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'It's a dream come true to play against Manchester United': Irish Rover Lenihan

We caught up with the Blackburn defender as he prepares to face Jose Mourinho’s side at Ewood Park this afternoon.

Darragh Lenihan in action for Blackburn Rovers.
Darragh Lenihan in action for Blackburn Rovers.
Image: Richard Sellers

HE MAY BE too young to remember the days when Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United were the two best teams in England but the importance of today’s fixture isn’t lost on 22-year-old Darragh Lenihan.

The Meath man was just 14 months old when Rovers skipper Tim Sherwood lifted the trophy above his head to cap a stunning final day of Premier League drama in May, 1995.

Blackburn Rovers, spurred on by the ‘SAS’ strike-force of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, and with an excellent supporting cast which included Sherwood, David Batty and Colin Hendry, completed a remarkable triumph, despite their final-day defeat to Liverpool, just three years after returning to England’s top flight.

Sure, they had Jack Walker’s millions and Kenny Dalglish’s know-how but it was still a remarkable achievement by Rovers to outperform their giant Lancashire rivals and prevent Alex Ferguson’s side from extending their Premier League-era dominance into a third successive season.

Fast forward 22 years and Blackburn are a far cry from those heady days, second from bottom in the Championship and in serious danger of dropping to England’s third tier.

At the heart of the club’s survival hopes is Lenihan, a central player in every sense of the word, operating in the defence or midfield, and occasionally covering fullback if required.

As a boyhood Manchester United fan, games don’t come much bigger than this afternoon’s FA Cup fifth-round tie against Jose Mourinho’s side [BT Sport 2, 4.15pm], and it also offers Rovers an ideal opportunity to put their league woes to one side and play with a sense of hope and freedom, just like the good old days.

When former Manchester United trainee Robbie Savage announced Blackburn would be hosting the Red Devils in the next round of the competition during the live draw, Lenihan couldn’t help but smile.

“When the draw was made I got plenty of phone calls, there are a few United fans in my family,” Lenihan tells The42 with a chuckle.

It’s a dream come true to play against the team you supported growing up.

“But hopefully we can cause an upset, there have been plenty of upsets in the past in the FA Cup and fingers crossed we can do it again.”

Sheffield Wednesday v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough Blackburn Rovers' Darragh Lenihan in action against Sheffield Wednesday. Source: Danny Lawson

Lenihan may not remember the glory days at Ewood Park but today’s fixture will certainly give him a good idea of what he’s missing out on.

United’s star-studded squad, the most expensively-assembled group of football players in the world, might not be winning titles with the regularity of the ’90s but they still carry top billing, particularly in this part of England.

And it’s surely as good a time as any to be playing Mourinho’s charges as United’s schedule becomes particularly hectic; the clash at Ewood Park being sandwiched by the two legs of their Europa League tie against St Etienne, and the Portuguese will surely also have one eye on next weekend’s League Cup final against Southampton.

Four big games in 11 days is enough to stretch any squad, even one with such an embarrassment of riches, and while Mourinho has vowed to play a full-strength side against Blackburn, it remains to be seen if he is true to his word.

Blackburn fans have been starved of Premier League football for almost five years so tickets for today’s blockbuster at the 31,000-capacity stadium are understandably scarce, which means Lenihan will be playing in front of almost 20,000 more people than he’s become used to.

Today’s game may give Lenihan a glimpse of Blackburn’s glorious past but the former Ireland U21 skipper also knows that a good performance could give Owen Coyle’s side some valuable confidence as they head into the final 11 weeks of their Championship season.

“The fans haven’t been in the Premier League for a while,” Lenihan explains.

“We played West Ham last year and they kind of gave us a bit of a thumping [5-1 in the FA Cup fifth round].

To have Premier League teams come to Ewood Park, especially for the fans, it gives the club a bit of a lift and a bit of a break from the league, and fingers crossed we can put in a good performance, and you never know with a bit of luck on the day we could turn them over.

“We know it’s probably going to be one of the most difficult games we play, if not the most difficult game we play, all season.”

Dunboyne native Lenihan, who cites Roy Keane as his childhood hero, has established himself as a key figure in the Rovers dressing room, notably at centre-half, rather than his previous defensive central midfield berth.

Lenihan has featured in 28 of Blackburn’s 31 league games this season, missing two of those fixtures through suspension, and he admits his shock at how quickly the stats are adding up.

“I was surprised, I made my 50th Championship appearance a few weeks back, it’s just come around so fast.

“I’m still only young, I’m still only learning the game. I don’t know how many games I’ve played at centre-half but I feel like I’m still learning every game, every new opposition I’m playing, and every different player I’m playing against.

“I’m gradually getting to grips with the different positioning, the tactical awareness of the game, I just want to keep learning and get better with every game.

“It’s great to play so many games but where we are in the division, we’re not doing too great, so the main thing is I try to help the team to win games, that’s my main objective.”

Darragh Lenihan leads out the team Darragh Lenihan leads out the Ireland U21s for a Uefa Championship qualifying round clash against Italy in March 2016. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Blackburn has been an unsettled place to say the least in recent seasons; Coyle is the sixth manager in charge of the first team since Lenihan arrived from Belverdere in 2011.

Coyle arrived last June, filling the void left by Paul Lambert who left as he felt the club was “going in a different direction” to him.

Former Bolton boss Coyle’s tenure got off to the worst possible start; five defeats and two draws from their opening seven fixtures left them with serious ground to make up with the season not even six weeks old.

“We had a terrible start, we were getting beaten but we weren’t even getting close to being in contention to winning games,” recalls Lenihan, whose older brother Donal is a corner-forward and free-taker with Meath’s Gaelic footballers.

“Obviously with the new gaffer coming in over the summer there was a huge turnover of players.

“It does take time, every manager will say the same thing, it takes time for players to gel.

We feel now that after January, we probably didn’t do much business, but fingers crossed we can get a few more signings, get a few good results from now until the end of the season and we’ll be able to push up the table.”

They have performed in patches, and largely eliminated the heavy defeats that were becoming worryingly frequent at the start of the season, but Blackburn are still struggling to string a decent run of results together.

A heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on St Valentine’s night was particularly painful, and that had nothing to do with Lenihan being touch-and-go for the fixture due to a bout of food poisoning two days previously.

Trailing 2-1, and having been denied an equaliser on numerous occasion by impressive Ireland international stopper Keiren Westwood, Blackburn then felt they twice had the ball legitimately over the line but neither attempt was allowed to stand.

The first, a fizzing, long-range Marvin Emnes effort, appeared to bounce over the line after striking the underside of the crossbar, while the second effort, a smart take-down and finish by Hope Akpan, was ruled out by referee Scott Duncan for handball.

Things went from bad to worse for Rovers as Akpan was then shown a straight red card for pushing the referee in protest at his decision, and the midfielder has since been charged by the English Football Association, and the club also charged for “failing to ensure that its players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion”.

Source: officialswfc/YouTube

“Over time we’ve got a bit closer and we’ve been unlucky.

“Like the game against Sheffield Wednesday, we had a couple of goals disallowed.

There was one ball that went over the line from Marvin Emnes’s shot, it was nearly a foot over the line, and then Hope Akpan got a controversial sending off and we had two other chances before that to equalise.

“We’re creating chances. We’re doing well against the top teams. We beat Newcastle away in St James’ Park, we drew twice with Huddersfield, so we are competing with all the top teams, it’s just about putting together more consistent performances to get the results.”

A victory today could be just the antidote to Rovers’ ailments. A United fan he may be, but Lenihan would love nothing more than to send Mourinho’s men on their 45-minute trip back down the M61 with one less trophy on their radar.

– First published 08.00, 19 February

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Alan Waldron

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