Rovers ’til I Die

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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?

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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…

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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……

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