Friday, 8 December 2017

#69 Ewood Park, Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn Rovers 2 Bristol Rovers 1 
Saturday 25th of November 2017, League One

Very much against my better judgement, I was heading up to Lancashire for my 5th competitive Bristol Rovers away game of the season. Similar to my trip to Accrington Stanley two years ago I would be staying with and attending the match with my Croston-based pal Jake "Nash" Hilton, a Blackburn Rovers fan. His mum Sam was kind enough to give us a lift to The Brown Cow, a local hostelry a mere 7 minute walk from Ewood Park. Sam was having a very productive morning rustling up balls for her husband Kev's charity Balls To MS. For some time now Kev and Sam have been travelling around the country soliciting balls (quiet in the back) and other signed sporting paraphernalia which will ultimately be auctioned off to raise funds for The MS Society. Kev was spending the day manfully braving the chill at Fleetwood Town, taking in their bore draw with Doncaster Rovers. Meanwhile while we were in the car Sam received a call from none-other than former World Cup winner Ben Kay offering an England rugby ball for the cause. The players apparently were very keen to beat the number of signatures that their Welsh rivals gave when they did the same. As anyone that knows me can attest, I don't give a solitary hoot about the old oval ball but it was still a lovely gesture.

We had a pint in The Brown Cow and watched a bit of Barnsley failing to get back into a game against Leeds on the telly. As with most traditionally placed town center grounds, Ewood is well served by pubs and we had plenty of space the whole time. I suppose a lot of the reason for this is that Blackburn's average attendance has been half of what it was in those heady mid-90s days when Kenny Dalglish and, uh, Tim Sherwood... led the Blue and Whites to Premier League glory. Four seasons later they were relegated after coming 19th out of 20 and winning only seven games. They bounced back in two seasons and spent the next decade happily mid-table, winning the Football League Cup in 2002. In 2010 Rovers were taken over by Indian conglomerate Venky's, who immediately sacked (relatively) popular manager Sam Allardyce and replaced him with the relatively-obscure Steve Kean, allegedly at the behest of legendarily bent agent Jerome Anderson. 

Kean's tenure was apocalyptically bad and featured low points such as Kean signing an improved contract while Rovers were bottom of the league then insisting to a baffled local press that now wasn't the time to discuss contracts and admitting to forfeiting a League Cup game for the sake of league form. Things got so bad for Kean that even former Home Secretary and MP for Blackburn Jack Straw was publicly calling for his head. In contrast to his willingness to keep going on Newsnight and make a tit of himself, this proved to be a rare moment of good judgement for Straw as Kean did indeed preside over the end of Blackburn's 11 year stay in the Premier League on the 7th of May 2012 when they lost to Wigan at Ewood Park. No representative from Venky's was in attendance. Kean moved on to a no-doubt lucrative job coaching the personal team of Brunei's Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, whereas five seasons and six managers later, Blackburn were relegated to the third tier for the first time since 1970–1971. This is really only a brief overview of some of the actions that have turned fans so strongly against Venky's and lead sections of the press to dub them "corporate vandals" but I'll leave those interested to look into the debacle themselves. 

These are the circumstances that led to the BRFC derby (as I'm calling it) being played for the first time since March 1992 during Bristol Rovers' unlikely spell in the second tier under Gerry Francis (and some other, less good managers). As such a crowd of over 1000 Gasheads decided to ignore our poor form and venture out to this rare and exotic ground. The idiots. As we passed through Alan Shearer Way in the cold Lancashire air, the impressive stadium rose into view in the skyline. It's not difficult to envision the roads crammed with throngs of eager supporters just seven short years ago but as we got close they were still noticeably sparse, as were the stands inside. Points of interest outside the ground include a memorial to former chairman and "greatest fan" Jack Walker, a local steel magnate who provided much of the funding and materials for their Premier League charge and stadium upgrades. There's also a small memorial garden for Rovers fans that have passed on behind the Blackburn End, a club shop, a season ticket holders only bar and a beer tent for the riff-raff.

Inside the stadium is a picture of modernity with identically tall two tier seated stands on three sides. The Ronnie Clayton Blackburn and Bryan Douglas Darwen Ends are identical to one another with the slightly smaller upper sections acting as family areas, shielding whippersnappers from the hearty Northwestern match-day vitriol below. We were in the lower stand of the Ronnie Clayton End which Wikipedia informs me "houses some of the most passionate Rovers supporters [citation needed]". Maybe a few seasons ago this was the case but today our only companions were a trio of grim-faced men and their grim-faced young son, who snidely remarked that he didn't recognise our faces from the previous home games when Nash joined in with the singing. Tough crowd! This brought my companion down a bit and he remarked that it wasn't like this when he was a regular as a child with his mum. I suggested we move up a few rows as the stand was pretty empty and this proved a good move as we found ourselves surrounded by a jollier cross-section of fans. This cheered Nash up immensely as he could now participate without being chastised but the downside of this was we were now right in front of the end of the stand's windblocker and thus in a kind of funnel which fired the frosty afternoon air directly at us. It still wasn't as cold as Accrington though.  

The main stand of Ewood Park is the Jack Walker Stand which stretches along one side of the pitch. It's basically the same as the two ends except the top-tier is the larger tier and there's a row of hospitality boxes separating them. Opposite this is the Riverside Stand, very aptly named as it sits about an arm-span's length away from the River, which was today positively raging due to the heavy rainfall. A bold choice which hopefully Rovers won't live to regret. Built in 1988 this is the oldest part of the ground and the only single-tier stand. In comparison to the other ultra-modern stands it does hold some vintage charm with it's red and blue banks of seats and it's low, pillared roof. I believe every ground should have at least one stand like this, if only to slow the march of the identikit. There are plans to rebuild and extend the Riverside Stand but it depends on attendances increasing and presumably global warming being halted. This blog is already too long so I won't discuss how the ground has been rebuilt over the years but I would recommend this account.

The match itself turned out to be a pleasing affair for both parties. I'd expected an absolute tonking and came away feeling robbed of a point. It was a much better away performance than I'd been used to this season from my Rovers and we benefited from having Billy Bodin back from injury as well as an inspired decision from Darrell Clarke to play defender Joe Partington in the middle of a 4-1-3-2 formation. It was in fact Bristol Rovers that rattled the net first, a none-to-pretty but dogged midfield battle was eventually won through a succession of sideways passes until the ball was at the feet of Bodin who turned on the style to circumnavigate his marker and cross to Leadbitter on the wing. Ollie Clarke headed the ball down, it took a deflection off of a Blackburn defender and Clarke pounced forward to smash it home. The players ran half the length of the pitch in celebration before it was called for offside. Annoying. The only player in an offside position was Ellis Harrison who wasn't anywhere near the ball. Mustn't get too hung up on it but the referee should be doing better in League One. Mind you Blackburn felt they were entitled to a penalty after a rather vigorous tackle from Gas keeper Adam Smith so maybe things evened out.

Still in the first half, Bristol Rovers were again denied as Lee Brown ran onto a lofted forward pass from Chris Lines. He worked this into the box and crossed for Billy Bodin to head the ball into the crossbar. Argh! Right out of the blocks in the second half Blackburn looked sure to score when Bradley Dack ran into a point-blank one-on-one situation with Smith after a cross from inside the box but got the angle all wrong and it rolled harmlessly out for a goal kick. Finally after 58 minutes the scoring opened as Ellis Harrison was played in and made his way up to the edge of the opposition box. After a brief stand off with a defender he tiptoed a few steps to the right of his marker and curled in a low shot that bounced past the diving fingertips of David Raya. The Welshman's 7th in all competitions this season. The end of the stadium opposite us erupted but I could only turn with a smug smile to Nash by way of subtle celebration. We'd deserved the lead for once.

Never ones to make things simple for ourselves, Bristol Rovers gave away a penalty just three minutes later as Tom Lockyer barged into the back of Dominic Samuel in the box. Captain Charlie Mulgrew coolly plowed this into the top corner and the score was leveled. Minutes later it was Tom Broadbent's turn to clatter an opposition player as Danny Graham was taken down on the wing about 25 yards out. The former Sunderland misfit put in a lovely free kick that floated kindly for it's many suitors but in the end it was headed just wide. After coming down expecting a big loss, I was now gripping my seat praying to any deities that might be listening for us to hang on for the important point towards keeping our heads above water in what might easily turn into a relegation scrap before much longer. Sadly though I must not have acquired enough good boy points that week as it took only five minutes for Blackburn to take the lead. Blackburn hoofed the ball from midfield, to box and back out to wing where Derrick Williams had enough time to set up the perfect cross for Samuel's mighty bonce to nod past the flailing Smith. In the immortal words of Ned Flanders: Aw, hell, diddly-ding-dong crap! Darrell stuck on Tom Nichols and Rory Gaffney to chase the game but the only other attempt of note was a bullet shot from the D by Liam Sercombe which was ably saved by Raya. 

Much like the shafted runner-up of The Weakest Link, we were once again leaving with nothing despite answering a lot of difficult questions from our opponents. The upside of feeling a bit robbed was the feeling that, for once, we'd put in a good away shift and this was something to build on against Rotherham at home next week. Meanwhile I had a pub crawl in Croston to look forward to. Thanks again to Nash, Sam and Kev for putting up with me and be sure to check out Balls to MS.

God bless the north.