Blackburn Rovers 1 - Manchester United 0

Last updated : 01 May 2004 By Footymad Previewer

It also proved enough to mathematically secure Blackburn's Premiership status for another season. No wonder his boss Graeme Souness was an elated man afterwards.

"I'm absolutely delighted," he beamed. "We've had four great wins, it could have gone either way in the second half, but a bit of class from Gally (Paul Gallagher) and a great finish from Stead swung it for us."

Meanwhile for United, albeit without six crucial players, it's nine defeats this campaign, in stark contrast to the new champions Arsenal, who remain on course to go a whole season unbeaten.

United's line-up bore little resemblance to the glory days of the last decade with players like Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba appearing inadequate replacements for those who were missing.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson was unable to call upon Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Louis Saha and of course Rio Ferdinand for the game, the kind of absences that would be keenly felt at any club.

But still, games against the Premiership's lower lights have to be won and now it seems like they will have to face the Champions League qualifying rounds in late August, rather than the automatic place a runners-up spot would have guaranteed them.

All credit should be given to Souness' battling side whose fortunes have turned completely around since a loss to struggling Leeds on Easter Saturday. At that point, Blackburn seemed to be heading towards the Nationwide League, but four successive wins has ensured top-flight football next season.

This is due in no small part to the significant contribution from Stead, whose goals since his move from Third Division Huddersfield in January have proved vital to Blackburn's season.

He was at it again, latching on to Gallagher's perceptive 85th minute pass to cheekily slot over a stranded Tim Howard for the winner. "This is the highlight of my career," the Blackburn striker grinned later.

Despite Ferguson's claims after the game that "Blackburn had scored with one of their only chances", the Blackburn shots column far outweighed that of Ferguson's side, who lacked punch upfront despite a typically dangerous performance from Ryan Giggs.

However, the United boss did recognise his side were toothless going forward, admitting: "We needed to do better. We had a lot of possession but did not do too much with it.

"It is now almost impossible for us to finish second."

Things could have been much different for the visitors if, after just five minutes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had not dragged a shot wide after springing the Rovers offside trap.

His ex-team-mate Andy Cole almost scored at the other end two minutes later, bending a super effort only to be denied by a full-length Howard save.

Blackburn skipper Garry Flitcroft hit wide when well placed and it was his side who were looking the more dangerous throughout.

Indeed, Cole had the ball in the net on 19 minutes after lobbing Howard only for his celebrations to be curtailed by an offside flag.

Strike partner Stead was the next to go close, curling a shot from nearly 25 yards that flashed narrowly beyond an upright.

Giggs briefly threatened to spark United into life, a darting run saw him feed Solskjaer and it needed the intervention of Brad Friedel to beat away the Norwegian's low cross.

The Brazilian Kleberson tried an acrobatic shot five minutes before the break, but he got it all wrong, blazing high into the crowd, an incident symptomatic of his side's performance.

At one end of the ground the United fans were in full voice, although their chanting for former heroes Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister and even Cole can not have gone unnoticed by the players who appeared distracted throughout.

But, as the game progressed it did burst into life as both sides finally began to show some real ambition going forward.

On 68 minutes Tugay was the latest to test Howard's reflexes, racing on to Flitcroft's sideways pass and hitting an instant low volley, only for the American keeper to deny him with a sharp save.

After Ferguson had sent on the unpredictable David Bellion for the cumbersome Nicky Butt, Tugay went close again, this time shooting into Howard's arms from the edge of the box.

United finally made Friedel work on 75 minutes, Gary Neville swinging in a cross from the right, Giggs getting in a volley and Friedel getting down quickly to stop.

Ferguson then played his hand once more, this time Diego Forlan and Darren Fletcher thrown on, but it was a substitution by Souness that ultimately made the difference.

With Cole withdrawn to a standing ovation from all four corners of the ground, the talented Gallagher arrived on the field and he held the key to unlocking the Red Devils defence.

Within seconds of coming on, Gallagher received possession, delayed his pass before intelligently slipping Stead in behind the centre-backs and his strike partner made no mistake, clipping the ball over Howard before running off to wave to his mum in the crowd.

It was a fine goal to win the game, but Blackburn still had to survive a couple of unbelievable misses from United in the dying seconds.

First, Fletcher headed over from Giggs' corner when totally unmarked in the box, before Forlan somehow headed down into the ground and over the top from no more than a yard.

But Blackburn are safe for another season and it was an apt way to secure it as Souness summed up: "This was a great day for us, to survive and beat Manchester United."

Man of the Match - Jon Stead: Netted the all-important winner to cement his place as one of the bargain buys of the season. Made a nuisance of himself all afternoon and gave Rovers a cutting edge.