One more win.
(Or one more game where Shrewsbury don’t win).
If you’d have told me after the 3:1 home defeat to Doncaster back in August that we could potentially have automatic promotion sealed with two games to spare I would most likely have laughed in your face. We were awful that day. Abysmal. Possibly the worst I’ve seen us play in a very long time. I remember looking at the side that day and thinking “there’s a few new faces so it’s going to take a while for them to settle and find a rhythm; and we’re a big fish in this League One pond, so we’ll be many teams cup final”. The squad that day included Caddis, Dack, Gladwin, Smallwood, Whittingham and Samuel (6 out of 18, a third of the side) all making only their second competitive appearance for the side. Rarely do so many changes click together straight away (I hoped), and rarely does the first draft end up being the winning formula. Looking back at the squad that day and there have been a lot of changes which have brought us to where we are now – with Caddis, Ward, Gladwin, Samuel and Whittingham playing less of a part as the season has gone on, in part due to injuries. One thing about league football is that you don’t win titles or get promoted in August, with most promotion pushes coming at around Christmas time. I hoped.
The loss that day, following the loss on the opening day, have been two of only five defeats all season (the other three coming against Wimbledon, Oldham and Plymouth – the latter being the last which came on the 3rd February, sandwiched in-between a 32 game unbeaten run). The fact that Rovers have only lost once in a 33 game run is remarkable, possibly only exceeded in remarkableness by the fact they still haven’t guaranteed automatic promotion despite sitting on 90 points. In the last two seasons, 90 points would have guaranteed automatic promotion, and in the year before last it would have been enough to win the division. I’m not counting my chickens as there are still three games to go, but Rovers not to be promoted would take two losses and a draw (which has not happened all season) and for Shrewsbury to re-find their form and win all three. Skybet aren’t currently offering odds of Rovers to be promoted.
Tony Mowbray has does a fantastic job – in fact, ‘fantastic’ doesn’t do it justice. When he took over the club were already staring relegation in the face; their was a disharmony between the supporters and the club and its owners, and the future looked very bleak – if we had continued the way we were going we would be looking at League Two right now rather than a return to the Championship. I have to be honest I wasn’t too excited by the appointment and I thought the timing was poor coming on the back of a spirited performance in defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup. What I can say however is (I was wrong about Mowbray, he was just what we needed) “I was there for the beginning of the Mowbray revolution” – a 1-1 draw away at fellow struggler’s Burton Albion. At the time I thought this was a must win game if we wanted to avoid relegation, and in the end it turned out to be that way, but I think most Rovers fans saw a change in the team that night, and most would agree that relegation was sealed by the draw at home to Preston in the last minute later that season. During the game at Burton two gents behind me were jokingly making comments like: “look how hungry they look? He’s not fed them all week!” and “one week and he’s got them playing like Brazil”. I laughed at the time, but looking back Mowbray has done exactly that: he’s got them fighting for every ball with a never say die attitude, and he’s got us playing some nice football. Where in the past we would pass to midfield, go sideways and then go back again, we now seem to have that ability to open up a defence; something we have lacked since before we were relegated from the Premier League.
In hand with the performances on the pitch, off the field there is more of a connect between the club, the players and the fans. In this day and age it is easy to criticise overpaid players for fooling about on social media showing how big the gap is between them and normal life; but what the club and players have done brilliantly is use social media to build that bridge between the club and the players. If it isn’t videos of players having snowball fights, its the players praising the fans for their support, or praising each other, and always reiterating “it’s good to score/win, but the ultimate aim for the season is promotion”. A good example this weekend was the number of first team players who took the time to congratulate the Under 23’s on winning the PL2 – yes it only takes 30 seconds to send a tweet, but do you see the likes of Paul Pogba or Dele Alli doing the same? When they score a goal you can see what it means to each and everyone of the players, and that resonates with the fans. There is a feeling that the players know what the supporters have been through over the last decade, and they want to be part of something special which could, hopefully, get the club back up to the big time.
After two draws in a week, including conceding a last minute equaliser, I thought we had piled the pressure on ourselves. Yes it was still in our hands, but it relied on us not throwing away two many more points going in to the last four games – a tough ask considering the recent form of the likes of Peterborough and Charlton. What I hadn’t accounted for was how much Shrewsbury would drop off a cliff like a set of Pirelli tyres after 30 laps of a Grand Prix. Two draws and a defeat in their last three games has been a welcome drop in form for Rovers, and it coincided with them losing at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy. It can’t be overestimated how big an effect a defeat at Wembley can have on a team, especially when it is to lower league opposition and you are the favourites (something Shrewsbury can’t have been too familiar with going in to a tie at the national stadium) – but it has turned out that way. Going in to the last three games of the season it is difficult, given their recent run of form, to see them winning all three games – let alone Rovers losing two or three. They’ve still to play Peterborough at home (which will be tough given how they played in the first half at Ewood last week), Blackpool away (another tough game given Blackpool have won their last four scoring a total of 13 goals and conceding only one), and MK Dons (who may potentially still be fighting for survival). In comparison, Rovers have Doncaster away (who are almost certain of survival and can’t make the play-offs), Charlton away (a very tricky game given their recent good form and push in to the play off positions), and Oxford at home (they may not be out of danger but it is a game Rovers would expect to win). As I say, I’m not counting my chickens, but we should be able to get across the line in advance of the last game of the season.
Congratulations must go to Wigan who guaranteed promotion this weekend – 93 points with three games to go means they could break the 100 point barrier and that would be a massive achievement. They’ve so far lost more games than Rovers, but not drawn as many. What amuses me on social media and even in comments from their manager Paul Cook is how they are trying to create a rivalry with Rovers claiming how pleasing it is for them to achieve promotion before us and how happy they will be if they win the league ahead of us, claiming we got carried away with ourselves. I don’t think any Rovers fan looked at the table when we went to the top and Wigan had 3 games in hand, and thought “that’s that wrapped up”. Also, I don’t think many Rovers fans care about winning the league – the sole aim of the season has been to get promotion. Whether that be in first or second place I don’t think anybody cares (I’d even take Play-Offs at a push!). I think this says a lot about Wigan and their ambition though – ask a supporter of any club below the Premier League and they would say the same: the goal is to get to the big league, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Focussing and bragging so much about a league title in the third tier of pyramid screams short-termism for me; I like to think at Ewood we are looking at the bigger, longer-term picture of where the club wants to be at the end of the next decade: back in the Premier League. Yes a title is nice, but at this stage and level, that’s all it is, a nice to have.
Looking back at the last short stay Rovers had in the Third Division, that side also came second, with a total of 59 points (from the same 46 games), finishing 3 points off top and 1 point above third. I hope we don’t go into the last game of the season with the potential of only finishing one point above Shrewsbury; but if come 7:30 pm on the 5th May, we have finished second by just a point, I for one won’t care.
Mowbray had a dream……