Stadium of…Is It Now Alright?

Tuesday, 2 April 2024

Come on, admit it, you all saw that coming?

I’ll be honest in that I was beginning to feel the permutation that would be required for Rovers to beat the drop was for there to be three worse teams, with the 50 points likely be required becoming out of reach.

While that still may be the case, Rovers took a step towards the latter with a crucial, deserved, and emphatic three points, at the Stadium of Light, though any favours from those around them would still be welcomed with still six games to play.


Sat writing this from the pub on a Bank Holiday Monday evening, it’s become quite easy to forget how good that winning feeling is, irrespective of how, or when, it comes about.

Make no mistakes about it, should Rovers ‘survive’ this season then it would be nothing to celebrate, but such is the concern about what the alternative could/would bring about, it would be an almighty relief.

Whether it be injuries, setbacks, dropped points, missed chances, court cases, or the lack of clarity around so many aspects of the club, I’ve wanted to see the back of the season for several weeks, though obviously with Championship status still intact.

It may be the close relationship I’ve had with the previous two managers, but I’ve yet to fully connect with John Eustace as head coach.

That could just be personal to me, and could well be down to the timing and circumstance surrounding his appointment.

Maybe this needs to become ‘his team’ for him to truly judged, or the questions that remain unanswered around other aspects of the club have more of my focus.

But the Eustace reign, as much as the team itself, needed Monday afternoon’s result.

The international break became an exercise in interpreting interviews, whether it be those from director of football Gregg Broughton or defender Scott Wharton, to then a debate over whether Eustace was, or wasn’t, waiting for his first win in charge.

When the football did return with a Good Friday visit of Ipswich Town, that soon turned to a dissection of the laws of the game and the decisions of a referee and his assistant alike.

I came away from that game (after my initial assessment of how impressive the Ewood Park playing surface is for this time of season) concerned that Rovers had lost their spark, that there seemed little, or no, responsibility or accountability from anyone about the situation the club found itself in, and that they were bang up against it.

Even after the high of a 5–1 win, I still have real reservations about the future direction that Rovers will take, and irrespective of what happens in the final six games, there is a big rebuild ahead in the summer. Though how many times have we said that?

Yet at least the prospect of having those questions to answer as a Championship club is one step nearer.

The team that won so impressively at Sunderland contained only one player (Sondre Tronstad) signed in the last three transfer windows, with seven of the side either signed, or made their debuts, prior to the summer of 2022.

While too much change too soon is what no side desires, there is equally the need for a natural churn of players through sales and reinforcements that Rovers simply haven’t had.

The biggest decision is whether Rovers are indeed following a project, or whether it has become all about the here and now.

While that seemed solely the former previously, it has become clouded in the last 12 months.

It’s hard not to reflect on the last two transfer windows as opportunities missed and not addressing the immediate needs of the first-team.

The cash buys of Leo Wahlstedt and Connor O’Riordan were in positions that met the requirements of the squad, but the fact that the latter cannot make the matchday squad, and the former unable to truly challenge for the №1 spot, it’s hard to not reflect on those as ‘project’ signings when more ready-made options were required.

However, the starting line-up against Sunderland looked strong, almost as good as Rovers can field, with a front four of Hedges-Szmodics-Dolan-Gallagher for the first time this season.

I have watched games before and commented on how poor an opponent has been, but rarely have I watched them aghast at how off the pace they were, and Sunderland were truly woeful.

Not that it mattered a jot to Rovers who, to their credit, took full advantage and showed the clinical edge we have longed for, as Szmodics tucked away two close-range finishes.

Any fears of a two-goal lead being an uncomfortable one were dispelled early in the second half as Hedges, from an almost identical spot in which he missed against Plymouth, slotted in number three before Dolan got the goal his performance deserved to make it four.

All of that aforementioned starting front four would leave the pitch with at least one goal or assist to their name, before Moran added a fifth to cap off a first away win of 2024.

Joe Rankin-Costello was excellent in a central midfield role he could well call his home moving forward, adding the drive from the middle of the pitch the side has lacked, while Dom Hyam showed the quality that saw him named the standout player of last season.

I make no apologies for the repeated praise of Sam Szmodics and what he’s doing. It’s a superhuman effort. Not only the goals, now 29 in 42 appearances, but the workrate and workload.

Where I was questioning keeping him on the pitch in the lattter stages, Szmodics would have been disappointed had he been taken off to the same extent he will have been that his touch from Markanday’s late cross turned out to be an assist and not a deserved hat-trick.

He is now up to 44 games this season, averaging 89 minutes from his 38 Championship appearances (missing only two games), and while others were enjoying an international break of partial rest and relaxation, Szmodics was making his mark on the international stage.

Thankfully, historic goalscoring feats aren’t that irregular at Rovers, be it the 40+ goals that Rhodes and Gestede shared in 2014/15 to the 14 from centre half for Mulgrew in League One, then Armstrong’s 29 in 2020/21, Brereton’s 20 before Christmas in 2021 and now Szmodics being one away from reaching 30 in a season for the first time since someone called Shearer.

Rovers aren’t out of the woods yet, and the quality of remaining opponent will likely keep them in the mix for the remaining weeks of the season. But doesn’t it feel good to win a game of football again.

The future can wait, I’ve got a beer to finish.



BRFCS Premium Membership Support our independent Rovers content and go ad-free

Latest Articles

    League Table