Gallagher had turned in Emerton's cross with his chest as he fought to get to the ball ahead of Hughes. It was the top of his left arm, though, that made contact, doubling his goalscoring account in the Premiership.

Blackburn would have doubled their winning margin, had O'Brien not hoofed a Cole header clear of the goalmouth. There were boos at the final whistle for Newcastle, and worries off the pitch as well as on it for their manager.

Explaining Kieron Dyer's absence for a second successive game, Sir Bobby revealed that the England midfielder would be having hospital tests to resolve a mystery stomach problem. "Hopefully, Kieron will be okay," he said.

Goal: Gallagher (72) 0-1.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 7; Hughes 4, O'Brien 4, Bramble 4, Bernard 4; Solano 5 (Ambrose 4, 71), Jenas 4, Speed 6 (Viana, 82), Robert 6; Chopra 5 (LuaLua 4, 71), Shearer 5. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Woodgate.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel 7; Neill 7, Babbel 8, Todd 7, Gresko 6; Emerton 8, Tugay 6, Ferguson 6 (Flitcroft 5, 29), Mahon 5; Cole 6 (Yorke, 88), Gallagher 8 (Jansen, 90). Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Taylor.

Referee: M Halsey (Welling) 5.

Bookings: Blackburn: Todd

Man of the match: Emerton.

Attendance: 51,648.