Well, if you’re only going to play for a half, it’s a pretty good idea to make it a bloody good half.
Another slightly surreal Ewood evening contained all the elements to make Thursday’s game (and Thursday football in itself is slightly odd and disconcerting) a microcosm of the long, hard season which now looks certain to end on a triumphant note.
The first half condensed the very worst of those distant bad-memory first 11 games into what seemed like a dreamlike video lowlights compilation. My hearing in my right ear has almost completely gone this last month or two, sometimes a blessing, adding to the hallucinatory feel but I did clearly hear a short fusillade of boos as a lethargic, disjointed and plain dumb opening 45 minutes ended with us in at least the slim arrears we deserved to be …having escaped seeing that deficit doubled moments later more by good luck than any great skill on our part.
The cat-calls where I sit soon seemed to change to a burst of encouragement and polite applause as the players trooped off. I think the jeering is almost a Pavlovian urge for some by this stage, but thank goodness that performance didn’t come a fortnight after the Wimbledon home game.
Still, with gates only rising marginally despite the magnificent run to the cusp of promotion, on balance I’d sooner have the Jeremiahs sat there moaning and letting off steam than sat at home moaning. My daughters take great pleasure in weekly identifying disembodied voices to the rear of our seats: “Mrs Getintoem” and “Mr Rubbish. Bloody Rubbish.” It takes all sorts and I’d put up with double the boo-ers if we could have 15 or 20 thousand home fans on.
It was understandable that Ewood was stunned. A neutral Premier League fan switching the wrong channel on would certainly have had the fluorescent yellows as the team closing in on promotion. Rich Sharpe who does an excellent job in the LT, described Posh as looking a threat on the break at halfway through the half but I thought they were already by some distance the better, more threatening side by then and by the interval were pretty much carving us apart at will.
It was almost the Doncaster second half all over.
The second half entirely crystallised the revival since that awful afternoon at Oldham. A number of sides have dominated us for spells but only Plymouth have been able to see us off. Running out of steam, lack of a finisher, goalkeeping miracle saves have all contributed but when you win as often as we do and lose as seldom then the manager must be doing something right, pep talks, tactical tweaks or whatever.
We immediately looked more purposeful and decisive from the starting whistle of the half, journeymen upping their game twenty or thirty per cent allowing the better players to finally show their elan. Raya (kicking apart), Mulgrew, Dack and Graham are a class above most in this division and when you have four such wonderful players amply augmented by others doing their job, few teams will live with us.
Bennett too has upped his game at full back, I think he’s been not far off our player of the second half of the season. At one point on Thursday before we kicked into gear he looked to be running on expensive long-life camera batteries while the rest were fitted with those cheapie 20 for two quid ones which you have to keep changing in the remote control.
We keep thinking one of these days we’ll give someone a hammering (in fairness a few teams like Posh, pacey and powerful for 45 minutes, must have left Ewood wondering why they stepped off the gas at a time they looked to be in the ascendancy too) but nine times out of ten our periods of dominance have been enough to take the points we need.
Dack got the TV Man of the Match vote, as game-changing goalscorers who’ve just been voted divisional player of the season are wont to do. Though Dack came within a lick of paint of a hat-trick I thought Graham was immense and gave slightly the more accomplished all-round performance.
Mulgrew too, despite his own goal (only his second in 441 senior career appearances!) and near-fatal gaffe seconds later was magnificent. He is one of those consummate defenders for whom the first yard is in the head among much younger opponents, reading it wonderfully a bit like Fazackerley or David Mail in their prime but with added passing and free-kick accuracy. Unlike those two though, he comfortably ghosts into attacking pockets and contributes to the offensive play in areas from whence aghast yellow-jacketed stewards would have been tempted to run on and escort Faz and Maily back to the safety of their own half, like old folks home staff retrieving your confused, wandering Granddad from the street.
Rovers had a bit of luck with Evans stopping on after a brute of a tackle. I’ve heard a few say it was clumsy or late but it looked to me a red by any definition. At least nobody has said: “Corry’s not that type of player,” but that’s possibly largely because after three years a few of us are still puzzled as to exactly what type of player he actually is supposed to be.
The scenes of joy after the second and third goals were worth the price of the season ticket alone and I’ve said that once or twice this season. When players and supporters get it right and it all pays off, it really has been wonderful to be a Blackburn Rovers supporter again.
Watching the game back, Smallwood and Evans played a good part in the build-up to the decisive second goal and Derek Williams redeemed his moment of misfortune at Bristol by winning a great header for the second.
The third was one of those part-comedy but more so part pure damned determination efforts that sum up Mowbray’s side’s indefatigability. I have long wondered why Danny Graham necessarily has to be taken off early every game – his game isn’t about running his legs off at pace and for me his footballing nous, hold-up play, and positional intelligence are as valuable in the 88th minute as the eighth. I said in an early blog this season if he had anything about him he should be looking at his rivals for the shirt and the opposition and saying: “I’m going to finish this season with 18 goals and a title medal.” He clearly has plenty about him and could yet prove me if not bang on, not far off. pure craftsman. (Danny, not me.)
It could now be that a Rovers win at Doncaster will all but seal the deal even if Paul Hurst’s admirable but faltering team beat Bury and Peterborough. I couldn’t see us then not getting a point from the last two games. Those fortunate enough to be travelling to the next two away games will be very unlucky not to see the triumphant deed done and in some ways those who have put in the motorway miles, taken days off work, got home at stupid o’clock and suffered the financial and geographical inconveniences, agonies and ecstasies of football comradeship on the road (and the Gillingham debacle) probably deserve a special occasion to themselves before hopefully a celebratory homecoming against Oxford.
It’s even possible that the ultimate dream scenario could unfold for the more grudging, curmudgeonly Rovers supporter: Promotion is clinched with a draw or defeat at Charlton which would allow a short celebration before being able to moan all the way home about how Tony Mowbray’s inclination towards caution, flawed team selection and poor use of substitutes continues to cost us points.
I heard yesterday that Charlton were prepared to give us an extra thousand tickets but the Old Bill nixed that. A bit naughty that they’ve then found a few extra seats in the away stand for any corporate loafers prepared to pay £85 plus VAT. As my cousin Mike, who did fly to games on occasion in the 1970’s said, I’d want a plane ride down and back for that.
Deadlines and rearrangements meant I had to reflect on the Bristol Rovers game before Thursday, here’s what I said for all it’s worth.
It’s a tribute to how well the team and manager have done that people are in danger of spontaneously combusting if we draw a game away from home these days.
The last-gasp equaliser at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium was an absolute sickener, even if you were following the final tweets of the game as I was walking down a set of theatre steps in Liverpool having had your phone off since half-time. Thank goodness I was nearly at the bottom when the equaliser news came through.
But it was a hit the lad’ll probably never strike the like of again as we cleared a long throw. I haven’t seen any more than that, and I appreciate and respect the insight of those who were there whose opinion it was that we invited pressure and didn’t kill the game off (Derek Williams the major culprit in that regard) but I’ll say this.
Whoever we were playing at home, be it Real Madrid or Man City, if we got to stoppage time one down, I’d expect us to have an opportunity. At least one situation. A free-kick, throw, even a ball back to the keeper – get it launched into the mixer and anything can happen, can fall just right. It did, on Saturday, to us.
The theory that you keep possession, denying the opposition a sniff of the ball, is just that, a theory.
Nobody can really do that keep-the-ball-in-the-corner thing for any sustained period. For every Danny Graham v Middlesbrough there are 99 goal-kicks or throw-ins off your players’ shins as your boys hurry back to get organised. (Editor’s note – you wrote that on Wednesday pal, but Dack and co did just that on Thursday. Sharpen up or you’re off the column next week).
And besides, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth which two away draws on the spin precipitated, the two points gained in those games far outweighs the volume of nonsense spouted about the damage the four lost ones would do us.
Never mind the one defeat in 32 games, neither of our promotion rivals can match our points tally from the last five matches, the business end of the season.
The title may be just beyond us though Wigan have three of their remaining four away, it would be lovely, although mere embroidery, to top the season off with that. Third Division Champions 1975 still sounds better than Runners-Up 1979-80 and when all’s said and done, it is another trophy on the roll of honour.
But no-one is complaining about an automatic promotion if it happens, certainly not me with tickets for gigs on the night of the first League One semi-final and on the eve of the Wembley final.
Individual honours for players are another minor consideration for me but well done to Bradley Dack on being voted League One Player of the Year for the second time. It strangely reminded me a little of the occasions I won Church CC’s “Most Improved Second XI Player Of the Year” twice in three seasons, more of a comment on the abject season I had in between than anything!
I’m sure Bradley won’t emulate me by failing to get any higher up the ladder!
I hope Rovers afficianados will forgive me this week for adding my personal congratulations to Accrington Stanley, John Coleman and Jimmy Bell on the occasion of their incredible promotion to League One.
I took over the reins on the Observer sports desk shortly before the pair were appointed at the then Crown Ground in 1998 and was lucky enough to follow them to promotion and cup successes in their very first season. When I left in 2003 they were on the cusp of promotion to the Conference.
Win, lose or draw, John Coleman was always available to sharply analyse and reflect on games, often on Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings when I’d ring him in those more relaxed non-league days, and he was never wont to lapse into cliché or standard manager-speak , always had something interesting or original to say and always pointed out something important the layman hadn’t picked up on. Football people have often bored me to death as a scribe, not wanting to say a word out of turn, but he is something special.
It was Stanley’s great fortune to obtain such a managerial duo once, almost a second lottery win in life to get them back a second time. The club has never really gone backwards in 20 years and all involved richly deserve their celebrations. I wish Eric and the recently-departed John Demaine, always unfailingly helpful and supportive to me during his time working tirelessly for the club, had lived to see it.
Rovers will play Stanley in a close-season friendly and for once both teams and their supporters will have had a summer to celebrate. Even Burnley qualifying for Europe surely can’t spoil it, grudging respect to our deadly rivals for their success. We’ll pass on a friendly with them though, I’d guess.