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Aug 14, 2006

Blackburn dream of reliving glory days

For Blackburn fans, the chance to relive the days of Shearer, Sutton and their first ever Premiership title would be too good an opportunity to miss.

One of the classic yoyo teams of the last few seasons, Mark Hughes' arrival in September 2004 seems to have stabilised the ship and now there is an air of real expectation around Ewood Park.

Banishing the club's relegation worries in his first year in charge, Hughes led the team to an amazing 6th place finish last term, and with it the prospect of European football.

How the team are able to deal with an increase in matches, particularly the torrid two-leg affairs in the UEFA cup, will almost certainly shape their season.

With goalscoring proving to be the team's main problem in the past few years, Hughes has bolstered his attacking options with the signing of South African Benni McCarthy from Porto.

Following him through the doors of Ewood Park are Jason Roberts, who impressed with Wigan last season, but clashed with Chairman Dave Whelan over a new contract and Francis Jeffers, who will view the move as a chance to resurrect his career, after disastrous spells with Arsenal, Everton and Charlton.

Hughes has moved quickly to fill the void left by the departing Paul Dickov and Craig Bellamy, who top scored for the club last season with 13 goals.

If Rovers are to succeed again this season then they must fine tune the balance that served them so well in midfield. Criticised for their robust approach to the game, Hughes relies on his players to get about the pitch and close down opposition attacks with a ruthless tenacity.

Even Jose Mourinho has voiced his dislike at the way Rovers 'bully' teams out of the game, and if the 'Special One's' feathers have been ruffled, they must be doing something right.

The irrepressible Robbie Savage and Steven Reid, who spurned the interest of many other clubs to sign a new contract with club, are of vast importance to the club. With their workaholic style of play, both players made the midfield their own last season and forced Tugay to spend much of his time warming the bench.

The Rovers engine room expertly complements the creativity of David Bentley and Morton Gamst Pedersen on the wings. Norwegian international Pederson weighed in with an impressive 9 goals last campaign and proved himself to be a bargain at £1.5 million, having stepped into the boots of the Chelsea-bound Damian Duff in 2004.

These two, and also Australian Brett Emerton, must provide the service to the strikers as well as goals from midfield if Rovers are to repeat their European qualification ambitions.

Hughes must also try and hang on to the players who made that ambition a reality last season.

Blackburn have long relied on a strong defence to stand them in good stead and it is no surprise that the influential New Zealander, Ryan Nelson, who Hughes signed on a free transfer only 18 months ago from American side DC United, has been scouted by other clubs.

With Nelson's future in doubt, Hughes will also have to persuade Australian full-back Lucas Neill to stay on after a set of impressive displays at the World Cup alerted the likes of Barcelona to his availability.

Following the capture of three new strikers, Hughes looks likely to conclude a few more deals before the deadline ends in a few weeks, particularly if he loses his Oceanic defensive pairing.

The 32-year-old Dutch defender Andre OOijer could arrive from PSV, while Blackburn have also shown an interest in Chelsea's Robert Huth since his transfer to Middlesborough collapsed.

Blackburn do have a large squad to call upon and are certainly not without experience, with the likes of Dominic Matteo and Andy Todd still trying to convince the manager they are worthy of a starting place against Portsmouth at the season opener.

While the reliable Brad Friedel has established himself as one of the very best goalkeepers in the Premiership and Zurab Khizanishvili provides the side with a useful versatility in defence.

Hughes has a lot of expectation to live up to following his successes last season. Nevertheless, his shrewd transfer policy and workman-like approach to the game should see Blackburn attain at least a top 10 finish this season.

After re-building the Rovers team, he now has something he can work with, and push even harder for European qualification. A good cup run would give his players further experience and an even greater desire to succeed, particularly in the UEFA competition.

Buoyed by the memories of the mid-1990's, the Blackburn faithful will be hoping Hughes can deliver on his early promise. And while a second Premiership title might be a little way off, if he can deliver their first piece of silverware since 1995, they might just make him a Saint.