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The Dack Conundrum

Since losing Bradley Dack to injury on the 23rd December, Rovers have picked up just two points from four games, after picking up 10 from the previous four. Is it as simple as saying the reason is Dack? And if so, how do Rovers adapt to life without him.

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Bradley Dack is a special footballer and his record during his time at Rovers backs this up – in two and half a seasons he has been involved in 66 goals in 109 games in all competitions. Losing him to a season ending (and longer) ACL injury would impact any team, but the downturn in form for Rovers suggests he was key to their success – but is this really the case?

When Rovers lost Dack to the ACL injury I remember thinking “it’s a horrendous injury and he’ll be a loss both on and off the pitch, but out of all the areas we were to lose someone, the number 10 role is probably were we had the most replacements”, and I fully expected either Holtby, Rothwell or even Downing to fill in there; but what came to pass in the Birmingham game was a sort of fluid front three with Holtby, Armstrong, Gallagher and Buckley all occupying the number 10 position during the game, and then at Huddersfield we seemed to play a mixture of 4-4-2 (which worked for the first twenty minutes) and then 4-2-3-1 with Buckley in the number 10 role. From what I’ve seen of Holtby at Rovers and before, he looked like the ideal replacement for Dack, so I think the timing of his injury after the Birmingham game couldn’t have come at a worse time. Combine this with Mowbray’s love of a “wide-striker” and that is where Rovers have struggled in Dack’s absence.

Mowbray has been loath to play Gallagher through the middle, opting to play him out wide, and Armstrong in the number 9 role more often. Arguably this has been somewhat of a success as Armstrong has bagged 3 goals in the last 5 games, but this has been to the detriment of Gallagher who has looked lost out on the wing in the Antonsson role.

At Huddersfield 4-4-2 with Gallagher and Graham through the middle worked for the first twenty minutes, but Huddersfield adapted and we couldn’t handle Steve Mounie who gave Lenihan and Adarabioyo a torrid afternoon, and never looked like getting back in to the game without Dack once Huddersfield equalised and then took the lead, with young John Buckley tasked with fulfilling Dack’s boots in what became a very physical game.

The main difference since we lost Dack has been our style of play. Dack and Graham have at times over the past two and half years had an almost telepathic connection, with Rovers profiting most when they line up in the 9 and 10 roles, so it is to be expected that the relationship and output with someone else in the 10 role might not be as effective. However, Rovers don’t seem to have used the 10 role in the last few games. With Gallagher out wide, he has acted as the target man (as did 5ft 8in Adam Armstrong against 6ft 3in Patrick Bauer against Preston) and we have bypassed the man in the number 10 role – against Preston, I don’t recall many instances where Holtby received the ball on the turn 30-40 yards from goal the way Dack has done so often. Instead we have played the channel balls (to quote John Beck) and expected our full backs and wide attackers to get the ball in to the box – 6ft 4in Sam Gallagher crossing the ball to 5ft 8in Adam Armstrong, it just doesn’t make sense. To be fair, in recent weeks before the winning run, Dack hadn’t been seeing as much of the ball, but when he did he was generally effective with it. If we are going to play Armstrong through the middle and use pace, surely this is by counter-attacking football like the goal against Preston, or by going through Holtby or someone else in the number 10 role to play him in behind. If we are going to go down the route of getting the ball wide and getting balls in to the box a la Ripley and Wilcox, would we not be better served with Gallagher and Graham attacking the crosses in the middle, and Chapman at least played out wide to supply the ammunition as part of a 4-4-2? We can survive and progress without Dack but we don’t need to change our footballing style or philosophy.

In the run up to Christmas, incidentally when we had our purple patch of form, Rovers had an almost 100% fit squad – even Gladwin was nearly fit. Fast-forward to the second week of January and the injuries are starting to pile up, with Evans joining Dack and Cunningham for an extended run on the sidelines and players picking up tweaks and niggles each week. One of the key reasons behind the good run before Christmas was the unchanged side – obviously this was going to change over Christmas as Rovers played 5 games in 12 days, but the sooner the starting eleven settles back-down and we have a sense of continuity the better. The crazy thing about the 5 games in 12 days is that in we will play just 5 games in the entirety of January; at least this should allow players to recover and get back to full fitness, the loss to Birmingham in the FA Cup could provide some respite.

So if we aren’t going to use the number 10 role effectively, and Mowbray doesn’t like the prospect of 4-4-2, does the return of Charlie Mulgrew from his loan spell at Wigan provide a creative alternative formation and style? In my eyes, Mulgrew had dropped down the pecking order at Ewood and was allowed to leave on loan because he was beginning to cost us more goals than he was scoring and/or saving, primarily as a result of his lack of pace and ability to recover. This rules him out of replacing Bell at left-back, where pace is a must, and he is unlikely to break-up the partnership of Lenihan and Adarabioyo and get in the team ahead of Derrick Williams. Yet Mulgrew’s composure on the ball and ability to pick a pass, not to mention his set-piece magnificence, mean he definitely has something to offer the team – we just need a way to fit him in without creating defensive problems.

Could Mulgrew be our very own Scottish Pirlo – sat in front of the back four, picking the ball up off Walton or the centre halves and picking passes out like a quarterback, with Travis and A N Other doing his running in the centre of the pitch? Against Huddersfield, and other games, I felt our passing let us down too often and thought there was the potential that Adarabioyo, arguably our best passer of a ball, could step in to that creative DM role whilst also providing a bit of steel akin to Yaya Toure – but obviously we would lose his impact and influence at centre half (although that has been questionable over the last few games). However putting Mulgrew in there makes sense – he has the ability to pick a pass and he is unlikely to bomb forward and leave us exposed at the back, and even if he isn’t in there to hassle and defend, he is another body protecting the back four. Holtby hasn’t received anywhere near enough of the ball between the oppositions box and the halfway line to be effective or influence games, so why not try something a little different.

Mulgrew has returned to Brockhall injured so he won’t feature against Sheffield Wednesday so there isn’t even a chance we will see this proposal in action, so we’ll probably win 3-0 with Gallagher getting a hat-trick from out-wide and Holtby putting a Dack-esque performance in from the number 10 role.

Here’s to hoping.

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Fatigued

Blackburn Rovers finish the year 13th in league with a recent run of two defeats in ten and sit just 5 points of the play-offs, but a poor return during the Christmas period has left fans frustrated – but was it to be expected?

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As the hectic Christmas schedule comes to a close, Rovers sit 13th in the Championship, 5 points of the play-off places – not the end of the world, in a different light, primed to make a second half of the season push for the top 6; but a return of 2 points from the festive season has some fans questioning their credentials.

The key stat missing from the above, which is a massive factor in the points return, is the number of games played in a short period of time – 4 games in just 10 days; the shortest gap being just 3 days between the draws at home to Wigan (23rd) and Birmingham (26th). Just two days recovery and preparation time between these two is a ridiculously short turnaround at any time of the year, but at the start of the busiest time of the season is by no means ideal. If you add in the serious injury to Rovers play-maker and spark Bradley Dack and the importance he provides in the dressing room, the issue of fatigue becomes an even bigger factor – physically and mentally. If I had a pound for every time someone told me “they’re professional footballers being paid thousands, they shouldn’t get tired after playing two games in four days” I’d be rich. Footballers might train everyday but that isn’t to the intensity of a full fixture; and they would usually have a day for recovery and then build up to the next game physically and tactically, but to do this 3 times in the space of 8 days, without your main man both on and off the pitch is a massive ask of the players. The nature of the first two games doesn’t help either – two home games where the opposition have set-up not to conceded and Rovers have to break them down in front of an expectant home crowd after five wins in six – and even more energy is expended. I truly believe that had we played Wigan on the Saturday, or even the Sunday, we would be looking at a completely points return and Championship table.

What also hasn’t helped has been injuries – after heading in to the Wigan game with an almost fully clean bill of health (even Ben Gladwin was rumoured to be fit), we now see ourselves with the injuries stacking up and seeing players played out of position again. It’s to be somewhat expected to pick up injuries in such a hectic period, but when you’re winning, you don’t notice them as much and it’s a case of “next man up”.

The result of two losses following a run of 8 games unbeaten – sections of the crowd once again getting on Mowbray and players’ backs, and in some cases over-stepping the mark. Yes, some performances haven’t been great, but I don’t think you can question the effort and commitment of any of the players, and it is more fatigue that has impacted the players ability to take a game to the opposition, particularly in the second half of games, when the opponent has been able to defend a lead in the Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest games.

One player who has come in for unfair criticism is 21 year old, home-grown, John Buckley. The stick, nigh-on abuse, he received at the Huddersfield game was disgraceful. He is the future of the club and has undoubted talent – fans should be getting behind him, supporting and encouraging him, not telling him he’s rubbish and should never play again; what I heard was an absolute joke. Buckley’s disadvantages are he isn’t Bradley Dack, and he’s also short and slender – an easy target when things aren’t going Rovers way, but in the same way, I don’t think Lionel Messi would have been given a chance when he was younger due to his size and shape. Fans moan when Mowbray doesn’t play the youngsters (such as the current clamour for Joe Rankin-Costello) but when he does, if there isn’t instant success he’s told he’s “throwing them in at the depend” or it’s “square pegs in round holes” – combined with the response to 2 losses in 10 games, and it seems Mowbray just can’t win with some fans. Buckley has obvious talent on the ball but he is a bit too lightweight on the ball. This isn’t a problem when you’re leading games and he’s able to draw fouls and win free-kicks, but when he’s asked to take the game to the opponent he’s a little to easy to be pushed off the ball. It speaks volumes that Mowbray feels he’s ready and the way other players talk about him in training tells you the lad has talent, Rovers just have to find a way to get him in to games where they can optimise his input.

One player who I feel does deserve criticism is Christian Walton. In recent weeks he has made important saves, but he struggles with the basics. Making saves is the easy part of goalkeeping, but the most important asset to the team is a goalkeeper who commands his box and takes the pressure off his defence – coming for and claiming catches, and making good decisive decisions, all things Walton hasn’t provided during his time at the club. The first Huddersfield goal was a free-kick delivered from out-wide in to the area behind the defensive line – perfect for the keeper to come and collect or punch, but Walton just stayed home; yes the defending was poor, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Then the second Forest goal is an absolutely crazy decision from him which ultimately cost us. With Walton in goal we look like conceding from every set piece and it puts more pressure on an already often rickety defence. He only seems to come for balls where he is about the 30/70 favourite to win the ball – the reason for this, I believe, is that he knows he can get a hand on the ball and then when contact with the attacker is made, the referee will be forced to give a free-kick, so he is under no pressure; but that isn’t the way it works and this tactic cost us at Preston and almost cost us again at Huddersfield.

What frustrates me most about Walton is why we are persisting with him when he isn’t our player. We are paying the price, in the form of dropped points, for developing a player that we will ultimately not see the benefit of as he returns back to Brighton – we literally gain no advantage from playing him as he continues to make mistakes. At least if we played Leutwiler or Fisher, if they made mistakes, ultimately the benefits from the resultant learning process would be ours, not some other team. When Leutwiler played towards the end of last season he at least gave the impression he was commanding his box, and I don’t remember any mistakes costing us goals or points – at this moment in time I’d much prefer him in goal to Walton, with Fisher on the bench learning. A good team starts with a good goalkeeper and at the minute we fall short in this area. More than any other position on the pitch I feel we need to upgrade at goalkeeper, it pains me to say it, but I’d be sending Walton back to the south coast and looking to an experienced keeper like a Joe Hart to come in and command his box. If a keeper commands his box the percentage of shots he is likely to face is significantly reduced, and thus the likelihood of conceding is reduced. At the minute at times it feels like playing Walton is like starting with a -1 handicap.

Looking where we need to strengthen elsewhere on the pitch and the obvious area to look at is the number 10 position vacated by the injured Dack. The Dack injury has hit us harder than expected. Immediately after the Wigan game I was of the opinion that losing someone in the number 10 role was probably the least of our worries as we had a number of alternative players who could slot in – names Holtby, Rothwell, Buckley and potentially Brereton. However, the injury to Holtby after the Birmingham game was a big loss both on the pitch and for Holtby as an opportunity to stake a claim. Ultimately I think Holtby was brought in as a replacement for Dack should he be sold either in January or next Summer (neither of which is likely to happen now). Instead of directly replacing Dack, Mowbray has opted to play a sort of fluid and rotating three behind Gallagher and against Huddersfield it looked more like a 4-4-2 until Graham was replaced on the hour mark and then it is anyone’s guess what formation or system we played for the final third of the game.

I think once Holtby is fit we will see him fill in the number 10 role with either Gallagher, Graham or Armstrong through the middle and two of Rothwell, Armstrong, Downing and Buckley out wide. Until he is fit though I’d be looking to go 4-4-2 and remove the Dack conundrum. Play Graham and Gallagher as the front two and then Armstrong and Chapman out-wide with two of Travis, Evans, Downing or Johnson in the centre of midfield.

As we approach the second league game of 2020, Rovers sit just 5 points off the play-offs with games against Preston, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR in the coming weeks – all teams around us where a good points return could push us up the table. There is no need for panic.

Off the pitch, however, is a somewhat different situation. The publishing of the Venkys London (the parent company of Rovers) financial results for 2018-19 makes for depressing and worrying reading. For 2018-19 to 31st March Rovers lost £20.3m, which equates to £391k per week – in terms of FFP, this looks like a Bradley Dack sized hole in the finances. Since the Venkys bought Rovers the losses now stands at £144m – a promotion sized hole in the finances. For every £100 of income the club makes, £154 is spent on wages – I’m no accountant, but those maths don’t add up and definitely don’t make for good reading. In the short term this puts us on the radar of FFP and potential future implications (such as transfer bans); in the long term it means we are completely reliant on the Venkys to keep us afloat and if they decide they’ve had enough and look to sell, even wiping the debt off, we are unsustainable and heading the way of Bury and Bolton.

The comment about the £20.3m loss being a Dack sized hole is an important one. At the minute, the hole is Dack sized, but it looks as though the current Rovers model is based on either acquiring cheap and selling expensive, or developing our own and selling for profits (a la Phil Jones). The model is based on aiming for promotion – winning the golden ticket – by maximising the output of players whilst they put themselves in the shop window; riding the likes of Dack to success, if you will, if we don’t make the play-offs or promotion, we cash in, re-invest and start the process again. The potential is that you only get a truly play-off competitive team every few years when the stars align.

With Dack now out for the foreseeable future we aren’t going to plug the financial gap by selling him, which asks the question how will we make ends meet? The only saleable assets we have now that could bring in any money to make a dent in this are Lenihan and Travis – two of our most important players in two important positions.

In terms of how our finances look in comparison to the rest of the Championship – our income was £14.9m, £16.5m below the average for the division. Our wage bill is an average weekly wage of £11,000, £5,000 below the division average. If financial performance provided a direct correlation to where we sit in the table, at 13th we are arguably over-performing. Fans will clamour for signing to be made in January for a play-off push, but we need to bear the above figures in mind and think long-term – would a 5 month tilt at promotion be worth even bigger financial impacts and restrictions in the future? Losses for the decade stand at £185m and are obviously skewed somewhat by the signings and wages of the likes of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu and Jordan Rhodes the last time we gambled on promotion in our first season down. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. The club could do worse than explain the implications of our finances in terms of transfer funds and wage availability, especially in comparison to the rest of the Championship, maybe via the Lancashire Telegraph, to temper expectations and make the reality of the situation clearer. Maybe then fans would fully appreciate the job Mowbray has done and continues to do.

What better way to put two poor league results and performances and a loss in the FA Cup behind us and start another unbeaten run than a home against local rivals Preston.

 

Note – financial stats taken from “PriceOfFootball’s” @KieranMaguire tweets 31/12/19.

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Settle On Eleven

After a less than convincing win against Barnsley at the weekend, 17 games in to the season, does Tony Mowbray know what his best eleven is?

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Saturday’s victory over Barnsley by no means convincing, but it was another 3 points in the bag, 3 goals scored, and moves us on to 21 points and up to 17th in the league – 7 points from relegation, and 8 points from the play offs; but at 1-1 and 2-2 on Saturday was the first time there’s been noticeable and audible discontent at Mowbray on the side-lines.

At the start of the international break, the home tie to Barnsley looked like a certain 3 points, but you never know what you’re going to get when a new manager comes in, and Barnsley didn’t look like a side rooted to the foot of the table. In the first half in particular they passed the ball around better than Rovers without really creating anything. Then, as always happens when you are at the foot of the table, one mistake and the opposition are in and Rovers took the lead. That should’ve been the game and we should have been able to push on and put them to the sword, perhaps even giving Big Ben Brereton some time game without the pressure of needing to score – but it wasn’t to be.

As Barnsley equalised once and then twice, the crowd vented their frustrations towards Mowbray – mainly by calling for Graham to come from the bench and change the game. It wasn’t quite back to the Coyle or Kean days, but had Barnsley taken the lead, I don’t think we would have been far off. So, what is the issue?

To start with, away form. It doesn’t seem to matter how much of a lead we build up on the road, it only takes one goal for us to seemingly capitulate – case in point, Preston away. Earlier in the season we were able to hold on to one goal leads at the likes of Hull, but that steely determination and resolve seems to have waned. At the time I put it down to the experience of the likes of Downing and Johnson in the middle keeping the ball turning over and stopping us from dropping back, but they have played in games since when we have thrown leads away. For me, Mowbray’s problem is that he doesn’t know his best 11 and hasn’t settled on a first choice throughout the team – perhaps with the exception of Dack.

Goalkeeper

Starting between the sticks – Mowbray made the decision to cash in on Raya and bring in Walton on loan as stop-gap. At the time I thought this was a step backward as Raya had the potential to be our keeper for the next decade, with the better option being to bring in someone experienced to bring him along. In Walton we have gone backwards. For such a big lad he doesn’t command his box, isn’t a great shot-stopper, and looks like an accident waiting to happen every time there is a ball in to the box. I have seen nothing so far to tell me he is any better than Leutwiler – I’d much prefer to see Leutwiler given the job between the sticks with young Fisher getting first team experience on the bench, and then look at an experienced keeper on a permanent move or a loan deal in January.

Full Backs

The biggest blow so far this season has been the loss of Cunningham. In the games he played for us before his injury he showed us how important a good left back is, and he has been a massive loss. Mowbray has put Bell back in and even tried Bennett, but this is an area we need to strengthen in January, perhaps with a loan move, and I’d be looking to snap up Cunningham even if he is still injured. At right back I don’t know who Mowbray sees as his first choice – Bennett isn’t a right back but I feel he gets slotted in there because he ‘can’ play there and as captain needs to squeeze him in somewhere; but in terms of the best player for that position at the club I think Nyambe gets the nod, but he’s looked better at times at centre half, so right back is another week spot we need to strengthen in.

Centre Backs

Which brings us on centre backs. When everyone is fit – Lenihan, Williams, Adarabioyo and Nyambe – I’d be interested who the starting pairing is; it will be Lenihan plus another, but who usually depends on injuries. For what it’s worth, Lenihan should be wearing the captain’s armband. A solid keeper and back four are the key to any good team and the key to consistency – at the minute we change the back four every week and that is creating problems for us. Although most of the time this is due to injuries and out of Mowbray’s hands, we do have players who always seem to be one over-stretch away from two weeks out.

Centre Midfield

When everyone is fit in the centre of the park, in the system Mowbray plays, he has to pick two from: Travis, Evans, Rothwell, Smallwood, Downing, Johnson, Holtby (and Gladwin, LOL). It’s no easy pick as each have their merits, but Mowbray needs to pick a partnership and stick to it. Travis looked like sure thing last season when he broke through and was all action for 90 minutes, breaking play up, carrying the ball and starting attacks, but he looks like he’s only playing at 80% in comparison now and that lowers the intensity across the pitch.

Wingers / Attackers

Prior to Saturday I would have said that Armstrong is probably the second name on the team-sheet to play one of the wide attackers but then Mowbray played him through the middle. I can see his thinking – get the ball in behind and use his pace, but when that isn’t working, he doesn’t offer much in terms of winning headers or holding the ball up to bring others in to play. Almost immediately after being switched out wide he beat the full back with his pace and created a chance – something Gallagher had struggled to do all game. Who plays on the opposite side has varied almost weekly with Downing, Gallagher, Bennett and Rothwell all spending time out wide.

This position poses one question which is possibly more key than any other: Where is Harry Chapman? When we re-signed him last January, we knew he was still working his way back from a bad injury and it was going to take time, and it would be better not to rush him. But then we saw him at the end of last season, and it looked like he was well involved in the first team. Fast-forward 6 months and there is no sign of him. With Armstrong on one side and Chapman on the other that is one hell of a one-two punch with pace and trickery – like the days of Wilcox and Ripley getting the by-line and crossing for Shearer, only now it would be Gallagher or Graham. Imagine the lift it would have given the crowd on Saturday if, struggling at 1-1 or 2-2, Chapman is brought from the bench?

The number 10 spot looks like it is Dack’s whatever, even though I think we lose the impact of Holtby by playing him deeper, you can’t argue with Dack’s stats and contributions. Maybe the answer with Holtby is to play him as a wide 10 (i.e. attacking midfielder but not a winger as such). You could see on Saturday that Dack was the one getting the players back going after both equalisers, and he was the one pleading with the referee that the second goal was hand-ball – he obviously cares. Mowbray could do worse than give him the captains armband.

Striker(s)

It is fairly clear now that Mowbray only has space for one striker. On Saturday he played Gallagher out wide but its evident he isn’t a winger or a wide forward. Yes, he wins the flicks and can run with the ball, but he often tries to do too much when he gets it, and he doesn’t provide the cover going the other way (Barnsley left-back had a relatively clear run all through the first half). What must be frustrating for Gallagher is that he, a no.9 is farmed out wide for 60 minutes, then when Danny Graham comes on the pack is shuffled so he can play through the middle. I’m not saying that Graham isn’t our best option in that position, but Mowbray is asking a young centre forward to play out of position and contribute to the tune of the £5m Rovers spend on him. Graham and Dack have a special relationship on the pitch and the key to moving up the table towards the promised land of the play-offs depends on getting the most out of Graham whilst we still can – Mowbray doesn’t currently have the luxury of playing blooding Gallagher in – he needs results now. Play Graham, put the game to bed, and then bring on the likes of Gallagher and Brereton.

This coming Wednesday against Brentford is a tough game, made tougher by the fact David Raya will no doubt be looking to prove to Mowbray he was wrong to sell him, but Mowbray needs a fast start or else the crowd will turn and once that happens, it’s a long way back. I don’t agree with those saying he needs to move on for the club to progress, I think he has earnt at least until the end of the season, but football is a fickle game.

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The Same, But Different

After another week of VAR controversy, out of all the new rule changes for the 2019-20 season, will VAR change the game the most?

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The rules of football, the Laws of the Game, are tweaked every now and again but the beginning of this current 2019-20 season saw more changes than usual. To provide a quick overview, this current season will be: the first to provide a mid-season break with the league splitting a round of matches in February over 2 weekends with 5 matches taking place the weekend of the 8th February, and the remaining 5 the following week. It has also seen the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee), in the Premier League only in England, and it is to be used for “clear and obvious errors” (remember that phrase) or “serious missed incidents”, such as goals, penalty decisions, red cards and cases of mistaken identity. The Handball Rule has also changed meaning that deliberate handball is still an offence, but accidental handball can also be a free-kick or penalty – even if it’s a mistake, if the ball goes in the goal after hitting an attackers arm/hand, then a free-kick will be awarded; it’s also handball if a player’s arm is above their shoulders or if their arms have made their body unnaturally bigger. Defending free-kicks has also changed – if there are 3 or more defending players in a wall, the opposition (attacking team) will have to be at least 1 yard away from the wall; referees can now also allow a quick free-kick to be taken even if they are booking a player. For penalties, goalkeepers can no longer leaver their goal-line (they couldn’t previously either) but the penalty won’t be taken until the keeper has stopped touching the frame of the goal or net, and the goal has stopped moving. When a player is subbed now they have to leave the pitch at the closest point to them. The coin toss has also changed, with captains now choosing which end they attack or if they want to kick off first (previously the decision was just which end to attack). Goal-kicks have changed majorly for the first time since the back-pass rule was introduced in the early nineties, and now goal-kicks can be played to a defender within the box, with the attacking team not able to enter the 18 yard box until an outfield player has touched the ball. Finally, and possibly most heart-breaking, the drop ball has been abolished, with the ball being given to the team that played the ball before the referee stopped play.

So what’s changed then? VAR, Handball, Penalties, Free-kicks, Goal-kicks, Substitutions and the Coin Toss. Not much then. All bar the VAR rule has been introduced in to the entirety of the football pyramid – my personal opinion is that this isn’t right, and the game is being played by different rules at different levels; the rules for the Premier League should be the same as the rules for a Sunday League Pub Team game – my stance is the same for goal-line technology.

So, with VAR not being a factor in the Championship, I’ve found the biggest impacting rule change to be the playing of the ball to your own players inside your own penalty box. This first hit home during the Millwall game at Ewood. Rovers continued to play the ball out within the 18 yard box and try to play the ball out from the back, rather than the traditional goal-kick up the pitch to the big man up top. The rule has been introduced for a number of reasons, mainly because the game of football is changing to a more possession-based game, but the rule stops the time-wasting that was creeping in last season whereby a team wanting to run the clock down would step in to the box to receive the ball, which under the previous rules, resulted automatically in the goal-kick being retaken, and a good 30 seconds run off the clock. The rule change also helps the younger generations develop – playing the ball out from the back should, in theory, result in more young players who are comfortable and composed on the ball, and it should prevent the teams with the biggest goal-kick and tallest striker dominating games.

This new goal-kick will cause thousands of near-heart attacks week in and week out as defenders play about with the ball across their own goal-line about 6 yards out – it is not something the majority of us Brits are used to seeing. In that Millwall game, Walton would play the ball to one of the centre-halves or full-backs who would then draw in the opposition attacker and play the ball between themselves to get out of the situation and open up the midfield. When it works, you can create a big gap between the strikers and the midfielders, or better still, a gap in the midfield. It worked for Rovers in that first half, and we got to the half-way line on many occasions, the only problem was that once the midfield line was reached, we didn’t really know what to do with the ball, and this allowed what spaces had been created, to be re-filled.

Just because the rules say you can play out inside your own box doesn’t mean you have to. For example, Arsenal have already been caught out more than once this season, and this playing out from the back has resulted in goals being conceded. If you don’t have defenders comfortable on the ball and comfortable passing under pressure, this approach isn’t going to work. Even Pep Guardiola has changed his teams over the years, moving a midfielder, more comfortable on the ball, back to centre half (Mascherano and now Fernandinho), to provide that experience and composure to pick the ball up and pass their way out of defence and around the opposition. Rovers problem in that first half against Millwall was the lack of a Plan B.

By playing Armstrong as the lone front man, and Bennett and Downing out wide, there was no out ball. This meant we had to play the ball out of trouble, which often meant laboured movement and passing just to get us to the half-way line, or a big boot back to the opposition. There are merits to playing out from the back and drawing the opposition on, but you have to have the personnel and options for it to work. As we saw in the second half of the Millwall game, with the introduction of the height and physical presence of Gallagher, we could play out from the back, draw the opposition on, and then play the ball over the top, or if in trouble, we could get rid of the ball up the field with a good chance of retaining the ball or at worst winning the second ball or a throw-in or corner. In a way, it is a shame that Mulgrew isn’t at the club at this time when we are experimenting with the idea of playing out from the back as he is arguable our most composed defender with the ball at his feet. The additions of Johnson, Downing and Holtby will surely only help take the ball off the back for when they’ve beaten the press, and allows us to be more clinical with our passing from the half-way line forwards.

So, to VAR. In many ways I’m pleased I support a Championship club and don’t have to bother about VAR at least for this season – but ultimately it will gradually be introduced in to the top four tiers of the English game, much the same way goal-line technology has been introduced. For the record, when VAR makes a decision, the decision is correct – it is the rules/laws of the game which are wrong, or perhaps now outdated.

VAR rightly identifies when someone is offside, or when someone handballs the ball in the build up to a goal – in both situations, mainly when the officials have missed the incident. As per the statement above, VAR was brought in to correct “clear and obvious errors” and/or “serious missed incidents” – it was not brought in to identify when Heung Min Son’s toe-nail is offside. The number of goals which are being scored, celebrated, and then subject to 2 minutes of VAR review before being chalked off is ruining the game of football both as a spectacle and as entertainment, not least for the paying fans in the ground. We are going to get to a situation where players score, stand still and stare at a screen for 5 minutes before they can celebrate a goal. FIFAs laws of the game state that a referee must always make a decision and that the original decision given by the referee will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was a “clear and obvious error” – offside by less than 5cm, is not a clear and obvious error. The only references to “offside” in the VAR protocol/rule is that it can be used for “factual decisions such as position of an offence or player (offside)” and for “subjective decisions such as interference at offside”. For me the solution is quite simple – if a goal is reviewed for offside and lines have to be drawn across the pitch to work out whether the player is ahead of the defender by cm/mm’s it can’t possibly by a clear or obvious error, and the rules of VAR don’t apply. We need to go back to the old days of the attacker being given the benefit of the doubt – in it’s current guise, attackers will be penalised far more often than defenders, and the intensity and pace of the game will drop significantly.

In the NFL, if a decision is given and it goes for video review, there must be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn the referees original decision – why can’t this be applied in the Premier League, maintaining the authority of referee without undermining them? To make it even more clear, set a time-limit for the review – if it isn’t clear that the decision was wrong within 30 seconds, it’s not a clear and obvious error.

It’s not just the goals which aren’t given which affect teams on the scoreboard, there is evidently a psychological impact. In the past weekend we saw Spurs score a goal to go two nil up, only for it to be chalked off and Leicester to go on and win the game. We also saw Chelsea equalise, only for that to be ruled offside by the tightest of margins some time before the goal was scored, with Liverpool then scoring almost immediately to go two nil up. In the example of Chelsea you could see the look of despair and utter “what is the point” after he was penalised for a soft free-kick in the build up to Liverpool’s second goal, only moments after his goal had been disallowed. The impact of scoring a goal and then having it taken off you could arguably be worse than the feeling of conceding – heads drop and a negative mentality sets in. Had Spurs gone 2-0 up it would have been difficult for Leicester to find a way back in to the game, similarly, had Chelsea equalised they would have had the momentum and the outcome of the game could’ve been very different. I don’t think this psychological impact has been looked in to enough – it won’t be long until clubs are employing psychologists and therapists to help teams deal with this mental trauma so it doesn’t affect them for the remainder of the nineties minutes, especially the immediate time after the decision reversal.

Back to the Championship and it has been refreshing to see Rovers hold on to slender leads late on in games and see them out to claim all three points – Reading away at the weekend, the draw to Cardiff at home, winning at Hull and the win at home against Middlesbrough – all games last season we would have probably drawn or even lost last season. I think a big factor in this is the experience of Downing and Johnson in the middle of the pitch and their ability to keep turning the ball over and not giving away position. When you are winning games and approaching the last 10 minutes of a game it is imperative that you keep the ball – if the opposition doesn’t have the ball they can’t score. What Johnson and Downing also do whilst keeping the ball, is open up gaps and opportunities to put a game to bed, without over-committing ourselves and leaving us wide open at the back. Against Millwall, something noticeable about Downing was his ability to miss the middle man out – in previous seasons, to get the ball from the edge of the box (A) to the man out wide (C) we would have had to pass it via a middle-man (B) – missing them out keeps the momentum and keeps their defence moving and thinking about defending.

When we signed Lewis Holtby, I automatically thought he must either be coming to the end of his career, or he must be injury prone. Before his move to Spurs, he was one of the hottest prospects in Europe whilst at Schalke, and the fact Spurs spent some of the Bale money on him shows the regard they held him in. A look at his Wikipedia page shows he is in fact only 29 (some 6 years younger than Stewart Downing), and he has played over 20 games in all bar one of the last five seasons since leaving Spurs – so he’s definitely not over the hill and after a big pay-day, and he definitely isn’t injury prone; this will also be only the second season he has played football outside of the topflight in the last decade. If the wages are right, this is a win-win situation. Rovers get a player who, if he can perform as he did at Schalke, can either push them up the table towards promotion or put himself in the shop-window to make Rovers some money. At worst he is a free transfer, nothing spent nothing lost. After just one week at the club he looks to have settled in fine and looks to have the right mentality and personality to fit in at the club and with the rest of the squad. Tony now has a few selection headaches when everyone is fit, and that can only be a good thing. If Holtby can perform on the pitch, his arrival probably does spell the end of Richie Smallwood and potentially Corry Evans (Evans is actually older than Holtby) – both of whom have been great servants for the club during what have been incredibly difficult times.

On paper, Rovers have a good run of fixtures coming up (Luton, Forest and Huddersfield at home and QPR and Birmingham at home), and with us currently sitting just 2 points of the play-offs, a return of 9 points or more should see us close that gap.

 

Image: https://images.app.goo.gl/12o2XvEU2m9JZ75o9

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Heads We Win, Tails You Lose

Following a summer where Huddersfield Town and Paddy Power led social media a merry dance regarding sponsorship only to be later fined by misconduct, are there double standard when it comes to betting and sponsorship in football?

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Like many football fans in the UK, I like to have a bet on the football every weekend and most mid-weeks; nothing too serious, I fiver on an accumulator and a daft 50p toilet roll (definition: a ridiculous number of selections creating a betting receipt so long it resembles a toilet roll, and which has 0.01% of actually winning). As a Rovers fan there are certain games in a season when I really should make some money by betting against them – a defeat to Fulham away this past weekend being one of them, along with former Rover Tom Cairney getting a goal. However, betting in football is massive business now.

Take the European Super Cup for example, half an hour before kick off and the Betfair Exchange was showing that over £2.4m had been staked just on the outcome of that one game (that doesn’t include the hundreds of other markets available). It’s no wonder that every time there is a football match on the TV, whether it be the Champions League or League Two on Sky Sports, or the FA Cup on ITV, you are likely to be inundated with adverts for betting and latest odds, with Ray Winston inviting you to “have a bang on that”.

The integration of betting into football is nowhere more evident than at Stoke City – a club owned by betting company Bet365. In 2017-18, Bet365 took £52.6bn in bets from punters and won a net profit £2.7bn – with profits up a handsome 28% (£660.6m) on the previous year. Denise Coates, the daughter of Stoke City Chairman Peter Coates, is the founder and joint chief executive of Bet365 paid herself £265m in the same period. She owns a 50.25% in Bet365.

The Premier League and Football League have strict rules on betting which the likes of Joey Barton and Barry Fry among others have fallen foul over in recent years – if you are involved in football, from player to manager, to club shop assistant, you are forbidden from betting. No problem there – footballers and managers are in the perfect position to influence games for positive betting outcomes.

For the football fans, betting companies advertise “when the fun stops, stop” – but what does that really mean? In simple terms it means these multi-billion-pound companies only want you to use their services to have fun, and even simpler, only bet what you can afford. Seems like a strange, somewhat backwards, business plan to advertise that companies don’t want you to spend as much money as possible, and more, with them. It is no surprise, but it is a concern and a contradiction of their campaigns, that if you have money sat untouched in online accounts with bookies, the vast majority will drop you notifications, emails and texts to remind you the money is there for you to use for a bet. With football on almost every night of the year, there is always something to tempt you back in – is there really any fun in betting on the Albanian 1st Division and watching an arrow on a 2D pitch hoping for betting to be suspended and “GOAL” to flash up on screen (only to be ruled out by VAR). As someone with betting accounts with the majority of bookies, there isn’t a day (or morning and afternoon in some instances) when I don’t receive an email telling me of sports, odds and offers. The “when the fun stops, stop” campaign is a façade for me – a media campaign aimed at everyone seeing a bright yellow logo and Jeff Stelling reading it aloud telling everyone how concerned betting companies are is nothing short of yet another advertising campaign intended to promote the markets on offer.

Huddersfield Town and Paddy Power tried something different with the launch of their new shirt and sponsor for this season – completely redefining their striped shirt with a sash across the front emblazoned “Paddy Power”. There was uproar from Town fans and laughter from fans of other clubs, but I think deep down most fans with a knowledge of the history of Paddy Powers stunts knew this could just be an elaborate marketing campaign, which is what in the end it turned out to be. Paddy Powers insistence that the stunt was to launch their “Save Our Shirt Campaign”, similar to the “when the fun stops, stop” slogan is another example of betting companies doing anything to advertise themselves. It’s all well and good a team recently relegated from the richest league in the world and soon to receive parachute payments, telling poor clubs on the verge of bankruptcy that they really shouldn’t advertise on the front of their shirts, betting or any company, but shirt sponsors bring in much needed revenue as you drop down the leagues. Then look at it from the sponsors point of view, are you really going to pay to sponsor a team and then not have your product name or logo emblazoned on the front of their shirts? It would literally be like throwing money on the fire as no-one would know that you’d done it. Case in point, can you name any other team or sponsor involved in the “Save our shirt campaign”?

The fact Huddersfield have been fined by the Football League for misconduct for the stunt is another hypocritical action – a football league, who sell the advertising rights between televised games and TV programmes to whichever betting company bids the highest, and who’s bottom 3 divisions are actually sponsored by a betting company linked to the organisation which shows the games, fining a club for misconduct for being sponsored by a betting company. Double standards indeed.

On the topic of Skybet and Sky Sports, when transfer deadline day rolls around, is it okay that Sky Sports News can claim to have heard rumours, or have it on good authority, that player ‘x’ is interested in joining club ‘y’, or club ‘y’ is readying a bid for player ‘x’ – and then provide the platform and odds to bet on that occurring, via Skybet? Surely that is a massive conflict of interest, designed to encourage football fans to bet on markets and outcomes that were never really a reality. Was Dybala really 1/7 close to signing for Spurs as was reported on channel 409, only for it to fall through? I highly doubt it.

Looking back at Stoke City, hypothetically, if players and managers aren’t allowed to bet on football because of their ability to affect the outcome, surely the club being owned by a betting company is just as big a conflict of interest – can they not influence a manager and players to affect the outcome of a game to give them a positive result in the betting market? If there was the chance they could make over £1m in just 90 minutes, surely any business would be interested in those sorts of returns. Yet it is allowed by the same football league which takes Umbridge with a club taking part in a media stunt to advertised to draw attention to both their new shirt, and their new betting partner.

Football is walking a tight rope at the minute by selling both league advertising rights and TV advertising rights to betting companies, but then expecting the players who sell the football product not to get involved, despite betting being rammed down their throats and emblazoned on their shirts at every opportunity. Likewise, the number of clubs let down by the FA from a custodian point of view grows, the authorities need to be careful where they draw the line between acceptable sponsorship and advertising for football teams with betting companies, and what is too far, without sentencing smaller clubs to death by removing that revenue stream.

As for me, I’ll continue to have my serious fiver and my 50p toilet roll every week – but the signs for a profitable season do not look good; my season long bet for their to be at least one goal in every Wolves game this season lasted just 90 goalless minutes.

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Silly Season

The Championship season has been finished for four weeks now and the line up for next season has been confirmed. With players being released from their contracts to become free to talk to whoever they want about future employment; and with the transfer window open as of the 16th May, the rumour mill is grinding in to action once again.


At Blackburn Rovers it has been announced that Tony Mowbray will have similar funds to spend as last year – when they spent around £10m on acquisitions – and that Mowbray will be able to flex that by opting for free agents and putting some of that budget towards wage demands. Last season saw Rovers flirt with the idea of the play off’s for about 7 minutes at Griffin Park, before succumbing to worrying about being dragged in to a late season relegation battle, before eventually finishing a comfortable 15th, 20 points clear of relegation and 14 points off the play-offs. For a first season promoted that’s not a bad return, and it could set the tone for a more progressive and upward looking 2019/20. That will all depend on the dealings this summer though.

A good start to the season showed Rovers could mix it at this level, and if it wasn’t for the routine conceding of late goals to sacrifice wins or draws, that 14 point gap to the top 6 could have been a lot narrower. What Mowbray has admitted is that he knows he knows where he needs to strengthen and he isn’t afraid to make changes, as we saw towards the end of the campaign. In interviews given in his recent trip to India he has also shown that he is looking up rather than down and that we will have a good go at making the top 6 next term; he even has plans in place should we lose key assets, to ensure the club build in a positive way from any such sales.

The optimist in us all will be looking at the Premier League, particularly free transfers to see who we could swoop for and pull off a coup. However, depressing although it may be, the vast majority of Premier League players are on wages Blackburn Rovers have simply never spent, even in the days before relegation from the top flight; those who are willing to drop out of the Premier League are only likely to do so for inflated wages and I think you always have to be sceptical about why they are dropping down a division: is it because they are a gun for hire and only interested in the money (cough* Danny Murphy *cough); or is it because they simply not good enough? If we are looking at anyone released from contract in the Premier League, we need to be sure of the motive and fitness of those involved. As a starter for ten, we can laugh off suggestions of Daniel Sturridge purely based on what his wage expectations would be and also the fact his ego won’t allow him to drop a level; on the same ground we can forget about Andy Carroll, in addition to his horrendous injury record (him and Vince Grella would have become the best of friends in the treatment room); and I think we would be wise to steer clear of Phil Jagielka – Charlie Mulgrew has struggled at times this season and I don’t think a player 3 years his senior is the answer, especially considering the wages he would likely ask for.

So who does that leave from the Premiership that may be a realistic target? Let’s start with goalkeepers – Mowbray made no secret at the end of the season that although Raya had done admirable in his first season in the 2nd tier and he is ultimately the long term number 1, more experience is needed both on match day and on the training pitch to help progress Raya. West Ham’s Adrian is out of contract this summer, and at 32 is by no means past his best and brings a depth of experience and is also Spanish, like Raya. For the right wages he would be worth taking a hit on to provide that know-how and experience at the back; and, looking at the Premier League, there is only potentially Watford and Bournemouth who may be on the look-out for a new keeper.

Next up, a position that has been a weak spot for a couple of years now, right back. I like Ryan Nyambe but he has very much been thrust in at the deep-end and I’m not too sure Mowbray fully trusts him in the position yet. One player available on a free transfer is Carl Jenkinson. He has never really cut it at Arsenal but has arguably had stiff competition, but he has experience at the top level, and lets face it, Arsene Wenger doesn’t sign too many players who don’t have something about them.

Another option at full-back could be proverbial loanee and former Rover Todd Kane. He is probably the last consistently 7 out of 10 every week full back we had at the club (back in 2013-14) and he comes with the added benefit that he can play at either left or right back, with Rovers being weak on both sides. Since graduating at Chelsea in 2011, Kane has spend six season out on loan at various clubs amassing 155 appearances. Wherever he has been, he has played, and that says a lot about his quality and consistency. I don’t imagine he’s ever been a mega-bucks earner at Chelsea so his wage demands, especially for a permanent place in a team, could be well within Rovers’ budget.

As well as looking at free transfer options to bring in, Rovers have also inevitably had to let players out of contract leave or be free to discuss potential moves with suitors. Of those to be allowed to leave the majority are youngsters such as Jack Doyle and Lewis Mansell, but the biggest surprise for me was to see Paul Downing wasn’t having his contract renewed. Downing came in to the club on loan at the beginning of the 2017-18 season in League One and was made a permanent fixture the following January. However, despite proving to be a more than able replacement for Lenihan, as soon as the Irishman was back fit, Downing dropped to the bench and has found first team starts somewhat of a rarity since. However, when he has played, Rovers have a very good record – I know that at least up to January/February of last year, there was a ridiculous statistic like Rovers hadn’t lost with him on the pitch. I truly believe one of Mowbray’s biggest mistakes at the helm was to allow Downing to go out on loan to Doncaster last January without the option to recall him – with him at the back when we succumbed to a number of injuries after the Brentford game I’m sure we would’ve picked up more points and the run not been as terrible. At 27, Downing still has a number of good years left in him and I can’t see him having been on massive wages, so I can only assume Mowbray doesn’t see him as a starter every week so is letting him go so he can play first team football. Someone is going to get a bargain in Mr Reliable, Paul Downing.

In addition to those released, Rovers confirmed they are discussing potential stays for Craig Conway, Jack Rodwell and Ben Gladwin. Conway has been Mr Consistent for Rovers since his arrival from Cardiff and in particular Rovers have turned to him during bad runs, knowing what they are going to get: 100%, quality balls in to the box, and someone putting a shift in going both ways down the wing. He is another I believe is being allowed to leave to get more football than he would likely have seen at Ewood next season. Ben Gladwin is a strange one as he’s never had a run in the side and my only memory of him is blazing the ball over when confronted with an open goal 8 yards in front of the Blackburn End, akin to Ashley Ward against Manchester United. I don’t see him being at the club this time next year which tells me he’ll be given a contract to get fit and will probably then be out of the door.

Which brings us to Jack Rodwell. I wasn’t sure about Rodwell when he came in, but as long as his wages were sensible and he didn’t upset the apple cart, I thought he was an interesting signing. He’s proved to be a good option both at the back and in midfield, and I think he was treated harshly by the Sunderland Netflix documentary. At 28 he still has years left in him and as a free transfer, and on the right money, he isn’t a bad squad utility player. I can only think we are in discussions about new deals because he wants more money than we are willing to give him, or he is interested in the rumours of a move to Serie A with Torino or Sassuolo. He did a job last year and I don’t think many Rovers fans will see him in the same light as those at Sunderland did.

There reported to be some 130 players who are out of contract and played in the Championship last year, and I think Mowbray will look to exploit this market. As touched upon earlier I believe we need to strengthen at centre half, both full backs, a central midfielder to push Travis, Evans, Smallwood and replaced the outgoing Reed, a striker to take the weight off Danny Graham, and an experienced goalkeeper to push Raya.

Looking at the published lists of free agents, names like David Marshall (age 34) and Kieren Westwood (also age 34) stand out as potential experience who could be brought in on short-term deals to help develop and take the pressure off Raya (and Leutwiler to an extent). Looking across the back four, and Martin Cranie could provide experience at right back and give an option at centre half at 32 with over 300 appearances to his name, as could former Brentford right back, Moses Odubajo, 25 with 112 Championship appearances.

Moving in to midfield and two players who interest me but would have to be on the right wages are Villa’s Mila Jedinak (34) and Glenn Whelan (35) who are both available and are both a nightmare to play against; they also know how to get in the play-offs and would provide steel in midfield. Jedinak could also be an option at centre half as well. Other available midfielder of note include Bradley Johnson (32), Chris Brunt (34) and Wes Hoolahan (37). I’m not too sure whether Stewart Downing would improve the squad considering he would be on a decent wage, especially considering we’ve let Conway go.

Finally, further up the pitch, Frazier Campbell (31) is available after a somewhat less impact-full second spell with Hull and he has always been an enigma to me. He had a great record during his first spell (on loan) with Hull but has failed to live up to that reputation since – he’s an option as someone to take the load off Danny Graham, but I think we would be better giving Brereton, Samuel or Nuttall the chance, and possibly looking abroad for other options. The last player to make the list is someone I don’t expect to end up at Ewood, but at the same time he is going to have to take a massive pay-cut and I can’t see anyone higher up than the Championship being interested in him – Ross McCormack (32). Last seen doing a world tour after claiming his gates at home had broken preventing him making it to training, he has since spent loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Motherwell, scoring 16 goals in 32 appearances. It comes as no surprise that he has been released by Villa especially after the rumours that despite no involvement in their promotion season, he was set to receive a pay-rise to £75k a week – I very much doubt he’ll get half of that wherever he ends up, but with his stock so low at the minute, there are worse options if the numbers are right.

“If the numbers are right” is a phrase I think we’ll hear a lot this summer. Mowbray obviously sees an opportunity for Rovers to have a good go at making the top 6 but I think he is a sensible man who is all to aware of the financial restrictions Rovers must work within; and the club are all too familiar of what happens when you bet the farm on promotion. Rovers need to be looking at building on the good young squad that they currently have, seasoning it with some experienced pros – but those that come in must be on sensible money, maybe even incentivised deals, and they must be committed to the cause – the last thing Rovers need is spending money we don’t necessarily have on has-been mercenaries after one last pay check (cough* Danny Murphy cough*). When you look at the teams who’ll compete in the Championship next season, there isn’t anyone you look at and think “they’ll run away with it”, and similarly there aren’t any teams you think Rovers can’t beat, so there is a real opportunity for Blackburn to make a mark next season.

You never know.

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End of Season Review 2018-19

As the curtain falls on another football season Blackburn Rovers must be pleased with their final standing in the league.

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As the curtain falls on another football season Blackburn Rovers must be pleased with their final standing in the league.

Reaching 60 points and finding themselves closer to the play-offs (14 points) than the relegation zone (20 points) in the first season back in the second tier is an achievement, not to mention finishing the highest placed of the promoted teams and above the likes of Stoke City who had been tipped for promotion. Some fans wanted a tilt at double promotion especially after such a positive start, but realistically, anything other than survival and stability this season is a bonus. The club are back to the level they arguably should be at this moment in time, and to secure survival with games to spare shows how good a job Tony Mowbray has done in his two and a half years at the club. It would have been nice to get the winner our second half performance against Swansea arguably deserved so we would have finished above Preston, but on day one of the season I would have happily taken finishing 21st on goal difference.

Making the play offs looks like it wasn’t too far off on paper, but anyone who has watched Rovers this season will tell you that the number of late goals conceded this term was ultimately what cost them a run at extending the season, as well as the number of goals conceded in general away from home. Probably my biggest criticism of Mowbray from the season has been how we start chasing games, particularly away from home, when we go behind, making multiple changes in personnel and formation, only for the game to get further away from us. On a number of occasions, we would concede at around the hour mark and instead of keeping it tight for 10-15 minutes, Mowbray would throw an attacker on or change formation to make us more attacking, only for our defensive frailties to be exposed. The away game at Brentford for me was the turning point: two goals up away from home and on a decent run would have given momentum and belief to a play-off push but to end up losing the game 5-2 and picking up injuries to key players ended up with Rovers looking downwards with growing concern rather than upwards.

Mowbray put his faith in the players that got him promoted and stuck with them for large parts of the season, but as we entered the final third of the campaign and with a poor run of results meaning relegation was a possibility, he changed his team and picked players on current form and ability, rather than his loyalty – and this is something I expect to continue as we prepare for next season. He was right to repay the players who got us promoted, but he was also right to change things when he had to, and this can only be seen as a positive. Looking at the Swansea game and it was good to see the likes of Chapman and Davenport get some game time, following on from Brereton’s recent start also.

The average age of the squad for the Swansea game was just 24 and when you factor in the outliers of Conway, Graham and Mulgrew, that age is even more impressive. It is also a sign that the future is bright for the club. Most of those youngsters have proved that they can at least compete at the Championship level, and with the right experienced heads in amongst them, there is every chance we could make a tilt at the play-offs next season. We do need to strengthen though, and nowhere more so than at the back. Williams and Lenihan have formed a good partnership at the back over the last few weeks and although it pains me to say it, I don’t think Mulgrew is good enough as a centre half at this level, at least not anymore. I think earlier in the season Mowbray played him for his set pieces and attacking contributions, but it is no good scoring 2 and conceding 3. He will be a good backup next season but I think we need someone in their mid to late twenties, with experience, to come in and marshal the defence and provide some stability – I think letting Downing go out on loan is what killed our season, but it shows Mowbray doesn’t perhaps see him as the solution, so I’d expect a new centre half in over the summer. I’d also expect at least a new right back or left back – time again this season sides have exploited our full backs. My opinion is that Bell isn’t up to the task as he doesn’t sense danger and doesn’t provide enough going forwards. Nyambe on the other hand has the potential to be a very good right back so I’d expect to see more of him next season, especially having signed a new contract recently. If I was playing Championship Manager, I’d be looking for a DC and D (R/L/C) to provide cover across the back four.

Mowbray’s experiment with Leutwiler will have told him that he isn’t the answer in goal – he has made some good saves, but they have been right at him, and he has looked painfully low getting down to shots either side. David Raya is for me undoubtedly the future for Rovers in the number one position, but he needs to be pushed by someone with more experience. Like the last time we got promoted back to the Premier League when we had the old head of Friedel coming in, I’d like to see us bring in an experienced keeper to take the heat off Raya and to help with his progression. I don’t like the idea of Joe Hart or Scott Carson, but someone along the lines of John Ruddy wouldn’t be a bad signing.

Further up the pitch I think this season has proved a step too far for Richie Smallwood and although you can never question his effort, I think he lacks the quality required to impact games going forward in the Championship. Apart from a couple of patchy performances in the final weeks of the season (by patchy I’m referring to his passing and nothing else), Travis has looked to be the find of the season and adds the quality Smallwood lacks whilst keeping his energy and combative nature. I think we need another central midfielder who can break games up but also contribute going forward – providing the backbone for a young and pacey attacking corp. Rothwell has been impressive towards the end of the season when given game time and he always looks to move us up the pitch when he gets the ball. Add in to that mix the pace of Armstrong and Chapman and we could be very dangerous on the counter attack next season.

Although at times this season, I’ve criticised Dack, his stats speak for themselves and 18 goals and 7 assists in his first season at this level is a fantastic return which will attract interest in the summer. My advice to Dack would be to think about the teams that are interested and whether he would get the permission to play in a relatively free number 10 role. Any Premier League club interested in him is unlikely to play with a 10 the way we do with Dack, which will result in him either being played deeper in central midfield, out wide or up top, and that is a waste of his talent. If he keeps his head-down and works hard clubs won’t be able to buy him and play him out of position. Hopefully he’ll give us at least one more season.

Danny Graham deservedly won player of the season and he has worked hard for it. He’s proved me wrong yet again as I thought he’d jump ship when we went down to League One and I didn’t think he’d be up to it back in the Championship. As an aging striker so many younger players could learn from his work rate and performances on the pitch, and it is testament to how well he as played that he is arguably the most important player in the team – so much of our game relays on his efforts at the top of the pitch and the way he brings players in to the game from midfield. Ben Brereton looks to be the future up front and there is no one better for him to learn from; starting by getting on the weights and bulking up so he’s not as easily brushed off the ball. His goal against Bolton shows he has pace and ability and let’s not forget he’s still only 20 years old – if you forget about the price tag, he is another exciting youngster. It will be interesting to see how Dominic Samuel comes back as well after what will be almost a full 12 months, he could like getting a new signing. Given the question marks about Samuel after his injury and the lack of Championship experience in the youngsters, I’d like to see us move for an established striker to take some of the load off Graham – someone like a Shane Long, who I thought would be available given his poor scoring record in recent seasons in the Premier League, but then went on a scoring streak, so maybe he won’t be available now, or not at the price and wages we would like him to be. It will also be good to see Dan Butterworth get some more game time as he looked like another exciting youngster coming through when he came on against Bolton.

When we went down to League One, I thought it was a good time to put our faith in youth but if we could blood them in to a winning team in the Championship that would be even better. Recent media has said that the Academy costs around £3m each year to continue running and you have to acknowledge that the owners didn’t look to cut this cost when we got relegated. It only takes a couple of good prospects to come through and be sold for decent money (or help us get promoted) and the Academy has paid for itself. I’m interested to see how the likes of Butterworth, Magloire, Grayson, Buckley and Rankin-Costello can progress next season if given their chance in the first team – just look at how well Travis has done this year since coming in.

In my opinion the best team I’ve seen at Ewood this season was Sheffield United by a long way, so I’m pleased they got promoted. They also got dealt a bad hand the last time they were in the top flight, and with Chris Wilder in charge they have a very good manager; I’m also pleased for Billy Sharp to get his chance at the top level, he’s been through a lot but he has always scored goals and his moved at Ewood caused us no end of problems.

Where should we be aiming next season? The pessimist in me says anything other than relegation is a good season, but I can also see the potential this squad has, and I’d hope for us to be pushing for the play-offs at the end of next season. If you look back at the points we dropped late on from winning positions this season, those 14 points may not be too difficult to make up. Ultimately, I think we may fall short, but it would be good to have a real go and look upwards for a season rather than over our shoulder at relegation – get to 40 points and then see where we can go. If we don’t quite make it next season it will be another year of experience for a young squad and we can look to the following season. What we don’t want to do is gamble the future of the club on new signings to get us promoted (like in the Kean era when we gambled and spent big on the likes of Best, Murphy and Etuhu, which still cripples the club financially to this day). I trust Mowbray to get it right and bring in the right kind of player whilst also introducing some of the Academy products in to the first team. I also trust that the Venkys appreciate how good a job Mowbray is doing and don’t get trigger happy should we not start the season on fire (look at how close Daniel Farke was to the sack earlier in the season and how they ended). They continue to bankroll the club and finance the debt and Rovers supporters must realise that without them we would undoubtedly be the next Bolton. Yes, they have made mistakes in the past, but I truly believe they were badly advised by people motivated for personal gain, and they came in to it with their eyes closed (or blindfolded), but they obviously have ambitions and an affection for the club, or they wouldn’t continue to pump the money in. I think most fans who attend games know this, but it would be nice for those who still stay away to acknowledge this by returning to games next season – we need every bit of help we can get. The way Mowbray plays gets you out of your seat, and you can’t ask for more than that.

We’re (still) on our way back.

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Smells Like Team Spirit

Social media communication between, clubs, players and fans is common in today’s game and when things are going well it’s great, but when things aren’t going so well on the pitch it can be a dark dark place.

One of the many ways football has changed even in the last decade has been the advent of social media. It is a tool for two way communication – for fans to communicate with players, and for players to communicate with fans; but there are no filters, either way.

From the players side, there are countless stories like the one where Joleon Lescott “accidentally tweeted a picture of his expensive car from his pocket whilst driving” following a bad result (for anyone who has a smartphone, which is pretty much everyone, the phones aren’t that ‘smart’), which do nothing the make players more relatable to fans, or to dampen the stereotype that some players don’t care about clubs, results or performances. However, something Blackburn Rovers have got very right is social media and building that relationship and communication between players and fans – bridges that needed to be re-built following years of mistrust and silence. We are now accustomed daily videos tweeted by the club, and general banter between the players on twitter visible to all.

As with all clubs and players, following every game we get the obligatory tweets from players about how happy/disappointed they are with the result, and always how amazing the fans where (again). I used to think this was a standard post sat in every players draft box ready for posting at 5pm every Friday (minus the “say something like” faux pas made famous by Victor Anichebe), but I, probably like fans of every club, have been suckered in to thinking that Rovers players do actually care and they do notice the support and care about the result and performance – call me an optimist, or an idiot (you decide).

I feel at Ewood Park we really do have a good team spirit and this is outwardly visible through both the individuals posts on Twitter and Instagram, and also there demeanour and attitudes toward the club and each other on the content posted by official club channels; I just don’t think you can fake it that much, so often, you’d get caught out at some point. Look at the jokes and comments between the likes of Dack, Armstrong and Chapman, and the videos and photographs of players heading to Las Vegas after the promotion last season – there is a real team spirit there, and a team spirit which ha probably influenced the likes of Armstrong and Chapman resigning for the club on permanent deals.

The club have definitely rebuilt that social media bridge and the outcome has been incredibly positive, impacting performances and results on the pitch. But it is a two way thing.

After a victory, social media is a bright and shiny happy place with players high-fiving each other, sharing videos of goals; and fans talking of how far a team can go this season, how good a player is and players on their performances. But visit Twitter after a loss and it is a very dark place indeed. Gone on the high fives and congratulations, replaced by tweets about where we are poor and need to strengthen, what the faults of the team are and even tweets aimed at specific players to tell them how poor they have been (regardless of the praise sent their way the last time the team won).

In the 12 hours following defeat, Twitter may be the darkest footballing place on the planet. Players know when they have been poor and I truly believe they know when they have not got what they should from a game. The last thing they need is a teenage brat with a sense of entitlement telling them they were poor and how they need to find a new club. The amount of times I have come away from a defeat and thought “yes we’ve got beat which is disappointing, but I don’t think I could ask anymore of the players and their efforts”, only to head on to Twitter to be confronted by ‘fans’ who must have watched a different game.

The dangerous thing with social media is people only post when they are either elated with joy, or upset with something – there is not middle ground. The other problems with Twitter are that a large percentage of active users is 25 to 34 year olds, and the ability to send any content of 280 characters to anyone with an account. Hypothetically speaking, a 5 year old who has never attended a football match in their life, or know what football even is, could send a message to a young professional footballer,who may be low on confidence anyway, and tell them they are the worst player they have ever seen and they have no future in the game.

Fans at Ewood have become so used to winning ways under Tony Mowbray that they have a sense of entitlement that we should be winning every game; tie that in with an underlying feeling of some fans that we are still the Jack Walker-built team of the nineties and we should in the upper echelons of the Premier League, and after a loss (even a first defeat in 5) if you only logged on Twitter to see how the game had gone you would think we had waved a white flag when the first whistle was blown, the players hadn’t broke sweat and relegation was a certainty. In reality, we are a team newly promoted from the 3rd tier still finding our feet in a higher division, sat 15 points above relegation with 14 games to go – a bit of realism and reflection is what is needed after full time, not a full blown Twitter rant about how unrealistic expectations aren’t being met.

Social media is a two way thing. From a players point of view, you come off the pitch having given everything, and let’s say we’ve been sucker punched by a late goal or on the end of a bad refereeing decision; you get back in the dressing room, shower, change and pull out your phone only to see tweets like: “x isn’t good enough”, “x isn’t fit to wear the shirt” or “that performance is disgraceful”. More than likely the impact is going to be negative and potential affect future performances and attitude, and worse still, impact upon that great team spirit. It is very short minded from the so called fans to vent that frustration.

It’s not too long ago at Blackburn Rovers that we had an endless line of loan mercenaries with no real interest for who they played for just that they got some game time whilst they were unwanted by their parent clubs; at one time there were so many so many at the club it was difficult to remember who we owned and who we didn’t, and very few of them made any lasting impact. Things are different now and we have players at the club who want to be here and are working together with a common goal of making us a better team and moving us up the league.

A case in point regarding the idiocy in Twitter was after the Reading game midweek – yes it is a game we should have won on paper, but history tells us these are the sort of games (where the opposition hasn’t won for months) that we do lose, and you don’t win games on paper. If you’d logged on to Twitter after the game you would have thought we hadn’t turned up and that we’d been outplayed and outmuscled. When, in fact, we were the far better team for 75-80 minutes, but undone by a late goal in the first half and then a quick counter late in the second after equalising. Mowbray’s team selection dropping Dack, Graham and Reed has been questioned, but in my opinion the decision to take Dack and Graham out and play with a central three in midfield and use Armstrong’s pace over the top worked in the first half as we dominated the game for large spells, but could fashion a clear cut chance or take the half chances that fell to us. Conceding right on half time a was a killer – the defending for the goal was poor, but it was the only time in the half they had a sniff. Then we have to change it in the second half to get back in to it, which we ultimately do, but by which stage we are so attack-focussed one decent cross field ball tears us open and a very good punch suckers us once again. Mowbray was right in saying he was be,used we got nothing out of the game as we did boss it for large parts, but just couldn’t fashion the chances. We haven’t had a great record away from home all season, but the win at Millwall looked to be a blueprint for the performance on Wednesday, opting for bodies in the middle to prevent the threat and then the pace of Armstrong, Conway and Brereton on the counter, and I honestly believe if we’d got to half time either level or ahead we would have gone on the win the game, brining Dack off the bench for creativity late on in th same way we brought Armstrong and his pace on at Millwall. Don’t be fooled by twitter reports of an “appalling” or “disgraceful” performance, it most definitely was not, it’s just as happens so often in football, the team that deserves to win does not.

For now we sit 14th in the league, 15 points above relegation with 14 games to go. There has been talk of play offs but this season is about survival and building for next season when a play off run may be more realistic and prepared for. We need to finish the season positively both on and off the pitch to enable us to build for next year, so if you’ve got negative thoughts after a game, leave your phone at home and go for a beer rather than venting on social media.

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Expectation Vs Optimism

As another Transfer Window closes with little more than a breeze of activity, it was a similar story at Ewood Park with just one semi-new face coming through the door. In some Rovers fans eyes this was a missed opportunity to kick on for the play-offs, but ultimately, was keeping the cheque book in the pocket and the fax machine switched off a more sensible approach?

deadline day

As another Transfer Window closes with little more than a breeze of activity, it was a similar story at Ewood Park with just one semi-new face coming through the door. In some Rovers fans eyes this was a missed opportunity to kick on for the play-offs, but ultimately, was keeping the cheque book in the pocket and the fax machine switched off a more sensible approach?

Following four league wins on the bounce Blackburn Rovers headed in to the last day of the transfer window in a lofty 8th position just 3 points off the play offs. For many Rovers fans this was an opportunity to spend some cash and really make a push for the play offs. Harry Chapman had come back through the door, followed by rumours of interest in the likes of Britt Assombalonga and Charlie Austin. At the time I thought: “Assombalonga would be a great signing, but I bet he’s on a packet” and the same for Charlie Austin; I also thought Austin was more than capable of still doing a job in the Premier League, not to mention his former Burnley connection. In the end, Chapman was the only new face (back) through the door, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As deadline day progressed, I heard of how Cardiff couldn’t afford Austin’s wages, and found it highly unlikely that we would be able to offer more than a Premier League side. Then mid-afternoon I saw comments from Mowbray saying: “In January the numbers seen ridiculously high for the players we’ve asked about, particularly players in our division. I didn’t know (those salary levels) existed”, adding “Yet, there they are, that’s what you’re quoted and you have to put in to some sort of realism that we’re miles short salary levels of what some clubs are paying their players” – I think these comments in particular are aimed at the potential Assombalonga deal, and pretty much put the nail in the coffin of any further deals getting done.

Yes, we are very short of experienced Championship strikers behind Danny Graham and it would have been nice to bring some back-up in for him; but ultimately, I’m more pleased with the comments from the Manager. In other instances, even at Ewood, Manager’s have seen the chance of investing in January to push for the play-offs and gone for it, without a thought or care for the long-term repercussions financially for the club – we’ve even done it in the Summer before (think: Danny Murphy; Dickson Etuhu; Leon Best etc etc) – and where did it get us? In to League One, massively in debt after years of transfer embargoes and players at the club taking home a wage without really wanting to be here. It’s refreshing and reassuring to see a manager put the club, and even the town, first ahead of a gamble at quick success. I’ve said it before, Mowbray is the best thing to happen to this club, especially in its hour of most need – he understands the financial barriers the club has to operate within and the risks both short term and long term of outspending our means.

What spending the money on players with astronomical wages also risks doing is upsetting the apple-cart. We have a tight-knit squad with a great team spirit which will win us points alone this season. The last thing we need is someone coming in on big money, breaking the wage structure and leaving established players disgruntled asking why their efforts for the club haven’t been rewarded with the same money.

In years to come we may look back and this may be seen as our best chance to push for promotion; but equally, in a sliding doors moment, we could have spent the money and look back in a couple of years time, back in League One, struggling with loan signings and think “why did we splash that money and risk all the good work on and off the pitch for one shot at promotion?”. I truly think that buy not overspending in this window, and probably others in the future, we are giving ourselves a better chance at future success built sustainably where in years to come we will be able to compete financially in this division – it might be a few years off, but we are heading in the right direction on and off the pitch.

We also need to remember where we are and where we have come from – following this weekends game against Brentford we are sat in 11th position on 43 points, 18 points above the relegation places – almost two years ago we were relegated to League One at the Griffin Park. This is our first season back up in the 2nd tier. We need to be realistic – survival has to be the aim this season, anything else is a bonus. Which raises the issue of expectations versus optimism. Expectation is a dangerous thing, when you start expecting things and you fail the fall is twice as hard. If we start expecting to be winning games and challenging for the play offs and promotion, when we don’t achieve these things, we make stupid decisions. If we expect to be challenging for promotion and we aren’t, people will forget how far we have come in the last two years and start asking for change at the club. We need to remember the dark days under Lambert and Coyle and how far we have come since then – it wasn’t that long ago and we could quickly end up back there. If by some chance we make the play offs this season we need to treat it as a learning experience, not a chance we have to take; the last thing we need is a play off run and defeat in the final and then some sections of the fans to start thinking we should have gone up and the season has been a failure; likewise, the following season can’t start with the expectation or ultimate end goal that we have achieve promotion – stupid decisions get made with that thinking. Similarly, if we do go up, the best way to approach the Premier League would be to enjoy the experience but ultimately use it as a learning curve for the players, and more importantly, as a financial platform to get the club properly back on its feet again.

In comparison, what Rovers need now is to continue that feeling of optimism that has got us to the top half of the Championship and has made us potential play off candidates. If we’re optimistic the future continues to look bright, and any success you have is brilliant and enjoyed; any set back you have is just that, a set back, not the end of the road and not a failure. Turn up every week optimistic and you get behind the team and push them on for the win; turn up expectant and you could be booing your team off at half time and getting on players backs – and that helps no-one.

Back to the transfer window and although we only saw Chapman come in, having Travis be given his chance in the first team, and seeing Nuttall come back with goals and Rodwell showing what he can do is ultimately like having three new signings, without the transfer fees or risks of dressing room unrest. As for back-up for Graham, I would much rather see Nuttall and Brereton given a chance should we be without Graham at any stage, it also gives Samuel something to aim aim at to come back for the end of the season. Let’s be honest, 43 points with 18 games to go, we should be safe (we would be safe already based on last seasons standings and again in 2015-16, only our points return in 2016-17 getting relegated with 51 points bucks the trend), so why not give Nuttall and Brereton a run if we need to do?

Without doubt the most disappointing part of transfer deadline week was the game at Brentford. To go two goals up in the first ten minutes and to end up losing 5-2 is a massive disappointment. Brentford are a good side, but when you go two goals up away from home, the least you should come away with is a point. I know injuries played their part in the changes, but one of my only criticisms/frustrations with Mowbray is the number of changes he makes when we go behind in a second half away from home. He reminds me of my younger self playing Championship Manager – tight game for an hour then I’d concede, so I’d throw all my attacking players on and change my formation, the outcome usually being conceding another two or three before the final whistle. Too many times this season – I can think of Bristol City, Swansea, Sheffield United and Brentford today for a start – we have made changes and ended up conceding more goals. In my opinion we are guilty of changing to many things in a short space of time, when we may be better off leaving things as they are for 5-10 minutes and getting a foothold back in the game. Again, I know the changes with Dack and Graham today where forced by injury, but go like for like with Nuttall and Rothwell, not Conway and then change it again a few minutes later. We have conceded more goals away from home than any other side in the top half of the Championship and I think this has a lot to do with it. Our goal difference was also starting to look better, but that has been blown out of the water again now.

At the end of the day, we are very well placed both for survival in the division and also for a run at the play-offs. The fact we have dropped at least 22 points from winning positions this season probably tells the story that we aren’t ready for promotion yet; but it shows us that the signs are there for a bright future.

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Rovers ’til I Die

The recent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” gave a great insight in to the goings-on inside a struggling football club, a stark contrast to the Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series which focussed on the record-breaking Manchester City season last year. Most supporters of football clubs outside the top division will probably be able to relate more to the Sunderland documentary rather than the Manchester City one – and none more so than Blackburn Rovers fans.

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The recent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” gave a great insight in to the goings-on inside a struggling football club, a stark contrast to the Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series which focussed on the record-breaking Manchester City season last year. Most supporters of football clubs outside the top division will probably be able to relate more to the Sunderland documentary rather than the Manchester City one – and none more so than Blackburn Rovers fans.

As someone who lived in Sunderland for four years and has many friends who are season ticket holders at the Stadium of Light, I do have a soft-spot for the side, and I have seen the pain and anguish their fans have felt as they’ve dropped from the Premier League down to League One in the space of 12 months. I can relate to them as well, having seen Blackburn Rovers make the same journey, albeit at a slower rate. Blackburn have been down to League One and come back from it, and my advice to Sunderland fans when they were relegated to the third tier was that it did Rovers a world of good: drop down a division so only the people who want to be there (players and fans) are there, start winning games, get momentum, and start a fresh. Put simply, my advice was “you’ll love it in League One, win some games, good away days and build from there”.

Despite lacking trophy laden success over the past few decades, there is no denying that the north-east of England is a hotbed of football – both in terms of the support for its clubs and also the talent it produces. Especially in the nineties and noughties you could always expect a cracking atmosphere at both the Stadium of Light and St James’ Park as passionate fans got behind their teams. For a while at the turn of the century I was of the belief that England should seriously look at playing more of the meaningful international games up there as the tremendous support would almost be like having a twelfth man on the pitch. Over time though, as the Premier League has become more and more money orientated the impact that support had upon results has diminished as the impact of spending power has grown.

Take Sunderland for example, under Ellis Short they spent the money to match the passion of the fan-base, but could never make that next step up and challenge for Europe and honours. Down the A19, Mike Ashley came in helped the club financially and even ploughed money in to the club when they were relegated. The problem comes when the tap is turned off and the owners decide they are no longer putting money in to a club, and in the football world you never stand still – you either invest to go forward, or you get left behind and go backwards. You can look at Aston Villa in the same light and look what has happened to them. At Blackburn we weren’t even afforded the excuse of the money tap being turned off, in anything, more money was put in to the club, we unfortunately just did it at a time when bad decisions where being made and the club was being mismanaged to the hilt.

What really came across in the Netflix documentary was the passion of the Sunderland fans; the way the whole week built towards a match day and regardless of form or goings on off the pitch, they had that optimism of 3 points that all football fans should have as 3pm on a Saturday approaches, even though at times it looked as though relegation was an inevitability rather than a possibility. Newcastle fans may have mocked their Mackem counterparts in the Checkatrade trophy tie this past week by singing “We saw you crying on Netflix” but without Rafa Benitez in charge I don’t think their fate would be much different.

It is a shame what has happened to Sunderland and Newcastle over the past few years, they have some of the most passionate fans and in the past have provided fantastic value for money for the Premier League, but they have been failed by the stewards of their clubs. I don’t like or agree with the phrase “they deserve better” because in football nobody deserves anything, you have to work for it; but two strong and competitive north-east teams is good for football and the sooner the situation changes up there the better.

Sunderland seem to be going in the right direction with the club having been sold by Ellis Short to an international consortium of investors – and I think this was done at the right time. They had just confirmed their relegation to League One and couldn’t possibly have been at a lower point. By selling the club before the last game of the season that sense of optimism of a righter future and that things could get better looks to have acted as a catalyst for them to bounce back, and more. In their last game of the season they beat Championship Winners 3-0 and where watched by a crowd of over 28,000. This season so far they average a home attendance of over 32,000, in League One. They have rightly addressed the problem many of the bigger clubs face with relegation, the wage bill, and look to be building more sustainably now than when cash was being thrown at it by Ellis Short – the days of spending £13.6m on Didier N’Dong and £10m on Darren Bent are gone. If they can get back up to the top division in a sustainable manner, although no-one wants to be relegated, if it happens and you are working to a sustainable business model you can manage it and look to bounce back (as Sunderland did before the days of Short), rather than panicking buying players to survive and then being tied to the extortionate wages of the likes of Jack Rodwell. If you look at Newcastle’s spending over the last year, they remained in the Premier League in their first season following promotion and are well placed again this season to survive, but actually made a profit. Although I believe a lot of that is down to Benitez, it does beg the question whether Ashley is doing a good job and it is unrealistic expectations of the fans at a time when spending money can put the club on the knife-edge between success and disaster; maybe a look past the Angel of the North to Sunderland and what happened to them despite spending the money they want Ashley to spend may be worth a cautionary glance to see what ‘could’ happen if money was spent. For the record, I don’t think either Newcastle or Sunderland need to spend big, as I’ll come on to, just getting rid of someone despised by the fans, especially in such a senior position at the club as Ashley or Short, can be worth millions in how it changes the atmosphere around the club and the fans and changes the dynamic of the club moving forwards.

Looking back at the Netflix documentation, one of the key messages and situations which was made blatantly clear was the lack of money both for transfer fees to invest in new players and for wages to pay these players. So much of Sunderland’s activity in the transfer windows during last season relied on bringing players in on loan and moving players around to be able to pay the wages. The problem comes when you have a player on a good number who contractually doesn’t have to leave, and won’t leave of their own accord as they know they’ll never get as good a deal elsewhere – it’s not the fault of the player that they have been offered such a stupid contract with high wages which aren’t affected by relegation, it’s the fault of the clubs for offering that contract. Yes, the player should have a moral obligation and a personal desire to play every week and be the best players they can be, but a footballers career is limited and they have to potentially make the money to last them a lifetime. Loan signings are brilliant if they add quality to a squad and improve a team, but ultimately they have to want to be there, otherwise they just become a number drain on resources, team spirit and confidence. Yes Chris Martin may have been a good signing for Sunderland, but if he didn’t want to be there you’d be better (and cheaper) playing die hard Sunderland fan Callum off the street. I don’t know the statistics but I’d be surprised if there was any trend for teams bringing in players on loan and then being successful in keeping a team up. However, bring a player in on loan to complete a confident side on a good run and I bet the results are completely different.

Look at Rovers: during the Kean/Berg/Appleton/Bowyer/Lambert era we had no end of young players in on loan who just failed to make an impact (think Doneil Henry, Matt Grimes, Mo Barrow, DJ Campbell, Kerim Rekik, Cameron Stewart, Luke Varney, Liam Feeney), very few made continuous positive contributions to the side, arguably only Danny Graham, Rudi Gestede, Danny Guthrie and Jordi Gomez. Look at players brought in when we were doing well (using last season as an example) such as Adam Armstrong and Jack Payne and they made a real contribution to get promotion over the line – the difference being that they came in to add to an already good team with positive spirit, rather than being the great white hope of survival. Ashley Fletcher when he signed for Sunderland was 23 and had scored 6 goals in 59 appearances, albeit it a good chunk of those may have been from the bench, it is hardly the form that you pin your survival hopes to, regardless of how excited Chris Coleman was by the signing. You could see from the moment he missed that chance on the documentary his confidence was shot – what Sunderland needed was someone to score from day one of being played, without that it’s another dropped head around the club. Back in 2012 we signed Anthony Modeste on loan from Bordeaux and although he failed to score in his 9 appearances, on his debut he won a penalty early and wanted to take it. David Dunn took the ball and missed – hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had Modeste got off to a flyer you never know, his goals may have kept us up (it is also worth pointing out that Modeste has gone on to score 74 goals in 159 appearances for Bastia, Hoffenheim and FC Koln and earnt himself a rumoured €35m pound move to China, so the guy evidently had quality and the ability to score goals).

The similarities between the Sunderland club seen in the documentary and Blackburn Rovers in the pre-Mowbray days are there for all to see: no money, no confidence, fans turning on a team as soon as they go behind, fans wanting rid of the owners, scrounging around for loan players, seasons starting with optimism and ending in disaster. I’d go so far as to say had the documentary been focussed on Rovers under Owen Coyle in 2016-17, the negativity around the club would have been ten-fold. The documentary does open the door to fans to see just how difficult running a struggling football club can be, but that can also just increase the frustration from the fans. Although ultimately the documentary ends up being a negative one for Sunderland fans, it does end on a high note with the new owner and optimism – in a way it’s good the documentary had that end note and was released after the buyout, or else there would be nothing positive for the Sunderland fans to hold on to from a wretched season caught on tape.

Sunderland are currently sat in 3rd place in League One, a point off the automatic position and 5 points of league leader Portsmouth but with a game in hand on both – Sunderland also play Portsmouth at home on the last day of the season. Their attendances are phenomenal for the third tier and they are looking upwards for a change rather than the last half a decade of looking over their shoulders, or even staring relegation right in the eyes. The catalyst to this turnaround has to be the change of owner. When you look at Rovers I’m not too sure what the catalyst for our change in fortunes has been. When Owen Coyle was sacked in February 2017 with Rovers sat second-bottom of the Championship I think most Rovers fans had accepted relegation was going to happen. Removing Owen Coyle was the best decision the club could have made – any former Burnley manager is unlikely to be welcomed at Ewood Park as manager of Blackburn Rovers, but when you throw in his connections with Jerome Anderson, he was never going to be given any settling in period or benefits of the doubt; the fans had wanted him gone almost from the day he started. By relieving him of his position an air of negativity was lifted and for once it felt like the fans were being listened to and things might change at the top. Tony Mowbray wasn’t the name on most peoples, or anybody’s, lips when he was appointed, but at his first game at Burton Albion away there was somewhat of a party atmosphere and everyone got behind the team, there wasn’t one chant about the Venky’s I don’t think there have been many if any since. It wasn’t the incoming Mowbray that created this positive atmosphere, maybe it was just the resignation to accepting we were going to be relegated combined with the fact we had just got something we had all wanted, but I’m convinced any manager with no prior link to Burnley, Jerome Anderson or any of the other people linked to Rovers demise would have got the same reception – Mowbray hadn’t had a job since resigning from League One Coventry City 5 months earlier after a string of results without a win. It didn’t have to be Mowbray, but I’m so glad it was.

Since that moment everything has fallen in to place – results turned around and we almost stayed up, we had a fantastic season in League One and in doing so got the fans back on board behind a club that has players who look like they enjoy playing for the club and would run through brick walls for the badge. There is so much positivity around the club and, like Sunderland, for the first time in years we are looking upwards – maybe not to promotion (yet!) but at stability and growth. Had a documentary been done at Ewood during the Lambert/Coyle era and one done now, it would look like to different clubs even though only 3 years has passed. Last night against Millwall was a great example of how far we’ve come – in years gone by we would have defended resolutely but succumbed to a late goal and lost; Mowbray had the tactical awareness to know we couldn’t go to The New Den and try and play our style of football, we had to dig deep and battle it out for 90 minutes and try and create something with our quality, which he did with very good substitutions, using Adam Armstrong’s key attribute his pace. Signing Mowbray up to a new long term contract until 2022 gives him a platform to continue to build this team and look to the future. We’d all love to be back in the Premier League but it has to be at the right time so that we don’t make bad decisions that we end up paying for for another decade. I’m pretty sure for the meantime most Rovers fans would just be happy to see that commitment and passion on the pitch that we have grown to expect continue.

I’d say this to Sunderland fans – relegation to League One can feel like the end of the world, but under the right conditions it can be a platform to build on, almost a re-birth for the club. Remember the feeling of winning and enjoying going to the football every week and visit some of the ground you may not have visited for a while or even been to before – at the end of the season if you achieve promotion and a club you are proud of again, it is definitely worth the one-year hiatus from the Championship. I for one would love to see us playing Sunderland in the Championship again next season.

 

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Mowbray’s First Real Test

Disappointing losses away to local rivals Preston and Wigan have left Rovers with just one win in six, and what was turning in to a season of optimism for a play-off run is in danger of false-starting and turning in to a relegation battle. Mowbray has been in charge for 21 months and has seen the team relegated and then promoted, but the current situation could be his biggest challenge at Ewood.

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Disappointing losses away to local rivals Preston and Wigan have left Rovers with just one win in six, and what was turning in to a season of optimism for a play-off run is in danger of false-starting and turning in to a relegation battle. Mowbray has been in charge for 21 months and has seen the team relegated and then promoted, but the current situation could be his biggest challenge at Ewood.

In the words of 1993 Graham Taylor: “This is a test”. With just one win in six dropping Rovers down the league to 13th and the bottom half some 5 points of the play-off places, the period running up to and including Christmas could be the most crucial and difficult of his Rover reign to date.

When Mowbray took over in February 2017 Rovers were deep in the mire and many fans had already resigned themselves to relegation – yes, he was under pressure to try and save us, but the damage had been done by Coyle’s time in charge and there was very little by way of expectation of avoiding relegation.

Rewind to August 2017 and although there was pressure on Mowbray to achieve an immediate return to the Championship and an expectation that he would achieve it, given the players and squad that we had, it was a test, but one that Mowbray would have felt comfortable of passing.

What Mowbray faces now, as Rovers seem to have lost all momentum, is his biggest test to date – he has to halt a slide before it turns in to a full-on relegation battle. Perhaps most worrying from the display against Wigan was the lack of heart and commitment – something Rovers fans have come to expect as a bare-minimum. From the middle of the first half it looked as though the majority of the eleven had been booked the way they were avoiding 50/50s and shirking challenges. Mowbray had promised a reaction following the defeat to Preston, but we are still waiting for it.

In the same way winning breeds confidence, losses result in the loss confidence, and the losing run needs to end as soon as possible. Rovers sit 9 points above the relegation zone, but in a league where you regularly play 3 games in 7 days, with a week we could find ourselves deep in the mire, with the heavy Christmas schedule only serving to heighten the importance of stopping the rot. Three games in a week though also means three wins in a week could propel us up the league and all will be forgotten.

Perhaps Mowbray’s saving grace is that the two defeats have come away from home and the next game sees the side return to home comforts with a game against Sheffield Wednesday. It’s not the easiest of fixtures against a Sheffield Wednesday side with similar lack of form to Rovers – one win in seven and sitting 3 points and positions below Rovers in the table – but Rovers have to take advantage of the home support, and the home support needs to get behind the team. The last thing Rovers need is for the crowd to revert back to pre-Mowbray days and get on the players backs from the start – that said, Rovers need to be quicker out of the blocks than they have been recently.

The crowd can, and hopefully will, play their part in pushing Rovers towards a victory, but on the evidence of Wednesday’s loss to Wigan, other changes are required. Dack looks out of sorts, whether teams have worked out how to play him or whether Mowbray is asking too much from him to influence games, it just isn’t working at the minute; Bell looks a liability whenever he gets the ball – in the whole game against Wigan I think I only saw him complete passes with his head, and his stray pass resulting the third Wigan goal as we were pushing for an equaliser; the defence in general looked like they had never played together before at times against Wigan; and the fact Rovers haven’t won a league game by more than one goal all season shows the fact that we don’t score enough goals, which on more than one occasion has meant conceding late goals has cost us points – don’t get me wrong though, I’d take a scrappy 1-0 on Saturday. In my opinion now would be a good time to change things with a reshuffle.

We don’t score enough goals partly because we play with one striker and Dack just behind – if Dack to create or link up with Graham, which he hasn’t been doing, the number of chances we create are limited. Playing two defensive midfielders behind a 3 and 1 is supposed to offer protection for our defence, but we’ve conceded 7 in 2 games – this obviously isn’t working. A change in formation to a traditional 4-4-2 on Saturday might offer us more going forward with two focal points who can play off each other and two more old-fashioned-type wingers providing width and service to the two frontmen, whilst also offering more defensive cover tracking back. This would allow Mowbray to stick with the two defensive/battling midfielders but with the added support of wingers to track wide men rather than the two central players being pulled out wide.

What this change system would also necessitate is a change in personnel. If Lennihan is fit he obviously goes back in to the centre of defence alongside Mulgrew, which means Williams can slot back in at left back, taking Bell out of the limelight; if Lennihan isn’t fit I’d put Williams in at centre half and think about playing either Travis or Bennett or left back, with Nyambe on the opposite side. In the centre of the field I’d stick with Evans and Reed, and on the wings I’d bring in Conway – a player who gives his all every time he steps on to the pitch is exactly what we need, and he does the dirty work tracking back. On the opposite side, I’d give Rothwell a shot or Bennett if he isn’t in at full back or central midfield – the reason I wouldn’t opt for Armstrong is because, like others, I think he is struggling for form at the minute, and he also doesn’t offer as much defensively; that said, if he does start I wouldn’t be disappointed as he has been at his best when allowed to run at defences from wide positions. Then up top I’d play Graham and Brereton – Graham as the war horse and foil to win the headers, hold the ball up and play off whilst also drawing free-kicks; with a play alongside him he would no longer need to win the ball, hold it up and wait for player to support him. Although I don’t think Brereton is an out-and-out striker, he has influenced games more often than not when he has come off the bench – the only problem being he is brought on to score goals but more often than not he finds himself leaving that centre forward position in search of the ball and to create. By playing up front with another striker this would take the pressure off him and allow him to play his game – he has yet to start a game since joining from Nottingham Forest and this looks like the perfect opportunity for him and for Mowbray to make an impact, Sheffield Wednesday won’t be expecting it which can only be a good thing.

Nothing controversial there then, apart from the omission of Dack. Yes, Dack may be our top goal scorer and he may have been involved in the creation of more goals than anyone else, but in the last few weeks he has been off the boil and has contributed little. He has had to drop deep to pick the ball up and that places him far to far away from where he causes most damage. He has also suffered from being Mowbray’s go to man when things aren’t working, deploying him as a lone striker which hasn’t helped him have an impact. I’d take him out of the limelight and take the pressure off him a little, but I’d have him on the bench to give us an option to change it both in terms of players and systems. With that in mind I’d also have Armstrong and Palmer on the bench, giving us three players who can all change a game.

The losing streak needs to end as soon as possible, especially before the busy period, and the tricky tie away to Middlesbrough, as two defeats could quickly turn in to one win in ten by the time Christmas arrives (and Rovers travel to Leeds). We are in a position of opportunity – turn it around before Christmas and a good Christmas puts us on course for a play-off run; but fail to arrest the slide and the rest of the season turns in to the relegation dog fight no one wants.

Tony Mowbray’s record in charge of Rovers reads: played 92, won 45, drawn 29 and lost 18 giving a win percentage of almost 50%. That’s somewhat better than my win percentage as a professional football manager, so in Mowbray I’ll trust to steer the ship back on course.

Image source: https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/sport/17262770.match-report-wigan-athletic-3-blackburn-rovers-1/

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He scores when he wants…. but he does so much more

Danny Graham is enjoying an Indian Summer in his career, but are Blackburn Rovers too reliant on the 33 year old….

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Rovers currently sit 10th in the Championship, just 1 point outside of the play-offs, as we head in to the second International break of the season, and have lost just two of their opening 12 games. If you’d offered me that I would have snapped your hands off. It is a great start, but in the Championship, the 3 games-a-week slog means that you can quite easily fly up, or down, the table in the space of 7 days, so Rovers fans shouldn’t get carried away. However, having said that, Rovers have conceded late on more than one occasion this season to change 3 points in to 1 – if we’d held on to leads against Ipswich, Villa and Forest we would have another 6 points tallied up and be sitting in second place; but we mustn’t be picky, 10th place with only 2 losses in the opening 12 games in a fantastic return for any team, let alone one only recently promoted in to the division. What is a concern though is how reliant Rovers are on a 33 year old Danny Graham.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t think he would stay when we dropped in to League 1; and when we started the season with a flurry of goals from Dominic Samuel, I thought he would be surplus to requirements, too much of an expensive luxury. But he has proved me wrong. Instead of sulking about being on the bench in a league below what he had become accustomed to, he dug deep, gained his place back and became a key part of that promotion season, and is again showing his value to the club this season.

Looking at his career statistics, he has never been a phenomenal goalscorer, averaging a goal every 3 and a half games over his 475 game career. What he brings to the Rovers side is an incredible work-rate, especially for a player of his age. At 33 he chases down every ball, every goalkeeper passing out from the back and he challenges for every header. When a team plays against Danny Graham they know they have had a game. How he lasts 90 minutes at the intensity he does, at least once or twice every week is incredible – he must be cryogenically frozen after every game and then defrosted again ahead of the next. The work-rate he brings to the Rovers side is key to the way we play – he presses the defence and hassles every ball to win it back higher up the pitch; he wins the headers; and he drags defenders out of position, providing the gaps for the likes of Dack and Armstrong to capitalise. If you look at Nuttall, the 21 year old has showed some much promise for the Development Squad and in flashes for the first team last year, but he is a completely different player to Graham – he doesn’t chase balls down and you get the impression he needs the ball to him in front of goal to do something with it, he’s 12 years younger than Graham but he does half as much running. Dominic Samuel was very much the same at the start of last season but he was adopting the 100 miles an hour approach when he was ruled out for the season. We don’t really know what Brereton is like or capable of at the minute given we’ve only seem him in small chunks. If a 33 year old Danny Graham experiencing an Indian Summer isn’t enough to get inspire the younger players to follow the same approach, I don’t know what will.

What this does mean though is that Rovers have become somewhat dependant on a player who is aged 33 years and who no-one else in the squad is currently. He affects the way we play so much through his effort in chasing balls down, challenging and winning headers or free-kicks moving us up the pitch, and his efforts to bring other players in to the game. He doesn’t get the goals himself, but without him, we’d struggle to get goals from elsewhere on the pitch. When Graham doesn’t play and we have to rely on the likes of Armstrong or Nuttall up front on their own we don’t get the same hold-up play and it becomes and easier day for the oppositions defence, and an easier day for them to control games and start attacks – home or away – as shown in the Derby away game. Brereton isn’t mentioned here again because I don’t think we have seen enough of him to get a representative sample of the way he plays and what he can offer the team. Maybe he is another Danny Graham-type warhorse, but from the glimpses we have seen we will have to play a different way to get the most out of him, and for him to bring the most out of the team. At the minute Brereton is the Plan B when Mowbray wants to try something different, or when Graham just has nothing left in the tank – saying he is the Plan B is critical because ‘he’ is the Plan B, not the system we play we he comes on; that stays the same as had Graham still been leading the line, and the evidence shows Brereton is a different type of player.

Ben Brereton is not Danny Graham. That doesn’t mean he is a bad player, he is just a different player. He hasn’t been helped by the £6m loan-to-buy deal, which saw him become one of the clubs most expensive players in history, and he hasn’t been helped by being thrown on to win games – he is still only 19 after-all. I’ve seen enough though to think that he can work for Blackburn and that £6m will turn out to be money well spent. The shouts from the stands that he isn’t good enough and that we need to send him back are not needed and they help no-one. He isn’t Danny Graham and at 19 years old he offers a lot more movement than Graham off the ball when we have it. Graham is very much a target man – get it up to him and he will make it stick, he isn’t the type of player to latch on to a through ball and beat defenders. Brereton’s game, from what I’ve seen, is about movement but movement off the ball, creating space, getting in behind players – this is a totally different proposition to Danny Graham. If you are a player that is used to playing with a forward who is going to be relatively static and expect the ball in to feet or head, changing this to a player who wants the ball played in to space is a completely different way of playing football. Expecting a change like this to be seamless from week to the next is a challenge, to do it mid-way through a game is a massive ask. Brereton also hasn’t benefited from being thrown on as an extra forward but put out wide – he isn’t a winger, the same way Samuel isn’t a winger. He’s put a shift in when he’s played there, but the more game time he gets out of position with less chance to score goals, the greater the weight of not having scored is going to become – I don’t have many criticisms of Mowbray, but player Brereton out wide is one of them, especially when we have the likes of Palmer, Conway, Armstrong, Bennett, Bell etc who could all do a better job.

What Brereton could have done with was an extended run in the League Cup where we could play him instead of Graham and get used to the way he plays, and the best way to get the best out of him and the team in a competitive environment. Without this he is likely to play second fiddle to Danny Graham and continue to be asked to play a way he isn’t used to, or for a team to adapt the way they play mid-game. Neither of which is ideal and doesn’t make for an immediate impacting Plan B.

Although it was ultimately fruitless against Sheffield United, Brereton’s introduction showed glimpses of his movement – he never stopped trying to get in to good positions, he almost tried a bit too hard. The problem we had was that we weren’t getting the ball to him quick enough and by the time we got the ball, looked up and seen the pass it was too late. This lead to Brereton finding himself out wide chasing touches of the ball – this isn’t were we want him, we want facing goal within the width of the 18 yard box. In many ways he reminds of Niko Kalinic who never got a fair crack of the whip at Ewood but showed glimpses when he was given a chance – I only hope we don’t give up on Brereton too soon as we all know what happened to Kalinic (despite missing a World Cup Final due to a falling out off the pitch he has played for Fiorentina and AC Milan since leaving Rovers and currently plays for a small Spannish team called Atletico Madrid). The fans need to stick with him and get behind him and I think the goals will come, along with a return on the investment.

But for now, we have Danny Graham. A player who not only scores when he wants – which is about once every four games – but he creates the opportunities for Dack and the rest of the team to shine.

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Nations League of Opportunity

The much mocked and riled UEFA Nations League could finally be a positive change from Europe’s footballing governing body as they reduce the number of energy sapping pointless friendlies for the big teams, and provide an opportunity for some of the lower ranked footballing nations to play some meaningful games to improve them.

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The much mocked and riled UEFA Nations League could finally be a positive change from Europe’s footballing governing body as they reduce the number of energy sapping pointless friendlies for the big teams, and provide an opportunity for some of the lower ranked footballing nations to play some meaningful games to improve them.

As the dust settles on the inaugural round of UEFA Nations League fixtures and we all dread the return of league football across the continent, a quick reflection shows that the new format has been well received across a lot of Europe and could actually be a good idea on a number of levels. Firstly, rather than friendlies club sides manager’s would rather do without, and fans would rather didn’t feature in excess of 17 different players appearing for both sides, games have been both competitive and useful for the teams towards the top of the Nations League pyramid – with the higher ranked nations playing each other in a competitive game which hasn’t been win at all costs for competition qualification, but at the same time hasn’t been as pedestrian as friendly. Likewise, teams towards the bottom of the pyramid haven’t played games where they have been humiliated by the traditionally stronger nations, learning absolutely nothing other than how to chase shadows and pick the ball out of the net – they have played teams with similar quality and history, giving them a chance to play in competitive games and give them a feel for what it is like to win games, or defend leads going in to the final minutes, or keep the ball; this can only stand them in good stead for future qualification games.

The UEFA Nations League is not a league of friendlies as it offers sides who struggle during regular qualification for the European Championships in 2020 a ‘back door’ in to the competition – the trick being that you can’t abandon the Nations League on the basis that Euro 2020 qualification is most important, and then if that isn’t achieved, revert back to the Nations League – by that time the Nations League will be done and dusted. Teams should give the Nations League due attention, as it may be their saving grace come Euro 2020.

The format is confusing:

  • 55 teams split in to four leagues (Leagues A, B, C and D) according to UEFA rankings
  • Each league (A-D) is then split in to four groups (Groups 1 -4) of 3 or 4 teams
  • In each league (A-D) four teams are promoted (group winners) and four teams are relegated (bottom of each group)
  • Winners of Groups 1-4 in League A qualify for the final of the Nations League
  • Each Nations League gets four play-off spots (if the Group winners have already qualified for the Euro’s the spot goes to second place and so on) – 16 teams who go in to four groups with top team in each going forward to the Euros. The four teams in each group play semi-finals and final to determine qualification. The play-offs not being played until March 2020, but the line-up determined by games before the usual Euro Qualification games.

The format may be confusing but ultimately teams need to perform well to give them an insurance option for qualification for the Euro’s, and at the same time it offers the lower ranked and smaller nations a potentially more attractive route to qualifications – top a group of similar ranked teams and then win three ‘one-off’ games (rather than a longer qualification campaign in the traditional ranked format).

The Leagues and Groups are based on UEFA Rankings so they should be relatively comparative and close-matched – and for the most part in Leagues A and B they are, but looking at Leagues C and D, years of poor qualification records mean there is some disparity between the teams – in particular, Scotland look to have a modest group with Albania and Israel; Bulgaria with Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus; and, Serbia with Romania, Montenegro and Lithuania. In Group D Macedonia are the best of a poor bunch against Armenia, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

It is League D Group 3 which intrigues me the most: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta and Kosovo. In any regular qualifying game or normal friendly, all four of these teams would be long odds against a win, but on paper they all have the potentially to both win the group and finish bottom of it. My money would be on Kosovo though.

As a country, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. In footballing terms, they played their first game as an independent nation almost two years to the day since they achieved independence in February 2010, a 3-2 home defeat by Albania. Despite applying for FIFA member the October following independence, this was rejected on the grounds that the independent state was not recognised by the international community – this meant they couldn’t even play friendly matches. It took until May 2012 for FIFA to revert that decision, allowing Kosovo to play international friendlies, but this was followed by a period of protest by Serbia resulting in the decision to allow them to play international friendlies to be revoked. It was not until January 2014 that FIFA granted permission for Kosovo to play against other FIFA member associations in international friendlies, but not representative teams of countries of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo’s first international friendly followed in March 2014, a 0-0 draw with Haiti. In terms of competitive football, Kosovo made their debut in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup following being accepted in to UEFA in May 2016 – they finished bottom of a qualifying group which contained Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine (Group I), with 1 point, 3 goals for and 24 against (see above regarding teams learning nothing from traditional qualifying games where they stand little chance of learning anything). The campaign had started with reasonable positivity with a 1-1 away draw with Finland.

At the end of that qualification campaign, Kosovo’s international record (competitive and friendlies) read: Played 24, Won 6, Drawn 3, Lost 15 – with the 6 wins all coming in friendlies against the likes of Sapmi, Monaco and Equatorial Guinea. It wasn’t an immediate birth of a footballing super-power.

Fast-forward to the current day, and in the six games since the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign they are unbeaten – winning five and drawing one. Giving them an overall record of Played 30, Won 11, Drawn 4 and Lost 15 – for a such a young footballing nation, a 50% non-defeat record is not a bad building block to start from. The friendly against Latvia in November 2017 resulted in a 4-3 victory – the first time they had scored four goals since independence was definitely a turning point following a disappointing qualifying campaign, and this victory came after their manager during World Cup qualifying, Albert Bunjaki, resigned following the poor results in qualifying, with a win percentage of 16.7%.

Bunjaki may have seen them as poor results but their worst defeat was 6-0 against Croatia in October 2016, just five months after being accepted in to UEFA, and don’t forget, Croatia reached the final of that tournament. Apart from a 3-0 loss away to the Ukraine days after the Croatia defeat, and a 4-1 loss to Turkey, Kosovo weren’t beaten by more than two goals in any game.

Following the victory over Latvia at the end of the World Cup Qualifying campaign (presided over by Caretaker Coach Muharrem Sahiti, Kosovo appointed the Swiss Bernard Challanders, a former coach of Young Boys, Zurich, Sion, Thun and Armenia, as well as the Under 17s, 18s and 21s of Switzerland. Since starting his role with the Swiss under 21 side on 1st July 2001, and including his five games in charge of Kosovo, he has a win percentage of almost 42%, winning more games than he has lost (129 to 111).

Since taking over the Kosovo team he has led them to four victories and one draw – with friendly wins over Madagascar, Burkina Faso, the Faroe Islands and most importantly Albania, and a draw against Azerbaijan. They are also yet to concede a goal under him (current goal difference is +8). He seems to have taken what they were good at in defeat in to games against comparable opposition – not conceding too many goals, and adding goals to the mix (they only scored 3 goals in the World Cup qualifying campaign). At the lower levels of European International football, teams concede a lot of goals – if you can be stingy at the back and not concede often, the likelihood is you will get chances. As was evident in the recent Nations League game against Faroe Islands. Going in to the tournament, Azerbaijan where probably favourites for League D Group 3, and recognising this as the toughest of their ties, Kosovo got a 0-0 draw in Baku – drawing away and winning at home is a good method to make sure you are in the mix at the end of the tournament, and you would expect them to get a win away at Malta and maybe even at the Faroe Islands, so it could all be in their hands.

If you look at the Kosovo squad, they aren’t made up of nobodies playing in part-time leagues in the middle of nowhere; their last squad featured players from Dinamo Zagreb, Mouscron, Zurich, Akhmmat Grozny, Heerenveen, Bronby, Swansea, Start, Genk, Sheffield Wednesday and Willem II – all teams people have heard of and the majority of which play in the top flights of their respective football pyramid. These are just the players who have chosen to play for Kosovo since their independence and acceptance in to UEFA. Prior to this the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami, Cana, Xhaka and Januzaj all qualified to play for Kosovo but chose alternatives potentially due to Kosovo not being accepted by UEFA for International Football. These are all players who would improve any team in Leagues B, C and D. Now Kosovo players no longer have to look elsewhere for international football, there is the chance that more talent can come through the system to represent the national side.

The Football Superleague of Kosovo is hardly a footballing hot bed – its is ranked the 55th league according to UEFAs coefficient, just ahead of San Marino and Gibraltar and some 15,000 coefficient points behind Scotland , and this is reflected in their performance in the Europa and Champions League entrants in the last couple of years – the furthest a team got was the 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League this year, where Drita where eliminated by F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, which gives you an idea of the quality of the league. But this could be to the national sides gain. If a player has quality and wants to make it a decent level, he will more than likely have to move abroad, probably from a young age, and potentially to nearby countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Croatia to help them progress. The key here though is that they have a country they can return to and proudly represent on the international stage, an option the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami and Xhaka weren’t afforded at that stage of their careers. The future has the potential to be very bright.

Part way through their failed World Cup campaign I spotted the trend that although they were a young side in terms of International football for the country, they weren’t getting tonked like we see with San Marino, Malta and Gibraltar, and from a personal point of view, backing them in the handicap market of +3 goals at roughly evens was pretty successful. To take it one step further I asked Skybet to price up a #RequestABet that they would qualify for either the Euro’s in 2020 or the World Cup in 2022 – they never responded. At present Skybet are offering odds of 8/13 for Kosovo to win League D Group 3 and odds of 2500/1 to win the Euros in 2020 – I’m not saying they will win the tournament, but they are currently 48th in the list to win it, which gives an indication on the bookies belief in their chances of qualifying – not very likely. In normal circumstances they would probably be right, but I imagine not so long ago Iceland were somewhere down that list and look how far they have come and what they have achieved in the last 6 or so years. And they didn’t have a ‘back door’ option to qualify. I don’t think it will be long until we (hopefully) see a Shefki Kuqi-style belly flop to celebrate qualification for a major tournament.

Updated form – unbeaten since October 2017:

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Putting Things In To Perspective

Is one defeat in eight games for a newly promoted team really cause to start questioning the manager? Social media such as Twitter really is an ugly place when results don’t go your way.

Is one defeat in eight games for a newly promoted team really cause to start questioning the manager? Social media such as Twitter really is an ugly place when results don’t go your way.

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I, probably like most Blackburn Rovers fans, was pleased to learn that last Sunday’s game against Bristol City was going to be available to watch on the red button, and I sat myself down with anticipation and excitement at watching Rovers away from home – something I’ve not been able to do as regularly as I’d like due to the lack of Rovers games on Sky in recent years, and the growing cost of away travel. I, like most Rovers fans may not have seen any of the five goals since they were scored as replays were not on offer.

Although both sides started shakily at the back, arguably Rovers looked the more vulnerable when they took the lead from a Charlie Mulgrew corner which found its way in to the goal. I blinked/looked away when the corner was taken and as a result missed the ball finding its way in to the back of the net. From here, Rovers took control of the game and should have been more than one goal ahead as the half drew to a close with chances spurned by Adam Armstrong and Kasey Palmer – chances which would prove crucial. Bristol City equalised directly from a free kick just before the break. However, if you look at where the somewhat soft free-kick was given – right on the edge of the 18-yard box, on the line even – and where it was taken from, Josh Brownhill moved the ball back about 5 yards; just enough for him to get the ball up and over the wall and back down. Now I’m not saying Charlie Mulgrew hasn’t done this in his time with Rovers, but it represented a shift in the referees’ performance.

As the opening goal went in, the Bristol City players argued about something, but without a replay it was difficult to tell what; and ultimately this resulted in, or at least contributed to, Bristol City manager Lee Johnson being cautioned by the referee. The referee had been poor both ways in the first half, in particular getting in the way of the ball and attacking movements for City, but it seemed that once he had booked Johnson, any 50/50 he could give City’s way he did, every free kick or throw-in City could steal 5 or so yards from he allowed, and every possible free kick in Blackburn’s favour he could have given he opted not to – I don’t think Danny Graham won a free-kick all game. There were no big game changing decisions, but he was generally poor for both sides at different times of the game – and the free-kick scored by City on the brink of half time arguably changed the outcome of the game; if Rovers had taken a lead in to half time, re-grouped and focussed on defending the lead and hitting City on the break, which had worked so well in the first half, we may have left with at least a point.

That said, Rovers second half performance didn’t deserve anything from the game. Instead of the spirited never-say-die attitude we have seen so much in the last 18 months, we capitulated and looked like conceding at every attack – Raya was arguably our Man of the Match, and he conceded four. In my opinion, the game was lost because of the number and scale of the changes Mowbray implemented when we were only one goal down. As City’s second goal went in Graham was substituted for new boy Ben Brereton and within 10 minutes later, Ryan Nyambe had been swapped for Joe Rothwell, and 5 minutes later, Palmer replaced by Joe Nuttall – within 2 minutes of the latter change Rovers were two behind and seemingly no way back. For me, there was no need for such drastic changes, especially in formation. At one goal behind there is always the possibility of creating a chance, winning a penalty, or winning a free-kick on the edge of the box; the three changes and the system change showed that Mowbray wasn’t afraid to gamble for all three points, but it opened us up to our first loss of the season – a run that it would have been nice to continue for as long as possible. The changes made us more attacking focussed, yet we still didn’t create any clear-cut chances, and all it served to do was make us even more vulnerable at the back.

The key change for me was the Danny Graham substitution – yes he is getting on and probably doesn’t have 90 minutes in his legs twice a week anymore, but he leads by example chasing every ball down and challenging for every header and 50/50. By bringing Brereton on when we needed a goal, and making him our point of attack it only served to heap more pressure on him than the rumoured £6m price tag, and we created nothing for him to work with. I’m not saying Brereton shouldn’t have been introduced at some point, in fact, it was probably the ideal time to bring him on, but the change should have been for either Palmer who was changing or for Smallwood, moving Bennett in to the middle of midfield to provide a bit more bite. That way, Brereton was shouldering all the expectations, but he was still freshening things up, and it also allowed for Nuttall to replace Graham should he tire and/or a further change be required.

For context, that’s our first defeat of the season, in our first season back in the Championship, it’s only Mowbray’s 13th defeat in 78 games, we sit 13th in the league above the liked of Nottingham Forest, Stoke City, Norwich, Preston, Birmingham and Hull City.

Yet, when you look at social media anyone would think we had yet to win a game this season and we had been perennial strugglers. I don’t know why, but it still amazes me the opinions of so called Rovers fans – calling for Mowbray to go, Brereton (who played less than 40 minutes) not being up to it, and other fearing a relegation scrap all season. It was one bad result, we need keep things in perspective. I dare say those posting the negative comments are those who only attended the final game of last season and ran on the pitch – there were 27,600 people there that day, yet our average attendance at home so far this season is 12,384; if you want to have a moan and make your feelings known publicly, at least have the decency to go to the home games – especially when you so gleefully and moronically ran on the pitch spoiling the day for those true fans who have suffered recently and preventing them from celebrating with ‘their’ players. When Mowbray came in we were a basket-case of a club both on and off the pitch, and in the 18 months since his arrival he has turned the club around and brought back pride and optimism. So what if we were beaten 4-1 away from home, the guy has earnt the right to that and I’m sure he’ll be working hard to put things right.

One thing that has impressed me a lot about Mowbray is that every player he has brought in he has brought in for a reason, whether it be on loan or a permanent signing – gone are the days of endless journey-men loan slags coming in to the club, only to leave 3 months later (see Cameron Stewart, Liam Feeney etc). Yet now, every player we bring in looks like a calculated signing aimed to improve the team, not just get numbers through the door. Even the way Caddis and Whittingham have had their contracts terminated has been admirable – in years gone by if we couldn’t shift them by the time the window closed, they’d be kept on just in case. I dare say Mowbray had agreed with them both they’d be given a chance in pre-season and the League Cup and if no suitors came, they’d be allowed to leave via the front door.

I’ve pondered whether the international break has come at the wrong time as most footballers say after a defeat like that you just want to get back out there; but in this scenario I think it may have fallen at the right time. It gives the new players who have come in chance to bond with the rest of the team and get a feel for what the club is about – skill and hard work – and it gives them time to reflect on what went wrong ahead of a tricky tie against Aston Villa, who are arguably in the position some of our more pessimistic fans feel we are in. My only hope is those who are away on international duty, mainly Lenihan and Mulgrew come back unscathed.

 

Image source: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/bristol-city-blackburn-report-highlights-1961099

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Give Him The Keys

The last seven days have epitomised what Blackburn Rovers have become under the stewardship of Tony Mowbray – and he should be thanks by both club and town.

 

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The last seven days have epitomised what Blackburn Rovers have become under the stewardship of Tony Mowbray – and he should be thanks by both club and town.

The last seven days have seen a 7 point return from three Championship games, taking Blackburn Rovers’ total to 9 from the 5 games played this season so far. Rovers remain unbeaten since their return to the Championship and the 9 points gained are from a possible 15, and put them in fifth place in the division. In many ways, the last seven days have shown what the team are all about under Tony Mowbray – winning away from home; coming back from two goals down at home with players going off injured, and grinding out a one nil win to beat a promotion favourite despite a depleted squad.

In years gone by an away trip to Hull would have been a tough ask which the best we would hope for would be a draw – our away form during our previous stay in the Championship was dreadful. But now we are taking the game to teams on the road – we should have won on the opening day away to Ipswich, and by all accounts we were well worth our win at the KCOM last week.

Then midweek against Reading, no-one can deny we were very poor in the first half and the two goal deficit at half time looked an up-hill struggle – especially considering there was no Dack or Palmer in the side, and Armstrong and Samuel were lost to injury during the game. Yet the team spirit was evident and the never-say-die attitude shone through to salvage a point – and if the game had gone on another 5-10 minutes there’s a good chance we could have found a winner. In years gone by being 2-0 down at home would have turned in to three or four as the crowd would get on the players backs and the players would go in to their shell. That’s not the case with Mowbrays men – they never know when they are beaten; and that’s reflected in the crowd – even at two nil down on Wednesday I felt the game wasn’t over and we could get something. In previous years once the team went behind, especially by two goals, the crowd would have turned ugly, got on the players backs and turned their frustrations to the owners once again. But all that has changed under Mowbray – when was the last time the ‘V’ word was heard from the stands at Ewood?

The win against Brentford yesterday once again summed up the battling attitude of the side. Brentford are an established Championship side who every year seem capable of making the play-off party and without the likes of Dack, Armstrong and Samuel, the game looked a tough ask – I would’ve happily taken a point. A scrappy first half played in to Rovers hands as they could get stuck in and not let Brentford implement and enforce their style, but after the hour mark, with the crowd behind them, Blackburn took the lead and pressed for another. It took the once again magnificent Raya to keep a clean sheet to take all three points, but the shear effort and workmanship from the side was what won the game – I have no idea how Elliott Bennett has the energy to walk of the pitch after 90 minutes as more often than not he has covered every blade of grass twice over. He epitomises everything that Rovers are now about. We used to be a soft touch, easy for oppositions to impose their game upon – but not any more, we battle for every ball and get on the front foot at the earliest opportunity – which in turn gives the fans something to should about. We don’t expect to see worldies every week or players being 5 or 6 men before firing in to the top-corner, but the least we do expect is effort, and we getting that in abundance every week.

In the past I’ve argued that we didn’t have a style or a way of playing – it was a case of play the ball out and pass it sideways waiting for something to open up or for a set piece; if we lost the ball we’d be more focussed on getting back in position than hassling and harrying for the ball further up the pitch. Now we attack with pace and good link up play in the centre of the park, and if the balls lost we are the oppositions faces straight away – all leading to us winning the ball further up the pitch, spending more time in the oppositions half, and taking the pressure off our defence.

Tony Mowbray started at Rovers at one of the most important times in the clubs history and he very nearly avoided relegation to League One. Upon relegation some would have skulked and sulked and even turned down the task but what Mowbray has done is create a fantastic team spirit and work ethic with players who want to run that extra yard and who want to get the club back were it belongs. With a different manager it could all have been so different and we could’ve now found ourselves still languishing in League One or worse. To put it in simple terms, Tony Mowbray is very much a saviour of the club. In my lifetime I’d say the three most important managers have been Kenny Dalglish, Tony Mowbray and Graeme Souness in that order. Dalglish was important because he was the right man to utilise Jack Walkers money to establish the club in the top flight and fight for honours – another manager may not even have been able to get us out of the old second division; and if we hadn’t gone up then, we may never have gone up and disappeared in to obscurity. In many ways, he and Jack Walker put the town of Blackburn on both a UK and world map. The importance of Tony Mowbray speaks for itself – without him who knows where we would be both on and off the pitch. And finally, I think Graeme Souness took over at a time similar to Mowbray, were it could have been easy to settle for the Championship, especially following the loss of Jack Walker. But he built a good side that gained promotion and pushed on from there and also delivered a major trophy – all at a time when money was becoming more and more important and spendings becoming more and more expensive. Without spending vast sums of money he created a very competitive Rovers side and set the foundations for the next decade. If we hadn’t gone up that season we might never have gone back up. It’s just a shame how his reign ended, but it did lead to a bright five years with Mark Hughes at the helm.

Mowbrays record at Blackburn speaks for itself since taking over in February 2017: we are now 6 games unbeaten; we have only lost one game in the last 21; we’ve only lost 2 games in the last 40; and we have only lost 6 games in the last 56; and add to that, Rovers are now unbeaten in 23 games at Ewood Park. We currently site on 9 points for the season after five games – in our last division in the Championship in 2016-17 it took us until the middle of October to reach this tally – it’s not even the end of the first month of the season yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we are nailed or for promotion or should even be thinking about that – but the sooner we get to the other side of 40 points the better, then we can start looking up towards the play-offs.

The signing of Jack Rodwell has raised a few eyebrows this week and initially I thought it a bit of a crazy stupid signing – but that is only considering his stay at Sunderland and his phenomenal wages. For the Mackems he cost £10m and was on a reported £70,000 a week wage, and during his spell there he went 1,370 days without winning a Premier League game. It looks like a gamble, but when you look at his career as whole he is still only 27; he has represented England 3 times at senior level; and he was obviously good enough for Manchester City to spend £12m on him. He won’t be on anywhere near the £70k a week at Ewood – I’d expect him to be on 10-20% of that at most, and it is only a one year deal – so if Mowbray can get him putting in the performances which saw him come to prominence at Everton he has got a bargain. His work ethic has been questioned most recently in the past by Chris Coleman at Sunderland – but with the group we have already at Ewood, and the fact Mowbray has told him he has to earn his place in the team, he will not be allowed to have the wrong attitude. I have faith in Mowbray to either get the best out of him, or to see he is a basket-case and keep him from harming the spirit within the group.

In my eyes Mowbray deserves to be recognised for what he has done for the club and the town to date. Without him we might not even have a football club any more – but not only has he steadied the ship when it needed righting the most, he has pushed us on to the next level and improved us remarkably. The fans are back on side with a spring in their step on a Monday morning – no longer are we a joke in footballing circles, and no longer do we have to moan about Venkys; we can say with pride we are on our way back. The keys to the town is the least that Mowbray deserves for what he has done. And as for Venkys, they owe him a great deal more – he’s turned headless chickens playing for a club run by prized turkeys in to a side who could rule the roost of the north-west clubs in the Championship this season.

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Deja Vu

Newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers spent over €72m on new signings during the Summer transfer window but there was something familiar about the business they did and how they did it.

Newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers spent over €72m on new signings during the Summer transfer window but there was something familiar about the business they did and how they did it.

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Over the last two years Wolves have spent something in the region of €65m on players either of Portuguese nationality, or represented by the super agent Jorge Mendes. The list of arrivals over the last two years also includes the Wolves Manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who was Mendes first client as a football agent. The influx of Portuguese signings and the involvement of Mendes has come about since the club from the Black Country was bought by Fosun International, the Chinese investors conglomerate; with Mendes reportedly helping to identify Wolves as a prospect to buy, and there being a business partnership between Mendes and Fosun. Another link between the two is a company called Shanghai Foyo, which is majority owned by Fosun’s chairman, Guo Guanchang, which bought stakes in “Start”, the holding company for Mendes’ Gestifute agency. Mendes’ Gestifute agency represented the Midlands club via a Portuguese agent (Valdir Cardosa) in the deal with Monaco for Ivan Cavaleiro in 2017, where Cavaleiro was represented by Carlos Osorio de Castro. The same Carlos Osorio de Castro then represented Helder Costa in his move from Monaco to Molineux, with Cardosa representing Wolves. No issue here until you see that Osorio de Castro is believed to have acted as Gestifute’s lawyer for many years1.

Exchange the names of Mendes, de Castro and Cardosa and the company Gestifute with Jerome Anderson, SEM, Kentaro and Crescendo and it all sounds a bit too familiar to Blackburn Rovers fans. Cold sweats will likely follow as many Rovers fans hold these people fully responsible for the turmoil the club has been through over the last 7 years.

Since Fosun International bought Wolves back in July 2016 for £45m, they have bought no fewer than nine players represented by either Mendes or his Gestifute agency, for over a staggering €50m, with a significant amount spent during the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons in the Championship. In simple terms, Mendes helped Fosun International identify Wolves as a suitable club to purchase, and since said purchase he has entered in to a business partnership with Fosun, and since then, over €50m-worth of players represented by his management agency have been bought by Wolves. He does not own the players, he merely represents them, but the sheer volume of his clients bought by Wolves, and his involvement with the club does seem somewhat unethical, and if not unethical, definitely unhealthy. The first place Wolves will go when looking for a new signing will be Mendes – if he doesn’t have a financial stake in the club, something where decisions on player transfers affecting performance and results could affect profit and loss to him – it is a very risky and trusting venture from Fosun International. One has to expect that the “business partnership” between Mendes and Fosun is dependant on the provision of the quality of the players, not the quantity of players.

Step back in time to November 2010 when Venkys bought a 99.9% stake in Blackburn Rovers for £23m. Venkys employed sports rights agency Kentaro, who had a corporate partnership with Jerome Anderson’s SEM Group, in very much the same way that Fosun International engaged with Mendes: to find a suitable a club to buy; and following the purchase, to assist with transfer strategy for Rovers with their in-house agents who deal with talent management. The similarities, at least for now, end there. Instead of signing established household names like Moutinho or Patricio, or signing promising youngsters like Wolves have done, Blackburn embarked on 2 years of promising global superstars but delivering unknown youngsters or family relations. After spending a rumoured £1.6m in agents fees for Barcelona’s Reuben Rochina in their first transfer window in charge (when Anderson allegedly had no say in transfer dealings, but was rumoured to have slept at the training ground), in the summer of 2012 Rovers bought no less than six Portuguese players for a around £100k, yet paid £864k in agents fees to Nuno Rolo, Carlos Mendes and Marcos Oliveira. On top of that, in the period between Venkys purchase of the club in 2010 and the of summer 2012, Sam Allardyce had been sacked and replaced by relatively unknown coach and Jerome Anderson represented Steve Kean, followed by Jerome Anderson represented assistant manager John Jensen, and perhaps most worryingly, Anderson was joined by his son Myles in 2011. A 21 year old with one appearance to his name for Aberdeen, with no Premier League experience, signing via a pre-contract agreement, for a well-established Premier League club where his father was not involved in the day to day running of the club but had a business relationship with the clubs owners; despite having previously failed to impress during a trial the previous summer, the summer before Venkys bought the club assisted by Anderson. Nepotism? Absolutely. Unethical? Most definitely. Rule breaking? The FA obviously thought something was going on as they investigated between 2011-2013. If I was a Wolves fan I’d be looking at Jorge Mendes’ family tree to see if he might try and pull a similar stunt (I’ve checked, he has a son called Jorge Mendes Junior, but there are no hints at his footballing ability).

Back in April 2013 it was reported that the FAs Head of Integrity had been investigating Rovers for more than two years, looking at the takeover of the club as well as control of the club and the involvement of agents and advisers2. Rovers response was that there was no contractual or customary arrangements, whether formal or informal, with SEM Ltd and/or Kentaro and/or any other company in the Kentaro AG Group; they did however confirm that Venkys did have an agreement with Kentaro under which they provided consultancy services to Venkys in respect of football related business. In the end nothing came of this as Anderson maintained he had no involvement in the running of the club, but there’s no smoke without fire, and if the FA looked in to Anderson’s involvement in Rovers, if the rules haven’t changed, they must be keeping an eye on the goings on at Wolves – if anything they are far more blatant with their activity. On the topic of Anderson and the FA investigation, as a side note it is worth remembering that Anderson was cosy with David Dein during his time as the as the Vice President between 2000-04 and Anderson himself was licensed as an FA intermediary; likewise, Kentaro had dealings with the FA in 2009 as part of selling the broadcast rights to an England World Cup Qualifier with Ukraine.

The link between Mendes and the players signed by Wolves is clear and obvious, but the link between Rovers and the players signed in the summer of 2012 is not. The only visible links are the use of the same agents to broker the deals, the payments received by the agents for the deals, and strangely the signing of Nuno Henrique. At the time Rovers bought Henrique, I, like most Rovers fans, assumed Henrique to be another youngster from Portugal that Rovers were hoping would blossom in to a star – he wasn’t. He was a 25 year old defender plying his trade at Portuguese Primeira Liga side Academica; by plying his trade, he had made just 2 appearances for Academica that season, and 7 the season before that for Feirense, other than that the majority of his football had been played in the Portuguese Segunda for Aves and Fafe. On paper he doesn’t scream “suitable for a promotion push”, and on the field he obviously didn’t either as he never made a first team appearance for Rovers. He was a strange signing – the only connection I can find between him and Rovers is that Steve Kean, manager at the time, played for Academica between 1988-1991. However, Henrique was represented by the agent Marcos Oliveira, who also represented Edinho Junior, Diogo Rosado and Grego Sandomierski who were also brought in that summer (with hefty agents fees paid) – so maybe I’m trying to read too much in to this, and it is merely a case of him being recommended by an agent already being used for multiple deals for hefty fees. Of the players brought in that summer in 2012, they made a combined total of 30 appearances for the club, with veteran Nuno Gomes being responsible for more than half of those on his own (18).

The situation at Wolves is very similar to the one at Ewood between 2010 and arguably the end of the Owen Coyle reign, and if I was a Wolves fan I’d be concerned over Mendes involvement in the club. It might be rosy now his signings have got them back to the Premier League and he looks to have brought in some good players, but at what cost? And what happens should they not do the job and relegation happens? What contracts are they on? Is Nuno Espirito Santo too comfortable given his relationship with Mendes given Mendes’ relationship with Fosun International? It’s only when things go wrong than you see the cracks appear and see what devastation lies behind them cracks – look at Blackburn Rovers: after being bought by the Venkys with alleged agent involvement, they stayed up that season (ironically thanks to a victory against Wolves on the last day of the season), were relegated the next and were then unable to get back to the top flight before being related to League One in 2017 – from Premier League security to League One in just 7 years, and riddled with debt just for good measure. Wolves have been to League One in recent years and Blackburn will be hoping to follow their steps back to the Premier League, so Wolves should be all too aware of the dangers of mismanagement. The FA also need to pay close attention – they did nothing to help Rovers when their fans asked for help and as a result the club was run in to the ground and almost in to administration; I’d hope if Wolves fans had a similar plight they would respond better. They also need to be clear on expectations on agents involvement at clubs – Mendes role is very murky water, but it is a role which oversees massive financial deals both for Wolves and his Clients. If he was to walk away tomorrow, Wolves then struggled and got relegated with his Clients on long term contracts for large wages, would the FA sit back and argue that Fosun International had been ‘fit and proper’ in their running of the club? Could Mendes be classed as a third party? If not, he must be classed as part of the club, in which case he is part of a process which agrees player wages (and other things) for both the club and the player, which doesn’t seem right.

References:
1https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jun/19/jorge-mendes-wolves-influence-chinese-owners-signings
2http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2308641/Nick-Harris-FA-investigate-Blackburn-Rovers.html

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Exceeding Expectations Or Falling At The First Hurdle?

As the dust settles on another World Cup campaign for at least another four years it’s time to reflect on whether England had an amazing tournament or whether they under-achieved.

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As the dust settles on another World Cup campaign for at least another four years it’s time to reflect on whether England had an amazing tournament or whether they under-achieved.

In the cold aftermath of the game last night against Croatia, like after every England or Rovers defeat, I was looking for an answer, a reason why we had once again not made it to the promised land of the final. At first I wanted to blame the players, then Southgate’s tactics, then the Croats for wasting time, but in the end I opted to blame the referee. He hadn’t got any big decisions wrong, but he been overly lenient to England in the first 45 minutes, and then made up for it in the next 75 minutes, giving us very little. Why did Walker get booked for grabbing the ball but Lovren hadn’t been? How wasn’t Rebic booked for the obvious heads gone moment in the first half where he scythed a white shirt down after not getting a decision? None of them game changers, but enough for me to point the finger. The most frustrating crime: adding next to no time on at the end of Extra Time injury time, despite the ball being in play for about 120 seconds of the allotted four minutes; including the blatant time wasting at the end when England had a free kick, walking back at snails-pace to delay the kick being taken. All things I would have been willing England to do had the roles been reversed.

What I was keen to avoid in my blame-finding mission was to accuse the players or Southgate. For the first time since 1996 it felt like we had a team who could do something and the whole country unquestionably got behind them from day one, despite having no expectation of success. They won a game in the last minute; they won a penalty shoot-out after conceding in the last minute; they’d won a knockout game comfortably; and may still win the Golden Boot and Golden Glove award – aside from winning the bloody thing it feels like we have had a great tournament. Although the “It’s coming home” memes and the playing of “Three Lions” started as a bit of self-poked fun, as the tournament went on we believed. Hell, the Croats had just played 120 minutes in two games on the bounce, surely this must be our chance to go one further than Bobby Robson’s men did in Turin 28 years ago.

But it wasn’t to be.

For 45 minutes England were in full control, scoring early and creating chance after chance which were squandered and not taken. At half time I think we all had a feeling that we may have had our chance to be out of sight, and would most likely live to regret it. Everyone expected the Croats to tire as the game went on, but in fact they grew. In the first half they had tired legs and couldn’t get to grips with England, but in the second half they got their second, third and fourth wind, as England dropped deeper and began to tire. Even as we dropped, we didn’t really give them much of a clear chance, but the one time they got the ball out wide and Vrsaljko had the time to take a touch, get his head up and pick a pass, they made England pay. From that moment it was very much like watching a boxer on the ropes – I didn’t want to hope for Extra Time and Penalties, but in that second half I would have snapped your hands off. England limped towards to extra time and carried on where they left off in the additional 30 minutes and when the inevitable happened and they took the lead, England had nothing in response. Gone had the games of passing the ball out from the back, doing the doggies, and moving to keep opening options up, back was the long ball forward, only for it to be returned relentlessly.

On Tuesday night, the night before the Semi-Final I said to my wife: “Don’t bight my head off, but we should be in the semi-final”; she bit my head off, explaining that England never get to semi-finals no matter how easy the route, we always find a way of ruining it, but this team have brought the country together in one of its darkest political times, and defied all expectations.

I can’t argue with this. However, the way the draw played out, the toughest game we had getting to the semi-final was to play a James Rodriguez-less Columbia, another game we should have won by more. We should have qualified from that group and we should have beaten Sweden – the team did everything that was asked of them. Yes, the penalties against Columbia were a test which the team stood up to, but the first real test they came up against was against Croatia, a team who had laboured to two penalty shoot out wins against Denmark and Russia, I think when we look back in years to come we will see this as a game we should have won, and a massive missed opportunity. On the flip side, Croatia will never get a better chance to get to a World Cup final, and they took it.

When England were knocked out in Italy ’90 by West Germany, that was a tough game, a game that on paper England were not expected to win, and the fact we took it to penalties adds to the drama and memories, and the “what could have been”. The loss against Croatia this time doesn’t seem as defining, as gut-wrenching. It feels as though we’ve been on a ride where the team we were supporting weren’t really England – achieving things we aren’t used to, doing the simple things, winning; and then out of nowhere the familiar England came back. The disappointment, the frustration at a missed opportunity.

The players have been fantastic; Southgate has been a class act and in all honestly looks to be the only person who could unite the country and deliver BREXIT; for once even the fans have mostly behaved and brought credit back to England and English football. I can’t blame any of them, and I won’t, they deserve a heroes welcome, they’ve done what a golden generation of countless prima donnas couldn’t deliver – pride in a national football team, and a journey to the last four of a World Cup.

My worry now is that old foe “expectation”. Already pundits and fans are talking about how good this team will be in four years for the next World Cup and how we’ll be challenging at the Euros in two years. Come the Summer of 2020 no doubt the majority of the country and press will be building up our chances, once again building us up for a fall. The reason this World Cup journey has been so special is that no-one expected it. Yes we expected to progress out of the group and possibly past the last 16, but the quarter final was the zenith were we all deep down knew our tournament would likely end. If we are to repeat the feet of this summer, and hopefully go two steps further and win the tournament, we need to be realistic and not set unrealistic expectations, a quiet optimism is fine, but full blown expectation will put us back in to a vicious circle of disappointment which could end with Sam Allardyce once again falling on his sword whilst drinking his pint of wine. The likes of Pickford, Kane, Maguire, Trippier, Alli, Lingard, Rashford, Loftus-Cheek, Stones and Sterling all have their first, or second, major tournament behind them now and the experience to take with them in to the next one; not to mention the World Cup winning younger age groups to come through. The future is bright, we just need to make sure we don’t try and make it burn brighter than it actually is, until they have proved it.

Remember the unexpected highs we had this fantastic Summer. Trust in Southgate, trust in the system, and back the team. Just don’t get carried away.

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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As I sat watching the final minutes of the Championship season, followed by the pitch invasions at Bolton and Cardiff, I questioned whether I was wrong about pitch invasions and for staying in my seat at the end of the game at Ewood yesterday.

For me, a pitch invasion is a release of raw emotion; a warm-blooded event; a last minute or last game of the season decider for promotion or safety. Rovers had that two weeks ago at the Keepmoat stadium. Yesterday’s pitch invasion was one of selfishness on the part of so-called Rovers fans, stealing and opportunity to get on the pitch and become one of the sheep taking selfies on the pitch and knee-sliding in to stupidity. It put a really sour end to what has been a magnificent season. Yes, the Rovers fans have been through a lot over the last decade and this is the first real achievement we’ve been able to celebrate, but the time and place for it was at Doncaster away when our destiny was sealed; and even then we made a mess of it.

I’ve said previously that one of the best things about the season has been the re-growth of the bond between the club and fans, and you could see from the players both at Doncaster and at Ewood yesterday, that they wanted to share the celebrations with the fans – an outcome which was achieved but with the sheen taken off it by the idiots running on the pitch before the end of the game.

What exactly is achieved by running on the pitch anyway? Yes, you get to go on the hallowed turf and maybe take a few pictures and steal some blades of grass; but surely being booed by your fellow supporters is a sign it’s not welcome? As is the sight of your players running in the opposite direction. Just leaving the pitch invader to take a few photo’s of a stand of supporters enraged at you and your actions, and then amble back off the pitch, in some cases, just to do it again a minute later.

People ran on the pitch before the end of the game yesterday for what reason I’ll never know. These reactions will most likely result in a fine from the Football League, and by rights there is also probably the potential for points to be docked – imagine the irony of running on a pitch to celebrate promotion which is then revoked because of the running on the pitch. I would estimate that at least 90% of the people who went on the pitch had not been to more than two games at Ewood previously this season, whilst the majority of the fans who stayed in their seats will have been season ticket holders who have sat through the painful recent years, their support never wavering. Those loyal supporters wanted a chance to celebrate with the players who have brought them so much joy this season – and do so from the comfort and safety of their own seat. I completely understand and agree with the singing of “Where were you when we where s***” to those who went on the pitch, and I joined in; they were ruining my day as well. It was amazing to see more than 27,000 and it was goosebumps stuff when I went up to my seat and saw the sea of blue and white, something we haven’t seen for a long long time, but the proof of the commitment of the support will be how many people return for the start of the next season in the Championship in August. I’d wager we will probably by looking at at least 10,000 shy of yesterdays figure. It’s not often Blackburn Rovers fans are accused of being “glory supporters”, but in this case I think they may have a point. “Where were you when we were s***” indeed.

There once was a time when I remember that running on the pitch was unthinkable, and you were guaranteed at least a stadium ban, if not a lifetime ban and a hefty fine. These days it almost seems a right of passage that when you win or achieve something, there has to be a pitch invasion. Take Manchester City for example, they had a pitch invasion at the Etihad two weeks ago. A pitch invasion when the league has been won with 4 games remaining, it was hardly edge of your seat stuff, and to a degree was somewhat pre-meditated. At Ewood yesterday the stewarding and lack of police was a joke that led to the pitch invasion. The stewards in place are not trained or physically able to prevent a pitch invasion, whether it be one rogue or a whole stand, and that only serves to add to the risk of a pitch invasion. Couple that with a lack of deterrent (no fines, arrests etc), people will carry on doing it. With over 27,000 at Ewood on a beautiful day with a party atmosphere and many beers drunk, the risk of a pitch invasion should have been identified, especially considering the number of extra tickets sold purely for the ‘party’ occasion, and extra police or specialist security brought in to prevent it from happening. What should have happened is on 85 minutes, stewards and police/security stood side by side should have lined up in front of the Blackburn End and Darwen End as a statement that it was NOT going to happen. Instead we ended up with fans running past beleaguered stewards and on to the pitch, and then the stewards helping them back in to the stand rather than cuffing them and carting them away. In recent years Rovers have been a laughing stock for the nation, and the one chance we have to show we are a big club (hopefully) on the way back, and we are again in the media for the wrong reasons, because of the minority.

It was a frustrating end to what has been a magnificent season, and for me I feel sorry for the players. They set out in August with one goal in mind, promotion, and they achieved that with two games to spare which is no mean feet. Yesterday should have been about celebrating them and their achievements. Instead, the season ended with the long-suffering fans angry at their own and once again with frustration for the fans. If I had to choose between a packed stadium every week but with fans who didn’t really care for the club; or a stadium half full but with true supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, I think I’d prefer the latter.

Next season is going to be a massive challenge just to remain in the division, let along push for the top 6. There are some massive clubs already in there, with three more to drop down from the Premier League, and Rovers must compete on the pitch with significantly less financial backing than some of the other teams. It’s a challenge I’m glad we are facing and one I’m looking forward to, but for now, I can finally enjoy a summer without the worry of dropping further down the divisions, or what master stroke in idiocy the club will partake in over the summer months.

Mowbray’s dream lives on….

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Almost There…

With just three games to go it is Rovers’ own hands to seal automatic promotion, but it didn’t look that way at the start of the season.

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One more win.

(Or one more game where Shrewsbury don’t win).

If you’d have told me after the 3:1 home defeat to Doncaster back in August that we could potentially have automatic promotion sealed with two games to spare I would most likely have laughed in your face. We were awful that day. Abysmal. Possibly the worst I’ve seen us play in a very long time. I remember looking at the side that day and thinking “there’s a few new faces so it’s going to take a while for them to settle and find a rhythm; and we’re a big fish in this League One pond, so we’ll be many teams cup final”. The squad that day included Caddis, Dack, Gladwin, Smallwood, Whittingham and Samuel (6 out of 18, a third of the side) all making only their second competitive appearance for the side. Rarely do so many changes click together straight away (I hoped), and rarely does the first draft end up being the winning formula. Looking back at the squad that day and there have been a lot of changes which have brought us to where we are now – with Caddis, Ward, Gladwin, Samuel and Whittingham playing less of a part as the season has gone on, in part due to injuries. One thing about league football is that you don’t win titles or get promoted in August, with most promotion pushes coming at around Christmas time. I hoped.

The loss that day, following the loss on the opening day, have been two of only five defeats all season (the other three coming against Wimbledon, Oldham and Plymouth – the latter being the last which came on the 3rd February, sandwiched in-between a 32 game unbeaten run). The fact that Rovers have only lost once in a 33 game run is remarkable, possibly only exceeded in remarkableness by the fact they still haven’t guaranteed automatic promotion despite sitting on 90 points. In the last two seasons, 90 points would have guaranteed automatic promotion, and in the year before last it would have been enough to win the division. I’m not counting my chickens as there are still three games to go, but Rovers not to be promoted would take two losses and a draw (which has not happened all season) and for Shrewsbury to re-find their form and win all three. Skybet aren’t currently offering odds of Rovers to be promoted.

Tony Mowbray has does a fantastic job – in fact, ‘fantastic’ doesn’t do it justice. When he took over the club were already staring relegation in the face; their was a disharmony between the supporters and the club and its owners, and the future looked very bleak – if we had continued the way we were going we would be looking at League Two right now rather than a return to the Championship. I have to be honest I wasn’t too excited by the appointment and I thought the timing was poor coming on the back of a spirited performance in defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup. What I can say however is (I was wrong about Mowbray, he was just what we needed) “I was there for the beginning of the Mowbray revolution” – a 1-1 draw away at fellow struggler’s Burton Albion. At the time I thought this was a must win game if we wanted to avoid relegation, and in the end it turned out to be that way, but I think most Rovers fans saw a change in the team that night, and most would agree that relegation was sealed by the draw at home to Preston in the last minute later that season. During the game at Burton two gents behind me were jokingly making comments like: “look how hungry they look? He’s not fed them all week!” and “one week and he’s got them playing like Brazil”. I laughed at the time, but looking back Mowbray has done exactly that: he’s got them fighting for every ball with a never say die attitude, and he’s got us playing some nice football. Where in the past we would pass to midfield, go sideways and then go back again, we now seem to have that ability to open up a defence; something we have lacked since before we were relegated from the Premier League.

In hand with the performances on the pitch, off the field there is more of a connect between the club, the players and the fans. In this day and age it is easy to criticise overpaid players for fooling about on social media showing how big the gap is between them and normal life; but what the club and players have done brilliantly is use social media to build that bridge between the club and the players. If it isn’t videos of players having snowball fights, its the players praising the fans for their support, or praising each other, and always reiterating “it’s good to score/win, but the ultimate aim for the season is promotion”. A good example this weekend was the number of first team players who took the time to congratulate the Under 23’s on winning the PL2 – yes it only takes 30 seconds to send a tweet, but do you see the likes of Paul Pogba or Dele Alli doing the same? When they score a goal you can see what it means to each and everyone of the players, and that resonates with the fans. There is a feeling that the players know what the supporters have been through over the last decade, and they want to be part of something special which could, hopefully, get the club back up to the big time.

After two draws in a week, including conceding a last minute equaliser, I thought we had piled the pressure on ourselves. Yes it was still in our hands, but it relied on us not throwing away two many more points going in to the last four games – a tough ask considering the recent form of the likes of Peterborough and Charlton. What I hadn’t accounted for was how much Shrewsbury would drop off a cliff like a set of Pirelli tyres after 30 laps of a Grand Prix. Two draws and a defeat in their last three games has been a welcome drop in form for Rovers, and it coincided with them losing at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy. It can’t be overestimated how big an effect a defeat at Wembley can have on a team, especially when it is to lower league opposition and you are the favourites (something Shrewsbury can’t have been too familiar with going in to a tie at the national stadium) – but it has turned out that way. Going in to the last three games of the season it is difficult, given their recent run of form, to see them winning all three games – let alone Rovers losing two or three. They’ve still to play Peterborough at home (which will be tough given how they played in the first half at Ewood last week), Blackpool away (another tough game given Blackpool have won their last four scoring a total of 13 goals and conceding only one), and MK Dons (who may potentially still be fighting for survival). In comparison, Rovers have Doncaster away (who are almost certain of survival and can’t make the play-offs), Charlton away (a very tricky game given their recent good form and push in to the play off positions), and Oxford at home (they may not be out of danger but it is a game Rovers would expect to win). As I say, I’m not counting my chickens, but we should be able to get across the line in advance of the last game of the season.

Congratulations must go to Wigan who guaranteed promotion this weekend – 93 points with three games to go means they could break the 100 point barrier and that would be a massive achievement. They’ve so far lost more games than Rovers, but not drawn as many. What amuses me on social media and even in comments from their manager Paul Cook is how they are trying to create a rivalry with Rovers claiming how pleasing it is for them to achieve promotion before us and how happy they will be if they win the league ahead of us, claiming we got carried away with ourselves. I don’t think any Rovers fan looked at the table when we went to the top and Wigan had 3 games in hand, and thought “that’s that wrapped up”. Also, I don’t think many Rovers fans care about winning the league – the sole aim of the season has been to get promotion. Whether that be in first or second place I don’t think anybody cares (I’d even take Play-Offs at a push!). I think this says a lot about Wigan and their ambition though – ask a supporter of any club below the Premier League and they would say the same: the goal is to get to the big league, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Focussing and bragging so much about a league title in the third tier of pyramid screams short-termism for me; I like to think at Ewood we are looking at the bigger, longer-term picture of where the club wants to be at the end of the next decade: back in the Premier League. Yes a title is nice, but at this stage and level, that’s all it is, a nice to have.

Looking back at the last short stay Rovers had in the Third Division, that side also came second, with a total of 59 points (from the same 46 games), finishing 3 points off top and 1 point above third. I hope we don’t go into the last game of the season with the potential of only finishing one point above Shrewsbury; but if come 7:30 pm on the 5th May, we have finished second by just a point, I for one won’t care.

Mowbray had a dream……

Promotion Window

With key players being touted for bigger things, and the wiser more experienced players reaching the end of their careers, is the 2019-20 season one where Blackburn Rovers have to go all out to capitalise on the opportunity the current squad represents, before the team is broken up?

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In American Football, the concept of a “Super Bowl Window” is that a team has its best chance of winning the Super Bowl due to a number of factors; mainly: the quality and age of the quarterback; the squad depth and weapons available on both offense and defence; and, their salary cap. In the top divisions of football, the similarities with the Super Bowl window theory generally stop at how much money a team has to spend and the age of their key players. However, as you drop down the leagues, the potential for key players to be snapped up or sold, adds another factor to this. Thus, creating a “Promotion Window”.

A Promotion Window situation seems to be developing at Blackburn Rovers, owing to both key players constantly being rumoured to off to bigger and better things, and the more experienced players taking a step closer to retirement (or dropping down the divisions) each summer.

With regards to the former – it is only matter of time before a team in the topflight takes a punt on Dack. Many questioned his ability to make the step up from League One to Championship, but he made it and finished the season with 15 goals and 7 assists. For me, he is a player destined to play at the top level, but I worry that if someone takes a chance on him in the top flight, it will be someone in the bottom half of the table and he won’t be afforded the chance to play in the number 10 role behind the striker, and instead will either be played up top on his own, out wide or central midfield, were he would be very much wasted. My other worry for him is he wouldn’t be playing with Danny Graham. Rovers should hold out for £17-20m for him which may be seen as too pricey for some suitors, but you’d be looking to pay that for a similar player from the continent, not adjusted to the English game.

Second up is Darragh Lenihan. He is an absolute competitor and it would be no surprise to me if he started the season wearing the armband. A product of the academy, he is without doubt the first name on the team sheet in the back four (back five now Raya has left). He loves a tackle and a battle, and what I like about him is the way he wants to win every header, attacking the ball. At 25, for any team interested in him he has many years left on him, and his value is only likely to increase. He’s not a glamour player like Dack and that would be reflected in his price tag. He wouldn’t get the £17m+ I’d expect for Dack, but with Raya rumoured to have gone for £3m, I’d be looking for upwards of £6m for Republic of Ireland international.

David Raya was another on the list of talents I thought we might lose and so it came to be. His sale opens up a big gap both in the team and the changing room as I think the videos from Austria show he was well liked by his teammates. Although he never looked commanding when coming for crosses and you never heard him yelling at defenders, in terms of shot stoppers I don’t think there was anyone better in the league. Given he had come through our academy since the age of 16, I was sad to see him go. A lot of Rovers fans think he is a weak link, but I was excited by the prospect of him being our number one for many years – I’d have liked us to bring someone experienced in to push him and develop him for the next two years, and if you could add influence and assertiveness to his game, we’d be looking at a £10m+ goalkeeper. It wasn’t to be though, and now I’m hopefully we invest the money wisely in someone with a lot of Championship (or higher) and promotion experience. Given the signings made by Brentford along with Raya, I can see them challenging for automatic promotion this season with Raya between the sticks and it’ll be interesting to hear the opinions of those Rovers fans who said he wasn’t good enough to get us promoted if they do indeed finish the season with promotion.

As much as we want him to, Danny Graham isn’t going to play forever. The energy and fitness levels of the man have amazed me over the past two seasons, especially when I fully expected him to either leave when we got relegated or simply sulk and not feature. So much of our game relies on his running and pressing, and we’ve seen with the likes of Nuttall and Brereton (so far), neither come close to his contributions in that way. His link up play with Dack is also going to be difficult to replicate. I think this coming season could be his last big contribution at Ewood as he turns 34 just after the start of the season, but I think in Gallagher and Brereton we have potential players who can fill that gap and also add a bit more quality and pace, but it isn’t going to be a straight swap and it may take time.

The other main man on the list of players who we need to make the most of whilst we have them is Charlie Mulgrew. At age 33 now, last season I questioned whether he was in the team purely because he was captain, or because of his dead-ball abilities, as, at times his defending was questionable. He was undoubtedly a big factor in our promotion from League One, and in the Championship last time around he looked more than adequate at centre half, but I think two and three years on he relies on his teammates to often to get him out of trouble. That said, there is no-one else I would want taking a free kick within 25 yards of the opposition box. As a leader and technically quality player he is a good back-up to have on the bench and to bring on if we are chasing a game (maybe in a midfield role), but if we don’t make any signings at centre half, I’d rather see Williams alongside Lenihan.

If you look at the players who broke through in to the first team last year, in the right circumstance, I’d like to see Grayson, Magloire and Butterworth given more game time, and also see Joe Rankin-Costello get some game time. What we want to be able to do is give them opportunities when we are winning, not rely on them due to injuries, or throw them in to halt a bad run.

What is important is that if we do lose the likes of Dack and Lenihan, we get the fees they are worth, and we spend that money wisely. With them in the team I believe we are very much in a Promotion Window and we should have a good go at it, but if we lose them, it’s not a time for the money to spent in a rush; the money should be spent re-building the squad whilst remaining competitive, and working towards a promotion push in the next 3 years, not just the next 12 months. We can have a promotion push with the squad we have and we don’t need to spend millions to improve that squad to a top 6 team – if you look at last season, without injuries at Brentford, I think we would have been sniffing around the top 6 in the last weeks of the season; and that’s in our first season up, a seasons experience and know-how, and considering the sides in the division, and I don’t think our squad is too far off pushing for the play-offs.

There haven’t been too many signings in through the door so far this season and it looks as though the bulk of the Raya money has been spent on Gallagher which is sensible, and believe we’ll be looking to pick up an experienced keeper either on loan or on a free. People are moaning about the lack of activity, but I’d rather go with what I’ve got instead of panic buying on someone to make up the numbers – we have a fantastic academy that we should be giving the opportunity. Lets also not forget that Chapman and Davenport will also be like having new signings.

The fixture list hasn’t looked favourably on Rovers for the coming season and a win at home against Charlton is needed. Fulham are an unknown quantity, but they were fantastic last time around in the Championship and they have only added quality in their time in the topflight. A points total of 9 or 10 would be a great return for August, with us then having 3 winnable games against Millwall, Reading and Luton in September. If we don’t start well, fans need to consider the opposition and give Mowbray time – if the start of the season is tough, it makes sense that there will be winnable periods later in the season to make the points back up.