When Rovers’ fixtures came out in June I looked for little portents and coincidences from our previous ventures into Division Three and was just a tad disappointed that Bury and Oxford away, while grouped together inside four days as in 1980, came so early in the season.
I’d hoped we might be clinching promotion late on at a Lancashire ground with massive away support,.
I remember those four days when I was 21 with great fondness. I effectively thought we were as good as up after winning 1-0 at the Manor Ground courtesy of a Simon Garner winner on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in front of a big following and so it proved on that tumultuous evening four days later at Gigg Lane although the win was a little narrower and more fraught with tension than last Saturday’s canter.
I always liked Oxford and we tended to do well on our trips there whenever I went and that day in 1980 was also the first time I took a bit of a shine to a young female supporter on the Accy Branch coach who’s now my wife.
So it was with a mixture of nostalgia, relief and delight that I followed the news of another win on Tuesday evening which might, just might, see Rovers break into a promotion gallop at long last after a number of false starts this season.
We play Oxford at home on the final day so some residual echoes of 38 years before might yet colour the denouement of the campaign.
Or perhaps Charlton away might be the day, I ruminated, as in 1958 when 56,000 watched us pip Athletic for promotion to Division One at the Valley. I expect them to be in the mix again, too.
With all our away derbies used up by mid-January, we’ll have to get used to slightly less impressive travelling contingents as the season approaches the business end but the faithful who turn out week in, week out in good numbers will hopefully be boosted as the points tally increases.
What we must do is take advantage of the two fixtures this week and avoid any Plymouth/Fleetwood/Oldham style aberrations on the back of a splendid brace of wins.
We’ve won four in a row already once this season and immediately managed to lurch back towards mediocrity but if the two emphatic away victories this week don’t send a surge of self-belief through this squad I really don’t know what will.
The 3-0 stroll at Bury, while hugely enjoyable for another remarkable Rovers following, wasn’t on its own as compulsive as it ought to have been as evidence that the team was about to ascend into the stratosphere. I can’t have been the only one coming off thinking that we weren’t quite the finished article despite the emphatic scoreline and that a couple of significant January signings are essential.
But Bradley Dack is beginning to look the classiest player in the division, justifying his tag as the costliest of the summer at this level.
If he is replicating the Duncan McKenzie role from Howard Kendall’s side perhaps I wasn’t that far off earlier in the season when I said maybe Marcus Antonsson could be 2017-18’s Andy Crawford. I got a few pelters for that, mainly off folk who were adamant what desperate and unnecessary deadline day signings he and Paul Downing were: “What, a Leeds reserve and a bloke who couldn’t get in MK Dons’ side against us…?” You know the sort of thing.
I can’t comment on Tuesday’s events on the occasion of our first game outside of Lancashire since 27th September (well done to each and every one of the 750 who journeyed on a foul day) apart from having seen the goals. Not that it stops one or two from having their bumptious say, mind. My pick of the post-match remarks was: “I didn’t watch the feed until we were already three up (IE “I missed a quarter of the game”) but the rest of it was a pretty pathetic performance. ”
Well, yeah, but that’s up there with “I missed the first half of the Stones gig and they played all my favourites early on so it was rubbish,” in terms of self-parody. Or:”I watched the last hour of the World Cup semi-final but didn’t think there was much between Brazil and Germany.”
One pal who watched it whose opinion I respect said he was shaking his head a little as to how we were three up in so short a space of time but that’s perhaps to discount another element any successful team needs – a good measure of luck.
No, the first training ground set-piece you try doesn’t come off every week. You don’t get a defender presenting you with a run on goal every game. And many a time that clumsy contact in the box is waved on.
So credit to everyone for setting about the business to the tune of five first-half goals in two matches.
We moan when the team don’t start off on the front foot so it seems curmudgeonly to grumble about a foot off the gas and so on with the game virtually in the bag. Even the master of the gegenpress gets it wrong on occasion as we saw this week and if Rovers are occasionally to be guilty of losing focus, I’d sooner it be at 3-1 or 4-1 up than nowt apiece eh?
Tony Mowbray can’t win with some folk. There are still people calling for him to be sacked, replacing him with Simon Grayson one of the less outlandish if rather unlikely fantasies. There were still people recommending his dismissal an hour before kick-off at Oxford.
If some Rovers fans think we get a bad press imagine what the pundits would say about us dumping a manager unbeaten in six in the league, in sixth place with a narrowing single-figure points deficits on the top two, both of whom we have a game in hand on and have to play at home.
I’ve been critical of him, unconvinced by him and lacking in belief in him at times but get this. This is the third division. There are no perfect teams, players or managers here.
Attributing a late Oxford consolation goal to his substitutions and attempting to portray the final minutes as fraught with danger of losing a convincing lead is grasping at the flimsiest of straws even for avowed Tony nay-sayers. Have a day off for goodness sake.
I’ve heard recent Ewood gaffers get grief for negative substitutions. Imagine he’d brought Caddis and Ward on a 3-1 up and we’d ended up three apiece. Maybe it was odd finishing with Nutttall, Samuel and Graham on but two are young lads who’ll chase down and harry while the older guy is an expert runner-down of the clock.
I must declare a vested interest at this stage as I do back Rovers to win 4-2 every game.
There’s a reason why none of Everton, West Brom, Sunderland recently or any other managerless club ever says: “We really should interview some of these guys on Twitter or fan message boards for the managerial vacancy, they really do know their stuff on tactics and game management. Anyone know which pub we can get hold of them in?”
I saw some pretty condescending stuff about Bury after the win there but they did us a fine old favour on Tuesday derailing Shrewsbury’s bandwagon. Their athletic left-back Greg Leigh, their best player against us and matchwinner against the Shrews, is the kind of player we ought to be looking at in January too.
Jack Payne of Oxford was another fans picked out as a player. He’s on a season’s loan to the “U’s” from Huddersfield but Mowbray should be noting these names of lads who do well against us and lining up January bids. Plymouth’s Graham Carey was another who caught my eye as well as Wimbledon’s right back.
With Wigan losing last Saturday we’ve made good on both the top two with the power to boost our standing further when two of the other fixtures on Saturday pitch clubs above us against each other, Scunthorpe v Charlton and Shrewsbury v Bradford.
Wigan are away at Rotherham and Peterborough visit Rochdale, neither a “gimmee” at this stage.
A win at home to Bristol Rovers (our 1970’s nemesis, a hoodoo long exorcised, Smash’n’Grab can harm us no more) can’t fail to see us in a strengthened position going into Tuesday’s derby at Blackpool. Only one other game takes place that night, Charlton v Peterborough so again someone challenging has to drop points there.
I’m sure nothing would please Gary Bowyer more than to put a spoke in our wheels and while I’m still not convinced our squad is actually as good as some of the top seven or eight, our starting XI ought to be better than what Blackpool, with all their lack of finance and off-the-field handicaps, can put out.
If nothing else, a little gap opening up between the top six and the chasing pack would be healthy but I haven’t joined the legion who think we’re too inconsistent to aim much higher than that yet.
Somebody other than us could equally well put a great run together of course but I’m finally beginning to believe it could be our time to make a move