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.