Rovers' defeat threatens Harford

COCA-COLA CUP: Own goal counts out Blackburn while Gullit's side succumb at First Division Bolton Wanderers
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The Independent Online
Blackburn Rovers 0 Stockport County 1

Second Division Stockport County picked at the carcass of England's recent champions and flew off smugly seeking tastier flesh.

Ray Harford, Blackburn's embattled manager, talked before the game of seeing off the vultures, but the reality is that this was scarcely the skeleton of a genuine Premiership side, let alone the team that defied Manchester United and the rest barely 17 months ago.

The only team without a win in the League this season, and now eliminated from the Coca-Cola Cup by a side that had not reached the fourth round since 1973: these are desperate, troubled times at the house that Jack built and speculation is rife that Harford may be out of the door by the weekend.

The strength of the old structure was the defensive resolve of Colin Hendry and, of course, the goals of that man. Hendry was missing last night, and Alan Shearer is leading the glory campaign elsewhere. Chris Sutton might have helped, but he was withdrawn with a chest infection.

All of which left Harford with a side ill-equipped to contain a team two divisions beneath them, but a team playing with the confidence generated by a successful run and revelling in the freedom permitted them by Blackburn in disarray at all levels.

The pity is that Stockport required a bizarre own goal to decide the tie, Tim Flowers punching Mike Flynn's long throw against the back of Tim Sherwood's head and into the unguarded net. Stockport's poise, movement and imagination deserve better, a decisive goal befitting their superior football.

Dave Jones, their manager, did not see it that way. He was just content to progress. "We work at set-pieces," he said in time-honoured coach-speak.

Patently, they also work at their creative game, Chris Marsden, in particular, demonstrating a touch and guile beyond the capabilities of anyone at Ewood Park right now.

Harford refused to discuss anything "except the game" and lamented the lack of an influential striker. He said also that the opening 20 minutes of the second half proved crucial to the outcome. "Our bad defending gave them heart to stick at it. Again we've let ourselves down with our home performance." He received little sympathy from a meagre turnout of home supporters. "We want Harford out" was the chant that sent manager and players to the sanctuary of the dressing-room at the end.

During that 20-minute spell, Flowers made three saves and on as many occasions only good fortune spared Blackburn deeper embarrassment as their defenders contrived to put unnecessary pressure on their goalkeeper.

With more clinical finishing, Stockport would have been ahead before Flowers and Sherwood combined to give them a 23rd-minute goal. Equally significant, in the eyes of Stockport's manager, his goalkeeper saved from Garry Flitcroft six minutes later and "that was the turning point".

Jim Gannon berated himself for heading wide when a second goal beckoned for Stockport and more of the same was to come in that frenzied second half period. Flowers gathered a deflected shot from Tom Bennett and lunged to block Marsden's path after the midfield player's trickery had outwitted Blackburn's back line.

Flynn almost revived Blackburn's hopes with what would have been an ironic own goal and Jones was stretched to tip over another effort from Flitcroft. But an equaliser would have flattered Blackburn and would have been wretchedly unjust on Stockport.

The visitors had sported the colours of the Romanian national team, and Gheorge Hagi and company would have settled for this performance.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Pearce, Berg, Croft; Donis, Sherwood (Bohinen, 55), Flitcroft, Wilcox; Beattie (Marker, 70), Gallacher. Substitute not used: Given (gk).

Stockport County (4-4-2): Jones; Connelly, Flynn, Gannon, Todd; Durkan, Bennett, Marsden, Cavaco (Searle, 81); Armstrong, Angell. Substitutes not used: Mutch, Edwards (gk).

Referee: P Rejer (Tipton).

More football, results, page 27

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