The first home game of any new season is rich with possibilities; a blank canvas awaiting the oils, brushstrokes and perhaps a palette knife flourish.
When it comes hard on the heels of a fully deserved promotion, then the anticipation of the fans to see a masterpiece revealed is unsurprisingly heightened.
In a division that boasts, if that’s the right word, ten of the teams that were founder members of the Premier League, a glance down the fixture list evokes memories of bygone days. A fixture list that contrives to proffer Millwall as the first visitors to Ewood might, therefore, be described as anti-climactic at best, downright disappointing at worst.
Millwall rarely have been described as attractive opposition; revelling in their “no one likes us” persona to such an extent that even a 2004 FA Cup final appearance against Manchester United didn’t endear them to many neutrals. Mind you, Dennis Wise as player-manager…
That said, Saturday’s test against one of the surprise packages of last season’s Championship served ultimately both as a reality check against premature optimism but also to set something of a benchmark as to what can be achieved with a squad of well-drilled, physically honed, tactically organised players, led by a down to earth, respected manager. Rovers resplendent in their new, paler than usual, “Cambridge blue” kit, contrived also to look, initially at least, like pale imitations of last year’s promotion-winning incarnation. In a first half, in which they were largely out muscled and out thought by their opponents, Millwall did the simple things well; essentially, pass accurately, move quickly and shoot when the opportunities presented themselves.
Rovers set off in pre-season friendly mode it seemed, unaware that their opponents were champing at the bit. Listless, sluggish and reluctant to keep possession, it was all a little dispiriting as Millwall dictated the pace early on.First Saville and then Morison took advantage of gaping holes through the centre of Rovers midfield to hit each of the uprights in turn. Morison’s effort in particular defying physics to come back off the post at the angle it did. A snooker player armed with fresh chalk would have done well to achieve the back and side spin that eventually spared Rovers.
Evans and Smallwood were notionally assigned to form a protective shield in front of the back four but time and time again, Millwall passed by them, around them and through them. Possession was given away repeatedly, notwithstanding the song lyrics, the “King of Ewood” seemed to have abdicated, but in fairness, he wasn’t alone in needing a recalibration of his passing radar. A welcome but rare spell of pressure just before half time saw Rovers win a free kick on the edge of the area and it was Bradley Dack rather than Charlie Mulgrew who struck a sharp effort goalwards, a fine save from Jordan Archer foiling Rovers. Neither the first nor the only time that would happen as events transpired. Rovers then found the woodwork, this time Darragh Lenihan hitting the top of the bar with a looping header.
The break served Rovers well, the second half saw much more movement, faster passing and more concerted pressure on Millwall’s defence. Danny Graham was twice sent through, twice defied his age, held off the last defender only to be denied by the efforts of the impressive Archer. The frustration of Graham was palpable and was shared by teammates and supporters alike. Graham also confounded everyone by remaining on the pitch for the full ninety minutes but I suspect Bennett’s injury was a major contributor to that.
Substitutions saw the impressive Palmer leave the field to be replaced by another new boy, Joe Rothwell; then the moment many had been awaiting, the introduction of “mini-Shearer”; the returning prodigal Adam Armstrong replacing the struggling Smallwood. One thing I will say for Smallwood, when he is hooked he doesn’t hang around to milk applause, he really “legs it” off the pitch to make way. Smallwood has been rejected as a Championship player before and this appearance one has to hope is just an aberration. Rothwell then had a tidy run and a shot, saved inevitably by Rovers’ nemesis Archer, but that was largely that.
It seemed that both sides were content in the last few minutes to share the points, Millwall’s Neil Harris saying as much in an unusually balanced and very refreshing post-match interview. Not for him the hyperbole of a Neil Warnock nor the referee-bashing of a Mark Hughes and credit to him for that.
The conclusion from the afternoon’s events is that Rovers seem much more organised than at the opening of our last Championship campaign; not altogether surprising, the squad is more balanced; albeit with some notable weaknesses, but a successful loan window, bringing in options especially up-front, wide and perhaps even central midfield could make the difference between comfort and concern come next May.
Tuesday saw a return to Brunton Park for a third cup tie in five years; this time in the Carabao Cup and not surprisingly, Mowbray used the opportunity to ring the changes, in that troublesome central midfield area. A team including Dack, Armstrong and Palmer should have had too much for Carlisle and thankfully, so it proved.
A bright start seemed to tie things up in the opening seven minutes and despite a stunning Carlisle reply applauded by Rovers and Carlisle fans alike, it ended in a welcome, handsome victory embroidered by quality goals, fluent, penetrative passing and another truly brilliant display from Bradley Dack.
Two goals and two assists only tell half the story of how Dack pulled the strings and ran the show.
There were odd lapses of concentration – although not in regard to Carlisle’s goal which would have graced the World Cup and made it a game for a few minutes – and the gifted Palmer must learn not to accrue cheap bookings as he did in a needless rush of petulance here.
But a strong line up demonstrating superiority over lower league opposition has not always been Rovers’ practice in this competition and it made for a pleasant evening on this easiest of journeys to breeze so stylishly into Thursday’s draw for Round Two.
Tony Mowbray now prepares his team for a visit to Hull City, a club who appear to have eschewed the usual relegated Premier League club’s modus operandi of chucking parachute money and a good deal more at a swift re-promotion while ignoring the FFP rules and any likely consequences.
Most of the star names from the top-flight side followed Harry Maguire out of the door, gates and aspirations have become much-reduced and the openly antagonistic owners seem determined to get the remaining support’s backs up in any way possible, most noticeable to outsiders by embarking on a mission to adopt the most fan-unfriendly pricing policy imaginable.
Their arcane decision to remove any form of concessions in their ticket pricing structure (and it all began with a membership scheme} has served to rile away fans with families, the elderly and the disabled; but spare a thought for the Hull fans who have that issue each home game. That has had much to do with the dwindling attendances and engenders regular protests against the out of touch owners who seem intent on ignoring and irritating their fans…insert your own punchline here folks…
Astonishingly, the EFL remains silent on this topic, content instead to ensure that Carabao Cup draws take place in ever more exotic locations. Priorities eh?
With home games against two of the division’s less fancied teams swiftly following the KC Stadium trip, a smattering of the swagger and self-belief that the cup romp infused could well see Rovers overcome the rather underwhelmed Humbersiders if we’re on our mettle and set up the return to Ewood as an early opportunity to stack some significant points up.