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Nationwide Division One, 20/2/01
Blackburn Rovers
What could have been
By Olly Du Croz

Rarely can so many positives and negatives come out of one game. It was turning into a really cracking match, with both sides looking capable of causing problems for the opposition's defence, until Mr Rob Styles decided to intervene and ruin what should have been a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.

The irony of it is that if, for example, a Blackburn fan had run onto the pitch and incited the home fans with a couple of dismissive gestures, he would have been rightfully carted off by the local bill and ejected from the ground immediately.

If only referees had to abide by the same rules as the rest of us.

Sadly for us, Mr Styles chose not to abide by the rules of Association Football either. Page's red card was handed out for a foul that the ref hadn't even seen (the power these new assistant referees have really has gone to their heads), and how he then managed to decide that it denied Bent a clear shot on goal still amazes me as I write this almost twenty-four hours after the event. Robbo was close by, so our captain wasn't even the last defender.

Helguson's dismissal was inevitable and our Icelandic ace left the ref with no option. Having been booked for complaining about the Page dismissal, he then attempted to decapitate one of the Blackburn defenders with a flying boot less than five minutes after being cautioned. Annoying, but a foolish move with Mr Styles in this mood.

The greatest tragedy of all is that - even with nine men - we played brilliantly. Unlike the Pompey game (sorry for bringing back those painful memories) every player in a yellow shirt played with desire and looked hungry for the points. It was slightly rear-guard a times, with Blackburn passing the ball around looking for an opportunity, but to our credit defensive organisation was top quality and we denied them the chance to threaten Baardsen on countless occasions.

As I said, so many positives and negatives that are probably making my feelings on the match sound a bit confused. It was a night of "if only"s, where we managed to recover from the depression of the two red cards, giving us hope that we could hold on - and maybe even score a winner ourselves - but then all of that was snatched away as finally Blackburn found some composure in the box and fashioned a chance for Bent to score in front of the away end. Gutting.

But we still refused to lie down and accept our fate against massive odds. Tommy Smith carried on his hugely impressive form, proving himself to be a constant nuisance to the Blackburn defenders even though he was a lone striker for most of the game. His industry was summed up by one moment in the closing moments, when he chased all the way back before executing a perfectly timed sliding tackle inside our penalty there anything this man can't do?

The central defensive partnership of Ward and Page (then Steve Palmer, who carried on the good work that the captain had started) looked far more secure than in recent weeks. Cox was his usual bag of tricks, creative at times but awful defensively at others, and Robbo had a generally sound game.

Most importantly, however, every member of the side worked hard for each other - an encouraging sign at this stage of the season after a dodgy patch of results that has carried on for far too long.

Palmer played better than I've seen him for a while for his forty minutes in midfield, hassling Blackburn and cutting out several attacks before they could gather any momentum. I have to admit that I had started to doubt in his ability earlier in the season, now that he has been displaced from centre-back into a midfield role where his control of the ball sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. However, the sheer fight he brings to the centre of the park makes up for that. Steve, I apologise, it's good to have you back.

With Palmer doing the dirty work, the more creative players such as Nielsen and Vernazza had more opportunities to break forwards. Although the Great Dane looks, in my opinion, less comfortable the wider he plays, his influence down the right flank continued right up until he was substituted late on.

One player I haven't mentioned yet - Tommy Mooney - bulldozered his way through tackles a few times, and had a good header well saved if I remember rightly, but was outshone by the little gem that is Tommy Smith up front.

In the second half, with Baardsen making two stupendous saves to keep out Blackburn's persistent attacking, the visitors also missed several gilt-edged chances with wayward shooting.

GT had obviously told the lads to shoot on sight, but most of those efforts seemed to be blocked by Blackburn defenders. Smith continued to turn and run from deep whenever he could. It was thrilling, but the referee had guaranteed that this was not to be our night. Teams with ten men often produce inspirational performances, but you hardly ever hear of sides holding on with just nine players for the majority of the game.

I was looking at the league table before the game, and a win would have put us on level points with Blackburn, as well as being six points clear of seventh place. But the results will come if we keep playing like this - and with eleven players in the side the opposition won't stand a chance.

There are still plenty of games to go. Plenty of opportunities to start picking up points on a more regular basis. But we have got to start doing so sooner rather than later. With the players applying themselves so well - and the Rookery appreciating their efforts so much - the only way has to be up.