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…..