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Season Review Part Two

Guest Kamy100

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Guest Kamy100

Part 2 of Karl's review of last season:

Part Two - Sam Allardyce

My first experience of Sam Allardyce was in 1997, when he was a guest pundit on a late-night Football League discussion programme. Older readers may remember him as a Bob Carolgees-alike defender, who lumbered across the muddy pitches of the 1970s and 80s, but by '97, Allardyce was manager of Notts County, recently relegated to the Third Division. My reaction was a vague sense of pity for this small-time duffer who wore a grandad-collar shirt and bushy moustache and held forth on teams clearly better than his; he was obviously useless, wasn't he?

Well, the season after, Notts County won promotion by mid-March, the first post-war team to do so. From there, the duffer went to Bolton, got them into the Premier League, and established them as a top-half team. Yeah, I know how to pick them. Big Sam (or Fat Sam if you weren't a Notlob fan) was a divisive figure. His results couldn't be questioned, but he won few friends with his functional football and self-promotional tendencies. He was a figure of derision for his huge backroom staff of sports scientists and Prozone analysts, and for his reliance on bloodless stats. His great ambition was to manage on a bigger stage than the Reebok Stadium could offer, and he wasn't shy about announcing this. He was passed over for the England job - a clear source of frustration for the man - and eventually left Bolton to take up a post at Newcastle. He lasted barely six months.

In the summer of 2008 it was widely accepted in the news and on messageboards that Allardyce was a frontrunner for the Blackburn job, at least until some opinionated Rovers fans made that most modern of protests: they started an anti-Allardyce Facebook group. Sam, after all, was never a popular figure at Ewood. He plays long ball! He used to manage Bolton! How much influence the Facebook fans actually had is hard to guess, but within weeks Allardyce had formally withdrawn his interest in the job.

There was talk that some within the club had gotten cold feet when the opposition to Allardyce became obvious. Even at a club like Rovers, where the board are painfully aware attendances are so fragile that upsetting a large swathe of potential season ticket buyers is a move to be avoided, it's slightly worrying to think a precedent could have been set for the club to submit to whichever supporters shout the loudest. Facebook groups demanding what positions players play in? It might have helped Ince out a little, but it's really not the way to go.

But that was in the summer. Come December, with Rovers adrift in the relegation zone, demoralised and disorganised, things had changed. Pragmatism was needed; aesthetics were not. And so, within 72 hours of Paul Ince losing his job, the Rovers board installed Sam Allardyce, master of the ugly-but-effective, as boss.

And it started well. Sam started his Rovers career with a 3-0 win over Stoke, which immediately made the table look a little healthier. A goalless Boxing Day draw with Sunderland set us up for Mark Hughes's return to Ewood. It looked like we'd get one over our ex gaffer, as we lead 2-0 going into the final minutes, but the game was turned by the introduction of Daniel Sturridge, who's just gone to Chelsea, believing he's got a better chance of dislodging Drogba and Anelka (or simply waiting until they're both sulking in their bedrooms) than the whole squadron of forwards City have newly recruited - Two late goals meant Rovers had to settle for point. Allardyce's innate conservatism was on show here: in the first half, Rovers took the game to City, but as the match wore on, we defended deeper and deeper, started to invite pressure, and eventually succumbed. The result meant Rovers were still in the bottom three at the beginning of 2009, but the upswing in performances meant fans could be cautiously hopeful of a better second half to the season.

When the transfer market opened in January, Alllardyce moved quickly. Gael Givet arrived on loan from Marseille to add some defensive solidity, something everyone (with the possible exception of Nigel Winterburn, who was too busy watching Arsenal to have an opinion) agreed was needed. Sam's second signing of the window was more controversial. Like the manager he was reunited with, El Hadji Diouf wasn't much liked by Rovers as as opponent, but at £2.5m he was as good an option as any we could find to address the right midfield problem, and it's not like Rovers haven't had more than a fair share of pantomime villians in recent years. If we could warm to Bellamy, warming to Diouf would be, well, not easy as such, but certainly possible. In theory.

We were drawn to play Blyth Spartans in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Brilliant. Exactly the kind of tie the cup's famous romance was built upon . . . except, in depressing modern football fashion, any potential romance was trampled on. Firstly by Setanta's decision to televise the game on the traditionally dismal first Monday night of the year, and secondly by Allardyce's decision to pick a team of half-fit defensive midfielders and uncertain youngsters. Rovers eventually won 1-0, through the one moment of genuine quality in the game: Carlos Villanueva showed some of his Youtube form to curl in a brilliant free-kick that wouldn't have looked out of place in the San Siro. Or on FIFA 09. Rovers scraped through, Allardyce got a chance to look at some fringe players (albeit in a situation that was never going to be repeated in a league game), and Blyth got a nice little payoff for the whole thing. A success of sorts, then.

One of the players who 'starred' against Blyth was about to leave for pastures unexpected. Matt Derbyshire's unusual footballing journey, which had started at Great Harwood Town, led East as he joined Greek side Olympiakos on loan. As a local lad with no deficit of running or effort, Derbs has been popular with Rovers fans, but he'd started to go stale - Ince sticking him on the right wing didn't help - and the Olympiakos move was imaginative and pretty bold for a young English footballer, belonging as he does to a demographic not known for embracing foreign cultures or opportunities. Derbs scored eleven goals for the Greeks, including two against AEK Athents in the Cup final against, and made his move permanent in the summer. Good luck to him.

That meant Rovers were looking threadbare upfront. Roque Santa Cruz's season had been stunted by injury, and when he did play he often looked more like the figure of fun Bayern Munich had sold us than the fearsome target-man we'd celebrated holding onto in August. It didn't help that Roque had developed a habit of chatting to Paraquayan radio stations. Conflicting quotes filtered through from South America - one day he was happy to fight for Blackburn; the next he was ready to move on. Manchester City showed interest in January, but Rovers knocked back the big money on offer, believing that Roque would be crucial in the season's closing months. And then the big lump got injured in early March and didn't play again. Doh.

Football managers talk often of the need to be hard to beat, as if it's some cunning tactical plan rather than common bloody sense. Hard-to-beat in this context normally suggests a snarling, combative team straining every sinew to cling onto that 0-0 draw; no-one ever really calls Manchester United or Barcelona hard-to-beat, even though they're harder to beat than anyone else. At the start of 2009, Rovers were hard-to-beat in the traditional, snarling sense. Problem was, we weren't winning many games, and draws against relegation rivals left us in the bottom three. We couldn't find a breakthrough at Middlesbrough. We came back from 2-0 down at home to Bolton, but didn't score the third goal that would have shot us up the table and made Notlob fans very nervous. Sam's first defeat came in early February, at home to Champions League-challenging Aston Villa. We lost our next league game to Manchester United, but had the small satisfaction of being the first team to score past United in the league since early November. Then we went out of the FA Cup, to bloody Coventry. Again.

Away wins at Hull and Fulham lifted us up the league, before a 4-0 hammering at Arsenal reminded us that the spineless days of Ince weren't so far in the past. A draw at home to West Ham was memorable for Keith Andrew's Gerrard-esque (well, it looked good from where I was) finish and sarcastic celebration.

That was followed by a bizarre game at home to Spurs. Rovers went behind when Givet was punished by a poor handball decision and Robbie Keane scored home the penalty. (There was added controversy here, because the ball wasn't in the centre of the penalty spot when Keane struck. This threw up an amusing side show in the second half of the game, as players from both sides tried to see what they could get away with at corners and dead balls, in a marvellous display of childish oneupmanship). Tottenham were well in control of the game. At half time, Allardyce got so desperate he introduced his tactical ace: he stuck Chris Samba up-front on his own. A 6'' 7' centre-back up front on his own? Who said Allardyce played negative, route one football? But it worked. Spurs's Wilson Palacios was sent off with ten minutes left of what seemed like a certain away win, but that red card turned the game. Suddenly, Spurs's grip on midfield loosened and they were brittle, almost as if they were trying consciously to live up to the stereotype of a poncy London side who can't handle being roughed up in the North. Benni McCarthy turned in Samba's cross-shot-type-effort. Then, in injury time, a corner came in, big Samba caused trouble in the six-yard-box , and Andre Ooijer tapped in as easily as at Goodison on the opening day. Great sense of timing, that boy. At the whistle, El Hadji Diouf sprinted extravagantly over to the Riverside, shirtless and open-armed, then doubled back on himself, and for no apparent reason whatsoever got involved in a ruckus with the Spurs keeper. Great sense of how to make friends, that boy.

We went to Anfield, and . . . oh. Sam Allardyce complained afterwards that Rafa Benitez had shown Rovers disrespect. The bone of Allardyce's contention was the way the Liverpool gaffer shrugged his shoulders after his team's second goal of the day. Quite an unedifying spectacle all round, especially since Sam's comments seemed strangely co-ordinated with ones Alex Ferguson was making around the same time. Rovers lost 4-0. However much respect Liverpool did or didn't show to Rovers, the Scousers could have spent the second half re-enacting famous scenes from Bread and still won easily.

Our next game was depressing, too. We lost 1-0 to a late goal at Stoke. Footballwas the biggest loser; the kind of loser that gets happy-slapped on the school bus home.

Despite the poverty of those two away games, our season was panning out with reassuring clarity: win our home games and we'd be OK. So it went. The board - I'm going to break with football-supporter tradition here and praise them - came up with another good idea to get fans into Ewood. £20 to watch for three big end-of-season games from unreserved seats in the Darwen End is pretty good value, no matter how much Rovers' football veered towards the, umm, robust. It worked, too - the Ewood atmosphere was palpably better against Wigan than it had been for most of the season. Rovers won 2-0; Benni got the first, and Ryan Nelsen finally got his first Blackburn goal in the second half. Robbo put on a fine goalkeeping performance, one that showed why he was so highly-rated back in the day, and Keith Andrews cleared off the line late on. It didn't matter; Rovers were pulling clear of the bottom.

Another 2-0 win, this one against a feeble Portsmouth side, sealed Premier League football for another year. Job done for Big Sam, and even if it wasn't always a great watch, Allardyce deserves credit for beating some organisation into Ince's ragged gaggle and achieving safety relatively comfortably. Our first post-safety game was an odd, low-tempo, end-of-season game at Chelsea. We lost 2-0. We were too polite to stop Chelsea winning; they were too polite to score too many. Our end of season tally against the 'big four' read played 8, won 0, drew 0, lost 8, scored 2, conceded 23. Ouch. Allardyce, whose Bolton teams loved winding up the big boys, will want to do better than that next year.

The season finished with a 0-0 stroll against West Brom, memorable only for turning into a tribute to the departing legend Tugay. Baggies fans were planning to wear facemasks of their manager Tony Mowbray; Rovers responded by printing Tugay facemasks for home fans to wear. A surreal sight, especially at stadium scale, one a bypasser might mistake for a bad acid trip, or a low-budget 1984-style film about totalitarianism and the cult of personality.

Tugay will be missed. Possibly the only good player Graeme Souness has ever signed from his mate David Murray at Rangers (at times, Souey's transfer policy resembled a Football Manager player adding himself at another club to pay big money for all his crap players), Tugay gave Rovers eight years of fine service. He had a great range of passing, cheeky skills when the fancy took him, and a tendency to provide some of the finest moments seen at the new Ewood. His volley from a corner against Fulham. The strike at Southampton that was clocked at over 100mph. A low, swerving drive against Arsenal, who were beaten that day at Ewood but who wouldn't lose another away game for nearly 18 months. 30-yarders (at least) against Basel, Reading and Tottenham that he celebrated like a maestro, running amongst his teammates, bowing to the fans and waving his arms flamboyantly, grinning like a kid who can't quite believe what he's just done. He could be infuriating at times, especially during his imaginary friend period, but that just added to his scruffy charm. He cared about the club, too: reportedly, he was reduced to tears in the dressing room after a fairly mundane home defeat to Newcastle in 2006. Under Souness, Hughes and Allardyce, Rovers have rarely been short of Labore, but it Tugay who usually provided the Arte. Replacing him will not be easy.

So after a season that was disappointing, but not nearly as disastrous as it could easily have been, Sam has the opportunity of a summer to mold a new team. Next season should be interesting. Even if big Chris plays upfront again.

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