The blue-collar stylists

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The Independent Online
Ian Ridley

weighs the European

credentials of the

probable champions

SO this is where the championship plan was hatched, in this rural idyll in the Ribble Valley six miles north of the town they serve. Life at the top for Blackburn Rovers seems good this sunny spring lunchtime.

Their new training centre was opened last October - gym, dressing rooms and five beautifully manicured pitches all the same dimensions as that at Ewood Park - with some £1.5m of Jack Walker's loose change, taking the bill so far for team and stadium to around £56m. Contemplating it, John Roberts's marvellous line comes to your mind: And was Juventus builded here?

Between the table tennis and pool table in the players' room, Alan Shearer devours a chicken curry (without the baked beans that are staple pre-match diet) as if it were a centre half. Kenny Dalglish sings along to the Shoop- Shoop Song ("It's In His Kiss") playing on MTV in the background. Until he sees this journalist, that is, and the reserved public face appears again.

This is Blackburn Rovers. They would never dare say it themselves - "Get the job done before you talk about it, that's what I say," once said the Amazing Mr Walker, who clearly saw a kindred spirit in the determined Dalglish - but there is a feeling in the air here today, perhaps of relief, that the Premiership title is all but won.

It may even be by Monday night. Should Blackburn, eight points clear, win at West Ham today and Manchester United fail to do so tomorrow at Coventry, where ironically Blackburn's pursuit of United was ended last year, the title rests with Rovers. The last time was the year the Great War began and you thought it would be the last time. Now we approach VE - Victory in England - Day.

You sense, too, that Manchester United recognise the title is all but lost. Buoyed by the re-signing of Eric Cantona United may be, but given their recent shortage of goals without his influence, it is difficult to see them winning their last four matches and forcing Blackburn to take the five points for mathematical certainty.

"The Tottenham game when Andy Cole hit the bar from three yards and we drew 0-0," said Paul Ince last week when asked what might have been a turning point for the worse for United. Not the night of Cantona's kick? "Well, yes, but we have still created chances without him and there were games when Eric didn't do that much. But it was like a cloud over the club. You could feel it all the time." Equally crucial, though more overlooked, has been the absence of Andrei Kanchelskis.

They might have spent enough to interest the suits in the city but Blackburn would be the blue-collar champions. All energy and efficiency, they have not been greeted with the warmth accorded United's more expansive style, even if the affection has soured these last few fevered months. When the little-more-than-workmanlike Buffalo Bills were continually boring American football by reaching the Superbowl, one of their defensive fans held up a banner: "Deal with it, America." England will have to deal with Blackburn.

"One of our biggest strengths which has been misunderstood as boring is the rate at which we work," said Rovers' left-back Graeme Le Saux. "Manchester United have two wingers who work very hard but more with the ball. They are more flair players. People knock us for not necessarily having flair players but Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox are very skilful. It's just that it doesn't come across that way because they work bloody hard when they don't have the ball as well.

"United tend to dominate games when they are playing well. Their wingers are nice to watch, can run the length of the pitch and they are able, with Cantona, to break the game up quite a lot. We play forward more as a team but I still think some of our interplay is really nice to watch. I watch it from the other side of the pitch sometimes and really enjoy the passing and creating space.

"Sometimes the best ball is into space. Because we work so hard, you know someone is going to get there. Perhaps that's why we went through a stage of being called a long-ball team but it's not like that. If you can suck a full-back out, make the space behind them bigger and get the ball in there, one of our players gets on the end of it and that's when we start playing."

What would he say if asked to do a scouting report on Blackburn? "Well organised, well drilled, very good on the break." Yes, but so are many teams who won't win the Premiership. "The backbone of the team is very strong, from Tim Flowers, Colin Hendry, through Tim Sherwood and now David Batty again, to Alan Shearer."

A key to Blackburn's lung power, said Le Saux, is that training is conducted by Dalglish's influential assistant Ray Harford at game-pace so that matches are adrenalin-charged extensions rather than unexpected ordeals. "I think also this year we have learned to compete in all different types of games," he added. "Whether it's a tough battle like Everton away or a nice game where teams let us play, we can adapt to both and win games. We also have a lethal guy at scoring. Nobody ever likes to single out individuals but he is the most significant individual."

Ah, Shearer. If, as Jrgen Klinsmann says, three goals in England are worth two in Italy, Shearer's 35 so far would still make him a success in Serie A. "I'll be standing on the half way line having pushed up, he'll get the ball and sometimes I just know he's going to score," said Le Saux. "I've never felt that way with any other player before. Against Chelsea, I just lobbed the ball over Erland Johnsen and Alan ran on to it. After he had taken his first touch I just stopped and didn't even bother following up."

The enormity of Blackburn's impending achievement has still to register. Four years ago this week they were on the brink of the old Third Division, just another old Lancashire town dining on memories in a magnificent oak- panelled boardroom beneath a safety hazard of a stand. Now Ewood, built appropriately with the steel money of Jack Walker, towers above the red- brick terraced houses.

But money has not simply been thrown; there is a shrewdness to it all. Walker once vetoed the signing of the then 29-year-old Geoff Thomas from Crystal Palace because of a lack of resale value. The fees for Shearer and Chris Sutton - £3.3m and £5m respectively - were for players aged 21. The current average age of the first-choice team is 25. Clearly, all have improved, notably the rock Hendry.

The European Cup beckons. There have been times watching Blackburn labour away from home - and championships are won away - when in imagining such a prospect you have feared for them, the more so with the Trelleborg debacle. In England, most opposition are willing to tango; not so in Europe. Rovers would need to discover more subtlety. And trust it. The on-loan Dutchman Richard Witschge, gifted but not a back-tracker, has not so far figured.

Given their development, you would not put it past them, however. As Dalglish is fond of pointing out, it took Manchester United 26 years to get where they are. This achievement behind them, perhaps Rovers would slip more readily from the "Labore" in their motto to the "Arte". Then we might see if Juventus really was builded here.

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