Life’s load is lightened by friendships forged down the Ewood decades

Middlesbrough photos by Millie Costley

My best mate and Rovers-going companion since day one of secondary school turns 60 this week, a fate which will befall me a month later, leading to almost five decades of envy that Graham, and not I, qualified to claim The Mott the Hoople stomper, “Born Late ’58” as his anthem.

It was Rovers which first bound us together since that Tuesday night in early September 1970 when just 7,783 souls watched us go down 0-2 to a Rodney Marsh-inspired QPR containing, painfully for both of us, Mike Ferguson, a gifted wide player sold by us to Villa a couple of years earlier.

To put it into context, as we sat in our first lessons and escaped the strangeness of it all for the comfort of Ewood on a late summer evening, Alan Shearer had been born a fortnight earlier, Smokey and The Miracles were number one with “Tears of A Clown” Jimi Hendrix died later that month (the first Glastonbury Festival also took place) and the Saturday after the QPR game a spindly-legged centre forward from non-league named Tony Parkes made his first-team debut on the day Lancashire beat Sussex at Lords to claim the Gillette Cup for the first time.

Ten days later we drew one apiece at Middlesbrough, Freddie Goodwin the scorer. Circle of life, eh?

I’d spotted Graham on the thinly-populated Blackburn End that evening, stood, like me, with his dad and after a nervous first day at St Mary’s in Blackburn I knew I’d found a potential soulmate.

In the bewildering world of stern priests, eccentric Oxbridge don masters and 700 boys, most of them seemingly hairy giants in long pants which as first-years you were forbidden to wear, I was relieved that I could at last probably instigate a conversation with someone in my form the following morning (my fellow columnist of this parish, Mark “Riversider 23” was also among the Rovers circle in One Eymard).

I still have a drink with Graham pre-match and sit with Mark at the game. A lot’s happened since and priorities are sometimes very different to getting home, scribbling the homework out of the way and getting to Ewood but all three of us remain season-ticket holders. And maybe priorities aren’t that different on occasion. 

We were relegated at the end of that 1970-71 season, the first of many footballing triumphs and disasters we’ve shared over 48 years but by the time we left school we’d found many common interests.

“We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes,” as The Boss sang in a paean to his bandmate and first lieutenant Little Steven in a song so full of platonic adoration he eventually disguised it with a seeming girl’s name as the title (“Bobby Jean”).

You could have added “the same girls” into the mix for me and Graham as the only real time we fell out for a fortnight or so was when  we were both keen on the same one.

That was swiftly resolved and became a historical side-issue as Jim Smith built a side which briefly but gloriously challenged for promotion. No teenage queen, however pretty, can break the ties that bind. Not when Waggy and John Bailey are tormenting sides. 

When a lot of our mates were away from East Lancashire at Uni towards the end of that decade and as the New Romantic eighties dawned (I lasted a single year in Lancaster, chosen as the nearest place I could get in and realistically hitch-hike to home games as well as a few aways) the bond between a few of us left behind grew stronger and in those late teen/early twenties years before family commitments take over (I actually managed to extend my own adolescence into my forties) supporting Rovers fiercely almost became a badge of civic pride, an assertion of our identity when we could have felt isolated and left behind.

The years have been kind to us. We both have wives and families we adore and all of our kids are happy, healthy and firmly of a Blue and White persuasion. Graham’s a granddad. We’ve had our ups and downs but can still get up out of bed every day and try to get the most out of it. 

In the Autumn of our years we share the same passion for the game and the club as ever. The 1-1 at Middlesbrough last week will soon be as consigned to the memory bank as a statistical piece of history as the one when we were gauche little 11-year-olds mystified by Latin Grammar,  however extensive the debate has been this week about whether it was two points lost, a result you’d have happily settled for at 2.45pm, a solid display or an opportunity missed.

I was reasonably happy with it even after the sending off to be fair. I had a feeling they’d get one and we’d need another. It was a shock that penalty-area predator Assamblonga momentarily turned into Sergio Aguero and the big fella could have won it for them, just as Dack or Evans could have for us.

It would have been embarrassing to lose to a ten-man side for 70 minutes but more astute tactical observers than me reckon Boro are almost as hard to play against with ten as 11. I’ll take your word for it.

One slight complaint – let’s play in blue and white every opportunity we can eh? Our kit is famed the world over and I’ve very rarely if ever known us to change against a side wearing a red shirt. A pox upon silly arguments about refs and liners being unable to identify which arm is who’s, and marketing the yellow, which looks like something Singer Cobble would have turned up in as a change kit for the Orphanage Cup final. (Note to whoever is responsible – order some blue shorts to match the top). 

One result is often put into context by the next one and if Rovers beat Birmingham City this weekend, a point in the middle of two home wins can probably be marked down as a positive in retrospect.

Birmingham won’t be any pushover. They’ve lost three of the last six (aways at promotion hopefuls Villa and Derby plus last week’s mild shock at home to Bristol City) but Garry Monk has done well with a club who reputedly began the season in some sort of embargo through the window.

The table is roughly panning out how I expected. Birmingham and Sheffield United are possibly the two wildcards but the rest of the top 10 I’d have expected to be above us.

The bonus is I’d have maybe expected a couple more who are now below us to have been too, but 30 points from 21 is a creditable haul. No room for complacency – a few slips and we won’t necessarily double that over the last 25. But that (probably over-estimated) safety target of low fifties looks a sight nearer from 30 than it does from 29 so the Boro point was as valuable as any other.  

I’m afraid I’ll miss the game on Saturday (and Graham’s birthday do – drat! Their family parties are always the best) as we booked before the fixtures were out and the celebrations were announced to see Deacon Blue in Glasgow.

As I say, we’re in the September of our years and while I hate to miss a home game, the chance to be in a hometown crowd as Ricky holds the mike over the pit to let the audience sing that verse about the guy who’s been a worker for the council 20 years with his butties in a Sunblest bag is one I can’t resist.

The thing about entering your 7th decade is a lot of heroes and friends from all walks of life are no longer here to spend time seeing. Each day is a gift, a blessing.

So I’ll close, apropos of very little, to tell my favourite story about my lifelong pal Graham who’s quips have had me in stitches for almost half a century.

Coming out of the Enclosure one godforsaken night in November 1987 after a miserable Simod Cup defeat to Swindon, two old blokes, ostensibly old buddies, walking in front of us, combined age about 165, start arguing about the performance of erstwhile human greyhound winger Ian “Windy” Miller that night.

“He’s a bloody bad un’,” says one of the octogenarians. “No he isn’t, he tries his best and you never have a good word for him,”  the other retorts. “Bollocks, he’s hopleless,” “Don’t talk crap, you give him no credit.”

This goes on for a few more seconds to our childish amusement until  matters take a dark and unforeseen turn and Windy’s staunch defender, enfeebled by advancing years but able to take no more, shoves his pal off the pavement. A few meek blows are exchanged and the two, mortally enjoined now in combat, have to separated.

Walking past without stopping, Graham says: “These football hooligans, I blame their parents.”

Happy birthday, my Blue amigo!

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Mowbray gets the Mojo working again as the old blues men hit the right notes

After a couple of comprehensive and humiliating shoeings in local derbies, what you need for a good old spot of rehabilitation is an opponent in even greater disarray than yourself and Sheffield Wednesday, a club whose fans are at odds with an unloved manager, broke down defensively and  duly obliged at Ewood on Saturday with a supine performance which provided Rovers with the opportunity to get their mojo back working to some tune.

A peerless attacking display with the likes of Bradley Dack and Danny Graham sparkling as much as they had underwhelmed at Deepdale and the DW and a vintage performance coaxed out of much-maligned veteran Craig Conway saw Rovers score four times at home for the first time in 15 months and afforded the supporters the rare luxury of going into added time in front or level without the fear that a late opposition goal might reduce the points haul. It was the first time since Peterborough at home in April that that’s happened.

Wednesday, whose manager Jos Luhakay wears the haunted look of a terrified police snitch who’s been sussed by the mob in a gangster movie, sent out a team which entirely reflected such a fatalistic countenance as the axe surely looms for him.

Rovers on the other hand played with a restored swagger and elan which reflected not the hangover from Preston and Wigan but the confidence of a squad delighted that their own manager has committed his immediate future to the club in the form of an extended contract.

Poor opposition or not, you have to beat what’s in front of you and not even the continuing habit of conceding a couple could spoil the afternoon.

All those theories about Dack carrying an injury, hankering after a move, partying too hard and the sage nodding whispers that Graham can’t play more than 50 minutes any longer, isn’t sharp because he never trains and so on proved just that, theories (and wrong ones) as the pair re-conjured their telepathic double-act in a re-configured version of a formation which has proved successful in the past to put the hapless Owls to the sword.

All four goals were wonderful to behold in their creation and execution. Nothing as explosive as Lucas Joao’s bolt from the blue but each well crafted and tucked away with aplomb amnd supreme confidence.

Conway wasn’t far off Man of the Match either despite Graham’s treble and Dack’s renewed creativity making them the obvious candidates and he deserved a goal of his own but to see us functioning so slickly as an attacking unit with two old stagers to the fore was a joy.

I enjoyed Paul Downing’s surge and pass for the second goal too, he is another some have written off but it’s a squad game and he did well after waiting patiently for a chance.

It was swashbuckling stuff and the perfect antidote to the misery of the brace of games which preceded it.

I cancelled plans to write a second blog last week after Wigan as I genuinely couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t negative to say about the evening. I’d have been better off not spending 20 minutes with all four members of the family scrambling around Bamber Bridge Sainsbury’s huge car park looking for my tickets for the DW after a strong gust of wind blew them out of my shirt pocket. Unfortunately, we eventually found them.

It was a grand night for a trio of ex-Stanley men, Gary Roberts, who I said wouldn’t be bad free signing in Summer 2017, Josh Windass, who might have been a year later, and Kai Naismith. The only indignity Rovers were mercifully spared on a harrowing evening was Joe Garner coming on and scoring.

One theory that’s been blown out of the water in recent weeks is the one about a large away following in close proximity to the action influencing a result or we might have done better in the derbies while it proved no advantage for Leeds or Wednesday. Never mind putting them in the top tier and charging them more, Wednesday would have needed a few dozen spread around the box to help that back four any.

There’ll be tougher tests in the coming weeks for Rovers. We meet five of the current top six as well as Birmingham, who would be top three had the season started on 1st September, before the early January FA Cup tie at Newcastle provides what will by then be a welcome break from a relentless Championship schedule.

It all starts on Saturday at the Riverside but that fixture, while still daunting, looks a little less impossible to imagine us getting anything from than it did before Saturday’s kick-off at Ewood. Arriving home in good spirits to see Middlesbrough comprehensively taken to the cleaners at home by Aston Villa was also heartening. I’m particularly chuffed that my step-daughter is off to the game on her own steam, a first mid-range solo away trip. She’s her mother’s daughter alright.

I admire anyone who travels distance particularly this time of year. The journeys over the next month aren’t too bad but prices for adult tickets at away grounds are not inconsiderable, £30 on Saturday, a scandalous £39 at Leeds and £29 at Brammall Lane. Merry Christmas! One hopes that Newcastle and Rovers can come to an agreement over the St James Park cup tie.

At least I qualify for a few cheaper away tickets when I turn 60 next month!

It seems, announced quietly by Rovers in the week, that owners Venkys had a representative at Saturday’s game, Jagdish Rao, son of Balaji.

While this has caused some of the usual suspects to throw hands skyward in mock-horror , I have no problem whatsoever with the lad coming to a game and hope he thoroughly enjoyed it and left keen to see more matches.

I don’t actually have a problem with the Rao brothers and Mrs Desai coming to be honest but I can imagine it would inevitably be a circus just at present as the fag-end of the action-faction long-termers feel unable to abandon their pantomime villain charades.

There are those who would doubtless feel it necessary to boo, jeer and chant at the family but as far as I’m concerned they own and finance the club until they wish to divest themselves of it or an attractive offer to take it off their hands comes along. Some people sitting in a stand opposite me isn’t going to cause me apoplexy or to be overcome with a fit of the melancholic vapours.

The manager has established, alongside the executives he trusts, a working and personal relationship with them and while things are running as smoothly as they are, constant reference to festering wounds does more self-harm to those harbouring long-term resentments than it does to the intended target. I do wonder sometimes what some of these guys’ ex-wives and girlfriends have to endure.

Tony and the boys will need all the lift they can get from the support as they take on the division’s fancied sides over the coming weeks. Let’s concentrate on what we can affect.

Congratulations too to Rovers fan and darling of Twitter extraordinaire @EricBlueMonster Jen Bellamy who made and sold out of hundreds of Harrison Reed “Ginger Ninja” badges for Harrison’s favoured charitable cause, Nerve Tumours UK, on Saturday. Now that’s a productive use of fan energy! We got ours and I’m delighted at least one will be on display in Teeside.

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Deepdale disaster owed much to Mowbray muddles but DW derby to bounce back in

Painful derby defeats stay in the record books forever with no mention of hard luck stories, injustices or tales of what might have been which affected the outcome. The victors don’t care how much the vanquished bleat, in fact it all adds to their relish.

I’ve no real idea now, and I was there, whether the 4-1 defeat at Deepdale in August 1978 flattered Preston or hung on a couple of contentious decisions. Haven’t a clue whether we were ever on top during a  0-5 reverse at Oldham later the same season. Tom Lawrences’s near miss in a tight Ewood game against Burnley is a fading memory whereas he score that day is painfully etched in perpuity.

And so it will remain the case with last Saturday’s reverse, a rare real humbling by a local rival. Posterity will tell us that PNE flew out of the blocks to embarrass a leaden-footed Rovers defence and that they finished the afternoon at a  rampant  canter.

The bits in between will be as unremembered as a dodgy support band on the middle of a too-long bill. Three wins and a draw in five  derbies now for North End who, like the Clarets, are enjoying their successes after barren spells of three decades and more.

No-one, certainly not of a Lilywhite persuasion, will ever recall beyond this week that around the 75th minute two erroneous decisions effectively settled the issue.

First Lewis Moult, a journeyman striker who’s spent most of his career lolloping about in the Conference and the lower reaches of the Scottish Premiership, turned a ricochet in from point-blank range having been lolloped palpably offside as the initial shot was struck. 3-1.

Then Ben Brereton, a 19-year-old burdened by a huge fee and an altogether odd sequence of events which led to his arrival at Ewood, finally manouevred himself into entirely legitimate position to fire home a perfectly legal goal only to find that the referee’s assistant at the other end was equally unable to keep up with play. Still 3-1 then when it could have been 2-2 and an altogether different  complexion on the final 20 minutes to be played.

In truth, Rovers didn’t really deserve anything. Poor performances all over the field and a manager for once comprehensively tactically outsmarted by his opposite number to the extent that even after the game Tony Mowbray for once struggled to find a coherent sentence to mitigate what we had all just seen meant that the home side’s eager forwards were able to add the flourish of a fourth, strangely echoing that result of 40 years ago in the week that the Rovers manager on that occasion, Jim Iley, passed away.

As a guest on Radio Lancs on Friday night I’d listened as my North End fan/columnist counterpart John Roper clearly and accurately stated that his side would come racing out of the blocks at a frantic pace as they have done in several previous home games. He also incredibly predicted the 4-1 scoreline.

North End had been three up onBrentford in no time and overwhelmed Wigan from the off. I don’t know whether Mowbray had imparted this same knowledge to his defenders and midfielders ahead of the first whistle but if he had, it had clearly gone in one ear and out of the other in most cases.

Preston’s bright, inventive and tricky raiders took advantage of crass and dull-witted work to saunter into a two goal lead almost before the more bizarre of Mowbray’s failed selection idiosyncracies had time to dawn upon us.

The continued mystery over Brereton deepened when, even in the absence from the starting XI of Danny Graham (of which more later), Mowbray initially preferred the wholly unsuited Palmer , whose ability to hold the ball in tight spaces under pressure hasn’t been immediately obvious in the past three months, up front, presumably on the basis that ….er, he is tall. That really is all I can think of.

With Armstrong so effectively and unrelentingly shackled by Tom Clarke, always outstanding in these games, that I doubt his pitch map would show him more than six feet from either touchline all afternoon except to walk off at half-time, we offered no threat whatsoever from any accredited forward. Any notion that Dack would flourish in a more advanced role was rendered unfounded both by his own current worryingly indifferent form and the fact that he was so effectively policed by Ben Pearson that Dack may well have checked under his covers before turning in for the night  to ensure the Preston midfielder wasn’t there.

Fortunately it seems Nick Powell will be unavailablefor Wigan tonight so the debate over who’s the better of the two won’t rage but at the moment Dack has a bit to do to ensure he’s in Blackburn Rovers’ best eleven never mind Championship player of the season.

Other curiosities included the omission of Corry Evans, said to be outstanding for Northern Ireland over the break, on the basis that “he had expended a lot of energy” in the internationals and was perfectly fine about being left out of the 18 on duty.

Now I may have been missing the point all these years but I’d always rather surmised that by playing, training hard and, indeed, “expending a lot of energy,” that was how players got themselves fit to play matches.

I’d also, I think, rather hear that an international footballer was pretty naffed off about missing the biggest game of the season to date, a derby played in front of the biggest, most partisan crowd of the campaign with 5,500 fired up Roverites in the away end.

On the one hand we had a  player too void of energy having played six days ago, on the other a couple of lads who were said to be struggling because of a lack of training in the preceding days. Who’s fit and ready and who isn’t? Do they play too much/train too little? It all baffles me.

If we are so bereft of a replacement for Danny Graham I think too I might have been inclined to start with him. You can take him off after 45, 50 or 60 minutes but if he’s fit to come on and win headers and score within seconds, why not from the off and play in the established team pattern for as long as possible? The Derby away game illustrated the folly of having nobody to collect and shield the out ball.

And sooner or later, with Nuttall seemingly out of all consideration these days, Brereton surely must be trusted. I saw some astonishing comments attributed to Mowbray last week about his £7m signing’s unreadiness due to lack of upper body strength, his inability to hold the ball up and to turn defenders at this stage.

I’m sorry, the lad has 50-odd Championship appearances under his belt. Preston had a raw, gauche, gangly nuisance of a 19-year-old up top, Lucas Nmecha on loan from Man City and while he got a bit of a battering and didn’t pull any trees up, he was a willing, hard-working presence who contributed to releasing others and will have learned a lot from the experience.

The reluctance to unleash Brereton does nothing to allay suspicion all wasn’t as it seemed with that deal.

This went to press before Wednesday’s game with Wigan so I’m hoping we’re all a lot happier after a slightly less painful second Lancashire derby of the week.

Latics are decent at home but depleted through injuries and I firmly hope a less muddled selection will give us every chance of exposing what I feel are frailties in their line-up.

It won’t quite be a packed end at the DW and it could be a night when many prefer the convenience of the red button but here’s hoping that it hopes to dull the discomfort we all felt after Saturday’s shoeing.

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Preston derby is one to savour as Rovers invade again

When the international break began, Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary, Mike Gatting and David Gower were mainstays of Keith Fletcher’s middle order on a tour of India, Tommy Cooper was Saturday night’s must-see TV and the Boomtown Rats were of course number one with “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Or so it seems (although it actually feels like longer than that if you’ve sat through any of the Republic of Ireland’s games).

I’ve actually read half of a 500-page novel since the Rotherham game, unheard of for a largely non-fiction buff, but I needed a hit of drama and unpredictability from somewhere.

Mercifully, it all comes to an end to some tumult with a much-savoured date at Deepdale on Saturday followed by another away derby game at Wigan hot on the heels.

If the three months and first 17 games of the Championship season have been a stop/starty affair with three separate interminable fortnights off, the first raw chills of cruel winter are gently heated by by a hectic schedule which will now see Rovers and most of their divisional rivals play nine games in 40 days while many of Europe’s high-profile leagues (and Scotland’s) prepare for a winter break.

Of course we hardy English absolutely relish such an intense programme, or at least us fans do. While I might personally have preferred to have gone to Deepdale on Boxing Day or to the DW Stadium on a balmy August Wednesday night rather than late November – and what ever did happen to the traditional league programme in the first midweek of the season? – matches coming thick and fast whatever time of year, however much managers and physios throw hands up in horror, is exactly what spectators (and players who’d sooner play than train) want. Foreigners look on in bewilderment at us turning out at Christmas and New Year for football as they would if we still went sunbathing wearing braces, jackets and ties with our just pant legs rolled up and socks off in the sand.

With Rovers in ninth  spot, nobody’s getting carried away but neither, given the smooth way the club is running (more long-term contract extensions to seniors this week), is anyone saying we can’t dream of at least a play-off spot. I fancy two wins in the coming days would almost certainly propel us into the top six.

If we are entitled to harbour such ambition, so, presumably are QPR with a practically identical record. The eight clubs above us, unless you count Sheffield United as a wildcard, probably also fancied themselves as genuine challengers from the off. I firmly expect Stoke and Villa to ascend the table at some stage. That’s 12 clubs all currently with an eye towards the top reaches of the table assuming nobody like Birmingham makes a late charge.

It’s hard to pick winners week to week, never mind over the whole 46-game course. What’s very certain is that nine of those sides won’t go up. Six won’t trouble the play-offs. A team like Rovers, whose games are in general tight affairs (14 out of 17 drawn or won by the odd goal so far) need to fine-tune the little details to remain successful.

Tony Mowbray will have to be at his cutest and craftiest over the next five and a bit weeks rotating his picks before the transfer window opens. What’s almost definite is we won’t play the same starting XI nine times on the bounce.

The likes of Brereton, Rothwell, even Davenport maybe will have a part to play and the first two will almost certainly be called on to start games.

I winced reading Mick Rathbone’s remarks about Brereton eventually becoming a £30m striker (£40m the Nottingham Evening Post inflated that to for good measure). “Baz” is knowledgeable, has Rovers fortunes at heart and is not given to hyperbole but the teenage lad needs no further burdening when already seeking to justify what is among Rovers’ highest ever fees paid out.

Brereton and others will get the opportunity as this punishing calendar unfolds. I can’t wait.

And what better fixture to dive back into than one at the home of our closest geographical (Stanley, who we have yet to play competitively in their current incarnation, excepted) rivals North End?

I’ve seen it argued that it isn’t a true derby, we don’t or at least shouldn’t care about them, that they’re somehow strangely “obsessed with us,” while we are haughtily ambivalent towards them; that we oughtn’t to regard the rivalry as fierce for a whole host of bizarre reasons usually based on the fact that it only really matters to Preston folk because they’re jealous of our one-time benefactor, our recent successes or, and this truly the oddest theory of the lot I’ve seen expounded, on account of “their smugness at their self-styled city status and the fact that they are the administrative capital of Lancashire.”

Parklife!

All of the above, are, I confidently suggest, absolute hogwash of the highest order.

Not a derby? You can bloody well see Deepdale from half of Blackburn! It’s one of the original handful of local rivalries to survive the whole of football league history, and a bit before that. It might not carry quite the degree of enmity which has poisoned Rovers and Burnley clashes to the extent that we have obligatory police-escorted buses in and out but this one was being ferociously contested while London, Manchester and Merseyside were watching on admiringly and still dreaming of prominent footballing status.

Almost six thousand of us will go there and they’ll likely bring similar to Ewood because it’s a  fantastic chance to show your solidarity with your team in huge numbers, with your mates and fellow fans you don’t know from Adam, on your neighbour’s doorstep. The ticket sales snowball because everyone gets the buzz about what a top day out it’s going to be. No need for theorising elaborately over who hates/needs/is indifferent to the other more.

Jealous and obsessive fans? I can only speak as I find and after living and working  in Preston since 2005 and becoming acquainted with many dozens of PNE fans I’ve never had a bitter or rancorous word from any of them. One bloke once opined that if they got to the Premier League they’d do better than us at the gate (we’d had 17,000 on that week so he may or may not have had a point) but that hardly constitutes an envy-fuelled assassination on the fibre of our existence.  Superiority-complex comments about “city status” or the location of County Hall? Unsurprisingly zero as far as I can remember.

An eight-year—old girl who attends the school I work at did tell me, holding her gran’s hand: “We’re going to beat you lot on Saturday, Mr Wilkinson, aren’t we nana?” but as far as I know her prediction wasn’t coloured by green-eyed hatred over our ’95 Premiership title or Uncle Jack’s largesse.

Personally I’m as fired up for Saturday as I was aged eight in November 1967, 51 years ago this week, when I peered in wonderment through the Deepdale fog at my second-ever Rovers away game. We won 5-3 and, standing in the middle of the West Stand terrace, dad and I could just about see all eight goals fly in. One exocet, from Barrie Hole, remains in my all-time top 10 of Rovers goals alongside miracle strikes by the like of Field, Shearer, Stephen Reid, Bellamy and Kevin Hird.

When I take my place with my daughters in the packed Rovers end on Saturday, I’m sure the build-up will be ear-shatteringly raucous and the atmosphere as febrile as it was that unforgettable May night in 2001 when Matt Jansen’s header won us promotion. The stakes aren’t as high just yet of course but who knows how important the destination of the points will be come the end of the season?

I’ve always personally had a good relationship with North End. They’re kind of the fierce rivals you don’t have to dislike pathologically . My mum used to love the C & A and Owen and Owen stores in the town centre (as it was then) and we would go over on Saturdays Rovers were away. As soon as I was old enough I’d get my parents to drop me off at Deepdale with the price of admission and a programme and that was me sorted from 2pm till five.

The likes of Gemmill, Spavin, Kelly, Ingram and Heppolette were as familiar to me as Ferguson, Rogers, Newton, Blacklaw and Connelly.

I grew up Preston side of Blackburn and went to school with lads from places like Withnell, Abbey Village, Chorley and Brinscall so I’ve always mixed with their supporters. My parents have lived in Hoghton for about 35 years and so do my two sisters and their families.

I go on cricket in summer at places like Leyland, Vernon Carus, Penwortham and Chorley and talk to North Enders at them all.

The first match I was ever sent to cover as a paid reporter by the Chorley Guardian was a Lancashire Cup Final at Deepdale between Bamber Bridge and Morecambe in 1995. Brig won but I’m almost sure Stanley gaffer John Coleman scored for the Shrimps. I took it as a sign that the Sports Ed trusted me implicitly to do a fine job although it later dawned on me that he had no transport and jumped at the chance to have a few pints and an hour emptying  the quiz machine with a couple of attractive young reporters in the Rose & Crown pub next to the office while I filed the copy he needed.

A year or so later I briefly worked for a magazine company which went spectacularly bust after producing a few issues of magazines for both Rovers and North End. I’m still pretty proud of feature interviews I did with David Moyes, Kevin Kilbane and, somewhat warily, former England coach Steve Harrison who actually went about his ablutions in a tin bath in the old Lowthorpe Road offices as I peppered him with questions.

I made friends with a namesake, Steve Wilkinson, Preston striker who’d formed a  great pairing with Andy Saville and helped him do some written work for the mag. Embarrassingly, I fixed up for him to interview Tim Flowers, pro on pro, at Brockhall. When he turned up Flowers had forgotten the appointment and buggered off! He spoke to Terry Daracott instead and I remember him being in awe of our training facilities.

Easy to forget that though their own chances of an automatic spot had gone by that night in 2001 (only Bolton could have caught us), Preston had almost gone the distance that season, eventually losing the play-off final to Wanderers. They have never come as close to their elusive debut Premier League slot again. everyone knows that they never got back after the 1960 retirement of the genius whose statue adorns their forecourt, Sir Tom Finney. I genuinely hope they make it one day, but not at our expense. And for Rovers to ever emulate that promotion of 17 years ago would be utterly cathartic and almost sanctifying should it ever happen.

Nothing so substantial will be decided tomorrow. But we should be celebrating this most quintessential of Lancashire match-ups. And if the result is right, one hopes it will provide a  late sales boost towards another huge Rovers following at Wigan on Wednesday.

After two weeks of tedium I can’t conceive of a  more exciting few days.
If you fancy listening to me bang on about it even more after getting this far,  I’m due to be on BBC Radio Lancashire talking about the game with a Preston counterpart, and, I’m deeply honoured to say, dear old Lenny Johnrose from 6pm on Friday.
Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Fortnight of frustration for Rovers but derbies will be two tonics for the troops

“Nach dem spiel ist vor dem spiel” – Sepp Herberger


“After the game is before the game,” is the literal meaning of that quote by famed German player and coach Herberger, who was appointed assistant national team manager immediately after Hitler and his henchmen witnessed a humiliating 1936 home defeat to Norway at the Poststadion in Berlin, a few hundred yards from the Reichstag.

I inadvertently set out on a trail of Herberger’s origins the other week when, on the way to do the usual tourist ground tour stuff at Berlin’s Olympic stadium, I spotted a set of floodlights in the forest out of the train window.

I took an obligatory couple of snaps at the Olympiastadion, running down its lease as home of Hertha Berlin and the history of which is fairly well known and widely documented, but couldn’t wait to get back on the train for a couple of stops back to see what mysteries and stories lay behind the football ground in the woods.

You have to understand I am the sort of person who, if I hadn’t been to Lancashire before and took a train from Blackburn to Preston (a standard undertaking which in itself may be rather more difficult than you’d think for next weekend’s Deepdale derby) would almost certainly get off at Lostock Hall and walk back to Bamber Bridge’s Irongate.

It turned out to be the home of the wonderfully-named Tennis Borussia Berlin (once even more wonderfully-named “Berliner Tennis und Ping Pong Gesellschaft Borussia”), playing now at something like regional fifth division level, only briefly ever of the Bundesliga but final playing portof-call and first managerial staging post of Herberger, who eventually coached Germany/West Germany for the best part of 32 years before giving way to Helmut Schoen, the man on the West German bench at Wembley 1966 and Leon, Mexico in 1970.

He was one for the apt football epithet, Herberger, credited also with “the ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes,” but I think what he meant by the above is the old chestnut about when one game is over, thoughts and priorities turn to the next one,

I wonder, even as someone who managed German national teams for decades, what Herberger would have made of wretched international breaks? This season, with three of the buggers so far, we seem to have had an awful lot of “after” till we’ve got to the “before” bit.

Doubly frustrating, too, in that two cracking Lancashire derbies await next after the frustration of being held to a home draw by a limited Rotherham side (five times out of eight now we’ve now failed to win at home, including being held by the teams who currently sit 19th, 20th and 21st. Keep your eye on that home form).

Any manager or player will tell you that after any slight or major setback, what they really want is a game three days later to get it out of the system.

I would have been quite happy with Wigan away this midweek (while they are still ravaged by injuries) and Preston, to where I can walk from my home, on Saturday even despite their recent improvement.

Fourteen days? Three times in two months? It’s inhumane to subject fans to a Saurday afternoon where Azerbaijan versus The Faroe Islands is listed ahead of any domestic football (although in the interests of the newspaper I write for and its readership I urge you all to get along to Stanley’s Roses clash at home to Barnsley).

If a fortnight between games seems enough of an eternity, it’s rendered even more preposterous a hiatus by the tawdry spectacle of a ceremonial England cap being handed out to a bloke no longer able to hold his place in a Premier League side – in a  meaningless friendly.

What next, handing out caps for games against teams of showbiz celebrities? I once got a few autographs at a game played at St Mary’s College in Blackburn between the Casts of Coronation Street and The Dustbinmen versus The ITV Wrestling Stars. These days you’d have Big Sam mananging one of the sides and live Sky coverage. Thursday’s game will be no less farcical to me than seeing Masambula and Big Daddy rugby tackle Ray Langton into the mud.

The likes of Wright, Charlton, Moore and, yes, even Beckham managed to walk off after their final internationals without fuss or favour and it shames the FA to effectively, turn any game in which caps should be prized and earned into a testimonial, charity element or not.

What would the old FA/Football League mandarins have made of that, not to mention a £5m parting gift to the departing PL chief Richard Scudamore? Bert Millichip, Ted Croker, Graham Kelly (who I occasionally bump into walking round Penwortham) and Alan Hardaker probably got a few silver clocks and cigarette cases between them and at least they turned out in crap weather for the Cup draws every other week.

So forgive me for cursing a blank weekend.

It’s absolutely nobody’s fault but my own that despite being a season-ticket holder who jealously calculates the saving made by not paying game-by-game, that my irritation is compounded by missing three home league games already this season (two weekend trips, one occasion I opted to be at a cricket match).

Rovers haven’t conceded in the three I’ve missed, all against London clubs (Millwall, Brentford and QPR) and twice scraped 1-0 wins.

The Germans have a word for that, too, a “pflichtsieg,” literally a “duty win,” eked out despite not playing particularly well. It’s not often used in a complimentary sense, a bit like “winning ugly” but a lovely old “duty win” against Rotherham would have been just the fussballkarte.

For my part, I thought the Millers were the best side for most of the first half and should have led from a well-worked corner routine.

Dack and Graham are not quite the formidable and feared pairing they looked a month ago and despite a thrilling burst or two from Armstrong, we aren’t firing generally. The late equaliser probably saved Bradley from a few 4’s and 5’s in the player ratings.

Brereton is showing a few signs but not yet of being the bounding battering-ram centre-forward I envisaged a his price, capable of changing games with goals rather than odd assists here and there. I still think he’ll come good though that’s probably based more on a few old Youtube clips and trusting Mowbray than any tangible evidence witnessed thus far.

As we labour in general and struggle for goals in any great quantity, matches will generally be tight, tense, nip and tuck, but  I’m getting heartily tired of the Ewood crowd obsessing about the perceived opposition timewasting.

The frustration is surely borne out of a repeated failure to put teams away. It hit a new high for me on Saturday when a bloke a few seats along claimed the keeper should have to clear the ball from the spot he receives it, rewriting 150-odd years of soccer laws.

I’ve checked those laws and neither can I find one which states that a visiting team earning a goal-kick or throw in has to scurry around and rush to take it in the style of the Keystone Kops or Fred Scuttle pursuing a mini-skirted female to the frantic tempo of the Yakety-Sax Benny Hill Show theme tune.

If five seconds pinched here or there amount to even a couple of minutes of added time, we still have 88 of the statutory 90 to be showing a bit more gumption. Starting to impose yourselves from the 46th minute only is always fraught with risks.

The overall picture is decent though. Ninth place, a couple of wins – and they are surely entirely possible from the two local aways – from a top six spot and, while we could do with a few more on every week, the fan base we do have seem free of extraneous distractions and dissent.

I heard it posited recently, and it could be right, that we would possibly be worse off, not necessarily having cause to celebrate wildly, if our owners decided to walk away tomorrow. You may not agree but the fact that it’s been put forward as a theory speaks volumes for the place we’re in. You haven’t always been able to dare to say anything like that.

Are present day Venkys any worse than Bolton’s owners? Preston’s? The new mob at Wigan?

You can argue about the debt and so on but I certainly don’t hear as many people these days saying:”I’d accept starting again in non-league if they’d go,” with us just outside the Championship top six.

And I firmly believe that the “I’m not going again until they leave,” and “not until we’re back half way up the Premier League where we were when they bought us” brigades number dozens rather than thousands.

Either Venkys will go one day or the horrendous early mistakes will be amended and forgiven over time. The once-feared plunge down the divisions for now seems a half-recalled nightmare.

As the Germans say: “Alles hat ein ende, nur die wurst hat zwei.” Everything has an end, only the sausage has two!

>Sogar die internationale unterbrechung. (Even the international break).

BLUE EYED BOY

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No fireworks in fuchsia but Rovers setting the standard at home

“The “later” kick-off caused by leaving British Summer Time behind added to the greyness of a dank November day with the wind swirling around Ewood, bringing showers sweeping across the pitch and draughts chilling us through the gaps in the Riverside crowd.

We welcomed a QPR side on a good run of results that had seen them just about edge above us close to the play-off positions despite a poor start to the season.

Their fuchsia-pink kit might have brightened the scene but their approach was as drab and limited and unimaginative as a conifer in a pot on a concrete patio. 

And they left with what they deserved – absolutely nothing.

I don’t mean to be insulting or disrespectful, but QPR have always seemed to me to be a bit non-descript in that I don’t have a sense of any particular geographical or social identity that defines them, or of any great history or rivalry.

The three main QPR images that spring to my mind are:

  • the period in the 1970s when the fancy footwork and maverick tendencies of Rodney Marsh and then Stanley Bowles brought them a touch of glamour and some success;
  • shots of ex-Claret David Thomas, one of my favourite wingers, jinking and crossing in the same era while being filmed from a TV gantry that must have been almost directly above him;
  • them on the receiving end of a 1994 Shearer hat-trick, including the last off the underside of the bar that I thought at the time was the hardest shot I’d seen since the days of Kenny Knighton. (That’s two backward leaps of just 24 years each…)

Given that Saturday’s match wasn’t much of a spectacle, I’ll permit myself to pursue a minor diversion prompted by that memory of Shearer. Because that was Shearer at his very best. We were so lucky to have him when he was at his best, and he was the best we ever had. In a similar vein, but one small step below, I would place Duff, Friedel and Jansen. Great players right at the top of their game when they were with us. We knew they were very special, and we could rely on them to deliver. One more step down to Bentley and Dunn. Of course, that’s leaving out defenders and any player before the Sky/Premier League epoch, in the days when the ball was heavy, the pitches were muddy, and the world was black and white.

Anyway, back to the more mundane.

It wasn’t a game for Evans, who more than once allowed QPR to regroup when he slowed things down or moved sideways or backwards rather than push on or pick a forward pass. He has been brilliant recently, but this performance was a reminder of his flaws.

Neither was it a day for Graham, who struggled several times to control the ball in good attacking positions, and was generally outjumped, outrun and outmuscled by QPR’s doughty centre-back and captain Toni Leistner.

In a game that was never particularly combative, the referee managed to book 4 players from each side, mixed in with a series of decisions and interventions that provoked the usual crowd response. It’s impossible to judge the crowd’s impact on a referee, conscious or subconscious, but it wasn’t a great surprise that a relatively soft challenge on Brereton resulted in a late penalty after several earlier calls had been denied – the most obvious when Bell was challenged from behind as he prepared to shoot.

Before the game, the big unknown had been how well Jayson Leutwiler would perform in goal, having got the nod ahead of Smallwood. As it turned out, he had next to nothing to do, and what he did, he did very well. That mainly involved collecting over-hit passes and clearances at the edge of his box and kicking out much better than Raya. But QPR’s lack of endeavour leaves him still really untested. With hindsight, Smallwood would have managed fine.

Dack had another poor game. If the team was selected on current form, he wouldn’t be in it, but we know he’s the man with the magic, and once more he was the player who provided the memorable moments. First, he slotted a sweet penalty under pressure, and then – as QPR suddenly realised they’d blown it and decided to go a bit giddy – he rolled the ball down the touchline step by step all the way to the corner flag where he squatted solidly for most of the added minutes with robust support from Brereton.

When QPR at last threatened to escape from Dack and Brereton’s blockade, Harrison Reed showed how much these lads are up for it, flying across with a sliding block-tackle followed by a fist-pump and full-throated roar to and with the Riverside. No pasaran! It was a fitting last act.

Rotherham are next up, fresh from a home win against our recent conquerors Swansea, but with a poor away record this season of only 2 points from 8 matches. With Evans suspended, Mowbray will have to shuffle the pack. Whatever he decides, we can be sure that we’ll get whole-hearted commitment – and that is something worth enjoying and appreciating.”

Riversider 23

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BEB – Reed Masterclass “De-Boings” Baggies

The Hawthorns is a ground I’ve visited a number of times, in different divisions, with different expectations over the years. My first visit, standing on what was then a terraced Smethwick End; was to ensure a pre-season friendly glimpse, of a certain Alan Shearer as well as offering a chance to bid a fond farewell to one Simon Garner, a recent Albion recruit after he decided not to stay at newly promoted Rovers. I staked a claim to a spot behind the goal, still not totally convinced that losing Speedie and gaining Shearer was good business. I left three hours later realising I really ought to trust the judgement of Kenny Dalglish. Shearer casually killing a drilled pass, turning, shooting and scoring in one gorgeous fluid movement caused audible gasps from Rovers fans.

“Yeah…he’ll do…”

Saturday’s visit had a number of warning signs all seeming to converge by kick off time. A wounded Albion ready to deliver a backlash after being hammered in midweek on their own patch by Frank Lampard’s Derby County (©Sky Sports), Rovers naming a line up with five changes following their own midweek humbling by Swansea City, players in unfamiliar positions and Lenihan ruled out, his hip injury still proving troublesome. Much social media chatter pre-game revolved around the potential formation. One facet of the season so far is that a Rovers team sheet presented as a list offers few clues as to where the players will actually play. The only certainty is that David Raya will be in goal. Well…you say that…

Not long into a first half that started out less blood and thunder, more thud and blunder, Rovers lost skipper Charlie Mulgrew. To the naked eye, real time, it seemed a pretty clear-cut, late and high challenge but the referee saw no need to award a yellow card. Extraordinarily, he also saw no need to award a free kick. Rovers now had a back four with a full back and a defensive midfielder in the centre and a wide midfielder at right back. Only Amari’i Bell was in his accustomed position. The midfield also had a winger in the centre and a striker out wide. The portents were not auspicious.

On a rare effective Rovers foray, a cross from the left by the hard-running Reed towards Dack was blocked in the area by an outstretched Albion arm. It was one of those that in front of a noisy home terrace is routinely awarded. The referee however, saw no offence and Rovers’ best chance so far had come and gone.

Rovers fans naturally gave Albion’s former Burnley striker Jay Rodriguez, a warm welcome and he returned the favour by missing an easy chance emanating from a Williams error, by spooning it over the bar from close range. The reprieve was short-lived, the opening goal being the kind of chance that must make managers tear their hair out. A routine, looping corner aimed at the far post, a keeper rooted to his line, the full back finding himself under the ball, the opposition’s unmarked tall centre half having a clear run and able to climb unimpeded. Straight out of England’s World Cup 2018 playbook. Would Danny Graham have been the man marker ? We’ll never know.

The half time mood was subdued, the hope was that the interval would provide an opportunity to re-assess, re-group and re-organise. The fans played the “well who would you bring on then ?” game for fifteen minutes. The answer from Mowbray was nobody.

Another forced substitution was required soon enough; this time Rodwell leaving the field with an injury meant Lewis Travis was to have his chance, adding to his burgeoning portfolio of outfield positions by slotting in at centre back. A re-organisation, but not one that anybody foresaw or championed at half time. Rovers now looked like advocates of the 1970’s Rinus Michels “Total Football” philosophy – any player, slotting in anywhere, dependent upon the need at the time. Little did we know what was to come and just how far we would embrace that approach.

Mowbray now chose a final throw of the dice, introducing the raw pace of Adam Armstrong rather than the experienced attacking focal point, Danny Graham. It was shortly afterwards that Rovers midfield dynamo, Harrison Reed, decided that he would demonstrate that as well as being energetic, tough-tackling and a tidy passer, he also has in his repertoire an eye for goal.

Reed deserved two Man of the Match awards in my opinion – one recognising his energy, tenacity and tackling; but also, one to recognise his creativity, his range of passing and of course, his shooting ability. He was everywhere. He became the catalyst for all that was good for Rovers and the focus of the visiting fans’ adoration. The goal was a peach, curled into the top corner past a hapless keeper, the least that Rovers deserved. The celebration in front of the raucous away support was a mutual love-in.

If you had to pick a side to score a winner, your thoughts were probably moving towards it being the team in yellow at this juncture. Football is chaos though, WBA attacked, a heavy through ball into the area saw an alert Raya slide out to grab the ball but the boot of the onrushing Rodriguez caught the Rovers keeper in the face and Raya stayed down.

The stretcher coming onto the pitch and a lengthy stoppage confirmed the worst fears. This was definitely another, “re-assess/re-Group and re-organise” moment – ten men, makeshift back four, a keeper needed, step forward Richie Smallwood.

After the game, a video emerged of Bradley Dack down by the touchline as Smallwood was putting on Leutwiler’s keeper’s jersey. The look of initial astonishment turning into a broad grin, which seemed to indicate that Richie might not have been the expected nor obvious choice.

It transpired post-game, that Smallwood had no previous keeping experience and to be honest, you could tell, but his wholehearted enthusiasm was enough to see it out; that and three desperate goal line blocks by Rovers in the tortuous seven added minutes. Sometimes a draw feels like a defeat, here it definitely felt like a victory and Mowbray’s pre-match observation that “this group doesn’t often lose two in a row” was justified.

As a travelling fan, you love days like this. Home supporters totally frustrated, streaming out with minutes to go, resigned that their team can’t find the necessary guile. Albion fans would be justified in querying why their side, with a man superiority, a midfielder in goal, facing a team that had shuffled the pack twice already due to injuries, failed to fashion a clear-cut shot in that last frenetic fifteen minutes. That goal line scramble was the best they could muster.

Anyone doubting the spirit of this Rovers team, seek out someone who was there or who watched the whole game on video and ask their opinion based on this evidence. On the first really cold day of the season, it was heart-warming to see such effort & endeavour.

Old Blackburnian

Blue Eyed Boy adds: One if Rovers foremost chroniclers and historians Harry Berry, who has several essential books about the club available, has kindly provided some comprehensive stats concerning substitutions of goalkeepers throughout Rovers history.

According to them Simon Garner was the last outfield player to go in goal during a league game, against Ipswich Town early in the 1987-88 campaign.

Andy Kennedy did so in a League Cup tie at Exeter in the Autumn of 1989.

Remarkably Rovers haven’t had a goalkeeper sent off since Tim Flowers was dismissed twice in six months at Ewood in 1985 – the second instance against Saturday’s opponents Queens Park Rangers.

Rangers last won at Ewood in October 1999, goals from Wardley and Gallen giving them a 2-0 win. Thanks to Andrew Robinson for that stat.

If you’ve enjoyed Ian’s blog this week you can follow him on @ianherbert.

Also don’t miss the essential podcasts he produces and hosts on BRFCS.com – the latest featuring interviews with Tony Mowbray and Darragh Lenihan at Brockhall is a groundbreaking piece of work and quite unprecedented at Ewood or most other clubs for an unofficial social media outlet to be embraced and invited within the club’s portals to interact in such a way.

BEB – Reed Masterclass “De-Boings” Baggies

Pictures courtesy of Old Blackburnian & Andy Bayes
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