Tag Archives: Tony Mowbray

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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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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Uncle Jack’s Legacy could be our Saviour

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As the dust settles on Blackburn Rovers relegation from the SkyBet Championship to League 1, the enormity of the situation becomes greater almost with each passing day – not just the task of getting back to the Championship first, and then the Premier League; but also just balancing the books and remaining in existence.

Rovers relegation on the the final day of the season at Griffin Park made them the first former Premier League Champions to be relegated to the third tier of English football and the first time the Lancashire club had been in the old third division since 1979, when Rovers finished bottom of the old second division. In 1979, the hiatus from the second tier lasted only one season, with Rovers promoted at the first attempt, finished second in the division to Grimsby.

The landscape has changed somewhat since the last visit to the depths of the Third Division; not only is it now regarded as League 1, but the financial gap has never been greater. Back in 1979, a footballers wage would have more akin to the regular man’s and in the third division many players would probably have a second job to supplement the income from football, a trade they would more than likely continue at the end of their playing career. In 1979 Peter Shilton became the highest paid player by signing a new contract with Nottingham Forest for £1,200 a week – putting this in perspective, the majority of the Blackburn side relegated at Brentford would have been on at least that, and that is playing for a second tier side. The Clubs themselves were worth a lot less financially then than they are now, and there was no lucrative TV deal to support clubs – they relied on gate receipts, sponsorships and generous owners; but the days of Jack Walker’s investment were still some 12 long years away. In the same year, the first million pound transfer took place with Trevor Francis moving from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest for £1m – in 2012, Championship club Leicester City paid £1m for non-league Fleetwood Town striker Jamie Vardy.

Fast-forward 38 years and Blackburn Rovers find themselves back in the third division staring at a completely different prospect to that which would have been seen by then player-manager Howard Kendall and his team consisting of Jim Arnold, Stuart Parker and Kevin Stonehouse. For a start, the club are already in dire straits financially with debt already spiralling before the relegation (at the beginning of the 1978-79 relegation season, Rovers reported a profit of over £110,000 enabling the club to reduce its debts by about a third) – the impact of relegation financially will most importantly mean they will only receive £1m in television money for the 2017-18, compared to the £6m they would have received in the Championship. Even if Rovers could get 10,000 through the gate at Ewood every week, this would only make up £3m of the difference, and it is likely this money has already been allocated elsewhere – so it is safe to assume the £5m shortfall will have to be made up elsewhere. Most likely this will be wages and transfers (the club only spent £250,000 the previous summer).

The problem Rovers have is that the goal for the season has to be promotion at the first attempt, the cost of failing to achieve this could be catastrophic. But the books also need to be balanced. In 2012 when the club were relegated from the Premier League to the Championship a massive gamble was taken using the parachute money to bring in the likes of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Leon Best and Nuno Gomes to name a few, all on high wages for the division – the gamble did not pay off and is, in my opinion, why we are in the football and financial situation we currently find ourselves in. Obviously the transfer budget is not there this time around for a spending spree (probably for the best), so the club need to be careful with wages. The wages paid in the Championship are going to be too high to sustain, especially for a club on the edge of the financial precipice already – so the club need to balance the release of those on high wages at the end of their contracts, with the retaining of the quality of those who remain under contract with, whilst also bringing in funds from the sale of assets to help to continue to balance the books. Mowbray has said the same since relegation, that we need to ensure we are competitive both on the field and financially. It truly is a massive balancing act.

The first action came the day after relegation with Paul Senior resigning from his role as Director of Football and Operations – he was the man thought to be responsible for bringing Tony Mowbray in, but given the lack of funds, is there much need for the role at League 1 level when you are hamstrung in the market looking only at loanees and free transfers. My opinion is that I would rather his wage be spent on someone who can improve out chances of promotion, ie a striker.

 Ten days later, news was announced of who was being retained and released by the club at the end of the season (those who are out of contract and either being offered a contract or not). The list of those released: Jason Lowe, Adam Henley, Hope Akpan, Danny Guthrie, Gordon Greer, Wes Brown, Joshua Askew and Ramirez Howarth. Those who were offered a new deal were just Connor Mahoney and Lewis Travis – it is worth pointing out that although they have been re-engaged, it does not mean they have to sign for the club. In addition to the above list, a number of the scholars at the club (8 to be precise) have also not been retained. It is also worth pointing out that according to the Clubs website we do not currently have a goalkeeping coach.  So were does this leave the squad?

 The remaining playing squad consists of:

Goalkeepers: Jason Steele, David Raya, Andy Fisher (3) 

Defenders: Derrick Williams, Charlie Mulgrew, Elliot Ward, Ryan Nyambe, Scott Wharton, Jack Doyle, Lewis Travis, Matthew Platt, Lewis Hardcastle (9) 

Midfielder: Liam Feeny, Darragh Lenihan, Willem Tomlinson, Connor Mahoney, Corey Evans, Elliot Bennett, Craig Conway, Connor Thomson, Joe Grayson, Joe Rankin-Costello, Tyler Magloire (11)

Forwards: Anthony Stokes, Danny Graham, Lewis Mansell (3)

On paper this is not a bad squad, but I would expect there to be further departures – before the start of the season I would expect the club to receive offers for the likes of Graham, Mulgrew, Evans, Bennett and maybe Conway. It will be interesting to see how the club responds to these offers, as I would imagine these will also be the highest earners at the club. Do they sell and save the money, or do they try and keep hold of them in the hope they can get promoted at the first attempt? In many ways, these decisions could mould the future of the club – do they take another massive financial hit for the year and gamble on an immediate promotion? Or do they cut their losses and almost start from scratch, putting trust in the academy and youth development players? If history is anything to go by, the latter may be the more sensible option. The fans won’t be happy with this as they will want to see a team that runs away with the division, but in the long term this decision is more sensible financially, and could secure the long term future of the club.

One way to look at it is if Rovers had stayed up on the final day of the season, yes they would have received more money, and yes they have a good experienced manager in Mowbray, but would that additional money be spent on keeping the club competitive in the division or to pay off existing debts? Neither of which is a long term solution – like putting a plaster on and amputated arm. Would it not make more sense to take the hit and get relegated; accept that financially we can’t compete and ‘start again’. Release those players who the club have no obligation to retain freeing up money from wages; wait and see what offers come in for those players who have a saleable value (and as such also the higher wages) and bring funds in from their sale, and save money from their wages; and then promote from within, utilising the youth development squad complimented with sensible free transfers and loanees to provide the experience?

When Jack Walker bought the club back in 1991 he wanted to make it self-financing in the long term, developing youth who could go on to play in the first team, reducing the amount of money which would have to be spent on transfers. In 1996 an official youth structure was put in place and in 2001 Brockhall Village Academy – during and since this period, the Blackburn Rovers youth teams have been one of the most successful in the country, and players who have emerged from it have included the likes of Neil Danns, Joe Garner, Paul Gallagher, Alan Judge and Phil Jones. Others have come through the Academy and been sold or released and have gone on to have successful careers. The academy at Brockhall is still widely regarded as one of the best in the Country.

academy4x3195-495529_478x359Upon relegation a lot of media outlets jumped on the band-wagon of “Jack Walker turning in his grave” at what the Venkys have done to his football club; and they would not be wrong. However, at this eleventh hour, Jack Walker could once again provide the saviour and hero of the club. His foresight to build the academy back in 1990’s may have produced some talented gems over the years who the club have reaped the rewards of financially and on the pitch, but in the clubs darkest hour, the Academy could be the shining light that not only rescues the club financially, but allows them a second chance on the pitch. What is clear is that under absolutely no circumstances should the idea of selling the academy and/or the land it is built on be considered. During the last campaign the likes of Mahoney, Raya, Wharton and Tomlinson all made appearences for the first team and none of them looked out of their depth – yes they are only a small percentage of the players available, but it is a sign that even without the ‘big names’ we could still be competitive in League 1. Like all Rovers fans, I want a quick return to the Championship (and hopefully eventually the Premier League) but not at the cost of the club going out of business. If it takes a few years, but it means we are on a level footing financially as a result, I’d take that.

You never know, financial stability may make the club more attractive to local businesses who want to invest and tempt the Venkys to part with the club, I’m not a marketing guru but I can’t imagine they will get much positivity publicity globally from owning a club in the old third division.

 

Final Thought – similarities between 1979 and 2017:

The 1978-79 season started disastrously and there was unrest from the supporters and local press, and despite signings, the manager Jim Iley was sacked at the end of September after only 172 days. The club was by now embroiled in a relegation battle and Caretaker-Manager John Pickering was appointed, and then given the job until the end of the season in February 1979. A number of players where signed and this brought an upturn in results, but the damage had already been done and the club where relegated, but there was support for Pickering who had done a good job in his time at the helm – not too dissimilar to the support shown for Mowbray in 2017. Back in 1979 however the board decided not to renew Pickering’s contract and instead brought in Howard Kendall as a player-manager, despite him never having managed before. Despite his inexperience, Kendall’s Rovers finished second in the league which largely owed to an unbeaten 15 game run which consisted of 14 victories and draw. If Mowbray was to leave Ewood during the summer, could there be some symmetry with what Kendall achieved in his first role, and what David Dunn could potentially achieve if given the nod?

 

Note: Facts and content from the 1978-79 season taken form the book “Blackburn Rovers: The Complete Record” by Mike Jackman – well worth a read for any Rovers fan.

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Seven Down Eight To Go

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I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t overly enamoured at the appointment of Tony Mowbray 3 weeks ago but as I said in my last post, he may be the best we could hope for and maybe a sensible choice given our predicament. Seven unbeaten games later and we have a fighting chance.

I had previously said that if we didn’t win at Burton in Mowbray’s first game we would almost definitely go down. However, the way we played in the first half of that game was enough to give me hope we had a chance, and having seen Burton hit the inside of both posts and the ball fall in to Steele’s hands in the last minute, I thought “you know what, we might have half a chance”. We absolutely battered Burton in that first half, keeping and passing the ball well, and unlikely to go in only one in front at half time. I wasn’t sure whether we had been really good, or they had been really bad. The second half was less of a walkover and in the end, a point was probably a fair result for both teams.

What was telling that night at the Pirelli was not only the performance of the eleven men on the pitch, but also the reaction of the crowd to the change in manager. From well before the game started, the Rovers at the Pirelli Stadium were in full voice, behind the team and the manager – something that has not been seen often this season with Owen Coyle at the helm. From the day of his appointment it would be very difficult to argue that Coyle had the full backing of the Rovers supporters given his previous connections with Burnley and Wigan and his recent track record. It was seen as yet another a stupid Venkys decision. Whenever the team went behind or conceded late on, the fans would turn on Coyle. Given Rovers predicament at the bottom of the table and the lack of anything to suggest Coyle could turn things around, things were only going to get more negative from the crowd which would not have a positive impact upon the players, their performances and the results on the pitch. A telling moment was that all through the warm up and the first half the singing and chanting had been positive about the team, players and manager; then, just before the half time whistle, one fan tried to start a chorus of “Venkys Out” – it was met with moans and groans from the rest of the crowd and never got off the ground, and has not been heard since. I don’t think it is coincidence that since the negative “Venkys Out” chants disappeared and were replaced with positivity the results have picked up and the team have either held on to wins or draws late on, or managed to get a goal to equalise late on. Yes, it is not just down to that fact, but the knock on effects of removing one negative from the club (Coyle) and replacing him with someone in no-way related to the Venkys or previous villains at the club, has had a massive positive difference. The fans realise now is not the time to moan about the owners and voice opinions and protests at them, what is more important is that the club avoids relegation and the doom which comes with it. What should be said though, is that whoever made the call on sacking Coyle may just potentially have saved the club.

Looking back, the timing of the sacking of Coyle may have been pivotal. I had previously said that he should have been kept on to try and use the positivity of the performance against Manchester United to try and get the 3 points against Burton; however, in hindsight, the timing may have been perfect: we had previously lost to Sheffield Wednesday and drawn to almost relegated Rotherham; the game against United was a freebie, it would have been stupid to appoint Mowbray to lose his first game, an almost impossible task against United, whereas, sacking Coyle after the United game and giving Mowbray a clean slate against Burton, Derby and Wigan for starters gives him a chance to have immediate impact – something he has done and continues to do.

Mowbray’s appointment has been followed with 7 games unbeaten (2 wins and 5 draws) resulting in ten more points on the board – at the time of writing Rovers sit in the final relegation place (22nd) just one point off safety with the three teams above on just 41 points. We are well in truly in the think of it now with a fighting chance. It’s a fair assumption to make that under Coyle we would not have beaten the likes of Derby and even Wigan, and picked up late points against Cardiff and Fulham.

The game against Preston at the weekend saw an attendance of 18,435 (albeit 6000 PNE fans) and although it was for the most local derby of the season, it was also one of the first times Rovers supporters came to Ewood with a sense of  realistic optimism that we might just win and secure another 3 points.

On the face of it, a draw against a local rival flying high in the upper echelons of the league and on a good run should be seen as a positive results; especially for a team in the relegation zone. However, I can’t help but wonder whether the two points dropped may come back to haunt us come May. We started the game poorly and probably deserved to be a goal down, but the team rallied (something they would not have done under Coyle) and managed to get an equaliser before half time, and then take the lead just after half time – and few could argue that it was deserved. As has been the problem on so many occasions this year, a one goal lead is not enough to guarantee all three points (or even a point in some scenarios). Throughout the second half we were the better team and should have doubled our lead on numerous occasions; Preston where offering nothing in response. But the third goal never came, and that gives the opposition hope that if they can get one opportunity and take it, they can get something out of the game. The frustrating this is that we gifted them the opportunity. In classic Matt Derbyshire style, as the clocked ticked down past the 90 minute mark and towards the magical 95 allocated for injuries, substitutions and goals etc, Gallagher took the ball to the corner of the Blackburn End and Walkers Steel stand, and with the occupants of the home end screaming to keep it in the corner, he crossed it. A low and hard speculative drive towards the penalty spot; the only problem was, the rest of the Rovers team were behind him ready to support keeping the ball in the corner. Football is a cruel game – Preston took the ball almost immediately down the other end and equalised. Gallagher knew what he had done, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. The decision to cross the ball was without doubt the worst one he could’ve made. Had he played for a corner or a throw, if we had won it, we could run the clock down some more; if we had lost it we could have got back in to shape and position and re-organised. He could even have kicked it out for a goal kick and it would have been a better option, at least then it would waste some time whilst the ball was retrieved and give us chance to get back in to position. Young Sam Gallagher will most definitely learn from his mistake, but it may be to the detriment of the survival of Blackburn Rovers in the Championship.

Rovers away form this season has been dreadful – picking up just 12 points all season, meaning that if we stay up it will almost certainly be down to our form at Ewood Park, which although hasn’t been all too impressive, we have picked up an additional 28 points on home turf. Looking ahead to upcoming fixtures, it is again evident that we can’t rely on picking up points away from home – our next two away games: Brighton and Reading. Those two points dropped are looking massive already.

After the March international break (during which Charlie Mulgrew will no doubt pick up a knock whilst playing for Scotland) Rovers fixtures read as follows: Brighton (A); Reading (A); Barnsley (H); Nottingham Forest (A); Bristol City (H); Wolves (A); Aston Villa (H) and Brentford (A). Picking up not just points, but wins, at home is going to be crucial; with any points picked up away from Ewood a bonus.

Our fate is in our own hands though. Bristol City, Wolves and Nottingham Forest are all in this relegation battle and these are key games where a win is massive. If we can somehow muster wins in these 3 games, it is almost like getting 6 points for the victory as it stops them pulling away and brings us closer to them. A point from the games against Brighton and Reading would be a great return, and I like to think that we would have enough to beat Barnsley on our own patch, and if it came to it, enough to beat Brentford away on the last day of the season. Villa are a bit of a bogey side for us at home, so I’ve written off us getting anything from that game.

Usually, a points tally of mid-40s would be enough to see you home and dry in the Championship (last season Rotherham stayed up with 49 points, but Charlton who occupied the last relegation spot, where relegated with 40; the year before 42 points would have meant safety), but with only one team (Rotherham) being cut adrift this season, and the sides currently in positions 22nd to 15th only being covered by 5 points, arguably you could hit the 50 point mark and still get relegated. So those three home wins between now and the end of the season look even more important, and the 2 dropped against Preston even more costly.

If we were still under the leadership of Coyle, we would not have the points we have and the fighting chance we have – we would be more like Wigan who are being cut-a-drift in 23rd on 34 points. At least Mowbray has come in and got us fighting for points and given us a chance. We may have dropped 2 points in the last minute last weekend, but we were probably due it considering the late goals we have scored. We have 7 cup finals between now and the end of the season – let’s give it a go and get behind the team.

Tony Mowbray’s Blue and White Army!!!!!

 

 

 

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3 Days is a Long Time in Football

article-1192782-02cc1a0800000578-56_468x286There is a saying that a week is a long time in football. Whoever coined that phrase has obviously never been involved with Blackburn Rovers at any time in the last 5 years. Just seven days ago, Blackburn lost 2-1 at Hillsborough in a game were Rovers were controversially denied a point by the officials on no fewer than two instances. Following that, the Championship strugglers took on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United juggernaut in the FA Cup at Ewood Park, narrowly losing 2-1 despite putting in arguably the best performance of the season. Fast-forward less than 48 hours and Owen Coyle and his backroom staff had left the club. Fast-forward less than another 24 hours and Tony Mowbray has been appointed on an 18 month contract. There may not be much to write about on transfer deadline day, but when it comes to the running of the club when changes are a-foot there isn’t time for the ink to dry on the last article when the next breaking news is hitting the headlines. This post was supposed to be a review of the defeat to Manchester United and the frustrations of the performances so often being below the level seen on Sunday. Then it was going to be about Owen Coyle’s departure and the poor timing given the game at Burton this coming Friday. Now it is about all three and what the future holds under Tony Mowbray.

 Leaving Ewood Park on Sunday I had a sense of surprise optimism, that maybe that game would have given the players a kick up the backside or at least the confidence to go in to the final 15 games of the season and get the results needed to stay in the division. In the first half we looked like the Rovers of old – good attacking football by a team battling above its weight; there was an atmosphere at Ewood and there was banter between the Rovers and United fans – it was like a step back in time to 20 years ago. It was good to see the ground with over 20,000 inside – maybe if the support like that had been there all season, we may be higher up the table. Ultimately, efforts where in vain and United won the tie, but it was somewhat gratifying to know that Mourinho had to turn to superstars Pogba and Ibrahimovic to get the win (against a team second to bottom in the division below) (I’m also not going to lie, seeing Ibrahimovic live is one thing ticked off the bucket list!).

 What was frustrating about the game was the effort and intensity of the Rovers team – where has that been all season? Yes, as a Championship team you don’t get to play against the likes of Manchester United every week and against the likes of Zlatan, Pogba, Martial and Mkhitaryan – but surely that any supporter can expect is that the players give 100% every week to try and achieve the clubs goals; whether they be to beat Manchester United in the cup, push for promotion, or battle against relegation. What the defeat on Sunday did show is that the ability, grit and determination, and want to win is there, somewhere. If Mowbray can get Emnes dictating play like that behind Graham for the rest of the season we will score goals. Coupled with that, Mahoney needs to be given more starts – when he came on in the second half, United didn’t know what to do, beating Darmian and even drawing a cynical foul out of Pogba. Mahoney could provide that unknown quantity and spark that not only gets us goals and points, but also gets the crowd behind the team. What is evident is that we can’t defend; we haven’t been able to all season – so maybe the answer is all out attack. Another shining light was the cameo from Tomlinson when he came on – he gives us another option in the middle and deserves more game time.

 So this post was going to be about how we can take so many positives from the United defeat and use them to push us on for the remainder of the season, starting with Burton – then the news broke on Tuesday afternoon that Coyle and his backroom staff had left the club by “mutual agreement”, stating that the decision had been made to “give the club the best possible chance of climbing to a position of safety in the Championship” – starting with Burton away on Friday.

 Now don’t get me wrong, Coyle was never the right man for the job and was never going to get fans on side given his previous connections with Burnley and Wigan and with SEM, and performances on the pitch had done nothing to change that opinion. However, following arguably the best performance of the season, praise from pundits across the nation, and ahead of the arguably the biggest game in the last 30 years, surely the sensible option would be to ride the crest of that wave and let Coyle at least attempt to get a similar performance out of the players to try and beat Burton? Coyle and his staff left the club on Tuesday – you would expect without taking training – so who took training on Tuesday? If no-body did, even if someone did, surely that is a massive dent in the preparations for Friday crunch game? All the while, Burton where gaining another important point against Derby County. Coyle was never the “outstanding candidate” in any Rovers fans eyes, and his points return has been shocking – to an extent which should have seen him out of a job weeks ago; yes we have lost a lot of games by the odd goal, and haven’t been thumped by anyone, but consistently losing a game by the odd goal in 5 highlights there is a problem somewhere. Coyle should have gone – after the Sheffield Wednesday game, not just before the most important game of the season. If Rovers don’t win the game on Friday, the blame has to lie solely at the door of Paul Senior and his employers.

 So, Tony Mowbray. He probably wouldn’t have been my first choice, and to be honest I’d forgotten he was even around. A quick Google-search shows he was last at Coventry City in 2016, a role which he resigned from after 18 months in charge, after spells at Middlesbrough, Celtic and his most successful and well known spell as a manager at West Bromwich Albion in 2006-2009. He has a win percentage of 41.98% (and a loss rate of 35.3%).

 When the market was first available the usual names where mentioned: Sherwood and Dunn; in addition to recent job seekers Warburton and Rowett. My own thought’s were “god knows who we’ll get” and I had expected the option of Dunn as caretaker until the end of the season, and then the position to be reviewed depending what division we were in. If I’m being totally honest, I would have loved Rowett or Warburton. When the appointment was announced around lunch today, I was disappointed, maybe even annoyed. We had yet again gone for the cheap option – someone with a CV which had no recent success, but did have a shining light in the past that we could point to (think Coyle with Burnley; Lambert with Norwich; Berg with, oh wait…). I turned the notifications off on my phone as I awaited the onslaught of fellow football fan friend taking the mick.

 By the time I looked back at my phone and on-line I had come to my senses a little. Is it really a bad appointment? Mowbray has something to prove and this is his way back in to a division which he knows; as a minimum he may bring tighten up the defence and stop us leaking goals – that would be a start. Blackburn announced the current debt as being £106m today – and having almost halved their wage bill, there is evidently no money available for a big name, or to attract someone on a short term basis for big money, with the lure of further investment should they keep the club afloat. Looking back at those other choices: David Dunn is a club legend I have no doubt that if he keeps learning at the club he will one day be in the hot-seat, but the time is not now, now we need experience and know-how; Gary Rowett has proved he can work on a shoestring at Burton and Birmingham but he has always been looking for something bigger and better and with that in mind, is his heart set on a relegation? Mark Warburton is for me the more suitable candidate having worked a moneyball method at Brentford with success – I have said on this blog before that given our financial situation, moneyball may be the answer – but at Brentford he had owners and a board who were also invested in that theory and willing to let Warburton play it out (in the end he was too successful for his own good); at Ewood, if we get relegated I fear he would have been the first out of the door, either by sacking or by jumping at another offer. The only other candidate I could put in the frame was Mike Phelan – but even he has no experience of getting a side out of a relegation battle and the, optimistically, promoted.  

 So, the more I think about it, the more Mowbray looks like he good be a good fit. The proof will be in the pudding, and that pudding is due to be served Friday night at the Pirelli Stadium – if we lose that game, that could spell the end of Blackburn’s reign in the top two flights of English football for the first time since 1980 – if we go down this year I fear it will not be as short-lived as back then.

 On a slightly separate note, the release of the current financial situation at Blackburn today do not make for good reading. A pre-tax loss of £1.5m (a reduction of £15.8m on the previous year) but still with a net liability of over £106m show just how in the mire the club is. The wage bill has been almost halved since relegation from the top flight in 2012 when it stood at around £50m/year – it now stands at just over £25m/year. The sales of Gestede, Rhodes and Hanley have no doubt helped reduce the losses off the field, but their absences have been evident in the losses on the pitch. The team which was relegated in 2012 had some established stars on presumably big wages, such as Formica, Petrovic, N’Zonzi, Dann, Rochina, Yakubu, Vukcevic and Samba. In comparison, the current squad has been assembled with loans and free transfers and bolstered with youth team players – I would expect this to be less than 50% of that squad which was relegated. The reason for the current dire straits lies at the door of bad decisions made when we were relegated – the signings we made were not bad signings, the problem was the man picking the team. I stand by my point, that had Kean been sacked in that summer before the season started, and a more experienced manager brought in, we would have bounced right back. The announcement again shows that the Venkys have put Blackburn Rovers in a Catch 22 situation: without them, we go bust and probably drop out of existence; with them, we drop down the divisions due to their poor management and understanding of the club and game of football. The Venky’s won’t leave until they have seen a return on their investment (including the loans etc they have pumped in to the club) and the only way that will happen is if the club gets back to the Premiership and manages to survive for a few seasons – in the current light, this is a long way off happening, so don’t expect the Venkys to be leaving anytime soon.

 For now, let’s get behind Mowbray and the players, lets give them a fresh start to deliver results for the next 15 games……

https://youtu.be/PtVZkimfxso

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