League football returned to Ewood Park as if it had never been away. But Blackburn Rovers, Premier League champions of 1995, found themselves in the unusual surroundings of League One on Saturday, losing 3-1 to Doncaster Rovers, who came in by the other door. After two degrees of separation the only familiarity for Blackburn was defeat.
Three months ago, in their last five games, at least they were mixing it with Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Aston Villa, beating two and drawing with Wolves in a vain attempt to avoid the drop. Now they continue their struggles in the company of Rochdale and Northampton. It is a sad descent. As the old boys of Eton and Harrow were discussing in the late 1870s whether to have hacking, Blackburn was shaping as the first northern centre to upset that dominance, with Rovers winning the FA Cup from 1884-86 and becoming founder members of the League. Hacking now is as international as the game itself but Blackburn are not keeping up.
Nor on this showing are they looking up. Since Venky’s bought them in 2010, when the club finished 10th in the Premier League, the heady days of Jack Walker’s indulgence seem ancient history in this headless era of the Indian chicken firm. The last accounts showed the club’s debts at £106m and investment in players has declined. Tony Mowbray is their seventh manager in seven years. In 15 games he lifted them from 23rd to 22nd. On Saturday, at pitchside or afterwards, he looked unlikely to get a balloon to fly.
“It was disappointing, frustrating and self-inflicted,” he said. “We’ve lost 12 players and got nine new. I’m still excited by what we have but it’s about bringing it all together.” The first half was woefully unadventurous from both sides or, as Doncaster’s Darren Ferguson said: “There was not much happening in the boxes.” The convenient option of passing back was preferred. It was reported on Saturday that seven contaminated eggs, not from India, could safely be eaten in 24 hours. Everyone might have tried it.
Half-time relieved the constipation. On the restart Blackburn’s Elliott Ward thought twice about passing back and stubbed John Marquis through to beat David Raya. Mowbray shortly made a double substitution, pulling off Peter Whittingham, obtained free from Cardiff after almost 500 games and 100 goals, and sending on Bradley Dack, from Gillingham, and Dominic Samuel, from Reading. Dack fizzed with purpose but soon another midfield lapse sent James Coppinger, Doncaster’s captain, similarly clear on goal. Charlie Mulgrew caught the 36-year-old but only to foul him and Coppinger scored the penalty. Through all the negativity he alone had shown consistent touch and vision.
Mowbray’s third substitution, Ben Gladwin from QPR, brought a fine save from Ian Lawlor before Blackburn’s final screw-up when Raya, 10 yards outside his area, tried to head the ball to Ward and instead presented an open goal to Alfie May. Samuel’s even later close-range header gave Ferguson the chance to show he is his father’s son and bemoan the loss of a clean sheet. It was not snide of him to praise his team for their concentration on and off the ball.
Twenty seasons ago they fell out of the League and almost of existence when their majority shareholder, Ken Richardson, denied a new stadium by the council, had the old Belle Vue ground torched in the hope of paying off his debts with insurance money. Rovers finished 15 points short of safety with a goal difference of minus 83 and did a year longer in the Conference than he did in jail. Ferguson’s men hardly unleashed fire and fury but with 44 games to go they are in the play-off zone.
Blackburn are pointless and close to listless. “These days come along,” said Mowbray. “You have to put them behind you.” The trouble is there may be more ahead of them. Saturday’s crowd was less than last season’s average of 12,668, which in turn was half that of 1994-95. For the vital last home game in April, against Aston Villa, it was 21,884. The fans are still there and Mowbray said: “I know their expectations. We let them down.” Simply they had too little to cheer and seemed too sad to boo. Maybe the League Cup visit of Burnley will get them and the manager going.
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