Mowbray will recruit summertime Blues to crank it up a notch

Picture by Olivia Wilkinson

One win in 11 matches, one win in eight even, or six defeats in seven games are stats which would have any set of fans questioning the manager and ruminating upon his suitability for the job.

But enough about how Stoke and PNE finished the season or how Middlesbrough fared towards the business end with the play-offs practically in their grasp.

Any rolling of distant thunder of dissent and recrimination blew harmlessly by Ewood weeks ago as results picked up starting with the Derby County game.

If you had asked a foreign visitor or space alien landed at Ewood that night which side was morosely playing a fading season out and which was busting a gut to claim a play-off spot, they’d have got it the wrong way around; but the Rams hardly put a foot wrong in their final six games, illustrating that a decent month can make up for a lot of ills.

That’s certainly been the case for us, too, and while we couldn’t quite finish off with a fifth win in six the fact that only the Champions-elect (narrowly in terms of the score line anyway) beat us during that run enables us to top and tail the season reviews on a positive note with genuine hope of further progress to come.

The infamous “should he stay or should he go?” poll which at one point rather fancifully claimed to show that almost 70% wanted a change of manager at Ewood closed the season at virtually 52:48 in his favour. Now where have I seen a split like that before? Hopefully we won’t have three years squabbling among the more quarrelsome nay-sayers.

While a few will say the “bare minimum” (a phrase which has become irritatingly prevalent – who specifies these parameters?) for 2019-20
is a top six finish, or at least a challenge for one, next season, I’m not quite so demanding or assuming.

What is a play-off challenge anyway? Two weeks getting a bit carried away like ourselves or Preston early in 2019? The only two sides who really sustained a threat to make it and lost out could barely have more contrasting feelings at missing out. For Middlesbrough it’s an abject and costly failure. For Bristol City there is possibly a sense of over-achievement.

Forest spent the type of amount we dream of Venkys making available to Tony Mowbray but never really looked like making it. Is their ninth-placed finish really any more creditable or satifying than Brentford’s eleventh? These are the things we have to take into consideration when blithely proclaiming that “nothing other than a top ten finish is acceptable.”

I’ll hang fire on setting any targets before I see what the budget is like and who Mowbray signs (or loses). Of course he has to go to India to find that out and one or two take exception to that modus operandi in itself.

But if he comes back with say, the green light to spend ten, 15 or 20 million (and to qualify I suspect it will be nearer the lower mark) is that really any worse an outcome than another club knowing well in advance that their warchest is £7.5m or eight million?

We are owned by who we are owned by and its their prerogative until they sell up whether you think it’s no way to run a club or not.

Most of us have ruefully accepted that Venkys are possibly better the devil we know whether you’ve settled for that fate a while since or are a recent damascene convert.

Virtually every set of fans has some gripe with their owners these days and we only need look 15 miles up the M61 to Horwich where things went from bad to worse under twin knights in shining armour, the multi-millionnaire and the ex-terraces hero who’d done well in business, once heralded as the dream team in terms of who you’d want to buy your club.

Neither had a pot to piss in of course, certainly not to spend on football anyway.

I’m very sad that they’re in such a pickle and will miss my pre-match bacon buttie and brew at Middlebrook Tesco with my Wanderers lifer pal next season. “It might be a long time, if ever, we play each other again,” he said this week, “shit management, shit players, shit owners – perfect storm, really.” It could have been any of us talking in 2010, 2012 0r 2016. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Well, almost not anyone.

For that reason I’m delighted that Wigan survived. I’ve never took any particular umbrage at anything Paul Cook said after a few celebratory drinks (or the fact that a gobby minority of Bolton fans might have gloried in our demise, something which never registered with me) last year and both the Bolton and Wigan stadiums are virtually as near to where we live as Ewood.

At least we only lose a third of our six derby games instead of four and with Huddersfield a short hop and Barnsley a popular and well-trodden destination down the decades a good few aways look do-able even for one who now eschews the pleasures of travelling long-distance.

Fulham makes for as pleasant a trip as London has to offer and while Luton is rather more prosaic, it’s a new ground for many. I hope Sunderland come up as I love to see a packed away end, big-game ambience about the place and it’s not the worst away trip but Pompey are old friends/foes too.

The season ticket prices are, I feel, eminently fair – our cheapest adult is £81 cheaper than PNE’s was last season – and the new 18-25 category is set at a price which will hopefully attract a couple of thousand more young, vocal supporters. Our Millie is pleased to get one crack at it – her ticket will actually reduce in price by £170, more than 50 per cent! My own singing and shouting days are over with a totally knackered lung but I like to get the benefit of atmosphere generated by others.

A couple or maybe three thousand more than usual turned up for the Swansea game and like most matches at Ewood this season possibly with the exception of the opening stalemate against MIllwall and the dull 0-1 defeats to Stoke, Middlesbrough and Bristol City they were entertained by a competitive fixture in which we displayed some of the best and worst of ourselves.

I would like to see the home win ratio up to 50% and beyond next season – 10 wins out of 23 means we fell below that watermark again and think we have every season since 2012 bar the League One promotion campaign.

We’ll inevitably have new personnel but remember that if players are any good, we might not be the only team pursuing them, just as our better players will inevitably win admirers and suitors elsewhere. Be patient.

Damien Johnson’s talented Under-23s capped a fine couple of seasons by beating their Burnley counterparts 2-0 at Leyland this week to claim the rather splendid LFA Senior County Cup Final trophy and there is much to admire, purr over even and to hope for from these boys. Always nice to come out on top when those two famous old kits are lined up in opposition.

With a couple already knocking on the door, the Brereton enigma hopefully unravelling in a burst of goals next season and a fit Chapman to be properly unleashed one feels a changing of the old guard is inevitable in order to aspire to anything beyond treading water. Farewell to some old friends I fancy.

I’ve relaxed and switched to summer sports mode already but look forward to keeping an eye on developments and returning to my seat in balmy late summer, well into a sixth decade of following the Blue & Whites.

Oh, and a proper royal shade of blue for this August, please!

Happy summer everyone! Let’s hope for one like last year.

BLUE EYED BOY

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Ewood will relax for Swansong to Rovercoaster season of peaks and troughs

Photo used by kind permission of Jack Heyes

Well, that was another season flashing past.

Thankfully, it was quite a positive one. The squad that was promoted turned out to be well able to compete at a higher level, and only Norwich and Sheffield United demonstrated the extra quality that deservedly led them both to automatic promotion.

For a while, we even dared to dream of the play-offs but, in the end, it was only a late run of four straight wins in April that eased rising fears that relegation might still become a possibility.

There were times we left Ewood buzzing, particularly after the dismantling of Hull and the demolition of Derby, when Bennett, Travis, Reed and Dack chased and pressured and harried and tackled their opponents to the edge of oblivion. Both those visiting teams had looked fairly threatening on paper but both ended the game with a mixture of bewilderment and relief.

The collapse in form post-Hull and the unexpected revival against Derby meant that we had the opportunity to share those two emotions.

The period between those two matches was a pretty miserable footballing experience, though not entirely inexplicable. The trauma at Brentford and the loss of Lenihan were both contributory factors, and were followed by a series of bizarre selections, substitutions and formations that will have had many more fans than me watching and wondering in frustration and disbelief. What goes on behind the scenes will remain a mystery to most of us. We don’t have access to the detail on injury and fitness, attitude and application, relationships and contract clauses. But we see what happens on the pitch and, when it comes down to it, that’s what counts.

What that says loudly and clearly to me, looking back over the season, is that the time has come to change the guard. Time for Graham, Mulgrew, Conway, Williams and Smallwood to either move on or play much lesser roles, with respect and with gratitude for their whole-hearted contributions. 

It’s Lenihan, Travis and Rothwell should be given central roles in a new era, and the team constructed around them.

The barren months of late winter coincided with a depressing dip in form for Dack, our talisman, a gifted bundle of effort and joy who, this season, has under-delivered by miles. He clearly loves playing the game and he does it with a zest and emotion that makes him a pleasure to watch. But that disappeared for a while. Maybe he needs more players around him, like Payne and Rothwell, who can match his levels of sharpness and invention. Whatever the reason, his preference for smuggling the ball through defenders in tight places too often led to loss of possession, to the extent that for much of the season he felt as much a liability as an asset. We need him back fresh and rested in August, playing con brio.

His remarkable abilities are one of the reasons for us to be positive and hopeful for next season, as long as he’s still here.

And there are others:

       Raya’s breath-taking reaction saves are now more allied to improvement in handling high balls and confidence in commanding the box, though sometimes that confidence extends to rashness;

       Lenihan, always a fearless and committed defender is taking on more of a leadership role, and I can forgive him (sometimes begrudgingly) for his 3 or 4 over-hit long passes per game;

       Rothwell has finally had a run of games and – with pace, control, movement and a keen eye for a pass – has become the player most likely to create chances and disturb defences.

       Travis has been transformed from a competent but probably under-paced full-back into the best all-round midfielder we’ve had for some time. He just needs the right players alongside him now.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Harrison Reed back in harness with Travis. By some distance he was our most effective and entertaining player of the season. Fingers crossed.

For the rest of the squad, I’m not so sure. As much as I want them to shine, I fear that Bennett, Bell and Evans fall short of what it takes to keep us moving on. And for me, Nyambe, Brereton and Armstrong could be edging towards that same category unless they can somehow raise their impact. Perhaps some would function better in a stronger side and/or a different set-up. That’s often hard to judge. Not that I’ll be very disappointed if they’re still featuring next season, because they can all at least “do a job”.

The hope though lies with youth. And there is great hope.

The under-23s have had a remarkably successful spell, and after Buckley and Butterworth’s recent promotions, you’d expect several of them to be stepping up towards a regular berth in the senior squad next year. 

That should include the return of Harry Chapman – a proper winger – and if he can stay fit, we’ll have another exciting attacking option.

So, my abiding feeling, after what did turn out after all to be a season of consolidation, is one of hope. Still not extinguished after 53 years of ups and downs. Re-kindled by a spark as bright and fleeting as Dan Butterworth’s 15 minutes cameo against Bolton.

Dan Butterworth. There’s a name to conjure with. He’s going to be some player.

Maybe one or two of the phenomenally successful Damien Johnson kids – a notable win at Anfield last Sunday capped the league season and there the small matter of a Cup Final against Burnley at Leyland on Tuesday – will familiarise themselves with us a little further on Sunday at home to Swansea.

The crowd should be swelled by a cheap ticket offer, if not to the extent that it was for the promotion celebrations against Oxford a year ago.

It will be interesting to see Swansea’s own speed-merchant sensation Daniel James. While Rovers fans are looking forward to seeing Chapman at full tilt, many fancied Dack to make a huge mark on the Championship while Wigan and Villa supporters extol the virtues of Powell and Grealish as the division’s outstanding talent.

James however is the one I fancy has had most big-club scouts swooping around ready to recommended their bosses sign a big cheque. Have a thought for whichever of our full-backs is assigned to keep him quiet at weekend.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy summer, with thanks to BEB for the opportunity to impose my thoughts on his readership.”

Riversider 23

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No Holy Grail but revived Rovers can look on the bright side

The famous Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch references Ipswich, Bolton (Notlob) and of course conjures up any number of ways to describe euphemistically how death is handled in British culture.

Little did Cleese and Chapman realise when writing that they were in fact foretelling the final weeks of the 2018/19 Championship season.

Both Ipswich and Bolton are “pushing up the daisies” in a footballing context, their hopes of remaining alive in the Championship merely “pining for the fjords”.

Ipswich were Rovers opponents on opening day, Bolton the most recent and sandwiched between these two games, all manner of excitement, tedium, victories, defeats, despair and eventually salvation.

It’s been an odd season. One that will finish with Rovers comfortably off in mid-table safety, many points clear of relegation fears; but until very recently, I suspect a number of supporters were poring over the fixture lists of Rotherham, Wigan and Millwall and undertaking some mental arithmetic crossed with crystal ball gazing in the hope of gleaning some soothing comfort.

It looked like the wheels had come off with a litany of mistakes contributing to a run that seemed like it might last until season’s end at one point.

The questioning of Tony Mowbray had some merit; no manager overseeing such a sequence of results is Teflon-coated, but the calls for his head seemed somewhat knee-jerk at the time.

The subsequent run of four wins on the bounce seemed to have provided the perfect counter argument to accusations that the dressing room had been lost and all hope was gone.

The stark reality is that Rovers were over-performing to hit 8th in January and serially under-performing in February and March.

The regression to the mean works both ways though; sometimes you lose unfortunately/surprisingly; sometimes you win fortunately/surprisingly…over a season, it all evens out and you tend to finish where you deserve.

For a newly-promoted side to have consolidated a position in the higher division with some aplomb is not to be sneezed at.

It also points to the terrible job performed by the manager before Tony Mowbray.

Pre-season, a mid-table finish seemed possible but far from a given.

The fans were tantalised by the prospect of the play-offs thanks to a great start to 2019 but that January window promised much but ultimately delivered little. An opportunity scorned ? Well it’s a fair charge to make but the plight of a club subject to a transfer embargo is familiar territory and in the Championship, the Premier League riches, just out of reach, make fools of many an owner.

When Rovers have been good, they have been very good.

The exciting home victory over Leeds rekindling memories of some of our feisty Premier League encounters, the silky-smooth despatch of Hull City at Ewood had us all believing…right up to and including the 8th minute at Brentford.

The extraordinary rear-guard action at the Hawthorns gave us that perennial favourite of an outfield player going in goal. Ten men, more than ten minutes to go but somehow, Albion contrived to not fashion a single shot at goal thanks to the super-human efforts and work rate of all nine outfield players.

The point Rovers won that day was to put it mildly hard-fought, thoroughly well-deserved and felt significant.

The spirit on display was exemplary and the legend of the “Ginger Ninja” was born as Harrison Reed celebrated his finest performance to date with a superb goal to round off events.

When we have been bad though…late capitulations and away day hammerings have featured all too often this season. The performances at Bristol City, Swansea City, Preston and Brentford especially are out of keeping with the values of professional pride and discipline the fans rightfully expect.

To be beaten fair and square is one thing; to surrender arms at the first sign of adversity is quite another.

February and March demonstrated all too clearly, that a thin squad can soon be hit by loss of form, injuries and suspensions and there were occasions when Tony Mowbray was reduced to mimicking a Sunday morning pub team manager. Ringing round to see who was fit, who could get to the ground for kick off and then selecting the first eleven to turn up; shoe-horning players into roles to make sure we could start on time and avoid a fine. Well perhaps it just seemed like that.

It’s perfectly understandable that a manager has favourites, the “ever-ready & willings”, the ones who always “try their best”, the “loyal foot-soldiers”.

What became abundantly clear during this rotten spell was that a number of our squad struggled to impose themselves in the Championship as they did in League 1.

What Mowbray has to figure out over the summer is whether they can be improved sufficiently by coaching or whether to replace them with better.

He also has to recognise the inherent risks of continually playing players out of position because that undermines them as individuals but all too often, fatally weakens the side. Smallwood in goal can be tolerated in extremis but looking back through the roster of players populating our back four this season, it is heavy with converted midfielders who too often revealed that weakness to opposition forwards.

It’s a big summer coming up and Mowbray will know as well as anyone that the squad needs some attention.

The emergence of the excellent Lewis Travis may well smooth the path for other academy graduates.

The sight of John Buckley and Danny Butterworth coming on against Bolton and showing some lovely touches really gladdens the heart. No more Danny Murphys or Dickson Etuhus thank you very much.

Mowbray’s best signing of the season in all probability though isn’t ours and almost certainly has worn the shirt for the last time already thanks to injury.

Each time he did this season, it was with distinction; step forward Harrison Reed.

Versatile, talented, energetic and with a happy knack of contributing goals, his place in the squad will be a very difficult one to fill. He is welcome back to Ewood at any time.

But what about Ben I hear you cry ? Well if anyone wondered what relief sounds like, the noise in Ewood on Monday in the 30th minute should provide the answer.

That fee has weighed heavily but clearly is not his doing.

Arguably he has been played out of position to his detriment though Mowbray claimed to the contrary.

What was in no doubt against Bolton, was that when played centrally, provided with the ball to feet around the penalty area, he is a threat. In that respect, he’s perhaps more akin to Jordan Rhodes than Danny Graham.

It was only Bolton, they’re already down, yes, that may be so; but there was a glimmer yesterday of genuine hope, some reciprocated warmth from the stands was nice to see and hear.

For what worth, my Player of the Year vote went to Danny Graham.

Bradley Dack’s form has ebbed and flowed during the season, Harrison Reed has been an excellent loan signing, Lewis Travis has seized his chance, but throughout, Danny Graham has stuck at it, defying the years and chipping in with vital goals.

His re-emergence at Rovers is something to behold.

Supporters of opposing teams disparage him on social media and are made to eat their words. Most notably, those of Sheffield Wednesday much to my particular joy following the Ewood hat-trick last year.

Another season draws inexorably to a close, my how quickly they seem to come and go.

The trajectory is positive but once more next season, Rovers will have to compete with Fulham, Huddersfield and either Cardiff or Brighton; buoyed with the parachute payments that Shebby Singh and co treated so casually at Ewood.

One of Leeds or Villa at least will be there. A resurrected Sheffield Wednesday, former double European champions Forest plus perhaps Sunderland ?

The Championship is quite some division, quite the challenge and will soon be back in town. Enjoy the cricket whilst you can !

 

Old Blackburnian

 

 Pic 1 – Blue Eyed Boy, Pics 2 & 3 Ian Herbert

 

 

 

 

 

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Rovers and Tony safe but expecting summer of sorcery may be presumptuous

Pic by Millie Costley

Watching a game on telly a hundred yards from where it’s taking place was a weird experience on Saturday afternoon, especially after having a pint or two with Rovers fan friends in my old local within walking distance of The City Ground before Lesley and I returned to our digs while the girls joined the travelling supporters at the match. 

I’d made the decision not to go to the football but my plan to watch a second afternoon’s cricket ended at quarter to three when, wandering back into Trent Bridge, Notts, eight down and still 19 in arrears, lost their last two wickets before I’d sat back down, Stuart Broad typically half-hitting a bouncer down long leg’s throat to end proceedings.

Maybe I should have accepted that lunchtime offer of a Forest ticket but the back-up ifollow option beckoned. Strangely on a windy afternoon even with the balcony window open you could barely hear any crowd noise all afternoon.

Fortunately, despite one charming Forest supporter pledging as he passed to ‘smash the next Blackburn fan’s face I see in even if they’re in a wheelchair’ everyone was back in our weekend mini-break flat in the shadow of Trent Bridge cricket grounds Fox Road stand, sat on the balcony in time to watch more disgruntled home fans file by.

One trooped huffily past me and up the stairs to the adjacent apartment as I went downstairs to let the girls in trying to suppress my Edenfield smile.

Having also been on the Tommie Hoban game two years ago our daughters now have a hundred per cent played two, won two record on the ground which used to be the nearest to our one-time West Bridgford home. Olivia, born in Nottingham’s QMC, was particularly pleased!

The murmurings of discontent over Tony Mowbray’s management and the desirability or otherwise of continuing his employment have thankfully largely subsided, and it is to the vast majority of Rovers’ fans’ credit that mere murmurings from a couple of the usual-suspect sources is precisely what they were, the disappointment over the elongated poor run never spilling over into any kind of significant public show of terrace dissent. 
One website is still showing a poll which currently votes 60/40 in favour of binning Tony. The actual numbers were 79 in favour of retaining him, 121 wanting him sacked. 
‘Extrapolated over the 12,000 fan base with a 12 per cent variance taken into account, the majority clearly want him out,’ ran one interpretation. 
I rather prefer my own admittedly unscientific calculations which give me the deduction that perhaps 121 of the dimmest, most impatient and embittered nut cases gravitate to gather on the same forum. 
From not knowing where the next point was coming from before the Derby game a week before I write this, three of the final four fixtures of the season can at least in advance be regarded without the pervading air of fatalism over more impending gloom which cloaked the stands during the slump. 
The fourth, a daunting trip to champions-elect Norwich, may even see the Canaries already promoted and in champagne-and-beachballs mindset – not necessarily a bad thing for an away side whose sole function and ambition would be to dampen the party spirit. 
If Norwich need points it may be difficult but Rovers seldom don’t have a goal in them. 
Even without Mulgrew, of whom the currently fashionable view (with which I disagree) is that he’s a defensive liability whose vulnerability isn’t compensated for by his considerable goal/assist contribution we carry a threat at some point in most games. 
The Spanish coach Juanma Lillo said ‘despues del visto todo el mundo Es listo (everyone’s a genius after the event) and called punters who consider a thing which ends well done thoroughly well (and vice versa) ‘prophets of the past’ citing the example of the Man United-Bayern Munich European Cup final as an instance where a pretty average performance was ultimately gilded by moments of fortune which made everyone forget what had preceded it.
Everyone knew that Joe Rothwell was a superstar in the making, Reed and Travis were the obvious two to run the show in the middle, Dack needed a kick up the arse and Mowbray saw none of it. Obviously not being as good a manager as lads who work in call centres or in Debenhams soft furnishings department is a great handicap to many coaches who work with and see the players every day, observing little details of attitude and concentration and stamina. I mean how can you pick a side based on spending every minute of every day on the training ground eh? Prophets of the past indeed.
Just over a week ago I was told Rovers ought to have appointed a ‘young, hungry manager like Stoke.’ A defeat and a draw after their win at Ewood Nathan Jones’ side stand 16th, below us again. They’d be 17th if Birmingham hadn’t had points deducted. They were 14th when he took over. Yet he’d have been a better bet than the man who, the revisionists have it, “took us down when he was brought in to keep us up” or “did the minimum bringing us back up and chucked the title away.” Those prophets of the past eh?
QPR, Good Friday afternoon’s opponents, ended a run of seven without a win by hammering Swansea last Saturday but we generally do okay at Loftus Road. A draw would be a decent outcome given the recent successes.
It would be a major shock if we fail to beat doomed Bolton should they be able to crawl through their financial woes and present themselves at Ewood on Easter Monday to fulfil the obligations, an eventuality which the EFL seem strangely keen to facilitate in order to avoid the embarrassment of a Stanley/Maidstone style mid-season liquidation and consequent recalibration of the points table. 
It’s now confirmed beyond argument that Rovers will play in the Second Tier next year, curiously the only club thus far who can say that with 100 per cent mathematical certainty. 
Some have said that gives us an advantage in pre-planning and moving in on our list of summer targets – it certainly means, surely, that there is no excuse for not having season ticket details released at this point – but realistically plenty of sides such as Forest, Wednesday, Hull, Preston, Swansea, Stoke, Brentford and Birmingham know full well they will be alongside us in the Championship. Five of the seven clubs currently placed second to eighth will too. 
Some of those may have the FFP police sniffing around yet while others have to consider what now seems off the Ewood agenda if it was ever on it, a change of manager.
Martin O’Neill, Frank  and Tony Pulis have all exhausted the patience of expectant fans to various degrees of late and are on thin ice while West Brom’s bizarre situation is as yet unresolved, even more so after PNE’s Alex Neil signed a new deal at Deepdale.
So if we may just have a little start on some who could face various turmoils who should we be looking at besides attempting to secure Harrison Reed’s services permanently?
Nick Powell at Wigan has already been linked with a couple of Championship clubs but with his injury record I’d give him the swerve. If Chelsea’s Reece James, superb at the DW this season is available, loan or buy, he’s the kind who can materially improve our squad. 
The strangeness of last summer’s and January’s tentative and speculative dealings can’t be repeated. It’s one thing taking a flyer on Simon Ireland when you’ve signed a squad of internationals, quite another to stick the house on a teenager. 
Nobody should be brought in who can’t perform at this level immediately.
Of course other clubs may covet our targets. Bauer is at Charlton who could yet squeeze into an automatic spot in League One. However detailed and comprehensive a shopping list you have some of our rivals will be able to offer bigger wages or the perception at least of a sterner promotion challenge before double our gates. 
The teams coming down? It may not be the strongest trio ever. There certainly doesn’t appear to be a Newcastle to sew up one spot. (Remind me of that next year when all three are promoted with 96 points).
It will be another fiercely competitive Championship in 2019-20 and I rather think people coming out with stuff like ‘anything less than a play-off push/top 10/top 12 will be a failure’ are highly presumptuous,  getting ahead of themselves rather like Rovers initiating the Goal of the Season contest before that Joe Rothwell stunner by the Trent on Saturday. 
Relax and enjoy the rest of the season. None of us can influence what will be.
A lovely footballing and family Easter to one and all. 

Pic Millie Costley.

Blue Eyed Boy 
Sent from my iPhone
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Element of light for Mowbray and Roversi

I fed you in your chair this morning.

You made a mess of everything.
By afternoon you drove a sports car.

You were driving at the speed of things
(Robyn Hitchcock, “The Speed Of Things”)
Even as someone whose adolescence was extended to the extent that I didn’t get married or become a parent until my forties were rattling along, there come along days which hammer home the passage of time and our powerlessness in challenging its cruelty.
A couple of weeks ago our elder daughter unfussily completed and moved into her first house at 25. The same day I watched her younger sister, sleeves rolled up, trying her damnedest in her mock GCSEs.
Fifteen years ago, it seems like a week or two, resident in Nottingham I was chucking a cricket ball on the park with one and pushing the pram round Trent Bridge cricket ground with the little one fast asleep. If I’m lucky enough to last another 15 they’ll be 30 and 40. The speed of things.
On Saturday, both of them will be in the Rovers end just over the road at the City Ground, independent young ladies who don’t need their dad sat with them to enjoy the football. I’ll be on the cricket again, I think, Notts are at home in the County Championship.
I’d have been at the football but a few weeks ago my best mate from my time in Nottingham in the early part of this century passed away horribly suddenly and unexpectedly just four days short of his 60th birthday.
Tradition was I’d go on the match with him among the Forest fans – I have a picture with Richard and our wives taken on The Avenue in West Bridgford, location of many of our favourite haunts, just before the game two years ago when Tommy Hoban bagged the winner. He and Sue were a couple at 14, engaged at 16 and had been married 38 years. It’s unthinkable that he’s not here anymore.
My wife Lesley has been close to them both for 25 years. We’d planned to take a city break holiday all together soon to celebrate our 60ths which will now never happen. It’s unbearably sad and I think I’ll prefer a quiet afternoon of contemplation on Saturday at the last place I saw Richard at the Notts v Lancs T20 game last season.

The last time I saw Richard – TBI Nottingham 2018

On Saturday morning last I took a call to inform me one of my longest-standing Rovers buddies Jack Houldsworth, famed as a champion bowler for Church Cricket Club, had passed away. I got the call about an hour before setting off for the Stoke game.
The game rather passed me by. It seemed to pass Rovers by, in fairness.
You can read about Jack’s cricket prowess elsewhere but to me he was my mate since 1981. For many of those years we stood, then sat together with a bunch of guys from the club. I remember the day we all went down to choose our seats in the new Riverside Stand as near to the spot where we’d stood as possible. Almost OCD-ish but we’d had such times watching from just that spot anywhere else was unthinkable.
Home and away games were occasions on which you had to make yourselves a bit of fun in those days. Bob Saxton and Don Mackay trying to weave silk purses from buttons! We had terrific times and laughs. Always the laughs. Carlisle, Wolves, Shrewsbury, West Brom, St Andrews, Barnsley, Leeds….the result was often incidental to the day out as a whole. A win was a bonus, often quite a surprise!
A bit like Tuesday’s over Derby.
Just when it seemed things were going to get worse and worse till season’s end, Rovers pulled out a performance to rank with the home wins over Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, West Brom, Hull and West Brom. Astonishing really. You’d have only picked one of those teams as the one with a play-off spot to go for.
It was virtually perfect from the minute Tom Lawrence flashed an early half-chance wide and made you scratch your head at some of the plodding, turgid displays which preceded it in that awful run.
Derby, it has to be said, were desperately lacking in intensity for a team with something to play for. Mowbrays’s selection will be highlighted as finally hitting on a formula every fan could have suggested to him – why no chairman has ever hired a fan off Twitter I’ll never know – and the energy of a youthful trio of Travis, Reed and Rothwell made fools of the experienced pair Johnson and Bryson and showed young loanees Mount and Wilson, peripheral to the point of anonymity, a thing or two about hunger and desire.
But recalling the veteran Conway was also a masterstroke, the Scot for once enjoying the rare luxury of coming up directly opposite a man five years his senior. Some might have opted for the speedy Armstrong or even thrown Chapman in but Conway used the ball well throughout. Time you packed up, Ashley lad.
Lenihan and Williams were too much for the woeful, isolated Martyn Waghorn – imagine spending what Derby have and ending up with him up front – and Dack buzzed around determined to make an impact.
It would have been a travesty had Derby held out for a point given the enterprise and dominance Rovers displayed but there was a swagger of brio and joy about the two goals which won it to restore smiles to all three home sides of Ewood. Fine margins – Rothwell actually misses Graham’s lay-off when I study the TV coverage contrary to my first impression but the finish was worthy of Luis Suarez or Aguero.
I always think the first goal for a forward-looking player is important and it will be a major surprise should Joe not kick on from this watershed moment.
My pal Jack would have so loved it, and the insouciance with which Dack embroidered the clincher. I was chuffed my mate Mark’s little grandson Louis was sat with us, allowed to go to a night match on a non-school night. For every lifelong fan we lose we need a new one! Hopefully a few of the kids at the Stoke game will come back too.
Thoughts of relegation and of the manager resigning/being sacked should now only occupy the largely vacant cerebra of the most embittered and feeble-minded social media naysayers.
Hopefully we continue rehab against another failing East Midlands promotion flop outfit. Could it be Ben Brereton’s day finally?
I hope so and I hope I can hear the roar from the Fox Road Stand over the road.
Hopefully it will be warm enough to sip a beer in memory of the two dear friends we’ve lost in recent weeks.
You held my hand while I was crying.

You were allergic to bee stings.
I threw some earth upon your coffin and thought about the speed of things

Jack Houldsworth third from right. I’m the other side of Beefy.

BLUE-EYED BOY

PS no minute’s silence for Barrie Hole/Kit Napier? Come on Rovers, sort it

Blue Eyed Boy Columns from 27 March and 3 April which weren’t published on the website are added below as they appeared in the Accrington Observer

After another Groundhog Day defeat at Villa Park brought the international week to a conclusion and almost a calendar month since the last home game, nothing is designed to send pulses racing more than an Ewood date with a team who have managed to creep a solitary point above us by drawing their last four fixtures nowt apiece.

Rovers fans may cast an envious eye at Stoke’s recent run – eight unbeaten but seven were draws, five of them goalless – and jealously covet their record of just two conceded in that time.

Admirers of a man who played for and coached both sides, the late Howard Kendall, may even feel nostalgic perusing those figures. Rovers once missed out on promotion to the top flight on goal difference in a season in which they played out 11 nil-nils, but never quite pulled off the feat of racking up four of them on the bounce.

I suppose the best you can say is that those sort of sequences have to come to an end at some point but even that’s a two-sided coin. Stoke are due to let a couple in but they’re due to score a couple too. something has to give.

If at the start of the season Rovers had splashed out and assembled a squad which included in front of goalkeeper Jack Butland the lkes of Danny Baath, Tom Ince, Joe Allen, James McClean, Bojan, Benik Afobe (all starters last week) not to mention Sam Clucas, Ryan Woods, Sam Vokes to augment a roster already including Ashley Williams, Mame Biram Diouff, Charlie Adam and Ashley Fletcher surely even the most demanding supporter would have been confident.

Indeed, the Potters, then under Gary Rowett, now managed by Nathan Jones, are one of the clubs I look at when I attempt to convey how difficult it is for Rovers to compete meaningfully at this level.

With £41.6m in parachute payments first year down, they gambled that and more on an instant return and despite having failed spectacularly, while making noises about tightening their belts and minding the FFP parameters, another 30-odd million quid parachute money means they can pretty much have another crack at it this summer with impunity.

By any standards or definition, with average attendances about double ours they would seem to be better-placed to mount a promotion bid than us. As will be about 13 or 14 other clubs whether we like it or not. Our ancient history carries little cache in the twenty-first century and the fact that we were first to introduce a mega-rich backer into the equation is as dated a stat now as Bryan Adams’ run of weeks at number one in the summer of 1991.

The dreadful recent run of form – we are now in danger of grading the latest defeat as not quite as awful as some which preceded it, always a worring sign – could get worse. Stoke are a threat and certainly play-off chasing Derby next Tuesday will be as desperate for three points as any side to visit Ewood this season.

Two more defeats, or more failure to win, will inevitably lead to, if not intense speculation about Tony Mowbray’s future, a great deal more noise about it from the less cerebrally-inclined sections of the social media loudmouths.

I’m not getting any further into that having stated my case repeatedly. I don’t care what Middlesbrough or QPR do, I believe Rovers have as good a man as they are likely to get in charge for the foreseeable future and can see no overwhelming reason to make a change at this or any imminent stage.

News of the passing of two more of my boyhood heroes came through on a crushingly sad Tuesday,

Barrie Hole was the “left-half” and a most cultured and accomplished one, in the very first Rovers team I could reel off by rote…..Blacklaw, Newton, Wilson, Clayton, Coddington, Hole, Ferguson, Rogers, Gilliver, Darling, Connelly…. with Sharples, Mulvaney and Douglas part of the squad. Not many of them left 52 years on.

Barrie scored twice, one of them an absolute screamer, in the fog at Deepdale on the occasion of my second-ever away game in 1967, a 5-3 win which left my over-excited asthmatic eight-year old incarnation both ecstatic and gasping for breath. I was devastated when he followed Mike Ferguson to Aston Villa a year later. Cappped 30 times by Wales (he played for the principality’s two major sides, Swansea Town and Cardiff City), he would have walked into their current side effortlessly.

I once got his autograph on an East Lancs prpgramme at Alexandra Meadows, my other cradle of sport where Rovers players often pitched up on a summer Sunday afternoon.

Barrie came close to a Rovers return in 1970 but the move back from Villa lost out to his wife’s preference to returning to Wales. “Give us a goal, give us a goal, Barrie Hole,” to the tune of The Troggs “Give It To Me,” was an iconic Ewood chant of the late sixties.

Kit Napier was one of Ken Furphy’s “second wave” of signings

A wispy Dunblane-born striker/inside forward and occasional winger who’d briefly played for Blackpool and PNE as a youngster he made his name at Brighton where he remains their third-ever top scorer stuck in perpetuity on 99.

His most memorable performance at Ewood though had probably taken place before he signed for us or Brighton. He was a double scorer when Furphy’s Fourth Division Workington beat Rovers 5-1 in a 1965 League Cup replay sensation. The grandees on the board remembered that young manager.

“Kito,” who looked like he could have drummed for Atomic Rooster or the Edgar Broughton Band when he grew a beard and let his hair down, was popular with what became a demographically younger Blackburn End crowd as a lot of the older generation vacated the terraces unable to stomach Third Division fayre.

His stats – 10 goals in 53 league games – were modest before the more pragmatic Gordon Lee tired of his charms but he’s forever associated with a side which entertained royally on its day and narrowly missed out on promotion in 1973 with charismatic performers such as Tony Field, Johnny Price and Napier embroidering the solid base provided by the Jones, Heatons, Fazackerleys, Martins, McNamees and Parkes.

Our rich tapestry is a lttle sadder today for the passing of both men and one is reminded acutely of one’s own mortality when old heroes, forever remembered in their prime, die.

BLUE EYED BOY

If you’d had people stood outside Ewood with clipboards at the end of the Hull game on January 28th 2019 asking departing fans if they’d like to swap manager and squad with Preston for a month and a half I’m pretty sure they’d have been scoffed, laughed at and politely or perhaps inpolitely advised where to relocate their answer sheets. I recall the advice “mind the gap” being doled out with regularity to our PNE cousins aroundthe time as we stood seven points and eight places above themand just a win off a top six spot.
“He’s not still banging on about that Hull game?” I hear many of you say.
Well, yes, I am actually because up to that point it would have been argued only by the most habitually negative individuals that Tony Mowbray’s two-year reign had been anything but a success. Don’t take my word for it, google the many anniversary articles heaping kudos on the manager – even after the losing streak had started – and the thousands of social media posts heaping praise and offering thanks at the happy fact that we had such a smashing guy in charge.
From relegation near-certs when the Coyle reign was ended to instant, and incalculably vital promotion to a top eight place in a Championship full of better-supported and financed outfits convinced us all we have the right man at the helm. 
A portion of the Rovers-supporting cognoscenti will of course now tell you that they knew all along he wasn’t. Poll-posting pipsqueaks and 20-20 hindsight expert analysts and statisticians are rolling out the damning numbrs and queueing up to celebrate how validated their poison positions are by a sorry run of form. He was a duck-egg all along, we that were happy were all too blinded by premature celebrations that we couldn’t see it, they now murmur.
But the fact that the “nine games of shame” sequence took place in the space of just 42 days – not even a month and a half that really – after that couple of years of almost unhalted progress (whether you think he might have done better in his 15 games at the end of the relegation season he garnered more points than Coyle had in the preceeding 15) still allows it to fall into ‘blip’ category rather than inexorable and unarrestable downward spiral category for me.
Of course I’m naffed off, despondent and sometimes incandescent at the total capitulations away from home. I’ve never been as certain anyone was going to score against us for about 17 years or so as I was when Nuhiu headed in for Wednesday. I just knew if it was anywhere in the vicinity of the giant Albanian, who has the build of a lumberjack along with the predictability of movement of a chopped-down Redwood Pine, he would put it away unchallenged.The last time I felt that in my water was seeing Beckham teed up by Scholes for a cross onto Van Nistelrooy’s swede – at least those were performers you expected to get the better of you now and then. Barry Bannan won’t have had many easier assists.
Of course the focus has fallen on the defence, the sheer incompetence of it, particularly away from home, through the seven defeats in nine but also the juggling thereof and failure to add to the personnel. What I will give the rear-view merchants a smidgen of credit for is criticism of Mowbray for failing to augment the rearguard. If, as we were told, Frank Fielding and Patrick Bauer were at least momentarily priorities last summer, surely those possitions remained so when they were rendered unavailable. The January window was available to redress that too, we know that. When I mentioned it in my early February columns I was told I’d scour the earth for something to moan about even after four straight wins!
This Saturday’s daunting trip to Villa Park doesn’t bring any logical hope of comfort either.
I’ve been tipping Villa to come good late in seasons and gatecrash promotion every time since they came down. With the exception of this season when of course it suddenly looks as if they might.
For a back line overcome by jitters and nerves and unable to cope with Rotherham’s big guy at throw-ins, the prospect of an in-form attacking unit containing Tammy Abraham, Jack Grealish, Jonathan Kodjia, Albert Adomah, John McGinn and Anwar El Ghazi is one which fills every blue and white hear with dread.
We can perhaps only hope that Villa do what we used to annually in the 1980s and mess up on the big, expectant occasion lettinga crowd repletevwith expectation down spectacularly.
Even more depressing than another defeat though will be the rising chorus of calls for Mowbray’s neck if we lose. Brace yourself, if not for being in a minority if you think he should be allowed to carry on, to be drowned out by the vocal clamour for his removal/
If ever there was a time to summon the kind of spirit which got us results at Hull, Stoke and West Brom, this is it. One fears otherwise that the divides and disagreements we see on Twitter and forum posts could strain relations among fans supposed to be pulling in the same direction.

Moving up a place without playing was one small bonus of the last week but the simultaneous confirmation of our significant losses leaves us under no illusion about future perils. Let’s not invite them upon ourselves via a panic managerial change.

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Farewell to a friend, and legend of local cricket, Jack Houldsworth

Church and Lancashire League legend Jack Houldsworth passed away suddenly on Saturday morning aged 83.
Jack, who made his senior debut for the West Enders aged 19 in July 1955, took the first of 1119 league wickets at Turf Moor that afternoon, claiming the scalp of the home side’s Australian professional Chris Langdon and beginning a habit of dismissing overseas stars which he took delight in until his retirement from playing during the 1987 season, by which time he was 51 years of age.
He is probably most famously remembered and celebrated for his stunning string of performances during the 1974 run to Worsley Cup success, Church’s first and to date only occasion lifting the venerable old trophy.
In the four games up to and including the final against Nelson he bowled unchanged in tight, low-scoring thrillers (more than 68 overs in total), taking five for 51 versus East Lancashire, five for 42 against Haslingden, six for 31 against Accrington in the semi-final and six for 24 against Nelson in front of Church’s partisan home supporters in the final.
His dismissal of explosive Nelson professional Collis King, bowled, was possibly the most pivotal and iconic moment in the club’s history.
It was a sweet triumph for a player who had initially struggled for more than a a decade to cement a place in a well-established side and missed out completely as Church won the League for the first time in peacetime in 1962.

In his first ten years as a player at the club he had, ironically, been selected only once to play in the Worsley Cup competition.
From 1955 till 1966 he could hardly ever be described as a regular first-teamer, 16 games in 1960 the only time he figured in half of the campaign’s matches. It was, as former team-mate Eric Barnes wrote in a club publication, “a long apprenticeship.”
But this fiercely loyal one-club man simply carried on putting in endless hours of practice and learning all he could about the game and the craft of medium-pace bowling to hone his art to the point where his mastery of right arm seam could not be ignored any longer.
And in that summer of ’66, remembered for many things but not often cricket, he played 23 times in the league, breaking the 20-wicket mark for the first time.
After another in-and-out season in 1967, he finally hit his straps – aged 32 now, remember – in 1968 when he passed the mark of 50 Lancashire League wickets, 64 in all, for the first time.
He was to reach that mark nine times in the subsequent 11 campaigns, 76 in 1969 (93 including cup games) and 74 in 1975 his greatest numerical hauls.

He was leading amateur wicket taker four times, took 84 five-wicket hauls in league and cup and had five against every other league side home and away with the exception of Haslingden at home against whom he once had four wickets before the match ended early with a controversial walk-off by the visitors!
In the 1980’s, his body ageing but his appetite for practice as voracious as ever, his hauls were more often in the thirties and forties but there was the notable landmark of a thousandth league wicket and a glorious swansong in 1986 when he chalked up his tenth 50-wicket haul now past the age of 50 himself.
Jack’s batting and fielding were never remotely comparable to his bowling and as the game began to move towards the athletic pursuit for fit young men and women it is today (goodness knows what he’d have made of pre-season boxercise training?) , it was time to make way for more youthful blood,an inevitability he accepted part way through the 1987 campaign.

He had taken 1246 wickets in 595 league and Worsley Cup appearances.
But that was merely the beginning of another long and loyal tenure as committee man, club press secretary, league rep and, as importantly as any, stalwart worker helping a yeoman team transform the West End from the rather downbeat, dilapidated, tired, oft sneered-at by opposition ground of past decades into the splendidly curated and well-appointed cricket field with attendant classy facilities it enjoys today.
When the call inevitably came to serve on the Lancashire League Executive Committee, it was with some reluctance that Jack initially accepted the responsibility, concerned that it would diminish his ability to contribute fully to his own club.
But of course he simply made twice the time and worked diligently in both causes.

He was made a Life Member of the League but had left the Executive committee before the recent changes to the league which as a traditionalist he was fiercely opposed to.
Respected and admired by all he played with and against, his reputation as a master bowler was genuinely worldwide. He would have probably been able to tell you exactly how many Test players he’d played against, how many he dismissed but possibly not how many hours he’d spent in earnest, mutually-admiring conversation with top-class cricketers from all around the globe, not to mention local fellows old and young who played for Church or the opposition whom he mentored and counselled down the decades.
Even in his eighties, still lean with his dark mane greying but largely intact, he was instantly recognisable, with his walking gait still reminiscent of his walk back to his mark before turning to deliver that smooth, repetitive, well-oiled, economical action. He was lovingly welcomed on all the other league grounds.
Legend, icon and giant are words used cheaply in sport these days but as far as the rich tapestry and history of Lancashire League cricket and Church and Oswaldtwistle Cricket Club are concerned, Jack Houldsworth truly was a man who merited all three descriptions.
Widowed when Sheila died six years ago, he leaves a daughter Annette, son-in-law Philip, the current Church chairman, and grand-daughter Bethany.

A personal appreciation,   Jim Wilkinson writes:

There will be many fulsome and well-informed tributes to Jack in the coming weeks from former cricketers, team-mates and opponents, far more qualified than I am to have appreciated his prowess on the field.
I can only speak of him as a clubmate, gentleman and great friend to myself and, latterly my family.
My own friendship with Jack began in 1981 when I joined Church but from 1968, when I was first taken by my dad, about the same age as Jack, and Grandad to watch East Lancashire, Jack Houldsworth has been a constant part of any Lancashire League I’ve known for half a century and more.
Asa small boy I would have his signature multiple times on programmes and handbooks and autograph books as I used to avidly collect them from amateurs, who I regarded alongside overseas professionals and pro footballers as sporting icons!
My earliest memory of coming to Church to watch is a Worsley Cup game which ran on over a couple of nights in the very early 1970’s and Jack would be bowling.

We’d been on a school trip to Fountains Abbey that day and to come back with permission from my dad to make my own way from the Boulevard in Blackburn to the WECG by Accrington bus was an impossibly thrilling undertaking. I was there by about half past four for a 6pm start!
Through my teens I was an avid East Lancs supporter home and away and a keen student of the scorecards and averages in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Sports Pink. Jack’s name was never far from the top of the bowling lists and when you played Church you knew that there were no cheap runs to be had from his end.
In 1981, having met a bunch of the Church lads on a Roses day out at lunchtime in a Headingley pub, I joined the club as a third team and occasional second team player.
Having played no club cricket since I was 14 I’d no idea what practicing in men’s grown-up cricket entailed but I did notice that the best bowler in the club was the one who was invariably first to arrive and didn’t stop working on his art until it went dark and the last batsman had had his turn.
By then in his mid-forties (and when you are 22 you think someone that age is rather old), his fitness and complete dedication was astonishing to behold.
I enjoyed trying to listen in on conversations with Brendan McArdle about bowling. I think Brendan was a bit shocked about the rather “Dad’s Army” feel of the team he inherited but he knew that Jack still had much to offer, if not necessarily with the bat or patrolling the boundary!
Jack tolerated my eagerness to emulate him in bowling all night and what miniscule success I enjoyed in the Seconds – a couple of seasons where I took 50 wickets – was down to his example and advice. I was always chuffed that my captains, John Hall and Eric Barnes, would usually put me on at “Jack’s End” of the ground and would try to visualise myself posing a similar threat to batsmen running in.
On a couple of isolated occasions I truly felt for an hour or so in that zone where the ball was actually landing where I wanted it to repeatedly and darting about off the seam and I remember thinking: “Bloody hell, this is what it must be like every game, every week for Jack Houldsworth!”
Off the field, despite the vast difference in age, our shared love of Blackburn Rovers cemented a lifelong bond.

I was instantly accepted as one of that “Church and Rovers” faction who could talk football all night….Eric Barnes, John Hall, Ken Fergusson, Billy Wilkinson, Martin Heyes, Simon and Bill Heys, Tony Marsden, Fred Bentley, Graham Norris, Phil Sykes of course after he was secured by Jack under “Bosman” as a signing and a son-in-law….some of my happiest memories of the 1980s and 1990s are of away trips to watch the Blue and Whites in convoy with a couple of car loads of those guys.

A pub lunch maybe and a few giggles – and Jack, a mainly fastidious man who eschewed the Bacchanalian pleasures many of us greedily embraced, would drop his guard more on those jaunts than anywhere else – and there was always something about the company and camaraderie to take from the day whatever the outcome of the match, which often seemed incidental to the overall sense of fun and adventure in any case.
On another occasion, Lock Street Catholic Club invited Brendan to do a Friday night Q and A session with the elderly members, many of them Church supporters. The cricket club turned up en masse to support the venture with the younger lads dressed up to the nines to hit the nightclubs with the pro after.
A number of the Church committee had turned up, too. The hosts had provided a chicken & chips supper for attendees and one poor fellow of our number had got a bit of bone stuck in his throat. As Brendan attempted to answer a standard question about his cricket upbringing in Australia the unfortunate diner began to cough attempting to loosen the bone. And coughed… and coughed…
Jack was in a kind of guest of honour spot at the front having introduced McArdle and could not stop himself from cracking a smile which soon developed into an uncontrollable fit of giggles at the unseemly scenario unfolding.

Pretty soon the whole WECG contingent was doubled over watching the poor choking lad having his back slapped by a sympathetic friend as Jack vainly attempted to preserve some dignity on behalf of the cricket club representatives before virtually falling off his chair laughing, the ever-professional McArdle desperately trying to hide the tears of laughter which were by now rolling down all our collective cheeks.
At one point in the eighties with fund-raising for the club as vital as ever Jack set a grand cricket quiz.
With Gerard Metcalf, Tommy George and Martin Heyes on my team, all of us quiz enthusiasts who thought we knew our stuff a bit, we fancied our chances highly.
Jack produced an elaborate set of cards in that distinctive handwriting of his. You could feel the tension in the room with a few other competitive teams present as Jack raised the first one and took the microphone.
Peering over his glasses, he read out something like:”In 1888, which England player, selected for The Ashes tour, had to disembark the vessel at Port Said and return home having contracted scurvy?

“And a bonus point for the name of vessel which had departed from Tilbury Docks.”
“This is going to be a long night,” we muttered, as puzzled looks cascaded around the room. I think we came second with a final score of 11 out of 150 possible points. I reckon Jack considered us a rather skittish, unprepared lot as he packed his cards away and brushed away complaints that it had been “too hard.”
We both worked in Blackburn town centre at the time, occasionally bumping into each other for a chat outside Marks or Home Stores. I think Jack played quite a bit of decent standard representative cricket for the Civil Service.
All the while he was still taking wickets for Church. I think our pros such as Brendan and the redoubtable I W “Mad Dog” Callen were a little awed that he extended his career for so long. Practically all his former team-mates from overseas were still in touch.
I was a little miffed that I missed seeing him take his thousandth league wicket as I was playing in the second XI that day.
In mid-1987 Jack, now in his fifties became a “former player.” I’m sure it’s hard for anyone to give up what they love and are most renowned for. But everyone’s time comes around one day. At least his career didn’t end being carted into an ambulance on a stretcher to the sound of the loud and uproarious laughter of Tommy George like mine did, in a Third XI game
But I never once detected any bitterness or resentment about him. From day one, he was the kind of person who’d want his replacement to come in and take eight wickets in a Church win. He was there for advice and counsel for anyone who wanted it and dedicated the next 30-odd phase of his 73-year association with the club to serving as committee man and ground worker.
Without people like Jack, Bill Heys, Bob Fishwick, Bob Kirkham, Alan Gilrane, Don Holt, John Parkinson and Tony Marsden there is no stage to play on and the work undertaken during the winter and during the week in summer makes a mockery to me of people like Harry Gurney wanting league cricket to consist of a 20-over thrash every weekend – try playing on pitches and grounds which have had just four hours preparation work put in, Harry lad.
Most of those guys, some of them now also gone of course, would always be in the club too on a Thursday night when I’d stroll up for a pint. By now I was living down Church, single and sometimes desperate to walk in somewhere for an hour where, as the songs says “everybody knows your name.”
If Jack and his “Last of the Summer Wine” entourage were in, I’d be warmly welcomed into the conversation, “What’s going on down at Ewood, Wilky?” the most likely rejoinder. When you live alone, I can’t tell you how nice it is to have a place to go and people to greet you as warmly as Jack and co did when you summon up the effort to actually see people.
The likes of myself, Gerard and Martin are probably now older than Jack and co were when we gave them that nickname. Ironically an old friend saw a picture of us last season on Facebook and said: “My god, when did Church’s handsome young lads of the 80’s turn into Last of the Summer Wine?” What goes round comes round eh?
When I made a career change into journalism in my mid-30’s Jack was tremendously supportive, encouraging and helpful. I only ever made one request of him when I was sports editor on the Accrington Observer, that if he had a story concerning the club he’d let me have it on our deadline afternoon so that the Telegraph didn’t get first splash. He never once let me down.
I remembered that some years later after I’d got married, moved away to the Midlands briefly and then moved back. Jack had always sent me cuttings and photocopies of Church news and league developments, anotated copiously with his own observations, via post and occasionally complained that the League Exec committee was short in numbers.
Settled back in Lancashire he asked me if I would maybe consider helping out as Assistant League Secretary. There was no way I could turn Jack down and it was a post I was proud to hold until a reshuffle of the exec more or less saw Jack and fellow grandee Bert Hanson stripped of any influence or say. I resigned my post shortly afterwards but have Jack to thank for the fact that my name is in the roll of past exec members in the handbook in perpetuity – the only way I’d ever have got a mention in that august publication!
He never failed to send me a Christmas card and mention my new family and I think he was pretty pleased that I had finally ended an extended adolescence which had lasted into my own forties with sometime catastrophic results. At one point I hadn’t been looking after myself very well and ended up in a hospital my young nephew once described as, probably entirely accurately, “for very sad people.” Jack and Tony Marsden were among the first to come visit me without any hint of judgement about the mess I’d got myself into and I remember bursting into tears after they left, so happy that I wasn’t forgotten or abandoned.
In the last couple of years, the correspondence – I have an entire thick file of cuttings related to the league expansion which of course Jack opposed vehemently – and conversations dried up a little. Last season I saw more Church games than I have for many years and re-engaged with many old friends but Jack was usually sat alone in the car watching, the way he now wanted it.
On Saturday morning as I was preparing to set off to Ewood with our daughters I took the call to say he’d passed. The afternoon at Rovers largely passed over my head as I looked a few yards to the left of where we now sit and remembered past times when a block of about 20 of us would sit together on The Riverside… Fergussons, Heyeses, Norrises, Bentleys, Wilkinsons…. and always fiercely loyal Jack Houldsworth, a proper little enclave of cricket club people.
I was delighted to hear he’d carried on going to games up to and including the previous home match.
I wonder if any of the 2,000 kids attending their first game on Saturday will be steadfast Rovers fans into their own ninth decades?
Jack’s passing leaves an enormous hole in many hearts. Jack the father, father-in-law, grandad.
Jack the team-mate, the opponent, the master seam bowler. The dedicated servant of his one and only club – and he had many offers to play elsewhere as professional in his time – and his beloved Lancashire Cricket League.
From a personal point of view I’ll miss that analytical, detailed, thorough, articulate mind of his, The way he studied things and interpreted them. Ironically, the taxman that he was, he’d have made a wonderful journalist. Imagine Jack grilling some of the clown politicians we’re currently beholden to!
As club historian and archivist he’s ensured that a lot of treasured artefacts and mementos will be preserved. But I can’t believe we now don’t have that brainful of knowledge and wisdom to tap into anymore.
But most of all I’ll miss his generous and unstinting friendship, his warmth, his support and his laughter. I was proud that he regarded me as his pal.
My good friend for 38 years, Church and Oswaldtwistle’s mighty and magnificent Jack Houldsworth.

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A view from Leppings Lane

It is to my eternal shame that until Saturday, I had never visited the Hillsborough Memorial located just outside the main stand of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, at a stadium that seems to have remained locked in time since the 1966 World Cup. As I approached, a couple of visitors in Liverpool shirts were just leaving, having paid their respects.

Rovers fans, as usual, were housed in the Leppings Lane end, the only significant change since 1989 being the addition of seats to that fatal terrace. How on earth the whole edifice wasn’t torn down within weeks of that tragedy remains a mystery. Watching from that vantage point always feels a tad eerie, it serves to put into context anything taking place on the pitch. Against this backdrop and following the midweek victory over Wigan that all but ensured safety, any assessment of Rovers latest away-day humbling is rendered partially moot.

After January’s successes, travelling fans’ expectations have rapidly been re-structured. Rovers are now the proud possessors of the worst defence in the division (away from home) – 42 goals conceded in 19 games; statistically the equivalent of starting each away game 2-0 down at kick off effectively.

Of course on Saturday, the defence was constructed in the manner of a Blue Peter project; a bit of sticky back plastic here, an old washing up bottle there; but even so, some of the errors on display were fundamental. When a 6 feet 6 inches tall striker comes on as substitute, is it really too much to expect that at least one Rovers player might think, “I bet they try to pick him out a set piece…”? Well apparently, it is.

Raya these days seems to be responding to his recent mistakes by staying resolutely on his line and once more, a shot that he would have saved comfortably earlier in the season eluded him. The one bright spark going forward was Joe Rothwell. His decision-making remains suspect, the choice of when & to whom to pass needs development; but it was somewhat surprising to put it mildly that Tony Mowbray chose a post-match radio interview to call out Rothwell specifically for a verbal rebuke. There were a number of more suitable candidates.

Rovers played well in patches, moving the ball around tidily, Travis gliding around linking play, Dack showing some of his tricks and flicks, Danny Graham doing his best to find space. But just as soon as Wednesday realised Rovers didn’t have a clue as to how to stop and/or defend crosses, the result was a foregone conclusion.

That January window already feels like a lifetime away, the performances since then reminiscent of a relegation threatened team. This squad needs surgery over the summer to maintain the trajectory of the last 18 months. Some of the fans’ sacred cows may well need to depart. It’s never easy to bring in and integrate four or five players, but the evidence of February & March suggests that such a task is the bare minimum requirement and that presumes all the players we want to keep are still at Ewood in August.

A game at Hillsborough always puts sport into perspective, so let’s enjoy the international break and see if a few days away refreshes the squad sufficiently to prevent the run in becoming nothing but a chore.

Old Blackburnian

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