We are delighted to announce that Jim Wilkinson (@jimwilkz) has given us permission to publish his excellent weekly Blue Eyed Boy column. It is an essential reads for Rovers fans and we are grateful to Jim for letting us use it.
You can read all of Jim's Blue Eyed Boy columns first at: https://blueyedboy.wordpress.com/
Let’s start the season with a little quiz. No googling.
Go on the Beeb website and look at the League One table, all currently listed neatly in alphabetical order.
When you get over the thrill of seeing us in an automatic promotion spot, try this little exercise.
Write down every club’s manager.
Then try writing down roundabout where they finished last season.
Next maybe have a stab at who was their best player last season and is he still there?
Finally, and this is where you can really stack points up at a mark each, write down any players each club has signed in the summer window.
I must admit had I not started monitoring the transfers daily from mid-June onwards, I wouldn’t have scored heavily.
Neither, I imagine, would many of the people currently proclaiming that Blackburn Rovers are about to sweep all before them triumphally as they parade untroubled to the League One title.
You can maybe multiply your final answers by approximately how much you knew about Rovers’ summer signings before they landed here and a lot would still struggle to top the 100-point mark the more extreme optimists are predicting.
Leonard Cohen used to deliver an onstage rap about how “I’ve tried Prozac, Ritalin, I’ve plunged into studying the great philosophies and mystic religions…but cheerfulness kept breaking through,” which amused me every time I saw him (a lot) over 30-odd years and it always reminded me of the indomitable human spirit of the football fan.
Although I will take some convincing about the nine month title parade, I find myself enjoying and if not falling in with the (possibly insanely) positive attitude of those expecting the 100-point stroll, preferring the outlook to the utterly miserabilist doom-mongering Jeremiahs who foresaw administration, another relegation and re-forming as a Phoenix club ground-sharing with Mill Hill St Peters as an inevitable consequence of relegation in May.
That’s not to say that the prophets of Stygian gloom won’t necessarily turn out to be exactly right. I just reserve the right not to subscribe to their fear-laden rhetoric for a bit along the way as I continue to enjoy going more than I’d enjoy not going.
This season represents the 50th anniversary of the autumn when I got completely hooked on football. I rolled up at Ewood in August of 1967 just about keen enough for my dad not to have to drag me there and something magical happened in the ensuing weeks.
I vividly remember by Bonfire Night that year having my dad and granddad test me, as the last embers of our fire glowed in the garden in Feniscowles, on every one of the 92 league clubs they could recall… manager, kit, name of ground….I bet I did better than most of you do with the League One quiz we nosed off with.
Despite the fact that our fall from the Premier League years has been long and vertiginous, I dearly want my kids to experience that feeling I felt, after what seemed at that age very long years of disappointment and mediocrity, as a 16-year-old in ’75 and again five years later, of seeing your team actually win something which every other side you played that season wanted to win so much too.
There can, in all likelihood these days, never be scenes like there were at Port Vale under Lee or Gigg Lane under Kendall (or at Ewood when triumphant Bolton invaded two years before) – modern stadium H & S restrictions and ticketing prevent that ever happening again and in any case most of the local away games at which a big following is likely (how cynical and opportunistic is that “another fiver, please” 1875 Club rubbish?) take place in the first half of the season or shortly thereafter.
On the plus side for the first time in a long while we have a manager who’s popular with the fans, has some pedigree, is respected by most in football and seemingly able, unlike the chip-on-both-shoulders Lambert and the inane, inept Coyle, to manipulate our absentee owners into enough support to ensure he doesn’t, like most of his predecessors, guarantee making an utter buffoon of himself.
It’s as well that Rovers have almost certainly been the biggest spenders in the Third Tier this season. I rather expect there WILL be a couple of departures and a possible net profit but that doesn’t alter the fact that no-one, absolutely none of our competitors, has acquired players costing what, say, Dack and Samuel have cost,
Practically everyone else is operating on frees and loans – which to me refutes the argument that Mowbray and Mark Venus could not be held responsible for leaving Coventry bottom of the pile as they had no funds to work with.
Let’s hope the truism that all managers get better when they have more money to spend holds true.
It’s obvious looking at the list below that plenty of managers and clubs have been highly active in the market and a few will be fancying it a bit themselves. Charlton and Bradford look to have done decent business.
Others like Bury – whose ambition and purchasing power may surprise one or two – Northampton and Shrewsbury have recruited in large numbers but are very much an unknown quantity. Who knows how good guys they have signed or borrowed are?
Who knows how good all ours are/will be?
The signings themselves have been encouraging on two fronts.
One, Mowbray has clearly identified that the midfield he inherited was crushingly dysfunctional and laboured, neither destructive in stopping the opposition having largely their own way for long periods nor creative enough to supply quality strikers like Graham and the departed Sam Gallagher with sufficient chances to win enough games.
I’m not a big stats fan but Whittingham’s show that the fella actually PLAYS GAMES, as in lots of them. Never less than 32 a season in the last ten years. Compare that with the like of Guthrie and Corry Evans. I’ll be very surprised if he isn’t a positive addition.
He also contributes a fair portion of goals, almost a lost Ewood art, as does Dack who had a splendid campaign for Gillingham in 2015-16, rather less so last season which was hopefully down to that undefinable yearning to be elsewhere young players who’ve been denied one big move are sometimes consumed by (See Rhodes, Gestede).
I expect double figures plus from him if he lives up to his billing – and fee!
Smallwood, Gladwin, Samuel, Nuttall, Caddis..possibly not names to get the pulses racing and as I seldom bother with friendlies I can’t proffer an opinion. But neither possibly were Hawkins, Beamish, Hickman, Oates, Burgin, Hoy and Mullen on the occasion of our first promotion from this level, nor Crawford, Arnold and Branagan second time.
And there’s a great lesson of patience to be learned from those promotions of yesteryear. I’ve heard more than once “a good start is essential.”
Gordon Lee’s team had just that, hit the top two in the first week of October and were never subsequently out of it.
Howard Kendall’s baptism in management saw just two wins, none of them at home, in the first 12 games. It is unthinkable that he’d survive under today’s prevailing entitled, social-media-fury conditions. In mid-January 1980 Rovers, even after the first win of a run which transformed the season, lay 14th.
So whether we are 3-0 up at Roots Hall after an hour on Saturday or 3-0 down it won’t necessarily augur with certainty the pattern of the season. We all watched a side last season go four up in 20 minutes and acclaimed them Championship title certainties.
Coincidentally, Sheffield United are currently coveting The Shrimps’ Player of the Year from last season Ryan Leonard (five bonus points if you got him!) in much the same way they are testing the waters over Darragh Lenihan, like Charlie Mulgrew certain to attract interest not only this week but through to the end of August.
Danny Graham is another who will come onto the radar of championship outfits struggling for goals early on if he continues his pre-season form.
But Mowbray will continue his search for additions too, whether we armchair sports news watchers are fully conversant with their pedigree or not. Surely nobody feels we are the finished article, particularly if one or more of that trio depart.
Even if you didn’t know there were able managers at this level such as Darren Ferguson, Lee Clark, Uwe Rosler, John Sheridan, Kenny Jackett, Keith Hill and Phil Brown (2 points apiece) operating, even if you don’t know who’s signed Michael Kightly, David Ball, Brett Pitman, Steven Taylor, Chris Maguire, James Henry or Chris Long (don’t panic they’ve all gone to different clubs not the same one), expecting a procession seems fanciful.
It’ll be a slog at times, with dollops of Checkatrade nonsense thrown in, even if we make no progress in the two authentic cup competitions.
As ever, I hope we extend our fixture list by progressing in those, starting on Mowbray’s old manor at Coventry next week, but I will be slightly more forgiving than I have been in the past if we don’t, although I can never understand not giving your first choice XI a free chance to blend together in the first 72 hours of the campaign.
There’ll be hard days and dark, cold nights against opposition even less glamorous and attractive than we have got used to over the last half-decade. It’s the Third Division because the players and teams and possibly the managers aren’t as good as they are in the Premier League and The Championship.
The gates are lower and the grounds aren’t generally as good – there’ll be midweek drudgery with the away end (and possibly vast home sections) sparsely populated although you will be spared the delights of the likes of Haig Avenue, The Shay and Layer Road of yore, or Torquay fetching about enough to fill one-and-a-half minibuses.
But it’s what we do. Turn up. I have far fewer winters ahead of me than behind me and as long as I can get there and there’s one or two prepared to meet up for a pint and sit it out, I’ll carry on in the hope that fortunes turn.
Maybe this year, every year, that’s football fans.
I hope all Rovers fans, whether incurably romantic, cynically miserable or irascibly angry and raging at our plight, find much to enjoy between now and May.
Surely no-one on Saturday will have as unfortunate a day as I had on my last visit to Roots Hall in February 1980 when, having travelled by train for our game, a couple of lunchtime pints before emerging into a cruel seaside wind without wearing a vest occasioned me a slight chill on my kidneys which I could only assuage by means of a visit to the gents….precisely as little Andy Crawford was striking our winner home in a customary Kendall-era 1-0 win.