(Picture courtesy Andy Currie)
My great friend of 47 tears, boy and man since day one at Secondary School Riversider 23 has occasionally taken the reins on this column this season. Here are his thoughts having journeyed to Brentford. Follow him on Twitter too @MarkMark37m
As strange as it may seem – since the outcome was relegation – last Sunday at Brentford was the most I’ve enjoyed a Rovers game for a long time.
Lovely weather, cosy ground, friendly stewards, buzzing atmosphere, flying start, and an eventual victory against the odds through sheer effort and guts against a good side who played some brilliant flowing football at times.
Add to that the barely-hoped-for drama of actually reaching and holding onto a “staying-up” position, and then the changes in the scorelines at Forest and Bristol City filtering through an increasingly anxious and despondent crowd, Conway head-to-head with Harlee Dean, Graham’s glaring miss, Dean’s-sending off and Conway’s penalty conversion to seal the victory, then hoping and praying for that Tammy Abrahams equaliser that must surely come (but never did), and it was an altogether unforgettable experience.
It was also a fitting end to a season that started, for me, at Spotland watching the pre-season friendly and wondering where on earth we could look for any hope at all.
Lowe and Feeney down the right. Was that the best we could do? Surely not.
How good were Byrne, Stokes and Hendrie? Not very as it turned out.
Still, Coyle would surely sort things out., realise where the gaps and weaknesses are. Bring people in. Nah.
Forward a short while to Norwich at home, and witness the most despairing start to a season that you’ll ever see.
The arrival of Greer and Williams tightened things up a bit, Mahoney and Joao and Emnes eventually added some much-needed flair, and Lowe and Guthrie were lately recognised as the best central midfield pairing available.
On the other hand, none of the wingers were reliable or consistently selected and none could deliver the quality of crosses needed, and there was never any sense of the managers being clear about who the best front two were. Chopped and changed all the time.
On the main ifs and buts – and ignoring gifted goals and missed chances and late equalisers – the replacement of Coyle with Mowbray came much too late, the replacement of Steele with Raya came even later, and, probably most significantly in the end, the worst spell under Mowbray came with the losses against Reading and Barnsley and the lame home draw in what was the real must-win game against Bristol City.
That poor period (punctuated by a win out of the blue at Forest) was a direct result of the injuries to Mulgrew and Lenihan in the first 46 minutes of the match at Reading.
With Hoban and Brown as the only centre-back options left to him, Mowbray had my sympathy.
It was an unenviable task to try and put a solid team together then.
Steele was nervier, and I think Mowbray made a significant misjudgement in using Akpan to (in theory, at least) protect a dodgy and off-the pace central defence while Guthrie was left on the bench for long periods.
So, we’re back where we were last August. Looking forward (perversely) to a new season, without much of a clue what players we might be watching, or who will be managing them – never mind discussing where the strengths and weaknesses are and what the best formation would be.
In my experience, the hope and enjoyment never really dies, although there have often been very miserable periods of frustration and a hint of despair.
My first season watching the Rovers was a relegation season – my first game a 4-1 win at Turf Moor, followed by months around the drop-zone.
Like this season, a surprising away win at Forest rekindled some hope, but in the end down we went. And then down again to the Third Division.
Even when we were in the top division, there were times when the over-riding impact of a game was the feeling that we’d never get anywhere till we could replace Emerton and Pedersen – just as an example.
Alongside that, over the years there’s been the joy of watching Metcalfe and Fazackerley, Hird and Bailey, Wagstaffe, Field, Price, Brotherston, McKenzie, Barker, Moran, Berg, Hendry, Shearer, Duff, Dunn, Jansen, Tugay, Bentley and Santa Cruz – to name just a few.
And now I still can’t stop myself thinking “if we can keep Raya, Lenihan, Mulgrew, Guthrie, and then if Tomlinson, Hardcastle and a couple of other youngsters come through, and Mowbray brings in some nuggets from elsewhere, and moulds them into the kind of team we saw at Brentford in spite of their individual limitations…” and that’s the life of a football fan.
When I’ve been to watch the Rovers at Old Trafford when Ferguson was the manager, I’ve been struck by how boring their expectation of guaranteed victory every game must be. I wouldn’t want that.
I also have no time for any of the “We want our Rovers back”, “We want Venkys out”, “There’s only one Jack Walker” attitude.
Relegation was quickly followed by a flood of articles in the national press about the ins and outs of the Venkys, Jerome Anderson, SEM/Kentaro, the FA, “fit and proper person” etc.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s business – and my pleasure is in watching football.
Part of my enjoyment on Sunday was the performance of Romaine Sawyers – apparently not that appreciated at Brentford, but the best player I’ve seen all season. Didn’t put a foot wrong and just kept them flowing. Coolness personified.
And while it would be great to feel part of a homely, unified, fan-and-family-and-community-oriented club again – like Brentford – in the meantime, I’ll be happy enough watching players perform as a team and grow together and work for each other with drive and spirit to compete and win. Whatever they’re getting paid or how long’s left on their contract.
The Rovers delivered that on Sunday, but who knows what’s to come?