Harford in grip of identity crisis

Blackburn's European ordeal confirms a lack of confidence and cunning. Ian Ridley discusses the need for new blood
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The Independent Online
ITV's coverage of Blackburn Rovers' first Champions' League match against Spartak Moscow had just finished and on came BT's latest dial- M-for-Money commercial. "And this isn't about working harder," said the tough-but-vulnerable woman exec figure. "We have to work smarter."

It served as a fitting epitaph on a night that should have been an up- tempo celebration of a small-town club's first appearance in the European Cup but instead turned into downbeat 0-1 confirmation of the inadequacies of England's supposed finest; fitting for both Blackburn, watched by fewer than 21,000 people, and their manager Ray Harford.

Ray of the Rovers has taken a first smart step with an important signing. In effect, he has sacked himself as coach and recruited in his place Derek Fazackerley, much respected in the North-east as one reason behind Newcastle's exciting development on the pitch. "The best managerial decision I have made for a long time," Harford said. "I feel clearer and fresher now."

He, and Blackburn, will need to be as the team faces a crisis of confidence and identity. Their form in the Premiership has been alarming. Add the last six games of last season to the six this, including yesterday's defeat at Liverpool, and only 11 points have been gleaned; relegation material. And in Europe, they look crass ingenus.

Leeds United's mauling of Monaco was mostly a testament to Tony Yeboah's towering talents but elsewhere there were signs that English clubs may be ready again to compete with the Continent in passing and movement. Manchester United's young Rotor blades, with the 20-year-old David Beckham the embodiment, illustrated as much in Volgograd, while Liverpool looked like New Men in Vladikavkaz. At Ewood Park, meanwhile, Blackburn were unashamedly unreconstructed.

Harford had wanted to become a manager again, rather than just a coach. Kenny Dalglish's desire to step back from the day-to-day pressures opened the way, apparently averting at the same time the possibility that Harford might be tempted to discuss the jobs at Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. He had reservations about following Dalglish and about his promotion, having had bad experiences at Fulham, Luton and Wimbledon. "I vowed to my wife I wouldn't do it again. I found when I took manager's jobs in the past that I go dour again," he said, laughing. Europe's top competition was too alluring, however.

His initial instinct was to leave alone a squad which had won the title, though he tentatively inquired about four players - including David Platt - in the summer. It was probably a mistake and ignored the old Bill Shankly premise of buying when you are strong. Harford indeed cited Liverpool's managerial role model last week. "It's like Shankly said," he confided in a soul-searching post-mortem session after the Spartak defeat, "after three or four years, either you go or the players have to."

It is what he has done with the appointment of Fazackerley, who was a solid central defender with the club in the 1970s and early 1980s and still holds their record for league appearances at 596. "It will hurt me coming away from the daily coaching," Harford said. "But I have got to do it for the sake of the club. If you are not going to change the players, you need to change the voice to motivate them again."

Harford is likely now to increase his efforts to bring in new blood - and therein lies the prime difference between coach, who can be players' confidant, and manager, who must retain some distance; one can organise the team and its system, the other must attract the necessary quality of player to implement it.

The recent failure to sign Jason McAteer, who preferred Liverpool, was telling and worrying for Blackburn. It has always been, Harford said, "a gigantic myth" that the club can sign any player it wants but now it has become more difficult. McAteer once idolised Dalglish as a player but with the icon having removed himself from full view at Ewood, the attraction may have paled. In addition, with Blackburn's slip showing, doubts do form in the minds of top players who may be considering a move. Then there is the question of playing style, with Newcastle, Manchester United and Liverpool in the vanguard of more thoughtful, progressive Anglo approaches.

Any prospect that Blackburn might, with Fazackerley's influence, become Newcastle over- night can be discounted. "If he says he wants to play like them, I'll have to say, 'Well, have you got the players?' " Harford said. "Derek knows the position. He's a top coach." He added: "We are happier being a power team. We are not a pretty-pretty team. We have come a long way with two wide players taking us from our box to theirs."

So it is likely to be evolution rather than revolution, with new additions gradually changing the character of the side rather than the present characters being expected to change their own. In the practical short term, the need is clearly for Blackburn to get back to what they do well. Then should come the enhancements. "The niceties after the essential," as Eric Cantona once said of the English game.

Spartak outmanoeuvred Blackburn with a slickness that left the home side in their slipstream. From their sweeper system, in which Yuri Nikiforov was intelligent and commanding, sprang a tactical approach that left Rovers looking predictable and pedestrian, the first expected, the second less so. A sadness was that Harford thought his side had done well to prevent them expanding their game. One shudders to think what Spartak might do in the return should they decide to open up.

Blackburn's real problem, largely in the midfield, is that they are playing without the self- belief and dynamism of last season. Tim Sherwood and David Batty flounder, Stuart Ripley's confidence has been eroded on the right flank. The left has not adequately been filled since the long-term injury to Jason Wilcox, who was due to return in an A team game yesterday. The quality and frequency of crosses has lessened. The mood may have changed, too. An unhappy Chris Sutton, dropped for Mike Newell, is no longer as comfortable playing slightly deeper than Alan Shearer to break up the play, according to Harford.

Neither should Shearer be seen as a sacred cow. The style was conceived to bring the most out of him but it seems now that many sides, certainly those like Spartak of the highest quality, are able to cope with him and the long ball in his direction by deploying three centrally at the back. This does not augur well, either, for England. Harford says that Shearer does not like the ball being passed around and prefers the more direct approach. Perhaps if he is to become a striker capable of scoring goals in Europe and at international level, rather than merely outstanding domestically, he needs to adapt his game.

Once Fazackerley has evaluated the position, he might arrive at ideas for change in conjunction with Harford the 4-4-2 devotee. It may be that they cannot rediscover the thrust on the flanks or that they cannot lure new, better players. Developmental changes do suggest themselves even with the existing personnel. Well, if the broadcaster Washington Rodrigues can get the job as manager of the Rio club Flamengo . . .

A three-man back line of Henning Berg, the impressive Ian Pearce and Colin Hendry, might be flanked by Jeff Kenna and Graeme Le Saux - who has shown himself tactically open-minded with England - pushing forward and providing outlets for the passes of Sherwood and Batty. Then, playing either Kevin Gallacher or Mike Newell "in the hole" might free Sutton for the more forward position alongside Shearer he prefers. It might also provide some of the cunning that Rovers lack.

Harford says he feels the crowd's impatience when passing movements are prolonged, though Ewood's applause for Spartak at the end was evidence of appreciation of style. Talk of a small club running before it can walk, becoming financially independent of Jack Walker, who has established a trust fund for them, is not the whole issue. Blackburn have come a long way in a short time but with some smartness the opportunity is there to go further.