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FULL-TIME: Blackburn Rovers 4 Wigan Athletic 3
BLACKBURN Rovers made it three straight victories for the first time since January 2008 as they ended their season on a high by winning a seven-goal thriller with play-off bound Wigan Athletic at a thoroughly entertained Ewood Park.
But the victory, secured by two goals from the Championship player of the month Rudy Gestede and one each from newly crowned player of the year Tom Cairney and top-scorer Jordan Rhodes, was not enough for Rovers to finish in sixth position.
Instead the final play-off place went to Brighton & Hove Albion after they came from behind to win 2-1 at Nottingham Forest and move on to 72 points.
Reading, who started the day in sixth, dropped to seventh on 71 points after they had to settle for a 2-2 draw at home to promoted Burnley.
Rovers finished one point behind in eighth on 70.
Seventy points would have been enough to secure a top-six spot last season.
And there was a glimmer of hope it would be enough this time around too at half-time.
As at that stage Rovers were leading 3-1 and both Brighton and Reading were losing.
If the results would have stayed the same and had Gary Bowyer’s side managed to make up four more goals on the Royals, they would have made the play-offs.
But the game was effectively up from the moment James McClean, who was lucky to still be on the field, halved the deficit for Wigan just before the hour mark.
Unchanged Rovers, 100-1 rank outsiders to gatecrash the top six before kick-off, should have been ahead in the 11th minute after Josh King pulled the ball back across the box for Rhodes, who should have hit it first time.
But he took a touch and a combination of goalkeeper Scott Carson and defender Ivan Ramis blocked his effort.
However two minutes later Rovers took the lead as Cairney, who was announced as the club’s player of the year just before the game got under way, scored a quite breathtaking goal.
The midfielder won possession midway into the Latics half and cut infield and side-stepped two would-be challengers before stroking a cool right-footed finish past Carson and in off the post.
Had it come earlier in the campaign it would have been a serious contender for Rovers’ goal of the season, Jason Lowe’s 25-yard screamer at home to Middlesbrough.
But fifth-placed Wigan, who secured their place in the play-offs in midweek, equalised in the 17th minute as Ramis headed in on the goal-line after a corner made its way to him.
But two minutes after that man-of-the-match Craig Conway got to the byline and played the ball back to Gestede, who placed a powerful and precise left-footed 10-yard finish past Carson at his near post.
Rhodes then had one header ruled out for offside and another tipped over by the excellent Carson, both from crosses from Conway.
And it was the outstanding winger who set-up Rovers’ third goal in the 35th minute as he cut inside on to his right foot and swung the ball into the area for the towering Gestede to head magnificently past the former England goalkeeper.
It was the red-hot striker’s 13th goal of the campaign and his ninth in his last eight starts.
The Latics twice went close to reducing the arrears before a pulsating first half was out with McClean firing just wide and Grant Hanley clearing off the line from Nicky Maynard.
And it should have proved to be one of McClean’s last contributions after he pushed his head into Hanley’s after the Rovers captain had fouled him.
But the former Sunderland winger, like Hanley, got away with a booking.
And he came back to haunt the hosts in the 59th minute when he blasted in from close range after Josh McEachran’s shot was only half-cleared.
Five minutes later and Gestede went desperately close to netting his second hat-trick in three matches as he thundered a header against the bar from Conway’s inswinging corner.
Carson then saved from Cairney, Matt Kilgallon and Rhodes.
But the Wigan number one was beaten for the fourth time in the 84th minute when another inviting Conway free kick was headed in by Rhodes.
It was the prolific forward’s 25th goal of the season – only Leeds United’s Ross McCormack (28) scored more in the Championship – and the 150th of his senior club career.
But it was the Latics, who improved considerably in the second half, who had the final say when Maynard was allowed too much time and space to rifle past Paul Robinson from 20 yards.
And the visitors would have equalised had Robinson not tipped a goal-bound header from substitute Shaun Maloney over the bar.
But that would not have been fair on Rovers, who spurned the chance to make the final scoreline more emphatic when Gestede blazed over from a cross from sub Liam Feeney.
Rovers: Robinson, Keane, Hanley, Kilgallon, Olsson, King (Feeney 80), Evans (Lowe 73), Cairney, Conway, Gestede, Rhodes. Subs not used: Eastwood, Dunn, Varney, Williamson, Taylor.
Booked: Hanley, Gestede, Kilgallon.
Goals: Cairney 13, Gestede 19, 35, Rhodes 84.
Wigan: Carson, Kiernan, Ramis (Barnett 46) Caldwell (Holgersson 72), Crainey, Collison, Espinoza, McEachran, McClean, Maynard, Waghorn (Maloney 65). Subs not used: Al Habsi, McManaman, Beausejour, Fortune.
Booked: McClean, Crainey.
Goals: Ramis 17, McClean 59, Maynard 87.
Referee: Roger East.
Attendance: 16,996 (2,010 away).
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