Harford has no regrets despite Rovers' relapse

The champions' new manager admits he needs a stronger squad but defends his summer strategy. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
It took Blackburn Rovers 81 years of toil and millions of pounds to regain the League championship. It seems it has taken them only six days to lose it.

Within the last week, Rovers have lost to Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United - last season they reached January before suffering as many defeats.

Even the team they beat, QPR on the opening day, only lost to a controversial penalty and were denied a goal themselves by Tim Flowers' professional foul.

Rovers have not played well in any of these games. The effort that made them champions remains, but the poise, confidence, defensive coolness and attacking sharpness has gone, lost in a summer of stagnation.

"We are not playing as well as we were last year," admitted Ray Harford, who took over as manager from Kenny Dalglish during the summer. "We knew there was going to be a reaction. It is not an attitude problem - against Manchester United they were, if anything, trying too hard. They are a top-class bunch, really good lads. They want to do well. I would be the last one to slaughter them. That is no good to anyone. What they are crying out for is a bit of comfort, something to get their heads up because one or two heads were dropping on Monday night. There is no reason why they should doubt themselves, but..."

While their competitors, Manchester United apart, spent heavily in the summer, Rovers paid out just pounds 800,000 for Adam Reed, a defender from Darlington, and Matt Holmes, a midfielder from West Ham.

Harford appears to accept that was not enough, but he said he had no regrets. "I can be accused of not buying players, but I did not see many who are better than the ones I have. The ones I went for I could not get.

"After last season it was only fair that we should appraise the situation before buying. I felt I owed it to the players who won the championship to stick with them. Maybe that has rebounded on me but I do not think so because their attitude has been first-class.

"I would like more competition for places. At the moment picking the team is virtually a rubber stamp job. We have got to have some new faces. They are a necessity, whether they are players returning from injury, or new ones to the club. A couple of them looked a bit sad against Manchester United, they wanted to play well against a top team but under-achieved."

By contrast, United's youngsters look to be getting better with every outing, rising to the challenge on Monday night in admirable fashion. They were not even fazed by the loss of Roy Keane, boldly and correctly sent off by David Elleray. Keane was cautioned for diving, and as he had already been booked he then had to be dismissed.

It seemed Elleray, the most experienced Premiership referee, was setting a standard. It was as if he was saying to colleagues, 'I've had the guts to do this, in the first high-profile game of the season, now follow my lead.'

If that was his intention it is no bad thing. Diving is cheating. While not a great problem in the English game, it is present. In addition, a crackdown here would be seen around the world on television.

It was a night for justifying brave decisions, by both Elleray and Alex Ferguson, whose summer clear-out looks increasingly well-judged. Harford was not so bold, and is paying the consequences.

But what of his predecessor, Kenny Dalglish? Perhaps his decision to step aside during the summer was a prescient one.