When I last wrote of Blackburn Rovers in the autumn, my verdict was overwhelmingly harsh. After all, the imposters who currently own the club are still in place, the wage bill is exalted and the consequences of year upon year of over spending and declining attendances are beginning to bite hard. If there is a club whom Blackburn resemble in their current trajectory, it’s Coventry City, a team that patented the concept of slow decline before their demise became a head on rush into oblivion these past 12 months.
Three months later and those problems remain but this will be a more positive article – one based on a glimmer of hope I highlighted in my last missive – for in Gary Bowyer, the Lancastrians have unearthed something of a managerial gem – undemonstrative, humble and no-nonsense, a real antidote to those bawlers who, our Press would have us believe, can regenerate a club’s fortunes.
My verdict as Rovers drew 0-0 with Reading in December was far from effusive – the match was no classic. Yet, a solidity seemed to be emerging at that point, a rawhide willingness to stand up to the buffeting and a shape that has seen results slowly improve over the winter months.
It is perhaps the draws that have shown the new mettle around Ewood. Middlesbrough under Aitor Karanka are a much improved unit but a clean sheet was acquired, Derby County under Steve McClaren have been the sensation of the year but Blackburn remained unbowed. Even, Manchester City were defied – for 90 minutes at least, Scott Dann equalising Alvaro Negredo’s goal.
Dann has since departed of course, his three and a half year deal with Crystal Palace having likely netted Rovers a more than tidy sum and a welcome one given the parlous nature of the club’s finances.
In that earlier match against the Royals, Dann and Grant Hanley hadn’t put a foot wrong and nor did Hanley and new partner Matthew Kilgallon in Saturday’s return fixture, won 1-0 thanks to a slightly fortuitous own goal from Jobi McAnuff (ignore any press reports crediting Craig Conway with the score – his shot was never going in).
Hanley is a slightly grizzled presence who came to prominence during the dog days of Blackburn’s final couple of years in the top flight – I recall a nervous looking youngster looking bewildered on Match of the Day as the club struggled to keep its head above water. This season, however, he has provided 180 faultless minutes (189 and then some if you count Saturday’s extraordinarily lengthy stoppage period) for my viewing.
Kilgallon was a child prodigy of sorts but has rather stumbled from club to club since, suffering long spells on the benches of the land. His opportunity now appears to have been taken however and his experience and comfort on his left foot provided Rovers with a fine balance supplemented by the solidity of Tommy Spurr, another youngster fallen on hard times who Bowyer shows every sign of having rehabilitated.
Thus far, that’s something of a journeyman defence, albeit a rock like one, especially if you include the talents of Paul Robinson behind them. Most excitingly however, Rovers can draw upon the services of young Adam Henley at right back – a speed merchant and intriguingly born in the foothills of the Appalachians even if his childhood was spent in the more prosaic surrounds of Chorley.
Henley and Spurr ceded little to Reading’s in-form wingers Garath McCleary and Jobi McAnuff, a clear tactical initiative which Nigel Adkins disappointingly failed to fathom – swapping the wide men might have kept Rovers guessing and it became very obvious early on that McAnuff would always cut inside on to his right foot, making Henley’s job a whole lot easier.
Rovers’ defence on the day was supplemented by a terrific midfield display in which everyone knew his job. Conway in particular did fabulous work tackling back, constantly nipping at the heels of McCleary as he retreated and assisting in a classic effirt of ‘doubling-up’. Going forward, the Scot on loan from Cardiff City was a threat too, supplying the goal despite a slightly wishy washy cross cum shot and forcing Chris Gunter on to the back foot.
On the opposite flank, Tom Cairney was an again elegant presence, always seeming to have a little more time than the average player and displaying a calmness that was to be repeated during a post-match bout of autograph-signing. Sadly, that appearance was characterised by the addition of one of those plastic cast covers, an injury late in the first period having denied the former Hull man a full game. Chris Taylor was tenacious in deputising.
In the middle, youngster Jason Lowe again served notice of his promise, shielding the back four expertly and involving himself in a hard fought battle with Reading’s American Danny Williams, while ahead of him, Lee Williamson, often a frustrating player, had yet another decent match against Reading. A couple of years back, he was instrumental as Sheffield United came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at the Mad Stad and he is a distinctive presence in any midfield.
Which leaves the forwards and the much talked about Colossus, Jordan Rhodes himself. In my previous piece, I suggested that Blackburn might do well to sell the Scottish international given the financial quagmire they find themselves in. So far, Venkys have stayed true to their word that he is not for sale although it is unclear as to how many suitors came a-calling in January.
A worrying dip in form will have reduced the potential price although Rhodes remains a threat, peeling well off the shoulder of Alex Pearce time and again and producing one especially rasping shot on the turn which Alex McCarthy was equal to, revealing a delightful play within a play.
Rhodes benefited hugely, however, from the efforts of the towering Rudy Gestede alongside him. With his former club Cardiff City subjected to a dire 4-0 defeat at home to Hull City at the weekend and rooted in the relegation zone, it’s baffling to consider why both he and Conway were let go. Both look to be excellent acquisitions for Rovers and both can expect to play a lot of first team football, injuries-permitting.
That Bowyer has moulded Blackburn into a seriously resilient team so quickly, one laced with experience in almost every area of the pitch, is a superb feat even if the undisclosed fees disbursed for the likes of Gestede, Cairney and Conway, not to mention the wages of Paul Robinson, and that eye endangering £8 million forked out for Rhodes perhaps reveal that the big spending at Ewood isn’t over yet. Indeed, credit should still be extended – after all, Reading too have their big owners in Pavel Pogrebnyak and Royston Drenthe – while Blackburn looked a seriously busted flush in the Autumn and now look able to compete.
Whether such spending is wise given the low crowds and the fact that promotion is extremely remote is another matter for another day. For the moment, full power to Gary Bowyer’s elbow.