Lancashire strugglers sleepwalking to disaster

They prop up the League but Blackburn's Kean talks about a new contract as Martinez insists Wigan will stay up

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The Independent Football

It was to the tune of "Fairytale of New York" that the Blackburn Rovers players trooped from the Wigan pitch exactly two years ago, having failed miserably to deliver in the game they needed to win to save their manager Paul Ince's neck.

"Got on a lucky one, came in 18-1..." went the lyrics, but Ince's odds on surviving were considerably longer than that – and he was sacked inside 48 hours. It is a rather different picture as the two sides occupying the bottom two places in the Premier League table meet on the same turf this afternoon.

The clubs have mustered 11 points between them, though their managers both confidently declared heading into the match that they have nothing to worry about and, where their jobs are concerned, they probably don't. Fairytale? Fairyland more like.

Blackburn's Steve Kean was, as usual, the most optimistic about himself and his team, yesterday. "We won't get relegated. Absolutely no chance," he announced. His day had started with a photograph session in front of the gates of the Brockhall training ground and when he declared that "it's not a case of putting up a front and being anxious when I go away" you certainly had to believe him. Most managers batten down the hatches when they've been through a run of six wins in 31 League matches.

Twenty miles away down the M65, Roberto Martinez exuded a similar insouciance, maintaining that conviction, familiar to those who listen to him every week, that a "negative dynamic" is all that needs to be removed for things to turn out right.

If Blackburn's business were still being driven on the lines it once was, today would be one on which the club's erstwhile chairman John Williams would be riven with angst. He wore funereal black to that last game of Ince's tenure – a 3-0 defeat – and dismissed the manager because he knew there would be no way back to the top flight for a club with a desperately small fanbase in a former mill town of 105,000 people and an 85 per cent ratio of wages to earnings.

The bumpy recent history of Rovers has been evident at Wigan in recent seasons. It is a place where four different Blackburn managers – Mark Hughes, Ince, Sam Allardyce and Kean – have presided over the last five trips, though a year into their Ewood tenure the Venky family's unfailing trust in Kean suggests that his job will be comfortable, even if today's game goes the wrong way. "I don't think this is an appropriate time to talk about [new contracts]," Kean said. "We can get ourselves in a position where we should be and then we can talk about that." In the usual scheme of things, the current contract would be the one he had something to worry about.

He, of the two managers, has most to enthuse about – and not only because Chris Samba may come back into contention today, after a hamstring injury. Kean's depiction of himself as a manager assembling his own young team certainly stretched belief. One of the players he cited, the defender Martin Olsson, was actually signed by Mark Hughes. But even Martinez agreed that Kean's charges had "played well in the last four games" and they certainly did look reasonable value in the month before the international break – losing only two games in five. A last-minute equaliser conceded at Norwich was unfortunate and they probably deserved more from the draw at QPR. "In nearly every game we've played well and should have picked up more points," Kean insisted. "We're not getting smashed every week. We're playing against a lot of the teams who are in the top five or six. The owners know that."

It's a different picture at Wigan, where eight consecutive defeats reflect a side where all the spirit has gone, along with the best two players of last season – Tom Cleverley and Charles N'Zogbia – who were never replaced. It was hard to agree with Martinez's logic that "if we repeat the level of the last seven games in the next 27 we'll get enough points... I'm convinced of that". Look at the players, managed by Steve Bruce, who beat Rovers two years ago – Antonio Valencia, Lee Cattermole, Emile Heskey – for a sense of how Wigan are diminishing.

They threaten to head the same way as Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Charlton Athletic if relegated, considering that the TV money – £43m and by far the largest proportion of the club's turnover last year – is keeping them going. But Martinez, like Kean, will be given a lot of rope. His chairman, Dave Whelan, acknowledges the loyalty his manager showed by not accepting Aston Villa's offer this season and seems to feel that the Spaniard's top-to-bottom reconstruction of the club is more important even than this season's endgame. This has the feel of two clubs sleepwalking to disaster.

Last season's relegated Lancashire club, Blackpool, who dropped out with 39 points, have good grounds to feel that they would have comfortably survived with that number this season, had they only managed to hold on.

Martinez could at least reflect on a sense of togetherness yesterday, with no light planes being chartered to call for him to jump off Wigan Pier. "I would say a long-term approach always helps," he said.

Kean insisted most Rovers fans were becoming "irritated" with the airborne crew and their ilk. He, meantime, still awaits with baited breath for the serious injection of cash which was to come after Phil Jones left the club. "I've not had the talk yet," he said. "I've actually got a meeting with one of the directors who's over today from India and we'll get an indication of what funding will be available in the next window. From that, we can decide what targets and in which areas we can strengthen." A major dose of reality might be something both clubs aspire to.

Limp Lancs: Three in strife

Wigan (20th, Premier League)

Roberto Martinez's side prop up the Premier League, having struggled to recover from the loss of playmaker Charles N'Zogbia. They are frail at both ends – scoring seven (a league low) while leaking at the back.

Blackburn (19th)

Supporter unrest has held over from last season's final-day escape with under-fire manager Steve Kean enduring calls for his head. One league win all season, and surren-dered 3-1 lead at Norwich last month.

Bolton (18th)

Lost six on trot after opening win at QPR and have conceded 27 goals. Minor high in 5-0 win over Stoke.

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