Honours even either side of Ribble, buzz is back at Ewood though

Blue Eyed Boy indisposed again this week so the man on the next seat, Riversider23, shares his thoughts 

What a season this is turning out to be!

After a desperate start in August, followed by a long period of mediocrity and resignation, for about half an hour on Saturday the side was transformed, and the crowd was buzzing like it hasn’t been for years.


You wouldn’t know it from looking at the table – McGeady’s late equaliser saw to that – but there’s a sense now that the Rovers are moving up strongly while others slide down towards us.

It’s important to remember that things are never quite as good or as bad as they seem but, if we could have held out for the 2-1 win, I think that many of us – perhaps foolishly – would have been putting thoughts of relegation behind us.

That’s how good that 30-minute spell was.

And so, in spite of the added-time disappointment, Mowbray’s tenure remains an unbeaten one, including what looked like a tough little run away at Norwich and Fulham and at home to Preston. Looking at the fixtures ahead, they all seem just a little less daunting now.

Preston had started strongly – competent and well-organised – and took the lead through Barkhuizen, who was put through after Nyambe missed an edge-of the-box header that he should have done better with. Steele, Nyambe and Mulgrew closed on Barkhuizen and looked like they had things covered but the ball flew high into the net off Steele. That familiar sinking feeling, going behind early on.

Slowly but surely, the Rovers clawed their way back into the game, and by the end of the first half looked the more likely to score.

When the goal came just before half-time it was from an unlikely source, with Elliott Bennett hitting his sweetest strike yet.

Just as surprising was that it had been Bennett who had started the fightback with some determined chasing and harrying, and a crunching tackle that created the kind of crowd response that Phil Jones memorably triggered in his marauding Premier League debut.

It was another collector’s item – this time, a goal from an otherwise desperate Conway in open play – that put us ahead after 53 minutes, but you have to wind back to the first half for the most memorable moment in a game of pleasant surprises.

And that was the sublime skill and confidence that Lucas Joao displayed for a few joyful seconds on the edge of the Preston box just before half-time – turning, shimmying, rolling the ball this way and that with the sole of his boot, all to the general bamboozlement of four or five defenders, some of whom ended up on their backsides more than once.

Joao had already started to impress with his overall play. My only previous sight of him had been his short substitute appearance against Cardiff, in which he looked distinctly dodgy. Hard to imagine how he then managed to get his three goals at Norwich and Fulham, coming on in both games just for the last half-hour. But on Saturday he looked a very good centre-forward – strong, mobile, intelligent, finding space, holding the ball up, good in the air, powerful shot. A man transformed. More the Portuguese international than the Sheffield Wednesday hand-me-on.

I’m sure this comes with match-sharpness, and I hope he’ll get even better with more time on the pitch. Sometimes it takes a few games for players to get properly up to pace, and to settle in to the side around them.

So, from around 43 minutes to around 75 minutes it was a joy to watch the Rovers play Preston off the park. And remember, they’re not a bad side at this level.

Then the substitutions changed the game completely.

We had been expecting Mahoney to appear and to bring an added touch of guile – this time to an already flying team – but, for the first time, he was ineffectual at best.

It was the introduction of Gallagher that made all the difference. Unfortunately, that Gallagher was our Paul, not “our” Sam. The local lad came on to warm and generous applause, that he returned with respect after the final whistle, and for the intervening 20 minutes he probed and prodded and picked holes in a tiring defence, and created the equaliser that robbed us of two crucial points.

On to the last 8 matches then, of which only 3 are at home, and it’s high time to start comparing the “run-in”s of our nearest competitors for safety. Rotherham are gone, and Wigan’s poor run and form has left them adrift too. I reckon there are then 6 others from whom we need to catch just one. The Tammy Abrahams effect at Bristol City produced a shock score for them against Huddersfield and will probably be enough to keep them up. Forest, Birmingham and Ipswich all seem to be limping to the season’s end – as were Wolves up until the last couple of games, when they’ve picked up surprisingly well. I suspect it will be Burton that we pass, though the most satisfying outcome might be to get one over on Wolves again…

Anyway, the atmosphere at Ewood has changed, and gone up another notch. In the end, Paul Gallagher’s impact was a harsh reminder that we’re still too vulnerable at the back when attacked by players with quality and nous, but – to offset that – there was a sustained period of such confidence and creativity and dominance that parts of the Enclosure were bouncing. Much more of it and there could even be congas on the Riverside.

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Suddenly Tony’s revived Rovers Lucas good as gold

Some internet connection problems for Blue Eyed Boy this week in the middle of a house move so once again our friend Old Blackburnian takes the reins..

Rovers Rediscover Resilience on the Road

After a sound start to the Mowbray era, yielding a creditable 8 points from a possible 12; the next three games looming large for the reinvigorated squad consisted of two tricky away challenges at Norwich and Fulham, rounded off with a “Lancashire Hot-Pot” of a derby at home to Preston North End.

Norwich City at Carrow Road will always hold a special place in my heart, as the fixture played in February 1993 was the last occasion (to date) that I was able to persuade my wife to attend a football match. It was close to my birthday & my wife of less than 6 months was at that stage still prepared to indulge my suggestion of a joint trip to watch Rovers away to celebrate.
The weather was awful, snow, ice and wind & we spent the whole journey listening to the radio expecting an announcement that the fixture had been postponed. After a ridiculously treacherous, cross-country trek through very heavy snow from our then abode in Sutton Coldfield; we eventually arrived in Norwich so late, that we had no time for the promised hearty pub lunch; only to find I’d also forgotten my coat and so it was a chilly day for me in more ways than one. A goalless draw did little to keep your sweater-only clad correspondent particularly warm, neither did it capture the rapt attention of my dear wife. 
Roy Wegerle, as usual, showed a few flashes of his skills but Mrs OB was instead captivated by the state of the young man on the row behind us; who, refreshed by a few libations (he looked about 15 to be fair) fell asleep 5 minutes before kick off and was resuscitated by his friends shortly after the final whistle, just in time for the long coach journey home. She made me vow never to take her to another game and so far, I have kept my side of the bargain ! 
There can be few events leading up to a game that chill the optimism more than the upcoming opposition sacking their manager. When the installed caretaker is also a former Rovers stalwart, well that just adds to the sense of impending, inevitable doom.

Norwich you may recall, carved Rovers apart like a Thanksgiving turkey on opening day, adding a well-seasoned stuffing for good measure. Many expected the Canaries to finish up there with Newcastle & Brighton; that they probably won’t even make the play-offs perhaps demonstrates why Delia felt this particular winter collection needs a different chef.
A goal behind after just 19 minutes seemed to indicate that Rovers’ new manager bounce had finally dissipated and the natural order was about to be restored. But Norwich almost immediately deviated from the recipe, introducing the fresh ingredient of a foolish sending off and now Rovers’ task was to score two, against 10 men, in 70 minutes. It’s fair to say that any Rovers’ fans who immediately rushed to bet on a double within 5 minutes from one of our strikers would have chosen Graham, Emnes or perhaps even Mahoney…Lucas Joao ? More chance of Lucas Neill !
I doubt anyone would disagree with Mowbray’s post-match verdict that letting a valuable lead slip in the last 10 minutes against 10 men was disappointing, but I would have taken the draw at 3pm. Those 2 lost points may ultimately prove decisive but there are numerous examples across the season of “what ifs” – they’re gone, the next game is all that matters in truth.
On to another rendezvous with a former player in the shape of Tom Cairney at the Cottage. Cairney has been in such sprightly form recently, that a local politician on Twitter expressed hope that Gareth Southgate might pay him some attention. Well he might to be fair; if England are playing Scotland any time soon.Cairney has thrived this season and has popped in a number of goal of the month contenders. When will we see such class again in our central midfield ?

It’s hard not to like Fulham, tidy, attractive team, old-fashioned ground (definitely not a stadium), and our paths have crossed memorably in recent years. Most notably dear old Jon Stead’s intervention at Loftus Road in 2004 to secure a stunning 4-3 away win and Tugay and MGP of course, had their own Goal of the Season competition against them at Ewood in August 2005, well worth a search in the online archives for those beauties.
It’s fair to say that this is not the season to leave early to avoid the rush given the number of late goals – be they scored or conceded. This time we were extremely grateful for another Joao intervention. His 94th minute equaliser securing a vital point & retaining the precious commodity of momentum. Whilst one win & one defeat would have garnered an additional point, there is something deeply satisfying about building an unbeaten run. 
For those readers old enough to remember the Howard Kendall years, there was a feeling of invincibility about that side. As a supporter, you fully expected to keep a clean sheet, so the only issue was whether we were going to win 1-0 or take home only a point. That side was assembled on a shoestring, so it can be done, but it needs great scouting, effective coaching and a slice of good fortune. This side currently concedes far too many goals placing a heavy burden on the forwards to keep us in the hunt. Mowbray’s pedigree as a rugged central defender you hope will result in a back four shielded effectively by the midfield that is capable of clean sheets. For now, we can be grateful that 3-2 defeats are now coming in as 2-2 draws !
Saturday gives us a chance of a local derby victory and at this stage is probably no bad thing to stir up some authentic passion about on the field matters. Preston fans seem to be up for it and why wouldn’t they in the circumstances? Rovers innovative ticket pricing will hopefully boost the home attendance and create the best possible conditions for a Rovers win. We are due one against PNE and a win now would be a potentially significant milestone if this campaign is to end in retention of Championship status. If it came with a clean sheet to boot, that really would be something.
Our survival prospects are in our own hands and for that we can be grateful, a few weeks ago I had no expectations of Championship football next season, at least now, there is Hope & not just Akpan.
OLD BLACKBURNIAN

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Fans reunited as Tony bridges troubled waters

It was impossible not to savour a whiff of hope and redemption in the air walking away from Ewood on Tuesday, supporters abuzz with conversation after an extremely spirited second-half display saw a thoroughly-deserved  point rescued to make Tony Mowbray’s (still unbeaten) tally an impressive eight out of 12.

A return of seven from nine from three quickfire home games was as much as anyone could have hoped for even though some of us might have greedily dreamt of a full house after Jason Steele’s quick-thinking clearance against Wigan gave Marvin Emnes the opportunity to score a goal which would have graced a 1970’s Best of Brazil DVD compilation.

Cardiff were a bit better than Wigan. Their scorer Zohore looks an absolute beast of a  centre forward and having seen him maraud through a  couple of Championship defences on the box I was pleased how we handled him apart from one smart close-range finish to top a good move. Believe me he’s a  player who can hurt you running directly at you and a couple of timely interventions prevented such a situation.

Sometimes as fans, to paraphrase Paul Simon, we “see what we want to see and disregard the rest” and I  was amused to hear two lads coming off say: “We’d have never scored late on under Coyle, they weren’t fit enough.”

We actually did score in minutes 85, 91, 83, 74 and 74 and 81 against Rotherham, QPR, Leeds, Newcastle, Ipswich and Huddersfield respectively in six of Coyle’s last games (albeit buggered matters up by conceding even later in two) but the lads had a  point.

The Leeds game was a point in case – we should have finished the match the stronger but after Joao wasted a chance to win it we relinquished the foothold the goal gave us.

On Tuesday Cardiff were probably glad there were only three added minutes and relieved to get off with the point (although in fairness they too had a close call in the extra minutes).

A 90th minute equaliser though is probably the most enjoyable way to draw a game if you are going to drop two points so for the third time in eight days it was chirpy voices and smiles as we poured off.

Nobody’s fooling anyone that Rovers have even done the minimum requirement job of ensuring continued Championship status yet – with other teams sure to pick up points, two places and two points above the drop zone are gaps which can be frittered away before your eyes in a  week which will see us visit two of the best footballing sides in the division on their day (although Norwich’s days in particular are becoming rather more infrequent than most at Ewood predicted on the season’s opening  afternoon) – but there is an undeniable togetherness and commonality of purpose among a loyal bunch of Rovers fans who finally actually have a manager they can relate to and like.

Tony Mowbray’s team, too, are becoming as hard to dislike and disdain as they have been to beat, a welcome and important development at a time when any strength we can find in unity can only augment the footballing cause.

No-one’s talking about the ultimate dream of removing Venkys or persuading them that it’s time to leave – it’s obvious to most that that will occur at a time and circumstance of their choosing, not as a result of any sporadically conceived and supported publicity stunt – but while the twin possibilities remain that they could pack up this summer or stay for another five years (and nobody truly has any idea which is likelier) you can waste your life away waiting for the correct terms and conditions to be put in place to earn, if you’ve absented yourself from the cause,  your renewed patronage.

In truth, lying 20th we’re not a lot better or worse off than we were four seasons or one season ago.

With six matches of the 2012-13 campaign remaining we lay 22nd, before Jordan Rhodes’ phenomenal goalscoring in his first season, not to mention a mazy Grant Hanley dribble followed by a theatrical tumble, kept us up.

Rhodes scored either our first goal or winner in five of those six games, probably earning us 10 points. Five less and we’d have gone down.

A year ago a crushing defeat at home to Huddersfield saw us slump to 18th, practically safe I’ll grant you but wondering how much lower the dreadful Lambert could take us before rallying with a handful of decent late results which put a flattering spin on our finishing position (one of the few things Coyle correctly identified!)

This time around there’s no Rhodes, the danger of relegation is still as foreboding as it can be and the players have clearly demonstrated that they are benefiting and thriving with a coach at the helm they respect and respond to while the supporters who are turning up give their unqualified and enthusiastic backing.

Never has this been typified more than the second half against Cardiff.

I said in advance of the game that one of the tests remaining for Mowbray was to see how he, and his team, responded to going a goal behind.

Rather splendidly, as it happens, was the answer. I didn’t see the first half at Burton but if it was a better, more concerted, panic-free sustained three-quarters of an hour of relentless knocking on the door than that it must have been enjoyable.

I was particularly pleased to see one message board poster state that he’d have warmly applauded the effort at the final whistle even if a determined Derrick Williams – his newly-found willingness to thrust towards and into the box has been one of the more noticeable improvements and his MOTM award was well-merited – hadn’t managed to stab home the leveller.

I concur fully with that.

Cardiff attempted to sit on a narrow lead but that’s always risky against a Rovers side with a goal in them and there were many plusses. It was good to get a goal from an unexpected source on a  night when our “big three” forwards were foiled, Feeney wasted a great headed chance and Conway looks as likely at the moment to find the Holy Grail or the secret of life as he is to produce one of his wonder goals.

The enthralling Mahoney though has added an undreamt-of dimension of impudence, imagination, trickery and directness to our attacking artillery. I can’t remember the last time a player getting the ball has filled me with so much anticipation as seeing the young Mill Hill lad receive possession.

I rather like the way he is being unleashed early in the second half too. It totally gives any defence which thinks it has us worked out a whole lot more to suddenly think about and contend with.

Nyambe too is improving and gaining in confidence by the game. His cross for the Feeney effort was deft and skilled.

Lenihan is back to the player he was looking before the aberration at Deepdale seemed to take the wind out of his sails for a few weeks.

Even Feeney, despite the disappointing headed effort, seems to have been infused with a rush of self-belief and is showing a little more than the straight-up-and-down poor man’s “Windy” Miller one-trick pony act he appeared locked into under previous leadership.

Mulgrew had an off night with his set-piece delivery but offers such beatific calm and  composure on the ball in general play that it looks a different game to, say, when Jason Lowe is in possession. Guthrie is similarly comfortable but is yet to find a killer pass or shot to actually win us the points in a match – but there’s time yet.

Norwich, and quickly after Fulham, are daunting away games next week but imagine picking up, say three or even a couple of points and going into the North End derby with our heads above water.

Yes, you might despise Venkys and resent where they’ve taken us.We all do.

You might genuinely believe they’ve “totally destroyed the club in six years” (I personally think you have a fairly wide definition if you consider Championship status “total destruction” – that might come one day but this ain’t it, believe me. Or ask Darlington or Stockport fans).

You might begrudge them 20 quid which is your absolute right but in all honesty it is of no significance or consequence whatsoever to them.

But if you’re staying away now, though, you’re probably denying yourself something you enjoy at a time when you can do more good for the team by turning up than any dent your ticket price can make in the owners’ pockets.

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BLUE EYED BOY

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Mow’ better Blues. Rovers get it Knocked Out The Box to seize lifeline

In an era during which positives have been hard to find, it’s nice to sit down and reflect after a week when any of the many things that could have gone wrong for Rovers for once by and large amazingly didn’t (unless you count Efe Ambrose’s work permit rejection and there’s even an argument that was a positive).

As reported last week bang on an Observer deadline literally a quarter of an hour before his replacement was announced, the sacking of the utterly hapless and wretched Owen Coyle couldn’t fail to raise spirits and hopes.

His disproportionately excuse-ridden, unfoundedly optimistic but hollow psycho-babble blether had long begun to grate and irritate even the most patient of supporters and If Rovers’ Championship status matters, which I firmly believe it does, it was incumbent even on a director of football regarded with a colossal dose of scepticism by worried fans, to remove him in order to facilitate any shot at temporary redemption.

And while Coyle’s successor didn’t immediately spring to mind in anyone’s list of  top five preferred candidates, Tony Mowbray carries sufficient respect and affection in the game and among fans of previous employers not to have been regarded as any kind of further Venkys/Senior howler.

His CV doesn’t, in truth, carry much that is materially more impressive than Coyle’s, ie one promotion from the Championship a long while ago followed by not a lot (and not many fail at Celtic as miserably) since,  but his initial manner and his reasoned response to the first pair of results he has eked out at least give the impression that he actually understands the game and knows what day it is.

But for the curvature of the Burton goalposts and the lack of dip on a Bradley Johnson header we could have been pondering a start for Mowbray of one point from six but like all successful managers he has needed and richly deserved a bit of propitious fortune to garnish the immediate lift he’s given everyone (fans and players manifestly) even if the actual performances haven’t been as radically or spectacularly improved as he’s being given credit for.

A dopey second-half showing at The Pirelli after what I understand to be one of the best halves of football we’ve produced in a while could have undone all the promise enjoyed by a newly-optimistic and supportive away following. Old habits die hard and while Rovers continued to struggle in second halves rumours of lackadaisical attitudes to training under Coyle and his wearisome cohorts were never going away.

Despite the stunning sight of undistinguished ex-Claret Marvin Sordell curling in his first Championship goal since April 2014 (guess who that was against for Charlton, quiz fans?) to level what was wrongly but understandably billed as a “must-win” game the atmosphere, which may have turned poisonous under previous stewardship, remained vociferously positive.

The scenes of rancour and bile at Barnsley and Rotherham which exploded when we went a goal down reflected no credit on and offered no help to anyone, save to broadcast to a watching world, whose reaction ranged from bemused to highly amused, what a mess we were in.

A pal who’s been to virtually every away game for a few seasons had vowed to ban himself from further road trips if Coyle stayed but I was delighted to see him pictured among a few other stalwarts when the first fan pic from the away section  was posted on Twitter on Friday.

On Tuesday, as the Derby match loomed, I had had  a pretty crappy day health-wise, felt woozy and exhausted  and wasn’t that bothered about turning out myself.

 When our elder daughter came home at half past six from a tough day of travel grafting for the NHS in a Merseyside Hospital, she declared herself totally knackered and I expected her to emerge from her room a few minutes later to ask me if she minded if she gave it a miss. I was half hoping she would.

But, no, out she came in the “32 Conway” shirt with ten minutes to throw a bit of tea down before instructing me that we were setting off. If a first-time season-ticket holder can summon that kind of enthusiasm on a horrid midweek night 32 games into a largely awful campaign I felt it my duty to drag myself off the couch and accompany her and younger sister to Ewood.

I was delighted I did too. A blast of fresh air can never be a bad thing when you’re unwell and there was a metaphorical new spring to Rovers’ step too as they went about their business.

There was no great on-the-pitch pre-match fanfare for Mowbray (that I saw anyway),a  clear sign that his priorities are getting down to the nitty-gritty of surviving a relegation battle.

Derby zipped and passed about in that familiar way of theirs but created little as Christie, Hughes and Ince increasingly disappeared in an endless kind-of Bermuda Triangle down the right into which attacks either vanished or faded away to a speculative long-range effort from Hughes, whose boots appear to be imbued with the same kind of propensity to unerringly miss the target as Jason Steele’s.

Despite the visitors’ possession Rovers got a foothold and made chances of their own without ever being said to be dominant or in the ascendancy.

While a lot of focus rightly came on the way Rovers bravely but riskily defended after Conway’s penalty goal – fairly frantically with a wing and a prayer for the final 20 minutes as possession was repeatedly surrendered – you also have to credit the way they denied the perennially prolific Championship predator that is Nugent a single sniff until way beyond the hour mark and made Jonny Russell and Bradley Johnson look very ordinary players indeed (which in all fairness is probably exactly what they are).

Derby have spent a bloody lot of brass to be resolutely mediocre mid-table fodder. It was significant that a club which habitually attracts as near as dammit 30,000 for home games could only muster 500 to make the 100-mile trip, a clear indication that their fans have given up the play-off ghost already.

I don’t think Mel Morris has many detractors as owner the way he wields his chequebook and hires and fires his managers but it just shows that a steady proprietor splashing the cash doesn’t always necessarily harvest success. Leeds fans will be a lot happier this season despite general concensus that Cellino, with his string of football and criminal raps,  and his oppos are certifiably bonkers.

Mowbray will never now have anything like the money Leeds or Derby get to spend and it will be some time before gates in the high twenty thousands are seen at Ewood again but his immediate job is to shape the handful of talent he has been bequeathed into a unit capable of keeping Wigan, Saturday’s opponents, at arm’s length while passing at least one of Burton, Bristol City or Wolves into the bargain.

That looks a lot more achievable than it did 10 days ago for sure.

Tuesday’s levels of commitment and determination will stand him in good stead and the likeable “Head Coach” (who is the “assistant manager” assistant to as an aside?) was honest enough not to claim any imagined triumph of organisation and tactical genius beyond those disciplines.

Mulgrew, a signing mocked by many (including me) is an absolute class act wherever he plays and I hope some of those who were ready to write Darragh Lenihan off after a few perfectly understandable below-par “dip” performances are now thoroughly ashamed of the way they so hastily and dismissively disparaged an outstanding developing talent.

While the midfield is of necessity artlessly functional rather than a thing of beauty, nobody’s appetite for graft could be questioned and Feeney’s industry covering every blade of our right-hand side in support of the improving Nyambe was particularly heartening. He richly deserved a good hand when his indefatigable harrying was replaced (probably wrongly as it panned out) by the far more popular Mahoney, even if the cross which the alert Gallagher, a handful all night, seized upon for the spot-kick tackle was probably his worst of the night.

Although I’d have shaken hands on a point before the game with two more Ewood matches to come within the week, the three points has given everyone a  tangible lift and four or six more before we finish this Ewood sequence would represent a  major series of feats for Mowbray in an impressive and reassuring beginning to his tenure.

Well done to the club for coming up with a six-match cheap tickets package for the remainder of the Ewood matches which will decide our fate.

Unless you’re of the more extreme, entrenched “not a penny more to Venkys” mentality there seems little point not actually (I use the phrase with caution and hope no vengeful message board posters are harmed in being exposed to it) “getting behind the lads” for at least a  short and crucial period despite the fact that, for a tiny minority, wishing to do so equates to some kind of complicity in the club’s decline.

A clarion call for Venkys to “immediately relinquish control” from one fan group last week made no suggestion as to what provision, if the owners decided to do so at five to five one night, would be in place for the club continuing to operate at opening time the day after.

Those discussions are for later. So are understandably cynical sighs of defeated resignation such as “we’ll go down anyway if this lot stay.”

We might. But Wigan and Cardiff at home this week could decide whether we get at least 12 months’ reprieve during which the very best or the very worst possible could happen.

If you can find it in your heart to get down, I’m sure the gaffer and the players would be glad to hear you.

BLUE EYED BOY

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Right move, too late, window wasted. Mike and Paul’s Rovers relegation recipe.

While many feared that Owen Coyle was here for the duration, “unsackable” at least for the remainder of this particular season, I confidently predicted some weeks ago that the fissures in the always-uneasy relationship between a Director of Football and a manager who has one foisted upon him unrequested would lead to a “him or me” stand-off sooner rather than later.

As soon as Paul Senior opened his mouth in that flesh-creepingly awful first series of interviews and especially when Coyle went public about the players he had attempted to bring in during a desperately cocked-up final few days of the January window, there was always going to be one winner and the smart money wasn’t on the hapless Coyle however much he might have had a point that the bean-counters had dawdled fatally over player recruitment.

When the Raos and Madam sacked Allardyce in 2010 I wrote here that it was the wrong decision by the wrong people at the wrong time.

This time it’s one out of three right. It unfortunately didn’t come soon enough.

Coyle could and should justifiably have been potted any time from three games into the campaign when the paucity of his organisational and tactical ideas and nous was starkly and boldly made strikingly manifest and  before he was given the chance to grasp at the perennial flimsy straw of the failing coach, the “got-to-win-one-sometime-on-law-of-averages” odd win and decent performance which convinces only the most blindly hard of thinking that better times are just around the corner.

No team goes down having lost all 46 of their games (although Rotherham looked to be having a fair stab at it at one point) and it was inevitable that sporadic triumphs both deserved, scraped  and even wholly jammy (the two Newcastle matches) would punctuate the pervading cloak of gloom and misery to create the occasional sun-stroked delusion that things were maybe going to get better.

But I wrote in December that after the Barnsley defeat and the attendant way in which a section of the club’s most loyal, hard-travelling support turned on him that afternoon that the point of no return had been reached and that ought to have been that.

You simply can’t have a fanbase already as distressingly riven by disagreement, recrimination, incivility, vitriol and in-fighting as ours further imploding on itself on matchdays in hostile territory as soon as a setback on the field triggers ugly scenes. What would the opposition most want to see?

While latter performances haven’t been as shocking as the horrors of August – the defeats to Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Man United were all richly undeserved in different ways after incrementally creditable displays – there was still no sign or collective belief among supporters being constantly fed the contrary that there was any genuine prospect of a sixth season out of the top two divisions in our 142-year year history being avoided.

From all accounts we played very well at Hillsborough and might or might not have been denied one, or two goals .

We certainly played outstandingly well in the FA Cup tie, not a full house but played in an atmosphere against opposition we might not see again at our stadium for a considerable period.

After a sorry Saturday tea-time home hammering by United in May 1966 before a paltry 14,000 post-1960 Cup Final Blues stalwarts who had already accepted relegation weeks earlier, we met the Reds just once in 26 years, the 1985 FA Cup Ewood Basil-on-the-Ball farrago.

So the players (and to some extent Coyle) fully deserved the heartfelt and generous  applause of the home crowd after the narrowest and scarcely-merited United victory.

Graham’s goal, making a fool of Smalling after the kind of brilliant work from Emnes which characterised his contribution (and doubtless enhanced his shop-window placing) was worth the price of admission alone.

If you wanted to pick holes – and plenty did – you could home in on the defensive lapses on both goals conceded (note to PL gaffers – if Rashford and Martial lurk on your half way line when you have a set piece maybe leave your younger, quicker defenders back in attendance) but we’ve conceded enough goals to United over the years when we had good managers and great defenders so I’m not going to complain too much about that.

Mahoney’s cameo, and to a lesser extent Tomlinson’s on debut, was simply exhilarating . From the puny, tentative pubescent who came on against City a few years ago he looks excitingly ready to unleash in the man’s game.

His nimble-footed teasing jink around a bemused Paul Pogba just gladdened the heart of everyone present apart from the Darwen End.

What a travesty if he is allowed to leave or chooses to leave to further his career at a higher level than we are able to offer or in pastures more lucrative.

Hopefully whoever is put in charge for the final 15 ominous fixtures this season will have the courage to utilise him. What more have we got to lose in craven surrender?

Coyle’s increasingly vacuous apologia or lamentations having been consigned to history, neither any of Senior’s risible proclamations nor any financial noises emanating either side of the deadline offered any solace.

Senior’s “bring players in who are ready to hit the ground running” pledge looks sillier every day that  Efe Ambrose’s work permit saga (due to be ruled upon as I type) edges nearer to the time it took  an unwelcomed John Lennon to get a US Green Card with the CIA on his “Deport-the Commie” case.

Lenny Bruce obtained a UK work permit with less difficulty despite a string of obscenity busts at a time the ”F” word hadn’t been uttered on our tellys in jest nor anger.

If Senior’s suitability for bringing in a fresh manager/coach matches that to recruit players perhaps we needn’t get hopes too high about Coyle’s long-overdue replacement.

On the day we should have been reading about the search we were presented with extensive quotes from Micky The Spreadsheet Cheston about further likely cost-cutting measures. His comments almost precisely mirrored those of Bolton owner Ken Anderson the other week, the difference being that Bolton might be coming up and reducing the wage bill while we swap places amid the spectre of being unable to hang onto  outstanding young talents like Mahoney and Tomlinson as the axe falls on Ewood employees in all departments.

Nobody is on the Gold Standard forever. Sunderland with 40,000 on every week, mostly season-ticket holders announced swingeing job losses this week. Newcastle have been relegated twice in eight years.

Nor does spending guarantee anything. If you had been told at the start of the season that your season ticket had risen 100 per cent in price but Rovers would be managed by Steve Bruce, spend £77m and sign the like of Kodija, McCormack, Lansbury, Chester, Elphick, Hogan, and a dozen others I  don’t know about you but I’d have been signing up confident of getting a Premier League cheapie on the “Promotion Pledge”!

But I also fully understand that if you continue each month to bring in less money than you are committed to paying out then eventually you will reach a point whereupon no wages or bills at all can be paid.

However with a modicum of attention to detail – ie a glance at Coyle’s woebegone CV – this austerity future should not have been being planned, as Senior disturbingly hinted, with the dreaded un-named but hard-to-miscomprehend Option B looking more of a banker than Option A.

Whoever comes in now isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – a steady hand such as Nigel Adkins will engender a similarly-split mix of champions and detractors as an old hero with an unimpressive resume such as Tim Sherwood.

I honestly would rather they put Charlie Mulgrew in charge for the rest of the season than go for an unqualified old terrace favourite.

It wasn’t a shock that a man of the calibre of Gary Rowett declared himself uninterested in the job. I might just as well bemoan the fact that Springsteen has declared himself unable to take up my offer of playing at my 60th do.

A good number besides will fall into the “not-with-a-thirty-foot-bargepole-thanks” category.

But with a gargantuan six-pointer at Burton on Friday followed by three home games in eight days starting with faltering Derby on Tuesday, surely whoever is in the dug-out needs unconditional backing from the stands until our fate is decided. (Notwithstanding the club’s idiotic decision to nominate the potential relegation decider at home to Wigan as an overpriced Category A game with an Ewood fixture either side).

“Let’s see…. how do we make sure as few home fans as possible turn out?”

You couldn’t make it up they say. At Ewood you don’t need to.

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BLUE-EYED BOY

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Wars of the Roses prick Rovers’ confidence

Blue Eyed Boy has been on his travels this week, taking in a  Boavista v Braga fixture in Porto, so once again our exiled East-of-the-Pennines correspondent reports from a couple of encounters on his own midden…….

Following a home defeat to West Yorkshire’s second finest, the fixture list laid on a short break for Rovers in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire – a sojourn in Scargill country, fixtures against Rotherham Utd & Sheffield Wednesday in the space of four days.

A chance to mine new seams of confidence or would it simply be the pits?

“Lions led by donkeys” was the accusation laid at the door of Arthur Scargill back in the 1980’s; I’m not entirely sure that the current Rovers squad qualifies as lions; as for the club’s leadership…well, let’s be polite and say that the jury’s out.

 

Rotherham Utd, cast as the division’s whipping boys, was surely a chance to secure vital points?

Rovers lined up 4-4-2; Joao, Emnes & the emerging Mahoney on the bench.

The first half saw Rovers start brightly; tidy in possession, rarely troubled at the back and most importantly posing a serious and repeated threat up front.

However, Gallagher looked like he was breaking-in someone else’s boots and on the wrong feet, two chances slipping away. 

That elusive opening goal simply wouldn’t materialise.

The best attempt came from the skipper Jason Lowe who cut inside from the left and struck the bar from distance.

It wouldn’t be the only time Rovers hit the bar in this game; Mulgrew’s late, close-range header ably deflected by Rotherham keeper O’Donnell.

At half time, experienced Rovers watchers would have recognised the signs; all bark, but no bite, whilst Rotherham would have been delighted still to be in the contest.

Inevitably, the second half opened with Rotherham quickly registering their first serious shot on target and as a result, duly opening up a one-goal lead.

 The home fans sensed a change in the momentum of this game, the away crowd almost immediately started to turn; baiting Owen Coyle and especially his Burnley heritage and fondness for Onanism.

For 20 minutes or so, the emboldened Rotherham dominated, threatening with almost every attack to put the game beyond the reach of their visitors. That they didn’t was largely down to the endeavours of Lenihan & the positional guile of Mulgrew.

Coyle then decided to shake things up, by bringing on Hope Akpan in place of Ryan Nyambe; let’s be kind and say that it wasn’t the obvious selection.

From my vantage point it seemed difficult to glean just how the side would be transformed by this initiative.

Many Rovers fans seemed to agree and the chants for Connor Mahoney gathered frequency & volume.

A few minutes later, Coyle concurred and introduced Mahoney & Emnes in place of Conway & Feeney. 

This hadn’t been a good day for either of the wingers, but especially Conway; whose form at the moment seems to ask no questions of his opposing full-back other than, “Would you prefer me to over-hit or under-hit my next pass?”

I like Conway, he is a trier and an honest worker but each time I see him these days, a further increment of his joy (and his pace) seems to have ebbed away.

Far too often he runs down blind alleys and his delivery is currently up there with the quality & reliability of Yodel.

Mahoney in particular impressed after his introduction, his demeanour reminding me of the early incarnation of Morten Gamst Pedersen.

A right-footed corner demonstrating that he is two-footed, albeit much happier on his left side; happy to take the ball up to his full back and then deliver crosses with swerve & dip across the corridor of uncertainty (as Mr Boycott might describe it) that is the strip between the 6 yard box and the penalty spot. 

A Mahoney corner late on resulted in Rotherham’s Kelly diverting into his own net, under pressure from numerous Rovers attackers.

There were a few further flurries; another dangerous Mahoney cross, found Emnes, who aiming for the bottom corner placed his deft header just wide.

The final whistle saw both sets of players frozen, statuesque for a few seconds; seemingly recognising the severity of their respective plights – Rotherham aware that a rare chance to win in a season doomed to relegation had just slipped out of reach by their own means; Rovers’ acknowledging that their own fate come season’s end might be remarkably similar to that of their hosts.

 A Rotherham supporter, walking home after the game, summed it up succinctly to the departing Rovers hordes; “At least tha’ll know where to come next season…” He raised a chuckle from those within earshot, it was gallows humour at its finest.

So to the 2nd leg of this South Yorkshire sortie at Hillsborough.

A Valentine’s Day rendezvous with our former heartthrob Jordan Rhodes. “Valentine’s Day Massacre” was the headline I feared but thankfully that didn’t materialise.

“Referee’s Alcock Tribute Act Stuns Rovers” would have been way more accurate. 

Rovers again started brightly, comfortable on the ball whilst wary of Wednesday’s pedigree and eminently capable themselves of stretching the Wednesday defence.

That it ended pointless was particularly galling. 

To allow a centre-back to wander around your penalty area unmarked once is unfortunate; twice is plain careless.

When that player has only scored just twice previously, in his entire career, you can’t help but wonder what work is undertaken on the training ground to prepare for these situations.

It may surprise readers (!) but I’m not an FA coach, but how about; identify your man, stick close, make his life as difficult as possible to make a clean contact? 

The referee was at best inconsistent, at worst, incompetent; there were 3 or 4 instances where big calls seemed questionable, all of them going Wednesday’s way.

Was the ball from Emnes’ shot over the line? Well, a QPR fan might have a view, but for what worth I wasn’t convinced in real time from my vantage point behind the goal, but the assistant referee was not sufficiently in line to be able to make a correct call. 

Akpan’s “goal” again looked dubious to the naked eye, but what was telling was the lack of vehement Wednesday protest, which suggested they believed they’d just conceded an equaliser.

Least said about Akpan’s sending-off the better. He had to go, anything other than a dismissal for that and every amateur referee in the country will need armed guards.

His (subsequently deleted) Tweet after the game will serve only to amplify the FA charges against him. Four games for the offence, another two for rank Twitter stupidity? 

A few pointers from this game that gave me a sliver of encouragement; Mahoney started brightly, although he faded, perhaps understandably in the 2nd half; Emnes again was effective from the bench linking play far better for the second game running than Bennett, Akpan or Guthrie, but my man of the match was Darragh Lenihan.

Lenihan worked his socks off, again, and those fans that a few weeks ago criticised him and his ability, should take a good look at the videos of these two games and reconsider their position.

Were we unlucky? Yes, but in part.

The last four days has seen us dominate the bottom of the league team for 45 minutes without scoring; then be dominated by the same bottom of the league side for 20 minutes, whilst looking capable of conceding with every attack; stand toe to toe for 90 minutes with a bona fide promotion contender and then shoot ourselves in the foot with daft defending and a needless dismissal. 

We display the brittle qualities that are consistent with what we are; a team assembled on a shoestring budget, lining up with changing formations, players in their less favoured positions but who are capable of raising their games, just not with the consistency that we need. 

Coyle would receive a whole lot more sympathy from me if he was as quick after the QPR game to say, “Well the ref’s gifted us 3 points there…it was a definite Rangers goal and had it been given we’d never have won…”

That day we were fortunate, on Tuesday, we weren’t, swings and roundabouts.

Thoughts now move onto the upcoming FA Cup match with Manchester Utd. Memories of some titanic Premier League battles past loom over this fixture but both clubs have re-adjusted expectations over the last few years.

United for instance, have had to spend considerably less on silver polish, whereas Rovers have simply pawned all the family silver to save on that bill. 

You fear the outcome if they decide to take it seriously, especially with our threadbare squad being tested to its limit but it does give an opportunity for younger fans to see a team first-hand, in the flesh, that once were annual visitors.

That I find myself wondering which fixtures will whet my appetite next season and fearing that we will swap places with Fleetwood Town demonstrates the extent to which our horizons have shifted.

Football is a funny old game of course, but is it THAT funny ? We’ll see…

OLD BLACKBURNIAN

 

 

 

 



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Sweet strike from Gally but will Rovers preserve Status Quo?

If a couple of eyebrows were raised when I suggested I’d seen (even this) Rovers sides play worse than they did against Leeds at Ewood and win, we didn’t have long to wait for an example of such a phenomenon.

I thought it was as near to a pulsating evening as we’ve had this season when Leeds brought their massive following and Rovers matched them so fully in every department , except finishing ultimately as Gary Monk’s side made capital of arguably their only two chances, that you would have been hard pressed to say which side was on the cusp of a promotion bid and which had previously looked to be sinking without much of a fight.

But with only a couple of hundred in the away section on Saturday there simply wasn’t the highly-charged atmosphere that a game against the like of Leeds always adds and that reflected in a somnolent top  to the match which ended with a curious tail against a side who seldom travel well to this part of Lancashire.

The utterly bizarre end to the Queens Park Rangers game left more or less everyone reasonably satisfied with the outcome if bewilderingly unfulfilled by the 92 minutes of dross which preceded it, precipitating anti-Owen Coyle chants which, while fully acknowledging the frustrations the hapless manager has caused, looked a bit, well, daft really, particularly when churlishly repeated after Sam Gallagher’s largely unmerited winner went in.

I always apply this rule when judging that kind of public humiliation for one of our own players or our manager.

If I had ventured onto Turf Moor in 1987 (which I did more than once for ghoulish voyeuristic purposes) as our fierce rivals looked set to lose their Football League status, what would have delighted me more?

The home fans turning on their own or staying behind the team for the duration of the match and letting off pent-up steam at the end if the result went against them? The former would have had me sniggering secretly for sure.

I disagree not one jot with the veracity of the statement: “Owen Coyle, you’re taking us down.” I could forgive it at two-nil down with three minutes of stoppage to go.

But to break into it with a tight game still to be won seemed to me an embarrassment and as premature an act as the blokes folding that tawdry banner up in the Blackburn End before the end and missing the goal (protestors missing goals is becoming quite a theme at Ewood this season).

At one point the flag was so clumsily folded as to read to we on the Riverside (and presumably TV cameras) “We promise to respect the…Anarudha Desai” which will have done nothing to dissuade those who  feel that protestors tend to be sending out mixed and confused messages.

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Had we drawn, or lost, this game I feel that the inevitable stand-off with the newly-appointed Director of Football would have been brought forward. I hear there are 15-minute personal appraisals with Senior for every Ewood employee from top to bottom  this week.

If he needs another quarter of an hour on top of what he’s seen to make a judgement on Coyle he doesn’t merit any mention of expertise on “football” alluded to in his title.

The fact that Ambrose’s work permit is an issue (maybe a merciful relief) and Emnes’ absence from the squad last Wednesday was the result of a failure to get international clearance for the Swansea player suggest that the administration at Ewood ain’t all it ought to be either but the manager (or is he now downgraded to “Head Coach”?) remains our biggest handicap.

Coyle gets minimal kudos for a couple of substitutions which did likely alter the course of the game but ended the day far from in credit after once more failing to send his side out with anything resembling the required urgency to contest a vital home relegation scrap.

Rangers were out of the traps immediately and met with such a dopey response that they could have been two up in the 60 seconds it took me to reach my seat after going through the turnstile as the opening whistle blew following a frantic taxi dash from Blackburn centre.

I’d been at an event at the Arts Centre in St John’s Church celebrating the King Georges Hall concerts of 1973, The Year Bowie Came to Blackburn.

On the equivalent Saturday 44 years ago my 14-year-old incarnation would have watched goals from Don Hutchins and Kit Napier see off York City before a crowd of 8,200, probably more in truth than were on this Saturday past.

They were prosaic times indeed: we had gone out of the cups with defeats  at home to Rochdale and Crewe respectively – although that win against York was in the middle of a 19-match unbeaten run which saw us finish third in Division Three – the year before three-up, three down was introduced!

As a measure of our modest standing and ambitions in the football pyramid in those days it was no real surprise when, the following season, tiny York achieved promotion to the old Second division a full year before we reclaimed our “full member” status!

Many more starts like the one which QPR let us off with and we will be revisiting such lowly haunts with regularity again.

For the next 70-odd minutes you could have quite easily been sat watching two mid-table teams without interest in the top or bottom eight places of the table strolling out an end-of-season “after you, Claude” affair deep into May.

An outrageous stroke of luck denied Rangers as clear a looking goal as it’s possible to ascertain without technology but the introduction of Emnes and the bright Mahoney provided a modicum of energy and inventiveness.

Having seen Mahoney receive the ball, drive forward at speed and try a telling pass, it seemed to dawn on both Bennett and Feeney that such an initiative was indeed within the rules and both attempted similar, Feeney eventually foraging away on the run which led to Emnes supplying the game’s decisive assist in front of the Blackburn End.

If not celebrated as raucously by everyone with the hate-hurlers momentarily silenced and not sure how to react, it certainly beat having an 89th minute header planted into your Darwen End goal in front of a raucous 6,000 travelling fans.

The other results on Saturday highlighted how nearly marooned even a draw would have left us and the late win will count for little if we contrive to lose at rock-bottom Rotherham on Saturday.

The window transfer business has left us in only slightly better shape than we were to start with if – that’s if you wholly discount the loss of Marshall, who promised much at Ewood but had effectively downed tools and contributed only fitfully for months, arguably longer.

The return of Emnes and the effective replacement of Stokes, still here but evidently “unselectable”  as Andy Flower might say, with Joao brings the attacking options back to an acceptable numerical quorum but with defender (I use the term loosely based on the opinion of a couple of Celtic followers) Ambrose’s work permit in severe doubt and no additions in the creative department there is little hope of the squad blossoming into the 1982 Brazil side although Joao gave a passable audition for the Serginho role in a clumsy cameo on his bow.

Paul Senior said in another of his generally execrable prelude-to-redundancies-and-cutbacks  interviews that he was looking to bring in players who could hit the ground running. Unfortunately, Joao looks like he does so, literally, with regularity but he may have a vital goal in him at some point.

So might recently-freed Birmingham City defender Paul Caddis who operates also as wing-back and pops the odd one in. It is perhaps indicative of the paucity of our talent pool that a bloke who returned to pre-season overweight at Birmingham, subsequently dislocated a  shoulder and featured little under Rowett or Zola and who admitted in a farewell interview that “maybe I wasn’t the greatest defender” can probably only improve our squad!

The one ray of hope remains the Under-23 kids, who were absolutely splendid to a man beating a fine West Ham side at Leyland last Friday.

Nyambe and Mahoney look far from out of place amid modest competition since being promoted to the senior squad and watching the youngsters is a breath of fresh air given the drudgery we endure at Ewood month in month out.

If we really are back in that footballing wasteland evocatively recalled by “Blackburn 1973” events next season, those kids who remain contracted to the club, currently as unkniown as Freddie Mercury was when his band supported Mott The Hoople at King George’s on Princess Anne’s wedding night,  might have to be plunged in at the deep end.

BLUE-EYED BOY

 

 

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