One of the things I've missed this season has been blogging about Blackburn Rovers. The journalistic output instead has been channelled into my pre and post match interviews that I do as the host in the Premier Lounge at Ewood this season.
When Richard Slater, publisher of Lancashire Business View, introduced me to the opportunity I thought it would be good fun to do it at least once. I've now hosted every home game (bar one) this season since I started.
In the course of doing it I've got to know a completely different group of Rovers fans, the customers in Jack's Kitchen and the Premier Lounge, as well as the members of staff, the directors, and the management of the club.
I appreciate much more now the attention to detail that goes into putting on a professional football match and the rules and essentials that have to be organised. I've been particularly impressed with the efforts behind the scenes to build links to different parts of the community and how much effort is invested in that.
They say you should never meet your heroes. And I have had a policy of not talking to the players previously. But I can happily say that every single member of the first team squad that I've interviewed after the match, as they get their Peter Jackson the Jeweller watch, has been a really, really good lad.
The same goes for the former players that I have had a pre-match chat with on the mic,
Some of the former players loom much larger in my affections than others (I’m looking at you Matt Jansen) but without exception they have all been excellent storytellers and have been held in great affection by the supporters. I can't think of an interview that's gone badly.
Whoever it is, I always let them know what's involved in those few minutes before we take to the 'stage'. Some of them know the present team better than others, some not at all, but each one of them desperately wants Rovers to do well and appreciates the opportunity to reflect fondly on their time at the club.
I enjoy the preparation for each interview and the chance to rekindle memories of the goals and games I was at. Notably, the first interview was with one of the first Rovers players I took to back in 1977, Kevin Hird.
For the interviews afterwards it's better when we win, obviously. But the players have never shied away from facing the fans when they've come in after a disappointing result. They also never refuse a photo, or an autograph or a conversation. They are all really good young men who make their parents very proud.
They don't mind what I ask either. There’s very little time to brief them or discuss topics, but Joe Rankin-Costello was happy to explain to the fans the importance of playing out from the back, or what his preferred position is. I was glad I checked with him first though. As he’s been a regular visitor to the lounge we’ve built up a trust about what’s involved and he’s always particularly forthright and professional.
If Rovers ask me back next season there are a few things I think we can do for the businesses who sponsor and play a part in proceedings without it disturbing the flow of the day. For me though it's about enhancing the experience for the fans. I know it's fashionable to be rude about corporate supporters, but they are all genuine fans who really feel it just as much when we win and when we lose.
That all said, I feel a bit flat at the end of a strange season where we lost twice to 'them lot up the road', got battered at home by Preston, hammered at Rotherham, yet went on cup runs by beating Premier League opposition, both of which I saw. And we improved on previous seasons. Progress, right?
When I look at the squad I ask the simple question, has each player improved? And can they continue to get better with us? In most cases, they have, and they can. Most notably, obviously, Adam Wharton, but Joe Rankin-Costello, Hayd Carter and Harry Pickering have all become quality Championship-level players at a very early age. With more striking options we will see better decision-making (and luck) for Sammie Szmodics and Ryan Hedges. Dom Hyam is a proper leader.
I was disappointed at how Ben Brereton Diaz dropped off in form. His flourish at Millwall on the final day showed us what we have missed and I wish him well, but the failure to make those fine margins work in our favour didn't cost us a play-off place last week in the performance in the final home game against Luton, but all season. There were spells in the later games v Coventry, Preston, Huddersfield, Burnley and Luton where I watched in wonderment at the quality on show. The manager has done a good job managing expectations and insisting it's a project, a work in progress. I think I get a sense of who he likes and relies on and what he needs.
Watching the game from the nice seats in the centre of the Jack Walker Upper is a different experience from my old berth opposite on the Riverside. I've watched a couple from the press box, getting insights from the journalists is always useful, as is easy access to replays, such as John Buckley's sending-off against Middlesbrough.
But a new experience has been watching the game with the parents of players, especially useful when I have to interview their son afterwards.
As ever, I can talk myself into the positives, but I still worry about the crowds, the ownership, and the direction of the club. Keeping hold of prize assets or at least getting some money for them, which hasn't been the case with Lenihan and Brereton-Diaz.