Shearer lifts the gloom

Blackburn Rovers 5 Shearer 8, 60, 67, Hendry 23, Pearce 75 Coventr y City 1 Ndlovu 34 Attendance: 24,382
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The Independent Online
LED in inimitable fashion by the remarkable Alan Shearer, Blackburn put their troubles behind them by turning a confident victory into a rout at Ewood Park yesterday. Shearer, the goal getter par excellence, scored his 100th in a Rover shirt and celebrated with a hat-trick.

It took the England centre forward only eight minutes to reach the century milestone. By the 67th he had extended his score since his transfer from Southampton to 102 in 133 matches, a strike rate that genuinely can be called phenomenal. If there was a crisis of confidence in the camp of the champions as they prepared for their second mission on the European stage, here was one man who had been left untouched.

Colin Hendry and Ian Pearce scored the other goals, against Peter Ndlovu's strike for Coventry, in what might also be seen as a triumph for fresh thinking. Gone here was the rigid 4-4-2 system on which the bandwagon had previously rolled along so mechanically. In its place, there were three central defenders and, at least until an injury to Graeme Le Saux necessitated readjustment, three strikers. Take a bow Ray Harford, who unveiled his 3-4-3 formation in the 3-2 Coca-Cola Cup victory at Swindon in midweek and intends, where possible, to stick with it.

The new Rovers' manager could thus reflect on a Premiership victory for the first time since the opening day of the season. How different it might have been, though, had referee Keith Cooper produced a red card after 23 minutes when Tim Flowers, the Blackburn goalkeeper, pulled down Ndlovu in the penalty area to deny the Coventry striker a clear opportunity for a strike on goal.

Flowers had been dismissed on the opening day for a similar "professional" foul. Cooper gave a penalty, but let the goalkeeper off this time with a yellow card, and it seemed that arguing about the decision - Flowers claimed Ndlovu had dived - was the offence being punished.

In the event, Ndlovu's spot-kick hit a post, but he scored 10 minutes later, a thumping shot off the underside of the crossbar, and Coventry, bright throughout, were buzzing then and, if it had been against 10 men, who knows?

Then again, against Shearer in this form, perhaps the outcome was inevitable. His 100th was as simple as any of them could have been, a three-yard tap- in after Pearce had glanced on a corner, the 101st served up almost as invitingly after Mike Newell, marginally onside as he broke clear down the right, squared into his path.

The 102nd, however, was a Shearer classic, drilled low and hard to the right of goalkeeper John Filan from 20 yards after one touch controlled Newell's flick-on. Pearce wrapped things up, hooking in after Newell's header had been saved, joining his fellow centre-back Hendry on the scoresheet after the Scot's first-half stab had squeezed between Filan's legs.

"The different shape has given the players a bit more freedom to express themselves," Harford said afterwards. "We've played it twice and won both times and it cannot be more successful than that.

"But it has been as much to do with attitudes as systems. The last two games they have played with smiles on their faces."