As we turn the page on a memorable year of sporting action, from the highs of Olympic and Paralympic golds in Tokyo, to the lows of the hard fought British & Irish Lions series defeat in South Africa, through an agonisingly close cricket season at domestic level for Lancashire and trademark ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ performances from the England men’s team, with intrigue in the Formula One and the emergence of a new British superstar in US Open Champion Emma Raducanu, one can only hope 2022 can be as equally fulfilling.
Similarly, the success of the England football team at the European Championship, set against a backdrop of summer sun and social ‘unlocking’, soundtracked by a soft rock anthem from 1969 (those good times never seemed so good) and with an almost reassuringly predictable finish to a memorable campaign, penalties once again proving to be the nemesis of a nation. Tears were shed, tantrums thrown, bubbles burst, but with a palpable renewed optimism. Could this continue?
Fast forward four weeks, and the (16 months!) Rovers’ hiatus without fans was over. An emotionally charged first game at Ewood brought tears to many, with a rapturous minute of applause for those affected by the horrors of coronavirus and the pride shown in adversity by our wonderful key workers. For those lucky to be standing on the terraces, the usual wave of relief, reflection and resilience no doubt flashed through every supporter’s mind; but more than anything, we were at Ewood, we were home!
But why go back? A question that must have crossed a lot of minds in the various lockdowns, football and its impact was thrown directly into the spotlight. Those who braved a season of iFollow, streaming from laptops in bedrooms, kitchens and lounges across the country and world could all agree on one thing… nothing beats being there in person, fans in the stands and that connection with a club and community that just can’t be achieved on screen.
Preseason ‘optimism’ was defined by how far above relegation we’d finish, or how far into the bottom three we’d go, player sales and contracts not renewed, gone the core squad of players we’d come to know and love/hate. Talisman Adam Armstrong was wearing red and white stripes, whilst the last remnants of the 2017/18 promotion season squad had departed between visits! Graham, Mulgrew, Smallwood, Bennett, Bell and Williams all departing for pasture new – even the talismanic Bradley Dack was out until 2022 and with two bionic knees!
A tough period, it seems, led to plenty of former season ticket holders not renewing. Attendances at a thirty-year low. Yet despite all this adversity, I really felt that this year’s squad of players deserved our support – and that has paid off with the recent rise up the league.
Perhaps on paper not the most talented, but a squad of hard working, professional players, who have developed a real devilish streak about their game. Early skirmishes at home to Swansea and West Bromwich Albion, plus trips to Millwall and Middlesbrough, both of which are amongst the most daunting away trips in terms of physicality, were evidence that whilst young, this team wasn’t going to be bullied by anyone.
Success at the City Ground, victories against Hull and, as enjoyable an Ewood afternoon as you could ever hope for, at home to Cardiff all set a high standard - which has now been exceeded with a five match winning run. Perhaps the midweek defeat at Huddersfield and the infamous Fulham loss showed the naivety that such a young squad will show from time to time, but I’d rather watch these players week in week out, than the plethora of old, injury prone and mercenary professionals that we as a fanbase have endured over the last decade.
Leaders at the back in Thomas Kaminski, Daniel Ayala and club captain Darragh Lenihan have set the tone with encouraging displays, whilst in full-backs Ryan Nyambe and the improving Harry Pickering have given the club as solid a backline as we’ve seen in many years.
Nyambe and Lenihan also spearhead a resurgence in home-grown talent. Travis and Buckley have both been in excellent form this season, and the re-emergence of Scott Wharton and Danny Butterworth has given Rovers a youthful exuberance that warms the cockles of even the most curmudgeonly of supporters. Hopefully the likes of Jake Garrett and Connor McBride can stake their claims, whilst Bradley Dack and Joe Rankin-Costello are both due back in action shortly.
The club recently celebrated 550+ consecutive games with youth graduates playing their part. Not since Chris Samba, playing as a target man striker, inspired a 2–0 victory over Portsmouth on 9th May 2009 have we seen a game without an Academy product. With the current crop and direction of the club will we ever see a game again without one?
Also include in the squad are the hard-working Sam Gallagher and Tyrhys Dolan, a young man somersaulting his way into the hearts and minds of the Rovers faithful… did you know Preston released him on a free? (That’ll never get old). And then there’s our Chilean superstar, Señor Benjamin Anthony Brereton Díaz, who deserves a full review/recap of his own, but as a Rovers fan it’s a sheer joy to be a part of his crazy journey at the moment… and long may it continue!
This positivity aside, the true determining factor of any squad’s worth is points. 42 from our first 23 games gives the class of 2021/22 Rovers’ best first half to a Championship campaign since our promotion season in 2000/01.
I’d like to think Rovers fans are a reasonable group of supporters to play for, we want what it says on the shirt of every player, Arte et Labore. This squad may be arte, with a lower-case a, but the LABORE shines brightly.
The opening half of this season really has been a breath of fresh air, a Rovers renaissance, and long may it continue!