As Manchester City took on Barcelona at the Etihad this week, it marked 15 years since City took on Macclesfield in what is now League 1. I imagine if you had told fans then, that in 15 years’ time they would be taking on Barcelona in the second stage of the Champions League after finishing runners up to Manchester United a season after winning the top tier of English Football, you would have been laughed at and ridiculed, and potentially sectioned. Yet they did not look out of place, and they look as though they are here to stay in the higher reaches of the footballing ether, perhaps progressing further.
In contrast, after taking over the helm at Blackburn Rovers the poultry farmers, Venkys, announced that they would bring Champions League football within a number of years back in 2011 – at the time, Blackburn were in mid-table and had reportedly made an offer to sign superstar Ronaldinho – so not to massive a statement. However, they had just sacked an established manager and replaced him with an inexperienced coach, lost the entire boardroom, and started to lose the faith and trust of the fans. In many ways, the claim was no more far-fetched than the reality of what has happened to Manchester City.
Since making the claim, Blackburn have tumbled from the Premier League; lost the majority of their ‘star’ players; replaced these with a Portuguese contingent along with a number of experienced senior players to work on the promotion project; gone through a whole raft of manager; lost countless lifelong fans in the process, and generally been a laughing stock to all not related to the club. As a result of this, you could say expectations have changed and ambitions have had to be recalibrated. At the minute, the chances of Blackburn taking on Barcelona are about as remote as they would have seemed to Manchester City fans back in 1999 (whilst their neighbours where on their way to lifting ‘Ole Big Ears).
Back in 2010 under the management of Sam Allardyce and following a successful relegation battle and a season of stabilising, ambitious expectations would have been a cup run and perhaps a glimmer of hope of the Europa League – if offered the prospect of maybe making the play-offs at an outside chance, most supporters would likely, and rightly, have been furious at the thought.
Fast forward to the current day, where Blackburn sit just outside of the play-offs but unable to string any sort of play-off-worthy winning run together, and the majority of Blackburn fans would tell you they are relatively happy with that. Given that the club very nearly faced a second successive relegation last time out, this is to be expected. The credit for this goes to Gary Bowyer.
After stepping in and doing a job which saved Blackburn from that relegation last season, Bowyer was given the job permanently, seemingly with a target more based on the wage bill than the league table. The job he has done so far has been admirable as well impressive. He has managed to reduce the wage bill significantly at the expense of losing some of the more senior players, and he has replaced them with young and hungry talent who like to get the ball down and play it. He has also been faced with the issue of continued speculation of the sale of the prized asset Jordan Rhodes, the off-field rumours and unrest with certain players, and other players being dragged through the media on alleged match-fixing allegations – but despite all this, he has the team sat within touching distance of the play-offs (in 10th 7 points off 6th), still hold of Rhodes, and playing a much better brand off football than has been seen in recent years. The squad is young, talented and raw, but most of all, it is showing commitment, passion and a drive to play the game the ‘proper’ way.
For many, myself included, although the play-offs are very much still achievable, it would be a step too far too soon. The squad has only really been together for 6-8 months and is only just beginning to click, and it has yet to really reach its true potential. If we were to achieve promotion, there is a worry and a danger that this could be a step backward – results would be difficult to come by; fans may get restless again; frustrations may get vented towards the owners again (who incidentally must take credit for the teams current position thanks to their trust in Bowyer, their acknowledgement that Rhodes should be kept at all costs, and most of all, there acceptance to take a step back and stop interfering – perhaps more importantly, their decision to relieve Shebby Singh from his duties); and as a result, the owners may make a knee-jerk reactions and sack Bowyer – undoing all the good work that has been done in the last ten months or so.
Looking at the bigger picture, a third season in the Championship would allow Bowyer to further build his squad, further install his footballing beliefs, and further allow the team to integrate and hopefully show what they are capable if. Preferably demonstrating this by achieving automatic promotion and avoiding the play-offs. It may not be next season, or the season after that, but if it puts the club on a better, more sustainable, financial footing, allows for better football to be played, and allows for the evolution of a squad, I’m happy to wait and still have a football club to go and support every week.
A third season in the Championship, may for many, be seen as a disappointed but it could be a building block to a brighter future – maybe not on the scale of Manchester City’s rise to playing Barcelona; but who knows, 15 years is a long time, and I bet at the end of that game at Macclesfield the Manchester City fans would have settled for a further season lower down the leagues if it meant a greater rise to a greater success.