Having admitted before kick-off that results needed to improve rapidly if he was to keep hold of his job, Kevin Keegan nudged a step closer to the exit door following Manchester City's disappointing draw with their fellow struggles Blackburn Rovers.
There was no dramatic resignation after the game, but Keegan looked tired. "The pressure always starts with the manager," he explained, "and when your team hasn't won at home since 18 October, you're bound to be worried."
The City manager will get the headlines, but this match was also about two City goalkeepers. As transfers of power - or, in this case, gloves - go, this was as smooth as it gets. In what turned out to be a symbolic meeting on the field before kick-off yesterday, David Seaman, the former international keeper, gracefully handed over his day job to David James, the man who took his England place 18 months ago.
Having had to quit the game so suddenly last week, Seaman deserved the warm applause he received from both sets of supporters as he was paraded before the match. In a further mark of respect, all 22 players formed a line of honour for the man known as "Safe Hands". Clearly touched, Seaman collected a commemorative plaque and never looked like dropping it as he walked off the pitch for the last time.
It cannot have been long after he retired to his seat in the directors' box, that Seaman knew he had made the right decision. Indeed, this was not exactly a classic. Blackburn defended resolutely, with Nils Johansson impressing at centre-half, while City never really got going. "I can count on one hand the number of times we've defended well this season," the visiting manager Graeme Souness said, "and this was one of them."
Souness' men dominated the opening quarter of an hour, but the Scot will be disappointed that his side never threatened the City goal in that time. The home side eventually settled and, on 18 minutes, produced their neatest bit of football. Inevitably, the excellent Nicolas Anelka was involved in the move that led to his fellow countryman Antoine Sibierski feeding Trevor Sinclair just inside the area. The England man took one touch with his right foot to set up a shot with his left, but his curling effort flashed just wide of the post.
Less than a minute later, there was a nasty clash of heads between Sinclair and John Douglas. Sinclair was bandaged up at pitch-side and returned looking like Paul Ince in England's memorable goal-less draw with Italy in the France 98 World Cup qualifier in Rome. Douglas, for his part, had to be helped to the treatment room in order to receive several stitches.
The incident seemed to galvanise City and destabilise Blackburn, as Gary Flitcroft lost his cool 15 minutes before the break. Indeed, his wild tackle on Joey Barton could easily have broken the young midfielder's leg, and the Blackburn captain can count himself lucky to have been shown a yellow card. The ensuing free-kick bounced around on the edge of Brad Friedel's area until Sibierski unleashed a terrific right-foot shot from 25 yards. Friedel was beaten, but the post saved the goalkeeper. Lady Luck was on the American's side again when Sinclair, who was lurking no more than four yards from goal, sent the rebound towards the corner the flag.
Seaman would barely have had time to digest his half-time prawn sandwich when Anelka gave City the lead. Five minutes after the restart, Lucas Neill brought Paul Bosvelt down just outside the area with a clumsy challenge and then watched as Anelka drilled the free-kick into the corner past the hapless Friedel. City had their tails up but, as has been the case all too often this season, switched off at the back just when it seemed they might be taking control.
Indeed, moments after John Macken was wrongly adjudged to have strayed off-side, when he had in fact cleverly broken free of the Blackburn defence, Flitcroft scored the equaliser. Neill launched a hopeful long ball which Dwight Yorke, profiting from an error by Richard Dunne, nudged into Flitcroft's path. The Blackburn midfielder made no mistake from four yards. "This was a game for my senior players to stand up and be counted," Souness said, "and they did that. They showed big balls."
City, in contrast, became increasingly desperate, as they realised that another two points were slipping away. Keegan spent the last 10 minutes out of his seat, repeatedly urging his players to calm down. His pleas fell on deaf ears, but the boos that rang around the City of Manchester Stadium at the final whistle will no doubt still be playing on his sensitive mind.
Manchester City 1
Blackburn Rovers 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 47,090Reuse content