The series continues with a look at Gareth Ainsworth’s first love – and one of two brand new opponents for us in 2020/21, who we’ll face in our first Championship away game.
Ground: Ewood Park (since 1890, capacity 31,687)
Second tier seasons: 43 (+83 top flight)
Major honours: First Division/Premier League (1911/12, 1913/14, 1994/95), FA Cup (1883/84, 1884/85, 1885/86, 1889/90, 1890/91, 1927/28), League Cup (2001/02)
Last season: 11th in Championship
To those of a certain generation, the sight of Blackburn Rovers in the second tier of English football will be a strange one – but they’ve been gone from the Premier League for the best part of a decade now, including spending the 2017/18 season in League One. They’ve clawed their way back to the top half of the Championship, though, and finished only six points off the play-offs in 2019/20 – the second closest they’ve come since dropping out of the top flight.
That’s not to say there isn’t work to do. Blackburn lost five of their nine games post-suspension – having only lost five of their previous 22 in the league – and despite a general respect for manager Tony Mowbray, patience may be wearing thing as fans begin to question decisions. Rovers are one of a number of sides who you’d probably place in the ‘in the mix’ category when it comes to making the play-offs, but they weren’t unlucky to miss out last season. That said, they’ve given themselves a decent platform to build on; that should count for something.
The gaffer: Tony Mowbray
Appointed: February 2017
Previously managed: Coventry, Middlesbrough, Celtic, West Brom, Hibernian, Ipswich (interim)
Played for: Ipswich, Celtic, Middlesbrough
Blackburn league record: P152, W66, D43, L43
The division’s third longest-serving manager – behind Rotherham’s Paul Warne and A Certain Someone – Mowbray has been on a bit of a journey in his three-and-a-half years with Blackburn. Despite being unable to keep them up in 2017/18 – when Rovers were relegated to the third tier for the firs time in almost 40 years – he kept his job, and the faith shown in him paid off as he guided them back up at the first attempt and re-stabilised them in the Championship. He has won promotion to the Premier League before – albeit 12 years ago with West Brom.
After consecutive mid-table finishes since bouncing straight back up from League One in 2018, do you feel Rovers are realistically in a position to take that next step and break into the play-offs for the first time since relegation from the top flight eight years ago? If not, what needs to happen for you to get into that position? I feel like this should be a yes, but the word ‘realistically’ means it has to be a no. Our team needs some intelligent investment to make it stronger than it was last season, and at the time of writing we still have no goalkeeper, only one genuine Championship quality central defender, and one left-back.
If those areas get resolved and one or two more players of quality (forward players required) join the club, though, then we could seriously ruffle some feathers next season.
Tony Mowbray has been in the Ewood Park hotseat for a fair while now. What is the general mood among fans towards the manager? Is pressure mounting to really push on? I think that the general mood in the fan base is one of expectation now. This season will be huge for Mowbray.
There is a lot of respect for him having stabilised the club, won promotion back from League One at the first time of asking and seemingly worked hard behind the scenes to rebuild some structure. However, most fans only really care about what goes on between those white lines on a Saturday (and a Tuesday night) and some question Mowbray’s tactics and substitutions. That’s even before you mention spending £12m on Ben Brereton and Sam Gallagher [forwards who’ve managed eight goals and two assists in over 63 hours of league football between them].
For many Rovers fans, this won’t be their first experience of second tier football since winning the Premier League – but is there a sense that you belong in the top flight? I think that’s a tough one. I see a lot of fans do these ‘Ideal Premier Leagues’ and we are always in them, as we should be as a former champion. But the older generation (35+) and the younger generation (under 18) will remember us being n outside the top division most of the time they have been supporters. Also, in terms of attendance and general size of fan base, we probably aren’t inside the top 20 in the country.
However, we do have the ancient and recent history that backs us up as being a very important club in this country and I think most neutrals would say that we should be there or thereabouts when it comes to Premier League membership. Our fans would obviously say that too!
Who should we expect to shine for Rovers in 2020/21 and what are your main needs in this transfer window? So we saw Lewis Travis cement himself into the Rovers midfield last season and it’s time that more neutral Championship fans and opposition fans notice his quality. They are starting to notice him as a nuisance and wind-up merchant, but that masks a serious player, one who is Premier League bound soon. Adam Armstrong was another who pushed his game on to a new level last season and another improvement would be brilliant.
In terms of totally new names, Joe Rankin-Costello will be a regular starter next season. He is a versatile player and can play any of eight positions on the field to a high standard. Definitely keep an eye out for him.
I already mentioned in a previous answer that we need surgery at the back. This is still our weakest aspect and we lost loanee goalkeeper Christian Walton and centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo, so they need replacing – preferably with even better options to actually improve. Left-back is another key area that we are weak in – then there’s at least one forward spot open too.
Finally, next season will see the first ever meetings between Wycombe and Blackburn – one of several ‘Gareth Ainsworth Derbys’, if you will, in the Championship. What have you made of the job he’s done here and – and I won’t be popular with our fans for this – can you see him returning to his birth town one day? I have nothing but total admiration for the job that Gareth Ainsworth has done with Wycombe. As a player, I must say he wasn’t one that I looked at and thought that he would become an excellent manager, but he seems to have all of the skills you need. The fact that he played on into his 40s tells you how much he loves the game and also that he has developed those relationship skills with younger players from then. He has now married that with effective recruitment and tactical nous to the extent that he is a very sought after manager.
In terms of if I would like to bring him home… I have been on record as saying this already. I think he would be the perfect appointment post-Mowbray. The trouble is that he may not be available then. I don’t know if Ainsworth carries a bee in his bonnet about not making it into the Blackburn senior set-up as a young player, but I’m sure he would love to come back and deliver some success at Ewood. I hope that he stays with Wycombe this season at the very least, though, and if he does then I give you a great chance of staying up. Only four play-off winners in the last 12 years have gone straight back down, so the stats actually give you a fighting chance too!
Ainsworth is the most obvious link; his hero Simon Garner is another! But as ever, there are more… ‘Flymo’ Frank Talia was an unused substitute in the 1995 Charity Shield; fellow goalkeeping Frank, Fielding, also never made a senior appearance for Blackburn but turned out 36 times during a 2007/08 loan spell at Adams Park; and Nicky Reid played over 200 games for Rovers in the late 80s and early 90s, before playing a handful of games for Wycombe at the start of our Football League era. Older fans will remember late 60s Wanderer Viv Busby – who had a short stint at Ewood Park towards the end of his career – while John Nutter and Jason Banton were, like Gaz, with Blackburn as youngsters.
Did you know…?
Blackburn are one of only two clubs to have won three consecutive FA Cups. The other? The
original wrong Wanderers.