Tag Archives: Blackburn Rovers

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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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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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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Mid-Term Review – Blackburn Rovers

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The Christmas period can often define a football teams season – propelling them in to the promotion or title challenge, sinking them towards the dreaded drop zone, or sentencing them to a season of mid-season obscurity. Blackburn Rovers went in to the busy Christmas schedule sat in the League 1 promotion places and handily placed to make a push on the automatic promotion spots on the back of an unbeaten league run stretching back to the 14th October (10 games) – a positive Christmas could well have seen Rovers enter the New Year in the second automatic place.

What followed over the festive period was a frustrating 1-1 draw away at Northampton which saw Marcus Antonsson miss a penalty late on to win the game; a good, although not comfortable, 2-0 win at home to Rochdale; another frustrating draw, this time 2-2 with Scunthorpe at home in a game which Rovers twice led but conceded soft goals and despite pushing could not get a winner; and then a disappointing 1-1 draw away at Rotherham, again conceding late on. This has left Rovers where they started, in third place, but now some 5 points behind second placed Shrewsbury and 7 points behind league leaders Wigan; perhaps more importantly though, we remain 9 points above Rotherham in 7th place, with a game in hand, and the unbeaten run stretched to 14 games in the league.

To have not picked up more points during the festive period, especially considering the number of times we led in games, is disappointing – 2 extra points would make the league table better reading, placing us 3 points behind Shrewsbury who are the next visitors to Ewood, and who Rovers have a superior goal difference against – but to be in 3rd place, in touching distance of the teams above us at just past the half-way stage should be seen as a good thing. You would be hard pushed to find anyone leaving the first home game against Doncaster realistically saying that they would be disappointed with this. Consider this, if we had stuck with Coyle, we would be at the opposite end of the table without doubt. We find ourselves in a good position with games on hand on the teams directly below, and with 21 games to mount a challenge, catch and hopefully surpass the teams above us, well, at least one of them.

With the January transfer window looming and the good form of some of our players – Dack and Mulgrew in particular – there is always a worry that this good unbeaten run could be disturbed by departures, but the initial word from Mowbray is that the aim this season is promotion and we won’t be selling anybody who has the ability to help us achieve this goal, which can only be seen as a positive, combined with the rumours of additional reinforcements coming in with Adam Armstrong, Amari’I Bell, and the much maligned at Ewood Jason Lowe (on a free transfer I can think of worse players to bring in, and his time spent away from Ewood coupled with the performances of those who replaced him should give him a much needed reality check and kick up the backside).

So if Rovers are to push on for automatic promotion, what’s needed? For a start, thankfully Mowbray didn’t take my advice and give up on the Bradley Dack experiment as he has been magnificent since bonfire night!

1 – David Raya Martin – the best passer of a ball we have at the club possibly with the exception of Dack and Mulgrew; has been fantastic between the sticks and has probably got us 6-7 points in the process. Should’ve been in the team ahead of Steele last season well before he was.

13 – Jason Leutwiler – not seen enough of him to pass fair judgement, but thought his indecisiveness from a corner helped Hull get the winner yesterday. That said, he hasn’t had much game time.

2 – Ryan Nyambe – much preferred at right back to Caddis. Has pace and strength and looks like he enjoys getting forward. One of the first names on the team-sheet for me. Also played well at centre-half against Hull which gives us options if needed.

3 – Derrick Williams – I don’t think he’s having a great season this year and it’s frustrating to see him push forward and stop most times rather than taking a man on. I do think he has suffered having to do a lot of Antonsson defensive work for him though which has left him exposed at times.

15 – Elliot Ward – hasn’t played much but has looked vulnerable when he has.

16 – Paul Caddis – steady enough but lacks any real quality to set him apart from a standard run-of-the-mill full-back you might see up at Pleasington on a Sunday morning. He doesn’t really have the pace to get forward or to counter pacey wingers which leaves us exposed at times – much prefer Nyambe in the position.

25 – Paul Downing – perhaps the biggest mystery of the season is why MK Dons let this man go on loan to a club in the same division. He has been a revelation at centre half partnering Mulgrew. No nonsense defender who would be the first piece of business for me in this transfer window signing him up to a permanent deal.

34 – Scott Wharton – I haven’t seen enough of him this season to pass comment but I would have expected to see him get game time in the cup competitions which would suggest Mowbray doesn’t fancy him (yet). Looked assured when he played in the Championship last season and had a good eye for a cross-field ball. On the bench is probably right for him at the minute but I would expect/hope he would see game time ahead of Ward and Nyambe at centre-half if injuries or suspensions dictated a change.

6 – Richie Smallwood – I wasn’t sure about him when we signed him and worried he’d be another Hope Akpan who was there but never really contributed much – luckily I was wrong. Very similar to Jason Lowe in many ways but he isn’t afraid to put a tackle in and gets the crowd going; he’s also not afraid to get forward. One of Mowbray’s best acquisitions and another who’s name is one of the first on the team-sheet.

11 – Peter Whittingham – disappointing. I hoped when he signed he would be somewhat of a play-maker in midfield to orchestrate attacks and chip in with a few goals, but he’s yet to get going (probably the reason he’s dropped down a level). At the beginning of the season I thought we’d signed a player who’s legs had gone but I think he is coming to terms with the fact he isn’t the player he once was and is being asked to play in a slightly different role. A good squad player, but others get in before him.

22 – Ben Gladwin – I can’t believe we actually signed him permanently and can’t send him back.

23 – Bradley Dack – I wasn’t too sure about him and where he fit in the side earlier in the season, and wondered whether trying different formations to fit him in was a wise choice but he has made me eat my words and more. We look a far better team with him on the pitch and he offers us a threat every time we go forward. Rightly deserved his nomination for League 1 Player of the Month in October, and will be key to pushing for the automatic spots. To lose him in the window would be a killer.

29 – Corry Evans – he’s struggled with injuries again this season and has been somewhat disappointing when he has played. I’m still not sure what he is – a combatant midfielder to break attacks up, or a creative midfielder. If we received an offer for him in January I’d probably take it as I imagine he’s one of the bigger earners and we have managed without him so far this season. Doesn’t replicate what he does in a Northern Ireland shirt for Rovers.

31 – Elliot Bennett – doesn’t always provide the quality, but his effort and ambition is 100% every week. He would get a starting place for me every week for that alone. He can chip in with the odd goal (usually a belter) but I’m not one hundred percent sure where his best position is – I don’t think he’s a winger, but I also don’t think he’s a central midfielder, somewhere in-between. A good player at this level who will cause team problems and get amongst it.

32 – Craig Conway – see above. Another like Bennett who always gives one hundred percent. He’s struggled to hold down a place in the side so far but when he has played he has provided much needed width and pace, whilst providing defensive cover for Nyambe. Another good player to have in this division.

28 – Willem Tomlinson – there are a few at Ewood who don’t rate him, but I think it is harsh to pass judgement at this stage. In most instances he has been asked to come of the bench and shore up the midfield, not provide that defence splitting pass, and he has done what has been asked. I saw more from him in the FA Cup game against Hull which he started, to suggest that he is capable of more, and is a good squad player.

35 – Lewis Travis – I’ve only seen him once, off the bench against Hull, but he was man of the match for me. Showed lots of enthusiasm and passion and wasn’t afraid to get stuck in, but also was happy asking for the ball and passed well. On that substitute appearance alone he did more for me than Evans, and definitely warrants a place on the bench, if not the starting eleven.

8 – Harry Chapman – showed much promise earlier in the season as a pacey and tricky winger who has unfortunately been lost to injury for the last couple of months. He was a good weapon to have off the bench late on and if we can see him again during the run in he could play a massive part.

9 – Dominic Samuel – started the season with much promise with a run of goals but these have dried up over recent weeks. He puts the effort in but can go overboard at times which has seen him miss games through suspensions. Decent at this level and a good option to have up front.

10 – Danny Graham – I worried about Graham at the start of the season and whether he would accept being a League 1 player, or sulk around for the season, but he can definitely not be accused of that. He has thrown himself in to the promotion fight and although he doesn’t have the little pace he once had, he is a handful up front and always looks likely to score when through on goal. His experience and passion could be key in the run and hopefully he can teach some of the younger players a thing or two (if Nuttall put himself about like Graham he probably wouldn’t be in League 1).

20 – Marcus Antonsson – he hasn’t really played as a striker this season and has been asked to play out-wide which he doesn’t look one hundred percent comfortable with, especially when concerning defensive duties, but you can’t argue with his goalscoring record (7 goals in 19 starts). He offers us some aerial presence and when you start to question whether he should be in the team he usually pops up with a goal. Another who looks good at this level, but I do worry about how the neglect of his defensive duties may impact us in the long run.

 38 – Joe Nuttall – I was so excited when this lad got his chance in the first team and took it, but since then he has definitely gone off the boil. I don’t know if it’s disappointment at being dropped, or because he isn’t happy coming off the bench, but since that early flurry of goals he hasn’t looked interested. We need options in attack and he could play a pivotal part in taking the weight off Graham and Samuel for goals, but he needs to start showing effort to the fans – could learn a thing or two from Graham.

There is room for improvement and additions in January are always welcome, so long as they don’t disrupt what looks to be a harmonious squad. I think another attacker/striker would give us more options and I think Armstrong from Newcastle would be a good addition at this level. We are somewhat light at full-back and I don’t think Hart has proved he is good enough even as a deputy, so someone who can play at both right and left full-back would be a good addition. A decent winger to cover until Chapman is back would give us options and if we could get someone from the higher divisions on loan until the end of the season that would give us options. Not forgetting, Darragh Lenihan is still to come back and he provides options at centre half and central midfield.

 All in all I’m content with the team and optimistic about the rest of the season. The ultimate goal has to be automatic promotion, but it would be somewhat unthinkable to not even make the play-offs given the run we have been on, and we should have the quality to overcome any of the sides which may come up in the play-offs – but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

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It’s Nutt-all bad for Rovers

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As the last international break of 2017 draws to a close with a series of games won, for the most part, by the odd goal, I found myself laughing somewhat in disbelief at how far Blackburn Rovers have fallen in the few years. Yes, I have laughed ironically at the state which we find ourselves in: marooned in League 1, the third tier of English football, with increasing debt, a local rival thriving in the top division, and competing in the first round of the FA Cup for the first time in three decades; but possibly for the first time this season, the true delicacy of our situation was brought home when a work colleague asked me who we had last weekend – I had to laugh as I uttered a phrase I never thought I would say (and I mean no disrespect to Walsall fans with this): “We haven’t got a game this weekend mate, no not because we have too many internationals, but because Walsall have too many internationals”. To be fair to the work colleague, he was a Manchester United fan, so I imagine he was welcoming of a week of international football when Jose’s bus could be parked up, valeted and given new tyres ahead of the Christmas run in.

This time 5 years ago, Blackburn Rovers were returning from the international break to play Peterborough United (to be fair we will be playing them this year as well) in a game shown live on Sky, on a Saturday. Incidentally, Henning Berg’s only win in charge of Blackburn, and a game when Jordan Rhodes bagged himself a hat-trick. That season, international breaks were routine as we were in the Championship where all football comes to a halt, but looking at the squad we would have had the likes of Martin Olsson (Sweden), Jordan Rhodes (Scotland), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Norway), Marcus Olsson (Sweden), Josh King (Norway), Adam Henley (Wales) and Colin Kazim-Richards (Turkey) all jetting off to World Cup qualifiers. This time around we had Corry Evans joining up with Northern Ireland for a World Cup Play-Off, and Charlie Mulgrew joining up with Scotland to play the Netherlands – that is it. A sign of how far we have come in such a short space of time.

As domestic football returns for Blackburn this weekend we find ourselves 7th in the table, just 1 point behind Rotherham United in the 6th place and on the same points as the aforementioned Peterborough United, 12 points off first place, and 11 points off the automatic places; but with 2 games in hand (thanks to international breaks) on the teams directly above us, and a game in hand on those occupying the top two places. That said, I would rather have points on the board, than games in hand. What seems to have been a regular occurrence over this season and the last few, is the bad timing to which the break arrives – unbeaten in five in the league and FA Cup (I don’t count the EFL Trophy), and a young and upcoming striker coming in to the team and scoring goals for fun. Especially when you consider that for all the chances we have created and the performances we have put in, the inability to get a second goal and finish teams off means we are were we are in the table – turn two of those draws (say against Fleetwood and Plymouth) in to wins that puts us on 31 points in third place with a game in hand – both games we should realistically have won both on paper and in reality.

I’m of the opinion that we are a big fish in this league and the majority of teams will setup with a game plan to stop us playing and winning, rather than preparing in a way which takes the game to us, and we have not taken advantage of this. Each game I have been to this season we have started off on the front foot and really taken the game to teams – for the first 10 minutes, and then we have reverted back to passing it sideways and backwards without ever really creating anything. The shining lights have been the creativity provided by Bradley Dack and the wing-play provided by Harry Chapman, whilst not forgetting the excitement that Joe Nuttall has brought back to the stands in the form of a youngster given a chance and taking it in the first team. The problem is Chapman has been resigned to twenty minutes from the bench most weeks; Mowbray seemed to have something against putting Nuttall even on the bench despite his goalscoring exploits in the Under 23s side; and to accommodate Dack Mowbray seems to need to change the formation of the team to fit him in. At this level, at home at least, we should be playing two strikers. The 4-2-3-1 we have played with Graham up front on his own doesn’t work in my opinion – as good a finisher Danny Graham is, he is no longer going to chase balls down and hassle defenders for 90 minutes; if he is challenging for the ball is more often than not our furthest man forward, so if he wins the knock down, he then has to get himself in a decent position. Although to be fair, he usually wins the ball and then it takes us that long to do anything with it, he has two or three defenders on him by the time we even think of getting the ball to him. We don’t play attacking enough football – yes it might be too open and we might concede, but lets have a go and play with two front men and two wingers. The emergence of Nuttall and Samuel this season show we have the options up front in addition to Graham and Antonsson;and although Chapman looks to be ruled out through injury for at least a couple of months, we still have the likes of Conway, Bennett, Harper, Dack and Gladwin who could do a job out wide. Leaving Smallwood to break things up in the middle of the park, and Evans to pick the ball up and get things going. I don’t have a problem with passing sideways and backwards and keeping the ball, as long as it results in creating something. At the minute we seem to get to the half-way line and then go sideways or backwards and in most example then resort to lumping it, when the opposition has got men back to defend. Blackburn Rovers fans would grumble and moan if we played like Barcelona because it’s too slow. Most Blackburn Fans would tell you the best football they have seen at Ewood was with Wilcox and Ripley out wide, or with Duff creating from the wing. It looks to me as though Nyambe and Williams want to get forward to support but I don’t know whether it is the formation or instructions, they rarely get past the winger to provide another option.

All is not lost though – we are a third of the way through the season and we are one point off the Play-Offs with 2 games in hand and 93 points to play for. If we were in the bottom half of the table and playing badly I would be worried, but we’re not. I’m confident that Wigan and Shrewsbury will drop off at some stage, we just have to stay in the conversation, be consistent, and put a run together in the last third of the season – we have no-one saving themselves for the World Cup so we should be able to give it a good go. It’s all about momentum after the turn of the year. If I’m being honest, I’ll take second in the league on goal difference; it would be nice to be the beneficiary of goal difference for a change after last year.

Looking to the long term and how we get back to the Premier League? The only way I can see this happening at the minute – and this is what I call the dream – is back to back promotions, riding the crest of the wave from promotion from League 1 to take us from the Championship (how many sides do you see make the play-offs the season after promotion? See Preston and Bristol City in recent-ish years). Get in the Premier League, don’t spend big and then take the prize money. If that means immediate relegation, so be it, the prize money should put us back on level terms financially and secure the immediate future of the club. How we best achieve that on a shoestring is through a blend of experience and youth, finding the likes of Nuttall and other youngsters who are on the up before they are deemed of high value, and using their rise to move up the leagues, without breaking the already broken bank.

Easy enough right? Let’s get to work…..

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International Breaking in League One

Dom Sam

For as long as I can remember, Blackburn Rovers have always had good strikers leading the line, scoring the goals. I have been somewhat privileged by some of the goalscorers I have seen grace the turf at Ewood in Blue & White – Shearer, Sutton and Jansen as a starter for ten.

As the season takes a break for Blackburn Rovers for the International fixtures over the weekend (Rovers have retained some sense of pride whilst being in the third tier by at least still having enough players on international duty to warrant the postponement of fixtures – 3, the bare minimum), it is a good time to reflect on the first month of the season and to provide an update on my previous post “False Start or False Dawn” which questioned whether the poor start to the season (two defeats in two) was a reflection of how the season was going to be yet another disappointment or whether it was a slow start owing to new faces and systems not having settled yet.

Four games in and the table looks a whole lot healthier for Rovers. After defeats to Southend and Doncaster in the first two fixtures, the following two saw them beat Bradford City on their own turf with a narrow 1-0 win, and then a first home win of the season beating MK Dons 4-1 – we’ll not mention the League Cup defeat to them down the road, our season does not need a cup run!

Although performances haven’t necessarily been fantastic, it does seem that some of the simple mistakes have been cut out and we have a degree of creativity – at the end of the day, the sole purpose of this season is to get out of the division. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to be effective. If it takes another 42 1-0 wins with balls bouncing off backsides to go in, I’ll take it now, yes please sir.

With the International break came the end of the Summer Transfer Window – the end of the biggest period of spending in English Football history, and the end of the madness; just how can Kyle Walker command a transfer fee of £50m when Leonardo Bonucci cost a seemingly resurgent AC Milan just £37m?! At the end of the last season I thought there would be an exodus at Ewood with the likes of Graham, Mulgrew, Lenihan, Lowe, Akpan, Bennett, Mahoney, Guthrie and Stokes all leaving the club. There needed to be exits to balance the books given the decrease in TV money for the League 1 season, but Mowbray needed to keep us competitive. The fact the majority of players leaving the club were those out of contract, and that we have managed to retain the services of the likes of Graham, Mulgrew and Bennett, whilst adding to the squad (even spending some money we must’ve found down the back of the sofa at Brockhall) is a good sign for the season to come, and also a sign that Mowbray’s wishes are being heard by the Venkys – it would have been easy to sell our best assets to balance the books and leave us struggling for the season.

One of those players brought in during the Summer window was Dominic Samuel, purchased from Reading for an undisclosed fee. In the opening 6 games of the season (4 league games and 2 cup games) he has found the net 3 times, and is managing to keep the experienced Danny Graham out of the side. I’ve said in previous blogs that I thought our style of play at times so far this season hadn’t suited Graham, but what hasn’t suited Graham has definitely worked for Samuel – he has looked sharp off the ball, put himself about, and has taken his chances. At this moment in time, he has to be our first choice striker.

Three goals in six games is not a bad strike rate for forward at any level (maybe with the exception of Ronaldo and Messi), but having decent forwards has always been a strong point for Rovers – over the past few seasons with the likes of Rhodes and Gestede leading the line, with a better – or more consistent – defence, we could potentially have pushed harder for promotion. After the defeat to Doncaster after the first home of the season a friend said to me that we didn’t have a commanding centre forward to dominate the opposition; someone who when the ball came in to the box would kill if it meant he got his head to the ball first. Samuel isn’t the finished article yet, but he has the attributes and the desire to become that one day. What also helps, is that he puts himself about, chases down lost hopes, pressures goalkeepers – all things that get the crowd going, something that has been lacking from Ewood in recent seasons – Richie Smallwood must also get a mention here as another who gets the crowd going by pressuring the man on the ball and putting a tackle in. He doesn’t do much different to the much maligned Jason Lowe, but instead of standing off the opposition, he puts a foot in and rushes them in to playing the ball, pressuring the pass, forcing mistakes. 

I’m not getting carried away, but Samuel is heading the right way towards becoming a fan favourite at Ewood – especially if he can keep getting the goals and propel the sifde towards promotion. Looking at former strikers to have graced the turf like Speedie, Shearer, Jansen and McCarthy, he has plenty of good examples to follow if he wants to reach that goal.

 

Image source: http://www.rovers.co.uk 

 

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False Start or False Dawn

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Two weeks ago, on the dawn of the new season, for the first time since probably when we had just been relegated from the Premier League, I had a sense of optimism about the season ahead. Given the signings we had made, the players and manager we had kept hold of, I was relatively confident that we would be finishing in the play-off spots at least, hopefully in the automatic places. I had turned my nose up at the naysayer pundits who thought we would face another season of struggling and I put my money were my mouth was and backed Rovers to win the Division.

An opening game away at Southend is not the ideal start for a team faced with the task of escaping the third tier of English football for the first time in almost three decades; it is probably the further journey and not a glamorous ground to say the least; and in Phil Brown they have a good experienced manager, and with players like Michael Kightly in their ranks, they undoubtedly have some quality. Before every game for the last couple of seasons, when asked how I thought Rovers would do at the weekend I have invariably responded “I’ll take a point”, and that was my response ahead of the Southend game – except, knowing that these are the sort of games we should be looking to win to get out of the division; saying “I’ll take point” for the next 46 games will only get us 46 points and that is nowhere near enough to mount a promotion charge. But in this instance, given the context, I was confident it would turn out to be a point gained rather than two dropped.

I was not surprised when we conceded first, and I wasn’t surprised that it was a moment of brilliance from Charlie Mulgrew that drew us level, and given recent history, especially in away games, it was no surprise when we went behind again and ended up losing. An opening day defeat away against a team who would be pushing for the play off’s was not the end of the world I thought, hopefully it would be the kick up the backside the players needed. On to game two, the first home game of the season.

The first home game of the season, the match football fans look forward to all summer, and what better way to kick off at Ewood than to face newly promoted Doncaster Rovers – a team who only a few months earlier where two divisions below Rovers. Surely this was what was needed to get us off the mark and some points on the board. Again, I was that confident I put us in my accumulator (for the record I also had Chelsea in that accumulator). Unlike the Southend game, this was a game against a newly promoted team, at home. Regardless of who you are playing, if you are looking for promotion you should be looking to win all your home games. Last season my optimism for the season lasted just 12 minutes against Norwich at home, I suppose I should just be happy that the optimism lasted in to the second half of the second game this season.

I think what is most disappointing about the start we have made is that it is the same old story – in fact not even the same old story, at least towards the end of last season we were taking the game to the opposition. Judging by Saturdays performance, teams view us as a big fish in this league and are happy to set up for a point with men behind the ball, and hit us on the counter-attack, something Doncaster did brilliantly on Saturday. The problem with this is that we are far too happy to pass the ball across the back four (three or five depending what stage of the game it was on Saturday) and wait for something to open up – which on most occasions it doesn’t because Tugay retired over 8 years ago and we are still looking for someone to provide that spark and creativity. What this does is put us under pressure and gets the fans frustrated (I am happy for us to keep the ball if it leads to something, but I am fairly confident that Barcelona would get booed off Ewood for “not getting it forward”) – with Ward and Mulgrew at the back it only takes one bad touch or misplaced pass and anyone with a bit of pace is away and in (see Mulgrew chasing back and conceding the penalty for Doncaster for reference). The only bright spark from the game – other than the final whistle – was the introduction of Bradley Dack who looked like he wanted the ball and looked like he wanted to go forward and create.

This brings me on to the formation and line-up on Saturday. We played with a formation that Mowbray will claim is a 3-4-3 with wing backs which enables us to get players forward when we have the ball, but which reverts to a 5-4-1 when we don’t. Call me a purist but at home in the third tier of English football what is wrong with 4-4-2? In a 4-4-2 system everyone knows their job and at home it puts at least two people up front to either deliver the ball to in the box, or to get the ball to for one to win and flick on. The problem with the 3-4-3 was that to often Danny Graham was isolated at the top of the pitch having to win the ball, hold it up and then try and do something with it – at his age and condition he should be in the 18 yard box waiting for the cross or the flick on to tap in the goal. This isn’t helped by the players tasked with getting forward to support him being Peter Whittingham and Elliot Bennett. Bennett has the pace and the legs to do this, albeit everything he tried on Saturday failed. On the other hand, Whittingham is coming towards the end of his career – lets face it, not many years ago he was touted as the best player in the Championship, if he was still of this calibre he wouldn’t be being released and dropping down a division. On Saturday I thought it was a case of his legs having gone and that he had fallen off the edge of the cliff with this being one season too many, but looking back now, I don’t think he has played as a winger for a number of years, and it was a similar role he was being asked to perform on Saturday. He is no longer a player who is going to get the ball on the halfway line and run at defenders, if he ever was. Surely his best position is in the centre of midfield orchestrating things. I was really impressed with signing him in the Summer – I only hope this isn’t a repeat of the Danny Murphy saga which promised so much and delivered so little.

What was evident on Saturday is that we struggle to break teams down when they retreat and often this leads to us creating opportunities for the opposition. To sections of the fans it looked as though the team didn’t care, but so early on in a season with many new faces and new formation which changed multiple times throughout the 90 minutes, it must be difficult for the players, who are also coming to terms with the league they find themselves in. Before the season started I thought that our best chance of getting out of this league was to leave the negativity around the owners on the other side of the turnstile and get behind the team 100%, and that with a good start the negativity would stay outside and allow for momentum and confidence to build. To resort to chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” after 70 minutes of the second game of the season helps no-one, no matter how poor the players performed I hope to think it hurt them too. Many of them have reputations which are dwindling by the season – they need to get out of this division for themselves as much as for the club and the fans. I will get absolute pelter’s for this but I was not, and am still not, disappointed that Big Sam got the sack. At the time we were a Premier League team who took to the pitch every week in the hope of a long throw, a corner or a free kick to give us a chance to get the ball in the box for the ‘big lads’ to cause trouble and get it in the net. At Premier League level you pay your money (and lots of it) to be entertained, not to cheer winning a set-piece or subjecting world class players to being roughed up. Even now when we are in League 1 I stick by this opinion. However, we are in League 1 now. Don’t get me wrong, there are players of real quality in this division, and I hope as the season goes on we see that many of these are in fact wearing the blue and white halves, but there comes a time when the ball has to stick up top to give you a chance of winning football games. I’m not saying “lets play the statistics and keep putting the ball long and in to the mixer until it drops for us and we score”, I like all other football fans, like to see good skilful, free flowing football – but when you are trailing to a recently promoted team by 2 goals with 20 minutes, or when you are struggling to create anything, there is always an argument for putting another striker on and just getting the ball forward. It’s a last resort, but it always has to be remembered as a resort.

So where does this leave us? From the above it may sound like we are in a relegation battle already, but we are only 2 league games in of a new season with a lot of new players still to gel and find their place. If we are still playing this bad come Bonfire Night then yes, we have a problem – but I don’t think it will come to that. I was sceptical about Mowbray when he was appointed, but in the end he was Sam-Gallagher-taking-the ball-in-the-corner away from keeping us up, so we have to keep faith with him; any calls for his exit are misplaced (if he did go, who exactly are we going to turn to with any experience of getting out of this league). We have Bradford away up next which is by no means the perfect tonic to get over the defeat – they are decent side who themselves will be looking at promotion this season; but this could be to our advantage. The fact they are looking up the table and already have two league wins under their belt, and are at home, will mean that unlike Doncaster, they will look to create rather than sit behind the ball, and that could work in our favour, as could the fact that we have not had a midweek game so Mowbray has had another 7 days to work on formations and tactics. The least we need out of the game is a draw and a positive performance, especially with them Dingles down the road coming up. In an ideal world, we would be 4 games (including the EFL Cup) and 4 wins in to the season, brimming with confidence, looking forward to facing them with al the pressure on them. In true Rovers style, it hasn’t played out that way and we have somehow managed to put more pressure on ourselves, playing a team which, it pains me to say, are two divisions above us in the football pyramid.

Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk

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