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Old Blackburnian's View - Pt 28 - Drawn By The Riverside

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This week's slightly extended "Accrington Observer" column...

Drawn By The Riverside

The landmark milestone was finally reached, albeit “bong-less” at 11pm last Friday. The arguments from both sides had played out and the final denouement was that Remain had won. That’s right, Rovers would remain with the squad with which they had started the window. On the plus side there were no Leavers, thanks perhaps only to Bradley Dack’s unfortunate and untimely cruciate injury. Enquiries were apparently made from Portsmouth to Poland, but Po'Rovers suffered “short arms but deep pockets” syndrome; not a signing, loan or permanent was forthcoming.

In January 2019, just after the window closed, Darragh Lenihan suffered an injury, Rovers were then pummelled by Brentford and any optimism lingering regarding play-off prospects soon dissipated. The lack of incomings this time round was not a total surprise given the rumblings of FFP, but it was a disappointment. To stand still is to fall backwards in reality. Fans naturally always hope that a rabbit can be pulled from a hat – whether that bunny might be a veteran with fire still in the belly, dropping down a division or a youngster with a point to prove stepping up the leagues, but this time, nothing.

All of that meant that the trip to Tony Mowbray’s homeland might prove to be something of an anti-climax. Of course, the previous away game hadn’t promised much either, but five goals later, the party was in full song. Rovers had once scored five away at Ayresome Park back in 1982 in a Noel Brotherston-inspired five-one victory over Malcolm Allison's side, but only the most rabid Rovers optimist (rightly as it transpired) expected another one here.

If ever a match was set up to inspire its own round on BBC Two’s “Only Connect” then Saturday’s encounter with Middlesbrough at the Riverside was a strong candidate. Each team managed by a former Middlesbrough centre-back, one player* the brother in law of the opposing manager, a former Rovers striker on the Boro bench, a former Boro striker on the Rovers bench, a former Boro winger and a Boro midfielder sadly (for the purposes of this column..!) didn’t make it into the Rovers squad; but connections everywhere you looked.

One by-product of the fallow transfer window is the opportunity it presents for some of the promising academy products. One of those for whom a bright future is predicted is Joe Rankin-Costello and here, he made his first start. It was Boro that started the brighter. Stewart Downing perhaps a little over-eager to make a point to his former employer received a yellow card for a late tackle on Nmecha barely four minutes in. 

Rovers struggled to impose themselves but when they did finally create a decent opportunity, a Gallagher cross aimed at Armstrong came to nothing. Boro then broke quickly and both Fletcher and Nmecha used their pace to cause anxiety. Rovers best response came when an interchange between Downing and Rankin-Costello gave Armstrong a chance to fire off two left-footed attempts in quick succession but to no avail.

A Nyambe cross encouraged Rankin-Costello to challenge this time, but a collision with Aynsley Pears, son of Middlesbrough’s legendary keeper Stephen, resulted in a lengthy stoppage, a serious head bandage and the use of the numberless “blood shirt”, bringing back memories of Ian Pearce away at Shrewsbury back in 1993. Another injury setback saw Lewis Holtby depart proceedings shortly before half-time, opening up even more opportunities for young talent - on came er...Elliott Bennett. As the added time wore on, Rovers looked leggy and the half-time interval was a timely release of pressure.

The second half saw another formation, with Bennett now fulfilling the “number ten” role and Gallagher once more out wide. Interestingly Rankin-Costello was now resplendent in blue bandages – half the game in white ones, half in blue – he’s one of our own alright.

Boro continued to look dangerous and no more so than when Howson cut on from the wing and fired a shot just, only just wide of Walton’s right-hand upright. One straight out of the Armstrong playbook right there. 

The opening goal involved Armstrong but this time as provider. Lewis Travis had seemed to be suffering from his midweek exertions, but suddenly, out of nothing, he found a burst of energy that took him past a couple of Boro midfielders. From the halfway line, deep into the Middlesbrough box, a one-two with Armstrong neatly sidelined another couple and a left-footed shot was passed into the corner of the goal. Against the run of play perhaps, but a delightful goal from a deeply impressive player.

The equaliser came following some nominative determinism when some wing-play from Wing resulted in a smart shot being parried by Walton, but only as far as the onrushing Coulson. Both Nyambe and Gallagher, static at the far post, could only look on in anguish as Coulson moved past them to score. "I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield...down by the riverside"

Any chances that came in the last few minutes were largely as a result of the introduction of Rudy Gestede and his aerial threat proved hard to handle. One header in particular brought out the very best in Walton with a fabulous right-handed save from close-range. There was still time for Travis to earn a yellow card with a scything challenge that could have been classified as a “dark orange”. 

Last season 74 points got Derby in the play-offs so that means Rovers would probably need somewhere between 30-35 points from our remaining 16 games to reach that total, so to keep the arithmetic simple, 2 points per game on average. Could Rovers win say 9, draw 5 & lose 2 ?

It’s highly unlikely, but not totally implausible...but let’s overlay reality now, we have lost our best player (and probably his replacement), have not been in the top 6 since Kean was here (I think...) and all of a sudden, it’s more of a pipe-dream. A top-ten finish (in other words, a five place improvement) would I believe, be a decent season all things considered. 

Rovers run of form over the last ten games illustrates the difference between play-off spots and also-rans. This very sequence includes five draws but just the two wins. Turning draws like that into victories, without the services of Dack, Holtby, Rothwell and Evans to deliver two points per game on average is a very tall order. 

However, with no squad reinforcements in January, the opportunity for those promising youngsters looms large, but you win nothing with kids, right ?


One final footnote this week regarding the recently revealed and terribly sad news of Tony Parkes’ recent diagnosis. The very epitome of a club legend, always on hand to contribute in whatever fashion the club needed over the decades, the campaign to name the Riverside in his honour is the very least he deserves. What a servant to Blackburn Rovers and what a hero. 

*it’s Stewart Downing 

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