Where we are now, the next day means more than the golden years

Oh Well, I’ll just have to wait till I’m sixty to see Rovers in an FA Cup Final then.

It’s not quite accurate to say they’ve never made one in my lifetime as the ill-starred 1960 debacle occurred when I was 16 months old and most of the conversation in our house at Princess Gardens, Feniscowles would have revolved around the fact that nobody in our family managed to get hold of a ticket and what a weary injury and controversy-ridden performance it turned out to be.

But I still feel a little pain inside annually when we go out of the tournament I dreamed of seeing us winning at Wembley as a boy (and still do), even in a year when the odds against us doing so are overwhelming and common assent says we are best off “concentrating on the league.”

In truth there was nothing particularly dramatic, cruel or heroic about a humdrum defeat to Championship relegation candidates Hull City. For an hour Rovers wore the disorientated and unco-ordinated air of a bunch of exhausted dads being forced to play some dumb blindfolded game at a kids’ party full of over-tired infants and adults watching the clock wishing it was over with so they could get home and have a drink.

There was nothing much about Hull on that evidence but only after they had profited from yet more Rovers’ set-piece generosity – we can’t blame Ward or Downing his time – and Danny Graham and Bradley Dack were introduced did we make much of an effort to convince the crowd that they were having a good time.

Graham is such an enigma, often looking the consummate craftsman of a centre-forward we saw during his initial loan spell in his cameo slots while lapsing into that lazy, shirt-tugging, grappling, referee-imploring nonentity which often sees him substituted to no-one’s great indignation when he starts.

It’s to be hoped his recent rather better contributions will become the norm while Dack is in a rich seam of form which we all hope will continue.

He sees gaps and passes and opportunities where others haven’t even switched on to the possibility.

There are no distractions from the promotion effort now in any case but I’ve never held with this “wrap him in cotton wool” clamour to rest key players or use them sparingly. Players like playing games and damn good players even more so as they quite rightly enjoy each and every opportunity to demonstrate their excellence.

It also doesn’t give me any sense of satisfaction that Wigan, Shrewsbury or whoever is still in this or that competition or piling fixtures and replays up.

Not many will recall that on that night at Gigg Lane in late April 1980 when Andy Crawford shot Howard Kendall’s team to promotion, we were playing a re-arranged game which should have taken place much earlier in the season but was postponed in late December.

Well-remembered home games against Exeter and Sheffield Wednesday were played on midweek nights as the original dates were FA Cup days. A 3-1 win at Rotherham was actually a fixture brought forward in early February to accomodate our cup progress, Coventry, Southend, Rotherham, home, away, who cared, bring ’em on.

The two most taxing games were surely the Villa cup tie and replay which took place within four days in February. I’d seldom been as proud or as certain we’d blow our next Third Division opponents away as I was walking off Villa Park that night. We went to Plymouth the following Saturday and won – in fact we won nine of the next 10 after our long FA Cup run.

Doing well against bigger and better teams made us all walk taller.

So I don’t really believe anybody’s cup exploits will influence matches at this stage, certainly not Saturday’s crackerjack at home to second-placed Shrewsbury.

I’ve seen a few moans here and there that playing Shrewsbury in a Tier Three six-pointer is evidence of our demise under Venkys and while I take the point, I think with regard to both our next opponent’s superb performance this season and history itself, there is little need for Rovers fans to look down their noses.

Paul Hurst’s transfer or wages budget don’t interest me. They are having the kind of season which every club not fortunate enough to have a wealthy backer or open chequebook is entitled to dream of. If they finish above us or pip us for promotion I’ll congratulate them and say well done.

On that 1980 promotion occasion described above, we actually lay a division below the Salopians who had been promoted a year before us.

They gave us plenty of problems throughout that decade, occasionally finishing above us as both teams punched above any financial weight they carried. In 1988, they effectively denied us a spot in the old Division One under Don Mackay after they came back from two down to draw at Ewood on Easter Monday.

I’m pretty sure Bernard McNally scored one of those goals for Shrewsbury. If games had been televised live then and it had been on the Sunday he wouldn’t have played as a devout Christian who steadfastly refused to work the Sabbath.

No wonder I grew up thinking more than earthly fates and the annual “They can’t afford to go up and are under orders not to” rumours of a board unwilling to shell out top-flight fees and wages often conspired against us at the tail-end of promising seasons.

None of those factors will apply this time, hopefully, with signs that there are at least some funds to consolidate our effort. The permanent signing of Paul Downing will be welcomed by all and the loan addition of wee Newcastle forward Adam Armstrong will hopefully pay dividends.

Armstrong hit the headlines with a searing start at Coventry under Tony Mowbray where he hit 19 goals in his first 28 games but his, manager’s and club’s fortunes rather fellaway later that season and he scored just once in his final dozen appearances for the Sky Blues.

An indifferent season at Barnsley (six goals in 34 appearances) followed by an anonymous spell at Bolton (one in 20) were hopefully indicative that goals were harder to come by at Championship level and we dearly hope he can recapture his initial Ricoh Arena form rather than continue the latter eight-goals-in-66 games struggles.

Hopefully one or two more might follow although taking Jason Lowe back would surely raise rancour levels among a fanbase prone to bouts of hysterical opprobrium to uncharted levels.

So to my as mind, disappointed, angry or bitter about the owners and the last seven years or not as you might be, this Saturday’s game, as one forum poster very presciently set it up, looks every inch as titanic a fixture as the Plymouth Argyle match(es) of February 1975, the other Third Division promotion season.

We actually played them twice in 11 days and lost down there so with no play-offs in those days, another defeat would have given them the advantage in the run-in and allowed competitors to close the gap.

It looked to be going that way at 2-0 down as well with a missed Don Martin penalty but a crowd of 17,818 witnessed one of the great Ewood comebacks, one of the great Ewood days full stop actually.

So don’t miss this one…. can we get a gate and a result to match that I wonder? Although we’d all take one-nil.

When was the last time we were involved in a single match carrying so much upon it at the top of a table at any level? Fulham in the promotion season maybe?

I think it’s a wonderful game to blow the last of the holiday celebrations away and get back to business with.

Win and a thrilling run-in beckons. Draw and it still does, I think. Lose, it makes things difficult but not impossible…and I’m still only talking about a top two spot here. I haven’t really thought about the play-offs yet other than to think, if we have to go up that way, there aren’t many better days out than Wembley in late May.

Whatever the outcome let’s stay dignified and level-headed and resist knee-jerk calls for wholesale sackings and droppings and general insurrection. nothing will be decided on Saturday.

Enjoy it for what it is.


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