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 !
BLUE-EYED BOY/OLD BLACKBURNIAN (MK Photos courtesy of Old Blackburnian)
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No cakewalk as Rovers face promotion by a thousand dramas

It’s Wednesday morning as I’m writing this. If you read it at the Observer’s traditional dropping-on-the-doormat hour of Friday morning, you’ll know how we’ve gone on against Bradford. We could be top and full of bravado, we could be third and beginning to panic.

If you’re one of those readers who dashes out on Thursday night perhaps you’ll be on your way to the match at Ewood full of apprehension.

However we do against Simon Grayson’s team, we have another afternoon of gnawing at our nails and fretting over how our rivals are doing on Friday. Then again on Monday when we visit the Milton Keynes Dons while Shrewsbury play, perhaps listening out for how Wigan are getting on at Portsmouth in the late game on the way back.

Again, we could be sitting pretty or back to square one.

Postponements, international breaks, fixture pile-ups, rearrangements and Sky messing with our heads by rescheduling games for telly have all conspired to ensure these nervy, anxious, mini psycho-dramas are to be played out on a two or three-times weekly basis until anything is resolved.

To say one former Rovers reporter recently told us he knew all along it would be a cakewalk for big-spending Rovers and so it’s proved (“You’ll be up by Easter,” he assured, puzzlingly) I seem to have spent an awful lot of time pacing around in a similar state of mild panic and catatonic inertia to that in which I sat around awaiting further instructions when my wife was detained overnight in the maternity unit 14 years ago. Advice to “get home and get some sleep before it all starts happening,” was as helpful and calming then as folk telling me promotion is a formality or what will be will be is now.

If this doesn’t go the 46th-game wire it will be a bonus. Whatever unfolds, a cakewalk it most assuredly was not.

In another week of inactivity, most focus was on the health and well-being of our captain and now, proudly I say, Scotland’s too, Charlie Mulgrew. It’s quite ironic that many, including myself, thought that signing him was an act of recklessness and now fans point him out as an integral piece of the jigsaw who the very thought of losing for a game, or even worse losing him to a rival club after the second year of the much –criticised three-year deal,  is almost unthinkable.

It was a mild surprise, although possibly less mild after Grant Hanley’s flight home, to see him play the whole of the 1-0 win in Budapest which gave him less than 48 hours to get home, rest up and prepare for the Bradford game.

But on balance after what wasn’t the most testing stroll in Ferencvaros’s Groupama Arena, missed penalty and booking notwithstanding, I’m sure the schedule isn’t that much more exhausting than say, playing Scunthorpe and Rotherham on December 30th and January 1st.

I think back to previous Easters when playing three games over the weekend was commonplace. Gordon Lee’s champion 1975 side played at home Good Friday and Easter Saturday and then Tuesday night.

Howard Kendall’s Third Division runners-up of 1980 played Hull at home on Friday, Mansfied away on Saturday and Sheffield United at home on Easter Monday. Typically, they won all three by a single goal to nil with the same starting eleven all three times. The one substitute Stuart Metcalfe, was unused twice but came on for ten minutes at Field Mill.

What a contrast that was to twelve months earlier. We went to Boundary Park on Good Friday 1979 and got quite royally banjo’ed by five to nil. Derek Fazackerly got sent off and at five, for one of very few times in my life, I actually came off the ground early, able to face no more of the humiliation.

“That must have took some getting over,” you might say. There wasn’t time to get over it actually. Less than 24 hours later we were kicking off at Ewood against Burnley. Without our suspended best defender! A youthful Simon Garner put us ahead but Burnley turned it round. “Clarets Twist The Relegation Knife” said the Sports Pink headline and only the Play-Off defeat at Palace ever came close to that. A remarkable win at Roker Park which did us no good but pretty well denied Sunderland promotion on Easter Monday was no consolation. Apart from the fact that the influence of the player coach who helped Stoke sneak into third spot hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Kendall’s tilt at a second successive promotion in 1981 saw a comparatively relaxed Easter schedule. We went to Newcastle on Tuesday, home to Bolton on Good Friday, Deepdale Easter Monday. We drew all three 0-0. A goal in any of them would undoubtedly have seen us promoted but it coincided with one of Simon Garner’s occasional barren spells, he failed to score in the last 12 games that season and Howard, curiously never totally sold on him, stuck him out wide in many games in one of his few tactical blunders.

I watched from under the low Town End roof and feared for his well-being  as a ruddy-faced Kendall almost burst every blood vessel in his head attempting to find the net himself at Deepdale that night, I’m almost sure the last of his hair disappeared during the 90 minutes as he strained every sinew.

So forgive me if I feel Charlie ought to be okay. I quite like lads wanting to play international football in this age when it’s virtually accepted that you pull out on a whim. I think it reflects well on us that a now greatly-loved Rovers player skippers his country.

If he’s pulled up with cramp toe-ing an own goal in by the time you read this, you can delete all the above and insert “what the hell did that clown McLeish think he was doing showing us so little respect, blah, blah…” as you wish.

I don’t think it will decide the season’s destiny in any case.

I read a bit of stuff on the forums about “if we don’t go up, it’s a catastrophe, spending budget will be cut, best players will leave etc.” I kinda knew that though when I signed up for this thing of ours in about 1967.

If we don’t go up automatically or via the play-offs what it will prove is that at least two sides (I’m unsure what Wigan’s budget is comparative to ours) on a comparably much lesser outlay than us have got promoted which would rather suggest that it can be done.

I’m not bothered about worrying what might or might not happen if something else we hope happens doesn’t happen. I’d never actually have nodded off before getting that 4am call from Queens Medical baby unit nurses if I did!


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Gills gaffe did Rovers no favours but Cobblers boost makes sums simple

Those of you who regularly digest my musings will know I find international match breaks profoundly tedious and frustrating so a week which ends with one (and rarely, the family Wilks were all due to go to Doncaster), preceded by a hugely disappointing postponement (on several levels) would be bad enough without an early booking for a trip to Scotland before the fixture was beggared about with rendering me unable to get to the Bradford City home game next Thursday evening.

Shrewsbury’s midweek failure to take maximum points off Northampton – not a situation we are unfamiliar with – lifted the slight mist of apprehension which their win whilst we were inactive on Saturday precipitated and while nobody really believes that anyone is going to take maximum points from nine or thirteen games or whatever, our destiny is at least for a couple of days and highly theoretically “in our own hands” as they say.

Of course it always has been really, although as has been calculated by those far more obsessed with such stats than me, someone could end up third in League One with a record number of points for a team missing out on automatic promotion.

At least we know that we go up if we win every game yet there’s still a way we could actually go up without getting another point and drawing three play-off matches. As we all know, it will be something in between

Travelling supporters had plenty of time to do their calculations coming home from Gillingham, where, scandalously, the match was called off unacceptably late after many had arrived perfectly safely to snow-free streets with the pitch (evidently) perfectly playable.

I’ve heard many theories about why the game was called off – and the official statement from Gillingham certainly raised more questions than any answers it supplied – but the essential kernel of the cause of widespread chagrin among Rovers’ fans is this: there can’t possibly have been any material change or deterioration between say, 8am or 9am (a reasonable if not ideal time to call the game off, Friday afternoon would have been better) and 11.30am in the state of the playing conditions or, what seems to have been the greater problem, in the state of the temporary “18th green at the Open” unroofed structure which was designated to accommodate the 1000 plus Rovers fans who had bought tickets augmented by many who intended turning up and paying at the gate.

I suppose Gillingham have every right not to build a permanent stand if they are close to agreeing a deal to erect a new ground as they say and we’ve seen temporary accommodation before – Bristol Rovers at Twerton Park sat us in such a distinctly inhospitable construct and cover over away fans’ heads everywhere is a  relatively recent and luxurious concept.

But with Rovers always likely to bring a bigger contingent than they are accustomed to, if there was any hope of accommodating them properly surely some shovelling and salting needed doing on Friday and early on Saturday, never mind appealing for a handful of volunteers to get the covers off. It was a crucial clash with the League One leaders and their smattering of international footballers, not Lowerhouse Seconds versus a Fulwood and Broughton XI in a pre-season cricket friendly.

Gillingham’s statement read:  “Following an inspection by the match referee, despite the pitch being potentially playable, the amount of snow that has fallen has caused a health and safety concern for all supporters.

“In addition more severe weather is expected before 3pm and the club wanted to make a decision at the earliest possible opportunity to inconvenience as few people as possible.”

Gillingham added that Blackburn said in a statement that, “whilst the pitch was playable, heavy snowfall had caused a health and safety concern for supporters inside the stadium.”

Although some Rovers fans have pointed out that there were puddles on the approach to the stand, and deduced that any snow covering the seats, stairs and boards could well have melted, Kent Online’s photographs of the stand taken by Andy Jones purport to show the structure still snow-bound after the postponement. Fair enough.

But if they were covered with no prospect of being cleared at close to noon, they were covered on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning too. It was completely in contradiction of the avowed intention “to inconvenience as few people as possible” to leave the decision until Lancastrians were in the environs or very much on the way.

My pal John’s theory is that the powers that be – and just who has the power in this case is debatable, host club, council safety jobsworths, ref, whoever – had panicked about the amber weather warning which proved inaccurate as Medway remained snow free all afternoon.

“I just think they thought they’d have 1500 away supporters stranded in the area who they couldn’t get rid of if roads were blocked and trains cancelled, “ he said, “but that warning was in place from Friday onwards.”

Mystery surrounds the referee Trevor Kettle’s part in proceedings too. It seems he didn’t arrive at Priestfield until 11am, which seems a dereliction of duty and responsibility. That neither he or a local qualified ref was on hand earlier was amateurish in extremis.

I spoke to the EFL’s press officer, Rob Meaden, for his observations but although he was as helpful and obliging as he could be, he was totally unaware of the circumstances – most media lazily and wrongly attributed the postponement to “Pitch frozen” – until I explained them to him. I’ve asked him to look into it and sent him a few pertinent questions but at time of going to press not received a reply. Hopefully he’s making a few phone calls.

The EFL were, of course, fully aware of Neil Warnock’s incendiary remarks given with all his Iago-like sneering innuendo, live on air to Sky Sports News not long after the Derby v Cardiff Championship match was called off in similarly mysterious circumstances on Sunday.

There’s going to be a bit of an investigation into that. Attention seeking sometimes works.

It’s just not Rovers’, or Mowbray’s, style to manipulate a situation to mix anyone a bottle like that and I personally think that’s a more dignified and measured stance but Rovers wonderful travelling legion deserve a better explanation than they’ve had…and at least the offer of a free bus to Kent on the revised date of 10 April.

There were some poignant tales. One fan had flown in from the USA, a bunch of Dutch lads turned up and I read a perfectly reasoned and sensible account by one expat fellow who had also travelled from the Netherlands with his son, monitoring every forecast and warning and listening out for news of any problem, took a late tunnel crossing to Folkestone and emerged at the other end to the crushing news.

Their only consolation was the chance to stock up on English crumpets and tins of mushy peas in a local Sainsburys before forking out £35 for the privilege of returning on an earlier than scheduled crossing.

Some made it back on the coaches to boost the gate at Accrington Stanley. They’d get a warmer welcome than the Accy Branch of Rovers Supporters did in 1980 when we rolled up at Ayresome Park after a postponement – “Just one in the whole of England and Scotland today, at St James Park…” read James Alexander Gordon on the radio the instant we parked up in Newcastle. The Boro fans were unimpressed by our presence on their manor for the alternative entertainment of their First Division clash with Aston Villa. My wife, then 16, and her mate Andrea refused to squander their weekly Rovers spending money on such a frippery and sat on the bus from 2.30pm till five as we endured an uncomfortable afternoon being scowled at menacingly by Teesiders.

What it all now means is at the very business end of the season, we face a month of April in which we play seven games in 26 days, five of them away from home. That’s a tough three and a bit weeks for anyone. Wigan fans may think it’s just a bit of karma after we all assured ourselves that their busy schedule would hamper them.

It’s imperative that our internationals return for the Thursday game fresh and fit. Surely Scotland’s new manager Alex McLeish knows all he needs to know about Charlie Mulgrew without asking him to play in Budapest on Tuesday?

Sorry I won’t be with you on Thursday, our daughters will be though. Hopefully Wigan or Shrewsbury might have had another stumble before we welcome Simon Grayson and his team.

I did manage a bit of football on Tuesday night as I emerged from hibernation after a few months to return to Leyland and see the Under-23s beat Southampton 1-0, a scrappy game getting scrappier before Jack Evans produced a stunning winner in the dying minutes.

Nobody particularly sparkled although centre-half Tyler Magloire did well.

Greatest disappointment of course is that we won’t be seeing Harry Chapman again anytime soon, possibly not ever in our shirt, after the unfortunate recurrence of his hamstring injury just minutes into his comeback game at Villa. Similar problems did for Adam Henley’s career in English football so we hope it was maybe just a week or two too soon for Harry rather than an insurmountable weakness.

Harry was certainly as exciting a young player and prospect as we’ve seen since Duffer burst onto the scene and I’m sure we all wish him nothing but well as he goes back to square one and attempts to start over, wherever he ends up.

The little starman’s energy and verve certainly injected a little bit of sassy and outrageous glam-rock into what was looking like a dull, plodding meat-and potatoes blues-rock kind of season when even the likes of Dack and Graham hadn’t quite kicked in.

Hang onto yourself, Harry.

(Dutch Rovers fans contemplate a fruitless voyage)


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Relentless Rovers have men for all moments as line approaches

It’s not often I’m surprised by a Rovers stat but my pal Andrew pulled a cracker out of the bag about an hour after a satisfying if unremarkable win at Ewood on Saturday.

“I think that’s the first time we’ve ever done the double over Blackpool in our history,” he said, and he’s absolutely right. Unlike the northern founders of the Football League, Blackpool didn’t encounter us in the league until 1930 and up to the relatively recent Premier League victory courtesy of Brett Emerton we’d only actually ever won once at Bloomfield Road.

This has been redressed since although Blackpool might feel a little hard done to by a 7-2 aggregate over the two historic Rovers victories this season, but I doubt their fans will feel as crestfallen as I did in 1978 when Bob Hatton ran riot to seal a similar 7-3 total which had began at Ewood with a Tony Parkes penalty so chronicaly underhit on a cloying surface that George Wood in goal for the Seasiders had to walk apologetically to the six-yard line where it stopped to collect it. That was Blackpool’s last win at Ewood.

As in the encounter at Bloomfield earlier this season, Gary Bowyer’s side had their moments. I made their tall on-loan Newcastle man Sean Longstaff by some distance the best midfielder on the park but their lack of a finisher, or more accurately anyone to even have a  do at finishing, was a failing which has been shared by so many visitors to Blackburn this season.

Nathan Delfouneso tried hard but he has his limitations as a forward as we know and without Kyle Vassell again, it was a relatively untroubled afternoon for a Rovers defence in which Darragh Lenihan was again imperious. Lenihan’s form has rendered Paul Downing almost Ewood’s forgotten man since signing on a permanent basis but that’s what good teams do, replace decent players with even better ones when possible in a constant bid to upgrade and improve.

Not all Mowbray’s signings have come off – Whittingham and Gladwin can probably now be regarded as superfluous to requirements and we are yet to see beyond a  glimpse of what Bell can offer – but I think he has been cleverer and cuter with his shaping of the squad than he is often given credit for.

I firmly believe Rovers are about to go back to the Championship as League One title winners but rather than any great impression as a holistic team unit, we look more a collection of decent players with a commonality of purpose and couple of outstanding individuals capable of pulling out something special on any occasion.

Of the previous Rovers promotions I’ve witnessed, Gordon Lee’s 1975 champion Third division team were characterised by their mighty physical strength in all departments in a  decade of utterly brutal combat and rough-arse muddy pitches in the lower divisions.

Kendall’s 1980 runners-up were underpinned by a keeper and defence (and defensive midfielders) devoid of big names, save an ageing Kendall himself, but almost super-human in their ability to keep clean sheets. Like this side they had a  couple of men to produce the magic moments (Brotherston, McKenzie) and clinical finishers (Crawford and to a lesser extent an embryonic Garner). Often in dour 1-0 affairs.

The 1992 Dalglish side was star-studded and scintillating on its day with a fallibility unsuspected which almost derailed the fairy story. The play-offs provided a second chance to regroup and focus.

The outrageously gifted 2001 side was probably the easiest on the eye of them all and the late season wins over Burnley, Grimsby and Bolton were as close to perfection over 90 minutes as we’ve seen other than on those memorable occasions of knocking seven in in the Premier League.

We’re doing it a very different way this time. We don’t keep clean sheets that regularly, don’t physically overpower the opposition and have seldom threatened to produce displays they’ll be repeating on the nostalgia channels for years to come. We haven’t murdered sides to bits down the wings or through the middle. But one defeat in 25 says we are doing something very right.

Somehow, we’re better than most of the rest and despite slack and at times careless periods like the first half against The Tangerines, we have the men to conjure up a moment such as Mulgrew and Dack did on Saturday when for all the world it looked as if the opening period would end goalless.

We, and hundreds of teams get free-kicks in stoppage time and waste them. Imagine that set-piece half-way into Blackpool’s half a season or two ago, say, with Chris Taylor or Lee Williamson attempting to pick out Hope Akpan or Simeon Jackson.

But Mulgrew’s sublime, precision delivery – the kind we have come to expect as routine from him but which remains a unique gift at this level to hit the target so often, be it shot or cross – gave the brilliant Dack his opportunity to pinch half a yard of space, work out the angles, weigh up which the point of the goal the keeper couldn’t cover was and plant the simplest-looking but requiring-of-the-utmost deftness header home.

It looks easy when it works but if it was so simple someone like Chris Brown wouldn’t have spent a season and a half unable to find and accept such an opportunity.

Adam Armstrong is another who has offered up the big goals at big moments when required.

Enormous credit is due to Tony Mowbray for taking a calculated gamble on a player he knew well but whose career had floundered after their early success together at Coventry to the point that Championship strugglers Bolton couldn’t find a role for him.

Many, including me, thought Mowbray might be better taking a winger or accredited central midfielder on rather than an out-and-out goal-getter but Armstrong has embraced and improved the role previously covered gamely by the less flamboyant Marcus Antonnson and between them the pair look like contributing an Andy Crawford-like tally to augment the weighty contributions of Dack, Graham and Mulgrew.

Armstrong’s brace on Saturday were magnificent in construction and execution and it was heartening to see the like of Evans and Bennett contribute to their creation with Dack’s lay-off for his explosive first and Conway’s pass/ Bennett’s pull-back for the third all exquisite assists.

With the Doncaster Rovers game postponed the Gillingham fixture on Saturday is our last for 12 days until Easter Thursday. Wigan and Shrewsbury will each have played three more by then. The picture will be clearer but a win on Saturday would mean our two closest pursuers would be under great pressure to take maximum points to keep up.  I may be wrong but I can’t see that happening.

Happy travels to the Rovers away army. My only visit to what they once called Priestfield was in that 1980 Howard Kendall promotion season when flame-haired youngster Kevin Stonehouse, later something of a penalty king,  fired in his first two goals at a point when many were doubting the wisdom of appointing a relatively untried player-manager who had produced one win in his first 10 league games.

I’m sorry to bring this up again but I was very disappointed that the club again failed to mention recently-deceased Billy Wilson and Jeff Whalley in the programme on Saturday or honour the pair in any way. There was, if you spotted it, the briefest and most cursory article on Rovers website in late February (not linked to Twitter) without so much as a photograph of either. Not good enough, I’m afraid.

Portsmouth, for whom Bill played less games than Rovers, managed to include a picture of Billy in Rovers kit in their programme and in a big-screen tribute which accompanied a minute’s applause.

I do think Rovers ought to have a better system for recognising former heroes. Off the top of my head Don Martin, Bobby Langton, John Connelly, Ronnie Cairns, Fred Else and John Barton all passed away without being adequately acknowledged.

That’s no criticism of the Rovers’ very young and pro-active social media team, one of whom very decently contacted me about my concerns although eulogising old heroes almost certainly doesn’t fall under his remit and was unfailingly professional and courteous. Someone at the club ought to appoint one of the several noted authors and historians who document and record the fortunes of this august institution for posterity to deal with such occurrences. I’d do it myself if no-one else wanted to be bothered.

Season ticket news is expected any day. I’m in however the season finishes. While the doom-and-gloom merchants have delivered their unofficial verdict that failure to go up this time signals the end of the club as we know it, I and the family have had enough to enjoy this season to say we’ll be down in August come what may, Aston Villa or Accrington.


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Blame game unnecessary on Ewood afternoon of few answers

As far as title deciders or crucial promotion six-pointers go, Sunday’s thrilling Ewood first versus third derby decided absolutely nothing, offered few clues as to how the season will end and taught us little we didn’t already know.

The three teams effectively in the race for an automatic spot will have all taken some encouragement from an afternoon which provided no definitive answers.

Indeed, the feeling among Rovers fans trooping off home in rueful refection rather than raging recrimination was that the (more or less) as-you-were rankings were something of an anti-climax after eagerly calculating daunting points gaps between ourselves, Shrewsbury and Wigan themselves at half-time following one of the most scintillating first 45 minutes at an Ewood occasion for many a moon.

But walking off it felt like an opportunity to put a few more miles between us and our pursuers …it still feels a tiny bit strange thinking of long-time leaders Wigan that way …had been passed over as an eighth team this season left Ewood with something from the game.

The overall spectacle and experience had begun with more of a ‘big game’ feel than any home match since the Man United FA Cup tie early in 2017 (with respect to Shrewsbury whose visit was a proper old clash but not quite on this scale) and the incredible surge of adrenaline and exhilaration which greeted the quite magnificent brace of early goals brought the stands alive in transports of delight the like of which have seldom been witnessed over the last eight years.

It was uplifting to see the place so vibrant: proof that while we have had much to suffer and disagreed on the causes and remedies, we remain largely a united tribe with our rituals and joys and the capacity to be lifted out of our seats whether it’s Liverpool or Luton we are playing. More that unites us than divides us.

Obviously there’s going to be disappointment anytime a two goal lead, brilliantly engineered as it was, is squandered and in truth while Wigan improved greatly in the second half and probably looked marginally likeliest to snatch a late winner – nobody really deserved one – it wasn’t a case of us being comprehensively outplayed or totally under the cosh in the latter part of a game of two polar opposite halves.

No-one really knows why a side “steps off the gas” or “sits back” on a lead whether it’s by a narrow margin or a larger one. We all come off discussing how we maybe should have gone hell for leather for more or “shut the shop up” more tightly but if there was a formula for doing so, properly qualified coaches at the highest levels would have found it by now. There would be no Miracle of Istanbul, Palace 3 Liverpool 3 or Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4.

I can’t really say Wigan were that significantly better for the first 20 minutes of the second half than they were for the last 25 of the first, There was no unmistakeable turning point which turned the game on its axis. Stuff just happens and a random Powell cross not that markedly better than any which preceded it brought the visitors a scruffy lifeline.

Sat there at two up I’d been a little nervous and wished we’d be a little more positive and pro-active but only when, as they say so obviously but rightly, goals change games do you tell yourself: “Maybe that was coming, we’ve asked for that.”

None of us really knows anything about how games turn on their heads which isn’t based on 20-20 hindsight. It’s why the bookies’ floors are full of chucked-away coupons.

Rather than any seismic reversal of the tide it was more of a case of a couple of astute Wigan tweaks and substitutions giving proceedings a subtle shift in balance. With more measured, less frenetic possession Latics finally looked a danger and while no-one would argue the quality of their goals matched ours, their fightback was testament to some clever operating by visiting manager Paul Cook.

I can’t comment accurately from the other side of the pitch or say that his touchline demeanour caused me any concerns sat in the Riverside but some very sensible observers who were a lot nearer reckoned that Cook’s behaviour throughout the 90 minutes was unacceptable, lots of foul-mouthed intimidation of the officials (particularly the fourth) and plenty of the ugly gesticulating and posturing which has come to characterise our game and those (theoretically at least) in the dug-outs.

No wonder some are calling for coaches to be put behind glass in the stand, rugby union fashion, to rid us of this unbecoming and often grotesque weekly pantomime.

There was nothing unbecoming about Rovers’ early display, however, and the word “genius” doesn’t seem as much a stretch describing Bradley Dack’s contribution these days as it might once have.

His geometric precision and vision carved up the visiting defence for both goals, beautifully finished by Armstrong and Bennett. Third division it may be, but he is some footballer.

Armstrong’s had a bit of Kevin Gallagher about it, pace to burn and the confidence and skill to shoot early and surprise the keeper who must surely have expected the wee Geordie to advance a few more yards before so unleashing.

Bennett’s too was a clever finish and far from as simple as he made it look. I’ve seen plenty of them end up cannoning off the keepers’ legs or finish in the side netting.

After much clamour to begin games on the front foot, we got what we asked for in spades but the fabulously restored Lenihan’s stunning tackle to win the ball in the build-up to the first might have been the emblematic moment of the season had we finished the job off with energy and commitment levels maintained at that dervish-like level, or even strolled guardedly through a dull second half maintaining the lead.

But it was not to be and all but a couple of the most demented couple of “team of bottlers” nay-sayers (thank heavens we didn’t blow a lead against Bury) trooped home ever so slightly crestfallen but reflecting that the home strait is in view and we’d all just probably seen the two teams best equipped for gold and silver, games in hand or fixture pile-ups notwithstanding.

It just wasn’t a time for aportioning blame or finding scapegoats. Re-watching the game the ref, as ever, wasn’t  quite the villain both sets of fans made out and if Raya’s attempt to keep the free-kick out was ineffectual, he’s won us plenty of points.

It was certainly the best of the three televised games on the day. Seeing Arsenal duffed up by upstarts has lost a bit of its novelty while City and Chelsea was as dull as disishwater.

It would be a worry, of course, if Tony Mowbray’s team failed to follow up with a routine win over Gary Bowyer’s inconsistent Blackpool but I have every confidence that a side with one defeat in 25 will avoid any slippy tangerine skins.

I’m delighted that Rovers WILL finally be marking Billy Wilson’s passing this week and I got a lovely message from his son Scott this week. I’m so sorry I never got an interview with him, Scott said he was a great storyteller.

I also received a nice text from the Accrington Stanley goalscoring legend Dave “Haggis” Hargreaves who had a spell at Ewood in the late 1970’s. He told me he’d had the pleasure of playing alongside the other former Rover who passed away last week, Jeff Whalley.

The pair linked up at Oswaldtwistle Immanuel when football was still played at New Lane and Hargreaves spoke highly of Jeff as a player and friend. “It was my pleasure to play with Jeff, a gifted, talented player,” said Dave.

“Haggis” got his moment – or one of them – when Jim Smith threw him in at the deep end against Saturday’s opponents Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. Like most of his colleagues on a woeful afternoon he was mesmerised by the goalscoring prowess of one Bob Hatton, who netted four times for the Seasiders in a 5-2 win and had another two pretty harshly disallowed,

Dave played his second and last Rovers game the following Saturday on the much happier occasion of a 2-0 win over Luton Town on a frozen surface.

That game, like the Blackpool match a week earlier, was, unusually for Rovers at the time, televised. It is best remembered for a delightful chipped goal by Noel Brotherston and a Glenn Keeley tackle on Lil Fucillo which launched him skyward to land flat on his back on the unforgiving tundra.

My mate Fred Bentley, recalling the incident some years later, quipped: “He could see the tops of the cars on Nuttall Street as he spun upwards,” an observation which would have met with frosty countenance from Jimmy Hill, who as ever took the opportunity to speak censoriously of Rovers’ rough play on Match of The Day that evening.

I wonder if any lads who don’t quite make it for Rovers stay in the game locally these days like those two and fellows like Mick Higgins, Mickey Graham and Dennis Letts who miss out on the big time rewards but serve the non-league clubs in the area for the love of the game?

I remember a winter’s night not that many years ago driving down Preston Old  Rd into Blackburn and seeing Stuart Metcalfe, well into his fifties at this juncture, get out of his car and extract a big net bag of footballs from his boot to go and play with mates on the artificial floodlit pitch. It made my heart sing to see him obviously still so in love with the game.

Hopefully we all will be at 5pm on Saturday too. If Blackpool’s defending is as wretched as it was in the first meeting and ours is a bit better, who knows, it could be one of those fabled 90-minute performances. Just a routine win without any dramas will do!



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Walsall, Wimbledon, Wigan, Wilson and Whalley. Joy, sadness and a derby to savour

(Wimbledon joy: pic by home and away Rovers stalwart Russell Prescott used with thanks)

We know from how we closely follow their fortunes and celebrate the stumblings of our promotion rivals how disheartening it can be when they keep on winning so Rovers, in my view, passed a couple of stern tests of character and struck a pair of damaging blows at both Shrewsbury and Wigan by winning a brace of testing away games this week.

There are no formalities away from home and to rack up six points on the road in four days was a major feat on the road back to the Championship.

Nothing is decided yet but I firmly believe that the psychological advantage Rovers have given themselves by embarking on another impressive run following that isolated defeat at Plymouth could not have put them in a better frame of mind to take on long-time leaders Wigan who must be wondering how the devil they can fit 15 league games in between now and the end of the season.

Not our problem, of course, and by producing our best, Shrewsbury at home style, we can pile on the self-doubt and mental pressure which surely must be gnawing at Paul Cook’s side as they look just a touch forlornly and whistfully at the table they dominated for months.

Wins for ourselves at Ewood on Sunday and Shrewsbury a day earlier at home to Peterborough would put the top two nine and five points clear of the Latics respectively and I don’t care who you are, I insist winning games to play catch up is much harder than winning them to extend an already healthy lead.

All that’s assuming we do the business, of course. Wigan, for all their league and cup commitments ahead, have had a week off after a rather routine home win against Rochdale while Rovers, comfortable through two pieces of routine but happens-too-often-to-be-lucky opportunism from Danny Graham, faced a  rousing second half Walsall comeback then a taxing midweek journey to the frozen extremities of the capital.

Never mind the Beast from the East though, once the fans had negotiated a nervy day travelling, anxious to hear the game would go on – every credit to AFC Wimbledon for ensuring it did – we had the Perfect Gent from Kent, Bradley Dack, who nudged us ahead in an otherwise undistinguished first half with a piece of typical skill only the sharpest football brain could persuade anyone to attempt.

His brilliantly directed header from the unlikeliest of angles was one that Graham or Jordan Rhodes would have been proud of, as, if not quite to the same extent, was his second, a consummate finish which ended the match as a contest. If you have been backing the right players to bag a brace in games this season you’ve made a killing.

I’ve been having a punt on generously-priced Elliott Bennett, who was certainly due one, to do so but as usual his rare strikes are eye-catching efforts so I’ll forgive him for not popping up with another after that latest addition to his portfolio.

I can’t imagine how cold it must have been by half nine so well done to nearly 800 who braved it and I hope everyone got home safely and warmed up.

(Celebrations! Pic used by kind permission of James Haworth)

It’s impossible to overstate the positivity and joy abound stemming from the regular winning of games with bright, inventive football. Even the social media isn’t getting on my nerves, all fist-pumps and winners’ smiles rather than that “Not good enougph today – we go again” stuff that rather got on all our titsggygggy for so long.

I was therefore surprised last week when I slammed the boo-boys to get a series of pitifully negative messages attempting to justify that show of petulance telling myself, and others of long fandom who joined the debate of being among “some Rovers fans (who) have short memories.”

I might accept such criticism from my wife on (the regular) occasion of forgetting to post a card or pick up a bottle of milk memory than what one pal calls my “freakish power of recall” they are probably club historians and authors, TV quiz guests or eminent grandees (doffs titfer to messrs Berry, Jackman, Pittard, Makinson and Cumpstey).

I must admit I had to chuckle when it was subsequently revealed that my obstreperous adversary in badinage was a stripling just 16 years old and berating a few of us for “forgetting seven years of mismanagement, debt and shocking decisions.”

I’m not sure how much I knew or concerned myself with management strategy or how au fait with footbauat nine years old, or indeed 16 for that matter, but I am long enough in the tooth and in possession of sufficient of my faculties to recall a conversation being relayed to me about how former secretary John Howarth once had to ask Ewood’s milkman for a fortnight’s grace settling the billgvv , an indignity not thus far heaped on us by current owners.

I floated a question today on social media asking if fans would accept Venkys’ continued tenure if they showed as much commitment next season as they have this and the replies were largely guarded thumbs-ups, very considered, thoughtful and forgiving in most cases. In fact only one came back completely hostile to the notion and dismissive of such a scenario (from a not altogether surprising source). Do I detect a softening of hearts? I hope so.

I really don’t see anyone going mad to buy the club so I think the current success and by my reckoning a seventh  promotion in our history is to be embraced and relished. Those promotions came in 1939, 1958, 1975, 1980, 1992, 2001.

We’ve had relegations in 1936, 1948, 1966, 1971, 1979, 1999, 2012 and 2017. History shows you little is permanent. Apart from the megabillions five or six in the PL (and Everton) clubs go up and down periodically. Well, ok, maybe not Ipswich then.

For sake of argument, we will keep our charting of honours to the 20th century and thereafter. There were honours in 1912, 1914, 1928, 1987, 1995 and 2002. I kind of checked out how many triumphs and disasters my late grandad and my very much alive dad have lived through. Plenty of both, which is probably true of most Rovers fans who live to a decent age.

I tell our kids that this possible promotion/title, if it happens,might be the first of many ups and downs, highs and lows for them in the continuum of our history peppered with them. Or it may be the last good thing i happens for a couple of decades or more. Que sera sera. It’s what we do for leisure, entertainment, fun and bugger what anyone says, if we go up we’re damn well entitled to enjoy it so I’m sorry mister adolescent curmudgeon, we’re having a party whatever you think.

In a week of two priceless victories there has been a sizeable portion of sadness among fans of my vintage with sad news of the passing of two Rovers who formed an indelible impression on my developing love for the club and for anyone who was privileged to wear the famous blue and white shirt in my boyhood

Billy Wilson, a classy left-back who came to Ewood as a kid from the North East, was a member of the first side to imprint their names on my consciousness to the extent that I could reel their names off: Blacklaw, Newton, Wilson, Clayton, Coddington, Hole, Ferguson, Rogers, Gilliver, Darling, Connelly.

The first five of those have now passed, plus John Connelly, but Billy’s death came as a real shock.

I remember him as a good-looking blonde lad and somehow expected him to have remained youthful and fit into his 70s.

He possibly holds one of the more curious Rovers records in that he failed to score in 246 league appearances, the first 40-odd of them in the first division of old, and 270 games altogether. I can think of no Rovers who played outfield so often without netting. He was a hell of a player though and by no means without qualities pushing forward.

In 1971, clearly disillusioned after the sale of his erstwhile full-back partner Keith Newton (believe me there have been few better pairings, |I couldn’t understand why they weren’t coupled up for the national team) and relegation to the Third Division, he left for Portsmouth where he promptly scored in his seventh and 12th appearances and became as popular a figure as he had been at Ewood, eventually taking over the running of the Fratton pub at the ground while still playing!

“He would be behind the bar five minutes after the final whistle,” Pompey historian Graham Dubber tells me.

He was also the first Rover I ever saw sent off – you had to virtually commit ABH to do so in the 1960’s – after a spat with Birmingham City’s John Vincent.

A few years ago I had a  mind to try and put a book together about my first bunch of heroes, many of whom lived in close proximity to one another on Langdale, a few hundred yards from the estate I grew up in at Feniscowles, and Billy and Eamonn Rogers were the two I was most keenly anticipating talking to but my own health worries meant I couldn’t see it through.

Bill’s wife was a receptionist at Star Paper where my dad worked. These guys and their wives just lived in normal people’s houses next door to bank clerks and mechanics with few affectations about them and not a gated mansion to be seen.

I’m immensely sad that I’ll never get to tell him how much I loved and adored him as a player. If you get the chance to talk uto a boyhood idol I’d strongly advise you to take it.
Also passing away this week was Jeff Whalley, another distinctive blonde, a Rossendalian forward who made only a couple of first XI appearances but remained well-known in local non-league circles. He lived in Oswaldtwistle till his death last Friday.

Fondest memory of Jeff ? Scoring in an extraordinary 4-0 win over Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup on New Year Day 1969 with a decent crowd on Ewood, one of my top 10 Rovers performances at any level. It was an exhilarating afternoon and Jeff and Bill Dunning looked like stars in the making. Bill scored a couple for the first team and faded away, Jeff never bagged for the seniors and dwindled off the scene too, flitting around Australia and scoring heavily for Stanley, Great Harwood, Colne and Oswy Immanuel.

What better send-off can Rovers give them other than a minute’s silence or applause (I prefer the former) and a significant Ewood victory on Saturday.

In some ways it could also mark the end of the link between Rovers and what we know as Dave Whelan’s Wigan. Our former full-back has always been a generous host at the DW to his old team-mates and their partners but once the impending takeover sees Latics pass into foreign ownership, his grandson may not be involved too much longer as chairman.

I well remember going to Springfield Park, Wigan’s old ground, as Alan Shearer hit the comeback trail from his knee injury in 1992 and our Reserves were welcomed to play their home games there.

Games in Wigan have tended to be more eventful than the Ewood clashes although I do recall a 4-2 win for us in a home FA Cup tie when the David Lee inspired visitors gave us a scare as Roy Hodgson’s double training session days took their toll.

The noon Sunday kick-off may diminish the crowd somewhat but not the significance of the occasion.

Will we be meeting again a division higher next season? I hope so.


(Walsall pic: used courtesy of Ian Herbert)

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Boo boors should hang heads as Blues claim pole position

I think by now, 33 games in, even the most unrealistically optimistic Rovers fans have realised we aren’t really going to “walk this division” as many imagined last summer and it’s perhaps indicative of what a long hard slog it was to the top of League One that Ewood seemed a tad underwhelmed, nay positively flat at the achievement on Monday.

That’s forgiveable – Monday night TV coverage did us no favours probably slashing the gate by at least 1,500 and removing the frisson of our victory being sealed while news of a rival faltering filtered through  – although moronically booing a team set to go top off at half-time at 0-0 isn’t, however Tony Mowbray spins it.

I think you can take it on this occasion that Mowbray’s diplomatic: “It was disappointing” was polite managerspeak for: “Yes we heard those tossers.”

As more than one supporter pointed out, we were level, not behind and set to go top, not bottom after a fabulous run. Although I personally express disappointment as frequently and verbally as anyone, half time at home with 45 minutes to come is not the time.

Sure, many a team’s supporters have over-celebrated a few weeks prematurely in the past and the prosaic course of proceedings over the months and in the course of a dour Monday night game meant reaction was muted.

It would take some effort on someone’s part and a fair old collapse on ours if we didn’t finish in the top three now but as we all know, football since 1986-87 has dispensed with the notion of getting what you deserve over 46 games and introduced a made-for-TV-neutrals instant gratification system whereby any mugs 15 points off the pace nicking sixth spot can come along and sabotage over three games and a couple of shoot-outs what you’ve built up for nine months.

So only top two will really do for those of us wishing to spend most  of May without our nerve-ends shredded and, enormous credit to Wigan and Shrewsbury, it looks like being a slog to the death unless Rovers’ sometimes erratic and temperamental thoroughbreds can find a hithero only occasionally-glimpsed canter over the final furlongs to justify the short-priced favourite’s odds.

I finally think those who like to to fancy our squad as the best in the division are probably now not so far off after the January additions and Lenihan’s return, although I haven’t seen or heard much evidence to suggest Wigan, like us not withoout a bob or two in comparison to most divisional rivals, are found wanting in many departments.

Shrewsbury have, well, almost produced a little miracle haven’t they? A tiny footballing outpost of a town on a small budget doing wonderfully well under a talented young manager. Brilliantly well done to them so far, I say, although their last two results have given us all hope that they may have finally run out of steam.

I’m backing us to get over the line though, however much of a scramble it is.

Although we’ve seldom hit the heights we should with the talent we have, we have found inspiration and moments of individual brilliance at vital junctures to get us out of a pickle, or in the case of games like Bury on Monday, illuminate an otherwise drab encounter.

I often think fans are slow to give the opposition any credit. The Gigg Lane men gave a spirited account of themselves for an hour. Nobody is going to lie down and present us with points, certainly not a side responding to a new manager bravely rallying in the face of almost certain relegation.

It had certainly been a sight more labore than arte for 50 minutes and while Mowbray’s critics were keen to point out he’d “picked the wrong formation” or the wrong personnel to play it let’s not forget he hadn’t changed the system when we went ahead after finally putting a move together worthy of it.

Lenihan ran at the heart of the visiting defence rather than aiming a diagonal ball at a bloke five foot seven and Dack and Graham did what very good players do.

Dack, finally allowing himself the luxury of advancing into an area where he could hurt the opposition, brilliantly bought himself a pocket of space and time and made complex movement, panoramic vision and Phil Mickelsonesque chipping ability look like something anyone out for a stroll could pull off – of course no-one else on the park could – and it would have been plain bad manners for Graham not to have applied his now-customary craftsman’s finish.

It’s worth reminding yourself if you were a half-time boo-boy that the goal, six minutes after the cat-calls, put Mowbray’s originally selected team and formation one up against a team who were never realistically going to recover.

The introduction of Payne gave us a fresh attacking dimension but the goal had changed the situation on the terraces and on the pitch. Goals change games and Payne was the beneficiary of the surge of adrenalin now coursing through the team. He was irresistible and inventive but the graft and sweat of the hour preceding his introduction plays some part in wearing the opposition down to the point where they’re ready to be stretched.

I’m the first to agree some components didn’t fit the system. Evans was poor and Bell looked a left back being asked to play a role either he can’t understand or cope with. We’d all love everything to click into place and go four up in half an hour but I’m convinced a goalless second half in those circumstances would still unleash a degree of high dudgeon.

The second was exactly the kind of goal a luckless relegation bound outfit contrives to concede but every credit to Armstrong for the opportunism which has added another dimension to our play in the final third.

For someone whose selection is often pilloried by blokes who work in offices or department stores and sit waiting for him to fail in order to spew out their vitriol, one defeat in 21 suggests the manager is getting rather more right than some would have us think.

My pal, the noted Rovers author and one-time scout for Football League clubs Harry Berry noted that Mowbray’s use of substitutes is often inspired, not always the case with predecessors such as Souness or Allardyce: “Better than any manager we’ve had, ” said Harry who has watched Rovers since 1952 and chronicled our history in print.

He certainly doesn’t deserve glib dismissals like this one I received: “People were booing the formation. His tinkering will cost us points.”

So that’s “the manager who has won more points than any other in the division will cost us points.” Truly staggering.

So not a lot to moan about then, particularly after Shrewsbury blew their chance to overtake us.

Wigan will find fitting their catch-up games in after their admirable cup exploits difficult, never mind routinely winning them. It becomes a lot harder from behind however many games in hand you have.

Rovers’ brilliant away fans will be playing their part in two big games on the road this week before our plum clash at home to Wigan.

Everyone, even sides going neither up nor down, from now will regard beating the division’s leaders as a feather in their cap.

Walsall’s last two home gates have been around the 3,500-4,000 mark so Rovers following should more or less make it home from home in a small stadium we did grace in Division One around the turn of this century.

My main memories of Walsall though are from an occasion at homely former ground Fellows Park where Andy Kennedy netted a brace in a 2-1 win. My travelling companions and I managed to gain admission to the less than Babylonian splendour of something exotically named the Terry Ramsden Suite, after a colourful but ill-fated owner,  where I was hoping to perhaps pass my congratulations on to Andy and his then-paramour, a lass named Maria Whittaker whom I greatly admired but sadly she had not made the trip to the Midlands. I can’t remember exactly what she looked like but the captions which accompanied her frequent newspaper appearances always made me think she’d make a sparkling conversationalist.

My wife is in no hurry to re-visit Wimbledon after breaking down shortly after a Plough Lane match outside Wandsworth nick, where the stricken Aspens coach and its inhabitants remained for five hours…. “with Video Killed The Radio Star played at least every half hour on the radio,” she recalls.

Whatever else happens this season, Rovers travelling supporters have been in a league of their own and I hope they continue to have have happy and unblighted travels with the league leaders crown sitting easily on our heads.



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