As the curtain falls on another football season Blackburn Rovers must be pleased with their final standing in the league.
Reaching 60 points and finding themselves closer to the play-offs (14 points) than the relegation zone (20 points) in the first season back in the second tier is an achievement, not to mention finishing the highest placed of the promoted teams and above the likes of Stoke City who had been tipped for promotion. Some fans wanted a tilt at double promotion especially after such a positive start, but realistically, anything other than survival and stability this season is a bonus. The club are back to the level they arguably should be at this moment in time, and to secure survival with games to spare shows how good a job Tony Mowbray has done in his two and a half years at the club. It would have been nice to get the winner our second half performance against Swansea arguably deserved so we would have finished above Preston, but on day one of the season I would have happily taken finishing 21st on goal difference.
Making the play offs looks like it wasn’t too far off on paper, but anyone who has watched Rovers this season will tell you that the number of late goals conceded this term was ultimately what cost them a run at extending the season, as well as the number of goals conceded in general away from home. Probably my biggest criticism of Mowbray from the season has been how we start chasing games, particularly away from home, when we go behind, making multiple changes in personnel and formation, only for the game to get further away from us. On a number of occasions, we would concede at around the hour mark and instead of keeping it tight for 10-15 minutes, Mowbray would throw an attacker on or change formation to make us more attacking, only for our defensive frailties to be exposed. The away game at Brentford for me was the turning point: two goals up away from home and on a decent run would have given momentum and belief to a play-off push but to end up losing the game 5-2 and picking up injuries to key players ended up with Rovers looking downwards with growing concern rather than upwards.
Mowbray put his faith in the players that got him promoted and stuck with them for large parts of the season, but as we entered the final third of the campaign and with a poor run of results meaning relegation was a possibility, he changed his team and picked players on current form and ability, rather than his loyalty – and this is something I expect to continue as we prepare for next season. He was right to repay the players who got us promoted, but he was also right to change things when he had to, and this can only be seen as a positive. Looking at the Swansea game and it was good to see the likes of Chapman and Davenport get some game time, following on from Brereton’s recent start also.
The average age of the squad for the Swansea game was just 24 and when you factor in the outliers of Conway, Graham and Mulgrew, that age is even more impressive. It is also a sign that the future is bright for the club. Most of those youngsters have proved that they can at least compete at the Championship level, and with the right experienced heads in amongst them, there is every chance we could make a tilt at the play-offs next season. We do need to strengthen though, and nowhere more so than at the back. Williams and Lenihan have formed a good partnership at the back over the last few weeks and although it pains me to say it, I don’t think Mulgrew is good enough as a centre half at this level, at least not anymore. I think earlier in the season Mowbray played him for his set pieces and attacking contributions, but it is no good scoring 2 and conceding 3. He will be a good backup next season but I think we need someone in their mid to late twenties, with experience, to come in and marshal the defence and provide some stability – I think letting Downing go out on loan is what killed our season, but it shows Mowbray doesn’t perhaps see him as the solution, so I’d expect a new centre half in over the summer. I’d also expect at least a new right back or left back – time again this season sides have exploited our full backs. My opinion is that Bell isn’t up to the task as he doesn’t sense danger and doesn’t provide enough going forwards. Nyambe on the other hand has the potential to be a very good right back so I’d expect to see more of him next season, especially having signed a new contract recently. If I was playing Championship Manager, I’d be looking for a DC and D (R/L/C) to provide cover across the back four.
Mowbray’s experiment with Leutwiler will have told him that he isn’t the answer in goal – he has made some good saves, but they have been right at him, and he has looked painfully low getting down to shots either side. David Raya is for me undoubtedly the future for Rovers in the number one position, but he needs to be pushed by someone with more experience. Like the last time we got promoted back to the Premier League when we had the old head of Friedel coming in, I’d like to see us bring in an experienced keeper to take the heat off Raya and to help with his progression. I don’t like the idea of Joe Hart or Scott Carson, but someone along the lines of John Ruddy wouldn’t be a bad signing.
Further up the pitch I think this season has proved a step too far for Richie Smallwood and although you can never question his effort, I think he lacks the quality required to impact games going forward in the Championship. Apart from a couple of patchy performances in the final weeks of the season (by patchy I’m referring to his passing and nothing else), Travis has looked to be the find of the season and adds the quality Smallwood lacks whilst keeping his energy and combative nature. I think we need another central midfielder who can break games up but also contribute going forward – providing the backbone for a young and pacey attacking corp. Rothwell has been impressive towards the end of the season when given game time and he always looks to move us up the pitch when he gets the ball. Add in to that mix the pace of Armstrong and Chapman and we could be very dangerous on the counter attack next season.
Although at times this season, I’ve criticised Dack, his stats speak for themselves and 18 goals and 7 assists in his first season at this level is a fantastic return which will attract interest in the summer. My advice to Dack would be to think about the teams that are interested and whether he would get the permission to play in a relatively free number 10 role. Any Premier League club interested in him is unlikely to play with a 10 the way we do with Dack, which will result in him either being played deeper in central midfield, out wide or up top, and that is a waste of his talent. If he keeps his head-down and works hard clubs won’t be able to buy him and play him out of position. Hopefully he’ll give us at least one more season.
Danny Graham deservedly won player of the season and he has worked hard for it. He’s proved me wrong yet again as I thought he’d jump ship when we went down to League One and I didn’t think he’d be up to it back in the Championship. As an aging striker so many younger players could learn from his work rate and performances on the pitch, and it is testament to how well he as played that he is arguably the most important player in the team – so much of our game relays on his efforts at the top of the pitch and the way he brings players in to the game from midfield. Ben Brereton looks to be the future up front and there is no one better for him to learn from; starting by getting on the weights and bulking up so he’s not as easily brushed off the ball. His goal against Bolton shows he has pace and ability and let’s not forget he’s still only 20 years old – if you forget about the price tag, he is another exciting youngster. It will be interesting to see how Dominic Samuel comes back as well after what will be almost a full 12 months, he could like getting a new signing. Given the question marks about Samuel after his injury and the lack of Championship experience in the youngsters, I’d like to see us move for an established striker to take some of the load off Graham – someone like a Shane Long, who I thought would be available given his poor scoring record in recent seasons in the Premier League, but then went on a scoring streak, so maybe he won’t be available now, or not at the price and wages we would like him to be. It will also be good to see Dan Butterworth get some more game time as he looked like another exciting youngster coming through when he came on against Bolton.
When we went down to League One, I thought it was a good time to put our faith in youth but if we could blood them in to a winning team in the Championship that would be even better. Recent media has said that the Academy costs around £3m each year to continue running and you have to acknowledge that the owners didn’t look to cut this cost when we got relegated. It only takes a couple of good prospects to come through and be sold for decent money (or help us get promoted) and the Academy has paid for itself. I’m interested to see how the likes of Butterworth, Magloire, Grayson, Buckley and Rankin-Costello can progress next season if given their chance in the first team – just look at how well Travis has done this year since coming in.
In my opinion the best team I’ve seen at Ewood this season was Sheffield United by a long way, so I’m pleased they got promoted. They also got dealt a bad hand the last time they were in the top flight, and with Chris Wilder in charge they have a very good manager; I’m also pleased for Billy Sharp to get his chance at the top level, he’s been through a lot but he has always scored goals and his moved at Ewood caused us no end of problems.
Where should we be aiming next season? The pessimist in me says anything other than relegation is a good season, but I can also see the potential this squad has, and I’d hope for us to be pushing for the play-offs at the end of next season. If you look back at the points we dropped late on from winning positions this season, those 14 points may not be too difficult to make up. Ultimately, I think we may fall short, but it would be good to have a real go and look upwards for a season rather than over our shoulder at relegation – get to 40 points and then see where we can go. If we don’t quite make it next season it will be another year of experience for a young squad and we can look to the following season. What we don’t want to do is gamble the future of the club on new signings to get us promoted (like in the Kean era when we gambled and spent big on the likes of Best, Murphy and Etuhu, which still cripples the club financially to this day). I trust Mowbray to get it right and bring in the right kind of player whilst also introducing some of the Academy products in to the first team. I also trust that the Venkys appreciate how good a job Mowbray is doing and don’t get trigger happy should we not start the season on fire (look at how close Daniel Farke was to the sack earlier in the season and how they ended). They continue to bankroll the club and finance the debt and Rovers supporters must realise that without them we would undoubtedly be the next Bolton. Yes, they have made mistakes in the past, but I truly believe they were badly advised by people motivated for personal gain, and they came in to it with their eyes closed (or blindfolded), but they obviously have ambitions and an affection for the club, or they wouldn’t continue to pump the money in. I think most fans who attend games know this, but it would be nice for those who still stay away to acknowledge this by returning to games next season – we need every bit of help we can get. The way Mowbray plays gets you out of your seat, and you can’t ask for more than that.
We’re (still) on our way back.