Looking for the heart of Hungarian Saturday afternoons, Ol’ 55 style

A rainy Sunday morning is a rainy Sunday morning wherever you are in the world and it certainly was a very rainy one in Budapest as I began the second day of our trip by rising as ridiculously early as ever, determined to chalk more football landmarks up while the girls enjoyed a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast in the apartment.

I set out with the intention of visiting the building site of the new Puskas Ferenc Stadium,  at the same location as the famed old Nepstadion, and with a vague intention of heading out and meeting Tony Dawber at some stage to visit historic Honved in the district of Kispest, cradle of the Hungarian Golden Team of the 1950s

The new national stadium is due to open in 2019 with capacity for 69,000. The old Nep was renamed after the legendary “Galloping Major” in 2002.

Despite the downpours it was surely worth a look – with the rider that you are talking to a man here who used to take a packed lunch to watch Ewood under construction in his dinner hour.

But with bugger all open on a Sunday morning at 7.45am even the acquisition of a brolly looked most unlikely and I was well soaked by the time I got the 800 yards to our nearest Metro (underground) stop.

I got off at Keleti, one of the  major Budapest railway stations and bought a Nezmetisport paper before getting the metro a few stops out out to Puskas Ferenc.

How I rejoiced when one of the little kiosks on the way actually sold brollies. A Chinese lady handed it to me for four quid or so and explained graphically how to open it up as if the downpour I was about to step back into would be the first such precipitation I’d ever seen in my life.

It might not have been but after 10 minutes in it, brolly or no brolly, I was ready for getting back into the warm and caught only a distant glimpse of the huge bowl where the Nep was housed.

There were 92,000 in what’s temporarily little more than a hollow full of cranes and trucks in 1954 when Hungary followed up their incredible 6-3 Wembley win by humiliating England 7-1 there; 68,000 when England more or less secured a 1982 World Cup spot by winning 3-1, one of Trevor Brooking’s brace of goals memorably lodging in the top stanchion. The six-figure mark was reached when Vasas played Austria Wien in a Mitropa Cup Final, a kind-of Hapsburg Empire nations forerunner of the Champions Cup.

But there was nothing really to see other than the adjacent and very impressive Laszlo Papp indoor arena (designed by the same architect who’s been entrusted with its new neighbour) so I made the return journey to our Erzsebet Korut apartment, damp and defeated, and Tony rang to suggest we’d go and seek out Honved if it ever slackened off outside later.

Studying Nemzisport, I was saddened to calculate that only 10,675 spectators in total had attended the six top division games the day before. Incredibly the 1593 at Ujpest had been the third best gate…2,950 at Mezokovesd Zsory v glamour visitors Ferencvaros the largest attendance,

Just 986 had watched Puskas Akademia host Vasas but a bit of further research revealed that the Akadamia, effectively a feeder/youth/reserve team for Videoton – not one of the Budapest sides remember – play in Felcsut, a swanky hamlet 25 miles from Szekesfehervar. On percentage of catchment attending it was perhaps the best gate of the lot – around half the population!

Many of the top division teams play in towns not much bigger than Great Harwood, Bamber Bridge or Clitheroe. Balmazujvaros has 18,000 inhabitants, Mezokovesd 16,905, Paks 19,833. Szombathely, Szekesfehervar, Diosgyori are all smaller than Blackburn while second city Debrecen has a population of just more than 200,000.

The weekend after I left the city, Fradi (Ferencvaros) had 19,000 at the Groupama against Debrecen but they are alone in attracting such turn-outs. The afternoon would reveal how far from glory days and big crowds one once-iconic club had been allowed to slip.

The weather much improved after lunchtime, I got a tram a short ride along to the district Tony and Liam were staying in and we took a metro to change for a tram to Kispest.

Like Ujpest, the township from which Honved emerged is a down-at-heel working class area compared to the splendour of central Budapest with its labyrinths of cafes, bars, restaurants and fancy shops on the flat Pest side facing the magnificent palaces and monuments on the hilly opposite bank of the Danube in Buda.

As we disembarked from the tram there were no cafes or bars open among the modest houses and certainly no fancy shops. Indeed there was virtually nobody bar the three of us knocking about.

Honved were arguably, unofficial world club champions or something very near to it in the post-war, pre-European Cup era.

Floodlit friendlies around Europe involving them as well as tours by another highly-regarded side, Moscow Dynamo,  fired up the appetite for continental club competition. English champions Wolves attracted 55,000 to Molyneux and beat them 3-2 in a 1954 thriller broadcast live on BBC TV – even more of a rarity than floodlights at the time.

Seven of the Hungarians who started the 6-3 game were  Honved players but their bloom was cruelly cut down by the events of November 1956.

Honved literally  means “defenders of the homeland” and they were the Army team in the first post-war Communist years. The likes of Puskas, Zoltan Czibor and Joszef Bozsic were drafted but any soldiering they were expected to do occupied minimal time as their duty and purpose in life was to bring honours and glory to the Hungarian military.

When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush an uprising against communism they were out of the country after playing Bilbao in the first leg of a European Cup tie. Some of the side – Puskas, Czibor and Sandor Kocsis  among them – decided not to return and continued their careers elsewhere.

Hungarian  football’s Golden Age was shunting to a halt just as Rock’n’Roll’s was gathering steam.

Today, the Bozsic Joszef Stadion, across a rusty set of railtracks after you alight from the single-track tram which brings workers to the local offices and takes shoppers and revellers to the city, bears few indicators of past glory.

We drank in the ambience from just inside the gates across the adjacent training pitch, as near as the polite but dutiful steward would allow us to the bowl-like, but much-reduced in capacity, ground itself which had one main stand and the rest mainly uncovered seats.

It seemed a little sad that such modest yet storied surroundings now house the most paltry of crowds.

A plaque for a Major

Tony Dawber reflects:  “My dad and his mates would wax lyrical about Finney, Douglas and McIlroy.

“But if you asked about foreign teams, Moscow Dynamo and Honved were always the first ones mentioned, so a personal pilgrimage to legendary Honved was a must.

“As we rode a near deserted tram through a faded industrial suburb of Budapest on a bright but breezy autumn Sunday afternoon, my head was filled with images of grainy footage and photos from the 1940s and 1950s showing Honved taking apart the world’s best.

“And as we approached the tiny windswept  terminus by the stadium gates, you could almost sense the ghosts of Puskas and Kocsis, who both grew up in tiny, crowded apartments overlooking the stadium.

Floodlights and main stand (between the two right-hand lights) at Honved’s Bozsik Stadion, Kispest.

“Today it’s neat but modest and usually houses crowds which just about struggle into four figures, but the weight of history and past glories still hang in the air.

“I could have stood there all afternoon just soaking up the atmosphere.”

Tony’s right – I got the kind of ghostly chill I once felt walking by Lords Cricket Ground in the silent still of early-hours London when I imagined I heard a  ripple of applause. You felt the presence of long-passed players and fans from decades past when Honved was their and the nation’s pride and joy.

When I told the friendly steward:”You have a very famous history,” he  grinned but ruefully.

“But Honved now….team not so very good, very bad” he said with all the honesty he could muster.

Around the corner, looking for a better view, we chanced upon a cemetery with a row of busy florists stalls selling wreaths and bunches to a constant stream of visitors. Hungary is very big on families respecting and acknowledging their dead.

It seemed like a metaphor for the weight of bygone times tangible in the air.

We walked back across the tumbleweed railtrack and reboarded the tram, driven by the same blonde lady, beauty a little faded now, in shades and I stayed on to meet the girls at the Hard Rock Cafe in town as Tony and Liam went for a look round Ferencvaros.

It had all seemed a little surreal, like a passage in a melancholy film that could have been sentimentally soundtracked by Tom Waits at his most tender and nostalgic.

We all reconvened later for a lovely evening of chat and drinks with Peterjon. Tony was going home the following day but there was a little more for me to do in my Hungarian football odyssey with an unexpected and poignant twist to come…..

Stex Bar gathering on Sunday night in Budapest. Left to right, Oliva and Lesley, Peterjon Cresswell of liberoguide.com, Tony and son Liam, yours truly

Jim Wilkinson, Blue-Eyed Boy

This lovely piece by Tomasz Mortimer imagines what might have been for Hungarian football had the 1956 uprising been quelled.

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Two halves of Hungarian Heaven…Part One

For 48 or 49 weeks a year the term ‘football tourist’ is one I use with a withering contemptuous sneer, conjuring up visions of wealthy Irishmen or visitors from the Far East emerging from the Old Trafford megastore barely able to grip all their carrier bags laden with overpriced merchandise or enthused Scandinavians, who remember no Liverpool manager prior to Rafa, having their picture taken in front of the Bill Shankly statue.

Have these people no pride, why don’t they show a bit of civic duty and turn out for their local clubs such as Drogheda or Lyn Oslo?

But plonk me down in a foreign city – which by stroke of my outrageous good fortune to be married to her, my travel-loving expert holiday planner wife often does – and I become the very definition of a football tourist.

We like cities, you see. We don’t really do beach holidays or long haul and tend towards exploring European capitals and other population centres of our native continent.

And while we love food, wine, culture, art galleries, castles, literature, modern architectural wonders and shopping (me:record shops, girls:anything else) the best thing for me about big cities abroad is they have football grounds.

Usually plural.

And I need no excuse or reason to seek them out. There doesn’t have to be a game on or anything elaborate like that. Just looking at them from the outside and walking around taking pictures will do me. I’m as excited and awestruck by the first sighting of a set of floodlights or a  club crest as other people are to see the Taj Mahal or Easter Island statues.

I’m a man who’s climbed into Stirling Albion’s ground on a Sunday morning, had a guided tour of Berwick Rangers’ Shielfield Park when the secretary caught me peeping through a gap in the gate and once watched the last ten minutes of a Falkirk v Aberdeen game with my dog Furio thanks to a kindly member of groundstaff when we pitched up at a hotel 100 yards away and he immediately wanted a wee. The dog, not the groundsman.

Over the last couple of years I’ve hung around outside Fiorentina, Granada, FC Sevilla, Real Betis, Wisla Krakow, Cracovia, Utrecht, Feyenoord, done ground tours at The Camp Nou, Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena and Porto’s Dragao and watched Boavista with 5,000 other disparate souls on a Sunday night. Before I went to Portugal I hadn’t even known for sure that Boavista were actually Porto’s second team.

Christmas will be lovely but far more exciting for me is the fact that we fly to Lisbon for three days on Boxing Day. Can I fit Benfica, Sporting and the dilapidated National Stadium where Celtic became the Lisbon Lions in? If I can’t it won’t be for want of trying.

So when I found out that my great pal and fellow football trainspotter Tony Dawber was going to be in Budapest with his lad Liam at the same time as our family half-term break in the Hungarian capital, it was inevitable that some serious soccer seeking-out would ensue.

We’ve both visited the city before and have a great advantage in this city in that we have a mutual friend, the redoubtable football and travel writer Peterjon Cresswell of comprehensive soccer travellers’ site liberoguide.com , who lives in Budapest and is always willing to meet up, show us around and offer tips.

On my previous visit which began last New Year’s Eve, football had effectively shut down for a month or two in the Winter break so I was limited to a guided look around a couple of stadiums separated by half an hour’s chilly walk with Peterjon, Ferencvaros’s  Groupama Arena, opened in 2014, and MTK’s even newer Hidegkuti Nandor Stadium which had only opened three months previously in September 2016.

Well, three stadiums actually, because 17 paces across the street from one of the ends of the MTK ground is the main stand of Third Division outfit BKV Elore, the old bus transport club, who you will almost certainly never have heard of but whose stadium facade you have more than likely seen without realising it.

It was cold and wintry at the home of Ferencvaros (Fradi as they are nicknamed) a new edifice whose emblem of an eagle you will almost certainly see driving into the city from the airport – it looks wonderful all lit in green at night as you pass on the flyover –  but surprisingly two days into 2017 the club shop was open and had a  range of merchandise commensurate with their standing as former Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners (beat Juventus in the 1965 final after eliminating Roma, Bilbao and Manchester United).

Gorgeous, pouting Peterjon at the Groupama Arena (22,000), home of Ferencvaros and, currently, the Hungarian national team

MTK’S new home, like much that goes on in Hungarian football, is something of an enigma. Despite a surge of revived interest in football generated by the national team’s fine showing in Euro 2016, gates are at an all time low. The bubble burst almost immediately after the France tournament, in which Hungary unexpectedly and quite remarkably topped their group by beating Austria and drawing with Iceland and, thrillingly, Portugal.

A 0-4 defeat to Belgium in the Round of 16 couldn’t stifle the tidal surge of national pride which saw the team greeted by huge enthusiastic crowds in magnificent Heroes’ Square on their return. Before July was three weeks old however, Ferencvaros, by far the most popular and best-supported club side, had lost their Champions League qualifier at home to Albanian side side Partizani on penalties after a couple of 1-1 draws.

“It was as if a great balloon of optimism and belief had been shot down immediately,” said Peterjon.

Since that Belgium defeat, the national side has regressed and stumbled from crisis to humiliation to the point that this week they became the first side ever to lose to both Andorra and Luxembourg in the same year.

Hungarian interest in the Champions League and Europa League is habitually over with by the time you and I are reading the English clubs’ season previews.

Against Luxembourg on Thursday, I think only about three of the starting XI play their football in Hungary, a couple signed with North American clubs, the rest plying their trade around Europe or in more exotic locations offering greater pecuniary advantage.

There’s not a lot of money, hope or prestige to aspire to in Hungarian football, so storied in the history of the game, at present….but there are plenty of new stadia.

I’m told that many clubs – around five of the 12 top-division clubs hail from towns with populations of fewer than 30,000 – enjoy the patronage or ownership of politicans or movers and shakers who aren’t shy of handing out building contracts to erect stadia which seem unlikely at this stage to be half-filled more than once in a blue moon.

MTK’s (Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre‘ – “Circle of Hungarian Fitness Activists) is an example and even as an outsider, there are inexplicable aspects obvious to the naked eye.

Both ends are without any seats or even terracing – practically sheer flat walls. It’s as if they ran out of money halfway or decided that having built two new stands down the sides, no further accommodation would be necessary.

MTK’s Hidgekuti Nandor Stadium. Part of the roof was damaged by storms just last week.

There’s no club shop. One was planned but hasn’t materialised  A security steward told Peterjon: “Your guess is as good as mine,” when he enquired as to any likely progress.

MTK were once European Cup Winners’ Cup  finalists and their opponents from that 1964 final, Sporting Lisbon, accepted an invitation to open the stadium (capacity 5,322) last year but brought only three first team squad members due to other commitments.

A week earlier the big screens at the ground had been road-tested with a showing of scenes from a porn film starring a Hungarian actress. I’d love to see Blackburn Council’s reaction to such a suggestion.

But you’ll all have seen the old stadium which was to all intents and purposes in the exact same location (they turned it round 90 degrees) and was used as the location for the big match in the film “Escape To Victory. It was chosen as the environs more closely resembled wartime Paris than 1980’s Paris did. A stand-in, effectively, for the Colombes Stadium where the 1938 World Cup final, which Hungary, lost was held.

Interestingly, the film was based on a Hungarian play  Két félidő a pokolban’ (“Two half-times in Hell”).

Many of the publicity stills featured the likes of Stallone, Michael Caine, Pele, Bobby Moore and, err, Robin Turner of Ipswich (“Football choreography by Les Shannon” never fails to crack me up either), pictured in front of the BKV grandstand next door.

MTK’s stadium (right)  directly across the street from Third Division BKV Elore (left). closer than the Dundee grounds. Stallone wasn’t there when I visited but there’s a great cafe open all year below the grandstand

So, fast forward to late October 2017 and having fallen in love with the city at New Year, we made a quick return and I had a few more venues in my notebook to tick off.

Landing at 12.30, I knew if planes, transfers and such were all on time, I’d have a  good chance to make Ujpest v league leaders Videoton at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in the north of the city. And with Tony in town, a willing accomplice!

Half an hour after landing I’d left Mrs Wilkinson and daughter Olivia at the apartment on the Erzsebet Korut (Elizabeth Boulevard – possibly even more impressive than Blackburn’s) ready to hit the city centre and Tony, Liam and I were sat in Stifler Bar 100 yards away watching United play Spurs over a  beer forging travel arrangements.

A taxi (£8) took us the five miles or so to Szusza Ferenc (capacity 13,050), another newish edifice, a bit like Ewood in that it was completely rebuilt in the early 2000’s on the same site as the venue on Megyeri Ut, where Newcastle defeated Ujpest Dozsa 3-2 in the 1969 Fairs Cup Final to complete an aggregate 6-2 victory – the Magpies’ last major honour.

I’d even found a Rovers connection as the scorer of Newcastle’s second goal that night – and I vividly remember watching it on Sportsnight – was Dane Preben “Ben” Arentoft who later joined us.

Ujpest are owned by Roderick Duchatelet, son of unpopular Charlton Athletic owner Roland. Whether he’s any more admired than his father I couldn’t say but as the afternoon transpired the faithful in Budapest fourth district did find one or two things to vent their collective spleen over.

There was a heavy armed police presence of a few dozen at the stadium to say only 1593 turned up. Maybe 250-275 had made the 60km journey from Szekesfehervar, Videoton’s home city, once twinned with Tony’s hometown Chorley (Burnley fans aren’t all Yorkshiremen, see).

But it’s as familiar a sight in Eastern Europe as it’s becoming at big gigs here. Just a fact of life and while they don’t necessarily stand there grinning and full of good cheer, they were friendly enough.

Getting a ticket was simple, from a booth on production of your passport or driving licence and admission was about eight quid for adults.

A caravan and a pop-up market stall outside the entrance looked to be selling official souvenirs and I bought a keyring for a  couple of pounds.

Stewards gave us a frisking and searched our bags at the turnstiles but again without any veneer of menace.

Having a beer for about £1.80 at the kiosk just through the gates (and you were welcome to take a  pint to your seat) we just took in what atmosphere there was and enjoyed a bit of people-watching as spectators arrived.

You could literally have been at any game anywhere in the world so recognisable are the characters who loyally follow their teams. Blokes with carrier bags full of paraphernalia or food, wearing ancient worn-out club coats and sweatshirts, chattering away over a pre-match drink.

A guy got stuck in the turnstile having put the wrong end of his ticket in the slot, attempted to turn the thing round anti-clockwise instead of clockwise once it accepted it and grumbled away (almost certainly) profanely before a steward assisted him through with a smile he reciprocated before heading for a livener.

Programme, team sheet and personalised ticket at Ujpest

The game was an absolute belter. You couldn’t have dreamed for better as a neutral. Videoton raced into a two-goal lead in five minutes and for a good while looked capable of doubling it at least by half-time.

Beleaguered, Ujpest employed a  bit of chicanery. After a bit of handbags in the centre of the field a home player went down clutching his face. Replays showed he’d suffered no more than a slap on his arm but the ref was taken in and Hadzic of Videoton was ordered off. with about eight minutes left of what had been a trying half for the host.

Pauljevics got the eleven men a  lifeline with a great volley five minutes after the restart but the table-toppers didn’t look in too much discomfort until all manner of mysterious antics broke out on and off the field late on.

A number of Ujpest ultras looked to stage some sort of walking protest behind one goal. They were eventually kind-of shepherded back from whence they had trotted by the Feds. They looked less like an angry mob than a bunch of sulky kids who had tried to skip cross country and been rumbled by the PE teachers.

At the innocuous-looking award of a free-kick over the far side from us a couple of guys looking rather more incandescent ran down the steps to confront visiting players. This seemed altogether less good-natured than the walking protest and Ujpest players went over to appeal for calm.

Moments later after play resumed, what looked like a seat from the stand was chucked on.

We had no idea at the time but it later transpired (and Tony’s bright-as-a-button 12-year-old son Liam gets credited with the research here) that it was a weekly V-sign from the fans over the unpopular re-designing of the club crest.

It’s evidently to stop phoney merchandise vendors selling hookey club souvenirs but the faithful are not happy with the new designs resemblance to a toilet seat….which of course was exactly what they’d whizzed on!

Notwithstanding all these distractions Ujpest had bagged an equaliser on 73 minutes and were finishing strongly.

At the award of a free-kick Suljic of Videoton kicked the ball away and he too was ordered off with a minute to go.

The nine men now had a  job on seeing it out and as the ball bobbed around the box in stoppage time, Ujpest got a  penalty. The keeper spoiled the perfect comeback by saving the kick but the home fans seemed reasonably happy with clawing a draw back as we left.

We were knocked out, really. a goalless draw in a new, strange place can be exciting enough but we’d witnessed Hungary’s equivalent of the lead-off cracker on Match Of The Day.

No taxis readily available, we took our chances with the bus system and relied on a combination of educated guesswork as to where to change and some reassuring use of the iPhone maps.

The blue dot looked to be heading vaguely towards where we needed to be in the city centre, which was as well as Lesley had booked dinner in a favourite swish restaurant.

I’d have been decidely unpopular if I’d rolled up late in the clothes I’d flown from Liverpool in that morning, which seemed a distinct possibility at one stage.

Relief swept over me as I recognised The Laszlo Papp Arena, Keleti Station and eventually Blaha Luiza Ter, minutes from our base and made it in time for a shower and an aperatif.

It was time for a break from football with the family but there was more history  to explore before the week was out.

Journeying home in another taxi later, our driver looked incredulous when Lesley told him I’d been to football: “You come from England and you’ve been to watch Hungarian football?” he asked bemused.

It is Blackburn I support after all, not Chelsea or Manchester United but it’s as impossible to explain the appeal to a confirmed cynic and sceptic as it is easy to strike up a conversation with a fellow uber-fan whose language you hardly know a word of.

I had to laugh though when the Sunday Sport paper “Nemzetisport” headlined their report on the previous day’s game “Pokoli ket felido” – “Two halves of hell”…a pun on that original Hungarian title of the story we know as “Escape to Victory,” created where my Magyar football odyssey had begun nine months earlier.

Coming up in part two….Honved, Vasas and the lovely people at thr forgotten island warrior champions of 1959.

 

 

 

​o

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Exit from one Cup may buy Tony thinking time ahead of busy winter

General concensus after my few days away in Eastern Europe last week was that “you didn’t miss much” as Rovers surrendered more vital league points to Wigan and Fleetwood. Our eldest daughter kept us in touch with regular bulletins from Wigan as me and my mate Tony watched Ujpest fight out a thrilling 2-2 draw with Hungarian league leaders Videoton and from Ewood on Tuesday night when the Cod Army ended the night in in happier voice after the first-ever competitive derby between two sides who began the century about eight divisions apart.

I accept the “didn’t miss much” verdict was the case at Wigan but was more than a little miffed having tailored my arrangements to be back at our Budapest apartment in time for the kick-off of the Fleetwood game, to discover that Sky had kyboshed Rovers’ iFollow coverage for nefarious reasons on a rare occasion I was settled down with wine and snacks, prepared to fork out a fiver for the privilege. Even the highlights broadcast later were of a decidedly shaky quality, after several viewings I still have no idea how the final goal squirmed in.

Personally I thought a draw at the JD or whatever it’s called now was a perfectly acceptable outcome, particularly with ten men, but twice surrendering the lead to Fleetwood showed a fraility  which could cost us dear over the season as a  whole. The “easy home match” is almost as extinct as the Dodo or The Smiths as far as Rovers are concerned and the regularly-espoused concept “if we win our games in hand” seems as realistic as believing this is the week your Euro Lottery numbers come up.

Those aberrations become even more of an irritation with the postponement of what looked a routine home game – there you go, I’m at it – against one of League One’s lesser lights Walsall on Saturday, not this time due to our own host of internationals being summoned for duty but because The Saddlers, currently 15th in the table, evidently have their own coterie of global stars.

That means Rovers are without a game this weekend – as are Shrewsbury, Wigan and Charlton above us – while the trio just below us and within a point or two, Rotherham, Fleetwood and Peterborough have the chance to leap-frog us or narrow the gap while we attempt to convince ourselves that the games in hand will be our salvation.

With Walsall likely to be another midweek rearrangement due to our continued FA Cup involvement, it probably isn’t regarded as an altogether bad thing that we seem sure to be eliminated from the Checkatrade Trophy, barring some unlikely calculation involving Stoke “winning” on penalties after drawing.

I’d always prefer us to progress in every tournament if it was up to me but another wishy-washy display handicapped by losing a man to a red card early at Spotland despite fielding a reasonably experienced XI probably saw us get what we deserve after an indistinguished campaign illuminated only by the goals of new Ewood hero Joe Nuttall.

It was inevitable that one of Ewood’s less celebrated strikers, Jordan Slew, would find the net (twice if you count his successful penalty) against Rovers after managing this feat just11 times in 120 games in a much-travelled six years spent in such exotic locations as Dingwall and Stevenage since joining us as a £1m teenager – none of the 11 occasions in our colours of course.

Mowbray’s protestations that it was offside might be right but Scott Wharton could have little argument with his sending off. The laws don’t account for whether you’re a young player, “not that kind of player” or that it was unintended. A brief setback for a kid we all have great hopes for but the ref couldn’t do anything other than dismiss him sadly.

One can never be sure of the permutations available to Mowbray in this dog’s dinner of a tournament with such convoluted rules regarding team selection but you wonder what he could possibly learn on a November night in Rochdale with less than eleven hundred on about the like of Ward and Gladwin that he didn’t know already.

I was at Leyland on Friday to see the Under-23’s give a scintillating display to beat Watford 6-1 and I can’t be the only one to be wondering just what Rakeem Harper and Sam Hart have done to merit selection ahead of Lewis Travis and Jack Doyle in any competition.

Certainly Hart was put out of his misery at half-time on Saturday against Barnet at an eerily unpopulated Ewood but that was more down to a ridiculously unnecessary five-man defence abomination Mowbray inexplicably chose to combat a side with three league wins all season with.

Neither did Harper show anything in those opening 45 minutes to justify the hyperbole spouted on the occasion of his capture although he wasn’t alone in that anonymous regard.

I had to commend the cheek of the Rovers fans who booed a Barnet defender for taking his time with a throw-in after 44 and a half minutes. If anybody had been manifestly wasting time for three quarters of an hour it had been us.

Thankfully Barnet did that sitting-back thing rubbish teams with an unexpected lead always try to do and the switch to two strikers with the introduction of the bustling, all-action Nuttall had the desired effect on the rest with Harper and a few of his colleagues looking a little more accomplished as the visitors were ground down.

The ever more impressive Dack immediately looked happier with another (more mobile) body other than Graham to bounce ideas off and by the end you wondered what on earth Mowbray had been playing at making it such hard work for his team to start with.

The longer he looks that indecisive and continues with the daft conceit that he is cleverly tailoring his selections to counter different opposition the sillier he will look and the doubts about his leadership will persist.

The FA Cup draw ticked all the boxes for me: Home, lower league oppo, winnable, potential progress, kick-off time unlikely to be messed around with for telly, another Saturday afternoon out with family and pals, pub – bingo! It would have been nice to play Stanley or Fylde but believe me if we are playing Fleetwood in league games those fixtures aren’t as fanciful as they once were whether or not.

The Crewe cup tie also continues a remarkable sequence of handy fixtures for supporters. Between the trip to Shrewsbury on 23rd September and the visit to Peterborough on 9th December Rovers will have played 15 games, 14 of them within the old Lancashire county boundaries with only the trip to Oxford beyond – and the Walsall game might yet be shunted in somewhere before that.

So while we all bemoan a fallow Saturday – and I hate them with an absolute vengeance – it might give Mowbray and his staff the opportunity to think about recent performances and those who have under-performed, the other options available and finally hit upon a formula and consistency of selection and gameplan for the busy winter months to seize the initiative and let other sides worry about us rather than the other way around.

There are plenty of points to be won for a team able and brave enough to do that, Rovers’ own history tells you so, rather than spend the next six months agonising about whether we can somehow stumble into the lottery of the play-offs.

Three out of every four play-off qualifiers end up on the same set of fixtures as the team that escapes relegation on goal difference, remember.

Any manager worth his salt would still be looking at the table and saying: “This division is still here to be won.”

BLUE-EYED BOY

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Drawn-out Affairs Drain Rovers’ Optimism as Treats Fail to Materialise

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There is a marvellous exchange in the classic BBC 1980’s sitcom “Yes Minister”, in which the character of Bernard Woolley, the PM’s principal private secretary, recalls the “Russell conjugation” in the following form;

“It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?
I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.”

I think football supporters are programmed to react similarly.

“My team is honest, Your bloke is a cheat, He (the referee) is biased.”

The question of whether Elliott Bennett’s second yellow card (earning a red) was justified certainly split opinion on Saturday night; depending upon your allegiance.

“I see a foul, You see a tackle, He (the referee) sees a dive.”

Well, that was a highly sanitised summary of what was being chanted around the ground, aimed mostly at the referee by Rovers fans.

At 3pm, away to the league’s 2nd placed side, I suspect many Rovers fans would gladly have accepted a point. After the game’s pivotal moment, being reduced to 10 men, with less than an hour on the clock, a point from this encounter seemed a fanciful notion.

Bennett, truth be told, was not having one of his finest appearances in a Rovers shirt and on another day may well have been substituted even before he ran purposefully at the Wigan defence in the 58th minute. That contract extension seems to have had a debilitating effect on him so far.

What happened next is subject to conjecture; the naked eye, in real time suggested a clear foul, the video replays (& I must have watched it at least 25 times) were inconclusive, as a Wigan player blocks the view of the camera at the critical moment of potential (or was it actual ?) impact.

What is beyond doubt is that the referee was right up with play when he made his call & he believed (rightly or wrongly) that he had seen simulation. Consequently, the laws insist upon a yellow card being issued for “unsporting behaviour” and this meant the hapless Bennett had to clock off half an hour early, leaving 10 to do the work of 11.

The subsequent clean sheet must therefore have tasted especially sweet for a back four that had already endured its fair share of horrors in this embryonic season. At last, a back four that doesn’t concede sloppy goals which cost us vital points…oh we all know what happens next don’t we ?

Overall it was a scrappy game, refereed fussily and inconsistently by Darren England, who had “cards emerging from his top pocket like a pop up toaster” as Kevin Keegan once memorably remarked. It never truly caught fire and Wigan, whilst enjoying the majority of chances, didn’t live up to their pre-match billing. Jacobs & Powell had good opportunities and Massey hit the post late on when Wigan were pressing hard for the winner.

However, Rovers’ chances were even fewer and further between. The best efforts came from excellent wing play from Conway, supplying an energetic Bradley Dack; though Dack was substituted yet again, this time sacrificed shortly after the Bennett dismissal and replaced by Danny Graham as Mowbray sought to shore up the midfield.

Here, it was the defence that rightly earned the plaudits, the attack demonstrating that it still needs some research & development. Shorn of Chapman’s direct running it places a massive burden on Conway to provide the service and disproportionately on Dack to provide unpredictability. Joe Nuttall who apparently travelled with the 1st team squad, presumably looked on proceedings with more than a passing interest.

The absence of Samuel and Bennett for disciplinary reasons and Chapman due to a hamstring strain sustained late on at Wigan, meant a reshuffled pack for the visit of the Cod Army on Tuesday evening.

Both sides were level with 24 points beforehand, Rovers having played a game fewer than their opponents. That a league game between these two sides was taking place, let alone that it could be described as vital, even in October, serves to illustrate the prevailing flight paths of each club over the last few years.

Just when you might have believed that a Rovers defence featuring Paul Downing meant a sure-fire clean sheet, Fleetwood trawled the depths of their resilience, netting twice to snuff out any burgeoning Ewood optimism. Rovers’ unerring ability to fluff their lines at another key audition really should serve to structure everyone’s expectations.

This keeps happening; one win in five games and yet somehow, this performance lifted Rovers into the play off spots. Two points per game on average would usually guarantee automatic promotion, Rovers’ average has now slipped to 1.6 per game; increasingly it seems like the best hope is the play offs, but would you bet on this team to remain sufficiently consistent for another 30 games or so ?

Once more, Bradley Dack seemed to be the sole provider of creativity and even though Mowbray finally overcame his “Nutt allergy” by introducing youngster Joe Nuttall for his 1st team debut to immediate effect; what should have been a glorious winner merely served to set up Fleetwood for the seemingly inevitable late equaliser.

Mowbray seems to keep falling hostage to fortune to grand press statements. Earlier in the season he insisted the formation of 3 at the back was not the cause of Rovers poor start, but then changed it for the very next match, resulting in an upturn of fortunes.

He has of course stated that youngsters will not be asked to deliver promotion as it would be unfair and in so doing, seemingly at a stroke, killed stone dead any ambition members of the academy sides might have had to make the 1st team this season.

Having done so, he then has to call up Nuttall thanks to injuries and suspensions and lo and behold, Nuttall notches on his debut. Tony, could I suggest you might give yourself an out in future because you really aren’t doing yourself any favours by undermining your own positions like this ?

Perhaps an FA Cup run can energise the season ? The visit of Barnet on Saturday will hardly have the club rushing out to employ more turnstile operators but a convincing victory; possibly featuring some of Damien Johnson’s promising academy prospects, might yet prove to be a catalyst to ignite this season on a Bonfire weekend.

Defeat would leave Rovers able to “concentrate fully on the league” if that is a good thing, but having avoided the ignominy of a 1st round FA Cup defeat since 1971, (Port Vale since you ask) there will be some nervousness around and about on Saturday afternoon with the outcome far from a foregone conclusion.

Who knows how we will fare against Barnet, I certainly don’t.

OLD BLACKBURNIAN

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Rovers must avoid derby slips to keep summit in sight

 

Tony Mowbray and his Rovers team provided just the right riposte to the doubters- me included – with a fine display to bury a disappointing Portsmouth on Saturday even though you still get the nagging feeling this side has to take one step backward and another sideways before advancing, both literally and metaphorically, while the manager almost seems to hit on a spot-on selection and system by accident on occasion.

We were all convinced after the Rotherham game he’d landed on the right combination and it was similar consensus in the pub after Saturday that he’d done it again…with four different players starting against Pompey than began what was agreed upon as the best September performance against the Millers.

We’re all Championship Managers with 20-20 hindsight.

But the result and performance sent out all the right messages and signals with a week to recuperate from a demanding afternoon making light of Storm Bryan – good job it wasn’t a televised late kick-off or it would have never finished – to reclaim a top six spot ahead of what could be the most important four days of the season to date.

Much significance has been attached to Rovers’ two games in hand which could be instrumental in advancing the cause, points tally and league position still further but there is another towering challenge before the first of those (Fleetwood at home on Tuesday) in the shape of a regular nemesis on the occasion of our visit to second-placed Wigan Athletic on Saurday.

And there’s six important league fixtures before the second game in hand at Blackpool… the picture can change mightily between then and now.

A defeat on Saturday would admittedly open a huge gap between ourselves and Latics and should Shrewsbury win at Peterborough, a top two spot would already be looking reliant on a collapse by one of the leading pair or the kind of run of form which, if you’re lucky, come once or twice a decade like Don Mackay’s 21-match unbeaten run, Kendall’s 14 wins out of 15 or the dozen undefeated which Kenny’s Sutton and Shearer-fuelled juggernaut racked up in the 1995 title season.

We can’t worry about what anyone else is doing so it was mightily encouraging to see Rovers, with Harry Chapman finally unleashed from the off, set about their business against Pompey in such positive fashion.

From the instant Richie Smallwood had a stunning piledriver tipped over the bar, the boys looked bang at it in a way we never saw in the meek surrender at Oldham or the gormless failure at home to Plymouth when our domination owed more to the opposition’s disinclination to give it a go than any great “arte” on our part.

Kenny Jackett’s team ought, on paper, to have caused us more problems than Argyle, even without leading scorer Brett Pitman until a late and ineffectual cameo following timely surgery from our point of view, but they were simply never allowed to settle on or pass the ball as a markedly improved home team took command.

Caddis was unlucky to be dropped with Nyambe restored to his favoured berth but with Downing’s unfussy composure at the back (whither now the critics who scoffed at his signing as a deadline day act of desperation?) and Smallwood’s tenacity we looked improved all round and went after the opposition with, if not murderous intent, a clear plan to do the visitors a mischief or two.

Should-he-start-or-be-an-impact-sub debate about Chapman will continue to rage. A couple of his recent sub appearances suggested that Mowbray was right to hold him back but credit to the manager for his selection on Saturday followed by a lucid and logical explanantion of it. Maybe these guys do know more than us folk sat in the stand after all.

After a quiet opening personally Chapman made his mark with a great nick of the ball and run after a number of opportunities had been scorned by an encouragingly on-the-front-foot side in blue and white.

To see him and Bradley Dack maraud from the centre of the park and advance past the nominal front men is quite a revelation after years of watching timid, cautious midfielders stodge up the centre of the park in a never-ending game of tippy-tappy sideways “After You, Claude.”

Just as on Tuesday, Dack’s finish was joyous and decisive, exactly what you want from your runner in the middle.

I’m not exactly sure to be honest what a “number 10” is but Dack looks to me a good old-fashioned mobile goalscoring midfielder, a species I’ve always enjoyed watching whether vicariously (Ball, Wark, McDermott, Lampard etc) or in our famous  colours (Knighton, Oates, Atkins, Barker, Sherwood).

He strides into parts of the pitch other players fear to enter both to receive the ball and bring others into play and you get the feeling we are beginning to see a double-figures-plus operator well worth the big fee about his business.

If you were a centre-forward worth your salt you’d surely be excited at the prospect of benefiting from a duo with such movement and creativity in their boots and while Danny Graham has been written off in some quarters, I have always believed that our best chance of doing well this season is if players like him and Whittingham, seasoned practitioners of their arts, can impose their personality on the team.

Whittingham is slowly emerging from his early-season testimonial-pace chrysalis and showing at least some signs of being the conductor of what goes on in front of him  but Graham’s last two starts have encouraged dreams that he could yet revive himself and look as accomplished at this level as he did in the Championship during his first weeks at Ewood.

I hope Graham did a bit of soul-searching during his time on the subs’ bench and if so I hope the conversation with himself went a little like this.

“What exactly am I, Danny Graham, with hundreds of appearances and goals higher up, doing stuck on a middling Third Division outfit’s bench watching, with respect, kids like Samuel and Antonnson start games?

“Is this how I want to be remembered, batting my time out on a big wage for doing very little, or am I going to shape myself and provide the goals and assists to justify my salary and help the club climb the table?”

It’s my belief that if he can’t get somewhere near to 20 goals in League One he’s letting himself and the fans down.

There are things which will always infuriate me about Graham’s game, such as the ugly compulsion to grapple with his marker and leave referees with the 50-50 guessing game of who tugged whom first before awarding another free-kick.

But if Whittingham can start pinging those balls to a striker determined to actually drop off the shoulder of his defender, perhaps Danny can focus his attention on hitting the net with the regularity which has characterised his better spells here.

Graham was given a rather unexpected guarantee of continued selection by Dominic Samuel’s act of foolishness in getting himself sent off late on to earn a three-game ban.

We can ill afford to have our options reduced through such lack of self-control – we were two up with moments remaining for goodness’ sake – but Joe Nuttall from the Under-23’s could be the beneficiary  from that aberration, a development which many would welcome.

Wigan’s DW Stadium  has been a scene of many a Rovers horror how down the years. Under Hughes, Ince, Kean, Bowyer and Coyle we’ve suffered damaging and at times embarrassing reverses.

But the occasional victories there have been memorable for the right reasons – Stephen Reid’s exocet in a New Year 3-0 and a League Cup quarter-final among my highlights – and there would be no better time to chalk up another.

Defeat could theoretically leave us respectively 16 and 15 points behind the top two and while some have portrayed it as a “must win,” a point would do for me.

I’ve seen it actually suggested that if we don’t win or such a gap has opened up on Saturday tea-time, we ought to be under caretaker managership by midweek. Nonsense. There’s a long way to go and dozens of points to be won and lost and it helps no-one to be so dizzily skittish about Mowbray.

One shudders to think what the process of identifying and selecting a replacement would be if we had someone responsible for those decisions as daft as the people suggesting a change and past aberrations suggest that we might have one or two not far off.

It would, it goes without saying, be absolutely imperative to beat Fleetwood in the first ever league meeting between the sides at Ewood on Tuesday however we’ve done at Wigan. Fail to do so and the summit may look a very long way off if not the play-offs.

You can wring your hands all you want about how it shows the extent of our fall from grace playing the Cod Army in the first place but that does their phenomenal ascent a disservice.

I know only too well what modest circumstances they dragged themselves out of having attended, with 62 other disparate souls,  a game at Highbury – a very different, rotting, rusting shell of a ground compared to their smart stadium today – against Great Harwood Town around the turn of the century.

I have never watched football in such godforsaken, wind and rain-battered circumstances as on that night when I severely questioned what the hell I was doing there to rack up 45p a mile and an 8.50 supper allowance in cash expenses.

I was also lucky to cover a lot of games there as the ground transformed and they made their way up through non-league promotions and made some smashing friends on the staff there.

Yes our fall from the heights has been vertiginous but we are where we both are and credit to them for doing so well whilst hoping we put them summarily in their place. You’d have got good odds on us meeting in the same division that night in 2000.

I’ll be absent from both games this week on a trip to Hungary and Slovakia.

Just as you lot are arriving at the DW I hope to be with my great pal Tony, a red hot Claret, and his son Liam at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium to see Ujpest Dosza take on Videoton.

The only Rovers connection I can summon up is that Preben Arentoft scored a decisive goal on that ground, now totally rebuilt like Ewood, for Newcastle in the Fairs Cup Final Second Leg of 1968, the UEFA Cup as it later became known, sealing the Geordies’ last trophy a couple of years before Ben joined the Furphy revolution. Eat your heart out, Alan Shearer.

I hope everyone enjoys a couple of cracking Lancashire derbies and I’m sorry I’ll only be represented at them by our eldest daughter. See you at the Barnet FA Cup game and the Checkatrade at Rochdale after missing the really exciting stuff!

I’ll be missing my Rovers fix till then…hope yours is all you’d want it to be.

BLUE-EYED BOY

 

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Tightrope for Tony as Rovers fans need reason to believe soon

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No sooner had the final whistle sounded at Brentford at the end of last season, dedicated  Ewood stattos were keen to inform us that Rovers, comparing the 15 games played under Tony Mowbray to everyone else’s, had the tenth best record in the Championship.
How prophetic those calculations, which I dismissed as irrelevant at the time on the basis that Mowbray’s remit was to finish above three specific other teams, that’s all, have proved.
“Real football man” Tony, “surely the best option we could wish to have,” has proved, despite his ability to “speak really well and understand the club, its history and its fans” to be the archetypal Mr Tenth-in-The-Table, albeit a division below the Championship at a level at which many expected a garlanded nine-month victory parade.
Tuesday’s crushingly witless and dispiriting draw at home to rock-bottom Plymouth only confirmed what we learned on a humbling afternoon in Oldham, that the manager and players simply aren’t as good as many of us have systematically deceived ourselves into believing.
We nearly avoided going down so these lads were practically good enough for the league above. Surely they’re going to shine in League One?
It’s been a recurrent theme at Ewood in recent years to hyper-inflate in the imagination the abilities of a bunch of players who are, in truth, no more than rank ordinary.
“Too good to go down. So good a squad we must come straight back up. Poor to start with but we’re picking up and could make the play-offs. It was Bowyer’s fault we didn’t, any other manager with that squad would have made them. Lambert’s a proper manager, he’ll sort it, look at these signings he’s already made. Had doubts about Coyle but you can’t knock his transfer business…Stokes will score bucketloads at this level… have you seen the Jack Byrne compilation video from Holland?  Oh dear, Bring back Bowyer”
Smoke and mirrors, time after time after time.And like the confused, gullible seekers listening to the row of false prophets in Python’s Life of Brian, we swallow every word.
It couldn’t possibly go wrong after Tony got all the players he wanted, could it? Peter Whittingham will be running the show (Danny Murphy taught us nothing). Danny Graham’s got to be a 25-goal touch playing against these teams?
Bradley Dack, player of the division in a side like Gillingham? How good’s he going to be surrounded by our stars?
So why am I almost at the stage I’m expecting the increasingly befuddled-sounding Mowbray to puzzle over the whereabouts of those things with a sort of raffia work base which have a kind of handle attachment?
Like everybody else in the packed and buoyant away end, I rolled up at Boundary Park convinced we would beat Oldham on the basis that a fervent away support would inspire a group of players surely superior to theirs.
Long before their winner I was questioning that. Craig Davies and Eoin Doyle grafted, dovetailed and threatened far more than any combination of our strikers I’ve seen this season.
I’d swap those two for any two of ours for the remaining 34 games. Check out the goalscoring charts if you think I’m basing that solely on the 90 minutes I watched.
Midfield? We hadn’t anyone to hold a candle to Fane and Byrne. Once Byrne realised no-one was going to lay a  glove on him he danced around and conducted affairs like the player we thought we’d seen in the Cambuur compilations. Fane was immense beside him.
Their defence or ours? Seriously?
Even their impact sub for once proved even more explosive and decisive than Harry Chapman and after one fluffed rehearsal, finished off a great run at the heart of our superannuated, non-tackling central defensive pair with a clinical, fully deserved winner.
A draw would have been the steal of the century. So ragged had we been run that even our fans appeared, via what passes for that byword for the brain-dead, “banter,” not to actually know which town they were in.
The exuberant feel among the travelling hordes had evaporated by the whistle to the extent that, walking down the steps to get off, I had to dissuade an enraged Johhny Bairstow lookalike immediately in front of me from setting about a bunch of kids (and they were kids) right behind me chanting “Mowbray Out.”
Both were probably guilty of an over-reaction but I could see both points of view.
As the boos and catcalls cascaded down at our boys on the field , timidly applauding the fans at a noticeably advisable remove from the mutual adoration pre-match shirt-throwing zone, I despaired.
It’s surely some kind of perverse achievement fora  side which started off as “we’ll walk this league” divisional favourites to have: “You’re Not Fit To Wear The shirt” chanted at them twice in the first 11 games.
I’ve never been one who greatly values being acknowledged for coming by the players if they’ve been crap. I’m enough of a mug to turn up whatever and on Saturday, I’d far rather have bestowed applause on the home side, unpaid and unsure if the rookie manager who’s piloted them to some success will in fact get the job.
They showed us what sweating blood and tears and straining every sinew for the shirt and supporters was all about and I’d have gladly shown appreciation the way the Kop used to acknowledge a doughty effort by the opposition.
With two home games to come in the week, a six-point return would just about have got Mowbray back in some kind of credit.
As poor as we were on Tuesday against Plymouth we should have been halfway to that but part of this collective delusion we’ve all embraced down the last seven or eight years is over-enthusing about slender, sometime undeserved victories which paper over the cracks.
From the first Championship results under Kean to the recent wins against Rotherham and Gillingham, we take the points and talk ourselves into the conviction that soon the performances will come regularly to match and justify the odd positive results, while ignoring the rather more painful and unpalatable truth that what we’ve just watched is actually a sub-standard outfit  getting away with bloody murder.
So it would even have been had the hapless Gladwin not contrived to practically defy all known laws of physics and miss the kind of chance Joe Nuttall has been slotting away for fun in the Under-23s. Statistically the win might have been the correct outcome but long before the end the frustrations in the stands reflected the true quality on show.
Once again only the indefatigable Chapman had provided the energy, skill and brio to elevate what had become the most tedious attack v defence training ground exercise into a real, live football match with passion, tempo and energy and “oohs” and “aahs” where there had hitherto been only “for goodness’ sake” and frustrated cries of “knock it forward!”
Mowbray spoke at length last week on how Chapman’s football tutoring thus far left much to be desired (that will have pleased Middlesbrough’s coaching overlords) but I can forgive a bit of not tracking back in the case of someone who can illuminate and elevate a mundane contest as he can.
Anything else we have to offer smacks of ponderous, over-methodic tortoise-race predictability. Nyambe will pass sideways in perpetuity. Caddis will make a run whch no-one sees or picks out. Graham will grapple with his marker grotesquely and occasionally think about winning a header.
Williams will think about taking a  man on then lay it back instead. Whittingham will find a pocket of space but see no movement or invention in front of him. Bennett will dink that same diagonal cross in endlessly. Antonnson will be a not-quite-good-enough centre forward utilised as a not-quite-good-enough left winger.
If there was any element of surprise or urgency to do it quickly it might come off occasionally but we must be the easiest team ever to scout and to set up against. Mistakes will happen in Third Division defence ranks when you move the bloody ball quickly as our equaliser proved but nine attacks out of ten they have time to organise their ranks no team playing a fancied side away from home ought to be afforded.
Rovers had contrived to allow unambitious Argyle to take a shock lead – although Graham Carey gave warning of his shooting ability with a similarly fine strike against Shrewsbury last weekend (“When was the last time anyone did that for us” queried a pal, plaintively) – but had found a fine equaliser when Graham and Dack combined to impressive effect.
Again Dack looked the most likely source of anything that might surprise the opposition. Of course he was withdrawn (admittedly after a knock or two) relatively early and quite what formation we were employing at the end is anyone’s guess.
But it is a sad reflection on our lack of menace when the division’s basement outfit can confidently set their stall out to cope with 45 minutes of virtually zero possession played in their own half.
I see no point in calling for Mowbray’s immediate dismissal just yet. While I have eating away at me a niggling feeling he won’t, there is still adequate time to turn it around. But a radically honest rethink and a self-assessing admission that the fumblings so far aren’t working probably mean that one or two of his favourites can’t continue to be trusted while some of the youngsters he is anxious to protect might as well be given their chance.
But if no improvement is forthcoming against Pompey on Saturday, the season is already showing signs of dying on the vine.
A home cup draw continued the October/November theme of Rovers largely playing close to the bosom of their support for weeks on end with derbies at Wigan , Bury and Blackpool to come before December.
There are lonelier days and nights for the team and fans ahead like those admirable 400 Plymouth fans endured last night, home late on Saturdays or in the early hours after days on the road.
It may feel even more alien and hostile at places like Gillingham and Bristol Rovers and MK Dons with a few hundred Rovers fans on than it did walking off Boundary Park after a miserable defeat.
To keep that connection and bond of faith with the remaining loyal supporters which has remarkably survived Venkys’ reign and occasionally inspired the better moments of this season you need to be giving us more than we’re currently getting, Tony.
Promotion back to the Championship might not be the Holy Grail but the more likely we look not to attain it, it’ll soon be Mowbray enduring the taunting and even those of us less inclined to vocal fury will be unable to begrudge others their derision.
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BLUE EYED BOY
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Decades of memories as Rovers look to balance Boundary books

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Those of us watching Rovers for our sixth or seventh decade know only too well how quickly 10, 20, 25 years can flash by virtually unnoticed, plans abandoned, once regular haunts neglected, dear old friends seldom seen or even thought about, and it’s amazing in some ways that Saturday sees Rovers return to what was such a familiar old stamping ground for the first time in 24 years.

 

Shivering and usually miserable afternoons on that open end at Boundary Park seem like yesterday, never mind a couple of early Premier League wins with the comfort of an actual roof to protect us from the elements on a  ground from which if you went due East, the first natural objects you would encounter would be the Urals.

 

(We did meet Oldham at home in the first round of our glorious 2001-02 Worthington Cup campaign… 10 points if you can name the lad who scored his only Rovers goal that night, answer at foot of column.)

 

And it’s easy to forget that Rovers and Oldham Athletic were in the same division for 20 of the 23 seasons between our first relegation to the third tier in 1971 and Oldham’s relegation from the Premier League in 1994.

 

As now, Rovers had fallen from top echelon to third in five years while Oldham’s glory years had hardly survived beyond cotton’s heyday – runners-up in both First Division and FA Cup during an era when  Bob Crompton was skippering us to titles.

 

As the rest of the mill and tourist towns of Lancashire’s teams dropped out of football’s elite one by one during the 1960’s – only Blackpool and Bolton would return, and they only very briefly in the following decade – clubs like ourselves and Oldham (“Home of the Tubular Bandage,” a sign on a bridge welcoming you to the town modestly but proudly says)  were left to compete for trinkets.

 

We looked on almost in unfettered envy as they won the Anglo-Scottish Cup and got the funds to build a  new stand – now demolished and replaced – by topping something called the Ford Lookers Fair Play League (I think) and trousering the hundred grand, practically twice as much as we’d ever spent on a player at he time.

 

Our fortunes were so closely entwined and Boundary Park was such a regular stopping point for our supporters during those two-and-a-bit decades that many of us were on first-name terms with local landlords and had what we considered our own personal annual parking spaces outside the same nearby houses,

There are certain parallels and subtle differences between the December 1971 visit and this weekend’s, another in a curious sequence of fixtures which will see Rovers, barring an unkind FA Cup first round draw, play only one game in the months of October and November more than 30 miles distant from Ewood.

 

Both clubs had fallen on hard times but unlike today any sense of optimism over a swift return to the Second Division had dwindled away among the travelling support. I’m pretty sure it was the first away game I was allowed to travel to without an adult, aged 12, on a Ribblesdale coach with blokes plunging bottle openers into Watneys Party Sevens and pouring them into glasses filched from the Adelphi or the Star and Garter on the Boulevard.

 

Rovers had played 20 league games by the time a late Dave Shaw goal equalised Tony Field’s opener and had won just five of them.

 

The result was certainly an improvement on the previous Saturday’s, when Oldham had won 1-0 at Ewood. (The respective attendances were uncannily similar – 7,593 at Ewood, 7,538 at Oldham).

 

But it’s entirely possible that today, with those stats, we could have been looking at our third manager of the season a week later. Back then with a vague belief that Ken Furphy was as capable of turning this shit round as anyone else who’d be prepared to come to Blackburn it was more a case of: “Something will happen,” as a philosophical John Lennon suggested to his infuriated fellow Fabs looking for suggestions when their van broke down by a motorway.

 

Promotion was already looking unattainable barring a miracle, an outcome which Tony Mowbray last week virtually admitted would see him handed his P45.

 

For the next couple of decades, the Latics were, if anything, often a step or so ahead of us. They won the Third Division Championship a year before we did, maintained Second Division status while we were relegated again briefly in 1979 and beat us to the top flight by a year and stayed up, thus cementing their “founder members of the Premier League” label a few weeks before we did likewise.

 

In the late eighties, under Joe Royle, their cup exploits, if not their awful plastic pitch, won the hearts of the nation as the likes of Arsenal were vanquished under the Boundary Park floodlights culminating in  appearances in the 1990 League Cup Final and FA Cup semi-final against Man United, as well as a thrilling Wembley semi in 1994 against the same opposition as their star was about to fade. 

However they were doing at the time though, a visit to Oldham habitually ended in misery with some notable exceptions, just as they generally fared badly here.

The lowlights are too numerous to itemise individually, although a  5-0 defeat on Good Friday 1979 was, remarkably, only the second-worse result of a weekend which saw us lose at home to Burnley to practically rubber-stamp relegation 24 hours later.

 

Another which sticks in my mind for the silliest of reasons was a horrid 4-2 spanking on Good Friday 1988. The match had been brought forward to a noon kick-off and one of the lads I worked with had arranged for Bacup Cricket Club bar to be opened- pre match bacon butties, pints etc – at 9.30am

 

Our plan to set off at 9am from Lock Street in Oswy was scuppered when one of the chaps, Joycey, failed to appear until 10.15am as he hadn’t put his watch forward an hour when the clocks changed the previous Sunday. His excuse that as he was a pool attendant at Waves he had no need to went down as well as you can expect from a bunch of beer-deprived boys with a frantic dash to make the match foisted upon them. I think we only managed two swift pints at Lanehead.

 

The names of Roger Palmer, Frankie Bunn and Andy Ritchie still cause Rovers fans the night terrors as the desperate days are recalled, just as Oldham fans and goalkeepers must break out into a cold sweat over the uttering of the four syllables “Simon Garner.”

 

There were good times but they were decidedly infrequent.

 

In the run-up to a snowy Christmas in 1981, our Boxing Day game against Oldham was switched to Boundary Park at short notice…they were even ahead of us having undersoil heating, see.

 

Rovers fans were rewarded after a treacherous journey by a grand display and a 3-0 win, Faz flicking Noel Brotherston corners on at the near post for Garns and Norman Bell to clip home.

 

I remember a thrilling 3-2 win on Boxing Day 1973 too, Richard Dinnis in caretaker charge. They actually won the Third Division that year.

 

Another stylish display under Jim Smith in October 1977, just days before I went away to Uni, marked the start of one of the most enjoyable runs of football I’ve ever seen from any Rovers team with Hird, Bailey, Brotherston and Wagstaffe outstanding. i hitch-hiked here and there to see them every weekend, the highlight a ride to Ninian Park with Bill Fox!

 

Jack Lewis, a footballing centre-forward of no mean ability, got badly injured after scoring at Oldham that night and though he came back for sporadic appearances, was never the same again. Both my 18-year-old and current incarnations romantically believe that side could have gone up if Lewis had stayed fit…or indeed, even been replaced at a time when Rovers’ directors made Scrooge look like Roman Abramovic.

 

In the first two Premier League seasons all our Boundary Park ghosts of the past were thoroughly exorcised by Ripley and Shearer et al. What exactly had the problem been?

 

Little did we realise when they slipped quietly out of the Premier League in 1994 that it would be almost a quarter of a  century till we met again on equal terms.

 

Today, our neighbours, who should know this league as well as anyone having just spent 20 consecutive years in it, are probably even more stricken than are we.

 

Owned by an American anxious to get shut, a raft of summer signings approved by someone patently other than manager John Sheridan (who not unexpectedly departed) they have remarkably been steadied a little, as clubs often are by a caretaker who is a  fans’ favourite, by club stalwart Richie Wellens.

 

This despite the players not being paid for September, an iniquity thus far not visited upon us even by the incompetent Venkys.

 

The supporters don’t have the luxury of a local evening paper to report on distressing goings on, The Chronicle having sadly folded, but Wellens has piloted the side to two league wins and a Checkatrade victory, no mean feat considering Sheridan washed his hands of it all.

 

Even Jack Byrne, another of those strange impulsive and ultimately unwanted loan acquisition follies Rovers have dabbled in all too frequently, has made an impact, and the scoresheet on occasion. Gates however have fallen spectacularly with less than 3,000 at the win at home to Peterborough.

 

Rovers will once again, as at Spotland, very possibly have more, and certainly more raucous and expectant, fans present than the hosts.

 

Tony Mowbray and his side must take advantage of this run of games at which the volume of travelling support possibly renders the atmosphere even more conducive to a performance than the sometimes spectral Ewood ambience.

 

With bottom side Plymouth at home on Tuesday followed by Portsmouth at home, Rovers first 13 games will have included fixtures against nine of the current bottom half of the table.

 

There will be sterner tests ahead in far-off places with a fraction of the backing so points stacked up now are precious.

One hopes Tony has done a little more research and preparation than he did for our Checkatrade conquerors Bury. His admission that he rather chucked the team on without really thinking about it was almost as astonishing as the statement about being surprised by the quality of Bury’s (a team we play again within a month) left back.

Having managed at this level before you rather think he might be aware of who everybody’s players are. No wonder the scouting system is due an overhaul.

It was the kind of daft thing everyone will forget about if we win the important stuff but my goodness, he could have chosen his words better.

Now the World Cup spots are almost sorted perhaps we may see Charlie Mulgrew selected less often for Scotland, whether of his own or some forward-looking coach’s accord, which would help with the mini fixture pile-up which has seen us collect a couple of games in hand but fall out, temporarily we hope, of the top six.

One hopes so, these international breaks were a bloody nuisance when everyone in your league had them, now with virtually everyone playing they’re even more intolerable and never-ending.

Thank goodness for the Under-23s for punctuating the tedium and providing another hugely enjoyable 90 minutes’ entertainment on Monday, although visitors Cardiff played their part in the spectacle with their experienced Scottish international full-back Callum Patterson maybe edging out our excellent Daniel Butterworth as Man Of The Match with a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw. (Patterson ironically a player Owen Coyle looked to bring into Rovers).

Rovers were unlucky to miss out on full points (it was a cup, but a group, don’t ask me any more complicated ones) due to a stoppage time leveller.

The livewire, bustling Joe Nuttall got another couple although he will possibly rue not notching a nap hand with a penalty and a couple of other good chances missed.

Butterworth gave the kind of display we’d like to see from Harry Chapman when he starts and his brilliant goal illuminated the Leyland night more than anything I’ve seen since Frank Sidebottom was on at the Civic Hall and personally helped dish out hotpot during the interval.

They really are a joy to watch, this lot.

Thanks to all who read and support the column in such encouraging numbers on a weekly basis and to the new folks running the BRFCS website who have given it a wider audience. Riversider 23 and Old Blackburnian give tremendous back-up on the odd weeks when I’m unable to supply the piece and both are an essential read.

It’s good to look forward to weekends with a bit of optimism and one hopes some success will give relief to and convert even the more spiteful among us, or as a great sage once said: “That a  spirit of understanding will convert them from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

 

  1. A) Darren Dunning scored Rovers second after Matt Jansen put us ahead

 

BLUE-EYED BOY

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