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.