All's Fair in Love & Draw

Wednesday, 6 March 2024

I was looking something up when I came across a Tony Mowbray quote from Rovers’ 2016/17 survival mission that ultimately ended in relegation.

Rovers were unbeaten in the seven games immediately after Mowbray was installed as head coach, though five of those had been draws. Game number eight was a defeat against a Brighton & Hove Albion who would later go on to win promotion, after which Mowbray reflected: ‘it’s about the ones we win’.

Further to that, if last season taught us anything, it was the true value of wins, draws and defeats. Rovers have lost half of their 36 games this season, and are two points above the relegation zone at the time of writing, courtesy of just 11 wins.

Yet after a 4–0 defeat at Rotherham United last January, Rovers had almost half (13 out of 27), yet sat fifth, having won the other 14. It’s a remarkable stat to reflect on, but a telling one. Both that, and those Mowbray draws in the 15-game run to conclude the 2016/17 season were firmly in my mind leaving Ewood after the 1–1 draw with Millwall.

John Eustace saw it differently, at least outwardly in his post-match press conference, believing it to be a good point, and that being resolute and hard to beat is the best way forward. He too can point to the fact that Rovers have lost just two of the games he has taken charge of. Yet the counter-argument to that is all too obvious…

In cricket parlance, maybe he’s willing to take the run chase deep, not take too many risks too soon, hope to hold their nerve to get over the line. But are they missing a trick in trying to get ahead of the rate knowing the 6’4“ quick bowler that has ripped out your top order (in this case the opposition Rovers have to face) is waiting in the wings?

It’s hard not to think that the safety-first approach of his post-match rhetoric was mirrored by Rovers’ performance. There was a worrying lack of urgency.

They HAD a lot of the ball, rather than dominating it, and in my view it felt as though Millwall fancied they would always be presented with an opportunity so were otherwise happy to sit in.

And so it proved early in the second half when a failure to clear saw Michael Obafemi put the visitors ahead with what would prove to be their only shot on target. Rovers looked a team stuck between styles.

They tried to build from the back, but with so few options for the player in possession those passages often ended with hopeful, lofted, passes forward, and there is a worrying lack of pace across the squad.

Things have unravelled at an alarming pace, and being dragged into a relegation fight as this now is a far greater capitulation than any failed play-off push of years gone by.

The departure of Jon Dahl Tomasson felt like losing the one person at the club pushing for better, who for much of his time in charge, had offered reasons to believe and hopes for a brighter future. Any long-term thinking appears to have gone out of the window, any progress gained last season, feels lost.

The uncertainty created at the top has filtered down, injuries and January departures leaving Rovers with a skeleton and unbalanced squad, some of which the head coach doesn’t trust. Whatever comes of the final 10 games, there is one hell of a rebuild lying in wait this summer. It will be fascinating too to hear what Gregg Broughton makes of it all his role as director of football.

The short-termism of recent signings goes against the rhetoric ever since his appointment. The head coach he appointed to lead Rovers’ new direction has since moved on, citing a breakdown of that project he had been instructed to head up. Does Broughton feel likewise, has the parameters that he was set also shifted? That may not be the most pressing issue at hand given the current predicament Rovers find themselves in, but it’s a fascinating one, nonetheless.

The biggest moment of despair of the night for me, just ahead of the failed short corner routine in injury time, came upon the announcement of the player of the match. ‘The Peter Jackson the Jeweller Player of the Match goes to No.8, Sam Szmodics’ came over the tannoy. A fairly routine decision you would have thought (Scott Wharton worthy of a mention, but few others).‘I know he’s scored, but what else has he done?’ came a voice from behind me. I couldn’t help but smile.

I’ve heard it about Adam Armstrong and Jordan Rhodes, but always found the narrative around what else a player does ‘other than score’ (and certainly don’t think you can label that accusation at Szmodics) to be a moot point.

Rovers created precious little over 90 minutes, the best opportunity falling the way of Szmodics after Arnor Sigurdsson pounced on a mistake.

No hesitation, no drama, a sweeping, first-time finish into the far corner, providing equalising goal just as tensions grew inside Ewood.

In doing so, Szmodics joined an illustrious list of players to score 20 league goals in a season for Rovers, a sixth since the turn of the century. It’s a remarkable feat.

He not only did score, he was one of the few players looking to score, his six shots making up almost half of the 14 across the whole match by either side (11–3 in Rovers’ favour). Nine of Szmodics’ 26 goals have been equalisers, he’s coming up with the goods when it matters most.

Armstrong didn’t even win player of the year in 2020/21 after his 29-goal haul in an otherwise underwhelming season.

The same fate surely can’t befall Szmodics, who, for much more than his goals, is the shining light amid the growing darkness.


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