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Aug 6, 2007

Time to reap the rewards?

It must be quite frustrating to be a Blackburn Rovers fan. Although the days when Mark Hughes was after every match forced to explain his side's 'overly physical approach', thankfully seem to have gone, the far more stylish game they now employ has yet to fully deliver, despite showing considerable promise.

Sure, Rovers look set to compete in Europe this season, but reaching the UEFA Cup through the much-maligned Intertoto Cup is not the way the fans would have chosen. They crave consistent, fluent performances in the Premiership and the rewards that come with it; a seat at one of Europe's top tables.

The bull-in-a-china-shop approach employed by Hughes following his arrival in September 2004 was born out of necessity; staving off the threat of relegation, and though it may have given way to a less physical game last season's 10th place finish was a step back from the 6th place he achieved in his first full season in charge when he kept Rovers in the division in 2004/05 with a 15th place finish.

Thankfully, most at Ewood Park are more than content to put up with this slight backwards step because they are now entertained and can boast a team which shows considerable potential, the fans seem happy to accept that last season was perhaps a season of transition, not the finished article.

In players like Benni McCarthy, Morten Gamst Pedersen and David Bentley Rovers boast three tremendously exciting attacking forces who are both creators and finishers, wonderful to watch and players of genuine class.

In fact, so good are McCarthy and Pedersen that Rovers have done well to hang on to them, with no shortage of interest in them from rival clubs over the summer.

Retaining their services has perhaps been Mark Hughes biggest achievement of the close season particularly when the suitors linked to your star players include the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.

Little wonder McCarthy was linked with a reunion with his FC Porto manager, Jose Mourinho. While Shevchenko, Chelsea's £30million acquisition, was proving the rule that the first season in the Premiership is a tricky one for a striker to negotiate, McCarthy, who cost just £2.5million, was merrily disproving the same rule, managing to bang in 18 Premiership goals.

Pedersen (or is it just Gamst now?) had a marginally less spectacular season than in 2005/06 but still captured the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson as he bagged six goals, and chimed in with 11 assists.

How McCarhty, Pedersen and the much-matured and much-improved Bentley link up with Hughes' new acquisitions will be vital to the team's aspirations for the coming season.

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The arrival of Paraguayan striker Roque Santa Cruz, a free transfer from Bayern Munich, and Dutch Under-21s striker Maceo Rigters will push Jason Roberts and the very promising young talent Matt Derbyshire down the pecking order, but both bring valuable international experience and a class which can only bolster Rovers' forward line; provided of course they can handle the pace of the Premiership.

Rovers only other foray into the transfer market has been the acquisition of young Faroe Islands keeper, Gunnar Neilsen, but going through the revolving door in the other direction have been Andy Todd and Michael Gray neither of whom, with the greatest respect, will be too sorely missed.

It is fair to say that Rovers do not exactly boast an enormous squad, but while it may be modest in size it does appear to be at least well formed.

Keeping goal is the seemingly ageless shot-stopper Brad Friedel who remains the club's number one choice between the sticks, despite pressure from talented Finnish understudy Peter Enckelman.

In defence the arrival last season of gigantic centre-half Christopher Samba provided the impressive Kiwi Ryan Nelsen with a perfect foil at the heart of the Rovers backline. A rejuvenated Brett Emerton also impressed after converting from an average right-winger to an accomplished right-back, while at left-back Steven Warnock slotted in comfortably to replace Lucas Neill after the latter's move to West Ham.

Defensive understudies including Zurab Khizanishvili, Aaron Mokoena, Stephane Henchoz and Andre Ooijer complete a rearguard that is perhaps not world class, but certainly one capable of holding its own and repelling some the Premiership's finest.

Midfield, notably central midfield, is perhaps Rovers only true weak spot. Last season an injury to Robbie 'love him or hate him' Savage left the now creaking Tugay to try and run the show with the none-too reliable likes of returning prodigal son David Dunn, injured-ravaged Steven Reid and Mokoena, who despite his endeavour looks more comfortable in defence than in the centre of the park.

The recovery and return of Reid and Savage should provide cover for Tugay and force Mokoena to raise his game, while Dunn could prove a very useful addition if he can put a few years of injury and underachievement behind him.

With a healthy squad and the promise of European adventure ahead things look rather rosy for Rovers. The only possible worry is that as soon as a club with a higher profile than Blackburn parts company with their manger Hughes will undoubtedly be linked with the vacant position.

The former Wales manager has impressed many onlookers with his name casually bandied about with reference to his possible succession at his former clubs when Ferguson and Mourinho call it a day at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, and before Sven Goran Eriksson took the hotseat at Manchester City Hughes name was being heavily linked.

For now Hughes is in place and he, the board and the supporters can be rightly pleased with his progress at Ewood Park.

And hopefully any frustrated fans will choose to accentuate the positives rather than dwelling on negative matters, such as the club's less than enviable disciplinary record, because if things click for Hughes and Rovers this season the club could be on the right track, with a decent cup a run or place in Europe a distinct possibility.