200 Not Out: Discussing TM’s tenure at Rovers

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Saturday’s defeat to Queens Park Rangers marked Tony Mowbray’s 200th game since his arrival at Ewood Park. His tenure in the Rovers dugout has rescued the club from seemingly inevitable doom, while his ideas have changed a once-lethargic outfit to a breath of fresh air.

Inheriting a Rovers side rendered down-and-out by the press and languishing 23rd in the Championship, Mowbray’s appointment provided little confidence that the Ewood Park outfit could survive the drop and retain their Championship status for the 17-18 season. Protests against longtime owners Venky’s were ongoing, exhibited in microcosm in previous manager Owen Coyle’s final game as Blues boss, a gallant, but inevitable 2-1 defeat at the hands of José Mourinho’s Manchester United.

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Recently retired striker Danny Graham fired the home side into an unlikely lead that day, before Marcus Rashford restored parity in the 27th minute. The introduction of French dynamite Paul Pogba and Swedish marksman Zlatan Ibrahimović sparked the Red Devils into life, before the latter finished past Jason Steele to seal victory in Lancashire. While the performance was admirable against a much-fancied opponent, it was unable to paper over the cracks, with Coyle unable to cope with the pressure. He left days later and the Venky’s wasted little time in appointing his replacement.

Tony Mowbray became the seventh permanent manager under the Venky’s ownership after he was announced as Blackburn boss on the 22nd of February. Following in the footsteps of Kean, Berg, Appleton, Bowyer, Lambert and aforementioned Coyle ostensibly appeared a poison chalice, but Mowbray was seen as the man for the job. He assumed the manager’s position at Ewood with Rovers three points adrift of safety, tasked with the almost impossible job of dragging us out of the mire that season. An inspired run that saw his side take twenty-two points from fifteen games would not prove to be enough, with Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest narrowly avoiding the drop via wins on the final day. Mowbray gained universal praise for giving an unmotivated and resigned team hope, with the acknowledgement that the damage was done long before his arrival at the football club. He had taken over Owen Coyle’s team in February but by August, his influence on the first-team squad in six short months was unmistakable.

The summer months of 2017 were busy for Tony Mowbray, as he attempted to reinvent the Rovers team from Championship relegation fodder to League One promotion challengers. Pivotal to the revitalisation of Blackburn was the acquisition of 23-year old Bradley Dack for around £750,000 from fellow League One outfit Gillingham. A signing that thrilled me when announced, he had no issues replicating his form at the Priestfield Stadium. Scoring eighteen and assisting another eight, he won League One Player of the Year for a second time, adding to the one he won in the 15-16 season for The Gills. If he was the lead role in terms of incomings, he had a decent supporting cast; Peter Whittingham, Dominic Samuel, Jack Payne, Harry Chapman, Marcus Antonsson, Paul Downing and the King of Ewood himself Richie Smallwood all arrived before the September deadline day, all making good contributions to our return into the Championship. Some of Coyle’s most trusted assets were also shifted on, with Jason Lowe, Elliott Ward, Gordon Greer and Jason Steele all moving to pastures new that summer, as Mowbray looked to make the squad his own.

This drastic change in the squad was exemplified by the fact that only five of the starting eleven from Coyle’s final league game, a 2-1 defeat away at Sheffield Wednesday, remained there for Rovers’ defeat by the same scoreline away at Southend United to open our League One season. Danny Graham, Charlie Mulgrew, Derrick Williams, Darragh Lenihan and Elliott Bennett were the only Rovers players to start both matches, showing this transformation. The fact that four of those five are still contracted at Ewood this season shows their commitment to the arduous journey we had to go through and despite the fact that Mulgrew’s loan spell at Fleetwood Town means we will most likely never see the Scot pull on the blue-and-white again, it is a huge testament to these four players that they have stuck by the club even during its darkest days.

The summer spending spree was supplemented by the arrivals of our Angel of the North Adam Armstrong and the eventual left-back in the League One Team of Season Amari’i Bell, cementing our promotion push in January. The former Newcastle striker scored nine in twenty-one appearances in the third tier, showing glimpses of his immense potential and convincing Mowbray to convert the loan deal into a permanent for our return to the Championship, one of his best decisions during his close to four years as Rovers boss. With forty-eight goals since becoming a Blackburn player on a permanent basis, he is realising the astronomical potential placed upon him whilst a youngster on Tyneside.

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Despite a poor start to life in League One, emphasised by a 1-0 defeat away at Oldham Athletic in October that left us in tenth after eleven games, Tony’s men rallied. It was not until February that we tasted defeat in the league again, this time away at Home Park, where Ruben Lameiras and Ryan Taylor both scored to snap an eighteen-game league run. By this point, we were knocking on the door of the automatic promotion places, sitting in third spot two points behind second-placed Shrewsbury Town. A 2-0 win at home to Bury saw us back into the top two and from then we could not be dislodged, sealing promotion on that famous night at the Keepmoat. The header from Charlie Mulgrew sent the travelling Blackburn fans into delirium as Tony Mowbray’s main goal of promotion at the first time of asking was achieved. 

Another positive change that Tony Mowbray has helped initiate is the development of young players. I have already discussed loan signings and the impact that has had, so here I will regard the permanent players only. During his first 200 matches in the Blackburn Rovers hot seat, Mowbray has given fourteen players their professional debuts, including first-team regulars Lewis Travis, John Buckley, Joe Rankin-Costello and Tyrhys Dolan. His transformations of these players have been obvious, turning Travis from an erratic and exuberant defensive midfielder to one of the best players in his position currently plying his trade in the Championship, Buckley from a right-back to a playmaking centre-midfielder, helping Rankin-Costello transition from a winger to arguably the most versatile player we currently possess, while allowing the dynamic and brilliant Tyrhys Dolan to flourish after being released from local rivals and Friday night’s opponent Preston North End.

While Tony Mowbray cannot seem to crack the barrier that is the top six and his tenure still leaving a little to be desired, there is no doubt that his spell in the Ewood Park dugout has been a resounding success. Whether you’re Mowbray In or Mowbray Out, of which I am the former, his nigh on four-year spell at Rovers has no doubt breathed life into a club that was flatlining and secured the long-term future of the club we all love.

Thanks for reading.

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