Rovers host Girona on Saturday in the welcome return of a home pre-season friendly. Here are some thoughts about how significant such matches can be.
My first Blackburn Rovers game as a child wasn’t a big league fixture or local rival, it was the 1998 pre-season friendly versus PSV Eindhoven. The absence an Ewood match last year made me reflect on the role and importance of a home friendly, and why it’s an area for greater fan engagement in the future.
The 1998-99 season began following France’s home triumph at the World Cup, which was the tournament where football came alive for me. From the very first game watching Colin Hendry battle (the real) Ronaldo, I was obsessed. In wanting to encourage my interest, my parents decided to take me and my brother to Ewood Park for the first time to watch Rovers vs PSV.
Rovers won the match 1-0 with a goal from Martin Dahlin but sadly it was not a sign of things to come that season which ended in relegation, but my affection for that game remains. I can still picture the match programme of ‘Eurover’, a great play on words that may have been a better tagline in politics than football, with the two respective team managers, Roy Hodgson and Sir Bobby Robson on the front. The game was a summer evening kick-off which added to the atmosphere, and there began my love of Blackburn Rovers.
I’ve also been thinking about the recent history of home friendlies in the context of the new podcast series I’ve co-created called ‘Rovers Returned’, a look back at the club’s second spell in the Premier League, from 2001 to 2012. It might sound odd but one of the most memorable games from that time period in my mind was actually a home pre-season friendly, ahead of the 2001-02 season, versus Barcelona.
The prospect of such a game today is so remote that when I recently posted about it on social media, someone responded to me in an attempted fact check, not believing such a game had taken place. This wasn’t a Barcelona youth side either, it was littered with stars such Xavi and Saviola, which makes the game all the more nostalgic. And to cap off a fairytale ending, Mark Hughes scored the winner against his old side with a trademark volley.
As the noughties went on, the heights of Barcelona as an opponent at Ewood during pre-season would not be repeated, although a couple of notable games during that period still stand out. Chievo were the opposition ahead of the 2003/04 season, which acted as a welcome party for the arrival of Lorenzo Amoruso.
The final home friendly that really sticks in my mind though was ahead of the 2006/07 season, when Rovers took on New Zealand. Yes, the country. I never quite understood the rationale of a club vs international match-up, but it possessed a novelty not seen since at Ewood Park. Not to mention the game saw the birth of the McCarthy-Roberts partnership.
Pre-season games like these illustrate how non-competitive fixtures can take on added value, especially played in front of a home crowd. It undoubtedly helped Rovers attract such games when they were in the top flight. That said, even if Rovers return to the Premier League, the dynamic of pre-season have changed for larger teams. Clubs which now see themselves more akin to a global franchise focus their pre-season activities on global tours in Asia and North America, a transformation that has occurred since the turn of the century. This makes attracting them more challenging, but not impossible.
Does this mean the home friendly has lost its allure for a club like Rovers? I’d like to think not, but it also depends on the club bringing creativity and ambition to it each year. My own experience tells me such events can be a gateway moment for young or potential fans, all conducted under the annual optimism of pre-season before the weighty expectations of league football descend, which creates a different atmosphere inside the ground.
The choice of potential opponent is more challenging – Barcelona will be not be visiting Ewood anytime soon. Back in 2018 the visit of Liverpool saw not an unhealthy crowd size of just under 15,000 in total, which shows the appeal of facing one of the top Premier League teams. As noted above, Liverpool has a much greater interest in places like Bangkok than Blackburn during pre-season, but in the north west we have three of the major Premier League sides (sorry Everton), which adds to the potential pool of target opponents.
If I could exert any influence over the pre-season schedule it would be to insist on one home friendly per year, ideally making it against an atypical opponent that would excite existing and potential new fans. A three-year rotation between Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United would be a start, if at all possible. Given the growing importance of our club’s academy in developing young players, Rovers should be seeking further ways to cultivate relationships with these clubs, as a means to be first in the queue for the next Harvey Elliott.
Failing the ability to land one of these three teams, our current status in the Championship will likely limit our ability in attracting the latest edition of Eurover, but the Rovers name still resonates beyond the UK, with JDT’s appointment a good example of that. In this respect I’d advocate for targeting European sides who might be preparing for a European campaign outside the Champions League who would value facing British opposition. There are plenty of classic old school European clubs who might fit this billing.
Aside from the action on the pitch, the club should look at the commercial opportunity presented by the home pre-season friendly. Rather than just a 90-minute game, why not make it a day of events and activities in and around Ewood Park. This would make it less about match tickets, and more aimed at a day ticket covering everything. If the club wanted to really get inventive, it could include a future home cup discount with any pre-season ticket sale, in the event Rovers have a home round draw in either of the domestic cups.
We all have our first Rovers moment, and they are special to us all in their individual way. But without that home pre-season friendly in 1998, it could have taken me longer to discover my love of Blackburn Rovers.
*This article was originally published in Issue 105 of 4,000 Holes. Please support the continued existence of the fanzine by considering a subscription or buying the occasional copy via this link. It is really appreciated by all of the contributors. The latest subscription also includes the ‘Girona Special’ hybrid programme - with a Eurover throwback cover included!