Promotion Window

With key players being touted for bigger things, and the wiser more experienced players reaching the end of their careers, is the 2019-20 season one where Blackburn Rovers have to go all out to capitalise on the opportunity the current squad represents, before the team is broken up?

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Championship Table

In American Football, the concept of a “Super Bowl Window” is that a team has its best chance of winning the Super Bowl due to a number of factors; mainly: the quality and age of the quarterback; the squad depth and weapons available on both offense and defence; and, their salary cap. In the top divisions of football, the similarities with the Super Bowl window theory generally stop at how much money a team has to spend and the age of their key players. However, as you drop down the leagues, the potential for key players to be snapped up or sold, adds another factor to this. Thus, creating a “Promotion Window”.

A Promotion Window situation seems to be developing at Blackburn Rovers, owing to both key players constantly being rumoured to off to bigger and better things, and the more experienced players taking a step closer to retirement (or dropping down the divisions) each summer.

With regards to the former – it is only matter of time before a team in the topflight takes a punt on Dack. Many questioned his ability to make the step up from League One to Championship, but he made it and finished the season with 15 goals and 7 assists. For me, he is a player destined to play at the top level, but I worry that if someone takes a chance on him in the top flight, it will be someone in the bottom half of the table and he won’t be afforded the chance to play in the number 10 role behind the striker, and instead will either be played up top on his own, out wide or central midfield, were he would be very much wasted. My other worry for him is he wouldn’t be playing with Danny Graham. Rovers should hold out for £17-20m for him which may be seen as too pricey for some suitors, but you’d be looking to pay that for a similar player from the continent, not adjusted to the English game.

Second up is Darragh Lenihan. He is an absolute competitor and it would be no surprise to me if he started the season wearing the armband. A product of the academy, he is without doubt the first name on the team sheet in the back four (back five now Raya has left). He loves a tackle and a battle, and what I like about him is the way he wants to win every header, attacking the ball. At 25, for any team interested in him he has many years left on him, and his value is only likely to increase. He’s not a glamour player like Dack and that would be reflected in his price tag. He wouldn’t get the £17m+ I’d expect for Dack, but with Raya rumoured to have gone for £3m, I’d be looking for upwards of £6m for Republic of Ireland international.

David Raya was another on the list of talents I thought we might lose and so it came to be. His sale opens up a big gap both in the team and the changing room as I think the videos from Austria show he was well liked by his teammates. Although he never looked commanding when coming for crosses and you never heard him yelling at defenders, in terms of shot stoppers I don’t think there was anyone better in the league. Given he had come through our academy since the age of 16, I was sad to see him go. A lot of Rovers fans think he is a weak link, but I was excited by the prospect of him being our number one for many years – I’d have liked us to bring someone experienced in to push him and develop him for the next two years, and if you could add influence and assertiveness to his game, we’d be looking at a £10m+ goalkeeper. It wasn’t to be though, and now I’m hopefully we invest the money wisely in someone with a lot of Championship (or higher) and promotion experience. Given the signings made by Brentford along with Raya, I can see them challenging for automatic promotion this season with Raya between the sticks and it’ll be interesting to hear the opinions of those Rovers fans who said he wasn’t good enough to get us promoted if they do indeed finish the season with promotion.

As much as we want him to, Danny Graham isn’t going to play forever. The energy and fitness levels of the man have amazed me over the past two seasons, especially when I fully expected him to either leave when we got relegated or simply sulk and not feature. So much of our game relies on his running and pressing, and we’ve seen with the likes of Nuttall and Brereton (so far), neither come close to his contributions in that way. His link up play with Dack is also going to be difficult to replicate. I think this coming season could be his last big contribution at Ewood as he turns 34 just after the start of the season, but I think in Gallagher and Brereton we have potential players who can fill that gap and also add a bit more quality and pace, but it isn’t going to be a straight swap and it may take time.

The other main man on the list of players who we need to make the most of whilst we have them is Charlie Mulgrew. At age 33 now, last season I questioned whether he was in the team purely because he was captain, or because of his dead-ball abilities, as, at times his defending was questionable. He was undoubtedly a big factor in our promotion from League One, and in the Championship last time around he looked more than adequate at centre half, but I think two and three years on he relies on his teammates to often to get him out of trouble. That said, there is no-one else I would want taking a free kick within 25 yards of the opposition box. As a leader and technically quality player he is a good back-up to have on the bench and to bring on if we are chasing a game (maybe in a midfield role), but if we don’t make any signings at centre half, I’d rather see Williams alongside Lenihan.

If you look at the players who broke through in to the first team last year, in the right circumstance, I’d like to see Grayson, Magloire and Butterworth given more game time, and also see Joe Rankin-Costello get some game time. What we want to be able to do is give them opportunities when we are winning, not rely on them due to injuries, or throw them in to halt a bad run.

What is important is that if we do lose the likes of Dack and Lenihan, we get the fees they are worth, and we spend that money wisely. With them in the team I believe we are very much in a Promotion Window and we should have a good go at it, but if we lose them, it’s not a time for the money to spent in a rush; the money should be spent re-building the squad whilst remaining competitive, and working towards a promotion push in the next 3 years, not just the next 12 months. We can have a promotion push with the squad we have and we don’t need to spend millions to improve that squad to a top 6 team – if you look at last season, without injuries at Brentford, I think we would have been sniffing around the top 6 in the last weeks of the season; and that’s in our first season up, a seasons experience and know-how, and considering the sides in the division, and I don’t think our squad is too far off pushing for the play-offs.

There haven’t been too many signings in through the door so far this season and it looks as though the bulk of the Raya money has been spent on Gallagher which is sensible, and believe we’ll be looking to pick up an experienced keeper either on loan or on a free. People are moaning about the lack of activity, but I’d rather go with what I’ve got instead of panic buying on someone to make up the numbers – we have a fantastic academy that we should be giving the opportunity. Lets also not forget that Chapman and Davenport will also be like having new signings.

The fixture list hasn’t looked favourably on Rovers for the coming season and a win at home against Charlton is needed. Fulham are an unknown quantity, but they were fantastic last time around in the Championship and they have only added quality in their time in the topflight. A points total of 9 or 10 would be a great return for August, with us then having 3 winnable games against Millwall, Reading and Luton in September. If we don’t start well, fans need to consider the opposition and give Mowbray time – if the start of the season is tough, it makes sense that there will be winnable periods later in the season to make the points back up.

Silly Season

The Championship season has been finished for four weeks now and the line up for next season has been confirmed. With players being released from their contracts to become free to talk to whoever they want about future employment; and with the transfer window open as of the 16th May, the rumour mill is grinding in to action once again.


At Blackburn Rovers it has been announced that Tony Mowbray will have similar funds to spend as last year – when they spent around £10m on acquisitions – and that Mowbray will be able to flex that by opting for free agents and putting some of that budget towards wage demands. Last season saw Rovers flirt with the idea of the play off’s for about 7 minutes at Griffin Park, before succumbing to worrying about being dragged in to a late season relegation battle, before eventually finishing a comfortable 15th, 20 points clear of relegation and 14 points off the play-offs. For a first season promoted that’s not a bad return, and it could set the tone for a more progressive and upward looking 2019/20. That will all depend on the dealings this summer though.

A good start to the season showed Rovers could mix it at this level, and if it wasn’t for the routine conceding of late goals to sacrifice wins or draws, that 14 point gap to the top 6 could have been a lot narrower. What Mowbray has admitted is that he knows he knows where he needs to strengthen and he isn’t afraid to make changes, as we saw towards the end of the campaign. In interviews given in his recent trip to India he has also shown that he is looking up rather than down and that we will have a good go at making the top 6 next term; he even has plans in place should we lose key assets, to ensure the club build in a positive way from any such sales.

The optimist in us all will be looking at the Premier League, particularly free transfers to see who we could swoop for and pull off a coup. However, depressing although it may be, the vast majority of Premier League players are on wages Blackburn Rovers have simply never spent, even in the days before relegation from the top flight; those who are willing to drop out of the Premier League are only likely to do so for inflated wages and I think you always have to be sceptical about why they are dropping down a division: is it because they are a gun for hire and only interested in the money (cough* Danny Murphy *cough); or is it because they simply not good enough? If we are looking at anyone released from contract in the Premier League, we need to be sure of the motive and fitness of those involved. As a starter for ten, we can laugh off suggestions of Daniel Sturridge purely based on what his wage expectations would be and also the fact his ego won’t allow him to drop a level; on the same ground we can forget about Andy Carroll, in addition to his horrendous injury record (him and Vince Grella would have become the best of friends in the treatment room); and I think we would be wise to steer clear of Phil Jagielka – Charlie Mulgrew has struggled at times this season and I don’t think a player 3 years his senior is the answer, especially considering the wages he would likely ask for.

So who does that leave from the Premiership that may be a realistic target? Let’s start with goalkeepers – Mowbray made no secret at the end of the season that although Raya had done admirable in his first season in the 2nd tier and he is ultimately the long term number 1, more experience is needed both on match day and on the training pitch to help progress Raya. West Ham’s Adrian is out of contract this summer, and at 32 is by no means past his best and brings a depth of experience and is also Spanish, like Raya. For the right wages he would be worth taking a hit on to provide that know-how and experience at the back; and, looking at the Premier League, there is only potentially Watford and Bournemouth who may be on the look-out for a new keeper.

Next up, a position that has been a weak spot for a couple of years now, right back. I like Ryan Nyambe but he has very much been thrust in at the deep-end and I’m not too sure Mowbray fully trusts him in the position yet. One player available on a free transfer is Carl Jenkinson. He has never really cut it at Arsenal but has arguably had stiff competition, but he has experience at the top level, and lets face it, Arsene Wenger doesn’t sign too many players who don’t have something about them.

Another option at full-back could be proverbial loanee and former Rover Todd Kane. He is probably the last consistently 7 out of 10 every week full back we had at the club (back in 2013-14) and he comes with the added benefit that he can play at either left or right back, with Rovers being weak on both sides. Since graduating at Chelsea in 2011, Kane has spend six season out on loan at various clubs amassing 155 appearances. Wherever he has been, he has played, and that says a lot about his quality and consistency. I don’t imagine he’s ever been a mega-bucks earner at Chelsea so his wage demands, especially for a permanent place in a team, could be well within Rovers’ budget.

As well as looking at free transfer options to bring in, Rovers have also inevitably had to let players out of contract leave or be free to discuss potential moves with suitors. Of those to be allowed to leave the majority are youngsters such as Jack Doyle and Lewis Mansell, but the biggest surprise for me was to see Paul Downing wasn’t having his contract renewed. Downing came in to the club on loan at the beginning of the 2017-18 season in League One and was made a permanent fixture the following January. However, despite proving to be a more than able replacement for Lenihan, as soon as the Irishman was back fit, Downing dropped to the bench and has found first team starts somewhat of a rarity since. However, when he has played, Rovers have a very good record – I know that at least up to January/February of last year, there was a ridiculous statistic like Rovers hadn’t lost with him on the pitch. I truly believe one of Mowbray’s biggest mistakes at the helm was to allow Downing to go out on loan to Doncaster last January without the option to recall him – with him at the back when we succumbed to a number of injuries after the Brentford game I’m sure we would’ve picked up more points and the run not been as terrible. At 27, Downing still has a number of good years left in him and I can’t see him having been on massive wages, so I can only assume Mowbray doesn’t see him as a starter every week so is letting him go so he can play first team football. Someone is going to get a bargain in Mr Reliable, Paul Downing.

In addition to those released, Rovers confirmed they are discussing potential stays for Craig Conway, Jack Rodwell and Ben Gladwin. Conway has been Mr Consistent for Rovers since his arrival from Cardiff and in particular Rovers have turned to him during bad runs, knowing what they are going to get: 100%, quality balls in to the box, and someone putting a shift in going both ways down the wing. He is another I believe is being allowed to leave to get more football than he would likely have seen at Ewood next season. Ben Gladwin is a strange one as he’s never had a run in the side and my only memory of him is blazing the ball over when confronted with an open goal 8 yards in front of the Blackburn End, akin to Ashley Ward against Manchester United. I don’t see him being at the club this time next year which tells me he’ll be given a contract to get fit and will probably then be out of the door.

Which brings us to Jack Rodwell. I wasn’t sure about Rodwell when he came in, but as long as his wages were sensible and he didn’t upset the apple cart, I thought he was an interesting signing. He’s proved to be a good option both at the back and in midfield, and I think he was treated harshly by the Sunderland Netflix documentary. At 28 he still has years left in him and as a free transfer, and on the right money, he isn’t a bad squad utility player. I can only think we are in discussions about new deals because he wants more money than we are willing to give him, or he is interested in the rumours of a move to Serie A with Torino or Sassuolo. He did a job last year and I don’t think many Rovers fans will see him in the same light as those at Sunderland did.

There reported to be some 130 players who are out of contract and played in the Championship last year, and I think Mowbray will look to exploit this market. As touched upon earlier I believe we need to strengthen at centre half, both full backs, a central midfielder to push Travis, Evans, Smallwood and replaced the outgoing Reed, a striker to take the weight off Danny Graham, and an experienced goalkeeper to push Raya.

Looking at the published lists of free agents, names like David Marshall (age 34) and Kieren Westwood (also age 34) stand out as potential experience who could be brought in on short-term deals to help develop and take the pressure off Raya (and Leutwiler to an extent). Looking across the back four, and Martin Cranie could provide experience at right back and give an option at centre half at 32 with over 300 appearances to his name, as could former Brentford right back, Moses Odubajo, 25 with 112 Championship appearances.

Moving in to midfield and two players who interest me but would have to be on the right wages are Villa’s Mila Jedinak (34) and Glenn Whelan (35) who are both available and are both a nightmare to play against; they also know how to get in the play-offs and would provide steel in midfield. Jedinak could also be an option at centre half as well. Other available midfielder of note include Bradley Johnson (32), Chris Brunt (34) and Wes Hoolahan (37). I’m not too sure whether Stewart Downing would improve the squad considering he would be on a decent wage, especially considering we’ve let Conway go.

Finally, further up the pitch, Frazier Campbell (31) is available after a somewhat less impact-full second spell with Hull and he has always been an enigma to me. He had a great record during his first spell (on loan) with Hull but has failed to live up to that reputation since – he’s an option as someone to take the load off Danny Graham, but I think we would be better giving Brereton, Samuel or Nuttall the chance, and possibly looking abroad for other options. The last player to make the list is someone I don’t expect to end up at Ewood, but at the same time he is going to have to take a massive pay-cut and I can’t see anyone higher up than the Championship being interested in him – Ross McCormack (32). Last seen doing a world tour after claiming his gates at home had broken preventing him making it to training, he has since spent loan spells at Nottingham Forest, Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Motherwell, scoring 16 goals in 32 appearances. It comes as no surprise that he has been released by Villa especially after the rumours that despite no involvement in their promotion season, he was set to receive a pay-rise to £75k a week – I very much doubt he’ll get half of that wherever he ends up, but with his stock so low at the minute, there are worse options if the numbers are right.

“If the numbers are right” is a phrase I think we’ll hear a lot this summer. Mowbray obviously sees an opportunity for Rovers to have a good go at making the top 6 but I think he is a sensible man who is all to aware of the financial restrictions Rovers must work within; and the club are all too familiar of what happens when you bet the farm on promotion. Rovers need to be looking at building on the good young squad that they currently have, seasoning it with some experienced pros – but those that come in must be on sensible money, maybe even incentivised deals, and they must be committed to the cause – the last thing Rovers need is spending money we don’t necessarily have on has-been mercenaries after one last pay check (cough* Danny Murphy cough*). When you look at the teams who’ll compete in the Championship next season, there isn’t anyone you look at and think “they’ll run away with it”, and similarly there aren’t any teams you think Rovers can’t beat, so there is a real opportunity for Blackburn to make a mark next season.

You never know.

End of Season Review 2018-19

As the curtain falls on another football season Blackburn Rovers must be pleased with their final standing in the league.

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As the curtain falls on another football season Blackburn Rovers must be pleased with their final standing in the league.

Reaching 60 points and finding themselves closer to the play-offs (14 points) than the relegation zone (20 points) in the first season back in the second tier is an achievement, not to mention finishing the highest placed of the promoted teams and above the likes of Stoke City who had been tipped for promotion. Some fans wanted a tilt at double promotion especially after such a positive start, but realistically, anything other than survival and stability this season is a bonus. The club are back to the level they arguably should be at this moment in time, and to secure survival with games to spare shows how good a job Tony Mowbray has done in his two and a half years at the club. It would have been nice to get the winner our second half performance against Swansea arguably deserved so we would have finished above Preston, but on day one of the season I would have happily taken finishing 21st on goal difference.

Making the play offs looks like it wasn’t too far off on paper, but anyone who has watched Rovers this season will tell you that the number of late goals conceded this term was ultimately what cost them a run at extending the season, as well as the number of goals conceded in general away from home. Probably my biggest criticism of Mowbray from the season has been how we start chasing games, particularly away from home, when we go behind, making multiple changes in personnel and formation, only for the game to get further away from us. On a number of occasions, we would concede at around the hour mark and instead of keeping it tight for 10-15 minutes, Mowbray would throw an attacker on or change formation to make us more attacking, only for our defensive frailties to be exposed. The away game at Brentford for me was the turning point: two goals up away from home and on a decent run would have given momentum and belief to a play-off push but to end up losing the game 5-2 and picking up injuries to key players ended up with Rovers looking downwards with growing concern rather than upwards.

Mowbray put his faith in the players that got him promoted and stuck with them for large parts of the season, but as we entered the final third of the campaign and with a poor run of results meaning relegation was a possibility, he changed his team and picked players on current form and ability, rather than his loyalty – and this is something I expect to continue as we prepare for next season. He was right to repay the players who got us promoted, but he was also right to change things when he had to, and this can only be seen as a positive. Looking at the Swansea game and it was good to see the likes of Chapman and Davenport get some game time, following on from Brereton’s recent start also.

The average age of the squad for the Swansea game was just 24 and when you factor in the outliers of Conway, Graham and Mulgrew, that age is even more impressive. It is also a sign that the future is bright for the club. Most of those youngsters have proved that they can at least compete at the Championship level, and with the right experienced heads in amongst them, there is every chance we could make a tilt at the play-offs next season. We do need to strengthen though, and nowhere more so than at the back. Williams and Lenihan have formed a good partnership at the back over the last few weeks and although it pains me to say it, I don’t think Mulgrew is good enough as a centre half at this level, at least not anymore. I think earlier in the season Mowbray played him for his set pieces and attacking contributions, but it is no good scoring 2 and conceding 3. He will be a good backup next season but I think we need someone in their mid to late twenties, with experience, to come in and marshal the defence and provide some stability – I think letting Downing go out on loan is what killed our season, but it shows Mowbray doesn’t perhaps see him as the solution, so I’d expect a new centre half in over the summer. I’d also expect at least a new right back or left back – time again this season sides have exploited our full backs. My opinion is that Bell isn’t up to the task as he doesn’t sense danger and doesn’t provide enough going forwards. Nyambe on the other hand has the potential to be a very good right back so I’d expect to see more of him next season, especially having signed a new contract recently. If I was playing Championship Manager, I’d be looking for a DC and D (R/L/C) to provide cover across the back four.

Mowbray’s experiment with Leutwiler will have told him that he isn’t the answer in goal – he has made some good saves, but they have been right at him, and he has looked painfully low getting down to shots either side. David Raya is for me undoubtedly the future for Rovers in the number one position, but he needs to be pushed by someone with more experience. Like the last time we got promoted back to the Premier League when we had the old head of Friedel coming in, I’d like to see us bring in an experienced keeper to take the heat off Raya and to help with his progression. I don’t like the idea of Joe Hart or Scott Carson, but someone along the lines of John Ruddy wouldn’t be a bad signing.

Further up the pitch I think this season has proved a step too far for Richie Smallwood and although you can never question his effort, I think he lacks the quality required to impact games going forward in the Championship. Apart from a couple of patchy performances in the final weeks of the season (by patchy I’m referring to his passing and nothing else), Travis has looked to be the find of the season and adds the quality Smallwood lacks whilst keeping his energy and combative nature. I think we need another central midfielder who can break games up but also contribute going forward – providing the backbone for a young and pacey attacking corp. Rothwell has been impressive towards the end of the season when given game time and he always looks to move us up the pitch when he gets the ball. Add in to that mix the pace of Armstrong and Chapman and we could be very dangerous on the counter attack next season.

Although at times this season, I’ve criticised Dack, his stats speak for themselves and 18 goals and 7 assists in his first season at this level is a fantastic return which will attract interest in the summer. My advice to Dack would be to think about the teams that are interested and whether he would get the permission to play in a relatively free number 10 role. Any Premier League club interested in him is unlikely to play with a 10 the way we do with Dack, which will result in him either being played deeper in central midfield, out wide or up top, and that is a waste of his talent. If he keeps his head-down and works hard clubs won’t be able to buy him and play him out of position. Hopefully he’ll give us at least one more season.

Danny Graham deservedly won player of the season and he has worked hard for it. He’s proved me wrong yet again as I thought he’d jump ship when we went down to League One and I didn’t think he’d be up to it back in the Championship. As an aging striker so many younger players could learn from his work rate and performances on the pitch, and it is testament to how well he as played that he is arguably the most important player in the team – so much of our game relays on his efforts at the top of the pitch and the way he brings players in to the game from midfield. Ben Brereton looks to be the future up front and there is no one better for him to learn from; starting by getting on the weights and bulking up so he’s not as easily brushed off the ball. His goal against Bolton shows he has pace and ability and let’s not forget he’s still only 20 years old – if you forget about the price tag, he is another exciting youngster. It will be interesting to see how Dominic Samuel comes back as well after what will be almost a full 12 months, he could like getting a new signing. Given the question marks about Samuel after his injury and the lack of Championship experience in the youngsters, I’d like to see us move for an established striker to take some of the load off Graham – someone like a Shane Long, who I thought would be available given his poor scoring record in recent seasons in the Premier League, but then went on a scoring streak, so maybe he won’t be available now, or not at the price and wages we would like him to be. It will also be good to see Dan Butterworth get some more game time as he looked like another exciting youngster coming through when he came on against Bolton.

When we went down to League One, I thought it was a good time to put our faith in youth but if we could blood them in to a winning team in the Championship that would be even better. Recent media has said that the Academy costs around £3m each year to continue running and you have to acknowledge that the owners didn’t look to cut this cost when we got relegated. It only takes a couple of good prospects to come through and be sold for decent money (or help us get promoted) and the Academy has paid for itself. I’m interested to see how the likes of Butterworth, Magloire, Grayson, Buckley and Rankin-Costello can progress next season if given their chance in the first team – just look at how well Travis has done this year since coming in.

In my opinion the best team I’ve seen at Ewood this season was Sheffield United by a long way, so I’m pleased they got promoted. They also got dealt a bad hand the last time they were in the top flight, and with Chris Wilder in charge they have a very good manager; I’m also pleased for Billy Sharp to get his chance at the top level, he’s been through a lot but he has always scored goals and his moved at Ewood caused us no end of problems.

Where should we be aiming next season? The pessimist in me says anything other than relegation is a good season, but I can also see the potential this squad has, and I’d hope for us to be pushing for the play-offs at the end of next season. If you look back at the points we dropped late on from winning positions this season, those 14 points may not be too difficult to make up. Ultimately, I think we may fall short, but it would be good to have a real go and look upwards for a season rather than over our shoulder at relegation – get to 40 points and then see where we can go. If we don’t quite make it next season it will be another year of experience for a young squad and we can look to the following season. What we don’t want to do is gamble the future of the club on new signings to get us promoted (like in the Kean era when we gambled and spent big on the likes of Best, Murphy and Etuhu, which still cripples the club financially to this day). I trust Mowbray to get it right and bring in the right kind of player whilst also introducing some of the Academy products in to the first team. I also trust that the Venkys appreciate how good a job Mowbray is doing and don’t get trigger happy should we not start the season on fire (look at how close Daniel Farke was to the sack earlier in the season and how they ended). They continue to bankroll the club and finance the debt and Rovers supporters must realise that without them we would undoubtedly be the next Bolton. Yes, they have made mistakes in the past, but I truly believe they were badly advised by people motivated for personal gain, and they came in to it with their eyes closed (or blindfolded), but they obviously have ambitions and an affection for the club, or they wouldn’t continue to pump the money in. I think most fans who attend games know this, but it would be nice for those who still stay away to acknowledge this by returning to games next season – we need every bit of help we can get. The way Mowbray plays gets you out of your seat, and you can’t ask for more than that.

We’re (still) on our way back.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Social media communication between, clubs, players and fans is common in today’s game and when things are going well it’s great, but when things aren’t going so well on the pitch it can be a dark dark place.

One of the many ways football has changed even in the last decade has been the advent of social media. It is a tool for two way communication – for fans to communicate with players, and for players to communicate with fans; but there are no filters, either way.

From the players side, there are countless stories like the one where Joleon Lescott “accidentally tweeted a picture of his expensive car from his pocket whilst driving” following a bad result (for anyone who has a smartphone, which is pretty much everyone, the phones aren’t that ‘smart’), which do nothing the make players more relatable to fans, or to dampen the stereotype that some players don’t care about clubs, results or performances. However, something Blackburn Rovers have got very right is social media and building that relationship and communication between players and fans – bridges that needed to be re-built following years of mistrust and silence. We are now accustomed daily videos tweeted by the club, and general banter between the players on twitter visible to all.

As with all clubs and players, following every game we get the obligatory tweets from players about how happy/disappointed they are with the result, and always how amazing the fans where (again). I used to think this was a standard post sat in every players draft box ready for posting at 5pm every Friday (minus the “say something like” faux pas made famous by Victor Anichebe), but I, probably like fans of every club, have been suckered in to thinking that Rovers players do actually care and they do notice the support and care about the result and performance – call me an optimist, or an idiot (you decide).

I feel at Ewood Park we really do have a good team spirit and this is outwardly visible through both the individuals posts on Twitter and Instagram, and also there demeanour and attitudes toward the club and each other on the content posted by official club channels; I just don’t think you can fake it that much, so often, you’d get caught out at some point. Look at the jokes and comments between the likes of Dack, Armstrong and Chapman, and the videos and photographs of players heading to Las Vegas after the promotion last season – there is a real team spirit there, and a team spirit which ha probably influenced the likes of Armstrong and Chapman resigning for the club on permanent deals.

The club have definitely rebuilt that social media bridge and the outcome has been incredibly positive, impacting performances and results on the pitch. But it is a two way thing.

After a victory, social media is a bright and shiny happy place with players high-fiving each other, sharing videos of goals; and fans talking of how far a team can go this season, how good a player is and players on their performances. But visit Twitter after a loss and it is a very dark place indeed. Gone on the high fives and congratulations, replaced by tweets about where we are poor and need to strengthen, what the faults of the team are and even tweets aimed at specific players to tell them how poor they have been (regardless of the praise sent their way the last time the team won).

In the 12 hours following defeat, Twitter may be the darkest footballing place on the planet. Players know when they have been poor and I truly believe they know when they have not got what they should from a game. The last thing they need is a teenage brat with a sense of entitlement telling them they were poor and how they need to find a new club. The amount of times I have come away from a defeat and thought “yes we’ve got beat which is disappointing, but I don’t think I could ask anymore of the players and their efforts”, only to head on to Twitter to be confronted by ‘fans’ who must have watched a different game.

The dangerous thing with social media is people only post when they are either elated with joy, or upset with something – there is not middle ground. The other problems with Twitter are that a large percentage of active users is 25 to 34 year olds, and the ability to send any content of 280 characters to anyone with an account. Hypothetically speaking, a 5 year old who has never attended a football match in their life, or know what football even is, could send a message to a young professional footballer,who may be low on confidence anyway, and tell them they are the worst player they have ever seen and they have no future in the game.

Fans at Ewood have become so used to winning ways under Tony Mowbray that they have a sense of entitlement that we should be winning every game; tie that in with an underlying feeling of some fans that we are still the Jack Walker-built team of the nineties and we should in the upper echelons of the Premier League, and after a loss (even a first defeat in 5) if you only logged on Twitter to see how the game had gone you would think we had waved a white flag when the first whistle was blown, the players hadn’t broke sweat and relegation was a certainty. In reality, we are a team newly promoted from the 3rd tier still finding our feet in a higher division, sat 15 points above relegation with 14 games to go – a bit of realism and reflection is what is needed after full time, not a full blown Twitter rant about how unrealistic expectations aren’t being met.

Social media is a two way thing. From a players point of view, you come off the pitch having given everything, and let’s say we’ve been sucker punched by a late goal or on the end of a bad refereeing decision; you get back in the dressing room, shower, change and pull out your phone only to see tweets like: “x isn’t good enough”, “x isn’t fit to wear the shirt” or “that performance is disgraceful”. More than likely the impact is going to be negative and potential affect future performances and attitude, and worse still, impact upon that great team spirit. It is very short minded from the so called fans to vent that frustration.

It’s not too long ago at Blackburn Rovers that we had an endless line of loan mercenaries with no real interest for who they played for just that they got some game time whilst they were unwanted by their parent clubs; at one time there were so many so many at the club it was difficult to remember who we owned and who we didn’t, and very few of them made any lasting impact. Things are different now and we have players at the club who want to be here and are working together with a common goal of making us a better team and moving us up the league.

A case in point regarding the idiocy in Twitter was after the Reading game midweek – yes it is a game we should have won on paper, but history tells us these are the sort of games (where the opposition hasn’t won for months) that we do lose, and you don’t win games on paper. If you’d logged on to Twitter after the game you would have thought we hadn’t turned up and that we’d been outplayed and outmuscled. When, in fact, we were the far better team for 75-80 minutes, but undone by a late goal in the first half and then a quick counter late in the second after equalising. Mowbray’s team selection dropping Dack, Graham and Reed has been questioned, but in my opinion the decision to take Dack and Graham out and play with a central three in midfield and use Armstrong’s pace over the top worked in the first half as we dominated the game for large spells, but could fashion a clear cut chance or take the half chances that fell to us. Conceding right on half time a was a killer – the defending for the goal was poor, but it was the only time in the half they had a sniff. Then we have to change it in the second half to get back in to it, which we ultimately do, but by which stage we are so attack-focussed one decent cross field ball tears us open and a very good punch suckers us once again. Mowbray was right in saying he was be,used we got nothing out of the game as we did boss it for large parts, but just couldn’t fashion the chances. We haven’t had a great record away from home all season, but the win at Millwall looked to be a blueprint for the performance on Wednesday, opting for bodies in the middle to prevent the threat and then the pace of Armstrong, Conway and Brereton on the counter, and I honestly believe if we’d got to half time either level or ahead we would have gone on the win the game, brining Dack off the bench for creativity late on in th same way we brought Armstrong and his pace on at Millwall. Don’t be fooled by twitter reports of an “appalling” or “disgraceful” performance, it most definitely was not, it’s just as happens so often in football, the team that deserves to win does not.

For now we sit 14th in the league, 15 points above relegation with 14 games to go. There has been talk of play offs but this season is about survival and building for next season when a play off run may be more realistic and prepared for. We need to finish the season positively both on and off the pitch to enable us to build for next year, so if you’ve got negative thoughts after a game, leave your phone at home and go for a beer rather than venting on social media.

Expectation Vs Optimism

As another Transfer Window closes with little more than a breeze of activity, it was a similar story at Ewood Park with just one semi-new face coming through the door. In some Rovers fans eyes this was a missed opportunity to kick on for the play-offs, but ultimately, was keeping the cheque book in the pocket and the fax machine switched off a more sensible approach?

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As another Transfer Window closes with little more than a breeze of activity, it was a similar story at Ewood Park with just one semi-new face coming through the door. In some Rovers fans eyes this was a missed opportunity to kick on for the play-offs, but ultimately, was keeping the cheque book in the pocket and the fax machine switched off a more sensible approach?

Following four league wins on the bounce Blackburn Rovers headed in to the last day of the transfer window in a lofty 8th position just 3 points off the play offs. For many Rovers fans this was an opportunity to spend some cash and really make a push for the play offs. Harry Chapman had come back through the door, followed by rumours of interest in the likes of Britt Assombalonga and Charlie Austin. At the time I thought: “Assombalonga would be a great signing, but I bet he’s on a packet” and the same for Charlie Austin; I also thought Austin was more than capable of still doing a job in the Premier League, not to mention his former Burnley connection. In the end, Chapman was the only new face (back) through the door, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As deadline day progressed, I heard of how Cardiff couldn’t afford Austin’s wages, and found it highly unlikely that we would be able to offer more than a Premier League side. Then mid-afternoon I saw comments from Mowbray saying: “In January the numbers seen ridiculously high for the players we’ve asked about, particularly players in our division. I didn’t know (those salary levels) existed”, adding “Yet, there they are, that’s what you’re quoted and you have to put in to some sort of realism that we’re miles short salary levels of what some clubs are paying their players” – I think these comments in particular are aimed at the potential Assombalonga deal, and pretty much put the nail in the coffin of any further deals getting done.

Yes, we are very short of experienced Championship strikers behind Danny Graham and it would have been nice to bring some back-up in for him; but ultimately, I’m more pleased with the comments from the Manager. In other instances, even at Ewood, Manager’s have seen the chance of investing in January to push for the play-offs and gone for it, without a thought or care for the long-term repercussions financially for the club – we’ve even done it in the Summer before (think: Danny Murphy; Dickson Etuhu; Leon Best etc etc) – and where did it get us? In to League One, massively in debt after years of transfer embargoes and players at the club taking home a wage without really wanting to be here. It’s refreshing and reassuring to see a manager put the club, and even the town, first ahead of a gamble at quick success. I’ve said it before, Mowbray is the best thing to happen to this club, especially in its hour of most need – he understands the financial barriers the club has to operate within and the risks both short term and long term of outspending our means.

What spending the money on players with astronomical wages also risks doing is upsetting the apple-cart. We have a tight-knit squad with a great team spirit which will win us points alone this season. The last thing we need is someone coming in on big money, breaking the wage structure and leaving established players disgruntled asking why their efforts for the club haven’t been rewarded with the same money.

In years to come we may look back and this may be seen as our best chance to push for promotion; but equally, in a sliding doors moment, we could have spent the money and look back in a couple of years time, back in League One, struggling with loan signings and think “why did we splash that money and risk all the good work on and off the pitch for one shot at promotion?”. I truly think that buy not overspending in this window, and probably others in the future, we are giving ourselves a better chance at future success built sustainably where in years to come we will be able to compete financially in this division – it might be a few years off, but we are heading in the right direction on and off the pitch.

We also need to remember where we are and where we have come from – following this weekends game against Brentford we are sat in 11th position on 43 points, 18 points above the relegation places – almost two years ago we were relegated to League One at the Griffin Park. This is our first season back up in the 2nd tier. We need to be realistic – survival has to be the aim this season, anything else is a bonus. Which raises the issue of expectations versus optimism. Expectation is a dangerous thing, when you start expecting things and you fail the fall is twice as hard. If we start expecting to be winning games and challenging for the play offs and promotion, when we don’t achieve these things, we make stupid decisions. If we expect to be challenging for promotion and we aren’t, people will forget how far we have come in the last two years and start asking for change at the club. We need to remember the dark days under Lambert and Coyle and how far we have come since then – it wasn’t that long ago and we could quickly end up back there. If by some chance we make the play offs this season we need to treat it as a learning experience, not a chance we have to take; the last thing we need is a play off run and defeat in the final and then some sections of the fans to start thinking we should have gone up and the season has been a failure; likewise, the following season can’t start with the expectation or ultimate end goal that we have achieve promotion – stupid decisions get made with that thinking. Similarly, if we do go up, the best way to approach the Premier League would be to enjoy the experience but ultimately use it as a learning curve for the players, and more importantly, as a financial platform to get the club properly back on its feet again.

In comparison, what Rovers need now is to continue that feeling of optimism that has got us to the top half of the Championship and has made us potential play off candidates. If we’re optimistic the future continues to look bright, and any success you have is brilliant and enjoyed; any set back you have is just that, a set back, not the end of the road and not a failure. Turn up every week optimistic and you get behind the team and push them on for the win; turn up expectant and you could be booing your team off at half time and getting on players backs – and that helps no-one.

Back to the transfer window and although we only saw Chapman come in, having Travis be given his chance in the first team, and seeing Nuttall come back with goals and Rodwell showing what he can do is ultimately like having three new signings, without the transfer fees or risks of dressing room unrest. As for back-up for Graham, I would much rather see Nuttall and Brereton given a chance should we be without Graham at any stage, it also gives Samuel something to aim aim at to come back for the end of the season. Let’s be honest, 43 points with 18 games to go, we should be safe (we would be safe already based on last seasons standings and again in 2015-16, only our points return in 2016-17 getting relegated with 51 points bucks the trend), so why not give Nuttall and Brereton a run if we need to do?

Without doubt the most disappointing part of transfer deadline week was the game at Brentford. To go two goals up in the first ten minutes and to end up losing 5-2 is a massive disappointment. Brentford are a good side, but when you go two goals up away from home, the least you should come away with is a point. I know injuries played their part in the changes, but one of my only criticisms/frustrations with Mowbray is the number of changes he makes when we go behind in a second half away from home. He reminds me of my younger self playing Championship Manager – tight game for an hour then I’d concede, so I’d throw all my attacking players on and change my formation, the outcome usually being conceding another two or three before the final whistle. Too many times this season – I can think of Bristol City, Swansea, Sheffield United and Brentford today for a start – we have made changes and ended up conceding more goals. In my opinion we are guilty of changing to many things in a short space of time, when we may be better off leaving things as they are for 5-10 minutes and getting a foothold back in the game. Again, I know the changes with Dack and Graham today where forced by injury, but go like for like with Nuttall and Rothwell, not Conway and then change it again a few minutes later. We have conceded more goals away from home than any other side in the top half of the Championship and I think this has a lot to do with it. Our goal difference was also starting to look better, but that has been blown out of the water again now.

At the end of the day, we are very well placed both for survival in the division and also for a run at the play-offs. The fact we have dropped at least 22 points from winning positions this season probably tells the story that we aren’t ready for promotion yet; but it shows us that the signs are there for a bright future.

Rovers ’til I Die

The recent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” gave a great insight in to the goings-on inside a struggling football club, a stark contrast to the Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series which focussed on the record-breaking Manchester City season last year. Most supporters of football clubs outside the top division will probably be able to relate more to the Sunderland documentary rather than the Manchester City one – and none more so than Blackburn Rovers fans.

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The recent Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” gave a great insight in to the goings-on inside a struggling football club, a stark contrast to the Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series which focussed on the record-breaking Manchester City season last year. Most supporters of football clubs outside the top division will probably be able to relate more to the Sunderland documentary rather than the Manchester City one – and none more so than Blackburn Rovers fans.

As someone who lived in Sunderland for four years and has many friends who are season ticket holders at the Stadium of Light, I do have a soft-spot for the side, and I have seen the pain and anguish their fans have felt as they’ve dropped from the Premier League down to League One in the space of 12 months. I can relate to them as well, having seen Blackburn Rovers make the same journey, albeit at a slower rate. Blackburn have been down to League One and come back from it, and my advice to Sunderland fans when they were relegated to the third tier was that it did Rovers a world of good: drop down a division so only the people who want to be there (players and fans) are there, start winning games, get momentum, and start a fresh. Put simply, my advice was “you’ll love it in League One, win some games, good away days and build from there”.

Despite lacking trophy laden success over the past few decades, there is no denying that the north-east of England is a hotbed of football – both in terms of the support for its clubs and also the talent it produces. Especially in the nineties and noughties you could always expect a cracking atmosphere at both the Stadium of Light and St James’ Park as passionate fans got behind their teams. For a while at the turn of the century I was of the belief that England should seriously look at playing more of the meaningful international games up there as the tremendous support would almost be like having a twelfth man on the pitch. Over time though, as the Premier League has become more and more money orientated the impact that support had upon results has diminished as the impact of spending power has grown.

Take Sunderland for example, under Ellis Short they spent the money to match the passion of the fan-base, but could never make that next step up and challenge for Europe and honours. Down the A19, Mike Ashley came in helped the club financially and even ploughed money in to the club when they were relegated. The problem comes when the tap is turned off and the owners decide they are no longer putting money in to a club, and in the football world you never stand still – you either invest to go forward, or you get left behind and go backwards. You can look at Aston Villa in the same light and look what has happened to them. At Blackburn we weren’t even afforded the excuse of the money tap being turned off, in anything, more money was put in to the club, we unfortunately just did it at a time when bad decisions where being made and the club was being mismanaged to the hilt.

What really came across in the Netflix documentary was the passion of the Sunderland fans; the way the whole week built towards a match day and regardless of form or goings on off the pitch, they had that optimism of 3 points that all football fans should have as 3pm on a Saturday approaches, even though at times it looked as though relegation was an inevitability rather than a possibility. Newcastle fans may have mocked their Mackem counterparts in the Checkatrade trophy tie this past week by singing “We saw you crying on Netflix” but without Rafa Benitez in charge I don’t think their fate would be much different.

It is a shame what has happened to Sunderland and Newcastle over the past few years, they have some of the most passionate fans and in the past have provided fantastic value for money for the Premier League, but they have been failed by the stewards of their clubs. I don’t like or agree with the phrase “they deserve better” because in football nobody deserves anything, you have to work for it; but two strong and competitive north-east teams is good for football and the sooner the situation changes up there the better.

Sunderland seem to be going in the right direction with the club having been sold by Ellis Short to an international consortium of investors – and I think this was done at the right time. They had just confirmed their relegation to League One and couldn’t possibly have been at a lower point. By selling the club before the last game of the season that sense of optimism of a righter future and that things could get better looks to have acted as a catalyst for them to bounce back, and more. In their last game of the season they beat Championship Winners 3-0 and where watched by a crowd of over 28,000. This season so far they average a home attendance of over 32,000, in League One. They have rightly addressed the problem many of the bigger clubs face with relegation, the wage bill, and look to be building more sustainably now than when cash was being thrown at it by Ellis Short – the days of spending £13.6m on Didier N’Dong and £10m on Darren Bent are gone. If they can get back up to the top division in a sustainable manner, although no-one wants to be relegated, if it happens and you are working to a sustainable business model you can manage it and look to bounce back (as Sunderland did before the days of Short), rather than panicking buying players to survive and then being tied to the extortionate wages of the likes of Jack Rodwell. If you look at Newcastle’s spending over the last year, they remained in the Premier League in their first season following promotion and are well placed again this season to survive, but actually made a profit. Although I believe a lot of that is down to Benitez, it does beg the question whether Ashley is doing a good job and it is unrealistic expectations of the fans at a time when spending money can put the club on the knife-edge between success and disaster; maybe a look past the Angel of the North to Sunderland and what happened to them despite spending the money they want Ashley to spend may be worth a cautionary glance to see what ‘could’ happen if money was spent. For the record, I don’t think either Newcastle or Sunderland need to spend big, as I’ll come on to, just getting rid of someone despised by the fans, especially in such a senior position at the club as Ashley or Short, can be worth millions in how it changes the atmosphere around the club and the fans and changes the dynamic of the club moving forwards.

Looking back at the Netflix documentation, one of the key messages and situations which was made blatantly clear was the lack of money both for transfer fees to invest in new players and for wages to pay these players. So much of Sunderland’s activity in the transfer windows during last season relied on bringing players in on loan and moving players around to be able to pay the wages. The problem comes when you have a player on a good number who contractually doesn’t have to leave, and won’t leave of their own accord as they know they’ll never get as good a deal elsewhere – it’s not the fault of the player that they have been offered such a stupid contract with high wages which aren’t affected by relegation, it’s the fault of the clubs for offering that contract. Yes, the player should have a moral obligation and a personal desire to play every week and be the best players they can be, but a footballers career is limited and they have to potentially make the money to last them a lifetime. Loan signings are brilliant if they add quality to a squad and improve a team, but ultimately they have to want to be there, otherwise they just become a number drain on resources, team spirit and confidence. Yes Chris Martin may have been a good signing for Sunderland, but if he didn’t want to be there you’d be better (and cheaper) playing die hard Sunderland fan Callum off the street. I don’t know the statistics but I’d be surprised if there was any trend for teams bringing in players on loan and then being successful in keeping a team up. However, bring a player in on loan to complete a confident side on a good run and I bet the results are completely different.

Look at Rovers: during the Kean/Berg/Appleton/Bowyer/Lambert era we had no end of young players in on loan who just failed to make an impact (think Doneil Henry, Matt Grimes, Mo Barrow, DJ Campbell, Kerim Rekik, Cameron Stewart, Luke Varney, Liam Feeney), very few made continuous positive contributions to the side, arguably only Danny Graham, Rudi Gestede, Danny Guthrie and Jordi Gomez. Look at players brought in when we were doing well (using last season as an example) such as Adam Armstrong and Jack Payne and they made a real contribution to get promotion over the line – the difference being that they came in to add to an already good team with positive spirit, rather than being the great white hope of survival. Ashley Fletcher when he signed for Sunderland was 23 and had scored 6 goals in 59 appearances, albeit it a good chunk of those may have been from the bench, it is hardly the form that you pin your survival hopes to, regardless of how excited Chris Coleman was by the signing. You could see from the moment he missed that chance on the documentary his confidence was shot – what Sunderland needed was someone to score from day one of being played, without that it’s another dropped head around the club. Back in 2012 we signed Anthony Modeste on loan from Bordeaux and although he failed to score in his 9 appearances, on his debut he won a penalty early and wanted to take it. David Dunn took the ball and missed – hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had Modeste got off to a flyer you never know, his goals may have kept us up (it is also worth pointing out that Modeste has gone on to score 74 goals in 159 appearances for Bastia, Hoffenheim and FC Koln and earnt himself a rumoured €35m pound move to China, so the guy evidently had quality and the ability to score goals).

The similarities between the Sunderland club seen in the documentary and Blackburn Rovers in the pre-Mowbray days are there for all to see: no money, no confidence, fans turning on a team as soon as they go behind, fans wanting rid of the owners, scrounging around for loan players, seasons starting with optimism and ending in disaster. I’d go so far as to say had the documentary been focussed on Rovers under Owen Coyle in 2016-17, the negativity around the club would have been ten-fold. The documentary does open the door to fans to see just how difficult running a struggling football club can be, but that can also just increase the frustration from the fans. Although ultimately the documentary ends up being a negative one for Sunderland fans, it does end on a high note with the new owner and optimism – in a way it’s good the documentary had that end note and was released after the buyout, or else there would be nothing positive for the Sunderland fans to hold on to from a wretched season caught on tape.

Sunderland are currently sat in 3rd place in League One, a point off the automatic position and 5 points of league leader Portsmouth but with a game in hand on both – Sunderland also play Portsmouth at home on the last day of the season. Their attendances are phenomenal for the third tier and they are looking upwards for a change rather than the last half a decade of looking over their shoulders, or even staring relegation right in the eyes. The catalyst to this turnaround has to be the change of owner. When you look at Rovers I’m not too sure what the catalyst for our change in fortunes has been. When Owen Coyle was sacked in February 2017 with Rovers sat second-bottom of the Championship I think most Rovers fans had accepted relegation was going to happen. Removing Owen Coyle was the best decision the club could have made – any former Burnley manager is unlikely to be welcomed at Ewood Park as manager of Blackburn Rovers, but when you throw in his connections with Jerome Anderson, he was never going to be given any settling in period or benefits of the doubt; the fans had wanted him gone almost from the day he started. By relieving him of his position an air of negativity was lifted and for once it felt like the fans were being listened to and things might change at the top. Tony Mowbray wasn’t the name on most peoples, or anybody’s, lips when he was appointed, but at his first game at Burton Albion away there was somewhat of a party atmosphere and everyone got behind the team, there wasn’t one chant about the Venky’s I don’t think there have been many if any since. It wasn’t the incoming Mowbray that created this positive atmosphere, maybe it was just the resignation to accepting we were going to be relegated combined with the fact we had just got something we had all wanted, but I’m convinced any manager with no prior link to Burnley, Jerome Anderson or any of the other people linked to Rovers demise would have got the same reception – Mowbray hadn’t had a job since resigning from League One Coventry City 5 months earlier after a string of results without a win. It didn’t have to be Mowbray, but I’m so glad it was.

Since that moment everything has fallen in to place – results turned around and we almost stayed up, we had a fantastic season in League One and in doing so got the fans back on board behind a club that has players who look like they enjoy playing for the club and would run through brick walls for the badge. There is so much positivity around the club and, like Sunderland, for the first time in years we are looking upwards – maybe not to promotion (yet!) but at stability and growth. Had a documentary been done at Ewood during the Lambert/Coyle era and one done now, it would look like to different clubs even though only 3 years has passed. Last night against Millwall was a great example of how far we’ve come – in years gone by we would have defended resolutely but succumbed to a late goal and lost; Mowbray had the tactical awareness to know we couldn’t go to The New Den and try and play our style of football, we had to dig deep and battle it out for 90 minutes and try and create something with our quality, which he did with very good substitutions, using Adam Armstrong’s key attribute his pace. Signing Mowbray up to a new long term contract until 2022 gives him a platform to continue to build this team and look to the future. We’d all love to be back in the Premier League but it has to be at the right time so that we don’t make bad decisions that we end up paying for for another decade. I’m pretty sure for the meantime most Rovers fans would just be happy to see that commitment and passion on the pitch that we have grown to expect continue.

I’d say this to Sunderland fans – relegation to League One can feel like the end of the world, but under the right conditions it can be a platform to build on, almost a re-birth for the club. Remember the feeling of winning and enjoying going to the football every week and visit some of the ground you may not have visited for a while or even been to before – at the end of the season if you achieve promotion and a club you are proud of again, it is definitely worth the one-year hiatus from the Championship. I for one would love to see us playing Sunderland in the Championship again next season.

 

Mowbray’s First Real Test

Disappointing losses away to local rivals Preston and Wigan have left Rovers with just one win in six, and what was turning in to a season of optimism for a play-off run is in danger of false-starting and turning in to a relegation battle. Mowbray has been in charge for 21 months and has seen the team relegated and then promoted, but the current situation could be his biggest challenge at Ewood.

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Disappointing losses away to local rivals Preston and Wigan have left Rovers with just one win in six, and what was turning in to a season of optimism for a play-off run is in danger of false-starting and turning in to a relegation battle. Mowbray has been in charge for 21 months and has seen the team relegated and then promoted, but the current situation could be his biggest challenge at Ewood.

In the words of 1993 Graham Taylor: “This is a test”. With just one win in six dropping Rovers down the league to 13th and the bottom half some 5 points of the play-off places, the period running up to and including Christmas could be the most crucial and difficult of his Rover reign to date.

When Mowbray took over in February 2017 Rovers were deep in the mire and many fans had already resigned themselves to relegation – yes, he was under pressure to try and save us, but the damage had been done by Coyle’s time in charge and there was very little by way of expectation of avoiding relegation.

Rewind to August 2017 and although there was pressure on Mowbray to achieve an immediate return to the Championship and an expectation that he would achieve it, given the players and squad that we had, it was a test, but one that Mowbray would have felt comfortable of passing.

What Mowbray faces now, as Rovers seem to have lost all momentum, is his biggest test to date – he has to halt a slide before it turns in to a full-on relegation battle. Perhaps most worrying from the display against Wigan was the lack of heart and commitment – something Rovers fans have come to expect as a bare-minimum. From the middle of the first half it looked as though the majority of the eleven had been booked the way they were avoiding 50/50s and shirking challenges. Mowbray had promised a reaction following the defeat to Preston, but we are still waiting for it.

In the same way winning breeds confidence, losses result in the loss confidence, and the losing run needs to end as soon as possible. Rovers sit 9 points above the relegation zone, but in a league where you regularly play 3 games in 7 days, with a week we could find ourselves deep in the mire, with the heavy Christmas schedule only serving to heighten the importance of stopping the rot. Three games in a week though also means three wins in a week could propel us up the league and all will be forgotten.

Perhaps Mowbray’s saving grace is that the two defeats have come away from home and the next game sees the side return to home comforts with a game against Sheffield Wednesday. It’s not the easiest of fixtures against a Sheffield Wednesday side with similar lack of form to Rovers – one win in seven and sitting 3 points and positions below Rovers in the table – but Rovers have to take advantage of the home support, and the home support needs to get behind the team. The last thing Rovers need is for the crowd to revert back to pre-Mowbray days and get on the players backs from the start – that said, Rovers need to be quicker out of the blocks than they have been recently.

The crowd can, and hopefully will, play their part in pushing Rovers towards a victory, but on the evidence of Wednesday’s loss to Wigan, other changes are required. Dack looks out of sorts, whether teams have worked out how to play him or whether Mowbray is asking too much from him to influence games, it just isn’t working at the minute; Bell looks a liability whenever he gets the ball – in the whole game against Wigan I think I only saw him complete passes with his head, and his stray pass resulting the third Wigan goal as we were pushing for an equaliser; the defence in general looked like they had never played together before at times against Wigan; and the fact Rovers haven’t won a league game by more than one goal all season shows the fact that we don’t score enough goals, which on more than one occasion has meant conceding late goals has cost us points – don’t get me wrong though, I’d take a scrappy 1-0 on Saturday. In my opinion now would be a good time to change things with a reshuffle.

We don’t score enough goals partly because we play with one striker and Dack just behind – if Dack to create or link up with Graham, which he hasn’t been doing, the number of chances we create are limited. Playing two defensive midfielders behind a 3 and 1 is supposed to offer protection for our defence, but we’ve conceded 7 in 2 games – this obviously isn’t working. A change in formation to a traditional 4-4-2 on Saturday might offer us more going forward with two focal points who can play off each other and two more old-fashioned-type wingers providing width and service to the two frontmen, whilst also offering more defensive cover tracking back. This would allow Mowbray to stick with the two defensive/battling midfielders but with the added support of wingers to track wide men rather than the two central players being pulled out wide.

What this change system would also necessitate is a change in personnel. If Lennihan is fit he obviously goes back in to the centre of defence alongside Mulgrew, which means Williams can slot back in at left back, taking Bell out of the limelight; if Lennihan isn’t fit I’d put Williams in at centre half and think about playing either Travis or Bennett or left back, with Nyambe on the opposite side. In the centre of the field I’d stick with Evans and Reed, and on the wings I’d bring in Conway – a player who gives his all every time he steps on to the pitch is exactly what we need, and he does the dirty work tracking back. On the opposite side, I’d give Rothwell a shot or Bennett if he isn’t in at full back or central midfield – the reason I wouldn’t opt for Armstrong is because, like others, I think he is struggling for form at the minute, and he also doesn’t offer as much defensively; that said, if he does start I wouldn’t be disappointed as he has been at his best when allowed to run at defences from wide positions. Then up top I’d play Graham and Brereton – Graham as the war horse and foil to win the headers, hold the ball up and play off whilst also drawing free-kicks; with a play alongside him he would no longer need to win the ball, hold it up and wait for player to support him. Although I don’t think Brereton is an out-and-out striker, he has influenced games more often than not when he has come off the bench – the only problem being he is brought on to score goals but more often than not he finds himself leaving that centre forward position in search of the ball and to create. By playing up front with another striker this would take the pressure off him and allow him to play his game – he has yet to start a game since joining from Nottingham Forest and this looks like the perfect opportunity for him and for Mowbray to make an impact, Sheffield Wednesday won’t be expecting it which can only be a good thing.

Nothing controversial there then, apart from the omission of Dack. Yes, Dack may be our top goal scorer and he may have been involved in the creation of more goals than anyone else, but in the last few weeks he has been off the boil and has contributed little. He has had to drop deep to pick the ball up and that places him far to far away from where he causes most damage. He has also suffered from being Mowbray’s go to man when things aren’t working, deploying him as a lone striker which hasn’t helped him have an impact. I’d take him out of the limelight and take the pressure off him a little, but I’d have him on the bench to give us an option to change it both in terms of players and systems. With that in mind I’d also have Armstrong and Palmer on the bench, giving us three players who can all change a game.

The losing streak needs to end as soon as possible, especially before the busy period, and the tricky tie away to Middlesbrough, as two defeats could quickly turn in to one win in ten by the time Christmas arrives (and Rovers travel to Leeds). We are in a position of opportunity – turn it around before Christmas and a good Christmas puts us on course for a play-off run; but fail to arrest the slide and the rest of the season turns in to the relegation dog fight no one wants.

Tony Mowbray’s record in charge of Rovers reads: played 92, won 45, drawn 29 and lost 18 giving a win percentage of almost 50%. That’s somewhat better than my win percentage as a professional football manager, so in Mowbray I’ll trust to steer the ship back on course.

Image source: https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/sport/17262770.match-report-wigan-athletic-3-blackburn-rovers-1/