Rovers' old-school brutality a scar on the game

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The Independent Football

When Blackburn Rovers last won the FA Cup, in 1928, they took no prisoners. The club's "official encyclopedia" details the first goal in the 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town thus: "Mercer, in the Town goal, appeared to have the ball covered. Roscamp dipped his shoulder and moved in for the kill. As he charged into Mercer, the ball squirmed from the keeper's grip and floated over the line."

When Blackburn Rovers last won the FA Cup, in 1928, they took no prisoners. The club's "official encyclopedia" details the first goal in the 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town thus: "Mercer, in the Town goal, appeared to have the ball covered. Roscamp dipped his shoulder and moved in for the kill. As he charged into Mercer, the ball squirmed from the keeper's grip and floated over the line."

Elsewhere in the book Jack Roscamp is described as using "his physical strength to compensate for what he lacked in skill" while Rovers' man of the match in the final, Aussie Campbell, is variously described as "destructive", "forceful" and "tackling fearlessly".

The game, thankfully, has moved on. Have Rovers? Not, it seems, from Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Roscamp and Campbell would have felt at home in Cardiff as Rovers sought to muscle Arsenal off their game.

A decade or so ago I interviewed Mark Hughes, now Rovers' manager, then with Manchester United. "You've a terrible reputation," I ventured, "but how often have you actually been sent off?" There was a trace of a smile as he said, "About a dozen times, actually."

It was a reminder that reputations tend to be founded in fact. Facts like the 28 fouls Blackburn committed on Saturday. But if Hughes was unashamed about his reputation as a player, he is less happy about the one his team are acquiring. "Thugs", "bruisers" and "bullies" were some of the labels applied to Rovers in yesterday's prints.

Fair comment? Hughes bristled under interrogation, but Rovers' first foul was committed after 10 seconds, Garry Flitcroft planting his foot in Dennis Bergkamp's midriff. That Rovers had kicked off but already lost possession illustrated their problem. In an even contest, Arsenal were sure to win. As Hughes admitted: "We've a good squad but we lack quality where it matters."

It is a weakness Hughes has compensated for by concentrating on defence. Flair players like Matt Jansen and Tugay are marginalised, combative ones such as Paul Dickov and Aaron Mokoena promoted. "When I took over we were bottom and shipping goals," Hughes said. "We had to be more resolute, more defensive and more demanding of each other."

As a consequence, this spring Rovers have won at Everton and drawn at Manchester United and Liverpool. They have become hard to beat, and even harder to watch. Yet last weekend Rovers played good football in beating Southampton 3-0. And while Mokoena crocked Arjen Robben and Mikael Arteta in the games against Chelsea and Everton, those against Manchester United and Liverpool were relatively bruise-free.

"When we are allowed to open up and attack we do - we did against Southampton," Hughes said, "but Arsenal have more quality."

So Rovers focused on stopping Arsenal playing. Nothing wrong with that, admitted Arsène Wenger, as long as it is done legally. When it is not, added the Arsenal manager, it is up to the referee to do his job. Steve Dunn, long a standard-bearer for the laissez-faire style of officiating encouraged by the referees' supremo Keith Hackett, fell short, failing to issue several yellow cards one of which would have resulted in the dismissal of David Thompson.

In this anything-goes regime, Rovers must have felt that kicking Arsenal was worth a go. Arsenal are poor at set pieces so free-kicks are not the concern they would be against Chelsea. They have also been known to lose focus and respond in kind. This time, with Patrick Vieira leading by example, they kept their heads to outclass Rovers and do football a service. Roskamp's brutality was acceptable in the 1920s, but not now.

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