An eight-game unbeaten run and a steady climb up the table are not to be sniffed at, particularly for a side which lurked dangerously close to the lower regions of the Championship table early on, but entertainment was in short supply over the two games at Ewood across the weekend.
If the players, paid handsomely to be fit and prepared to play football matches, “tired,” poor luvvies, towards the end of the game against Forest – whose own players, miraculously, managed to see their second 90 minutes away from home in four nights out strongly – that was nothing compared to the mental exhaustion suffered by the fans sat watching two largely mind-numbing spectacles.
A pal who hadn’t been down for three years sat through the Rotherham game with me and politely enquired towards the end: “Is this any better than it’s been?” I said it was, but only in terms of the result in truth. Offered the opportunity to repeat his visit for the Forest game, he tactfully declined.
On Monday night my daughter, feverishly excited, jumping around screaming and whistling at Deepdale towards the end, groaned and looked almost about to burst into tears when eight minutes of stoppage time was added on a long, cold, miserable school night. I didn’t feel a whole lot differently myself to be honest.
A single own-goal over 180 minutes, four points and two clean-sheets made for some positives but overall I feel that anyone claiming to have seen a vast improvement under Paul Lambert is seeing something that might not really yet be there.
Imagination is a powerful deceiver, as Mrs MacManus’s lad Declan (better known as Elvis Costello) once sang and while three consecutive shut-outs inarguably point to Rovers looking “hard to beat” I’m yet to be convinced they’ll be that hard to overcome when they come up against anyone decent.
Forest’s point, obtained with a system that was set up for a nil-nil and seldom looked like not obtaining it, made it a staggering 16 teams from the last 24 to visit Ewood to depart with either a point or all three. That’s an astonishing statistic which Lambert has to improve. Even he has only one home win at home out of three, continuing an appalling sequence which has gone on far too long and largely seen only the division’s most desperate duffers leave empty-handed as a general rule of thumb.
And the dithering and passing along the 18-yard line, which characterised the opening 10 minutes against Rotherham and almost led to a goal given away even against a team as bereft of quality as that, was precisely the kind which may be punished by better sides with better players. That was a mercifully brief, nipped-in-the bud aberration which harked back to the early-season mix-up which gifted Cardiff the lead.
After that the back four did well in both games with Duffy and Hanley, who often last season looked like two ruddy-faced town centre litre of cider merchants arguing over the last fag in the pack, continuing their outstanding pairing.
Yes, the first half performance against Forest was a little better but I get the impression if we actually score a goal, like, you know, at the end of a proper move or something, or beat someone significant, people will be rhapsodising as if the spirit of the 1953 Mighty Magyars or Carlos Alberto’s Mexico 1970 goal of joy has been summoned up.
A couple of crosses and headers is all fine and dandy but we are playing at home against teams who are nowhere in the league remember, I’d be deeply shocked and concerned if we went 90 minutes without the odd foray into opposition territory.
Looking beyond the back line for positives is currently a considerably more difficult undertaking.
The tireless (if he is why aren’t the others?) Conway continues to beaver away – his style so reminds me of diminutive 1970’s favourite Johnny Price – and as ever looks the likeliest supply line. The rest however have created little, a small sign of that the feverish excitement which is now generated when we get a couple of corners.
Since Lambert took over we’ve had two own-goals, a deflected effort besides, two penalties and one game-changing red card against at a time when it materially affected the game.
I’ve heard a great deal about how good it is to have a “lucky manager” and thus far, I’m delighted he’s got that blessing. But the trouble is you can sometimes use a decent amount of your supply up over a short period and as Big Sam often found, habitually seeming to enjoy all the luck in the world often proves illusory when you meet superior sides.
Happily, there are no Arsenals or Man Uniteds to be encountered at this level but we may need more than pure good fortune to go and pick up wins – and we are going to need wins eventually if we are to be the genuine contenders some fancy – against the like of Reading and Boro (although we have already had a stroke in that Nugent has got himself suspended for Boxing Day).
Lambert at least has seen glaringly that we need additions.
He enjoys an unreserved well of faith and goodwill but the two games over the weekend, the scrappiest of wins and the dullest of draws, would have been unfavourably regarded under the previous management as would some of his substitutions, although those arguing that the currently unproductive Marshall ought to be left on are dwindling by the week as his end-product diminishes exponentially.
Chris Brown, again given a PR push ahead of his unexpected recent selections, gave a cameo on Friday of such mind-bogglingly monumental incompetence that my mate’s bright six-year-old grandson Archie, who comments throughout with a wisdom, insight and articulacy Robbie Savage will never attain, exasperatedly said: “Grandad, I never, ever, EVER want to see Chris Brown play for us again.”
Seconded by all present I’d have said. He can surely never feature again save in an emergency.
At one point with the game in stoppage time and the ball sailing harmlessly out for a time-consuming throw he sprinted to the far touchline from us, rose like a salmon, twisted his body into a balletic pirouette and pulled off what looked like the physically impossible feat of heading it back into play….without a colleague within 40 yards of it.
Koita, Lambert’s pick on Monday, has little else to go with obvious enthusiasm. He wins a header here and has a booming shot there but watching the two minute video highlight package, it was telling to see Rhodes plainly telling him and pointing where to position himself on at least three of the clips. He’s an instinctive footballer whose instincts aren’t really quick enough.
I tire of these “he’s got to get used to English football” pleas on his behalf. He’s no kid, he’s 25 and has played 100 senior games in France. I’m yet to hear anyone explain how the game, played by two teams of 11 with the same ball over 45 minutes a half, is so deeply unfathomable here to imports.
Rhodes too has hit a lean spell with only one goal from open play and a penalty in 11 matches. He looks marginalised and unless he gets an able partner might become more so if early hints that Lambert favours a long ball approach prove long term.
Hopefully the clever Lawrence, another player unsuited to a direct style, will be restored on Sunday even if his time with us may now be short.
I’m not sure that a 34-year-old injury-ravaged Grant Holt, a player I admired hugely during a spell covering Rochdale matches, would add much, he’s managed just a single appearance on loan at Wolves this season.
It remains to be seen whether that’s our market or whether there is genuine finance to be thrown at it.
Here’s hoping for a win in Berkshire. A draw will keep the pot boiling statistically but will see us lose more ground on the pack. After a decent start Reading have floundered and catching them between managers or days after appointing one might be turned into another stroke of Lambert luck to go with the kind set of fixtures he’s had to start with.