Glory Days a long time coming but better ahead for Rovers?

img_5095 Exhausted and emotionally drained – and with a pressing deadline for a lengthy Springsteen book contribution looming – Blue Eyed Boy hands the final word on the season  to Riversider23 (@MarkMark37m) with whom he’s shared the many ups and downs of the season and indeed ofthe preceding 47 years!
I’m sure there are plenty of pundits and bookies giving themselves a pat on the back for predicting at the start of the season that Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic would be the ones in the League One automatic promotion slots come the crunch. For us Rovers fans – better-informed, generally smarter, and wearied by our miserable downhill slide – there was never anything inevitable about it.
In fact, after a lacklustre pre-season and a disjointed and misfiring first few games, it looked extremely unlikely. And it more or less stayed that way throughout the first three months of the season. Then three draws and a win in four games followed by six straight wins left us in a hopeful mood by Boxing Day, and the run stretched gloriously on to an amazing and exhilarating series of 35 matches with only two defeats.
How did that happen?
Well, we were lucky.
We were lucky to avoid too many long-term absences for key players. Granted, Chapman and Lenihan were big misses, but having the spine (and reflexes and heart and muscle and know-how) of Raya, Mulgrew, Smallwood and Dack fit and healthy for the majority of the season was crucial. 
More by luck than good management, though? I don’t think so.Bags and bags of credit goes to Tony Mowbray, who proved himself a very good manager.
The recruitment of Smallwood and Dack pre-season, the introduction of Downing, the addition of Armstrong and Payne in January, the transformation of Bennett, Nyambe, Williams, and especially Graham, and – most importantly – the moulding of all those elements (along with Evans, Conway, Antonsson, and Samuel) into a team that worked hard for each other and wouldn’t be beaten, all demonstrates that Mowbray has a lot going for him as a manager. On the evidence of this season, he’s competent, grounded, knowledgeable, inspirational, and hard-working – that’s a fair combination. 
Happy days!
IMG_5108[1]
And while we’re happy, let’s be magnanimous and congratulate Champions Wigan. What a season for Burnley, too – back in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup (qualifying) at long last. And for Accrington Stanley, with promotion to the old Third Division (National).  PNE just missed out on the play/offs and Gary Bowyer’s Blackpool did extremely well. Morecambe had a flirtation with returning to non-league but escaped in the final day. And we’ll have derbies against Bolton after their late Houdini act. Rochdale also escaped at the death with a heartwarming human angle to the story.
Bamber Bridge were promoted and Matt Jansen’s Chorley and Fylde came close. Local rivalries aside, it’s great to have such football success across East Lancashire in particular and the old Counrty in general with commiserations to old friends Bury and Oldham. well 
It’s been two other North-West sides too – Man City and Liverpool – who have lit up the Premier League this season, both teams playing a free-flowing attacking style that has been a pleasure to watch. Good to see “United” and the dour Mourinho in their shade still.I’m less and less interested in top-level football though with the dominance of the top 6 and their extraordinarily disproportionate resources that see brilliant players who should be playing at a high level week-in and week-out on the bench semi-permanently.
I don’t think our former right-back Todd Kane is quite in that class but, prompted by him playing against us for Oxford on Saturday, I checked him out on Wikipedia. Apparently, Oxford are his 7th loan club and he has a contract with Chelsea until 2019. By the end of his contract he will have been with Chelsea for 17 years, man and boy – and never once played for them.
One of the notable successes this season has been that of AFC Wimbledon. Having had their club and league position “stolen” and transferred to Milton Keynes, and beginning again 8 leagues below MK Dons, it’s taken them 16 years but they’re now a league above their usurpers. How satisfying that must be.
It’s probably too much to hope that FC United could pull off the same trick.
Back to the Rovers. Plenty has been said since the pitch invasions at Doncaster and Ewood about the madness of crowds, especially when fuelled by alcohol and overcome by sunshine and excitement and youth, and I don’t want to add to that. But, on that theme, walking onto the Riverside at almost 5.30 on Saturday, with the ground packed and bouncing, and flags waving, it was a happy reminder of a unique feeling, of the tribe I belong to, and the power of football to unite disparate people and groups – if only temporarily.
Even though we may not individually have much in common with our fellow-supporters, there’s some kind of magic in the intensity of connection and shared emotion at times. For me, that jumping, roaring crowd-madness magic was there when first Armstrong and then Bennett (both teed up by Dack) slotted home in the first 15 minutes against Wigan. The best bit of a great season.
Let’s hope negotiations in Pune  in the days ahead go well and we can meet the challenges of the Championship well-equipped.
For the first time in years we’ve had a year of success shot through with moments of pure joy.
Here’s to more of the same!
 Riversider23
Blue Eyed Boy would like to thank Mark Fraser and Ian Herbert for their sterling contributions and help throughout the season.
Most of all though I’d like to thank the many readers who took the trouble to read the column, and especially those who repeatedly  get in touch and provide encouragement.
Even the ones who didn’t like the column but got in touch were generally entertaining, too.
Thanks to the staff at the Rochdale Observer headquarters too who continue to support and publish the column each week, notably Richard Partington on the Sports Desk.
Given reasonable health, I’m guessing I’ll be back in late July or August after a summer of cricket, World Cup watching and relaxation , ready for an early August start to The Championship season.
Snap those season tickets up and see you at Ewood!
BEB
IMG_5103[1]
Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Glory days – success a long time coming but better days ahead for Rovers?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prodigals, protestors, fledgling fans all welcome at Rovers’ promotion parties.

Twenty thousand on Ewood and a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon civic reception on the Cathedral Square?

You’d have got good odds on that for a double the morning after Rovers’ Hallowe’en horror show against Fleetwood at home.

Back then, there were genuine fears that the season might just drift away to mediocrity or worse like the four or five immediately preceding this one.

Fleetwood had become the fifth team to take a point or better off us at home in the opening eight league games.

Little did we know that “Fortress Ewood, ” which someone calls for every single season but seldom happens, actually would become an impenetrable citadel to which our gladiators will almost certainly return in triumph feted by the old ground’s first (non-cup) 20,000 gate without the presence of a huge away contingent for many seasons.

Packed home-populated rows and sections, even the top of the Blackburn End again, could even yield the satisfying statistical curio that we will have more present that Europa-qualifiers Burnley have attracted to Turf Moor this season.

On the field, while the title may elude us, even a draw would make it a tremendous 20 home games without defeat to carry over into 2018-19. I haven’t researched it that meticulously but can’t imagine we’ve had many better sequences than that.

It was a shame the even more remarkable series of results, one defeat in 33, which took us back to the Championship was rather cheaply surrendered at the Valley before another stunning 3,000 away following on Saturday. I imagine though that most of those in the visitors’ end were in forgiving mood if they felt even so much of a twinge, determined to remain in the full-on party mode begun at Doncaster four nights earlier.

Personally, I’d have liked rather Mowbray to have picked his strongest available XI with the Third Division title and trophy there for the taking – and to respect the other sides competing with Charlton for a play-off spot – but it would be niggardly to reproach him too strongly for giving one or two a day off (five or six is coming it a bit!). I’m not buying the six injuries would have laid low the players concerned had a couple of points to go up still been required.

And you know what? If I had 18 goals, I’d want to finish with 20. Eighteen if I had sixteen to start with.But as a bunch of supporters, if we have nothing but a slight irritation at a lost opportunity to rack up more club records to irritate the more perfectionist among us, we are doing very well.

The incredible sales for the season’s celebratory homecoming against Oxford United, cheap ticket prices notwithstanding, are heartwarming  from many angles. If Rovers have any marketing nous everyone will go home with a season-ticket price list for next season.

One slight disappointment as the campaign gathered momentum and became a genuine promotion charge has been the lack of tangible impact on home gates before prices were finally slashed for Saturday.

It’s darned expensive, if you aren’t fully committed, to attend a single game these days, particularly if there’s you and one or more partners, kids etc to fork out for, be it Category A, B or C (which in itself was a bit of a rare PR Own Goal for Rovers this season). It’s particularly tempting for people in those circumstances to stay in or go to the pub and watch it if it’s on the box, which four of our latter home games have been.

Consequently the home portion of Ewood crowds has varied and risen only marginally from the start of the season, where just less than 10,000 was becoming common at one point, to about 12,000 other than for a couple of the more crucially-perceived clashes like Wigan and Peterborough.

So a sudden boost of 8,000 plus is extraordinary

We are often told by those who still yearn for Venkys to depart that up to 8,000-10,000 Premier League era attenders are still refusing to return. That might be so – although I personally believe the number is nearer 800 if that – but even if it was accurate, the clamour for tickets tells you that there must therefore be a similar number of fresh fans prepared to be wooed by success.

Whatever the reason, I welcome each and everyone to Ewood on Saturday, returning, reconciled or a brand new supporter. It will be cracking to see the old place packed with happy faces and vibrant with achievement once more.

I cannot fathom what goes on in the minds of those who have opined that they hope “glory hunters” and “happy clappers” stay away. Truly astonishing. What would they want if we made a Wembley final, tickets limited to 8,000 because that’s how many were coming before Dalglish arrived?

There’s even still a slim chance of pipping Wigan to the title although I fear such an outcome might push Latics manager Paul Cook, obviously still scarred from the 5-0 humiliation he suffered as a Claret at Ewood, over a precipice of neurosis from which he may never recover after preposterously attempting to re-invent the friendly battle for top spot as some kind of Lancastrian Old Firm cauldron of hateful neediness.

Whatever, Saturday  (and the Boulevard event on Monday) will be a splendid opportunity to end the season on a high note and for fans and players to acknowledge their delight with one another hopefully without the silliness of post-match at the Keepmoat.

Mowbray is already planning for next season and after the period of celebration so should the fans.

In some ways it’s been a great lesson for us all that we didn’t run away with it and were kept looking backwards at Shrewsbury well into the 43rd and 44th games. Although I refused to concur at the time with those who lamented that Wigan were battering teams while we edged matches, I did envy them their odd 5-nils at home and 7-nils away.

Rovers never really tore everyone apart like that but in a way it might have toughened us up for next season nicking close ones and having repeatedly to show a degree of fight to come from behind or hang onto a lead.

Next season almost certainly won’t be the cakewalk some thought this one would be. We’ll be up against better teams with better, stronger, quicker, tougher, more clinical players. More or less all the teams in the Championship will be better than all the teams we leave behind in League One. You struggle at this stage to find the half-dozen weakest it must be target one to finish comfortably above.

West Brom, Southampton, Stoke and Swansea are formidable sides to be coming down with parachute money if, as seems likely, it’s three out of those four. Nothing against them but I’d rather see Huddersfield drop down. If Cardiff clinch promotion, three of Fulham, Aston Villa, Derby and Middlesbrough stay down. The likes of Forest, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday are all prepared to spend millions on the like of Jack Marriott, who outscored any of our players in a far inferior side and Marcus Maddison.

This won’t be a league where the most expensive and best player is picked up for 750 grand, that’s for sure.

Absolutely no surprise then that Mowbray is off to see how Venkys want to play this.

While we’ve been the biggest spenders in League One, the money raised from the sales of Mahoney, Steele and Callum Wright hasn’t far off covered the transfer expenditure.

It’s now that our owners have to decide whether they are prepared to raise the stakes a bit within the parameters Financial Fair Play allows us and invest a little more to compete with, if not free-spending sides, many clubs who have the resources and leeway to chuck a bit at it.

I was asked this week if I’d “forgiven Venkys after one promotion?” I don’t really see it in those terms myself and don’t carry accusatory or vengeful feelings around in my heart so I don’t need to.

I certainly appreciate they will never be back to a clean slate for many others  but this close-season could be the nearest they ever get the chance to.

The scandalously and ignorantly maligned Mike Cheston has produced a set of figures as decent as could have been expected in the circumstances, left to his original remit and relieved of the grossly unfair extra responsibilities thrust on him. Shame on those know-nowts who referred to him in the most crudely pejorative terms whilst he was expected to act as CEO and financial director at the same time.

Steve Waggott has impressed far more as a front man  in what little we have seen or heard from him although I believe his area is largely to re-engage with the public, a sphere in which Rovers have made stellar progress via social media and, generally, by just not putting feet in mouths on a consistent basis.

Mowbray needs no further endorsement from me, his statesmanlike demeanour along with the magnificent results put him beyond reproach. He will take the plaudits from all four sides of the ground on Saturday and deservedly so. Not that it will be something he thinks about any longer than it takes him to trot back down the tunnel.

His focus is on making Blackburn Rovers stronger and better and he deserves a stumble or two without any panicking as he attempts to cement our status as a Championship club. We’ve been lower than that just six seasons in our history and the last three of those were promotion seasons so afford the man a bit of patience while you’re as keen to see new recruits and fresh runs of fabulous results.

It’s over to the Raos and Mrs Desai now to chip away via deeds at the residual festering resentment and back him significantly. We’re not bothered about any words, “communication” of your own or scripted by club press officers, just at present. I understand that their game for some time now has been to whittle down outlay but a mere few hundred thousand quid this season might see us back to square one.

Play your cards right this summer and you’d be welcome back in the directors’ box one day soon as far as I’m concerned.

Enjoy Saturday and Monday everyone. The Blues are going up.

BLUE-EYED BOY

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Blue heaven. Rovers take a shot of redemption as long night turns to dawn

March 2nd 2013 3-40pm: I was on the point of calling my wife Lesley to ask her  to pick me and daughter Olivia up early from Rovers.

In the top half of the table at the start of the day despite a midweek defeat at Leicester (a bonus point for naming their second goalscorer in a 0-3 defeat ?), Michael Appleton’s team collapsed and imploded so utterly abjectly and horrifically, that 25 minutes into a game against relegation strugglers Peterborough United; who we’d thrashed 4-1 at their place earlier in the season (under a different manager of course, this was only Appleton’s ninth game in charge); we were three down to a Dwight Gayle hat-trick and Ewood was such a seething maelstrom of anger, recrimination and despair that my little girl, eight years old, was genuinely upset to the point of tears and not a little scared by the raw hostility towards owners, manager and players.

This was in the in Jack Walker Lower, Darwen End side, usually a  sedate quarter of the stadium where you might be sat behind a couple of ladies knitting or have to nudge your neighbour to wake him up and let you out to the toilets. It was less than five months after her first “Yes, I’ll come to football with you dad” game at home to Wolves (an unluckier defeat).

It was water off a duck’s back to me but I honestly didn’t think it was fair to subject a child to any more of that (as well as Venkys and the universally loathed Kean, Bradley Orr was picked out for particularly venomous treatment as he strolled about with no interest in his duties, nor pride in the shirt and badge he wore) and I was just about to summon Mrs Blue Eyes from the town centre, when a stray back pass – no shell-shocked Rovers player was in any emotional state by this point  for doing anything so adept as threading an accurate through-ball forward – found its way into Jordan Rhodes’ path for him to do what he did so expertly year in year out and and bury a lifeline goal.

“See…” I lied, “…we might win this yet in the second half” and my heart sank as a trusting infant face gazed up at me and believed it. My selfish deceit (I’ve only ever walked off once, in 1979 at 0-5 down at Oldham) almost justified itself when we got it back to 3-2 and made a bit of a fight of it.

I knew that I could never again insist she come with me if she didn’t want to and I know she missed the next home game. I think we as a family decided that the emotional trauma of a home defeat to Burnley and likely consequent outpouring of venom (we drew), could abruptly and prematurely end any love for the game and team that she was developing before the Posh trauma.

It’s often forgotten how close we came to a Sunderland-style double-relegation that season; but somehow we survived and even more miraculously she retained her enthusiasm. I got a vicarious kick out of seeing her lead the team out as mascot at Turf Moor that September; something I dreamed of doing as a kid but had neither the talent to achieve as a player nor the inclination to do at the age of about 19 when mascots were invented.

Roll forwards five years; five pretty desperate, lean years in footballing terms and on  Tuesday evening me, Olivia, still a season ticket holder despite all we’ve been through as a club, her mum and step-sister Millie, 24, (a recent season-ticket addition to the matchday squad after years of Saturday jobs and Uni, but a true blue even before I was around) nervously clapped and chanted and nail-bit the closing minutes away at Doncaster, as promotion was close enough to touch.

I wasn’t looking at the pitch when the whistle blew, I was looking at those two and their mum, who I met and took a shine to on a coach in our last third tier promotion season in 1980.

Mrs Blue Eyes was joining in the chants as enthusiastically as she did at 15 in that Howard Kendall run-in. Watching her reminded me of a favourite family moment in a bygone age: My mum on the occasion of her second ever visit to Ewood on VE night 1995, looking for all the world like she was enjoying a guilty pleasure as she sang “Who the feck are Man United ?” albeit leaving the offending word out of course as you’d expect from your mum, but grinning at me as if it was the edgiest, most exciting thing she’d ever done! My mum was 59 then, just as I am now. Circle of life, I ruminated as the girls shrieked and punched the air at the final whistle.

Whatever else happens in their Rovers supporting lives – and I hope it’s plenty of good things; better things than the mere promotion from the Third Division they’ve witnessed tonight (I’m writing this at half one in the morning after we got home), they’ve seen us do something good, something right.

“We’ll always have Doncaster…” you might say as a piano tinkles gently and glasses clink.

Anything achieved at football is worth celebrating. The bad times outweigh the good for all but the privileged elite and nobody knows when the next celebration arrives. I’ve been lucky….1975, 80, 87, 92, 95, 2001 and 2002. These past sixteen years has been my longest wait for a little bit of glory and ten of those years were spent at the top table, some embroidered by European football.

An explosion of relief, delight, pride and love for the club was perfectly understandable. An initial surge onto the pitch was forgiveable, if not the flares.

It was a pity the players and management couldn’t really celebrate on the pitch as they would have liked and the more orderly fans would have liked them to.

Despite the more exuberant young supporters  (and some older ones who ought to be a little ashamed of themselves) being given every chance to allow such a celebration, not even a second lengthy clearance of the pitch could enable such a fitting lap of honour…and weren’t Doncaster fabulous and patient  in giving them every chance ?

The lights would have been summarily switched off and the away fans cleared out far sooner at many a stadium. Billy Ball the Tannoy man at Accy cricket club in the old days would have gone beserk and summoned the household cavalry.

What a curse on modern life putting cameras in phones has become; breeding an execrable culture of “look, this event is all about me, me…me being here” (not just footy matches but gigs).

The state of some of the “invaders”, goodness me. If you’re a middle-aged mum or dad who couldn’t comply with the second or third eminently reasonable request to stay off you want reporting to Social Services.

I suppose it’s only in the sometimes wonderful and occasionally frightening world of the Rovers (“Hit The North” played out at half-time) that a beloved and cherished, promoted team, which has so brilliantly won the hearts of the fans back had to listen to boos and accusations of onanism as they attempted unsuccessfully for the third time to make a special moment to share with their followers.

The catcalls and cries of “Wankers…wankers” which had rained down from the Boundary Park terraces early in the season, were not this time aimed at the playing staff of course; but instead at some of the insensible and hugely embarrassing clots parading on the park.

On a night when conditions rendered arty, decorous  touches superfluous, Rovers had struggled to make the breakthrough until, as so often, a moment of magic involving two of the men who have provided so much of it all season, finally made the difference.

Just when it seemed nothing would ever happen from a corner, Dack landed one sweet as a nut on Charlie Mulgrew’s napper and his wonderful header sent the 4,000-strong East Lancashire army barmy.

If you are going to win it by a single goal to clinch a promotion spot, a magnificent finish from a latter-day hero in front of his own fans in a packed end with ten minutes to go is not a bad way to do it. All the close calls, all the unrewarded industry and wasted effort of the 80 minutes to that point faded into the memory.

From that moment on it hardly mattered what Shrewsbury were up to, so long as we ran the clock down and chalked up yet another clean sheet to make it one defeat in 33; a statistic I find far more remarkable and telling about the commonality of purpose this team has displayed weekly, than even all the historic club records they are breaking with magnificent impunity.

One man deserves more credit than anyone for weaving this narrative, after taking on a job most in the game must have regarded as so toxic and ill-starred they might surely have warned against accepting such a poisoned chalice. He was game enough to attempt to sort out the mess bequeathed him by Coyle and whoever appointed him.

It was interesting that eight of Tuesday’s starting line-up were regulars in the relegation season starting line-up. Whilst recruiting in numbers, Mowbray has been big enough not to persevere with his own signings, if a man already on the staff showed more hunger, desire and talent. No-one was jettisoned without reason and everyone got a shot at redemption…and on Tuesday a photo-opportunity.

They took it. I’m almost certain too, that there wouldn’t have been eight players tainted by relegation had he got the job, say, at Christmas 2016 when the change should have been made.

All that is history we can’t change though. What needed changing was any suggestion of an ongoing downward trajectory and Mowbray has delivered that with bells on ringing out in harmony.

The manager rightly says the planning for next season began weeks ago – this team was never going to blow it – and in that he is absolutely right. Change is inevitable and necessary if you are to grow and improve and tough, unsentimental decisions lie ahead.

But that’s for worrying and writing about in a week or two as far as us fans are concerned.

After a dark and stressful eight years of night we finally have a bright new dawn to celebrate as the blue and white-halved shoots of recovery begin to bud. We have a title to battle for – although let’s not get ahead of ourselves, eh ? The travelling thousands can have another celebration at The Valley on Saturday, before a glorious homecoming; hopefully both unspoiled by gatecrashing men in inappropriate leisurewear.

Enjoy it, everyone. I’ll be in a St Annes beach hut with the radio on celebrating that tearful little girl’s 14th birthday. No tears now and a blue for life like her mum, dad, sister, two granddads and everyone else who loves this fabulous, historic institution, Blackburn Rovers, more than is rational or good for them.

The first time I picked her mum up in 1981, when my ancient Mini chugged up Peel Mount in Knuzden to attend a Jam gig, Olivia’s late grandma was delighted that her daughter had at last shown interest in a boy (one with tickets to see Weller and the boys, mark you) and might soon outgrow the Rovers obsession.

Never happening that, was it ?

We are the Rovers and we are family.

The whole of the fanbase is. We fall out, disagree, sometimes can’t stand one another ,  don’t speak for a time and sometimes wonder why we were cursed to belong to this tribe.

But when it all falls right, who’d want to belong to any other club ?Or any other club to belong to us?

BLUE-EYED BOY

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

No ordinary Blues. Rovers set to reward roadtrip army?

Well, if you’re only going to play for a half, it’s a pretty good idea to make it a bloody good half.

Another slightly surreal Ewood evening contained all the elements to make Thursday’s game (and Thursday football in itself is slightly odd and disconcerting) a microcosm of the long, hard season which now looks certain to end on a triumphant note.

The first half condensed the very worst of those distant bad-memory first 11 games into what seemed like a dreamlike video lowlights compilation. My hearing in my right ear has almost completely gone this last month or two, sometimes a blessing, adding to the hallucinatory feel but I did clearly hear a short fusillade of boos as a lethargic, disjointed and plain dumb opening 45 minutes ended with us in at least the slim arrears we deserved to be …having escaped seeing that deficit doubled moments later more by good luck than any great skill on our part.

The cat-calls where I sit soon seemed to change to a burst of encouragement and polite applause as the players trooped off. I think the jeering is almost a Pavlovian urge for some by this stage, but thank goodness that performance didn’t come a fortnight after the Wimbledon home game.

Still, with gates only rising marginally despite the magnificent run to the cusp of promotion, on balance I’d sooner have the Jeremiahs sat there moaning and letting off steam than sat at home moaning. My daughters take great pleasure in weekly identifying disembodied voices to the rear of our seats: “Mrs Getintoem” and “Mr Rubbish. Bloody Rubbish.” It takes all sorts and I’d put up with double the boo-ers if we could have 15 or 20 thousand home fans on.

It was understandable that Ewood was stunned. A neutral Premier League fan switching the wrong channel on would certainly have had the fluorescent yellows as the team closing in on promotion. Rich Sharpe who does an excellent job in the LT, described Posh as looking a threat on the break at halfway through the half but I thought they were already by some distance the better, more threatening side by then and by the interval were pretty much carving us apart at will.

It was almost the Doncaster second half all over.

The second half entirely crystallised the revival since that awful afternoon at Oldham. A number of sides have dominated us for spells but only Plymouth have been able to see us off. Running out of steam, lack of a finisher, goalkeeping miracle saves have all contributed but when you win as often as we do and lose as seldom then the manager must be doing something right, pep talks, tactical tweaks or whatever.

We immediately looked more purposeful and decisive from the starting whistle of the half, journeymen upping their game twenty or thirty per cent allowing the better players to finally show their elan. Raya (kicking apart), Mulgrew, Dack and Graham are a class above most in this division and when you have four such wonderful players amply augmented by others doing their job, few teams will live with us.

Bennett too has upped his game at full back, I think he’s been not far off our player of the second half of the season. At one point on Thursday before we kicked into gear he looked to be running on expensive long-life camera batteries while the rest were fitted with those cheapie 20 for two quid ones which you have to keep changing in the remote control.

We keep thinking one of these days we’ll give someone a hammering (in fairness a few teams like Posh, pacey and powerful for 45 minutes, must have left Ewood wondering why they stepped off the gas at a time they looked to be in the ascendancy too) but nine times out of ten our periods of dominance have been enough to take the points we need.

Dack got the TV Man of the Match vote, as game-changing goalscorers who’ve just been voted divisional player of the season are wont to do. Though Dack came within a lick of paint of a hat-trick I thought Graham was immense and gave slightly the more accomplished all-round performance.

Mulgrew too, despite his own goal (only his second in 441 senior career appearances!) and near-fatal gaffe seconds later was magnificent. He is one of those consummate defenders for whom the first yard is in the head among much younger opponents, reading it wonderfully a bit like Fazackerley or David Mail in their prime but with added passing and free-kick accuracy.  Unlike those two though, he comfortably ghosts into attacking pockets and contributes to the offensive play in areas from whence aghast yellow-jacketed stewards would have been tempted to run on and escort Faz and Maily back to the safety of their own half, like old folks home staff retrieving your confused, wandering Granddad from the street.

Rovers had a bit of luck with Evans stopping on after a brute of a tackle. I’ve heard a few say it was clumsy or late but it looked to me a red by any definition. At least nobody has said: “Corry’s not that type of player,” but that’s possibly largely because after three years a few of us are still puzzled as to exactly what type of player he actually is supposed to be.

The scenes of joy after the second and third goals were worth the price of the season ticket alone and I’ve said that once or twice this season. When players and supporters get it right and it all pays off, it really has been wonderful to be a Blackburn Rovers supporter again.

Watching the game back, Smallwood and Evans played a  good part in the build-up to the decisive second goal and Derek Williams redeemed his moment of misfortune at Bristol by winning a great header for the second.

The third was one of those part-comedy but more so part pure damned determination efforts that sum up Mowbray’s side’s indefatigability. I have long wondered why Danny Graham necessarily has to be taken off early every game – his game isn’t about running his legs off at pace and for me his footballing nous, hold-up play, and positional intelligence are as valuable in the 88th minute as the eighth. I said in an early blog this season if he had anything about him he should be looking at his rivals for the shirt and the opposition and saying: “I’m going to finish this season with 18 goals and a title medal.” He clearly has plenty about him and could yet prove me if not bang on, not far off. pure craftsman. (Danny, not me.)

It could now be that a Rovers win at Doncaster will all but seal the deal even if Paul Hurst’s admirable but faltering team beat Bury and Peterborough. I couldn’t see us then not getting a point from the last two games. Those fortunate enough to be travelling to the next two away games will be very unlucky not to see the triumphant deed done and in some ways those who have put in the motorway miles, taken days off work, got home at stupid o’clock and suffered the financial and geographical inconveniences, agonies and ecstasies of football comradeship on the road (and the Gillingham debacle) probably deserve a special occasion to themselves before hopefully a celebratory homecoming against Oxford.

It’s even possible that the ultimate dream scenario could unfold for the more grudging, curmudgeonly Rovers supporter: Promotion is clinched with a draw or defeat at Charlton which would allow a short celebration before being able to moan all the way home about how Tony Mowbray’s inclination towards caution, flawed team selection and poor use of substitutes continues to cost us points.

I heard yesterday that Charlton were prepared to give us an extra thousand tickets but the Old Bill nixed that. A bit naughty that they’ve then found a few extra seats in the away stand for any corporate loafers prepared to pay £85 plus VAT. As my cousin Mike, who did fly to games on occasion in the 1970’s said, I’d want a plane ride down and back for that.

Deadlines and rearrangements meant I had to reflect on the Bristol Rovers game before Thursday, here’s what I said for all it’s worth.

It’s a tribute to how well the team and manager have done that people are in danger of spontaneously combusting if we draw a game away from home these days.

The last-gasp equaliser at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium was an absolute sickener, even if you were following the final tweets of the game as I was walking down a set of theatre steps in Liverpool having had your phone off since half-time. Thank goodness I was nearly at the bottom when the equaliser news came through.

But it was a hit the lad’ll probably never strike the like of again as we cleared a long throw. I haven’t seen any more than that, and I appreciate and respect the insight of those who were there whose opinion it was that we invited pressure and didn’t kill the game off (Derek Williams the major culprit in that regard) but I’ll say this.

Whoever we were playing at home, be it Real Madrid or Man City, if we got to stoppage time one down, I’d expect us to have an opportunity. At least one situation. A free-kick, throw, even a ball back to the keeper – get it launched into the mixer and anything can happen, can fall just right. It did, on Saturday, to us.

The theory that you keep possession, denying the opposition a sniff of the ball, is just that, a theory.

Nobody can really do that keep-the-ball-in-the-corner  thing for any sustained period. For every Danny Graham v Middlesbrough there are 99 goal-kicks or throw-ins off your players’ shins as your boys hurry back to get organised. (Editor’s note – you wrote that on Wednesday pal, but Dack and co did just that on Thursday. Sharpen up or you’re off the column next week).

And besides, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth which two away draws on the spin precipitated, the two points gained in those games far outweighs the volume of nonsense spouted about the damage the four lost ones would do us.

Never mind the one defeat in 32 games, neither of our promotion rivals can match our points tally from the last five matches, the business end of the season.

The title may be just beyond us though Wigan have three of their remaining four away, it would be lovely, although mere embroidery, to top the season off with that. Third Division Champions 1975 still sounds better than Runners-Up 1979-80 and when all’s said and done, it is another trophy on the roll of honour.

But no-one is complaining about an automatic promotion if it happens, certainly not me with tickets for gigs on the night of the first League One semi-final and on the eve of the Wembley final.

Individual honours for players are another minor consideration for me but well done to Bradley Dack on being voted League One Player of the Year for the second time. It strangely reminded me a little of the occasions I won Church CC’s “Most Improved Second XI Player Of the Year” twice in three seasons, more of a comment on the abject season I had in between than anything!

I’m sure Bradley won’t emulate me by failing to get any higher up the ladder!

I hope Rovers afficianados will forgive me this week for adding my personal congratulations to Accrington Stanley, John Coleman and Jimmy Bell on the occasion of their incredible promotion to League One.

I took over the reins on the Observer sports desk shortly before the pair were appointed at the then Crown Ground in 1998 and was lucky enough to follow them to promotion and cup successes in their very first season. When I left in 2003 they were on the cusp of promotion to the Conference.

Win, lose or draw, John Coleman was always available to sharply analyse and reflect on games, often on Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings when I’d ring him in those more relaxed non-league days, and he was never wont to lapse into cliché or standard manager-speak , always had something interesting or original to say and always pointed out something important the layman hadn’t picked up on. Football people have often bored me to death as a scribe, not wanting to say a word out of turn, but he is something special.

It was Stanley’s great fortune to obtain such a managerial duo once, almost a second lottery win in life to get them back a second time. The club has never really gone backwards in 20 years and all involved richly deserve their celebrations. I wish Eric and the recently-departed John Demaine, always unfailingly helpful and supportive to me during his time working tirelessly for the club, had lived to see it.

Rovers will play Stanley in a close-season friendly and for once both teams and their supporters will have had a summer to celebrate. Even Burnley qualifying for Europe surely can’t spoil it, grudging respect to our deadly rivals for their success. We’ll pass on a friendly with them though, I’d guess.

BLUE-EYED BOY

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

No breakaway for Blues but Rovers still a step ahead as staggered sequence tests the nerve

Football, like life, has an infinite capacity for taking a different twist or  turn to the ones we have plotted out in our heads or have attempted to chart with a piece of paper and pen, be that sat with your diary in an armchair at home or scribbling on a shelf in the premises of a turf accountant.

Nobody with Blackburn Rovers’ interests at heart failed to make that calculation last weekend that if we won at Gillingham, and if Shrewsbury lost or failed to win at Bradford, etc, etc….

As you read this you may know the result of that Valley Parade game and it could be that Rovers are two, four or five points clear of Paul Hurst’s team with five apiece left to play.

Whatever the margin is, I think that most fans would have shook hands on that at the beginning of the season whether you were, as some most assuredly were, expecting another season of struggles or cautiously optimistic we’d do okay.

Even the “we should walk the league with our budget” brigade couldn’t have really anticipated having that many more points – we can get to 101 if we win all five remaining games – than the 86 we have at this stage.

Three teams have actually topped 100 points in the last 10 seasons but all have won the title by a comfortable margin. The highest points total during that time by a side which hasn’t been automatically promoted was 90 by Sheffield United in 2012 – enough to have secured the title in a  couple of seasons.

Brentford’s 94 was the highest runners-up tally.

But the most remarkable statistic, one that tells me that this unique season has found three formidably resilient sides competing for two berths, is the defeats column. Between us (5), Wigan (6) and Shrewsbury (7) the top trio have just 18 defeats between the League One holy trinity.

That, even allowing for an odd collapse between now and the end, is incredible. The defeats suffered by the top three in the previous ten seasons number: 28, 28, 21, 23, 32, 24, 26, 28, 24, 28 and 29.

Only Leicester, with four losses in 2008-09 (96 points their title-winning tally) have lost less than five. Teams have finished third with 12 defeats. Doncaster won the league with twelve. Only once in 2015 have all the top three suffered single-figure defeats.

Six times a team with 10 or more defeats has been automatically promoted as runners-up.

So whatever your theory – and there are many – as to how we have squandered points or failed to capitalise on situations, there has never been a season like it at this level in recent memory.

That’s why if we did stumble and Shrewsbury passed us at the death – I still in my heart of hearts don’t think they will – I’d be happy to congratulate them and to say that not a lot went wrong with our planning and execution of said plans other than another very good team did even better than us.

Oh, I’ve heard all the stuff about how Venkys would cut the budget and it would be austerity measures all round. How does anybody know that? “Going on past experience,” they tell me. If you were able to predict what happens in football going on the portents of the past, recent or ancient, I’d be a billionaire. Nobody knows what the future holds, my friend, as Paulie Walnuts once menacingly told the denizens of the Bada Bing.

One good pal of mine suggested: “If Shrewsbury win at Bradford, we’re back in trouble.” I’d respectfully suggest that two points clear in second, a point off the top is the kinda trouble most of us were hoping to be in at this stage when the season began. More so at 5pm on the opening day!

You can point to a draw here, an equaliser given away there, a plodding start which allowed opponents to nose ahead or a fading second half showing which saw a lead given away.

But very few teams over the course of a decade at this level have had a much better season by this stage than we’re having so I personally think a few of the groans about a couple of hard-fought narrow wins and a generally off-colour away performance which still garnered a point and a clean sheet are unnecessarily uber-critical, particularly when Tony Mowbray’s selections and tactics are still being questioned after a solitary reverse in 30 games.

The stuff about the budget means nothing now. Shrewsbury have shown that whatever they cost to put together and pay, they are in it to the final stretch. If Wigan cost a little less to assemble and receive a few bob less in total salaries than us, it’s demonstrably irrelevant.

Nobody is going to knock a winner in for us or clear one off the line because they’re on a few quid more than the bloke playing directly opposite them.  They’ll do it because they have got this far through skill, guts, esprit de corps and unity of purpose and because they desperately want to grab the prize their eyes now alight upon.

Nobody’s going to miss a sitter or misjudge a bounce for us or anyone else because of how much they do or don’t earn. It’s all up for grabs and that’s where nerves kick in.

A few have been calling for more of the Under-23s –  how brilliantly they’ve done under Johnson and Dunn – to be pitched in, but however much they’ve done the club proud, that’s a big ask. Mowbray saw at Portsmouth that a rash moment in a pressure-cooker situation could be costly (fortunately it wasn’t on that occasion). I will admit it’s difficult to imagine Peter Whittingham contributing much more significantly at this stage than say Travis, or Tomlinson, but I stand to be proved wrong if the second-best left foot in the club eventually finds a way to chip in!

I remember sitting with Stuart Ripley and he explained how Rovers started losing and drawing to teams they had previously routinely thrashed as the 1995 title came into sight. He said it was the same ball, same pitch but it somehow felt you were in a fug within it unable to function properly individually or even be aware of the other 10 lads around you. He compared it most accurately to Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor repeatedly missing that black in the 1985 world final which they’d have knocked in all day with the cue round their backs practicing.

We’ve seen this week that the best teams in the world balls it up, squander leads, fail to start on the front  foot and that their fans look questioningly at players and managers they came to regard as infallible weeks earlier.

This is the Third Division we’re in, for goodness sake, and there are no supermen playing in it. Anyone in sport can fall prey to vulnerability at the business end of a long haul, MK Dons and Southend almost took advantage of that….nobody on Ewood thought that last-gasp effort of theirs was staying out once, never mind two, three times!

With staggered fixtures up to late April we’ll be looking to take every advantage we can, starting on Saturday at Bristol Rovers where we hope for a less wearied looking Rovers than we saw in the Gillingham stalemate.

Just like the players, we fans need to hold our nerve and avoid hysterical over-reaction.

At least the travelling fans won’t come off the Memorial Ground as utterly desolate as those who travelled to that most curious of venues, Eastville, in 1981.

Already renowned as something of a Rovers bogey ground after a miserable 1970’s  largely horribly unsuccessful against our near kit-sakes, we went on the final day of the campaign needing to better Swansea’s result at Deepdale to be promoted to Division One under Howard Kendall which would have made it from Third to top league in successive seasons.

Surrounded by a massive dog/athletics track, you seemed on the away end of the quaintly appointed stadium (Greyhound racing scoreboard in front of one random structure) to be closer to the cars racing overhead on a flyover section of the motorway than the pitch. Even a decent Rovers following was spread out on a vast-ish terrace.

Those of course were the days of no phones or internet. The closest thing to technology enabling you to follow events elsewhere was carrying a little battery-powered transistor radio (earphones practically unheard of) or, next best, standing somewhere reasonably close to a bloke who had one pressed to his ear.

Can’t exactly remember the goals sequence but at one point we were one-nil ahead through Kevin Stonehouse – winning there would usually be cause for celebration alone – and a rumour somehow started that a Transistor Man had indicated that North End were winning.

I remember watching from towards the back at first bewildered, momentarily overjoyed then in utter despair as a small pocket of celebration spread across the end only for the realisation to dawn that it was, of course, all utter mischievously and rather cruelly made-up bollocks. Despite us hanging on for the emptiest of victories the much-detested Leighton James had shot the Swans to goal-difference promotion.

Not a word was uttered on the bus home for a couple of hours on a day now immortalised in song. There was indeed, a couple of busloads of exultant Welshmen across the carriageway at one or two service stations. I had neither the spirit nor enthusiasm to engage them in any kind of verbal sparring or any other more energetic forms of jousting.

At least these days if you miss out like that, you have the play-offs to fall back on. The lad I sit next to reminded me last week they’re guaranteed now whatever happens!

BLUE-EYED BOY

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Classy spine feted by fellow pros along with cool hand Adam give Rovers look of winners

IMG_E4192[1]These are pretty remarkable times at Ewood..and all and sundry obscure and path-least-trodden points the League One compass has despatched us to.
I’ve looked very hard and I’m struggling to find a run of results in Rovers’ history to match the remarkable current sequence of one defeat in 28 league games. Twenty-three unbeaten under Don Mackay in 1987-88 is a record but it all rather fell to bits after that.
Other notable unbeaten runs end in the teens.
Gordon Lee’s Third Division Champions lost just one of the last 18 in 1975. They didn’t lose till the fourth game of the next campaign. 
But if you’d said after the feckless and despairing defeat at Boundary Park in mid-October that Rovers would lose just once more up to and including Easter, you’d have attracted looks to suggest you wanted locking up for your own safety.
As is often the case with these things, what eventually metamorphosised into such a thrilling roller-coaster began relatively quietly and modestly, chugging slightly upwards at a moderate pace with draws at home to Plymouth and Fleetwood, a respectable nowt apiece at Wigan and a fine Ewood victory over Portsmouth in between the first two draws.
Many of those who chanted “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” at Oldham remained steadfastly unconvinced that anything significant was beginning even after the stalemate at the DW. A draw at home to the Cod Army later that week suggested it highly likely wasn’t all about to happen.
That win over Portsmouth sent us into a play-off spot – but Shrewsbury stood a massive 14 points above us at that stage, Wigan 12. At that stage plenty believed a top six spot and a shot at the play-offs was the best that could be hoped for.
If anybody was panicking about the possibility of automatic promotion, it certainly wasn’t Tony Mowbray and the manager deserves enormous credit, far more than he’s got actually, for steering us through such a memorable six months.

One pal on Twitter said: “Quite simply he’s given us our Rovers back, not just the results but the style we play with at times is the most thrilling I’ve seen at Rovers since Mark Hughes was gaffer.” Hear, hear. In some ways I’ve enjoyed the football this season considerably more than watching Sam Allardyce’s Premier League Rovers.

All managers make mistakes which we fans unerringly pick out with our faultless 20-20 hindsight but Mowbray has tailored the side, bravely jettisoning some of his own less successful signings, to perfection with the resources available.
January’s market is often said to be one you can’t really obtain quality to improve the side in but the recruitment of Payne and Armstrong was inspired stuff. It would have been easy to have persisted with Whittingham, Samuel, Gladwin even, hoping that they came good but Mowbray said, no, there are two guys here who can lift it a level.
Armstrong’s brilliant brace in Milton Keynes had a  touch of Jimmy Greaves about them. The cool confidence of a striker who believes in himself…hard to believe Bolton couldn’t find him a role, but our gain, their loss.
I said and believed after the Plymouth defeat that not many teams surrendered one unbeaten run then instantly embarked on another but that’s exactly what Rovers have done with seven wins and two draws since.
League One has three outstanding teams this season. One of them will miss out on an automatic berth and could possibly miss out altogether.
But you know what? Even if it’s us, I’ve enjoyed it enough to say without hesitation I’d renew my season ticket.
I’ve kept trying to rein my expectations in by saying all the teams in contention will have stutters and setbacks. But if you don’t lose any the constant collecting of points chips away at sides who do suffer an odd defeat as last weekend proved.
There is no-one in the list of teams we have to play we need fear. Five of them are under comparatively new management, true (most teams are at this stage of proceedings) like Southend, for example,who replaced Phil Brown with Chris Powell in January and have improved. I’m getting less convinced by my own theory that we’ll lose one or two along the way though.
Anyone who takes a point off us presently must think they are doing very, very well indeed.
The last time Southend appeared at Ewood we were just hitting a run more or less the polar opposite of the one we’re on now. A 2-2 draw was the fifth game on the trot King Kenny’s Second Division leaders had failed to win. Worse was to follow. After a win at Brighton the following week, we lost six on the run and drew the seventh.
Their star man Brett Angell actually turned us down around deadline time, I wonder if he ever regrets that? Mind you we did try to sign more or less every decent striker in the division around the time!
I’m pretty confident nothing like that will befall us this time.
Two more wins over the Easter weekend coupled with a defeat apiece for both of our rivals strengthened our hand considerably.
Bradford looked a poor, poor outfit – remember people calling for Mowbray to be replaced by Simon Grayson? – and after having to show considerable patience Dack added another goal of sublime movement and cool, clinical precision to his impressive collection, fed by outstanding-on-the-night Corry Evans, which would have graced any level of football. Dack, as I’ve said so often, reminds me of Duncan McKenzie in the way he makes football look like a leisure activity rather than a hardship, a cerebral rather than muscular contest.
Conway’s match-clinching contribution was a popular one in our house – we got an ecstatic What’s App update from the girls at Ewood as we sat in a Glasgow pub which didn’t have Sky!
Before Shrewsbury play in the league again, Rovers have the opportunity to bank six points at home to Southend and away to Gillingham on Tuesday. Shrewsbury then go to Bradford on Thursday. Surely even their indomitable refusal to be disheartened would be tested by a seven-point deficit?
That’s all speculation and wishful thinking for now.
Back in the land of facts, congratulations to Dack, Charlie Mulgrew and David Raya on their selection for the league XI by their fellow professionals. Dack and Mulgrew were the most obvious of picks but  I said in this column earlier in the season that I doubted there was a better keeper than Raya at this level and I’m delighted to have been proved right by those who know their footballers best.
I’m looking forward to Ewood on Saturday having missed the Bradford game.
And fellow columnist Old Blackburnian, who made the journey to Milton Keynes, is far better qualified to sum up events there so I’ll leave the last word this week to him.
“MK Dons away is not one of the fixtures that typically makes the heart race at the beginning of a season, but at this point, of this particular season; especially in the last 15 minutes on Monday…
Well, let’s put it this way, an ECG on any random Rovers’ fans in the handsome 2,500 following would have had heart specialists from miles around being called in on their days off. 
If there is a valid criticism of Rovers this season, especially away from home; it is the inability to string together two consecutive halves of high quality and so it was again here. 
What was it that Sven-Göran Eriksson used to say when England boss ?
“First half good….second half….not so good…”
In an eerie atmosphere where 10,000 fans rattled around the cavernous 30,000 seater stadium, Rovers dominated the first half albeit at a testimonial pace. The only time raw pace was evident was when the pocket Geordie rocket Armstrong latched onto Graham’s exquisite cross-field passes with devastating consequences for MK. 
Whatever went in Rovers’ tea at half time it seemed to dull the edge of a side that perhaps found the first 45 minutes too easy ? Once again, pinned back by inferior opposition. Once again indebted to David Raya for a couple of worldies that kept the now rejuvenated MK Dons attack at bay.
On a day where the main men of Dack, Mulgrew & Graham never quite fired on all cylinders, Rovers owe a massive debt to Raya and Armstrong. It would be an insult to the other to have to name one of them as Man of the Match, if ever a joint award was deserved, it was here.
I must confess, I’m not too sure as to how many more of these I can cope with…without medication !
 IMG_E4193[1]
BLUE-EYED BOY/OLD BLACKBURNIAN (MK Photos courtesy of Old Blackburnian)
Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments