Following Blackburn Rovers poor showing last week at home against Wolves, with the game ending in a one nil defeat for the Rovers; a one all draw at Wigan a week later – a team nearing the bottom of the Championship and with a manager with only one win since taking charge – will have done little to get the naysayers off Gary Bowyers back.
Towards to the end of the Wolves game shouts of “You don’t know what you’re doing” rang from certain sections of the crowd, and the team were booed off at the final whistle. It was reminiscent of the Steve Kean era – although this manager has without question been much more of a success. After the game, there was unrest amongst fans, with utterings of Bowyer having run his course, and questions of whether he was really the man to take the club forward, and to take us back to the Premier League. A look at the fixture list reveals that Rovers haven’t won in the league since the 20th December, and before that not since the 22nd November – that’s just two league wins in eight. Yet, Blackburn still sit 10th in the league table, just 8 points off the Play-Offs with 20 games still to play and 60 points still on offer. They said that every team that gets promoted has a bad run, if we have had ours through November-January, we are still well placed to make a push for the top 6. Looking at the teams above us, there are only really Derby and Bournemouth who have been a cut above us, and possibly Sheffield Wednesday – a team who we were unlucky to lose against, but whose forward line of May and Nuhiu are probably the best attacking force in terms of movement and work-rate I have seen at Ewood this year. To put it simply, we have been poor for the last ten or so games, but despite that, there is no reason for drastic measures, we are still well placed for the play-offs, although an extra 3 points would have helped.
A common argument for the changing of the guard at Ewood has been that we have a squad good enough for promotion, but not the manager. I will admit that we do have a far better squad, and a squad with far more potential ability that that which we got relegated with, and at times Bowyer does seem to select strange teams and make seemingly random substitutions – but that is his prerogative. He sees these players every day in training, and to be fair to him, on the subject of substitutions, he has numerous times made changes which have seen us grab a late point, or all three. Whether the squad is good enough and he is holding the team back is separate debate. There have been times this season that we have looked very good, and at other times, we have looked very poor – the players have been the same. Some players have blown hot and cold too much – Marshall for instance, will be unplayable one week, then mediocre the next; Hanley will look like a solid centre back one week, but the following week he will look a liability – to name just two. Bowyer cannot be to blame for such swings in form and game impact.
Looking at other teams in the Championship and the football played in the Premiership, what Blackburn do lack is pace. Too often we will win the ball back from the oppositions attack but then stumble in to an attack rather than implement a full-blown counter – by the time we get to the oppositions penalty box they have recovered with numbers back. We lack someone to take players on at full-speed, opting for getting to the half-way line, stopping and going sideways, and losing all the impetus. Marshall has at times looked capable of this, as has King, but too often the end product has been missing, or the know-how to pass at the right moment has been lost. Olsson on the other-hand has undoubtable pace, but seems to hit an imaginary wall when he reaches the half-way line. With a defensive midfielder on the pitch in either Lowe or Williamson, there should be no fear of bombing on and attacking, safe in the knowledge that someone is there to cover any potential counter-counter attack from the opposition. Perhaps the biggest criticism of Bowyer is that he is too wary of losing games, rather than intent on winning them. If this is the case, his mind set evidently isn’t working as we have lost numerous games over the last 3 months, without taking the game to our opponents. The last few games have shown that even if we do take a lead, we do not have the quality and solidness at the back to hold on to a lead, or keep it tight and push for a win late on. Defensively, unfortunately, it has to be said, that we cannot rely on not conceding; but attacking-wise we have two of the most prolific strikers in the league, undoubted quality in Cairney and Marshall, and pace in King and Conway – surely, if we cannot defend, the solution should be to outscore the opposition? At Bolton away on Boxing Day we had chances to close the game out before half-time but we couldn’t take them – on another day the attacking philosophy could have been a success, maybe if it was, we would’ve continued it.
The January window is often seen as the critical point at which changes can last be made to achieve season objectives – whether that be promotion or relegation, or solidarity – but would a change at Ewood be a good idea? Look at it this way: when Bowyer took charge we were plummeting to League One; he steadied the ship and in his first full season, missed out on the Play-Offs on goal difference; during this time he has slashed the wage bill, got rid of players who were not willing to fight for the shirt and the cause, and rebuilt his squad on a shoestring with promising young players, whilst still remaining competitive; he has since been hit with a transfer embargo, told the club is losing £30+m every year, and forced to content with rumours about his best players every transfer window. With all this is mind, to be sat 10th in the league and still with a shout of play-offs and promotion is fantastic in my eyes. If Bowyer was to be shown the door, who would he be replaced with? It is hardly likely that experienced managers and managers with experience of promotion from the Championship would be queuing around the block to take over at a club with less than no money, a transfer embargo, top players rumoured to be leaving, and seemingly overly expectant fans, especially with the history of the Venkys issuing P45’s. So if you can’t get an experienced manager in, you would have to look to someone young like a Sherwood who would undoubtedly want money, and who has no experience of the Championship and little experience of management in general. Similarly, murmurs of Tugay should listen to their head and not their heart – he has minimal managerial experience, has not managed in England, and would be expected to hit the ground running. Another alternative, the return of Souness is a potential fit, but would he leave his cushty job with Sky? Would he want a return to a club he was successful with, but left when his success ran its course? And would he want a job with no money? In summary, what Blackburn require is a manager with a particular set of skills – whether that person exists is questionable. At least with Bowyer we have the stability and the potential for Play-Offs – a change to the manager may rock the boat with players, board and potentially most importantly, finances.
This moment in time is a critical one for Blackburn Rovers and their future. Bad decisions at this moment could be irreparable. Every time the finances are announced, the situation looks bleaker and bleaker for the Rovers. If it is decided that the solution to the problem is Promotion, at all costs, it is a massive gamble. If we put all our resources in to that basket: sacking Bowyer and holding on to players with saleable assets, if it goes wrong, the damage may not be able to be undone and a tumble down the leagues may be the best we can hope for, ahead of administration and what other dire consequences could await us. Yes, I would love for us to get promoted, but if it took five years of mid-table, top ten football, for use to achieve in the seventh year, with a sound financial footing, a sensible wage structure, a sustainable business model, I would take that option over the mid-season gamble any day – the Premier League is not going anywhere, but if we make bad decisions, Blackburn Rovers could very well disappear, sinking to the trap door of the football league. There is too much short-term thinking at amongst Blackburn Rovers fans at the minute and too many recent memories of success which make them believe we should be higher up the league/divisions than we are. In truth, we are a team relegated from the Premier League, all our best players having left following relegation, massively in debt, and with a transfer embargo in place – realistically, I ask, were should we be positioned? Before you claim Bowyer “doesn’t know what his doing” and start calling for his sack, just think where such decisions could leave the club, and where the club would be without him.
As a final thought – think of Portsmouth and Leeds. I bet if you asked them whether they would change history and swap their challenges for success for five years of mediocrity, rather than seasons spent in the lower leagues on a shoestring, not knowing whether their club would survive, I bet they would take the mediocrity. The drop through the leagues can feel almost instant, but the journey back to the top can feel as though it is never ending. I say stick with Bowyer, he may not be a Mourinho, a Rodgers or a Warnock, but he has given the club a fighting chance, and for that he deserves the right to play this out. For me, he has done, and is still doing, a fantastic job – in the modern day football is not just played on the pitch; in the long-run it may be that Bowyer’s fight off the pitch to keep the club competitive, is just as important, if not more important, than the form on the pitch.
*End Note: Until the Play-Off final was moved from Saturday 23rd May to Monday 25th, Blackburn looked a shoe-in for the Play-Offs, much to my annoyance as this is the day I would be flying to Greece to get married, and would be at 35,000 feet whilst the game was being played. Since the Play-Off date was moved to the Monday, when I would be able to watch the game, results have gone pear-shaped. I would take the sacrifice of missing the Play-Off final if it meant promotion!