At Blackburn Rovers it has been announced that Tony Mowbray will have similar funds to spend as last year – when they spent around £10m on acquisitions – and that Mowbray will be able to flex that by opting for free agents and putting some of that budget towards wage demands. Last season saw Rovers flirt with the idea of the play off’s for about 7 minutes at Griffin Park, before succumbing to worrying about being dragged in to a late season relegation battle, before eventually finishing a comfortable 15th, 20 points clear of relegation and 14 points off the play-offs. For a first season promoted that’s not a bad return, and it could set the tone for a more progressive and upward looking 2019/20. That will all depend on the dealings this summer though.
A good start to the season showed Rovers could mix it at this level, and if it wasn’t for the routine conceding of late goals to sacrifice wins or draws, that 14 point gap to the top 6 could have been a lot narrower. What Mowbray has admitted is that he knows he knows where he needs to strengthen and he isn’t afraid to make changes, as we saw towards the end of the campaign. In interviews given in his recent trip to India he has also shown that he is looking up rather than down and that we will have a good go at making the top 6 next term; he even has plans in place should we lose key assets, to ensure the club build in a positive way from any such sales.
The optimist in us all will be looking at the Premier League, particularly free transfers to see who we could swoop for and pull off a coup. However, depressing although it may be, the vast majority of Premier League players are on wages Blackburn Rovers have simply never spent, even in the days before relegation from the top flight; those who are willing to drop out of the Premier League are only likely to do so for inflated wages and I think you always have to be sceptical about why they are dropping down a division: is it because they are a gun for hire and only interested in the money (cough* Danny Murphy *cough); or is it because they simply not good enough? If we are looking at anyone released from contract in the Premier League, we need to be sure of the motive and fitness of those involved. As a starter for ten, we can laugh off suggestions of Daniel Sturridge purely based on what his wage expectations would be and also the fact his ego won’t allow him to drop a level; on the same ground we can forget about Andy Carroll, in addition to his horrendous injury record (him and Vince Grella would have become the best of friends in the treatment room); and I think we would be wise to steer clear of Phil Jagielka – Charlie Mulgrew has struggled at times this season and I don’t think a player 3 years his senior is the answer, especially considering the wages he would likely ask for.
So who does that leave from the Premiership that may be a realistic target? Let’s start with goalkeepers – Mowbray made no secret at the end of the season that although Raya had done admirable in his first season in the 2nd tier and he is ultimately the long term number 1, more experience is needed both on match day and on the training pitch to help progress Raya. West Ham’s Adrian is out of contract this summer, and at 32 is by no means past his best and brings a depth of experience and is also Spanish, like Raya. For the right wages he would be worth taking a hit on to provide that know-how and experience at the back; and, looking at the Premier League, there is only potentially Watford and Bournemouth who may be on the look-out for a new keeper.
Next up, a position that has been a weak spot for a couple of years now, right back. I like Ryan Nyambe but he has very much been thrust in at the deep-end and I’m not too sure Mowbray fully trusts him in the position yet. One player available on a free transfer is Carl Jenkinson. He has never really cut it at Arsenal but has arguably had stiff competition, but he has experience at the top level, and lets face it, Arsene Wenger doesn’t sign too many players who don’t have something about them.
Another option at full-back could be proverbial loanee and former Rover Todd Kane. He is probably the last consistently 7 out of 10 every week full back we had at the club (back in 2013-14) and he comes with the added benefit that he can play at either left or right back, with Rovers being weak on both sides. Since graduating at Chelsea in 2011, Kane has spend six season out on loan at various clubs amassing 155 appearances. Wherever he has been, he has played, and that says a lot about his quality and consistency. I don’t imagine he’s ever been a mega-bucks earner at Chelsea so his wage demands, especially for a permanent place in a team, could be well within Rovers’ budget.
As well as looking at free transfer options to bring in, Rovers have also inevitably had to let players out of contract leave or be free to discuss potential moves with suitors. Of those to be allowed to leave the majority are youngsters such as Jack Doyle and Lewis Mansell, but the biggest surprise for me was to see Paul Downing wasn’t having his contract renewed. Downing came in to the club on loan at the beginning of the 2017-18 season in League One and was made a permanent fixture the following January. However, despite proving to be a more than able replacement for Lenihan, as soon as the Irishman was back fit, Downing dropped to the bench and has found first team starts somewhat of a rarity since. However, when he has played, Rovers have a very good record – I know that at least up to January/February of last year, there was a ridiculous statistic like Rovers hadn’t lost with him on the pitch. I truly believe one of Mowbray’s biggest mistakes at the helm was to allow Downing to go out on loan to Doncaster last January without the option to recall him – with him at the back when we succumbed to a number of injuries after the Brentford game I’m sure we would’ve picked up more points and the run not been as terrible. At 27, Downing still has a number of good years left in him and I can’t see him having been on massive wages, so I can only assume Mowbray doesn’t see him as a starter every week so is letting him go so he can play first team football. Someone is going to get a bargain in Mr Reliable, Paul Downing.
In addition to those released, Rovers confirmed they are discussing potential stays for Craig Conway, Jack Rodwell and Ben Gladwin. Conway has been Mr Consistent for Rovers since his arrival from Cardiff and in particular Rovers have turned to him during bad runs, knowing what they are going to get: 100%, quality balls in to the box, and someone putting a shift in going both ways down the wing. He is another I believe is being allowed to leave to get more football than he would likely have seen at Ewood next season. Ben Gladwin is a strange one as he’s never had a run in the side and my only memory of him is blazing the ball over when confronted with an open goal 8 yards in front of the Blackburn End, akin to Ashley Ward against Manchester United. I don’t see him being at the club this time next year which tells me he’ll be given a contract to get fit and will probably then be out of the door.
Which brings us to Jack Rodwell. I wasn’t sure about Rodwell when he came in, but as long as his wages were sensible and he didn’t upset the apple cart, I thought he was an interesting signing. He’s proved to be a good option both at the back and in midfield, and I think he was treated harshly by the Sunderland Netflix documentary. At 28 he still has years left in him and as a free transfer, and on the right money, he isn’t a bad squad utility player. I can only think we are in discussions about new deals because he wants more money than we are willing to give him, or he is interested in the rumours of a move to Serie A with Torino or Sassuolo. He did a job last year and I don’t think many Rovers fans will see him in the same light as those at Sunderland did.
There reported to be some 130 players who are out of contract and played in the Championship last year, and I think Mowbray will look to exploit this market. As touched upon earlier I believe we need to strengthen at centre half, both full backs, a central midfielder to push Travis, Evans, Smallwood and replaced the outgoing Reed, a striker to take the weight off Danny Graham, and an experienced goalkeeper to push Raya.
Looking at the published lists of free agents, names like David Marshall (age 34) and Kieren Westwood (also age 34) stand out as potential experience who could be brought in on short-term deals to help develop and take the pressure off Raya (and Leutwiler to an extent). Looking across the back four, and Martin Cranie could provide experience at right back and give an option at centre half at 32 with over 300 appearances to his name, as could former Brentford right back, Moses Odubajo, 25 with 112 Championship appearances.
Moving in to midfield and two players who interest me but would have to be on the right wages are Villa’s Mila Jedinak (34) and Glenn Whelan (35) who are both available and are both a nightmare to play against; they also know how to get in the play-offs and would provide steel in midfield. Jedinak could also be an option at centre half as well. Other available midfielder of note include Bradley Johnson (32), Chris Brunt (34) and Wes Hoolahan (37). I’m not too sure whether Stewart Downing would improve the squad considering he would be on a decent wage, especially considering we’ve let Conway go.
Finally, further up the pitch, Frazier Campbell (31) is available after a somewhat less impact-full second spell with Hull and he has always been an enigma to me. He had a great record during his first spell (on loan) with Hull but has failed to live up to that reputation since – he’s an option as someone to take the load off Danny Graham, but I think we would be better giving Brereton, Samuel or Nuttall the chance, and possibly looking abroad for other options. The last player to make the list is someone I don’t expect to end up at Ewood, but at the same time he is going to have to take a massive pay-cut and I can’t see anyone higher up than the Championship being interested in him – Ross McCormack (32). Last seen doing a world tour after claiming his gates at home had broken preventing him making it to training, he has since spent loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Motherwell, scoring 16 goals in 32 appearances. It comes as no surprise that he has been released by Villa especially after the rumours that despite no involvement in their promotion season, he was set to receive a pay-rise to £75k a week – I very much doubt he’ll get half of that wherever he ends up, but with his stock so low at the minute, there are worse options if the numbers are right.
“If the numbers are right” is a phrase I think we’ll hear a lot this summer. Mowbray obviously sees an opportunity for Rovers to have a good go at making the top 6 but I think he is a sensible man who is all to aware of the financial restrictions Rovers must work within; and the club are all too familiar of what happens when you bet the farm on promotion. Rovers need to be looking at building on the good young squad that they currently have, seasoning it with some experienced pros – but those that come in must be on sensible money, maybe even incentivised deals, and they must be committed to the cause – the last thing Rovers need is spending money we don’t necessarily have on has-been mercenaries after one last pay check (cough* Danny Murphy cough*). When you look at the teams who’ll compete in the Championship next season, there isn’t anyone you look at and think “they’ll run away with it”, and similarly there aren’t any teams you think Rovers can’t beat, so there is a real opportunity for Blackburn to make a mark next season.
You never know.