The Ewood faithful have been waiting for a consummate 90-minute performance to truly confirm that this is a promotion side-in-waiting for some months and there was no more timely juncture at which for Tony Mowbray to mastermind such a display than against a side who have stubbornly refused to relinquish their grip on a top two spot for many weeks.
Such was his team’s excellence on Saturday that we left the ground with no real idea how the visitors had shown such consistency over the late summer, autumn and deep midwinter but I would put that down as a tribute to Mowbray’s preparation and the players’ execution of his plans against a very good side made to look rather ordinary on the day.
Shrewsbury are better than what we saw on Saturday but they just weren’t allowed to be in the face of relentless, tigerish pressing and over-my-dead-body defending which liberated the individualists in our ranks to produce the match-winning moments.
Early in the second half Paul Downing made a rare error in open play and failed to cut out a long diagonal ball which a visiting forward advanced into the area with and picked out a colleague. I can’t tell you without seeing it again which defender blocked the attempt at a shot, and it certainly won’t be recorded in next year’s Football Yearbook but it was one of those little moments in a game which could well have turned the match on its axis.
An unsung defender doing his job brilliantly and crucially. and we had heroes like that all over the field.
I’ve often been sceptical of people pointing to Elliott Bennett’s “tireless workrate and willingness to run all day” (usual translation: “no end product”) but deploying him alongside the similarly indefatigable and terrier-like Richie Smallwood was a masterstroke in, from the first whistle, assuming command of the battleground in which most matches are truly won and lost.
Shrewsbury, from the kick-off, looked unsure of their touch, nervy in their passing and quite unable to build patiently, luxuries in which visiting sides have all too often been indulged by Rovers and it was their back four who wore a hassled, troubled look before inevitably committing the cardinal error of conceding a dangerous free-kick in prime Charlie Mulgrew territory.
A lack of concentration for a few seconds allowed them a penalty equaliser they perhaps didn’t come close to deserving (it looked a generous award to me with a naked eye view from a similar angle to the TV cameras, but after a few viewings it looks fair enough. Certainly more a pen than ours) and there were signs that encouraged by the leveller the Salopians may hit their straps.
But there was a renewed, almost demonic fervour about Rovers’ closing down and tackling after the interval which rendered the Shrews’ revival a distant memory and with currently the brightest spark in the division, Bradley Dack, fully switched on to get in an instinctive effort on goal where others might have settled for a canny lay-off, the born-again goal poacher that is Danny Graham punished the sequence of defensive dithering fully.
The spot-kick which rendered the game over as a contest was generous in the extreme but you’re not exactly sat there with your heart in your mouth when Mulgrew strolls forward, are you, and the unbridled celebrations from another healthy crowd told you that not only were three invaluable points secure but that the team had stepped it up a level when it mattered most, almost crossed a rubicon and rewarded the remarkable support of those fans who have played a massive part in a 15-game bandwagon which is gathering momentum sufficiently to threaten hallowed club records.
I turn 59 this week and was having dinner with a Leicester fan of similar vintage in Liverpool on Monday night and we both agreed we had probably banked the best footballing memories we will ever experience. Champions of England, League Cup wins…we are a lucky generation, a lot of supporters of our clubs and others lived and died without ever getting a sniff at triumphs like that.
I certainly don’t expect Rovers to win the Premier League again in my time and if I’m honest we’ll probably be very lucky even to make the top flight again. If we did, it would more than likely be more of a struggle than on the occasion of our last two promotions when we were carrying sufficient financial clout to attract top managers and players to compete.
Yes, I’d prefer us still to be up there or even in the top half of the Championship looking like we might be one day soon but no way am I not going to enjoy what’s looking like a thrilling battle for a promotion spot at a lower level. Nobody ever knew which was his last great Saturday night while he was having it!
Glory days are rare in your footballing life unless you support one of the big boys. They are to be savoured at whatever level.
And the glorious past and the recent travails meant little as I turned and looked at our daughters, 23 and 13, exultantly celebrating as the penalty hit the net. Okay, one of them had a 66/1 bet on Mulgrew to score in each half up to augment her joy but the younger one had talked all the way to the game about how nervous she was we might lose.
The fact that she even cared so much and had agonised all week about the game I took as a little victory at an age where sleepover parties or trips into town sometimes win out over football!
I tweeted after the game about how it made my day to see them so happy and how in love with their team they obviously were and I got an overwhelming and heartwarming set of responses, many from people I’d never communicated with before. Here’s a selection:
“You might have 100 games where it’s rubbish but today is the reason I go.” (Andy from Hull).
“Days like today are why I love football. Premier League, Championship, all well and good but I’m loving going to games looking up, not down.” (Tom)
“My nine-year old lad came off saying he wants to play for Rovers. Unprecedented.” (Ozz, Chorley)
“My son said best match he’s been to. Fantastic.” (Al, Helmshore)
“My seven-year-old is living the dream.” (Paul, Cherry Tree)
“Atmosphere today was superb, my 10-year-old was buzzing, he’s had little to celebrate since first getting a season-ticket five years ago.” (John, Penwortham)
“I’ve managed to hook my five-year old onto Rovers and my mates all call me nuts. But he knows all the chants, is finally seeing a few wins and best of all it’s while I’m with him supporting the same team/ No overpriced ticket can buy that feeling.
What’s even better is his appreciation of the Football League. He knows about Bury, Oldham, Plymouth and so on as much as he does City , United and Chelsea.” (Ryan)
“I’ve taken a friend’s 11-year-old from Leeds to a few games. He’s now a Junior Rover and plays us on the PlayStation as he knows the players. He’s asked to go to the Oldham match.” (Ed)
“My son started coming with me to Rovers just as the decline set in and he’s witnessed nothing but anger and misery since. Seeing him enjoy this season so much makes it all worthwhile, hopefully he’ll remember it as fondly as I remember 1975.
Winning games creates a good feeling. In this league we can look to win it rather than be one of 13 teams in the Premier League who try not to lose their place in it.” (Paul)
As you get older you can’t fail to appreciate the circle of life a little more and after a few seasons when it’s almost been an ordeal following Rovers, embarrassing at times, and with a common theme emerging that young ones are coming along to replace us old buffers it’s such good news.
For once the discussion and focus is on the team, the narrowing points gap and likely incoming transfers, not the owners or whether the manager is good enough. It’s great. The three draws around Christmas which brought the doom-mongerers out for a few days now seem like punctuation marks in a successful run (although I acknowledge the Jeremiahs will be in full flow when we lose a do).
All those tweets about the kids remind me of when I started going. At age eight and nine, 10 and 11 I couldn’t have cared less about who didn’t get a ticket for the 1960 Cup Final or whose fault on the board of directors it was, why Fred Pickering had been sold or how we’d gone from first to third in five years; I wanted Roger Jones’ autograph or Don Martin’s or Tony Field’s and I wanted a Rovers shirt from Johnny Forbes outfitters.
If every one of those kids of mine and everyone else’s is replacing a ‘NAPM till Venkys go’ merchant so be it. That’s how clubs and their support wax and wane and wax again.
More great work by Mowbray in the transfer market bringing Jack Payne, an exciting, goalscoring midfielder in can only add to the anticipation ahead of a tough derby at Fleetwood.
And even us oldies can get excited. Riversider 23 who occasionally handles this blog for me, who I first met and identified as a fellow Rover when we were both in short pants on our first day at secondary school, text me excitedly: “Dack, Payne, Armstrong, Chapman…most exciting combination since Duff, Dunn, Jansen and Mahon?” while my other sometime deputy columnist Old Blackburnian had already picked out Payne’s goal against us for Oxford as more specifically comparable with one of Duffer’s gems.
Yes, maybe we shouldn’t be playing Fleetwood, sign of our decline blah, blah….
But you know what, if I wasn’t away for my birthday weekend I might be outside the players’ entrance at Fleetwood with the kids after selfies and a few signatures. How exactly does this Play Station game with Rovers work again?