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He scores when he wants…. but he does so much more

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Rovers currently sit 10th in the Championship, just 1 point outside of the play-offs, as we head in to the second International break of the season, and have lost just two of their opening 12 games. If you’d offered me that I would have snapped your hands off. It is a great start, but in the Championship, the 3 games-a-week slog means that you can quite easily fly up, or down, the table in the space of 7 days, so Rovers fans shouldn’t get carried away. However, having said that, Rovers have conceded late on more than one occasion this season to change 3 points in to 1 – if we’d held on to leads against Ipswich, Villa and Forest we would have another 6 points tallied up and be sitting in second place; but we mustn’t be picky, 10th place with only 2 losses in the opening 12 games in a fantastic return for any team, let alone one only recently promoted in to the division. What is a concern though is how reliant Rovers are on a 33 year old Danny Graham.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t think he would stay when we dropped in to League 1; and when we started the season with a flurry of goals from Dominic Samuel, I thought he would be surplus to requirements, too much of an expensive luxury. But he has proved me wrong. Instead of sulking about being on the bench in a league below what he had become accustomed to, he dug deep, gained his place back and became a key part of that promotion season, and is again showing his value to the club this season.

Looking at his career statistics, he has never been a phenomenal goalscorer, averaging a goal every 3 and a half games over his 475 game career. What he brings to the Rovers side is an incredible work-rate, especially for a player of his age. At 33 he chases down every ball, every goalkeeper passing out from the back and he challenges for every header. When a team plays against Danny Graham they know they have had a game. How he lasts 90 minutes at the intensity he does, at least once or twice every week is incredible – he must be cryogenically frozen after every game and then defrosted again ahead of the next. The work-rate he brings to the Rovers side is key to the way we play – he presses the defence and hassles every ball to win it back higher up the pitch; he wins the headers; and he drags defenders out of position, providing the gaps for the likes of Dack and Armstrong to capitalise. If you look at Nuttall, the 21 year old has showed some much promise for the Development Squad and in flashes for the first team last year, but he is a completely different player to Graham – he doesn’t chase balls down and you get the impression he needs the ball to him in front of goal to do something with it, he’s 12 years younger than Graham but he does half as much running. Dominic Samuel was very much the same at the start of last season but he was adopting the 100 miles an hour approach when he was ruled out for the season. We don’t really know what Brereton is like or capable of at the minute given we’ve only seem him in small chunks. If a 33 year old Danny Graham experiencing an Indian Summer isn’t enough to get inspire the younger players to follow the same approach, I don’t know what will.

What this does mean though is that Rovers have become somewhat dependant on a player who is aged 33 years and who no-one else in the squad is currently. He affects the way we play so much through his effort in chasing balls down, challenging and winning headers or free-kicks moving us up the pitch, and his efforts to bring other players in to the game. He doesn’t get the goals himself, but without him, we’d struggle to get goals from elsewhere on the pitch. When Graham doesn’t play and we have to rely on the likes of Armstrong or Nuttall up front on their own we don’t get the same hold-up play and it becomes and easier day for the oppositions defence, and an easier day for them to control games and start attacks – home or away – as shown in the Derby away game. Brereton isn’t mentioned here again because I don’t think we have seen enough of him to get a representative sample of the way he plays and what he can offer the team. Maybe he is another Danny Graham-type warhorse, but from the glimpses we have seen we will have to play a different way to get the most out of him, and for him to bring the most out of the team. At the minute Brereton is the Plan B when Mowbray wants to try something different, or when Graham just has nothing left in the tank – saying he is the Plan B is critical because ‘he’ is the Plan B, not the system we play we he comes on; that stays the same as had Graham still been leading the line, and the evidence shows Brereton is a different type of player.

Ben Brereton is not Danny Graham. That doesn’t mean he is a bad player, he is just a different player. He hasn’t been helped by the £6m loan-to-buy deal, which saw him become one of the clubs most expensive players in history, and he hasn’t been helped by being thrown on to win games – he is still only 19 after-all. I’ve seen enough though to think that he can work for Blackburn and that £6m will turn out to be money well spent. The shouts from the stands that he isn’t good enough and that we need to send him back are not needed and they help no-one. He isn’t Danny Graham and at 19 years old he offers a lot more movement than Graham off the ball when we have it. Graham is very much a target man – get it up to him and he will make it stick, he isn’t the type of player to latch on to a through ball and beat defenders. Brereton’s game, from what I’ve seen, is about movement but movement off the ball, creating space, getting in behind players – this is a totally different proposition to Danny Graham. If you are a player that is used to playing with a forward who is going to be relatively static and expect the ball in to feet or head, changing this to a player who wants the ball played in to space is a completely different way of playing football. Expecting a change like this to be seamless from week to the next is a challenge, to do it mid-way through a game is a massive ask. Brereton also hasn’t benefited from being thrown on as an extra forward but put out wide – he isn’t a winger, the same way Samuel isn’t a winger. He’s put a shift in when he’s played there, but the more game time he gets out of position with less chance to score goals, the greater the weight of not having scored is going to become – I don’t have many criticisms of Mowbray, but player Brereton out wide is one of them, especially when we have the likes of Palmer, Conway, Armstrong, Bennett, Bell etc who could all do a better job.

What Brereton could have done with was an extended run in the League Cup where we could play him instead of Graham and get used to the way he plays, and the best way to get the best out of him and the team in a competitive environment. Without this he is likely to play second fiddle to Danny Graham and continue to be asked to play a way he isn’t used to, or for a team to adapt the way they play mid-game. Neither of which is ideal and doesn’t make for an immediate impacting Plan B.

Although it was ultimately fruitless against Sheffield United, Brereton’s introduction showed glimpses of his movement – he never stopped trying to get in to good positions, he almost tried a bit too hard. The problem we had was that we weren’t getting the ball to him quick enough and by the time we got the ball, looked up and seen the pass it was too late. This lead to Brereton finding himself out wide chasing touches of the ball – this isn’t were we want him, we want facing goal within the width of the 18 yard box. In many ways he reminds of Niko Kalinic who never got a fair crack of the whip at Ewood but showed glimpses when he was given a chance – I only hope we don’t give up on Brereton too soon as we all know what happened to Kalinic (despite missing a World Cup Final due to a falling out off the pitch he has played for Fiorentina and AC Milan since leaving Rovers and currently plays for a small Spannish team called Atletico Madrid). The fans need to stick with him and get behind him and I think the goals will come, along with a return on the investment.

But for now, we have Danny Graham. A player who not only scores when he wants – which is about once every four games – but he creates the opportunities for Dack and the rest of the team to shine.

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Nations League of Opportunity

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The much mocked and riled UEFA Nations League could finally be a positive change from Europe’s footballing governing body as they reduce the number of energy sapping pointless friendlies for the big teams, and provide an opportunity for some of the lower ranked footballing nations to play some meaningful games to improve them.

As the dust settles on the inaugural round of UEFA Nations League fixtures and we all dread the return of league football across the continent, a quick reflection shows that the new format has been well received across a lot of Europe and could actually be a good idea on a number of levels. Firstly, rather than friendlies club sides manager’s would rather do without, and fans would rather didn’t feature in excess of 17 different players appearing for both sides, games have been both competitive and useful for the teams towards the top of the Nations League pyramid – with the higher ranked nations playing each other in a competitive game which hasn’t been win at all costs for competition qualification, but at the same time hasn’t been as pedestrian as friendly. Likewise, teams towards the bottom of the pyramid haven’t played games where they have been humiliated by the traditionally stronger nations, learning absolutely nothing other than how to chase shadows and pick the ball out of the net – they have played teams with similar quality and history, giving them a chance to play in competitive games and give them a feel for what it is like to win games, or defend leads going in to the final minutes, or keep the ball; this can only stand them in good stead for future qualification games.

The UEFA Nations League is not a league of friendlies as it offers sides who struggle during regular qualification for the European Championships in 2020 a ‘back door’ in to the competition – the trick being that you can’t abandon the Nations League on the basis that Euro 2020 qualification is most important, and then if that isn’t achieved, revert back to the Nations League – by that time the Nations League will be done and dusted. Teams should give the Nations League due attention, as it may be their saving grace come Euro 2020.

The format is confusing:

  • 55 teams split in to four leagues (Leagues A, B, C and D) according to UEFA rankings
  • Each league (A-D) is then split in to four groups (Groups 1 -4) of 3 or 4 teams
  • In each league (A-D) four teams are promoted (group winners) and four teams are relegated (bottom of each group)
  • Winners of Groups 1-4 in League A qualify for the final of the Nations League
  • Each Nations League gets four play-off spots (if the Group winners have already qualified for the Euro’s the spot goes to second place and so on) – 16 teams who go in to four groups with top team in each going forward to the Euros. The four teams in each group play semi-finals and final to determine qualification. The play-offs not being played until March 2020, but the line-up determined by games before the usual Euro Qualification games.

The format may be confusing but ultimately teams need to perform well to give them an insurance option for qualification for the Euro’s, and at the same time it offers the lower ranked and smaller nations a potentially more attractive route to qualifications – top a group of similar ranked teams and then win three ‘one-off’ games (rather than a longer qualification campaign in the traditional ranked format).

The Leagues and Groups are based on UEFA Rankings so they should be relatively comparative and close-matched – and for the most part in Leagues A and B they are, but looking at Leagues C and D, years of poor qualification records mean there is some disparity between the teams – in particular, Scotland look to have a modest group with Albania and Israel; Bulgaria with Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus; and, Serbia with Romania, Montenegro and Lithuania. In Group D Macedonia are the best of a poor bunch against Armenia, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

It is League D Group 3 which intrigues me the most: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta and Kosovo. In any regular qualifying game or normal friendly, all four of these teams would be long odds against a win, but on paper they all have the potentially to both win the group and finish bottom of it. My money would be on Kosovo though.

As a country, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. In footballing terms, they played their first game as an independent nation almost two years to the day since they achieved independence in February 2010, a 3-2 home defeat by Albania. Despite applying for FIFA member the October following independence, this was rejected on the grounds that the independent state was not recognised by the international community – this meant they couldn’t even play friendly matches. It took until May 2012 for FIFA to revert that decision, allowing Kosovo to play international friendlies, but this was followed by a period of protest by Serbia resulting in the decision to allow them to play international friendlies to be revoked. It was not until January 2014 that FIFA granted permission for Kosovo to play against other FIFA member associations in international friendlies, but not representative teams of countries of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo’s first international friendly followed in March 2014, a 0-0 draw with Haiti. In terms of competitive football, Kosovo made their debut in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup following being accepted in to UEFA in May 2016 – they finished bottom of a qualifying group which contained Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine (Group I), with 1 point, 3 goals for and 24 against (see above regarding teams learning nothing from traditional qualifying games where they stand little chance of learning anything). The campaign had started with reasonable positivity with a 1-1 away draw with Finland.

At the end of that qualification campaign, Kosovo’s international record (competitive and friendlies) read: Played 24, Won 6, Drawn 3, Lost 15 – with the 6 wins all coming in friendlies against the likes of Sapmi, Monaco and Equatorial Guinea. It wasn’t an immediate birth of a footballing super-power.

Fast-forward to the current day, and in the six games since the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign they are unbeaten – winning five and drawing one. Giving them an overall record of Played 30, Won 11, Drawn 4 and Lost 15 – for a such a young footballing nation, a 50% non-defeat record is not a bad building block to start from. The friendly against Latvia in November 2017 resulted in a 4-3 victory – the first time they had scored four goals since independence was definitely a turning point following a disappointing qualifying campaign, and this victory came after their manager during World Cup qualifying, Albert Bunjaki, resigned following the poor results in qualifying, with a win percentage of 16.7%.

Bunjaki may have seen them as poor results but their worst defeat was 6-0 against Croatia in October 2016, just five months after being accepted in to UEFA, and don’t forget, Croatia reached the final of that tournament. Apart from a 3-0 loss away to the Ukraine days after the Croatia defeat, and a 4-1 loss to Turkey, Kosovo weren’t beaten by more than two goals in any game.

Following the victory over Latvia at the end of the World Cup Qualifying campaign (presided over by Caretaker Coach Muharrem Sahiti, Kosovo appointed the Swiss Bernard Challanders, a former coach of Young Boys, Zurich, Sion, Thun and Armenia, as well as the Under 17s, 18s and 21s of Switzerland. Since starting his role with the Swiss under 21 side on 1st July 2001, and including his five games in charge of Kosovo, he has a win percentage of almost 42%, winning more games than he has lost (129 to 111).

Since taking over the Kosovo team he has led them to four victories and one draw – with friendly wins over Madagascar, Burkina Faso, the Faroe Islands and most importantly Albania, and a draw against Azerbaijan. They are also yet to concede a goal under him (current goal difference is +8). He seems to have taken what they were good at in defeat in to games against comparable opposition – not conceding too many goals, and adding goals to the mix (they only scored 3 goals in the World Cup qualifying campaign). At the lower levels of European International football, teams concede a lot of goals – if you can be stingy at the back and not concede often, the likelihood is you will get chances. As was evident in the recent Nations League game against Faroe Islands. Going in to the tournament, Azerbaijan where probably favourites for League D Group 3, and recognising this as the toughest of their ties, Kosovo got a 0-0 draw in Baku – drawing away and winning at home is a good method to make sure you are in the mix at the end of the tournament, and you would expect them to get a win away at Malta and maybe even at the Faroe Islands, so it could all be in their hands.

If you look at the Kosovo squad, they aren’t made up of nobodies playing in part-time leagues in the middle of nowhere; their last squad featured players from Dinamo Zagreb, Mouscron, Zurich, Akhmmat Grozny, Heerenveen, Bronby, Swansea, Start, Genk, Sheffield Wednesday and Willem II – all teams people have heard of and the majority of which play in the top flights of their respective football pyramid. These are just the players who have chosen to play for Kosovo since their independence and acceptance in to UEFA. Prior to this the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami, Cana, Xhaka and Januzaj all qualified to play for Kosovo but chose alternatives potentially due to Kosovo not being accepted by UEFA for International Football. These are all players who would improve any team in Leagues B, C and D. Now Kosovo players no longer have to look elsewhere for international football, there is the chance that more talent can come through the system to represent the national side.

The Football Superleague of Kosovo is hardly a footballing hot bed – its is ranked the 55th league according to UEFAs coefficient, just ahead of San Marino and Gibraltar and some 15,000 coefficient points behind Scotland , and this is reflected in their performance in the Europa and Champions League entrants in the last couple of years – the furthest a team got was the 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League this year, where Drita where eliminated by F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, which gives you an idea of the quality of the league. But this could be to the national sides gain. If a player has quality and wants to make it a decent level, he will more than likely have to move abroad, probably from a young age, and potentially to nearby countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Croatia to help them progress. The key here though is that they have a country they can return to and proudly represent on the international stage, an option the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami and Xhaka weren’t afforded at that stage of their careers. The future has the potential to be very bright.

Part way through their failed World Cup campaign I spotted the trend that although they were a young side in terms of International football for the country, they weren’t getting tonked like we see with San Marino, Malta and Gibraltar, and from a personal point of view, backing them in the handicap market of +3 goals at roughly evens was pretty successful. To take it one step further I asked Skybet to price up a #RequestABet that they would qualify for either the Euro’s in 2020 or the World Cup in 2022 – they never responded. At present Skybet are offering odds of 8/13 for Kosovo to win League D Group 3 and odds of 2500/1 to win the Euros in 2020 – I’m not saying they will win the tournament, but they are currently 48th in the list to win it, which gives an indication on the bookies belief in their chances of qualifying – not very likely. In normal circumstances they would probably be right, but I imagine not so long ago Iceland were somewhere down that list and look how far they have come and what they have achieved in the last 6 or so years. And they didn’t have a ‘back door’ option to qualify. I don’t think it will be long until we (hopefully) see a Shefki Kuqi-style belly flop to celebrate qualification for a major tournament.

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Putting Things In To Perspective

Is one defeat in eight games for a newly promoted team really cause to start questioning the manager? Social media such as Twitter really is an ugly place when results don’t go your way.

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I, probably like most Blackburn Rovers fans, was pleased to learn that last Sunday’s game against Bristol City was going to be available to watch on the red button, and I sat myself down with anticipation and excitement at watching Rovers away from home – something I’ve not been able to do as regularly as I’d like due to the lack of Rovers games on Sky in recent years, and the growing cost of away travel. I, like most Rovers fans may not have seen any of the five goals since they were scored as replays were not on offer.

Although both sides started shakily at the back, arguably Rovers looked the more vulnerable when they took the lead from a Charlie Mulgrew corner which found its way in to the goal. I blinked/looked away when the corner was taken and as a result missed the ball finding its way in to the back of the net. From here, Rovers took control of the game and should have been more than one goal ahead as the half drew to a close with chances spurned by Adam Armstrong and Kasey Palmer – chances which would prove crucial. Bristol City equalised directly from a free kick just before the break. However, if you look at where the somewhat soft free-kick was given – right on the edge of the 18-yard box, on the line even – and where it was taken from, Josh Brownhill moved the ball back about 5 yards; just enough for him to get the ball up and over the wall and back down. Now I’m not saying Charlie Mulgrew hasn’t done this in his time with Rovers, but it represented a shift in the referees’ performance.

As the opening goal went in, the Bristol City players argued about something, but without a replay it was difficult to tell what; and ultimately this resulted in, or at least contributed to, Bristol City manager Lee Johnson being cautioned by the referee. The referee had been poor both ways in the first half, in particular getting in the way of the ball and attacking movements for City, but it seemed that once he had booked Johnson, any 50/50 he could give City’s way he did, every free kick or throw-in City could steal 5 or so yards from he allowed, and every possible free kick in Blackburn’s favour he could have given he opted not to – I don’t think Danny Graham won a free-kick all game. There were no big game changing decisions, but he was generally poor for both sides at different times of the game – and the free-kick scored by City on the brink of half time arguably changed the outcome of the game; if Rovers had taken a lead in to half time, re-grouped and focussed on defending the lead and hitting City on the break, which had worked so well in the first half, we may have left with at least a point.

That said, Rovers second half performance didn’t deserve anything from the game. Instead of the spirited never-say-die attitude we have seen so much in the last 18 months, we capitulated and looked like conceding at every attack – Raya was arguably our Man of the Match, and he conceded four. In my opinion, the game was lost because of the number and scale of the changes Mowbray implemented when we were only one goal down. As City’s second goal went in Graham was substituted for new boy Ben Brereton and within 10 minutes later, Ryan Nyambe had been swapped for Joe Rothwell, and 5 minutes later, Palmer replaced by Joe Nuttall – within 2 minutes of the latter change Rovers were two behind and seemingly no way back. For me, there was no need for such drastic changes, especially in formation. At one goal behind there is always the possibility of creating a chance, winning a penalty, or winning a free-kick on the edge of the box; the three changes and the system change showed that Mowbray wasn’t afraid to gamble for all three points, but it opened us up to our first loss of the season – a run that it would have been nice to continue for as long as possible. The changes made us more attacking focussed, yet we still didn’t create any clear-cut chances, and all it served to do was make us even more vulnerable at the back.

The key change for me was the Danny Graham substitution – yes he is getting on and probably doesn’t have 90 minutes in his legs twice a week anymore, but he leads by example chasing every ball down and challenging for every header and 50/50. By bringing Brereton on when we needed a goal, and making him our point of attack it only served to heap more pressure on him than the rumoured £6m price tag, and we created nothing for him to work with. I’m not saying Brereton shouldn’t have been introduced at some point, in fact, it was probably the ideal time to bring him on, but the change should have been for either Palmer who was changing or for Smallwood, moving Bennett in to the middle of midfield to provide a bit more bite. That way, Brereton was shouldering all the expectations, but he was still freshening things up, and it also allowed for Nuttall to replace Graham should he tire and/or a further change be required.

For context, that’s our first defeat of the season, in our first season back in the Championship, it’s only Mowbray’s 13th defeat in 78 games, we sit 13th in the league above the liked of Nottingham Forest, Stoke City, Norwich, Preston, Birmingham and Hull City.

Yet, when you look at social media anyone would think we had yet to win a game this season and we had been perennial strugglers. I don’t know why, but it still amazes me the opinions of so called Rovers fans – calling for Mowbray to go, Brereton (who played less than 40 minutes) not being up to it, and other fearing a relegation scrap all season. It was one bad result, we need keep things in perspective. I dare say those posting the negative comments are those who only attended the final game of last season and ran on the pitch – there were 27,600 people there that day, yet our average attendance at home so far this season is 12,384; if you want to have a moan and make your feelings known publicly, at least have the decency to go to the home games – especially when you so gleefully and moronically ran on the pitch spoiling the day for those true fans who have suffered recently and preventing them from celebrating with ‘their’ players. When Mowbray came in we were a basket-case of a club both on and off the pitch, and in the 18 months since his arrival he has turned the club around and brought back pride and optimism. So what if we were beaten 4-1 away from home, the guy has earnt the right to that and I’m sure he’ll be working hard to put things right.

One thing that has impressed me a lot about Mowbray is that every player he has brought in he has brought in for a reason, whether it be on loan or a permanent signing – gone are the days of endless journey-men loan slags coming in to the club, only to leave 3 months later (see Cameron Stewart, Liam Feeney etc). Yet now, every player we bring in looks like a calculated signing aimed to improve the team, not just get numbers through the door. Even the way Caddis and Whittingham have had their contracts terminated has been admirable – in years gone by if we couldn’t shift them by the time the window closed, they’d be kept on just in case. I dare say Mowbray had agreed with them both they’d be given a chance in pre-season and the League Cup and if no suitors came, they’d be allowed to leave via the front door.

I’ve pondered whether the international break has come at the wrong time as most footballers say after a defeat like that you just want to get back out there; but in this scenario I think it may have fallen at the right time. It gives the new players who have come in chance to bond with the rest of the team and get a feel for what the club is about – skill and hard work – and it gives them time to reflect on what went wrong ahead of a tricky tie against Aston Villa, who are arguably in the position some of our more pessimistic fans feel we are in. My only hope is those who are away on international duty, mainly Lenihan and Mulgrew come back unscathed.

 

Image source: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/bristol-city-blackburn-report-highlights-1961099

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Give Him The Keys

 

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The last seven days have epitomised what Blackburn Rovers have become under the stewardship of Tony Mowbray – and he should be thanks by both club and town.

The last seven days have seen a 7 point return from three Championship games, taking Blackburn Rovers’ total to 9 from the 5 games played this season so far. Rovers remain unbeaten since their return to the Championship and the 9 points gained are from a possible 15, and put them in fifth place in the division. In many ways, the last seven days have shown what the team are all about under Tony Mowbray – winning away from home; coming back from two goals down at home with players going off injured, and grinding out a one nil win to beat a promotion favourite despite a depleted squad.

In years gone by an away trip to Hull would have been a tough ask which the best we would hope for would be a draw – our away form during our previous stay in the Championship was dreadful. But now we are taking the game to teams on the road – we should have won on the opening day away to Ipswich, and by all accounts we were well worth our win at the KCOM last week.

Then midweek against Reading, no-one can deny we were very poor in the first half and the two goal deficit at half time looked an up-hill struggle – especially considering there was no Dack or Palmer in the side, and Armstrong and Samuel were lost to injury during the game. Yet the team spirit was evident and the never-say-die attitude shone through to salvage a point – and if the game had gone on another 5-10 minutes there’s a good chance we could have found a winner. In years gone by being 2-0 down at home would have turned in to three or four as the crowd would get on the players backs and the players would go in to their shell. That’s not the case with Mowbrays men – they never know when they are beaten; and that’s reflected in the crowd – even at two nil down on Wednesday I felt the game wasn’t over and we could get something. In previous years once the team went behind, especially by two goals, the crowd would have turned ugly, got on the players backs and turned their frustrations to the owners once again. But all that has changed under Mowbray – when was the last time the ‘V’ word was heard from the stands at Ewood?

The win against Brentford yesterday once again summed up the battling attitude of the side. Brentford are an established Championship side who every year seem capable of making the play-off party and without the likes of Dack, Armstrong and Samuel, the game looked a tough ask – I would’ve happily taken a point. A scrappy first half played in to Rovers hands as they could get stuck in and not let Brentford implement and enforce their style, but after the hour mark, with the crowd behind them, Blackburn took the lead and pressed for another. It took the once again magnificent Raya to keep a clean sheet to take all three points, but the shear effort and workmanship from the side was what won the game – I have no idea how Elliott Bennett has the energy to walk of the pitch after 90 minutes as more often than not he has covered every blade of grass twice over. He epitomises everything that Rovers are now about. We used to be a soft touch, easy for oppositions to impose their game upon – but not any more, we battle for every ball and get on the front foot at the earliest opportunity – which in turn gives the fans something to should about. We don’t expect to see worldies every week or players being 5 or 6 men before firing in to the top-corner, but the least we do expect is effort, and we getting that in abundance every week.

In the past I’ve argued that we didn’t have a style or a way of playing – it was a case of play the ball out and pass it sideways waiting for something to open up or for a set piece; if we lost the ball we’d be more focussed on getting back in position than hassling and harrying for the ball further up the pitch. Now we attack with pace and good link up play in the centre of the park, and if the balls lost we are the oppositions faces straight away – all leading to us winning the ball further up the pitch, spending more time in the oppositions half, and taking the pressure off our defence.

Tony Mowbray started at Rovers at one of the most important times in the clubs history and he very nearly avoided relegation to League One. Upon relegation some would have skulked and sulked and even turned down the task but what Mowbray has done is create a fantastic team spirit and work ethic with players who want to run that extra yard and who want to get the club back were it belongs. With a different manager it could all have been so different and we could’ve now found ourselves still languishing in League One or worse. To put it in simple terms, Tony Mowbray is very much a saviour of the club. In my lifetime I’d say the three most important managers have been Kenny Dalglish, Tony Mowbray and Graeme Souness in that order. Dalglish was important because he was the right man to utilise Jack Walkers money to establish the club in the top flight and fight for honours – another manager may not even have been able to get us out of the old second division; and if we hadn’t gone up then, we may never have gone up and disappeared in to obscurity. In many ways, he and Jack Walker put the town of Blackburn on both a UK and world map. The importance of Tony Mowbray speaks for itself – without him who knows where we would be both on and off the pitch. And finally, I think Graeme Souness took over at a time similar to Mowbray, were it could have been easy to settle for the Championship, especially following the loss of Jack Walker. But he built a good side that gained promotion and pushed on from there and also delivered a major trophy – all at a time when money was becoming more and more important and spendings becoming more and more expensive. Without spending vast sums of money he created a very competitive Rovers side and set the foundations for the next decade. If we hadn’t gone up that season we might never have gone back up. It’s just a shame how his reign ended, but it did lead to a bright five years with Mark Hughes at the helm.

Mowbrays record at Blackburn speaks for itself since taking over in February 2017: we are now 6 games unbeaten; we have only lost one game in the last 21; we’ve only lost 2 games in the last 40; and we have only lost 6 games in the last 56; and add to that, Rovers are now unbeaten in 23 games at Ewood Park. We currently site on 9 points for the season after five games – in our last division in the Championship in 2016-17 it took us until the middle of October to reach this tally – it’s not even the end of the first month of the season yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we are nailed or for promotion or should even be thinking about that – but the sooner we get to the other side of 40 points the better, then we can start looking up towards the play-offs.

The signing of Jack Rodwell has raised a few eyebrows this week and initially I thought it a bit of a crazy stupid signing – but that is only considering his stay at Sunderland and his phenomenal wages. For the Mackems he cost £10m and was on a reported £70,000 a week wage, and during his spell there he went 1,370 days without winning a Premier League game. It looks like a gamble, but when you look at his career as whole he is still only 27; he has represented England 3 times at senior level; and he was obviously good enough for Manchester City to spend £12m on him. He won’t be on anywhere near the £70k a week at Ewood – I’d expect him to be on 10-20% of that at most, and it is only a one year deal – so if Mowbray can get him putting in the performances which saw him come to prominence at Everton he has got a bargain. His work ethic has been questioned most recently in the past by Chris Coleman at Sunderland – but with the group we have already at Ewood, and the fact Mowbray has told him he has to earn his place in the team, he will not be allowed to have the wrong attitude. I have faith in Mowbray to either get the best out of him, or to see he is a basket-case and keep him from harming the spirit within the group.

In my eyes Mowbray deserves to be recognised for what he has done for the club and the town to date. Without him we might not even have a football club any more – but not only has he steadied the ship when it needed righting the most, he has pushed us on to the next level and improved us remarkably. The fans are back on side with a spring in their step on a Monday morning – no longer are we a joke in footballing circles, and no longer do we have to moan about Venkys; we can say with pride we are on our way back. The keys to the town is the least that Mowbray deserves for what he has done. And as for Venkys, they owe him a great deal more – he’s turned headless chickens playing for a club run by prized turkeys in to a side who could rule the roost of the north-west clubs in the Championship this season.

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Deja Vu

Newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers spent over €72m on new signings during the Summer transfer window but there was something familiar about the business they did and how they did it.

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Over the last two years Wolves have spent something in the region of €65m on players either of Portuguese nationality, or represented by the super agent Jorge Mendes. The list of arrivals over the last two years also includes the Wolves Manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who was Mendes first client as a football agent. The influx of Portuguese signings and the involvement of Mendes has come about since the club from the Black Country was bought by Fosun International, the Chinese investors conglomerate; with Mendes reportedly helping to identify Wolves as a prospect to buy, and there being a business partnership between Mendes and Fosun. Another link between the two is a company called Shanghai Foyo, which is majority owned by Fosun’s chairman, Guo Guanchang, which bought stakes in “Start”, the holding company for Mendes’ Gestifute agency. Mendes’ Gestifute agency represented the Midlands club via a Portuguese agent (Valdir Cardosa) in the deal with Monaco for Ivan Cavaleiro in 2017, where Cavaleiro was represented by Carlos Osorio de Castro. The same Carlos Osorio de Castro then represented Helder Costa in his move from Monaco to Molineux, with Cardosa representing Wolves. No issue here until you see that Osorio de Castro is believed to have acted as Gestifute’s lawyer for many years1.

Exchange the names of Mendes, de Castro and Cardosa and the company Gestifute with Jerome Anderson, SEM, Kentaro and Crescendo and it all sounds a bit too familiar to Blackburn Rovers fans. Cold sweats will likely follow as many Rovers fans hold these people fully responsible for the turmoil the club has been through over the last 7 years.

Since Fosun International bought Wolves back in July 2016 for £45m, they have bought no fewer than nine players represented by either Mendes or his Gestifute agency, for over a staggering €50m, with a significant amount spent during the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons in the Championship. In simple terms, Mendes helped Fosun International identify Wolves as a suitable club to purchase, and since said purchase he has entered in to a business partnership with Fosun, and since then, over €50m-worth of players represented by his management agency have been bought by Wolves. He does not own the players, he merely represents them, but the sheer volume of his clients bought by Wolves, and his involvement with the club does seem somewhat unethical, and if not unethical, definitely unhealthy. The first place Wolves will go when looking for a new signing will be Mendes – if he doesn’t have a financial stake in the club, something where decisions on player transfers affecting performance and results could affect profit and loss to him – it is a very risky and trusting venture from Fosun International. One has to expect that the “business partnership” between Mendes and Fosun is dependant on the provision of the quality of the players, not the quantity of players.

Step back in time to November 2010 when Venkys bought a 99.9% stake in Blackburn Rovers for £23m. Venkys employed sports rights agency Kentaro, who had a corporate partnership with Jerome Anderson’s SEM Group, in very much the same way that Fosun International engaged with Mendes: to find a suitable a club to buy; and following the purchase, to assist with transfer strategy for Rovers with their in-house agents who deal with talent management. The similarities, at least for now, end there. Instead of signing established household names like Moutinho or Patricio, or signing promising youngsters like Wolves have done, Blackburn embarked on 2 years of promising global superstars but delivering unknown youngsters or family relations. After spending a rumoured £1.6m in agents fees for Barcelona’s Reuben Rochina in their first transfer window in charge (when Anderson allegedly had no say in transfer dealings, but was rumoured to have slept at the training ground), in the summer of 2012 Rovers bought no less than six Portuguese players for a around £100k, yet paid £864k in agents fees to Nuno Rolo, Carlos Mendes and Marcos Oliveira. On top of that, in the period between Venkys purchase of the club in 2010 and the of summer 2012, Sam Allardyce had been sacked and replaced by relatively unknown coach and Jerome Anderson represented Steve Kean, followed by Jerome Anderson represented assistant manager John Jensen, and perhaps most worryingly, Anderson was joined by his son Myles in 2011. A 21 year old with one appearance to his name for Aberdeen, with no Premier League experience, signing via a pre-contract agreement, for a well-established Premier League club where his father was not involved in the day to day running of the club but had a business relationship with the clubs owners; despite having previously failed to impress during a trial the previous summer, the summer before Venkys bought the club assisted by Anderson. Nepotism? Absolutely. Unethical? Most definitely. Rule breaking? The FA obviously thought something was going on as they investigated between 2011-2013. If I was a Wolves fan I’d be looking at Jorge Mendes’ family tree to see if he might try and pull a similar stunt (I’ve checked, he has a son called Jorge Mendes Junior, but there are no hints at his footballing ability).

Back in April 2013 it was reported that the FAs Head of Integrity had been investigating Rovers for more than two years, looking at the takeover of the club as well as control of the club and the involvement of agents and advisers2. Rovers response was that there was no contractual or customary arrangements, whether formal or informal, with SEM Ltd and/or Kentaro and/or any other company in the Kentaro AG Group; they did however confirm that Venkys did have an agreement with Kentaro under which they provided consultancy services to Venkys in respect of football related business. In the end nothing came of this as Anderson maintained he had no involvement in the running of the club, but there’s no smoke without fire, and if the FA looked in to Anderson’s involvement in Rovers, if the rules haven’t changed, they must be keeping an eye on the goings on at Wolves – if anything they are far more blatant with their activity. On the topic of Anderson and the FA investigation, as a side note it is worth remembering that Anderson was cosy with David Dein during his time as the as the Vice President between 2000-04 and Anderson himself was licensed as an FA intermediary; likewise, Kentaro had dealings with the FA in 2009 as part of selling the broadcast rights to an England World Cup Qualifier with Ukraine.

The link between Mendes and the players signed by Wolves is clear and obvious, but the link between Rovers and the players signed in the summer of 2012 is not. The only visible links are the use of the same agents to broker the deals, the payments received by the agents for the deals, and strangely the signing of Nuno Henrique. At the time Rovers bought Henrique, I, like most Rovers fans, assumed Henrique to be another youngster from Portugal that Rovers were hoping would blossom in to a star – he wasn’t. He was a 25 year old defender plying his trade at Portuguese Primeira Liga side Academica; by plying his trade, he had made just 2 appearances for Academica that season, and 7 the season before that for Feirense, other than that the majority of his football had been played in the Portuguese Segunda for Aves and Fafe. On paper he doesn’t scream “suitable for a promotion push”, and on the field he obviously didn’t either as he never made a first team appearance for Rovers. He was a strange signing – the only connection I can find between him and Rovers is that Steve Kean, manager at the time, played for Academica between 1988-1991. However, Henrique was represented by the agent Marcos Oliveira, who also represented Edinho Junior, Diogo Rosado and Grego Sandomierski who were also brought in that summer (with hefty agents fees paid) – so maybe I’m trying to read too much in to this, and it is merely a case of him being recommended by an agent already being used for multiple deals for hefty fees. Of the players brought in that summer in 2012, they made a combined total of 30 appearances for the club, with veteran Nuno Gomes being responsible for more than half of those on his own (18).

The situation at Wolves is very similar to the one at Ewood between 2010 and arguably the end of the Owen Coyle reign, and if I was a Wolves fan I’d be concerned over Mendes involvement in the club. It might be rosy now his signings have got them back to the Premier League and he looks to have brought in some good players, but at what cost? And what happens should they not do the job and relegation happens? What contracts are they on? Is Nuno Espirito Santo too comfortable given his relationship with Mendes given Mendes’ relationship with Fosun International? It’s only when things go wrong than you see the cracks appear and see what devastation lies behind them cracks – look at Blackburn Rovers: after being bought by the Venkys with alleged agent involvement, they stayed up that season (ironically thanks to a victory against Wolves on the last day of the season), were relegated the next and were then unable to get back to the top flight before being related to League One in 2017 – from Premier League security to League One in just 7 years, and riddled with debt just for good measure. Wolves have been to League One in recent years and Blackburn will be hoping to follow their steps back to the Premier League, so Wolves should be all too aware of the dangers of mismanagement. The FA also need to pay close attention – they did nothing to help Rovers when their fans asked for help and as a result the club was run in to the ground and almost in to administration; I’d hope if Wolves fans had a similar plight they would respond better. They also need to be clear on expectations on agents involvement at clubs – Mendes role is very murky water, but it is a role which oversees massive financial deals both for Wolves and his Clients. If he was to walk away tomorrow, Wolves then struggled and got relegated with his Clients on long term contracts for large wages, would the FA sit back and argue that Fosun International had been ‘fit and proper’ in their running of the club? Could Mendes be classed as a third party? If not, he must be classed as part of the club, in which case he is part of a process which agrees player wages (and other things) for both the club and the player, which doesn’t seem right.

References:
1https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jun/19/jorge-mendes-wolves-influence-chinese-owners-signings
2http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2308641/Nick-Harris-FA-investigate-Blackburn-Rovers.html

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Exceeding Expectations Or Falling At The First Hurdle?

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As the dust settles on another World Cup campaign for at least another four years it’s time to reflect on whether England had an amazing tournament or whether they under-achieved.

In the cold aftermath of the game last night against Croatia, like after every England or Rovers defeat, I was looking for an answer, a reason why we had once again not made it to the promised land of the final. At first I wanted to blame the players, then Southgate’s tactics, then the Croats for wasting time, but in the end I opted to blame the referee. He hadn’t got any big decisions wrong, but he been overly lenient to England in the first 45 minutes, and then made up for it in the next 75 minutes, giving us very little. Why did Walker get booked for grabbing the ball but Lovren hadn’t been? How wasn’t Rebic booked for the obvious heads gone moment in the first half where he scythed a white shirt down after not getting a decision? None of them game changers, but enough for me to point the finger. The most frustrating crime: adding next to no time on at the end of Extra Time injury time, despite the ball being in play for about 120 seconds of the allotted four minutes; including the blatant time wasting at the end when England had a free kick, walking back at snails-pace to delay the kick being taken. All things I would have been willing England to do had the roles been reversed.

What I was keen to avoid in my blame-finding mission was to accuse the players or Southgate. For the first time since 1996 it felt like we had a team who could do something and the whole country unquestionably got behind them from day one, despite having no expectation of success. They won a game in the last minute; they won a penalty shoot-out after conceding in the last minute; they’d won a knockout game comfortably; and may still win the Golden Boot and Golden Glove award – aside from winning the bloody thing it feels like we have had a great tournament. Although the “It’s coming home” memes and the playing of “Three Lions” started as a bit of self-poked fun, as the tournament went on we believed. Hell, the Croats had just played 120 minutes in two games on the bounce, surely this must be our chance to go one further than Bobby Robson’s men did in Turin 28 years ago.

But it wasn’t to be.

For 45 minutes England were in full control, scoring early and creating chance after chance which were squandered and not taken. At half time I think we all had a feeling that we may have had our chance to be out of sight, and would most likely live to regret it. Everyone expected the Croats to tire as the game went on, but in fact they grew. In the first half they had tired legs and couldn’t get to grips with England, but in the second half they got their second, third and fourth wind, as England dropped deeper and began to tire. Even as we dropped, we didn’t really give them much of a clear chance, but the one time they got the ball out wide and Vrsaljko had the time to take a touch, get his head up and pick a pass, they made England pay. From that moment it was very much like watching a boxer on the ropes – I didn’t want to hope for Extra Time and Penalties, but in that second half I would have snapped your hands off. England limped towards to extra time and carried on where they left off in the additional 30 minutes and when the inevitable happened and they took the lead, England had nothing in response. Gone had the games of passing the ball out from the back, doing the doggies, and moving to keep opening options up, back was the long ball forward, only for it to be returned relentlessly.

On Tuesday night, the night before the Semi-Final I said to my wife: “Don’t bight my head off, but we should be in the semi-final”; she bit my head off, explaining that England never get to semi-finals no matter how easy the route, we always find a way of ruining it, but this team have brought the country together in one of its darkest political times, and defied all expectations.

I can’t argue with this. However, the way the draw played out, the toughest game we had getting to the semi-final was to play a James Rodriguez-less Columbia, another game we should have won by more. We should have qualified from that group and we should have beaten Sweden – the team did everything that was asked of them. Yes, the penalties against Columbia were a test which the team stood up to, but the first real test they came up against was against Croatia, a team who had laboured to two penalty shoot out wins against Denmark and Russia, I think when we look back in years to come we will see this as a game we should have won, and a massive missed opportunity. On the flip side, Croatia will never get a better chance to get to a World Cup final, and they took it.

When England were knocked out in Italy ’90 by West Germany, that was a tough game, a game that on paper England were not expected to win, and the fact we took it to penalties adds to the drama and memories, and the “what could have been”. The loss against Croatia this time doesn’t seem as defining, as gut-wrenching. It feels as though we’ve been on a ride where the team we were supporting weren’t really England – achieving things we aren’t used to, doing the simple things, winning; and then out of nowhere the familiar England came back. The disappointment, the frustration at a missed opportunity.

The players have been fantastic; Southgate has been a class act and in all honestly looks to be the only person who could unite the country and deliver BREXIT; for once even the fans have mostly behaved and brought credit back to England and English football. I can’t blame any of them, and I won’t, they deserve a heroes welcome, they’ve done what a golden generation of countless prima donnas couldn’t deliver – pride in a national football team, and a journey to the last four of a World Cup.

My worry now is that old foe “expectation”. Already pundits and fans are talking about how good this team will be in four years for the next World Cup and how we’ll be challenging at the Euros in two years. Come the Summer of 2020 no doubt the majority of the country and press will be building up our chances, once again building us up for a fall. The reason this World Cup journey has been so special is that no-one expected it. Yes we expected to progress out of the group and possibly past the last 16, but the quarter final was the zenith were we all deep down knew our tournament would likely end. If we are to repeat the feet of this summer, and hopefully go two steps further and win the tournament, we need to be realistic and not set unrealistic expectations, a quiet optimism is fine, but full blown expectation will put us back in to a vicious circle of disappointment which could end with Sam Allardyce once again falling on his sword whilst drinking his pint of wine. The likes of Pickford, Kane, Maguire, Trippier, Alli, Lingard, Rashford, Loftus-Cheek, Stones and Sterling all have their first, or second, major tournament behind them now and the experience to take with them in to the next one; not to mention the World Cup winning younger age groups to come through. The future is bright, we just need to make sure we don’t try and make it burn brighter than it actually is, until they have proved it.

Remember the unexpected highs we had this fantastic Summer. Trust in Southgate, trust in the system, and back the team. Just don’t get carried away.

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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As I sat watching the final minutes of the Championship season, followed by the pitch invasions at Bolton and Cardiff, I questioned whether I was wrong about pitch invasions and for staying in my seat at the end of the game at Ewood yesterday.

For me, a pitch invasion is a release of raw emotion; a warm-blooded event; a last minute or last game of the season decider for promotion or safety. Rovers had that two weeks ago at the Keepmoat stadium. Yesterday’s pitch invasion was one of selfishness on the part of so-called Rovers fans, stealing and opportunity to get on the pitch and become one of the sheep taking selfies on the pitch and knee-sliding in to stupidity. It put a really sour end to what has been a magnificent season. Yes, the Rovers fans have been through a lot over the last decade and this is the first real achievement we’ve been able to celebrate, but the time and place for it was at Doncaster away when our destiny was sealed; and even then we made a mess of it.

I’ve said previously that one of the best things about the season has been the re-growth of the bond between the club and fans, and you could see from the players both at Doncaster and at Ewood yesterday, that they wanted to share the celebrations with the fans – an outcome which was achieved but with the sheen taken off it by the idiots running on the pitch before the end of the game.

What exactly is achieved by running on the pitch anyway? Yes, you get to go on the hallowed turf and maybe take a few pictures and steal some blades of grass; but surely being booed by your fellow supporters is a sign it’s not welcome? As is the sight of your players running in the opposite direction. Just leaving the pitch invader to take a few photo’s of a stand of supporters enraged at you and your actions, and then amble back off the pitch, in some cases, just to do it again a minute later.

People ran on the pitch before the end of the game yesterday for what reason I’ll never know. These reactions will most likely result in a fine from the Football League, and by rights there is also probably the potential for points to be docked – imagine the irony of running on a pitch to celebrate promotion which is then revoked because of the running on the pitch. I would estimate that at least 90% of the people who went on the pitch had not been to more than two games at Ewood previously this season, whilst the majority of the fans who stayed in their seats will have been season ticket holders who have sat through the painful recent years, their support never wavering. Those loyal supporters wanted a chance to celebrate with the players who have brought them so much joy this season – and do so from the comfort and safety of their own seat. I completely understand and agree with the singing of “Where were you when we where s***” to those who went on the pitch, and I joined in; they were ruining my day as well. It was amazing to see more than 27,000 and it was goosebumps stuff when I went up to my seat and saw the sea of blue and white, something we haven’t seen for a long long time, but the proof of the commitment of the support will be how many people return for the start of the next season in the Championship in August. I’d wager we will probably by looking at at least 10,000 shy of yesterdays figure. It’s not often Blackburn Rovers fans are accused of being “glory supporters”, but in this case I think they may have a point. “Where were you when we were s***” indeed.

There once was a time when I remember that running on the pitch was unthinkable, and you were guaranteed at least a stadium ban, if not a lifetime ban and a hefty fine. These days it almost seems a right of passage that when you win or achieve something, there has to be a pitch invasion. Take Manchester City for example, they had a pitch invasion at the Etihad two weeks ago. A pitch invasion when the league has been won with 4 games remaining, it was hardly edge of your seat stuff, and to a degree was somewhat pre-meditated. At Ewood yesterday the stewarding and lack of police was a joke that led to the pitch invasion. The stewards in place are not trained or physically able to prevent a pitch invasion, whether it be one rogue or a whole stand, and that only serves to add to the risk of a pitch invasion. Couple that with a lack of deterrent (no fines, arrests etc), people will carry on doing it. With over 27,000 at Ewood on a beautiful day with a party atmosphere and many beers drunk, the risk of a pitch invasion should have been identified, especially considering the number of extra tickets sold purely for the ‘party’ occasion, and extra police or specialist security brought in to prevent it from happening. What should have happened is on 85 minutes, stewards and police/security stood side by side should have lined up in front of the Blackburn End and Darwen End as a statement that it was NOT going to happen. Instead we ended up with fans running past beleaguered stewards and on to the pitch, and then the stewards helping them back in to the stand rather than cuffing them and carting them away. In recent years Rovers have been a laughing stock for the nation, and the one chance we have to show we are a big club (hopefully) on the way back, and we are again in the media for the wrong reasons, because of the minority.

It was a frustrating end to what has been a magnificent season, and for me I feel sorry for the players. They set out in August with one goal in mind, promotion, and they achieved that with two games to spare which is no mean feet. Yesterday should have been about celebrating them and their achievements. Instead, the season ended with the long-suffering fans angry at their own and once again with frustration for the fans. If I had to choose between a packed stadium every week but with fans who didn’t really care for the club; or a stadium half full but with true supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, I think I’d prefer the latter.

Next season is going to be a massive challenge just to remain in the division, let along push for the top 6. There are some massive clubs already in there, with three more to drop down from the Premier League, and Rovers must compete on the pitch with significantly less financial backing than some of the other teams. It’s a challenge I’m glad we are facing and one I’m looking forward to, but for now, I can finally enjoy a summer without the worry of dropping further down the divisions, or what master stroke in idiocy the club will partake in over the summer months.

Mowbray’s dream lives on….

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Almost There…

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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……

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Fly Eagles Fly

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What a Super Bowl!!! Although I’m relatively new to American Football, this is one of the most exciting and end to end games I have watched, and the fact it came in the biggest game of the season only adds more kudos to it. Despite the Philadelphia Eagles finishing the regular season as the number one seed, they had been underdogs throughout the Play-Offs against first the Atlanta Falcons, then the Minnesota Vikings, and finally against the New England Patriots, due to the loss of their quarter-back Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and LCL on the 10th December. Without the injury he would surely have go on to be the league MVP.

Triumph against adversity indeed, not to mention the fact they had never lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy before this, having lost twice in the big game, and as they where facing the Patriots – a team who has appeared at the Super Bowl more than any other team, and returning for the fourth time in seven years. This is American Football though, the story of the underdog, the story of the American Dream, and the league which wants to be open and competitive – a team winning their third trophy in four years is not a good advertisement for “America’s Game”. Perhaps our footballing game needs to take a look at how the American’s do it before we end up with a game so detached from the real world of day to day people and so elitist people switch off and the bubble bursts.

As underdogs, any fan around the world without an association to either the New England Patriots, or Philadelphia’s rivals, was rooting for the Eagles – perhaps more in hope than expectation. I wanted the Eagles to win, but in my head I half expected Patriots domination and the Brady-Belichick partnership to set a new record for Super Bowl wins as a coach and quarter-back combo. In the preceding week when the Patriots came from behind to beat the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, although the Jags led from the off and gave themselves a relatively healthy leading at the end of the first half, there was something inevitable about Brady getting the job done to come from behind to win (albeit with the assistance of the officials, stopping the Jags from a potential pick six by blowing the whistle too early). My wife said she hated the fact that the inevitable always seems to happen when it comes to the Patriots, and that it didn’t seem fair that they were able to keep doing it. I felt it my duty to remind her that as she is a Manchester United fan, this is what every other football fan in England felt throughout the 90’s and the 00’s – that feeling that United would always come back to win a game late on, and usually would get some assistance from the officials. Looking from the outside in, I hope she saw and felt my pain for the last two and a half decades. In my eyes, the Patriots have been the Manchester United of the Alex Ferguson era – conquering all in front of them with a swagger and a confidence that just makes supporters of other clubs hate them more. If the Patriots where the Manchester United in this story, the Eagles where something akin to a Leicester City or a Blackburn Rovers – an underdog who had come from nowhere with no-one expecting them to even mount a run in to the Play-offs; they have a talisman in Wentz (Vardy/Shearer), a coach daring to be brave and attacking (Ranieri/Dalglish), and fans hungry for success for a long time (never won the top division before/81 years).

‘Our’ football can learn a lot from the American variation of the game, and I think it needs to before it consumes itself with greed and elitism. The National Football League prides itself on its parity – on ‘any given Sunday’ any team can beat another team (look at this season: the Patriot’s again won the AFC Championship, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs (who only made the Wild Card week of the Play-offs), the Panthers (also made it to Wild Card week) and the Miami Dolphins (who finished 3rd in the AFC East), whilst being run close by the Texans, the Buccs, the Jets and the Steelers before the post-season) – in a regular season of 17 games, they lost almost a fifth of their games. No team in the NFL has gone a full season unbeaten since the 1972 Miami Dolphins who are the only team in history to go the whole season and post-season unbeaten. Look at the Super Bowl finalists for the last ten years: 14 different finalists (out of a possible 20). So how do they keep the playing field so level, and what football learn from this?

1. The Draft

The NFL draft ensures that the worse performing team in the league gets the first/best pick of the eligible college football players that year. Each teams position in the draft is determined by their final standing the previous year – so for the 2018 draft, the Cleveland Browns will pick first (again), and the Philadelphia Eagles will pick last each round. There are currently seven rounds, and the draft is undertaken over a weekend. The College players don’t really get a say in where they go, but that is accepted, as they have ‘made it’, they have beaten the odds to get signed for a team in the NFL. There are occasions where the order is changed and a team may ‘trade up’ by offering a team in a higher draft place a player or future draft pick in exchange for their pick in a certain round; if there is a player a team has identified as key to their development, it is a small price to pay for the better pick. Interestingly during the 2017-18 season the Dolphins traded star Running Back Jay Ajayi for a 4th round pick – a deal seen as somewhat bizarre given how good Ajayi has been for the last couple of seasons given the low round of the pick, potentially even more bizarre now he will have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. If a player isn’t selected during the Draft rounds they become an un-drafted free agent and can sign with any team who makes them an offer – the player can’t return to College though. Players drafted through this process are known as “Rookies” and they don’t command the fees the seasoned pro’s do – that said the league minimum paid $435,000 for the Rookie Season; it sounds like a lot compared to an every day job, but consider that Alex Smith’s recent move from the Chiefs to the Redskins will see him pick up an average of $23.5m a year over four years.

The Draft system wouldn’t work in our football as we don’t operate a College system for player development and recruitment – footballers are often signed to teams from a young age and they develop and either make the first team or are sold on; there isn’t an organised ‘talent-pool’ as such where players can be picked from to give the worst team the best player. What the Draft does do is ensure that transfer fees aren’t a barrier to team development through player acquisition. By the rules, the worst team gets the theoretical best player – in football, the worst team would commonly be the poorest team, and as such not able to afford the best players, whatever age or stage of development. Think Theo Walcott leaving Arsenal aged 16 and going to Tranmere – it just wouldn’t happen.

What also isn’t conducive to the Draft system is the geography of the Football game – it is played all around the world, with an open market for players sales and recruitment. The logistics of a world-wide draft would be mind-boggling, not to mention the algorithms for working out what place pick each team should have.

However, looking specifically at the UK, there are a lot of players who, at the end of their YTS contracts, are tossed on the scrapheap and left to fend for themselves in the real world, often with nothing more than GCSEs. Soccer camps and systems like the Glenn Hoddle Academy are aimed at getting former football scholars back in to professional football after being released. There are good footballers being lost this way, maybe a Draft-like system can be adopted to try and get these players new clubs. Consider this: an NFL Combine-type event is held for all the players to showcase their skills in a range of areas during a week; at the end of the week the teams in the football pyramid are placed in order of worst to best (from say Conference level to Championship) and they can pick through a number of rounds – if a team doesn’t like the look of anyone they can decline to pick. Wages could be set at capped levels for each round of the Draft. I’m sure the players themselves would relish the chance to show what they can do and get a new club; and the clubs get a chance to scout youngsters and sign them up for agreed wages – win win.

2. Transfer Fees and Salary Caps

The NFL (and NBA) do not operate a system whereby players are transferred for vast (or any) sums of money. Instead, they are either traded for another player or a Draft pick, or their contract runs down and they are free to join whoever they like (an unrestricted free agent). In some instances, a players contract may run down but they may then be given the ‘Franchise Tag’ – the tag binds a player to the team for one more year if certain conditions are met; each team only has one ‘Franchise Tag’ – this is often used to extend the bargaining period for new contracts. An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five cap hits at the player’s position for the previous five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

This approach ensures that no team can dominate the market by paying extortionate transfer fees which rule other teams out of potential deals. This is further supported with the ‘Salary Cap’ which every team is subject to. In a nutshell, this is a cap set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement of the league, which all the teams must stay within – if a team violates the cap rules, they could be fined up to $5m for each violation, contracts may be cancelled and/or draft picks lost. There is a also a salary floor to go with the cap. Both the cap and the floor are adjusted annually based on the league’s revenues, and as such they have increased year upon year. Each season all teams combined must spend on average 95 percent of the cap or more on salaries. If the league doesn’t reach this limit, it must pay the players the remaining amount. The Salary Cap for 2017 was set at $167m, for 2018 it will be around the $178m mark. Cap space in conjunction with player recruitment needs (e.g. key positions needing to be filled) dictates how much a bargaining power a team has to sign free agents or in salary discussions as part of trades; the greater the cap space, the more you can spend on a player (think Alex Smith going to the Redskins – this represents a big chunk of their cap space). On the other hand, think about Kirk Cousins – he was a Franchise Tag player who will likely now be released as Smith arrives, but he is seen as a more than competent quarter-back, so his options may very well be linked to who needs a quarter-back and who has cap space.

So, although you don’t see extortionate transfer fees, it does potentially lead to massive contracts for some players, potentially creating disharmony in dressing rooms. However, it does keep the playing field level, as no matter the spending power of the owner or chair-person, they are restricted to the Salary Cap and Floor, which is the same for every team. The FA and UEFA tried to do something similar with Financial Fair Play (FFP) but the richer teams just found a way around this as it was aligned to club earnings rather than a line in the sand for all the teams in the league; if anything this only served to further stretch the gap between the haves and the have nots. The current landscape in England is that the clubs at the top of the league are pretty much the richest clubs (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) and the teams at the bottom are the poorest – what this is creating is almost leagues within leagues, as the richer clubs only pull further and further away from the rest of the league, and from the normal world experienced by the fans.

Is a Salary Cap the way forward? In my opinion, yes. In the Premier League, the Championship, and Leagues 1 and 2 to an extent, the income of the majority of clubs is dictated by the TV money combined with the wealth of the owner – if you have the wealthiest owner, you can spend the most money on the best players which will mean you make the Champions League every year, stay in the Premier League, get richer and further pull away from the poorer sides, creating more disparity and less competition (in theory). We are at a tipping point now in football where we can go two ways – we can stick to the norm and allow the richer clubs to get richer and move further and further away from the rest of the sides in the division and potentially country, towards what seems an inevitable European Super League; or we can do something about it now and look at ways to keep the spirit of competition alive by restricting either transfer spending or wage spending, or both. Look at the Premier League this year, Manchester City have spent a small fortune on what was already an expensive side, and surprise surprise they are running away with the league. If we don’t stop cap spending the game is going to get further and further away from those who love it.

The next TV deal is around the corner and it is likely the cost of the TV rights will again go up, meaning more money for teams to keep paying the exorbitant transfer fees and wages. And although on the surface it looks like it makes our league better, does it actually? Look at this way, TV company’s have to pay more money for the games, who foots that bill? The supporter with their subscriptions. The cost of transfers and wages go up – yes TV money helps pay for this, but who else pays? Supporters in the cost of their tickets, day out at the ground and merchandise. As players and clubs get richer, the supporters who are the lifeblood of the game get poorer. We now have a Premier League which is actually a top 6 and then everyone else, this isn’t good for competition.

Do transfer fees really mean anything these days? As the numbers get more and more obscene, there looks to be no limit on what a player can be transferred for, and does it really matter for the clubs paying the money? They can afford it and more so what is the point of the transfer fee? In the last transfer window some of the biggest deals were done outside of transfer fees with Sanchez and Mkhitaryan moving without fees but for extravagant wages. On the flip side, do contracts really mean that much, with players well known for signing a new four year deal only to leave before the end of the next transfer window. Would there be something to be said for getting rid of transfer fees (similar to the NFL) and basing player movements on contract expiries and trades? It would put more emphasis on the contracts players sign and make them think twice before signing somewhere for the sake of it when they may actually already be eyeing up a move elsewhere. Add in a salary cap for each division and you could quickly bring the game more in line with the common man, whilst also preventing some clubs from over-spending and finding themselves in financial trouble, and stop the rich clubs from spending their way to glory.

3. Man of the Year

To follow on from the point of footballers being more detached from the real-world with the money they earn and spend, the NFL has the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. This is an award presented annually by the NFL to honour a player’s volunteer work and charity work, as well as their excellence on the field. Each year the winner is selected from 32 nominees from the 32 different teams. Wouldn’t it be good to see some of the best players in the Premier League go the extra mile for charity and see some recognition for it, surely it would make them more relate-able to the average football fan?

The last thing Football can learn from the NFL is with regards to video referees and the impending introduction of VAR in to the beautiful game. Yes, in NFL it used to confirm if a touchdown should stand or not, but the players don’t like it and it slows the game down massively, in some circumstances to the point that a touchdown is scored and a team cannot celebrate for 3-4 minutes until it’s been confirmed by people watching the game thousands of miles away. Although what they do well with their video referees is display the footage to all in the stadium so they can see what is being reviewed and can better understand the final call. By not having this feature in football often means the fans at the game are left in the dark with regards to what is actually happening and what is being reviewed, and why the eventual decision is given; yet another way that the armchair fan benefits when the fan at the ground doesn’t.

The NFL and the English Football are two completely different sports in more ways than one, but at the same time there are lessons to be learnt from our American counterparts to ensure we don’t lose the game we love and to ensure we can keep it competitive – now more than ever we need to look at what we can do to keep the Premier League competitive without the risk of crippling and destroying clubs.

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VAR… And why you should never slap a sign

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Despite the best efforts of the most incompetent referee I have seen at Ewood in many a year, Blackburn came away from the top of the table clash with Shrewsbury with the much needed 3 points to keep the pressure on the top two in League One. On a weekend when VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has been a big talking point – is it the answer to a long-lasting problem, or does it just take the higher echelons of the game even further away from jumpers for goalposts.

Blackburn where by far the better team on Saturday and deserved to be leading by a goal to nil following another superb free-kick from Chico Mulgrew, when the worst decision I have seen at Ewood in a thirteen years was given. A Shrewsbury through ball to Carlton Morris was chased down in to the area when David Raya came off his line, got a firm two hands to the ball pushing it away for a corner kick, before the player followed through, tumbled over Raya and went to ground. The Blackburn End cheered the goalkeeping efforts – the referee, John Brooks, couldn’t wait to put his whistle to his mouth. Raya was booked in the aftermath arguing his innocence. Despite the referee’s poor view of the incident from behind Morris, he seemingly didn’t consult his linesman who was on the touchline on that side – even though he would have had a clear view of the incident. Without doubt it is the worst decision I have seen since Gerald Ashby sent Henning Berg off and awarded a penalty in a 4-2 home defeat to Manchester United in 1994 – despite Berg clearly getting to the ball first.

Brooks’ incompetence didn’t stop (or start) there – Shrewsbury’s full back Beckles looked like the last  man when he brought Dominic Samuel down to award the free-kick Mulgrew scored from, he was given the benefit of the doubt, and then given it again later in the half when he cynically broke up a Rovers attack – if he hadn’t been booked it would definitely have been a yellow, but he was just given a stern word, again. I’m still unsure what Paul Downing’s goal was disallowed for in the second half, and although it’s easy to say when you’ve won the game, I’m not convinced Rovers penalty in the second half should have been awarded. In comparison, the referee took an age to give that decision – the complete opposite of his actions in the first half. Brooks lost complete control of the game with 50/50s seemingly being awarded on the basis of a coin toss, despite neither side claiming a foul. The result of the growing frustration was me open palm slapping a metal sign mounted on a concrete wall – not the brightest of ideas, but at the time I needed a release from the madness that was the referees performance. Evidence of how far the game had slipped in to mayhem was the Shrewsbury keeper Henderson giving grief to the front rows of the Blackburn End when the second goal went – baring in mind the front rows are usually occupied by children – and then returning items thrown from said crowd when the third goal went in, with at least double the venom and force. The referee left it to the players to sort the mess.

I’m not saying that the Blackburn fans are blameless in the Henderson incident, but it would never have escalated to that level had the referee maintained control of the game.

So where does VAR come in to this? Well, at the minute it is being trialled in the cup competitions, and then it will be brought in for the Premier League – it will take some time before it can be used in the leagues below the Premier League, as seen in the fact that the League Cup Semi Final at Ashton Gate can’t use the technology, and it will almost never be used in non-league and Sunday football. Much alike goal-line technology.

The beauty of football is that it is simple and can be played anywhere by anyone – the concept is the same: an even number of players on either side, two sets of goalposts, a field of play, and a ball. You could play it on the beach of Brazil and you could play it on a car park in Grimsby, the game would be the same. Introducing technology takes the game even further away from that played by school children and by pub-goers on playing fields every night and weekend, another reason children would rather watch football on the TV or play it on a games console. Another reason the top leagues are breaking further and further away from the pyramids below them.

It is an inverted approach which doesn’t make sense. The top league in England is home to the best referees – full time, well paid, athletes in their own right. In theory they should be the ones who least need the assistance of VAR and goal line technology. The technology should help those who need it most, further down the divisions – before, if Darren Ferguson gets his way, shoots the lot of them.

On the face of it Ferguson’s comments are outrageous and indefensible – but I have to agree with him to an extent. The standard of officiating below the Premier League and the Championship is often sub-standard and this is where the stakes are the highest with bad decisions ultimately potentially leading to a club going bust, players not being paid, and normal everyday people losing their jobs. To add insult to injury, what happens when a Premier League referee makes a bad call? They are demoted to the lower divisions, further adding to the poor standard of referees down the leagues.

To put this in perspective, lets take the Blackburn Vs Shrewsbury game on Saturday as an example – if Rovers lost the game they would have been 8 points behind Shrewsbury and potentially at the mercy of the play-offs which ultimately, could have resulted in another year in the third tier. Now, yes, Rovers have been mismanaged and that is why they are in this position, but to not go up could be crippling given that investment has been made to get out of this division – especially if the reason for not going up was due to no fault of the players or club, but down to poor refereeing decisions.

This may sound like a rant against referees but it isn’t, it is a rant against the system for introducing the new technology, and ultimately, a rant at the technology itself. If it has to come in, use to help those who need it most, but if it was down to me I would leave football as it is without the technology. What makes the game so brilliant and what makes fans so fanatical is the decisions, right or wrong, and how they affect the outcome of a game. The last week has even shown that the technology isn’t fallible and its implementation isn’t to the benefit of the fans at the ground, whilst it’s also another reason for managers to moan about the referee anyway (“why didn’t he consult the VAR?”). If we look at the NFL, for example, they have got to a stage where every touchdown is reviewed by a group of people sat hundreds of miles away in New York. In some instances, a player may score a touchdown, celebrate and get ready to kick the extra point, before the decision is overturned and the play re-played. Quite often, a touchdown is scored and even the TV commentators don’t know why replays are being shown and what could possibly be being challenged. All goals are being reviewed in football under VAR, so it is only a matter of time before we get to that stage.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, that’s what I say. Unless we are talking about my hand, which has been in agony since the Shrewsbury game – imagine the shame of having to tell a doctor that the reason I’m sat in his A&E ward is because I slapped a sign? She actually asked if I meant punched – “no, slapped”. The shame. Luckily an X-Ray showed no brakes or fractures, just the loss of my dignity.

Onwards to Fleetwood away and hopefully another three points to keep the pressure on.

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