Two weeks ago, on the dawn of the new season, for the first time since probably when we had just been relegated from the Premier League, I had a sense of optimism about the season ahead. Given the signings we had made, the players and manager we had kept hold of, I was relatively confident that we would be finishing in the play-off spots at least, hopefully in the automatic places. I had turned my nose up at the naysayer pundits who thought we would face another season of struggling and I put my money were my mouth was and backed Rovers to win the Division.
An opening game away at Southend is not the ideal start for a team faced with the task of escaping the third tier of English football for the first time in almost three decades; it is probably the further journey and not a glamorous ground to say the least; and in Phil Brown they have a good experienced manager, and with players like Michael Kightly in their ranks, they undoubtedly have some quality. Before every game for the last couple of seasons, when asked how I thought Rovers would do at the weekend I have invariably responded “I’ll take a point”, and that was my response ahead of the Southend game – except, knowing that these are the sort of games we should be looking to win to get out of the division; saying “I’ll take point” for the next 46 games will only get us 46 points and that is nowhere near enough to mount a promotion charge. But in this instance, given the context, I was confident it would turn out to be a point gained rather than two dropped.
I was not surprised when we conceded first, and I wasn’t surprised that it was a moment of brilliance from Charlie Mulgrew that drew us level, and given recent history, especially in away games, it was no surprise when we went behind again and ended up losing. An opening day defeat away against a team who would be pushing for the play off’s was not the end of the world I thought, hopefully it would be the kick up the backside the players needed. On to game two, the first home game of the season.
The first home game of the season, the match football fans look forward to all summer, and what better way to kick off at Ewood than to face newly promoted Doncaster Rovers – a team who only a few months earlier where two divisions below Rovers. Surely this was what was needed to get us off the mark and some points on the board. Again, I was that confident I put us in my accumulator (for the record I also had Chelsea in that accumulator). Unlike the Southend game, this was a game against a newly promoted team, at home. Regardless of who you are playing, if you are looking for promotion you should be looking to win all your home games. Last season my optimism for the season lasted just 12 minutes against Norwich at home, I suppose I should just be happy that the optimism lasted in to the second half of the second game this season.
I think what is most disappointing about the start we have made is that it is the same old story – in fact not even the same old story, at least towards the end of last season we were taking the game to the opposition. Judging by Saturdays performance, teams view us as a big fish in this league and are happy to set up for a point with men behind the ball, and hit us on the counter-attack, something Doncaster did brilliantly on Saturday. The problem with this is that we are far too happy to pass the ball across the back four (three or five depending what stage of the game it was on Saturday) and wait for something to open up – which on most occasions it doesn’t because Tugay retired over 8 years ago and we are still looking for someone to provide that spark and creativity. What this does is put us under pressure and gets the fans frustrated (I am happy for us to keep the ball if it leads to something, but I am fairly confident that Barcelona would get booed off Ewood for “not getting it forward”) – with Ward and Mulgrew at the back it only takes one bad touch or misplaced pass and anyone with a bit of pace is away and in (see Mulgrew chasing back and conceding the penalty for Doncaster for reference). The only bright spark from the game – other than the final whistle – was the introduction of Bradley Dack who looked like he wanted the ball and looked like he wanted to go forward and create.
This brings me on to the formation and line-up on Saturday. We played with a formation that Mowbray will claim is a 3-4-3 with wing backs which enables us to get players forward when we have the ball, but which reverts to a 5-4-1 when we don’t. Call me a purist but at home in the third tier of English football what is wrong with 4-4-2? In a 4-4-2 system everyone knows their job and at home it puts at least two people up front to either deliver the ball to in the box, or to get the ball to for one to win and flick on. The problem with the 3-4-3 was that to often Danny Graham was isolated at the top of the pitch having to win the ball, hold it up and then try and do something with it – at his age and condition he should be in the 18 yard box waiting for the cross or the flick on to tap in the goal. This isn’t helped by the players tasked with getting forward to support him being Peter Whittingham and Elliot Bennett. Bennett has the pace and the legs to do this, albeit everything he tried on Saturday failed. On the other hand, Whittingham is coming towards the end of his career – lets face it, not many years ago he was touted as the best player in the Championship, if he was still of this calibre he wouldn’t be being released and dropping down a division. On Saturday I thought it was a case of his legs having gone and that he had fallen off the edge of the cliff with this being one season too many, but looking back now, I don’t think he has played as a winger for a number of years, and it was a similar role he was being asked to perform on Saturday. He is no longer a player who is going to get the ball on the halfway line and run at defenders, if he ever was. Surely his best position is in the centre of midfield orchestrating things. I was really impressed with signing him in the Summer – I only hope this isn’t a repeat of the Danny Murphy saga which promised so much and delivered so little.
What was evident on Saturday is that we struggle to break teams down when they retreat and often this leads to us creating opportunities for the opposition. To sections of the fans it looked as though the team didn’t care, but so early on in a season with many new faces and new formation which changed multiple times throughout the 90 minutes, it must be difficult for the players, who are also coming to terms with the league they find themselves in. Before the season started I thought that our best chance of getting out of this league was to leave the negativity around the owners on the other side of the turnstile and get behind the team 100%, and that with a good start the negativity would stay outside and allow for momentum and confidence to build. To resort to chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” after 70 minutes of the second game of the season helps no-one, no matter how poor the players performed I hope to think it hurt them too. Many of them have reputations which are dwindling by the season – they need to get out of this division for themselves as much as for the club and the fans. I will get absolute pelter’s for this but I was not, and am still not, disappointed that Big Sam got the sack. At the time we were a Premier League team who took to the pitch every week in the hope of a long throw, a corner or a free kick to give us a chance to get the ball in the box for the ‘big lads’ to cause trouble and get it in the net. At Premier League level you pay your money (and lots of it) to be entertained, not to cheer winning a set-piece or subjecting world class players to being roughed up. Even now when we are in League 1 I stick by this opinion. However, we are in League 1 now. Don’t get me wrong, there are players of real quality in this division, and I hope as the season goes on we see that many of these are in fact wearing the blue and white halves, but there comes a time when the ball has to stick up top to give you a chance of winning football games. I’m not saying “lets play the statistics and keep putting the ball long and in to the mixer until it drops for us and we score”, I like all other football fans, like to see good skilful, free flowing football – but when you are trailing to a recently promoted team by 2 goals with 20 minutes, or when you are struggling to create anything, there is always an argument for putting another striker on and just getting the ball forward. It’s a last resort, but it always has to be remembered as a resort.
So where does this leave us? From the above it may sound like we are in a relegation battle already, but we are only 2 league games in of a new season with a lot of new players still to gel and find their place. If we are still playing this bad come Bonfire Night then yes, we have a problem – but I don’t think it will come to that. I was sceptical about Mowbray when he was appointed, but in the end he was Sam-Gallagher-taking-the ball-in-the-corner away from keeping us up, so we have to keep faith with him; any calls for his exit are misplaced (if he did go, who exactly are we going to turn to with any experience of getting out of this league). We have Bradford away up next which is by no means the perfect tonic to get over the defeat – they are decent side who themselves will be looking at promotion this season; but this could be to our advantage. The fact they are looking up the table and already have two league wins under their belt, and are at home, will mean that unlike Doncaster, they will look to create rather than sit behind the ball, and that could work in our favour, as could the fact that we have not had a midweek game so Mowbray has had another 7 days to work on formations and tactics. The least we need out of the game is a draw and a positive performance, especially with them Dingles down the road coming up. In an ideal world, we would be 4 games (including the EFL Cup) and 4 wins in to the season, brimming with confidence, looking forward to facing them with al the pressure on them. In true Rovers style, it hasn’t played out that way and we have somehow managed to put more pressure on ourselves, playing a team which, it pains me to say, are two divisions above us in the football pyramid.
Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk