Blue-Eyed Boy is unwell this week so the man in the next seat along assesses Rovers’ continued good health.
Coming away from our match-day parking spot above what was the Manxman, down towards Bolton Rd and the old iron bridge, we pass the site of the old Blackburn Royal Infirmary.
I had to be taken there a few times as a child to get stitches in the cuts and gashes that were an occupational hazard of crawling through blitzweed on spare land littered with rusty corrugated iron and broken glass. And when I was six, I had to stay there for three nights to have my tonsils and adenoids out, as was the fashion in those days. That was in December 1965 and it meant missing the Rovers home game with fellow relegation candidates, Northampton.
We won 6-1, and the Telegraph headline stuck in my mind – “A miracle on ice!”
We played each other in the old Division 2 the following season but there would be no more league meetings for over 50 years. Then, last Saturday, it was Rovers v Northampton again and – after the buzz of the Shrewsbury game, followed by a completely dominant first-half at Fleetwood – I was so confident about the result that, for the first time in a long time, I included us in my “banker” accumulator.
I was even harbouring sentimental thoughts of another 6-1.
Mowbray’s signings during the window – Payne, Armstrong and Bell – were on the bench, and the revitalised Danny Graham looked resplendent in his new haircut and snazzy white boots. All would be well.
Well, it wasn’t.
An air-shot from Conway on the edge of the box led to a Northampton break that initially looked well-covered by Nyambe, but then the ball was switched left, the cross came in before the back four could regroup, and a flicked header looped past Raya. Twelve minutes gone.
Going behind isn’t as doom-laden as it used to be, though. Especially that early in the match. This side has class and confidence and fight, and will come back – as the unbeaten run of sixteen games and counting has demonstrated.
Three minutes later and Mulgrew leapt to make a clearing header near the half-way line and landed badly, turning his ankle. It soon became clear that was the end of his contribution, and his painfully tentative limping departure suggested he might be absent for a while.
The possibility of losing Mulgrew or Smallwood or Dack (most importantly) for any length of time has felt like the biggest threat to achieving automatic promotion, so it was reassuring that Williams filled the Mulgrew spot so effectively, and his move inside enabled the introduction of Amari’i Bell.
Williams looked much more comfortable with the time and space that playing centre-back against a non-threatening Northampton attack allowed him, and he had a ready outlet in Bell. Bell himself caught the eye with slick movement and an unflappable style, and in the second half delivered some top-quality crosses that caused alarm in the Northampton defence and should have produced goals. I’m sure he’ll prove to be a very good buy.
Northampton are a big strong side, and they play ugly football. Destructive rather than constructive. Their persistent fouling and time-wasting was frustrating, if understandable, and their approach turned out to be effective. They needed that point, and they celebrated the draw as if it was a victory.
Unfortunately, we got sucked into the ugliness, and – worryingly – didn’t seem to grasp that change was needed even when it was patently obvious that lofting the ball towards Graham wasn’t working. I totted up at least 10 attempts before Graham even got a touch.
Having reverted to his green boots at half-time, he won his first header from a cross into the box but no-one was on hand for his knock-down. Minutes later, Samuel’s cross reached him and he planted his header in for the equaliser. My reaction was a mixture of relief and disbelief. Good cross from Samuel. Good header from Graham. How did that happen? It felt like a big room full of monkeys and typewriters had just written something coherent.
From Smallwood’s substitution on 57 mins and with Dack sitting way too deep as a consequence, all shape and connectedness was gone, and the game petered out. That sense of automatic promotion being a realistic prospect had taken a 90-minute battering.
Fortunately, the mood was lifted again by Tuesday and Walsall. They were as small as Northampton had been big, and Danny Graham had a first-half field day against their young, slight and inexperienced centre-back Kory Roberts. Roberts was replaced at half-time, and Graham reverted to type.
Not for the first time recently, Mowbray had made the right changes to his starting eleven, with Payne and Armstrong coming in for Conway and Samuel, the finishing back-four from the Northampton game retained, and Bennett and Smallwood in midfield harness, and the 3-1 score doesn’t nearly reflect the Rovers’ dominance.
Walsall were comprehensively outfought and outplayed from the off, and 6-1 would have been a more fitting outcome. Special mention goes to captain Elliott Bennett, to young Geordie Armstrong, and to the Walsall keeper, Liam Roberts, without whose heroics both Graham and – at a stretch – Armstrong would have had a hat-trick.
We’re back on track (with Dack) and we can approach the coming games against Plymouth and Oldham with confidence that our unbeaten run will be extended to 20 matches. Fate, do your worst!