WILD AT ROVERS
Mickey Blue Eyes
This has been one weird season. For the first time in years, more important matters have kept me from away games and too many home matches. The only away game of any description I managed to get to was the train crash at Sporting Lisbon. Severe withdrawal symptoms ensued, as you would expect. Footy guilt, or something similar, drove me to make the effort to get to Ewood Park last Saturday. Next season, though, will be different in more ways than one.
Previous midweek saw us in Birmingham for a match with the Ugliest Football Club Anywhere In The World, Aston Villa. It beggars belief to think there are some self-styled "Evertonians" who think we have something to learn from a posse of rodeo cowboys on a cocaine high. I really don't want to labour this point beyond the vernacular that their entire set up and too many of their fans are the ultimate in gobshitery, even by footy standards. I could quote you chapter and verse why this is so, but my dislike is so intense I'd rather not get carried away. Accordingly, I couldn't be bothered to make the trip to inland-trapped Birmingham and its permanent cloud of carbon monoxide, and watched the game instead in the company of friends at the Valentine pub in Aintree. Ultimately our beloved Royal Blues threw away two points while having to withstand the kind of garbage chucked around by the likes of the natural successor to Spit the Dog, Ashley Young. One assault on Steven Pienaar should have seen its perpetrator in Walton Jail for six months to suffer the summary justice of Sweet Pants and his "girl" friends. After two typically opportunist headed goals from Tim Cahill we should have been out of sight, but fate decreed they equalise with a typically lucky-up-and-under oggy from Jags in the last minute. It was galling to lose two vital points in such fashion, especially to them, but the rest of the display gave us yet another reason to be optimistic about next season. However, the result meant we had to win at Blackburn if our slim chance of European qualification wasn't to evaporate altogether.
So to beautiful north east Lancashire on The Bus. Terry was gracious enough to squeeze on Plewsy and I - in Plewsy's case, literally so - despite a season-long absence. The host area couldn't be more of a contrast to the ugliness that is virtually all of the urban English Midlands. Spring sees it at its near best, greenery, trees and small scale hills everywhere, and virtual absence of industry makes the air as clear as crystal. Of course it suffers too from the kind of urban blight afflicted on every area of the country; but doubtless you'll help bring an end to that with your vote at the looming election, won't you? Astonishingly, the town of Blackburn has a population of only 105,000, which means the survival of Blackburn Rovers as a Premier League club is a wonderful achievement attributable to its late owner Jack Walker and its present trustees. Ewood Park is in a superb setting, surrounded by overlooking hills on all sides with one stand backing on to tiny River Darwen. The ground had plenty of space around it and has been rebuilt except for the Riverside Stand, which is presently hemmed in by the river bank. Inside, the ground is spotless and well maintained and a great credit to the club. Its capacity is only about 31,000 but their average gate in recent years is roughly twenty six percent of the town's total population. In short, they are a football miracle. And of course they were hugely influential in the very early days of professional and amateur football, as was the whole of North West England. Rovers looked doomed to the Premier League until Sam Allardyce arrived and somehow installed some fighting spirit into them and dragged them to midtable safety, the kind of fight we are well acquainted with.
The match looked a difficult one. Given recent results I expected a 1-1 draw and our usual mid second half drop in energy levels, especially without Mikky to set the tempo........and now no John Heitinga to protect Sylvain Distin. I expected Rovers very large players to be all over us just as soon as Sam could yell at them loud enough. I especially expected David Dunn, weight problems or no weight problems, to give us a hard time in midfield. But - surprise, surprise - Mikky was playing, while Heitinga failed a late fitness test on the leg damaged by Aston Villa thugs. Sounds like Moyesy pulled a fast one on his mate Sam there. For the first quarter hour Rovers couldn't get the ball off us and we scored a penalty after couple of minutes when Mikky, who else, got downed after dancing around a defender at the corner of the goal area, got up, and stuck the spot kick to Robinson's left while the rejuvenated 'keeper went right. It was the perfect start on a beautiful sunshiney day. Even Bily looked likely after his cross led to the goal - that's the thing with the Russki, every time he gets the ball we all expect something from him because we know how good he can be when he's on blob. The problems arise when he's off-blob, which for the present is far too often.
It then became a very odd game indeed. We had so much of the ball it was almost soporific. Despite this, Rovers came forward in occasional quick moves that looked dangerous until they got to the edge of the penalty area and then gave the ball away. When they got throw-ins they started chucking them long. Plainly, Sam had noted as we all have how uneasy our two centre backs can sometimes get with each other. In this game Phil Neville was in the John Heitinga-Lee Carsley role and performed superlatively well yet again, so much so, David Dunn almost disappeared off the radar screen. Rovers still managed to get in a couple of shots that got blocked by some solid defending. Meanwhile, Mikky's uncanny ability to switch play from one side to the other gutted any momentum Rovers hoped to build on. He does this so casually hardly anyone in the crowd notices it, but then en masse footy fans often don't know what they've got till it's gone. Pedersen obviously knew because after twenty minutes he got tired of chasing Mikky's shadow and clipped his heels from behind so nastily it goaded Mikky into turning on him in a flash. The two of them got booked. Mikky was lucky not to be settling into the bath suds before time. The half went on its way without an awful lot to commend it except for our ability to play it around in little triangles that had Rovers occasionally running in circles. It was mildly interesting geometry without goalmouth incidents to liven it up.
The first quarter hour of the second half was much of the same. When Bainsey hit the bar with a tremendous long range volley it looked as though we would stroll it. By then Bily's game had deteriorated so it was no surprise when he was brought off and Vic Anichebe assigned to our left wing to provide some pressure there. It looked to be heading for a comfortable one goal win. Until twenty minutes from the end. Then right out of the soporific blue Rovers got an equaliser after David Dunn got involved left side just inside our half and put a through ball into the path of their man on a forward run. It was perfectly weighted, the kind of pass I had been dreading all afternoon from Dunn, and their guy had only to advance a couple of metres and smack it with a clear sight of goal from twenty five metres. It was a magnificent shot that screamed across Tim Howard's body and into the far corner. In top form Tim would've stopped it but it hasn't been his best season and he seemed to dive under the flight. Game on. Our energy levels began to ebb and Rovers started to throw long again until it looked as though we might misstime something.
So Moyesy brought on the new slimline Yak with fifteen minutes left. A minute later we were in front when he butted another goal from close in after a heading duet with Vic, who was starting to do damage down our left. Right, that's it, game over. Oh, really? Two minutes later Rovers got a second equaliser similar to their first. Another through pass, more slackness centre midfield and defence, another clear shot, Tim glued to the ground. 2-2. You could have driven a 44 bus through our middle. But nobody was soporific now, though Mikky looked like he was finally feeling tired. In fact fouls were coming thick and fast from both sides and there were a couple of bookings. Nothing nasty, just the usual edgy nonsense as players got concerned about losing.
Then we got the winner in the last minute of normal time. Anichebe had finally managed to unnerve the right side of their defence with a couple of threatening runs so it was fitting the goal came after an interesting melee on that side when Bainsey got forward and the Yak twisted the wrong way for their centre back, got to the goal line and prodded it right in front of Tim Cahill for a couldn't-miss side foot home. Then there were five added minutes to shred our nerves as Rovers still wouldn't lie down. Given events this season you could forgive our fans for getting nervous. But it was needless. We got to the final whistle without further disasters.
Keep saying it: Next season is going to be brilliant. It might cool your nerves and your temper.