For all the indignities heaped upon Rovers fans over seven years of failure, the constant simmering anger and despair of the long-suffering supporters – and we’re unquestionably down to a few thousand of the most fiercely loyal and tolerant at the stadium now – I’ve never witnessed such a startling and damning sound as I heard at around a quarter to five on Saturday.
For every Venkys Out chant, for every attack on a manager (Kean and Coyle both vehemently targeted individually on occasion) and for every groan or boo of dissatisfaction individual players have come in for (Andrews, Best, Murphy, Orr etc) over the years I have never previously heard a decent home turn-out (including, importantly, many non-season ticket holders who were willing to give the new team a trial run) turn so unanimously and vociferously in venomous vocal condemnation of what they saw before them and vent their spleen on the team as a collective.
At the precise moment fans chanted “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” – not just a few, practically everybody – there were four of Tony Mowbray’s summer signings on the field as well as men like Elliott Bennett, Charlie Mulgrew and Danny Graham, who along with the withdrawn Peter Whittingham, we were told, were players the like of which humble third tier outfits would not be able to cope with being on the same pitch as.
It was simply staggering – although surprisingly not remarked upon by Rovers’ closest press commentators who deign to suggest “Five talking points” after each game. If that wasn’t second or third on the agenda in any pub full of fans following the game, they must have had a hell of a stripper on.
We’ve had home humiliations – Cardiff 4-1, Peterborough 3-0 up after 20 minutes, Birmingham similar, and we’ve had teams wipe the floor with us, Huddersfield the season before last under Lambert a particular low point – but usually we’ve had the consolation of a doughty fightback of some kind or the fact that the opposition were just too classy for us.
I’ve heard some of the most pitiful stuff I’ve ever heard trotted out by Rovers supports this week to attempt to explain the stark reality of a pointless start against two of league football’s perennial nearly men.
“Teams are trying harder against us because we are former Premier League champions.”
“We’re a big scalp, the team everybody wants to beat.”
Get real, pussycats. We are no longer considerd so storied or monied to be regarded as any kind of fading aristocrats or elite.
After five largely wretched seasons in the Championship hoovering up rubbish such as Chris Brown, Paul Taylor, Simeon Jackson, Lee Williamson and Luke Varney, any residual sheen or lustre from our gold-standard spending 1990s or early 21st century glory years is a distant memory.
It’s like me claiming to have been in awe of Ipswich in 1967 because they’d won the league five years earlier. Ancient history.
Teams – and more to the point smart opposing managers like Phil Brown and Darren Ferguson – know full well that Rovers are damaged goods psychologically and that Ewood, statistically, is a ground more than half of visiting sides have walked away from with one or three points for a period of more than half a decade now.
Let’s not flatter ourselves that we’re bringing an exciting touch of glamour to deprived footballing regions only for them to insult our largesse.
We get a few thousand at home and take a fair –to-above-average following away. We’re hardly Newcastle or Man City rolling up.
Footballers, if they are truly professional, want to win any game. The win bonus on offer is usually sufficient to ensure that.
If we really are reduced to arguing that a passionate Roots Hall home contingent or a larger-than-usual Doncaster following for the first away game is a factor in raising the odds against us we ought to be thoroughly ashamed.
Where we must look for reasons is inwardly, are our manager and players up to the job? So far resoundingly not with hopefully a few tough decisions to be taken and one or two looking at themselves so as to say: “What more could I have done to avoid this start?”
One or two, like Caddis I suspect, will prove to have been folly, mistakes of acquisition which all managers make. The trick is identifying the error quickly and eradicating it.
Remember every one of those 2-3,000 walk-ons on a lovely August afternoon was a potential bury-my-reservations season ticket holder who went home thinking: “Same old crap, different division, I’ll keep my money in my wallet and come to one or two if they pick up.”
I called the pre-season 100-point talk delusional nonsense all summer but nothing had prepared anyone but the most avowed pessimist for the meek, simpering manner in which Mowbray’s side has failed to even compete adequately for the first six points of this campaign.
I certainly didn’t subscribe to the arrant “walk this league” twaddle (read some of that back if you want to see why some fans might enjoy doing a number on us) but nor did I or do I believe that the personnel available to Mowbray are incapable of giving a better account of themselves. But, boy, do they need to start showing signs thereof soon.
I dismissed as hysterical bullshit the notion that Mowbray should be judged on the first ten games. But I’ll revise that – three more displays like the first two and serious questions will have to be asked.
Whether the likes of Dack, Gadwin, Whittingham, Samuel and Smallwood and co will eventually sparkle in this league remains to be seen.
Antonnson, Nuttall, Chapman and the likely Celtic loanee Liam Henderson offer Mowbray options but they deserve to be introduced into an environment where at least the senior pros are taking responsibility. So far they pointedly aren’t.
One thing which isn’t in doubt however is that if the manager’s selection and tactics aren’t quickly tinkered with after an appalling set of Mowbray errors for the openers, nobody is going to be able to show their best in a system ill-designed for the parts available.
Whatever formation you imagine we are playing, three at the back with two wing backs only offers a foundation if your three at the back are solid and able to concentrate and your wide fellas are capable of contributing going forward along with their defensive chores.
Mowbray reiterated on Saturday evening that there was nothing wrong with the system. He’s right, there isn’t if you have the 1974-78 Dutch World Cup side at your disposal, or perhaps peak Dani Alves and Roberto Carlos with Baresi, Costacurta and Maldini inside, Lothar Matthaus holding while Carlos Valderama and Messi slip balls through to Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
With the best of wishes, it’s not gonna work with Derrick Williams and Elliott Ward key men in it.
And if your midfield is packed with holding type players and has little inclination and even less options to move forward or get the ball to attacking players then the system looks what it did on Saturday, ponderous and slow, calculated to offer incessant sideways and backwards movement as the opposition get behind the ball in droves with a centre forward not in the first flush of youth or indeed inclined much towards industry when so isolated, rendered virtually a passenger.
Smallwood showed flashes of a quicker, crisper ability to demand the ball, think swiftly and shift it but by the second half he had reverted to anonymity among his less pro-active colleagues.
The one time Rovers worked an opening, Graham, who thought he’d bought himself a gap with a neat shimmy, found a second defender showing enough commitment and awareness to block what momentarily seemed a golden chance.
That’s not a team fired up to beat the champs of 22 years ago. It’s a team where everyone knows his job and knows when he needs to step in and help his mate out in a difficult moment.
There are no stats recorded in Rothmans for how many times you get your head, chest, upper thigh or arse in the way of a cross or shot but the way the game panned out the importance of the kind of doggedness and defensive determination Doncaster displayed throughout was thrown into sharp relief shortly after the interval.
A rather casual attempt from a strangely disinterested-looking Mulgrew wasn’t the best but it ought to have presented no real problem for Ward, heavily lambasted for pre-season aberrations, and Marquis (a striker Roves might have coveted before he extended his Keepmoat contract) would have been considered ungrateful to have missed out on such a gift as the hapless centre-back tumbled like some Sunday morning hungover mate of the manager’s who hasn’t played for 20 years drafted in on a bumpy pitch five at Pleasington.
Of course there was no-one anticipating a potential mistake other than Marquis.
Around that point Mowbray chucked his three subs on. The possibilities of injury aside, I thought there was an argument for doing that after half an hour, or at least half time, when the initiative was still there to be seized by any configuration which could carry a threat to Doncaster as eventually Gladwin, and to a lesser extent the thus-far underwhelming Dack, did.
These were players, we were told, who had “bought into Tony’s vision.”
At the moment “Tony’s vision” looks as singularly odd as but less convincing even than the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult’s who persuaded his followers that a spaceship following the Hale Bopp comet was about to pick them up if they shed their earthly existence.
I dunno about that but a move to Sheffield United or Wednesday by any available form of transport must look increasingly appealing with an unsteady hand at the helm already plain to the players.
By the time Mulgrew’s crass challenge, outpaced onto a straightforward but incisive through ball from a midfield runner – how many times has that happened at the other end lately? – gave Donny a cushion, the game was up.
I would have had Nyambe as my Rovers MOTM (with maybe 6/10 and nobody else above 5) personally but I’d remarked to Old Blackburnian beside me early on that I felt queasy anytime he and Raya were left in tandem and so it proved to be a route to complete bathos as the pair’s fatal hesitation offered the lively May a comic third to unleash the collective anger and derision of the crowd.
All Rovers can do to win back the faith is improve a great deal, which shouldn’t really be rocket science. I’m unconvinced by the argument that we will rise to the top because we have better players than everyone else, no-one knows that, but we certainly can’t be the bottom two material we have looked in the first 180 minutes of a long campaign.
It would be devastating not to pick up at least a point at Valley Parade on Saturday. It’s a long time, although in some ways it doesn’t seem it, since we went there. Their two years in the Prem coincided with our two out of it if I remember rightly.
Their top flight experience was fleeting but they have had Wembley finals and promotions to enjoy and with imaginative pricing they have an excellent home following and a good start behind them.
An unexpected away win has often been the catalyst for a Rovers revival in years past and with a decent following ourselves just over the dark side who will, as ever, faithfully and admirably support the team as if they’d won the last two, there must be at least something for them to drape hopes on.
Then on Wednesday it’s the game you either most dreaded or most desired when the Caraboa Cup draw was made.
I’m in the latter camp and can’t wait.
A decent pricing structure and absence of TV coverage should generate at least the impression of a big game and despite the bubble travel arrangements our cousins will bring a large contingent hoping to see them extend their recent upper hand in the exchanges.
If many Rovers have lost a little faith this fortnight, they can certainly be won back by this time next week. A result against Bradford and at the very least a dogged performance on Wednesday and the team will be just about in credit with the ever-forgiving football fan.
You know just what to do to make us happy,Tony and the boys!