Rovers' title forged by Hammers

PREMIERSHIP DECIDERS: Defeat cannot spoil Blackburn's historic day as Ferguson rues missed opportunities; Anfield acclaims the new champs
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The Independent Online
BY GLENN MOORE

Liverpool 2

Blackburn Rovers 1

They were united against United. Rarely, if ever, can a match have been so joyfully acclaimed by supporters of both sides. Blackburn Rovers lost their final match of the season, but in the end the result was academic because Manchester United's draw at West Ham was enough to make Rovers champions.

Still, no one knew that until it was almost over and, after all the talk about Liverpool providing Rovers with a red carpet to the title, United have only themselves to blame. But the championship is won over 42 matches, not one, and, after 18 titles of their own, Anfield folk know that better than anyone. Their cheers at the end were not just aimed at Old Trafford, they also were in honour of Blackburn's first title since 1914.

New challenges now beckon for the Lancashire side but Kenny Dalglish caught the right mood afterwards when he said: "It is a time to just enjoy it. When you win things people always want to look ahead but I do not want to look further than where to go tonight. This title is different to those at Liverpool and Celtic, there was always a lot of expectation there. We have only been in the Premier League three years. I am still a bit shocked by it."

Dalglish also paid tribute to the Liverpool men who appointed him as a manager back in 1985. "Without them I would probably never have managed," he said. "They saw qualities in me I did not know I had."

Not that they made it easy for him yesterday. Behind to Alan Shearer's 34th goal of the season (equalling Andy Cole's Premiership record) they equalised through John Barnes before winning the game with a Jamie Redknapp free-kick two minutes into injury time.

It was a dramatic denouement. For a few seconds everyone associated with Blackburn held their breath. Even Liverpool seemed unsure if they should celebrate. "My heart stopped," said Jack Walker, Rovers' benefactor. Then, before Rovers had even kicked off, news came through that West Ham had held Manchester United and the ground erupted. "I thought, 'it's a miracle', " Walker said.

It was an ending in keeping with the day. The pre-match was festive atmosphere, as if it were a testimonial rather than a championship decider. Both groups of supporters cheered each set of players as the line-ups were announced and there were even some Blackburn colours on the Kop - although Juventus shirts were more common.

Then, as if to justify Mancunian doubts, when Liverpool kicked-off the Kop booed their own players before cheering as Rovers won possession. But then came a chorus of "Liverpool, Liverpool" and normal support was resumed - the penalty appeal when David Batty appeared to bring down Robbie Fowler with 14 minutes left dispelling all doubts.

The team had always looked interested. They may have lacked the gut-busting commitment that blew Manchester United away here in March, but they still produced their best performance since winning the Coca-Cola Cup final. Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, made it clear that he had been angered by what he called "a lot of rubbish written before the game suggesting we would throw it".

For the first 20 minutes it was all Liverpool. John Barnes fired over the bar after a Steve McManaman run; Fowler almost reached a Nigel Clough cross and Tim Sherwood cleared off the line after Clough had flicked on John Scales header.

Then Henning Berg and Shearer combined to send Stuart Ripley down the right and, when the cross came over, an unmarked Shearer drove it handsomely past David James. Rovers were transformed and they surged forward with Shearer and Chris Sutton going close.

But, gradually, they retreated again and it was no surprise when Barnes swept in Mark Kennedy's cross after 63 minutes. Soon afterwards Liverpool should have been ahead but David Elleray dismissed the penalty appeal. A growing booking count underlined that the game was now suffused with tension.

Sutton and Shearer could have scored then, with transistors crammed to every ear, Redknapp did. Then came news of United's failure and the ground broke into a delighted chorus of "Always look on the bright side of life".

The party began. A giant inflatable champagne bottle bounced around a jubilant Blackburn end. Both sets of fans stayed to see the trophy presented and to acclaim Dalglish and Shearer. Watching, all the while, was a beaming Walker. Finally, after appeals from Rovers fans and staff, he clambered out of the directors' box, helped by Liverpool fans, and took his turn at lifting the trophy on the pitch.

He has spent a lifetime in steel, but it was clear to see he had never before held a piece of metal so dear to his heart.

Liverpool (3-4-2-1): James; Scales (Matteo, 82), Harkness, Babb; Thomas, Redknapp, Barnes, Kennedy; McManaman, Clough; Fowler. Substitutes not used: Walters, Warner (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Batty, Sherwood, Kenna; Shearer, Sutton. Substitutes not used: Slater, Newell, Mimms (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

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