Souness signs forgotten man Gray to bolster faltering Rovers

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The Independent Football

The Blackburn Rovers manager Graeme Souness has signed Michael Gray on a full-time transfer and given him a two-and-a-half year contract.

Souness moved in for the Sunderland defender after he returned from a loan spell at Celtic and he is delighted to have acquired the former England international. "Good left-sided players are hard to find and Michael has a great pedigree," the Rovers manager said. "He was in the international side not so long ago."

Gray has been out of Mick McCarthy's plans for the past year and Blackburn beat off competition from Bolton, with Wanderers handicapped by a dispute with the Sunderland chairman Bob Murray. Bolton had been at loggerheads with Sunderland over the signing of Emerson Thome at the start of the season and Murray was not keen to do business with them.

Gray, who signed for Sunderland as an apprentice in July 1990 and made 411 appearances for the club, scoring 17 goals, said: "It is very exciting for me, not only to be joining a big club like Blackburn but to be back in the Premiership. I'm really delighted with the move."

He is expected to make his debut for Rovers against Chelsea on Sunday, and Souness is confident he will prove a good addition to his squad. "We have followed Michael with interest for some time and one of the big plusses is his ability to play in all positions down the left," Souness said. "He has a good pedigree and we are pleased to welcome him aboard."

There were no hard feelings back at the Stadium of Light, and Murray said: "We wish Michael all the best for the future. He has been a loyal servant of this club for many years and this move gives him the opportunity to kick-start his career with a new challenge."

Gray was on loan at Celtic earlier this season and made 10 appearances for Martin O'Neill's side, including two in the Champions' League group stage. The Glasgow side was among the clubs interested in securing his signature on a permanent basis but Blackburn came out on top. The 29-year-old was a mainstay of the Sunderland team that played in the Premiership from 1999 to 2003 and was capped three times by England during that period.

Blackburn's chief executive John Williams said the club is determined to strengthen the team, despite having a bid for striker Tomasz Radzinski rejected by Everton. After losing the race for the United States international Brian McBride to Fulham and offloading Corrado Grabbi to Ancona earlier this month, Souness had been hoping to sign the 30-year-old Canada international. But he said: "I spoke to David Moyes on Monday and he told me Tomasz was not for sale. He is a good player, but I respect Everton's word and we will look elsewhere."

Souness is looking to bolster the midfield, as well as the forward line, with Barry Ferguson and David Thompson on the long-term injury list, although the closure of this month's transfer window is fast approaching.

Williams has confirmed, though, that they are looking at several other options: "We are working on one or two things although it is unwise to elaborate at this stage. We have a limited budget, but we are doing all we can to try to strengthen."

Ferguson, meanwhile, is hoping to make a surprising return before the end of the season, despite fears he would miss the rest of the campaign after breaking his kneecap during a game at Newcastle on 28 December. But the 25-year-old is making rapid progress in his recovery and said: "Everything is going well. I'm delighted with the progress and I'd like to get back before the end of the season."

* Aston Villa lost £16.5m in the six months to November of last year, more than double their £8.1m losses for the same period in 2002, the club announced yesterday. Part of the reason for the deficit was the decision to release Alpay Ozalan and Bosko Balaban during the current season. The Villa chairman Doug Ellis said: "Despite an adverse trading performance in the first half of the year our balance sheet remains strong and is undoubtedly one of the strongest amongst our peers."

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