Whilst the domestic footballing calendar takes a break for two weeks for the next round of internationals, it comes at a time when the leagues are starting the take shape after ten games, and we are getting hints as to how the seasons are going to go: who is going to be up there challenging for the title and promotion; who is going to struggle; and who is destined for a season of mid-table mediocrity.
Before a ball was kicked this season, Blackburn Rovers were priced at around 14/1 to win the Championship and 7/1 for promotion – fast forward two months and they sit 12th in the table, 4 points off the play-offs. At this time of the season this is not a bad place to be key – the key to a successful Championship season is to get a decent start and then either continue that through the season and walk the league to the title or automatic promotion, or stay within touching distance of the play-offs and put a run together after Christmas. Looking at the league table – it seems Blackburn may have to settle for the latter. Their form so far this season reads: played 11, won 4, drawn 3 and lost 4 – a symbol of what has summed why they are so far down the table despite promising signs: inconsistency. Blackburn have been unable to find any form – they will one or two, then proceed to draw or lose the next two games.
Case in point: look at the last 3 games played before the International break: Watford at home, Rotherham away, and Huddersfield at home. Before the kick-off against Watford, I was looking at a minimum point’s return of 5, hopefully 7 or 9. The outcome – 2 points: fighting back from two nil down to get a point against Watford; two unlucky goals conceded against Rotherham; and a missed penalty leading to a goalless draw against Huddersfield. To be up there challenging for the top spots, these are the games you need to be getting maximum points from. But are Blackburn good enough to be in the higher reaches of the league?
Too many Blackburn fans who look on from a far think we are still the Premier League outfit we were under Sounness and Hughes, and that our former glories should mean we walk games against the likes of Rotherham and Huddersfield. Anybody who has ever watched the Championship will tell you this is not the case – the minute you drop in to the Championship, it is a completely different ball game. A long hard slog where you need to grind out results – there is a place for flair and free-flowing attacking football, but there is also a bigger space for grit and determination. The expectations at Ewood don’t seem to align with this, and too many supporters have been too quick to forget the circus of the last season in the Premier League and the first season in the Championship.
The game against Huddersfield is a good example: Blackburn were by far the better team, they created heaps of chances but were unable to take any, even missing a penalty. At the end of the game fans were bitterly disappointed, which is fair enough, but for certain sections of the crowd to start questioning Gary Bowyer’s tenure is completely outrageous and ridiculous. Had Rhodes put his penalty away and we had come away with a one nil win, the mood would have been completely different, 4 points from 9 and 2 points off the play-offs, with an optimism with the amount of chances we were creating. Despite the result, the football is far far better than what we have experienced in the probably the last 5 years.
The supporters need to remember how far the team, and club, have come in the last two years. Two years ago the mood and feeling at Ewood was toxic under the management of Steve Kean. The negativity was transferring to the players on the pitch, and no sooner were the players on the pitch, if they weren’t winning, the crowd was on their backs – it wasn’t their fault, it was aimed at the manager. Looking at the team now, we have players who look to express themselves, want to get forward, strikers who score goals, and if things aren’t going too well, then dig in to try and grind results out. Further to that, we have options in most areas of the pitch. Perhaps most importantly, this transformation has been done almost on a shoestring to ensure the books are as balanced as possible ahead of potentially Financial Fair Play implications.
I say to those questioning Bowyers tenure: Remember the first season we were back in the Championship when we were so quick to fire off managers who did not deliver instant success – we diced with relegation for parts of the season, and depended on Bowyer to drag us out of the mire. Who else is there our there at the minute? Added to this, who else is there out there who understands the club and the financial predicament? My worry would be that if Bowyer is relieved of his duties, we would be back to square one, bringing a manager in who doesn’t understand the clubs financial situation, would look to spend money on established names to get the fans on side, and we would end with an unsettled and aging squad, deep in the depths of Financial Fair Play issues, and back to the drawing board with regards to a style of play and ‘team’.
My opinion is that Bowyer is the right man for the job, but perhaps he does need some help. I think the key to progressing from stability to challengers is an experienced assistant. Someone who has been there and done it, and can draw on experience of various situations. The example of when we are behind in games is a good one – Bowyer seems to lack the experience or the courage to change things, dramatically if needed, which often leads to the team struggling on trying the same methods with no rewards. A number 2 could give him the ideas and support to try different things to change games, rooting in the knowledge that they have done it before, with success. The big question of who this should be, is a tricky one. Again, who is there out there who could do it, and also who would want it? I think we would need to look to someone who has a history of management both at this level and in the Premiership, but it would need to be clear from the start that their role was as a number two to put to bed any potential rumours of power struggles. Someone like Sounness would be a good fit, but unfortunately, I don’t think he would take it.
At the minute, we are not situated badly in the league, and we are well placed to stay close to the play-offs with the hope of a good run from January/February to the end of the season. However, on current evidence I don’t think the team is quite the finished article yet, and you have to question that if we did go on a run, would we end up like a Burnley or a West Brom, of past years, coming straight back down with the Premiership proving to big a step up. That said, looking at the likes of Southampton, Hull and Swansea, who went up arguably a season too soon, and they have survived just fine, whilst also playing decent football. Only time will tell.