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Rovers must get back on track at shell-shocked rock-bottom Shakers

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There isn’t a railway station in Bury these days but there was in 1952 and one Saturday tea-time early that year my dad and a few hundred, maybe a thousand, other jubilant Rovers supporters including, I’m told, a young  businessman named Jack Walker, were making their way back to it after two Bill Holmes goals had given us a 2-0 win before a  bumper derby crowd of 25,577.

 

That avenged a 2-1 defeat to the Shakers at Ewood earlier in the season but as the 15-year-old Jim Wilkinson senior and his pals crossed the packed footbridge the metal struts supporting the wooden footway gave way and around 200 Rovers fans fell onto the tracks below, mercifully devoid of trains coming in or going out at that moment.

 

There were two fatalities and around 170 injured, including my dad who suffered cuts and bruises and torn clothes.

 

The local newspaper soon had a man on the scene and years later I found a report in the Bury times saying, quote: Fifteen-year-old Jim Wilkinson of Blackburn was among the youngest fans injured in the crash.

“I hardly knew what had happened,” he said. “I seemed to fall asleep and when I woke up there were bodies all around me.”

He’d gone along with his pals and after treatment at the local hospital eventually got a later train home to be met by his dad, my Grandad Matt.

Communication was sketchy then with no local radio, no TV at all in the Wilkinson household and just a few sketchy details in the pink ink print of the Late Stop Press column in the Last Sports.

People actually knocked on one another’s doors to convey what bits of news they’d managed to glean in those days and dad told me it was one of, possibly the only, time his father, who’d been serving in Italy during the war in dad’s infant years, physically hugged him on his safe arrival back on the Boulevard.

We named our new puppy after Grandad Matt’s Rovers hero (David) Rollo this week and our ties that bind with Ewood go back at least a hundred years now but never was the succession of support closer to ending than that day.

I’ll go and have a look if there’s anything to see of what used to be the line and station on Saturday and think about the two fans who never made it home. You can still read the civil engineering reports of the accident online

I’m not sure if Jack Walker was among the fans who fell from the bridge, history might have been rather different if he had been.

 

My personal history might not have even been a thing at all had the Saint Mary’s College schoolboy from George Street West not recovered swiftly and invested most of his generous and quickly-paid, he tells me, compensation in a new bike!

 

The date of that tragedy is hugely significant to our family too, because exactly seven years to the day on January 19th 1959 my dad was having  his new-born son named after him.

Some of my happiest early memories are of going to games with dad and grandad Matt, usually stood towards the Riverside corner of the Blackburn End. I think Matt just about saw Garner start his career before calling it a day, I distinctly remember the three of us having a pint in the Yutick’s Nest of all places before a game. From Bob Crompton to Kevin Hird, eh? Quite a stretch!

Nine years later in October 1968 I was making my own first visit to Gigg Lane for a Second Division game. It was a season very much like this. We’d lost just three in 14 without pulling any trees up and Bury was the fourth away derby in six weeks after Blackpool, PNE and Bolton.

We were inordinately excited that Eddie Quigley had just signed a prolific lower division marksman from Stockport that week, one Jimmy Fryatt, who was rumoured to have once scored a goal after just four seconds of a match.Needless to say it took him four games to bag for us.

Fryatt was an imposing figure, “moustachioed and mutton-chop whiskered…he could have been mistaken for a character from a Dickensian novel,” wrote noted Rovers author Mike Jackman brilliantly. He was last heard of working as a croupier in a Vegas casino, a calling for which, apart from being a demon barber, he appeared ideally proportioned and suited.

I could hardly have been more thrilled going through the outer Gigg Lane gates that day into that large forecourt/car park you have to walk across.

The sights, sounds and smells of a new away ground seemed as exotic as long-haul foreign travel with the added bonus that Bury were a reasonably friendly lot who, unlike those nasty buggers at Burnden, had no desire to kick our heads in, chuck chunks of terracings at us or nick my scarf (yeah I’d still like to meet up with that Wanderers bastard who relieved me of my first ever one).

The presence of the Granada TV vans – no-one knew then if a match was televised until you got there – heightened the pre-pubescent hyper-ventilating. We could watch it all again tomorrow afternoon, the highlights at least!

Goals from George Sharples – dear old George, along with Duggie a Star Paper colleague of my dad’s for many years and both cricket team-mates of ours – John Connelly and Malcolm Darling gave us a  3-1 win and while I distinctly remember re-watching it on the Kick-Off Match, I’m almost sure the tapes are lost just as Granada mislaid those of Bowie doing Starman on Ayshea’s Lift Off three weeks before the fabled TOTP appearance.

New starman Fryatt didn’t mark his debut with a goal as previously noted and in fact despite his fearsome appearance seldom scored thereafter for us either, a magnificent headed  equaliser against eventual FA Cup winners Manchester City before Ewood’s last (ever?) 40,000 gate and a sporadic half dozen or so others notwithstanding . He did specialise in goals against Birmingham City and Villa but was useless against anyone else and soon back to the lower divisions from whence we plucked him.

Since then I’ve been to Gigg Lane many dozens of times as a reporter or neutral…well, almost a second club” fan really, such is my affection for a benign neighbour..often as a guest of Nicky Reid, who ended up playing there, and often because their once-excellent pitch always guaranteed games were on while ours or others around were frozen off.

My “League Paper” report on slightly unhinged Peterborough manager Steve Bleasdale virtually offering the whole of the occupants on one block of Gigg Lane terracing outside for a  scrap during what Mrs Merton used to call “a heated debate” was read out by a disbelieving Barry Fry on a TV documentary about Big Ron Atkinson’s brief spell as Posh director of football.

I’ve never got to the bottom of why they always kicked off at 3.15pm though… remember Sam Leitch always reading their “late result” out at the end of Grandstand?

But we’ve actually only played at Gigg Lane twice in the league in the last 49 years, both during Third Division promotion seasons.

In early 1975 under Gordon Lee, after a little February wobble, goals from fearless Mike Hickman, who would have dived into a pool of sharks if you’d chucked a ball into it, and crafty Don Martin (“He was a proper footballer, he looked like a werewolf,” said fashion guru Rover Wayne Hemingway) gave us a  2-1 victory and began an 18-match charge to the title, only one of those games lost.

Enough has been written about the ecstatic events of April 29 1980 to fill one of Mr Jackman’s Rovers history books alone. All four sides of the Gigg contained large portions of the incredible 10,000 visiting fans in a 13,000 crowd and the wooden structures seemed to bounce all night and threaten to go the same way as the Knowsley Street bridge as Andy Crawford’s double sealed promotion for Howard Kendall’s red-shirted supermen.

The goals and the final whistle precipitated Argentina ’78 ticker-tape waterfalls and a side with leadership, togetherness, commonality of purpose with the fans and a sense of restoring a good deal pride to an ailing club fallen on hard times – none of which we’ve seen much in evidence in these “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” times – sealed a bond with those who were there and survive to remember it. Most of us would dodge over a busy dual carriageway to shake hands with the boys of 75 or 80 and buy them a pint.

What an opportunity this Saturday presents to begin a significant run at another tilt at going up. The fact that Rovers will have fans behind both goals will provide a little echo of that remarkable 1980 carnival night. Most of us forget or gloss over the fact that through a quirk of fixture re-arrangement the Shakers slightly dampened promotion celebrations by winning 2-1 at Ewood five days later, the last time we actually played each other in the league!

My friend, former press colleague and long-time Bury supporter Keith Maddock reports: “Bury are in a mess at the moment. Bottom of the league bundled out of the FA Cup by non-league Woking and managerless!

 “It couldn’t get much worse. To top it off, expect a winding up order to follow.

“The Chairman assembled an expensive squad of experienced players in the Summer to achieve his boast of Championship football in five years of his tenure starting.

“By the time the season started it was in disarray with one player signed on a three-year deal loaned to Bradford, another palmed off to Walsall and key players injured.

“Add to that the loss of Stephen Dawson in the Carabao Cup and it’s been a downward spiral. “

“Lee Clark attempted to rectify it by bringing in young loanees who have not surprisingly struggled in League One.

“I hope the lads don’t dwell on the Woking defeat and realise Saturday is an opportunity to start to put it right.

“These are not bad players  You don’t play hundreds of games in the brutal world of professional sport if you’re rubbish.

“It needs someone to come in, ideally from outside, organise and give everyone a clean slate.

“They need Beckford fit ASAP .

“It might not suit the chairman’s ego but I wouldn’t be afraid of looking at non-league. A manager from there will know more about the lower leagues than a Premiership man.

“Johnson and Morley at Salford? Why not? Those guys work for people who know what make a good manager.

“This is the time for a cool head . Sadly the chairman panics when he shouldn’t and doesn’t panic when he should!”

“Ninety per cent of league positions are decided by money. Bury are hell bent on changing that stat!”

It sounds like a banker. But many cynical Rovers fans will add: “…Aye, a  banker home win! Who do you want to play for rehabilitation after that kind of run?”

Time to let the hounds off the leash, Mr Mowbray.  At a venue where we’ve never lost for 64 years let’s invoke the spirit of the past and send the current crop of Rovers fans home happy, dreaming of promotion and most importantly, safe.

BLUE-EYED BOY

 

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Looking for the heart of Hungarian Saturday afternoons, Ol’ 55 style

A rainy Sunday morning is a rainy Sunday morning wherever you are in the world and it certainly was a very rainy one in Budapest as I began the second day of our trip by rising as ridiculously early as ever, determined to chalk more football landmarks up while the girls enjoyed a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast in the apartment.

I set out with the intention of visiting the building site of the new Puskas Ferenc Stadium,  at the same location as the famed old Nepstadion, and with a vague intention of heading out and meeting Tony Dawber at some stage to visit historic Honved in the district of Kispest, cradle of the Hungarian Golden Team of the 1950s

The new national stadium is due to open in 2019 with capacity for 69,000. The old Nep was renamed after the legendary “Galloping Major” in 2002.

Despite the downpours it was surely worth a look – with the rider that you are talking to a man here who used to take a packed lunch to watch Ewood under construction in his dinner hour.

But with bugger all open on a Sunday morning at 7.45am even the acquisition of a brolly looked most unlikely and I was well soaked by the time I got the 800 yards to our nearest Metro (underground) stop.

I got off at Keleti, one of the  major Budapest railway stations and bought a Nezmetisport paper before getting the metro a few stops out out to Puskas Ferenc.

How I rejoiced when one of the little kiosks on the way actually sold brollies. A Chinese lady handed it to me for four quid or so and explained graphically how to open it up as if the downpour I was about to step back into would be the first such precipitation I’d ever seen in my life.

It might not have been but after 10 minutes in it, brolly or no brolly, I was ready for getting back into the warm and caught only a distant glimpse of the huge bowl where the Nep was housed.

There were 92,000 in what’s temporarily little more than a hollow full of cranes and trucks in 1954 when Hungary followed up their incredible 6-3 Wembley win by humiliating England 7-1 there; 68,000 when England more or less secured a 1982 World Cup spot by winning 3-1, one of Trevor Brooking’s brace of goals memorably lodging in the top stanchion. The six-figure mark was reached when Vasas played Austria Wien in a Mitropa Cup Final, a kind-of Hapsburg Empire nations forerunner of the Champions Cup.

But there was nothing really to see other than the adjacent and very impressive Laszlo Papp indoor arena (designed by the same architect who’s been entrusted with its new neighbour) so I made the return journey to our Erzsebet Korut apartment, damp and defeated, and Tony rang to suggest we’d go and seek out Honved if it ever slackened off outside later.

Studying Nemzisport, I was saddened to calculate that only 10,675 spectators in total had attended the six top division games the day before. Incredibly the 1593 at Ujpest had been the third best gate…2,950 at Mezokovesd Zsory v glamour visitors Ferencvaros the largest attendance,

Just 986 had watched Puskas Akademia host Vasas but a bit of further research revealed that the Akadamia, effectively a feeder/youth/reserve team for Videoton – not one of the Budapest sides remember – play in Felcsut, a swanky hamlet 25 miles from Szekesfehervar. On percentage of catchment attending it was perhaps the best gate of the lot – around half the population!

Many of the top division teams play in towns not much bigger than Great Harwood, Bamber Bridge or Clitheroe. Balmazujvaros has 18,000 inhabitants, Mezokovesd 16,905, Paks 19,833. Szombathely, Szekesfehervar, Diosgyori are all smaller than Blackburn while second city Debrecen has a population of just more than 200,000.

The weekend after I left the city, Fradi (Ferencvaros) had 19,000 at the Groupama against Debrecen but they are alone in attracting such turn-outs. The afternoon would reveal how far from glory days and big crowds one once-iconic club had been allowed to slip.

The weather much improved after lunchtime, I got a tram a short ride along to the district Tony and Liam were staying in and we took a metro to change for a tram to Kispest.

Like Ujpest, the township from which Honved emerged is a down-at-heel working class area compared to the splendour of central Budapest with its labyrinths of cafes, bars, restaurants and fancy shops on the flat Pest side facing the magnificent palaces and monuments on the hilly opposite bank of the Danube in Buda.

As we disembarked from the tram there were no cafes or bars open among the modest houses and certainly no fancy shops. Indeed there was virtually nobody bar the three of us knocking about.

Honved were arguably, unofficial world club champions or something very near to it in the post-war, pre-European Cup era.

Floodlit friendlies around Europe involving them as well as tours by another highly-regarded side, Moscow Dynamo,  fired up the appetite for continental club competition. English champions Wolves attracted 55,000 to Molyneux and beat them 3-2 in a 1954 thriller broadcast live on BBC TV – even more of a rarity than floodlights at the time.

Seven of the Hungarians who started the 6-3 game were  Honved players but their bloom was cruelly cut down by the events of November 1956.

Honved literally  means “defenders of the homeland” and they were the Army team in the first post-war Communist years. The likes of Puskas, Zoltan Czibor and Joszef Bozsic were drafted but any soldiering they were expected to do occupied minimal time as their duty and purpose in life was to bring honours and glory to the Hungarian military.

When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush an uprising against communism they were out of the country after playing Bilbao in the first leg of a European Cup tie. Some of the side – Puskas, Czibor and Sandor Kocsis  among them – decided not to return and continued their careers elsewhere.

Hungarian  football’s Golden Age was shunting to a halt just as Rock’n’Roll’s was gathering steam.

Today, the Bozsic Joszef Stadion, across a rusty set of railtracks after you alight from the single-track tram which brings workers to the local offices and takes shoppers and revellers to the city, bears few indicators of past glory.

We drank in the ambience from just inside the gates across the adjacent training pitch, as near as the polite but dutiful steward would allow us to the bowl-like, but much-reduced in capacity, ground itself which had one main stand and the rest mainly uncovered seats.

It seemed a little sad that such modest yet storied surroundings now house the most paltry of crowds.

A plaque for a Major

Tony Dawber reflects:  “My dad and his mates would wax lyrical about Finney, Douglas and McIlroy.

“But if you asked about foreign teams, Moscow Dynamo and Honved were always the first ones mentioned, so a personal pilgrimage to legendary Honved was a must.

“As we rode a near deserted tram through a faded industrial suburb of Budapest on a bright but breezy autumn Sunday afternoon, my head was filled with images of grainy footage and photos from the 1940s and 1950s showing Honved taking apart the world’s best.

“And as we approached the tiny windswept  terminus by the stadium gates, you could almost sense the ghosts of Puskas and Kocsis, who both grew up in tiny, crowded apartments overlooking the stadium.

Floodlights and main stand (between the two right-hand lights) at Honved’s Bozsik Stadion, Kispest.

“Today it’s neat but modest and usually houses crowds which just about struggle into four figures, but the weight of history and past glories still hang in the air.

“I could have stood there all afternoon just soaking up the atmosphere.”

Tony’s right – I got the kind of ghostly chill I once felt walking by Lords Cricket Ground in the silent still of early-hours London when I imagined I heard a  ripple of applause. You felt the presence of long-passed players and fans from decades past when Honved was their and the nation’s pride and joy.

When I told the friendly steward:”You have a very famous history,” he  grinned but ruefully.

“But Honved now….team not so very good, very bad” he said with all the honesty he could muster.

Around the corner, looking for a better view, we chanced upon a cemetery with a row of busy florists stalls selling wreaths and bunches to a constant stream of visitors. Hungary is very big on families respecting and acknowledging their dead.

It seemed like a metaphor for the weight of bygone times tangible in the air.

We walked back across the tumbleweed railtrack and reboarded the tram, driven by the same blonde lady, beauty a little faded now, in shades and I stayed on to meet the girls at the Hard Rock Cafe in town as Tony and Liam went for a look round Ferencvaros.

It had all seemed a little surreal, like a passage in a melancholy film that could have been sentimentally soundtracked by Tom Waits at his most tender and nostalgic.

We all reconvened later for a lovely evening of chat and drinks with Peterjon. Tony was going home the following day but there was a little more for me to do in my Hungarian football odyssey with an unexpected and poignant twist to come…..

Stex Bar gathering on Sunday night in Budapest. Left to right, Oliva and Lesley, Peterjon Cresswell of liberoguide.com, Tony and son Liam, yours truly

Jim Wilkinson, Blue-Eyed Boy

This lovely piece by Tomasz Mortimer imagines what might have been for Hungarian football had the 1956 uprising been quelled.

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Two halves of Hungarian Heaven…Part One

For 48 or 49 weeks a year the term ‘football tourist’ is one I use with a withering contemptuous sneer, conjuring up visions of wealthy Irishmen or visitors from the Far East emerging from the Old Trafford megastore barely able to grip all their carrier bags laden with overpriced merchandise or enthused Scandinavians, who remember no Liverpool manager prior to Rafa, having their picture taken in front of the Bill Shankly statue.

Have these people no pride, why don’t they show a bit of civic duty and turn out for their local clubs such as Drogheda or Lyn Oslo?

But plonk me down in a foreign city – which by stroke of my outrageous good fortune to be married to her, my travel-loving expert holiday planner wife often does – and I become the very definition of a football tourist.

We like cities, you see. We don’t really do beach holidays or long haul and tend towards exploring European capitals and other population centres of our native continent.

And while we love food, wine, culture, art galleries, castles, literature, modern architectural wonders and shopping (me:record shops, girls:anything else) the best thing for me about big cities abroad is they have football grounds.

Usually plural.

And I need no excuse or reason to seek them out. There doesn’t have to be a game on or anything elaborate like that. Just looking at them from the outside and walking around taking pictures will do me. I’m as excited and awestruck by the first sighting of a set of floodlights or a  club crest as other people are to see the Taj Mahal or Easter Island statues.

I’m a man who’s climbed into Stirling Albion’s ground on a Sunday morning, had a guided tour of Berwick Rangers’ Shielfield Park when the secretary caught me peeping through a gap in the gate and once watched the last ten minutes of a Falkirk v Aberdeen game with my dog Furio thanks to a kindly member of groundstaff when we pitched up at a hotel 100 yards away and he immediately wanted a wee. The dog, not the groundsman.

Over the last couple of years I’ve hung around outside Fiorentina, Granada, FC Sevilla, Real Betis, Wisla Krakow, Cracovia, Utrecht, Feyenoord, done ground tours at The Camp Nou, Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena and Porto’s Dragao and watched Boavista with 5,000 other disparate souls on a Sunday night. Before I went to Portugal I hadn’t even known for sure that Boavista were actually Porto’s second team.

Christmas will be lovely but far more exciting for me is the fact that we fly to Lisbon for three days on Boxing Day. Can I fit Benfica, Sporting and the dilapidated National Stadium where Celtic became the Lisbon Lions in? If I can’t it won’t be for want of trying.

So when I found out that my great pal and fellow football trainspotter Tony Dawber was going to be in Budapest with his lad Liam at the same time as our family half-term break in the Hungarian capital, it was inevitable that some serious soccer seeking-out would ensue.

We’ve both visited the city before and have a great advantage in this city in that we have a mutual friend, the redoubtable football and travel writer Peterjon Cresswell of comprehensive soccer travellers’ site liberoguide.com , who lives in Budapest and is always willing to meet up, show us around and offer tips.

On my previous visit which began last New Year’s Eve, football had effectively shut down for a month or two in the Winter break so I was limited to a guided look around a couple of stadiums separated by half an hour’s chilly walk with Peterjon, Ferencvaros’s  Groupama Arena, opened in 2014, and MTK’s even newer Hidegkuti Nandor Stadium which had only opened three months previously in September 2016.

Well, three stadiums actually, because 17 paces across the street from one of the ends of the MTK ground is the main stand of Third Division outfit BKV Elore, the old bus transport club, who you will almost certainly never have heard of but whose stadium facade you have more than likely seen without realising it.

It was cold and wintry at the home of Ferencvaros (Fradi as they are nicknamed) a new edifice whose emblem of an eagle you will almost certainly see driving into the city from the airport – it looks wonderful all lit in green at night as you pass on the flyover –  but surprisingly two days into 2017 the club shop was open and had a  range of merchandise commensurate with their standing as former Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners (beat Juventus in the 1965 final after eliminating Roma, Bilbao and Manchester United).

Gorgeous, pouting Peterjon at the Groupama Arena (22,000), home of Ferencvaros and, currently, the Hungarian national team

MTK’S new home, like much that goes on in Hungarian football, is something of an enigma. Despite a surge of revived interest in football generated by the national team’s fine showing in Euro 2016, gates are at an all time low. The bubble burst almost immediately after the France tournament, in which Hungary unexpectedly and quite remarkably topped their group by beating Austria and drawing with Iceland and, thrillingly, Portugal.

A 0-4 defeat to Belgium in the Round of 16 couldn’t stifle the tidal surge of national pride which saw the team greeted by huge enthusiastic crowds in magnificent Heroes’ Square on their return. Before July was three weeks old however, Ferencvaros, by far the most popular and best-supported club side, had lost their Champions League qualifier at home to Albanian side side Partizani on penalties after a couple of 1-1 draws.

“It was as if a great balloon of optimism and belief had been shot down immediately,” said Peterjon.

Since that Belgium defeat, the national side has regressed and stumbled from crisis to humiliation to the point that this week they became the first side ever to lose to both Andorra and Luxembourg in the same year.

Hungarian interest in the Champions League and Europa League is habitually over with by the time you and I are reading the English clubs’ season previews.

Against Luxembourg on Thursday, I think only about three of the starting XI play their football in Hungary, a couple signed with North American clubs, the rest plying their trade around Europe or in more exotic locations offering greater pecuniary advantage.

There’s not a lot of money, hope or prestige to aspire to in Hungarian football, so storied in the history of the game, at present….but there are plenty of new stadia.

I’m told that many clubs – around five of the 12 top-division clubs hail from towns with populations of fewer than 30,000 – enjoy the patronage or ownership of politicans or movers and shakers who aren’t shy of handing out building contracts to erect stadia which seem unlikely at this stage to be half-filled more than once in a blue moon.

MTK’s (Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre‘ – “Circle of Hungarian Fitness Activists) is an example and even as an outsider, there are inexplicable aspects obvious to the naked eye.

Both ends are without any seats or even terracing – practically sheer flat walls. It’s as if they ran out of money halfway or decided that having built two new stands down the sides, no further accommodation would be necessary.

MTK’s Hidgekuti Nandor Stadium. Part of the roof was damaged by storms just last week.

There’s no club shop. One was planned but hasn’t materialised  A security steward told Peterjon: “Your guess is as good as mine,” when he enquired as to any likely progress.

MTK were once European Cup Winners’ Cup  finalists and their opponents from that 1964 final, Sporting Lisbon, accepted an invitation to open the stadium (capacity 5,322) last year but brought only three first team squad members due to other commitments.

A week earlier the big screens at the ground had been road-tested with a showing of scenes from a porn film starring a Hungarian actress. I’d love to see Blackburn Council’s reaction to such a suggestion.

But you’ll all have seen the old stadium which was to all intents and purposes in the exact same location (they turned it round 90 degrees) and was used as the location for the big match in the film “Escape To Victory. It was chosen as the environs more closely resembled wartime Paris than 1980’s Paris did. A stand-in, effectively, for the Colombes Stadium where the 1938 World Cup final, which Hungary, lost was held.

Interestingly, the film was based on a Hungarian play  Két félidő a pokolban’ (“Two half-times in Hell”).

Many of the publicity stills featured the likes of Stallone, Michael Caine, Pele, Bobby Moore and, err, Robin Turner of Ipswich (“Football choreography by Les Shannon” never fails to crack me up either), pictured in front of the BKV grandstand next door.

MTK’s stadium (right)  directly across the street from Third Division BKV Elore (left). closer than the Dundee grounds. Stallone wasn’t there when I visited but there’s a great cafe open all year below the grandstand

So, fast forward to late October 2017 and having fallen in love with the city at New Year, we made a quick return and I had a few more venues in my notebook to tick off.

Landing at 12.30, I knew if planes, transfers and such were all on time, I’d have a  good chance to make Ujpest v league leaders Videoton at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in the north of the city. And with Tony in town, a willing accomplice!

Half an hour after landing I’d left Mrs Wilkinson and daughter Olivia at the apartment on the Erzsebet Korut (Elizabeth Boulevard – possibly even more impressive than Blackburn’s) ready to hit the city centre and Tony, Liam and I were sat in Stifler Bar 100 yards away watching United play Spurs over a  beer forging travel arrangements.

A taxi (£8) took us the five miles or so to Szusza Ferenc (capacity 13,050), another newish edifice, a bit like Ewood in that it was completely rebuilt in the early 2000’s on the same site as the venue on Megyeri Ut, where Newcastle defeated Ujpest Dozsa 3-2 in the 1969 Fairs Cup Final to complete an aggregate 6-2 victory – the Magpies’ last major honour.

I’d even found a Rovers connection as the scorer of Newcastle’s second goal that night – and I vividly remember watching it on Sportsnight – was Dane Preben “Ben” Arentoft who later joined us.

Ujpest are owned by Roderick Duchatelet, son of unpopular Charlton Athletic owner Roland. Whether he’s any more admired than his father I couldn’t say but as the afternoon transpired the faithful in Budapest fourth district did find one or two things to vent their collective spleen over.

There was a heavy armed police presence of a few dozen at the stadium to say only 1593 turned up. Maybe 250-275 had made the 60km journey from Szekesfehervar, Videoton’s home city, once twinned with Tony’s hometown Chorley (Burnley fans aren’t all Yorkshiremen, see).

But it’s as familiar a sight in Eastern Europe as it’s becoming at big gigs here. Just a fact of life and while they don’t necessarily stand there grinning and full of good cheer, they were friendly enough.

Getting a ticket was simple, from a booth on production of your passport or driving licence and admission was about eight quid for adults.

A caravan and a pop-up market stall outside the entrance looked to be selling official souvenirs and I bought a keyring for a  couple of pounds.

Stewards gave us a frisking and searched our bags at the turnstiles but again without any veneer of menace.

Having a beer for about £1.80 at the kiosk just through the gates (and you were welcome to take a  pint to your seat) we just took in what atmosphere there was and enjoyed a bit of people-watching as spectators arrived.

You could literally have been at any game anywhere in the world so recognisable are the characters who loyally follow their teams. Blokes with carrier bags full of paraphernalia or food, wearing ancient worn-out club coats and sweatshirts, chattering away over a pre-match drink.

A guy got stuck in the turnstile having put the wrong end of his ticket in the slot, attempted to turn the thing round anti-clockwise instead of clockwise once it accepted it and grumbled away (almost certainly) profanely before a steward assisted him through with a smile he reciprocated before heading for a livener.

Programme, team sheet and personalised ticket at Ujpest

The game was an absolute belter. You couldn’t have dreamed for better as a neutral. Videoton raced into a two-goal lead in five minutes and for a good while looked capable of doubling it at least by half-time.

Beleaguered, Ujpest employed a  bit of chicanery. After a bit of handbags in the centre of the field a home player went down clutching his face. Replays showed he’d suffered no more than a slap on his arm but the ref was taken in and Hadzic of Videoton was ordered off. with about eight minutes left of what had been a trying half for the host.

Pauljevics got the eleven men a  lifeline with a great volley five minutes after the restart but the table-toppers didn’t look in too much discomfort until all manner of mysterious antics broke out on and off the field late on.

A number of Ujpest ultras looked to stage some sort of walking protest behind one goal. They were eventually kind-of shepherded back from whence they had trotted by the Feds. They looked less like an angry mob than a bunch of sulky kids who had tried to skip cross country and been rumbled by the PE teachers.

At the innocuous-looking award of a free-kick over the far side from us a couple of guys looking rather more incandescent ran down the steps to confront visiting players. This seemed altogether less good-natured than the walking protest and Ujpest players went over to appeal for calm.

Moments later after play resumed, what looked like a seat from the stand was chucked on.

We had no idea at the time but it later transpired (and Tony’s bright-as-a-button 12-year-old son Liam gets credited with the research here) that it was a weekly V-sign from the fans over the unpopular re-designing of the club crest.

It’s evidently to stop phoney merchandise vendors selling hookey club souvenirs but the faithful are not happy with the new designs resemblance to a toilet seat….which of course was exactly what they’d whizzed on!

Notwithstanding all these distractions Ujpest had bagged an equaliser on 73 minutes and were finishing strongly.

At the award of a free-kick Suljic of Videoton kicked the ball away and he too was ordered off with a minute to go.

The nine men now had a  job on seeing it out and as the ball bobbed around the box in stoppage time, Ujpest got a  penalty. The keeper spoiled the perfect comeback by saving the kick but the home fans seemed reasonably happy with clawing a draw back as we left.

We were knocked out, really. a goalless draw in a new, strange place can be exciting enough but we’d witnessed Hungary’s equivalent of the lead-off cracker on Match Of The Day.

No taxis readily available, we took our chances with the bus system and relied on a combination of educated guesswork as to where to change and some reassuring use of the iPhone maps.

The blue dot looked to be heading vaguely towards where we needed to be in the city centre, which was as well as Lesley had booked dinner in a favourite swish restaurant.

I’d have been decidely unpopular if I’d rolled up late in the clothes I’d flown from Liverpool in that morning, which seemed a distinct possibility at one stage.

Relief swept over me as I recognised The Laszlo Papp Arena, Keleti Station and eventually Blaha Luiza Ter, minutes from our base and made it in time for a shower and an aperatif.

It was time for a break from football with the family but there was more history  to explore before the week was out.

Journeying home in another taxi later, our driver looked incredulous when Lesley told him I’d been to football: “You come from England and you’ve been to watch Hungarian football?” he asked bemused.

It is Blackburn I support after all, not Chelsea or Manchester United but it’s as impossible to explain the appeal to a confirmed cynic and sceptic as it is easy to strike up a conversation with a fellow uber-fan whose language you hardly know a word of.

I had to laugh though when the Sunday Sport paper “Nemzetisport” headlined their report on the previous day’s game “Pokoli ket felido” – “Two halves of hell”…a pun on that original Hungarian title of the story we know as “Escape to Victory,” created where my Magyar football odyssey had begun nine months earlier.

Coming up in part two….Honved, Vasas and the lovely people at thr forgotten island warrior champions of 1959.

 

 

 

​o

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Exit from one Cup may buy Tony thinking time ahead of busy winter

General concensus after my few days away in Eastern Europe last week was that “you didn’t miss much” as Rovers surrendered more vital league points to Wigan and Fleetwood. Our eldest daughter kept us in touch with regular bulletins from Wigan as me and my mate Tony watched Ujpest fight out a thrilling 2-2 draw with Hungarian league leaders Videoton and from Ewood on Tuesday night when the Cod Army ended the night in in happier voice after the first-ever competitive derby between two sides who began the century about eight divisions apart.

I accept the “didn’t miss much” verdict was the case at Wigan but was more than a little miffed having tailored my arrangements to be back at our Budapest apartment in time for the kick-off of the Fleetwood game, to discover that Sky had kyboshed Rovers’ iFollow coverage for nefarious reasons on a rare occasion I was settled down with wine and snacks, prepared to fork out a fiver for the privilege. Even the highlights broadcast later were of a decidedly shaky quality, after several viewings I still have no idea how the final goal squirmed in.

Personally I thought a draw at the JD or whatever it’s called now was a perfectly acceptable outcome, particularly with ten men, but twice surrendering the lead to Fleetwood showed a fraility  which could cost us dear over the season as a  whole. The “easy home match” is almost as extinct as the Dodo or The Smiths as far as Rovers are concerned and the regularly-espoused concept “if we win our games in hand” seems as realistic as believing this is the week your Euro Lottery numbers come up.

Those aberrations become even more of an irritation with the postponement of what looked a routine home game – there you go, I’m at it – against one of League One’s lesser lights Walsall on Saturday, not this time due to our own host of internationals being summoned for duty but because The Saddlers, currently 15th in the table, evidently have their own coterie of global stars.

That means Rovers are without a game this weekend – as are Shrewsbury, Wigan and Charlton above us – while the trio just below us and within a point or two, Rotherham, Fleetwood and Peterborough have the chance to leap-frog us or narrow the gap while we attempt to convince ourselves that the games in hand will be our salvation.

With Walsall likely to be another midweek rearrangement due to our continued FA Cup involvement, it probably isn’t regarded as an altogether bad thing that we seem sure to be eliminated from the Checkatrade Trophy, barring some unlikely calculation involving Stoke “winning” on penalties after drawing.

I’d always prefer us to progress in every tournament if it was up to me but another wishy-washy display handicapped by losing a man to a red card early at Spotland despite fielding a reasonably experienced XI probably saw us get what we deserve after an indistinguished campaign illuminated only by the goals of new Ewood hero Joe Nuttall.

It was inevitable that one of Ewood’s less celebrated strikers, Jordan Slew, would find the net (twice if you count his successful penalty) against Rovers after managing this feat just11 times in 120 games in a much-travelled six years spent in such exotic locations as Dingwall and Stevenage since joining us as a £1m teenager – none of the 11 occasions in our colours of course.

Mowbray’s protestations that it was offside might be right but Scott Wharton could have little argument with his sending off. The laws don’t account for whether you’re a young player, “not that kind of player” or that it was unintended. A brief setback for a kid we all have great hopes for but the ref couldn’t do anything other than dismiss him sadly.

One can never be sure of the permutations available to Mowbray in this dog’s dinner of a tournament with such convoluted rules regarding team selection but you wonder what he could possibly learn on a November night in Rochdale with less than eleven hundred on about the like of Ward and Gladwin that he didn’t know already.

I was at Leyland on Friday to see the Under-23’s give a scintillating display to beat Watford 6-1 and I can’t be the only one to be wondering just what Rakeem Harper and Sam Hart have done to merit selection ahead of Lewis Travis and Jack Doyle in any competition.

Certainly Hart was put out of his misery at half-time on Saturday against Barnet at an eerily unpopulated Ewood but that was more down to a ridiculously unnecessary five-man defence abomination Mowbray inexplicably chose to combat a side with three league wins all season with.

Neither did Harper show anything in those opening 45 minutes to justify the hyperbole spouted on the occasion of his capture although he wasn’t alone in that anonymous regard.

I had to commend the cheek of the Rovers fans who booed a Barnet defender for taking his time with a throw-in after 44 and a half minutes. If anybody had been manifestly wasting time for three quarters of an hour it had been us.

Thankfully Barnet did that sitting-back thing rubbish teams with an unexpected lead always try to do and the switch to two strikers with the introduction of the bustling, all-action Nuttall had the desired effect on the rest with Harper and a few of his colleagues looking a little more accomplished as the visitors were ground down.

The ever more impressive Dack immediately looked happier with another (more mobile) body other than Graham to bounce ideas off and by the end you wondered what on earth Mowbray had been playing at making it such hard work for his team to start with.

The longer he looks that indecisive and continues with the daft conceit that he is cleverly tailoring his selections to counter different opposition the sillier he will look and the doubts about his leadership will persist.

The FA Cup draw ticked all the boxes for me: Home, lower league oppo, winnable, potential progress, kick-off time unlikely to be messed around with for telly, another Saturday afternoon out with family and pals, pub – bingo! It would have been nice to play Stanley or Fylde but believe me if we are playing Fleetwood in league games those fixtures aren’t as fanciful as they once were whether or not.

The Crewe cup tie also continues a remarkable sequence of handy fixtures for supporters. Between the trip to Shrewsbury on 23rd September and the visit to Peterborough on 9th December Rovers will have played 15 games, 14 of them within the old Lancashire county boundaries with only the trip to Oxford beyond – and the Walsall game might yet be shunted in somewhere before that.

So while we all bemoan a fallow Saturday – and I hate them with an absolute vengeance – it might give Mowbray and his staff the opportunity to think about recent performances and those who have under-performed, the other options available and finally hit upon a formula and consistency of selection and gameplan for the busy winter months to seize the initiative and let other sides worry about us rather than the other way around.

There are plenty of points to be won for a team able and brave enough to do that, Rovers’ own history tells you so, rather than spend the next six months agonising about whether we can somehow stumble into the lottery of the play-offs.

Three out of every four play-off qualifiers end up on the same set of fixtures as the team that escapes relegation on goal difference, remember.

Any manager worth his salt would still be looking at the table and saying: “This division is still here to be won.”

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Drawn-out Affairs Drain Rovers’ Optimism as Treats Fail to Materialise

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There is a marvellous exchange in the classic BBC 1980’s sitcom “Yes Minister”, in which the character of Bernard Woolley, the PM’s principal private secretary, recalls the “Russell conjugation” in the following form;

“It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.”

I think football supporters are programmed to react similarly.

“My team is honest, Your bloke is a cheat, He (the referee) is biased.”

The question of whether Elliott Bennett’s second yellow card (earning a red) was justified certainly split opinion on Saturday night; depending upon your allegiance.

“I see a foul, You see a tackle, He (the referee) sees a dive.”

Well, that was a highly sanitised summary of what was being chanted around the ground, aimed mostly at the referee by Rovers fans.

At 3pm, away to the league’s 2nd placed side, I suspect many Rovers fans would gladly have accepted a point. After the game’s pivotal moment, being reduced to 10 men, with less than an hour on the clock, a point from this encounter seemed a fanciful notion.

Bennett, truth be told, was not having one of his finest appearances in a Rovers shirt and on another day may well have been substituted even before he ran purposefully at the Wigan defence in the 58th minute. That contract extension seems to have had a debilitating effect on him so far.

What happened next is subject to conjecture; the naked eye, in real time suggested a clear foul, the video replays (& I must have watched it at least 25 times) were inconclusive, as a Wigan player blocks the view of the camera at the critical moment of potential (or was it actual ?) impact.

What is beyond doubt is that the referee was right up with play when he made his call & he believed (rightly or wrongly) that he had seen simulation. Consequently, the laws insist upon a yellow card being issued for “unsporting behaviour” and this meant the hapless Bennett had to clock off half an hour early, leaving 10 to do the work of 11.

The subsequent clean sheet must therefore have tasted especially sweet for a back four that had already endured its fair share of horrors in this embryonic season. At last, a back four that doesn’t concede sloppy goals which cost us vital points…oh we all know what happens next don’t we ?

Overall it was a scrappy game, refereed fussily and inconsistently by Darren England, who had “cards emerging from his top pocket like a pop up toaster” as Kevin Keegan once memorably remarked. It never truly caught fire and Wigan, whilst enjoying the majority of chances, didn’t live up to their pre-match billing. Jacobs & Powell had good opportunities and Massey hit the post late on when Wigan were pressing hard for the winner.

However, Rovers’ chances were even fewer and further between. The best efforts came from excellent wing play from Conway, supplying an energetic Bradley Dack; though Dack was substituted yet again, this time sacrificed shortly after the Bennett dismissal and replaced by Danny Graham as Mowbray sought to shore up the midfield.

Here, it was the defence that rightly earned the plaudits, the attack demonstrating that it still needs some research & development. Shorn of Chapman’s direct running it places a massive burden on Conway to provide the service and disproportionately on Dack to provide unpredictability. Joe Nuttall who apparently travelled with the 1st team squad, presumably looked on proceedings with more than a passing interest.

The absence of Samuel and Bennett for disciplinary reasons and Chapman due to a hamstring strain sustained late on at Wigan, meant a reshuffled pack for the visit of the Cod Army on Tuesday evening.

Both sides were level with 24 points beforehand, Rovers having played a game fewer than their opponents. That a league game between these two sides was taking place, let alone that it could be described as vital, even in October, serves to illustrate the prevailing flight paths of each club over the last few years.

Just when you might have believed that a Rovers defence featuring Paul Downing meant a sure-fire clean sheet, Fleetwood trawled the depths of their resilience, netting twice to snuff out any burgeoning Ewood optimism. Rovers’ unerring ability to fluff their lines at another key audition really should serve to structure everyone’s expectations.

This keeps happening; one win in five games and yet somehow, this performance lifted Rovers into the play off spots. Two points per game on average would usually guarantee automatic promotion, Rovers’ average has now slipped to 1.6 per game; increasingly it seems like the best hope is the play offs, but would you bet on this team to remain sufficiently consistent for another 30 games or so ?

Once more, Bradley Dack seemed to be the sole provider of creativity and even though Mowbray finally overcame his “Nutt allergy” by introducing youngster Joe Nuttall for his 1st team debut to immediate effect; what should have been a glorious winner merely served to set up Fleetwood for the seemingly inevitable late equaliser.

Mowbray seems to keep falling hostage to fortune to grand press statements. Earlier in the season he insisted the formation of 3 at the back was not the cause of Rovers poor start, but then changed it for the very next match, resulting in an upturn of fortunes.

He has of course stated that youngsters will not be asked to deliver promotion as it would be unfair and in so doing, seemingly at a stroke, killed stone dead any ambition members of the academy sides might have had to make the 1st team this season.

Having done so, he then has to call up Nuttall thanks to injuries and suspensions and lo and behold, Nuttall notches on his debut. Tony, could I suggest you might give yourself an out in future because you really aren’t doing yourself any favours by undermining your own positions like this ?

Perhaps an FA Cup run can energise the season ? The visit of Barnet on Saturday will hardly have the club rushing out to employ more turnstile operators but a convincing victory; possibly featuring some of Damien Johnson’s promising academy prospects, might yet prove to be a catalyst to ignite this season on a Bonfire weekend.

Defeat would leave Rovers able to “concentrate fully on the league” if that is a good thing, but having avoided the ignominy of a 1st round FA Cup defeat since 1971, (Port Vale since you ask) there will be some nervousness around and about on Saturday afternoon with the outcome far from a foregone conclusion.

Who knows how we will fare against Barnet, I certainly don’t.

OLD BLACKBURNIAN

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Rovers must avoid derby slips to keep summit in sight

 

Tony Mowbray and his Rovers team provided just the right riposte to the doubters- me included – with a fine display to bury a disappointing Portsmouth on Saturday even though you still get the nagging feeling this side has to take one step backward and another sideways before advancing, both literally and metaphorically, while the manager almost seems to hit on a spot-on selection and system by accident on occasion.

We were all convinced after the Rotherham game he’d landed on the right combination and it was similar consensus in the pub after Saturday that he’d done it again…with four different players starting against Pompey than began what was agreed upon as the best September performance against the Millers.

We’re all Championship Managers with 20-20 hindsight.

But the result and performance sent out all the right messages and signals with a week to recuperate from a demanding afternoon making light of Storm Bryan – good job it wasn’t a televised late kick-off or it would have never finished – to reclaim a top six spot ahead of what could be the most important four days of the season to date.

Much significance has been attached to Rovers’ two games in hand which could be instrumental in advancing the cause, points tally and league position still further but there is another towering challenge before the first of those (Fleetwood at home on Tuesday) in the shape of a regular nemesis on the occasion of our visit to second-placed Wigan Athletic on Saurday.

And there’s six important league fixtures before the second game in hand at Blackpool… the picture can change mightily between then and now.

A defeat on Saturday would admittedly open a huge gap between ourselves and Latics and should Shrewsbury win at Peterborough, a top two spot would already be looking reliant on a collapse by one of the leading pair or the kind of run of form which, if you’re lucky, come once or twice a decade like Don Mackay’s 21-match unbeaten run, Kendall’s 14 wins out of 15 or the dozen undefeated which Kenny’s Sutton and Shearer-fuelled juggernaut racked up in the 1995 title season.

We can’t worry about what anyone else is doing so it was mightily encouraging to see Rovers, with Harry Chapman finally unleashed from the off, set about their business against Pompey in such positive fashion.

From the instant Richie Smallwood had a stunning piledriver tipped over the bar, the boys looked bang at it in a way we never saw in the meek surrender at Oldham or the gormless failure at home to Plymouth when our domination owed more to the opposition’s disinclination to give it a go than any great “arte” on our part.

Kenny Jackett’s team ought, on paper, to have caused us more problems than Argyle, even without leading scorer Brett Pitman until a late and ineffectual cameo following timely surgery from our point of view, but they were simply never allowed to settle on or pass the ball as a markedly improved home team took command.

Caddis was unlucky to be dropped with Nyambe restored to his favoured berth but with Downing’s unfussy composure at the back (whither now the critics who scoffed at his signing as a deadline day act of desperation?) and Smallwood’s tenacity we looked improved all round and went after the opposition with, if not murderous intent, a clear plan to do the visitors a mischief or two.

Should-he-start-or-be-an-impact-sub debate about Chapman will continue to rage. A couple of his recent sub appearances suggested that Mowbray was right to hold him back but credit to the manager for his selection on Saturday followed by a lucid and logical explanantion of it. Maybe these guys do know more than us folk sat in the stand after all.

After a quiet opening personally Chapman made his mark with a great nick of the ball and run after a number of opportunities had been scorned by an encouragingly on-the-front-foot side in blue and white.

To see him and Bradley Dack maraud from the centre of the park and advance past the nominal front men is quite a revelation after years of watching timid, cautious midfielders stodge up the centre of the park in a never-ending game of tippy-tappy sideways “After You, Claude.”

Just as on Tuesday, Dack’s finish was joyous and decisive, exactly what you want from your runner in the middle.

I’m not exactly sure to be honest what a “number 10” is but Dack looks to me a good old-fashioned mobile goalscoring midfielder, a species I’ve always enjoyed watching whether vicariously (Ball, Wark, McDermott, Lampard etc) or in our famous  colours (Knighton, Oates, Atkins, Barker, Sherwood).

He strides into parts of the pitch other players fear to enter both to receive the ball and bring others into play and you get the feeling we are beginning to see a double-figures-plus operator well worth the big fee about his business.

If you were a centre-forward worth your salt you’d surely be excited at the prospect of benefiting from a duo with such movement and creativity in their boots and while Danny Graham has been written off in some quarters, I have always believed that our best chance of doing well this season is if players like him and Whittingham, seasoned practitioners of their arts, can impose their personality on the team.

Whittingham is slowly emerging from his early-season testimonial-pace chrysalis and showing at least some signs of being the conductor of what goes on in front of him  but Graham’s last two starts have encouraged dreams that he could yet revive himself and look as accomplished at this level as he did in the Championship during his first weeks at Ewood.

I hope Graham did a bit of soul-searching during his time on the subs’ bench and if so I hope the conversation with himself went a little like this.

“What exactly am I, Danny Graham, with hundreds of appearances and goals higher up, doing stuck on a middling Third Division outfit’s bench watching, with respect, kids like Samuel and Antonnson start games?

“Is this how I want to be remembered, batting my time out on a big wage for doing very little, or am I going to shape myself and provide the goals and assists to justify my salary and help the club climb the table?”

It’s my belief that if he can’t get somewhere near to 20 goals in League One he’s letting himself and the fans down.

There are things which will always infuriate me about Graham’s game, such as the ugly compulsion to grapple with his marker and leave referees with the 50-50 guessing game of who tugged whom first before awarding another free-kick.

But if Whittingham can start pinging those balls to a striker determined to actually drop off the shoulder of his defender, perhaps Danny can focus his attention on hitting the net with the regularity which has characterised his better spells here.

Graham was given a rather unexpected guarantee of continued selection by Dominic Samuel’s act of foolishness in getting himself sent off late on to earn a three-game ban.

We can ill afford to have our options reduced through such lack of self-control – we were two up with moments remaining for goodness’ sake – but Joe Nuttall from the Under-23’s could be the beneficiary  from that aberration, a development which many would welcome.

Wigan’s DW Stadium  has been a scene of many a Rovers horror how down the years. Under Hughes, Ince, Kean, Bowyer and Coyle we’ve suffered damaging and at times embarrassing reverses.

But the occasional victories there have been memorable for the right reasons – Stephen Reid’s exocet in a New Year 3-0 and a League Cup quarter-final among my highlights – and there would be no better time to chalk up another.

Defeat could theoretically leave us respectively 16 and 15 points behind the top two and while some have portrayed it as a “must win,” a point would do for me.

I’ve seen it actually suggested that if we don’t win or such a gap has opened up on Saturday tea-time, we ought to be under caretaker managership by midweek. Nonsense. There’s a long way to go and dozens of points to be won and lost and it helps no-one to be so dizzily skittish about Mowbray.

One shudders to think what the process of identifying and selecting a replacement would be if we had someone responsible for those decisions as daft as the people suggesting a change and past aberrations suggest that we might have one or two not far off.

It would, it goes without saying, be absolutely imperative to beat Fleetwood in the first ever league meeting between the sides at Ewood on Tuesday however we’ve done at Wigan. Fail to do so and the summit may look a very long way off if not the play-offs.

You can wring your hands all you want about how it shows the extent of our fall from grace playing the Cod Army in the first place but that does their phenomenal ascent a disservice.

I know only too well what modest circumstances they dragged themselves out of having attended, with 62 other disparate souls,  a game at Highbury – a very different, rotting, rusting shell of a ground compared to their smart stadium today – against Great Harwood Town around the turn of the century.

I have never watched football in such godforsaken, wind and rain-battered circumstances as on that night when I severely questioned what the hell I was doing there to rack up 45p a mile and an 8.50 supper allowance in cash expenses.

I was also lucky to cover a lot of games there as the ground transformed and they made their way up through non-league promotions and made some smashing friends on the staff there.

Yes our fall from the heights has been vertiginous but we are where we both are and credit to them for doing so well whilst hoping we put them summarily in their place. You’d have got good odds on us meeting in the same division that night in 2000.

I’ll be absent from both games this week on a trip to Hungary and Slovakia.

Just as you lot are arriving at the DW I hope to be with my great pal Tony, a red hot Claret, and his son Liam at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium to see Ujpest Dosza take on Videoton.

The only Rovers connection I can summon up is that Preben Arentoft scored a decisive goal on that ground, now totally rebuilt like Ewood, for Newcastle in the Fairs Cup Final Second Leg of 1968, the UEFA Cup as it later became known, sealing the Geordies’ last trophy a couple of years before Ben joined the Furphy revolution. Eat your heart out, Alan Shearer.

I hope everyone enjoys a couple of cracking Lancashire derbies and I’m sorry I’ll only be represented at them by our eldest daughter. See you at the Barnet FA Cup game and the Checkatrade at Rochdale after missing the really exciting stuff!

I’ll be missing my Rovers fix till then…hope yours is all you’d want it to be.

BLUE-EYED BOY

 

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