Blackburn Rovers earn breathing space with win against Martin O'Neill's Sunderland
Blackburn Rovers 2 (Hoilett 58, Yakubu 86) Sunderland 0: A new emotion in Blackburn; supporters delirious rather than riotous, players with arms aloft rather than heads bowed at full-time, full-fisted celebrations in unity with their followers, Steve Kean stood in the technical zone as if he knew it was always going to be okay.
That there had always been a plan in the midst of civil war to rescue a team that won the Premier League in 1995 before the last 12 months of implosion.
Over the airwaves blasted the Black Eyed Peas' 'I Gotta Feeling', and Rovers fans were having a good night, finally. Even the attempt at black humour, 'Keano for England,' was half-hearted and inappropriate. Victory last night against a Sunderland side that looked tired from their season and from their FA Cup run, took Kean's side six points clear of the bottom three. It was their second successive clean sheet. They have lost one in their last five and momentum has come at the perfect time to rescue a campaign and a club.
The tone afterwards was celebratory and while that is quite obviously premature, it is perhaps understandable. The precedent for football clubs torn apart by supporters' unrest and controversial owners, is generally relegation. Through it all, with the exception of the seven-one defeat at Arsenal, there has surprisingly been a pretty resilient team spirt, with Kean sticking his chest out and absorbing ferocious criticism.
That same point, at the side of the pitch, has been a lonely place for spells this season. He could be forgiven for savouring an outpouring in his direction that was not barbed or vitriolic.
"I sat up here saying I would never give up hope that the fans would go home happy and everybody would be singing and cheering," said Kean. "That's certainly been the case of late. Let's get to the required points total as quick as possible and enjoy the summer. We are within touching distance of it if we beat Bolton, if the game goes ahead.
"Over the last 11 games we have got 17 points after some very tough away games. You look at Paul Robinson and how he's leading the team. Now we are looking at Aston Villa and Swansea. We can catch people above us."
This was a win crafted by the front pairing of Junior Hoilett and Yakubu, a potent mx of pace, precision, power and, in Hoilett's case, unpredictability. There will be some race for his signature when the summer transfer window opens. That Blackburn could well be a Premier League club when he goes will be in no small part down to the player himself. Hoilett has been at Ewood Park since he was 13, a legacy of top-flight football, and all the vast rewards it brings, will hopefully override any notions that he has left them in the lurch by running down his contract, which has a matter of months to go.
"I don't think we can prevent teams coming in for him," added Kean. "If someone is out of contract playing like that, there will be interest. We will make him an offer, we want him to stay here. Will he play week in, week out if he goes?
"Junior is excited about playing that position (as a central forward). Everybody is seeing him as a striker or just off the front, he has good feet, good movement and he can provide and score himself. With Yak and Junior we are causing all sorts of problems for centre backs."
That was last night's story. Blackburn were the better side anyway, but the cutting edge was the cause for celebration. After 58 minutes Hoilett reacted first to a punched clearance from Simon Mignolet, sweeping his volley into the Sunderland goal. Four minutes from time, Yakubu was too strong for the visiting defence from a right-wing Bradley Orr cross, heading in a decisive and deserved second.
Martin O'Neill, gracious in defeat, could only look to a glaring miss from his substitute Ji Dong-Won, shooting over from four yards when there was only one goal in the game, as a key moment.
His side looked tired, with remnants of Saturday's FA Cup quarter-final against Everton, perhaps still in his players' legs.
"It wasn't a great night for us," said O'Neill. "It lacked the intensity of Saturday's game. It was disappointing. We reached no heights whatsoever. The first half we were very sloppy, sloppy in our passing and we couldn't move the ball.
"We should have done better, our best spell came after they had scored the goal. We did okay and maybe could have equalised but it is a lesson for us. At this stage of our development we have to be at it. We have to stay with that intensity.
"I think we left a little behind at Goodison Park if I'm completely honest. It's not an excuse. We have to be right for the game. We haven't reached a situation where we can relax. We shouldn't be able to relax. It doesn't cause for relaxation.".
Substitutes: Blackburn Rovers Orr (Formica, 78). Sunderland Ji (Campbell, 71), Colback (Bridge, 76).
Booked: Sunderland Campbell.
Man of the match Hoilett. Match rating 5/10.
Possession: Blackburn 60% Sunderland 40%.
Attempts on target: Blackburn 9 Sunderland 0.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire). Attendance 20,056.