Though Sunday’s Championship clash between founding Football League members Blackburn and Derby gave a nod to both side’s pasts, Rovers are very much a club coming to terms with their present. Just one season removed from a ten-year stint in the top-flight and boasting an academy recently awarded Category I status, to some this is still very much a Premier League club.
A glimpse at the summer transfer dealings however tells a very different story. Big name signings from last year such as Nuno Gomes and Colin Kazim-Richards have departed to make way for the likes of Millwall winger Chris Taylor, Doncaster’s Tommy Spurr and Corry Evans from Hull City. Hardly deals to get the heart racing but Blackburn are a club dealing with the consequences of last season’s scattergun spending. While Rovers’ lavishness in the form of £8 million Jordan Rhodes undoubtedly kept us in the division, the club’s strategy of tempting top-tier talent with over-inflated contracts was a failure. Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu and Leon Best all disappointed (despite pulling in at least £100k a week between them) and Blackburn only narrowly avoided the drop.
The task presented to manager Gary Bowyer then is one altogether different to that faced by Steve Kean 12 months ago. Rather than taking a Premier League team with a Premier League budget back up, Bowyer must stabilise the club financially and create a side which is functional in the Championship. Whether through financial restraint or not Bowyer has clearly avoided bringing in big names instead placing an emphasis on the capture of young and hungry players with modest reputations. Whilst the signings of Alan Judge and Tom Cairney are unlikely to send season ticket sales soaring, Bowyer has addressed the reality that in the Championship, reputation alone won’t get you far.
For Rovers this was nowhere more evident in 2012/13 than central midfield. The former Fulham duo of Murphy and Etuhu arrived last term to great expectation but spent much of the campaign stinking up Ewood Park’s centre circle as well as those in countless other Championship grounds. It wasn’t until the latter stages of the season when Lee Williamson (released by Pompey) and David Jones (an emergency loan from Wigan) arrived that fans saw the passing tempo, vision or solidity through the middle they’d been hoping for. This pairing not only helped keep us in the league with some outstanding performances -particularly against fellow strugglers Huddersfield- but also proved there are plenty of gems to be found in the bargain basement; encouraging for those Blackburn supporters concerned by this summer’s austere approach.
Sunday’s opener against Derby may well have bolstered hopes that Bowyer has been able to pluck a couple more diamonds from the rough. Impressive performances from new boys Judge, Spurr and substitute Chris Taylor contributed to a 1-1 draw which could have easily been 3 points for Rovers. And while Bowyer could rue letting the aforementioned David Jones slip through the net after sub-par performances from midfielders Jason Lowe and debutant Alex Marrow plus losing Rochina to injury, there is quiet optimism around Ewood.
In many ways the pressure is off for Gary Bowyer: the fact that he hasn’t had money to spend will not be forgotten. On top of that the supporters are just desperate for some stability and continuity; someone at the helm who cares about the club and for the noise from the circus off the pitch to quieten down- anything else can be considered a bonus.
Hull showed last season that it doesn’t take a star-studded squad list to gain promotion; just hard work and a hungry group of players. For Blackburn this summer has not only been about rebalancing the books but also rebalancing the squad, getting rid of those making up the numbers and bringing in youngsters who will knuckle down. While Rovers’ transfer dealings look a lot more humble than in years gone by the club are at least attempting to deal with the situation in which they find themselves in a more sustainable way.
The result is that we head into our second season out of the top-flight with a team sheet that looks undoubtedly more at home in the Championship than it would the Premier League, but with expectations low, we may just surprise a few people.