The always brilliant and entertaining Blackburn Roverseas is back after international week, previewing the upcoming away game at Bury:
Bury Match Preview
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At his pre-match press conference Tony Mowbray has heaped praise on the performances of the under 23's this season and is set to give them a chance in the Checkatrade Trophy match tonight at Rochdale.
The under 23's have been in fantastic form this season, Damien Johnson's side have lost just once this season. Mowbray said “I love watching our Under-23s, I think they’re a great football team with great camaraderie among themselves and I have no questions over their desire and heart, If they keep doing that then I do like to blood young players but we have to win football matches and to ask them to do that is difficult. But to drop one in every now and then it’s good and if they can grab their chance like Nuttall has then they will stay there.
“Let’s wait and see, I do feel that sometimes it’s a man’s game and needs a man to do the job and it can be difficult to ask an 18 or 19-year-old to get the job done but there’s a lot of quality at this club bubbling underneath."
Mowbray added: “I would like to play a lot of the Under-23s who have shown some scintillating football when I have been and watched them. Can they reproduce it against men and the pressure of playing against experienced pros? I won’t throw them all in, you can’t with the competition rules, but we would like to dip some in. We want to go to Rochdale and win but I will sit down with my staff and pick a team that we feel can be competitive and get a result.”
Rovers boss Tony Mowbray is relishing the visit to Wigan on Saturday. At his pre-match press conference Mowbray said
“I think based on the results Wigan have produced at home, it suggests it’s going to be pretty tough, They play as a team and they’re good with the ball. They’re controlled and ask questions of you. Wigan have some exceptional individual talent at this level, so it’s a game we have to really focus on. Let’s go there and enjoy it. We want to test ourselves. We have to play our game and let the match unfold in front of us, really. It’s difficult to predict how it’s going to be."
Mowbray added “We’ll make sure we carry a goal threat, make sure we know where the space is on the pitch and exploit it. If think they have very good technical players who can keep the ball well. They have a lot of quality in their team, but hopefully we have more athleticism. I think it will be a pretty tactical game, a good game with a lot of good players on the pitch. Let’s see how it goes. It would be nice to get the three points, however we might get them. Let’s go there and be positive and try to take the game to them if we can."
Mowbray also talked about the huge turnover of players at the club and the need for stability “The away game at Wigan last season, only Danny Graham started that game so that shows the turnover of players there has been at this club, We have had a huge turnover of players since then. I’m conscious that people think these are excuses but I genuinely think that on the training ground the players are still bedding in and the players are understanding the way that we play."
The Rovers boss is hoping to change the mentality at the club going forward "Those that have been here a while have to get out of the mentality of expecting another defeat and we have to change the mentality to a winning one rather than one of it being another tough game. It’s not easy to do, it will take time. You can’t just sprinkle magic dust on a team and they start winning, there’s a process you have to go through. Hopefully as quick as we can we can become a team that expects to win every week and we demand high standards of each other and you don’t play if you don’t reach it.”
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 @#/? 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 Wembley appearances in the 1990 League Cup Final and FA Cup semi.
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 1978, 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.”
A) Darren Dunning scored Rovers second after Matt Jansen put us ahead
Rovers have announced that Elliott Bennett has signed a contract extension which will keep him at the club until 2020. The popular midfielder has been one of the standout players in the early part of the season.
Talking to the club's official website Bennett said "We've been speaking about it for a little bit now and I'm just delighted that it's finally signed and I can commit my future to the club.
"Once I sat down with the gaffer and we had a chat, it was never my intention to leave at the end of the season. "I was part of the bad season we had last year and I want to be part of a great season this year, which hopefully culminates in us getting promoted".
Our Rovers reflections this week come from Riversider23, who you can follow on Twitter on @MarkMark37m
Ten games in, and we’re in a play-off position with a game in hand. Early days, but well-placed.
There will be stumbles on the road to promotion – like the Wimbledon game, for example – but the signs are becoming much more positive and hopeful.
Having said that, the last 20 minutes of the laboured win against Gillingham put a serious dent in my growing confidence that automatic promotion could be a realistic target.
On a high after an enjoyable performance the previous Tuesday, we could see the makings of a strong team and a bright future.
Samuel, Antonsson, Dack, Smallwood, Downing and Chapman were all impressive and good to watch.
Add Lenihan and he will strengthen the defence one way or another.
On the evidence of the pre-season games and the Checkatrades against Stoke and Bury, there are several youngsters – including Nuttall, Platt, Travis and Doyle – who should prove to be improvements to the first team squad. I’m sure there are others too – like Mols and Hart and Harper – that I haven’t seen enough of yet.
Throw all those in the mix along with the odd January addition and there’s a risk of getting carried away.
We could even get back to competing with the big boys, mid-table in the Championship…
But less of the dreaming, and back to earth and Gillingham.
Mowbray’s selection of Whittingham ahead of Evans was interesting. I guess the logic was that with Gillingham sitting right back, Whittingham’s eye for a slick and penetrative pass would be more useful than the extra security that Evans can bring.
Would Whittingham take the opportunity to leave his anonymity behind and blossom into a Berkovic?
It looked possible but, as the game wore on, he drifted more and more into the half-hearted stroll that suggests he doesn’t really like hard work.
Smallwood had been magnificent on the Tuesday – tackling with bite, using the ball quickly and effectively, and giving a master-class in “tidying-up” not seen since Savage. He’s a joy to watch, and the passionate beating heart of this team.
But even he seemed affected by having Whittingham alongside him and, as experiments go, I’m not sure it’s worth repeating.
As it turned out, Gillingham did offer very little threat. A rigid and retreating 4-1-4-1 left the Rovers with plenty of possession and, with better crossing than Williams or Bennett could provide, they should have created many more chances than they did.
The brightest spark was Dack – always available, finding space between the Gillingham lines and looking to move forward. With his head down a bit too much, and the ball getting stuck between his feet, he isn’t yet – as Mowbray might say – quite the finished article. He is though, along with Chapman, the player most likely to create danger for opposing defences.
There’s a suggestion that Dack isn’t properly up to match-speed/fitness, and that can be the only reason for his removal after 60 minutes. From that point on, it was downhill as the cohesion of the team suffered from the loss of his industry, and the level of possession plummeted.
On balance, the players who have arrived under Mowbray’s tenure suggest he’s not a bad judge of ability – but his selections and substitutions have been less confidence-inspiring.
Replacing Dack, Samuel and Antonsson with Chapman, Graham and Gladwin left us significantly weaker – offensively and defensively – and what should have been a comfortable victory became decidedly edgy.
Chapman is an exciting talent, oozing confidence and eminently watchable, but he gave Williams no protection at all – and, unfortunately, Williams needs plenty of support.
Gladwin isn’t up to speed and, judging by previous performances, the quality of his touch and some silky skills are undermined by a distinct lack of consistency and sharpness of movement.
As for Graham, the less said the better.
We won’t get off so lightly against better sides.
Fortunately, we haven’t seen anything yet to cause much concern about the competition.
In the championship, we were brought up short every now and again when, for example, Huddersfield or Derby produced performances at Ewood that painfully demonstrated a gulf in quality and organisation and effort.
This season, it would be good if it was us having that impact on others.
Still plenty of work to do, though.
Surprisingly, our record of goals against is currently one of the best in the division, and young Raya has to be given a chunk of credit for that. Still liable to make the odd howler, and sometimes uncertain under high balls, he also made two outstanding saves – in the first half when 3 Gillingham players bore down on him and a goal seemed inevitable, and then late in the game low down from close range.
So, it’s into the international break, and then away to the rejuvenated Oldham.
In all my time watching football, other than in exceptional circumstances, I’ve never regarded a draw away from home as any kind of disaster, certainly not early in the season away to the unbeaten table-toppers, and Saturday’s at Shrewsbury followed by a highly impressive home win against Rotherham sets Rovers up for a near-perfect eight days’ work with the proviso that they uphold Tuesday’s standards and overcome managerless (at the time of writing) Gillingham.
I predicted on Twitter just ahead of last weekend that very few if any sides will win three in a week and that a return of seven points would almost certainly see our position strengthened.
As far as my calculations see it, only Southend United have taken maximum points from the first two rounds and it’s possible that Tony Mowbray’s side could nudge into an embryonic play-off spot by Saturday tea-time which should at least see the ditsiest of the weekly knee-jerk reaction mob pipe down for a week.
A lot of the most annoying twaddle spouted on social media and message boards is to do with the fact that the modern fan, aided and abetted by football institutions and their broadcasting partners, is conditioned unto a memory span sufficiently short to make the average goldfish look like the font of all wisdom.
At times, Mowbray’s selections have looked as if they were in response to popular opinion, even if they almost certainly weren’t Scrap three at the back. Drop Graham. Drop Whitingham. Play Antonsson. Antonsson’s rubbish, recall Graham. Drop Graham again. Drop Ward. Start with Chapman.
I’m sure most of the time he sees what we think we see with rather more expert eyes. And the signs in the final phase at The New Meadow and from the first whistle back at Ewood were that he might be onto something.
Tuesday’s victory con brio had even the most cautiously-inclined of supporters like myself purring with approval. From the very off, Rovers moved the ball, and, crucially, themselves around the field in such sparklingly purposeful fashion that a stultefyingly mediocre Rotherham clearly couldn’t cope.
Having narrowly missed out on several early opportunities it could have been one of those irritating halves which ends in frustration but we kept at it and got our noses in front with the kind of simple set piece goal which looks simple precisely because it’s been practiced to death on the training ground and featured the class delivery of a very fine footballer coupled with an intelligent late near-post dart.
It was just reward for the team and for Marcus Antonnson, inexplicably and mercilessly maligned since his debut by those who see a couple of indifferent displays here and there as reason to vent spleen and fulfilment of their prophecies based on A - how “He couldn’t get in Leeds team; B - What “my mate who’s a keen Leeds fan says” and C - What fans of his former club say on their forum. (See also Paul Downing, composed and assured against Rotherham, written off by a good number as a bad signing five minutes after his deadline day capture).
It’s a strange way of greeting and encouraging new players. On most of those bases, we’d never have signed Graeme Le Saux or Ian Pearce and goodness knows what the reaction to taking unemployed Tony Gale on as he prepared for a career in non-league would have been.
I’m sure Brentford, Brighton and Bournemouth fans were grateful for our verdicts on Alan Judge, Shane Duffy and Josh King but it is possible for a bloke to become an altogether different player wearing one shirt than he looked in another and my starting point is that anyone pulling ours on starts afresh despite his past.
Having hit the woodwork a couple of times and had all and sundry other close calls everyone was a little disappointed we didn’t get the second we deserved before the interval as we all know the nature of a game can change subtly for no real reason after the break and so it proved.
For a spell in the second half, Rovers managed to make hanging onto the slender lead harder work than it ought to have been but Rotherham’s inability to really threaten other than one uncomfortable moment when we were thankful a ref’s assistant spotted an offence not immediately apparent, made it a bit of a mystery how they arrived as league top scorers having banged a few fives and fours in.
Quite how the number 24, Moore, one of those awkward long fellows who seem curiously unable to jump despite their height, is joint top scorer in the division was not immediately apparent, and while they enjoyed considerable possession Rovers eventually regained their metier and of course still had the boss card to play.
I’m in the minority in believing that Mowbray has got his handling of Harry Chapman bang on. I said to my companions early on that if we continued to stretch their back four as the two strikers and Bennett were doing early doors he would have a field day if introduced after an hour, and while their foothold back in the game meant his entry was slightly delayed and less of a banker, again he added a fresh irrepressible dimension against tiring defenders.
He will inevitably enthrall and infuriate in equal measure, as demonstrated by his fine goal and a mild, forgivable aberration moments later, both borne out of the incalculable Gazza-like self-belief plus eagerness to be star turn.
That second goal was much-needed and someone who loves individualists as much as I do isn’t complaining about the tendency towards greediness which deprived us of the added sheen of a third when that same effervescence drove the loanee to attempt a second shot and score rather than cross when his first effort was blocked. The celebration made me feel very old!
There will be a time for him to start games but on this I actually trust Mowbray who sees him train each day and may be a better judge than you or I how long he can impact upon a game for.
Whatever, it was great to see motion, skill and fluidity from most quarters both before and after the changes from the bench.
At times it was almost like watching the Under-23s, irresistible again in thrashing Fulham’s kids 4-0 at Leyland on Monday. Damien and Dunny have really stamped a style on that team and the seniors will have to continue to play as well as they did on Tuesday to hold them at bay. Do get along to see them if you can sort a Monday night out or maybe catch a couple playing against Bury in the Checkatrade on Tuesday.
But perhaps, as we approach the 10-game mark, Mowbray has finally, whether by design or accident, hit upon a cohesive configuration to make a meaningful impression on League One with his nominated more experienced squad despite some bizarre ramblings last week about some of the signings.
We hadn’t played well enough early on to imagine a scenario where bringing a player such as Whittingham on as sub could be other than folly but even he has been gently re-integrated and, coming on for a team already bossing the game, with space opening up, he could be as influential in his more measured, less explosive way as Chapman.
Dack, who I don’t think we’ve seen the best of yet, is key and there are signs that he is growing into the role most of us imagined as a link between a front one or three and the midfield.
A little more sharpness and he will certainly provide a fulcrum and add to his first Rovers goal at Shrewsbury. He, the tireless hard-running pair Samuel and Antonnson and Whittingham all ought to have emphasised Rovers’ superiority against Rotherham.
It certainly nips firmly in the bud any daft notions of changing manager unnecessarily at this early stage of the season, although those whose powers of recall extend no further than the last 90 or even 45 minutes they have seen (or in many cases not actually seen at all) would undoubtedly be swayed as easily as the bloke in the pub on the Fast Show if we were to slip up on Saturday.
But my guess is that we will get more of the same against a side which looks set to have Peter Taylor, once linked with our hot seat, in charge. Like many visitors to Ewood this season they will undoubtedly come to park the bus for a point but we are beginning to look as if we have the personnel and wherewithal to combat that.
After 10 games, heading into an international break, we won’t really be that much nearer knowing whether we’re promotion material than we were when the boys ran out at Southend.
But six wins out of ten sounds so much better than five out of ten and for our five league games in October we don’t have to set foot outside the old Lancashire boundaries (it would have been six had the Blackpool trip not been put back to after the illuminations!). Four derbies and a Saturday game at home to Pompey who may bring a few should ramp up the intensity and provide an edge to the atmosphere missing against the likes of MK Dons and Wimbledon.
Throw in a home Tuesday against currently-bottom Plymouth and I can’t wait for it to unfold.
Meanwhile, same again Saturday please.
There are few positives following a relegation to League 1, but if you are to search for some small consolation, then the prospect of an away day in this attractive Shropshire market town is perhaps one of them. Albeit, the old town centre Gay Meadow ground is now a stylish, modern housing estate, replaced some 10 years ago, by another of those purpose-built out of town, next to a retail park, 10,000 seat stadiums.
The last time Rovers visited Shrewsbury, was 1993, in what turned out to be an epic League Cup tie, eventually culminating in a 4-3 extra-time win for Kenny Dalglish’s embryonic Premier League side, the winner coming from a fine goal from a recently signed centre back, who took the field in a shirt with neither a name nor number, one Ian Pearce.
This version of Rovers found themselves cast as underdogs. Shrewsbury were riding high at kick off, on the back of 7 (SEVEN) wins and a draw. Older Rovers fans will recognise the SEVEN reference, (thanks largely to Town legend Alf Wood !). This start to a season is exactly what many Rovers fans expected their team to deliver, but the reality has proved somewhat different. A decent run of four wins on the bounce was rudely interrupted by last week’s shock home defeat by AFC Wimbledon and this game presented a chance to restore confidence, both in the team and on the terraces.
Here was a chance to right a wrong, to make a statement to the rest of the division that last week was merely a blip and that Blackburn Rovers were ready to impose themselves.
The team sheet revealed returns to the starting line-up for Bradley Dack and Danny Graham at the expense of the injured Craig Conway and dropped Marcus Antonsson. There was some trepidation in the crowd as to the “strength and stability” (thanks Theresa) of the back four but equally, some anticipation of creativity and guile up front.
Shrewsbury have a simple game plan, one that should resonate with Rovers fans of a certain vintage; namely, play on the floor where possible, attack directly, lay the ball off to the flanks as quickly as possible and create chances in the opposition penalty area for a strong centre forward. Their most impressive performer being Shaun Whalley, a pacy right winger who had a loan, then permanent spell at Accrington Stanley in 2007-8.
It’s a game plan they executed very efficiently. Rovers so often passing sideways and backwards; slowly, deliberately, patiently but unthreateningly; would lose possession only to see their opponents with three swift, incisive passes create a dangerous shooting opportunity.
Rovers rode their luck a little in the first half. An early Samuel header apart, there was not a great deal to get excited about. The Rovers back four still looks fragile. Ward & Raya seem now to compete almost on a weekly basis for their own “Mishap of the Month” competition. Here they combined on one memorable occasion to create a threatening free kick for Shrewsbury on the edge of the area out of a situation that had barely homeopathic levels of danger. The warning signs were there and the inevitable happened after 57 minutes, a Raya flap at a cross leading to a scrambled close range effort.
Disconcertingly, for almost 15 minutes, it seemed that Mowbray had no idea how to react. The Plan A had failed for over an hour but no substitutes were even warming up. The frustration reached the fans who chanted for Mowbray to “Sort it out”, the very least that should be expected.
A triple substitution, the sort made usually only when playing “Championship Manager” (or if you are Birmingham City era Barry Fry), transformed the Rovers’ approach. Harry Chapman introduced himself to his full back by racing past him twice in short order. Dack restored to a central role, now seemed keen to influence proceedings. He had looked nothing like as effective wide left.
Dack is something of an enigma. He clearly has talent & technique but allied to a fondness for over-elaboration and a reluctance to do defensive chores. When he doesn’t create or score, he naturally looks like a luxury we can ill afford. Here though, he eventually came good, following another rapid thrust from Chapman. The cross was attacked and defended with vigour with Dack eventually stabbing it home for an equaliser.
Rovers had therefore given themselves only 5 minutes to win the game and many observers around me expressed delight at parity, but also frustration that for the preceding 80 odd minutes, Rovers had seemed one-paced, pedestrian and lacking any guile or imagination.
Listening undercover to Shrewsbury fans on my walk back to the car park, they seemed genuinely concerned that they were going to lose in that last period, but they too were frustrated that when on top, they couldn’t find what would surely have been a killer second goal.
A fair result ? Perhaps not if you are Salopian but at least Rovers came back at the unbeaten league leaders on their own patch and rescued something. Consecutive defeats whilst not terminal, would surely have raised the stakes. This at least bought some breathing space.
If Rovers are the “Ikea team” that I have previously suggested – all the parts but no assembly instructions – the evidence of this encounter suggests that a vital nut & bolt or dowel might actually be missing. That or we need to learn how to use the Allen key properly to tighten things up.
Raya, whilst an excellent shot-stopper with fine reflexes repeatedly seems prone to a costly error and is vulnerable to crosses. The defence lacks pace on its flanks and with Elliott Ward in the middle makes the heart flutter at least once or twice a game.
The balance of the midfield remains elusive for Mowbray. Smallwood probably the one real success doesn’t seem to bring out the best in Evans, who frankly should be bossing games at this level. The lack of “proper” wingers when Conway is out and a lack of genuine pace (Chapman excepted) means opposition defenders can push forward with little concern from a ball over the top.
Mowbray seems uncertain as to the best combination of forwards. He has choice in abundance but as one seems to find form, a change in partner or an absence of a partner undermines the promise. This is the sort of dilemma that ought to have been resolved with pre-season friendlies against tough opponents. Tell me again what we learned in stuffing York City ?
The bright spot is that when the three subs were thrown on, we seized the initiative and could conceivably have stolen the 3 points. Chapman is a real prospect. He is so effective coming off the bench against tiring full backs. Can he keep that up as a starter ? Can he be trusted to treat possession with respect when we are under the cosh ? Will he do his share of helping the full back ? Well, I guess there’s a really good way to find out…
With two upcoming home games that are eminently winnable, this is a crucial week in Mowbray’s tenure. By next Saturday at 5pm, we will have played 10 league games – P8 W4 D1 L3 could become P10 W6 D1 L3 in other words, only just shy of the “2 point a game” average that would surely see automatic promotion (extrapolated over the season of course).
At time of writing, Rotherham are above us in the league table, a victory would overhaul them. Gillingham now shorn of the services of Bradley Dack are in the relegation spots. This is a crucial week. It’s an opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the division. Much like today’s game was. “Carpe diem” Rovers.
It was with some relief, shortly after a soul-sapping defeat at home to AFC Wimbledon, to spy a newspaper headline in which our manager proclaimed: “We’ve got to learn to break teams down”
No wotsit, Sherlock.
Having absorbed the fact that Tony Mowbray evidently does understand the basic tenets of the game, not always glaringly obvious from the Riverside, it would be doubly gratifying if he and those he is responsible for could perhaps try putting these ingenious fundamentals of football into practice.
You can moan all you want about teams coming here to shut up shop and nick one on the break or straining every sinew of robust physicality while employing all and sundry sleights of gamesmanship and chicanery available to them, but if you continue, as we do at home, to attempt less crafty forward passes in a game than the All Blacks, you’ll struggle.
On the back of two grand away wins backed by large, enthusiastic away following,the “sick building syndrome” neurosis that has permeated Rovers teams for the best part of a decade was thrown into sharp focus, particularly playing a visiting side whose lees-than-vociferous support could comfortably have fit into the tap room at the Fox and Hounds.
I’ve heard various explanations and theories for our stage fright in front of a crowd that comes to see us do well. Venkys’ tenure and its oppressive air of misery precipitating a lack of atmosphere, no singing, home fans outsung by large Darwen End away contingents which we shouldn’t encourage – but most of them seem to me superfluous in the face of alarming stats which can’t be attributed to people sat watching.
Personally, I’m not a singer, very seldom even a shouter, and even if I was my asthmatic, weedy voice wouldn’t last more than two minutes, a relief I’m sure to all who sit by me.
As a gentlemen at Rovers AGM once articulated it: “I don’t contribute much to the atmosphere myself, but, my, I like to experience it and get the benefit when the crowd is buoyant.”
Years spent in press boxes closely watching every kick and header and observing all 22 players with marks to conjure up on the whistle have shaped the way I sit and watch the game now. And I’ve got two passionate Rovers fan daughters to make my share of the racket.
I’m certainly not in favour of limiting away contingents. Not only is it financial hara-kiri, I actually like to see our crowd geedn up in response to a loud throng at the far end. We lost the particular game (narrowly, cruelly and undeservedly in my book), but Leeds at Ewood last season was one of my favourite nights for a long while – I might have even hurled one of my odd wasspish insults at a visiting player so caught up in it all was I.
But I’ll tell you how much of a problem this thing of ours has become.
The last time Rovers won half of their home games or more in a season – surely the enduring minimum requirement for successful teams – was in 2009-2010.
Since then, in two woebegone Premiership seasons we won 7 and 8 out of 19 respectively.
In five Championship seasons ranging from flirting with the play-offs to relegation the ratios (out of 23) were 10, 11,11, 8 and 8.
Two defeats and a win at Ewood this season make it 64 wins out of 156 in league football. One in three over the last two and a bit seasons. An astonishing 92 of those 156 visiting sides have left Ewood with a point or better.
The only answer to those stats and the lack of atmosphere is the simplest one of all, one which makes Tony Mowbray’s earlier clarion call look like something Jean-Paul Sartre dreamed up: Damn well play football better!
There was nothing deeply philosophical about the Dons’ approach but it had made us look more like benign Wombles than them by just after the quarter-hour mark.
Kwesi Appiah, the kind of perpetual-menace muscular, rumbustious presence we so lack, demonstrated that Richie Smallwood DOES occasionally give the ball away and drove at the heart of our defence.
Two blokes to block such a trickery-free straight-line thrust ought to be enough, but if both contrive to fall down then the opposing striker might well minuetto allegretto around both and accept the invite to blast home.
It wasn’t as if Wimbledon spent the next 74 minutes desperately hanging on either, which is borderline criminal.
Their own sporadic forays forward as they largely protected the lead looked as likely to produce a second as our one-dimensional fumbling did to spark an equaliser. Raya and Williams both did well to prevent worthy efforts finding the target.
No woodwork struck, no goalkeeper tipping them over the bar (I can recall the one save from Dack’s header), no desperate, courageous bodies scrambling to hold firm at set pieces.
The crowd resorted, as losing home crowds invariably do, to deeming every opposition contact a foul, every penalty area block a handball and generally demonising the referee who might not have been the best but certainly wasn’t as responsible for our demise on the day as our sheer lack of brains was.
At one point every stoppage was greeted by those inevitable anguished howls about timewasting (a trick I’d fully expect us to pull at one-nil up away, too) but deep into stoppage time Williams took about eight seconds over a throw-in. It summed the day up for me. At one down we had even less urgency over a restart than they had.
I’ve seldom seen a team with three strikers and a “goalscoring number 10” (and I’m not convinced by Dack myself) on the field look as unthreatening and that configuration was mercifully jettisoned sharpish.
I dread to think what would have happened had Evans, already overrun by the likes of the combative Parrett, been left to fend in the middle on his own in a 4-3-3.
It really does need sorting out this home thing. Every team which won automatic promotion in the Football League last season won more than half their homes. Only Blackpool of the clubs promoted through play-offs failed to – but they only lost four.
In League One Sheffield United and Bolton lost only three at home, Millwall (promoted via play-offs) only four.
Bolton last season presumably faced similar conundrums to us… teams setting their stall out for a point in a two-thirds empty stadium…but they dealt with it from the off. Wigan appear to have had no collective paralysis before the dwindling DW faithful this time.
If we are better suited and more at ease playing away, we get a chance to prove it this weekend as we visit the unbeaten surprise-package leaders.
I’ll be very surprised if Shrewsbury last the course but their boss Paul Hurst has enjoyed some good success in his managerial career in non-league, then league football. And he has a qualification in sports writing to fall back on if times get tight!
Whatever the outcome of our seventh match of the season it won’t be as embarrassing as the tenth game we ever played at this level – a 7-1 shoeing at the old Gay Meadow in 1971!
Incredibly, though it was the seventh game without a win, Ken Furphy survived that in an age when sounding off on social media meant writing a angry letter to the Evening Telegraph on Sunday afternoon possibly for publication on the following Thursday, if you made the cut, when the more extreme emotions had quelled somewhat.
I remember hearing Sam Leitch read the result out on TV and back then no further information whatsoever was available until the Last Sports newspaper was delivered to your papershop at about 5.30pm.
Nothing at all.
No mobiles, no ceefax, no local radio, no internet…so off I went to see if a mistake had been made. The paper would contain, teams, line-ups, and a report up to about ten minutes into the second half. Any late goals or further crucial details would be stamped in pinky-orange print in a column left empty for such purposes headed “Stop Press.”
I think Roger Jones had had to go off injured, we might have had someone sent off too and I’m almost sure Don Martin took the green jersey – no sub keepers – and the stop press read something like:
65 4-1 WOOD (Shrewsbury)
74 5-1 WOOD (Shrewsbury)
82 6-1 WOOD (Shrewsbury)
88 7-1 WOOD (Shrewsbury)
Old Alf Wood, a formidable lower league warhorse of centre-forward got five (35 for the season too) that day, possibly sharing with Dimitar Berbatov the distinction of being the only two fellas to do so against Rovers in my lifetime.
It wasn’t the only time we got beat there either. We lost the following two seasons too and in three consecutive visits in the 1980’s. The usual rule there, since that first hammering, is that if we score we take a point at least.
We have won three out 12 in the league and even some of the scorers make you feel nostalgic for those great days out (Shrewsbury old town centre is not without an impressive multitude of welcoming hostelries even today, I’ll warrant) … Price, Curry, Sellars, Lowey, Brotherston.
I can’t think about the place without remembering my great old pal Tony Marsden, sadly no longer with us, the both of us giggled away from meeting up for one of those victorious ventures to landing back in Hyndburn with Church CC stalwarts Ken Fergusson and Jack Houldsworth, just carrying on like we hadn’t a care in the world. We laughed about that outing for years. Miss you, old bud.
Of course on our last trip to the quaint old coracle-boat ball-rescuing ground by the river, Ian Pearce, the sub with no number, struck the extra-time winner in a 1993 League Cup tie which had briefly looked like proving the first real cup embarrassment for Jack and Kenny’s “moneybags” Rovers!
It might not be as dramatic this time but table-toppers Shrewsbury will certainly be full of it, as may be Rotherham, Tuesday’s visitors, who have been banging a few in on a decent run of their own before a defeat at Bradford Saturday last.
Time to walk the walk, Tony. And time for those great away fans (a sell-out again) to do their bit as they invariably do.