Five things Rovers need to do before the end of the season

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With the International break providing an opportunity to reflect on what could have been and a change to look towards next season, Glenn Entwistle looks at actions Rovers could take before the end of the season to boost our chances for next season.

With ten games remaining in the chaotic 2020-21 season Rovers find themselves in 15th position on 46 points, 16 points off the play-offs, and 11 points from the relegation zone. Even the most optimistic Rovers fan would now have to concede defeat that the Play-Offs aren’t going to happen, whilst the pessimistic supporters (i.e. me) are keeping a firm eye on the bottom three and counting down the days to the end of the season (or the points until maths makes us safe).

To say the season petered out during February would be an understatement. On 1 February, Rovers sat in 8th place, three points off a play off spot with a game in hand on others. By 1 March, Rovers had plummeted to 15th place and found themselves 12 points of the play-offs after a run of 5 defeats in a row and one draw, picking up just one point from a possible 18.

What compounds the frustrations of fans is the results that have followed that dismal run – a great but unexpected 2-0 win at Millwall, a point against in form Swansea and another against table toppers Norwich. Since the end of the losing run, Rovers have conceded three goals in five games – and two of those have been highly debatable penalties in games that Rovers arguably deserved all three points. As seems to be the case all too frequently for Rovers when we are good going forwards we can’t stop conceding at the back, but when we are good at the back, we struggle to fashion chances to win games – find that perfect balance and Rovers might have a shot at promotion next season. We have shown at times that we can compete with the top teams in the division (even despite results – Norwich away, Brentford at home, Watford away, Middlesbrough away etc) so there is the makings of a top six side, Rovers just need to find a consistency that has eluded them over the course of a full season, for as long as I can remember.

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Mathematically Rovers are still in danger of relegation, but with 10 games left, we are 11 points clear of relegation with another six teams between us and Rotherham in 22nd, and although we have gone six without a win, it would be difficult to see us not picking up four or more points before the end of the season. In the last five years only one team has been relegated with 50 or more points – Rovers in 2016-17 – and in all bar two of those seasons, Rovers have already amassed enough points for survival. 

It would be nice to better last season’s performance – that should be the minimum every year – but this year that would mean beating a league finish of 11th and/or 63 points. That would mean taking an average of just less than two points per game between now and the end of the season. If Rovers pull that off, the February slump will be even more depressing.

Looking ahead to next season on the assumption we have done, or will do, enough to stay in the division, there are actions Rovers could start taking now to give us the best opportunity of being competitive from the first kick next season. I’m not going to talk about whether the man currently at the helm, Tony Mowbray, should be the man to take us forward next season as that’s a months’ worth of content in itself. I’m going to presume he is and even if he isn’t the list below could be implemented whoever is in the dugout:

  1. Sort the contract situation out – final offers take it or leave it

At present there are no less than ten first team players whose contracts could be set to expire at the end of the season, and that’s after Derrick Williams has already left us. Ryan Nyambe, Joe Rothwell and Joe Rankin-Costello all have the option of an extra year on their deal, but the likes of Elliott Bennett, Lewis Holtby, Corry Evans, Amari’i Bell, Charlie Mulgrew, Stewart Downing and Harry Chapman could all be on their way in the summer. 

Within that bunch there are players you’d like to see sign new contracts, players you wouldn’t have an emotion for either way, and players you’d happily see out the door based on either performance, injuries, wages or all three. Eleven players being removed out of a squad in one summer is a massive percentage – according to Wikipedia it equates to 25% but in terms of what you would class core first team players it’s closer to 35-40% (not including some of the loanees who will likely return to parent clubs); and add another one to the list as we won’t see Dack for at least a large chunk of next season.

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This summer is also an International tournament year – Rovers may not be the most represented team at the Euros, but it narrows that window for getting deals done – either new contracts over the line, or new players through the door. 

Rovers need to be making decisions now on the above players, putting final offers on the table and saying take it or leave it, we need to be building for next season as soon as possible, and that includes understanding what is left in the wage budget for freebies and transfers in the summer. Of the above list I think there are two players I would be gutted to lose; of the rest, too many are too injury prone, aging in years or I believe just aren’t of the level needed to progress us.

  1. Sign THB up for another season on loan

I could argue the case that this should be the first order of business (but in my head that sounded ridiculous – one player versus ten others), but it definitely needs to be second at worst. Since moving into the centre of defence alongside Lenihan, Taylor-Harwood-Bellis has been a revelation. A revelation that you probably haven’t noticed – but at 19 years old, that’s not a bad thing. Jarred Branthwaite looked to have solved the problem in the back four until his inexperience became evident with mistakes in the games against Middlesbrough (which we got away with) and then Watford.

I’ll be honest, when we saw Harwood-Bellis start at right back against Barnsley away, I thought Mowbray had shot himself in the foot by bringing THB in and committing to play him, seemingly at the expense of Ryan Nyambe – it seemed like Mowbray had too many options, too many players and parent club managers to keep happy, and no idea what his best side was, which just so happened to coincide with the horrendous February run. The decision that night sparked a lot of rumours about the Nyambe contract situation which I don’t think have gone away or will go away until the Namibian either signs a new deal or leaves. However, he moved inside to centre half to partner Lenihan at Reading and put in a steady performance, unnoticeable for the fact we looked relatively solid (in comparison to recent games) and he didn’t put a foot wrong. If it had not been for an uncharacteristic mistake by Harvey Elliott, he would likely have got his first clean sheet in a Rovers shit.

In the six games he has partnered Lenihan in the back four, Rovers have conceded just four goals (0.67 goals per game, for context, over the season Rovers have conceded 1.1 goals per game). Put in simple words, we just look a lot more solid with him at the back with Lenihan.

At 19 years old, he is unlikely to be challenging the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, John Stones or Nathan Ake, so it is likely that Pep Guardiola will seek to send him out on loan again. The fact he has featured, and done well for Rovers, a club just an hour down the road from Manchester should be argument enough that he would benefit from another year of first team football at a competitive level rather than playing for City’s Under 23s and getting the odd outing in the cup competitions. 

If Rovers can do their business now and get a deal done before other suitors can get their offers on the table, that is a no brainer for me. Yes we have youngsters out on loan who can do a job, and the likes of Wharton and Ayala to come back from injury, but we are already down one defender in Derrick Williams, and with the possibility of Nyambe not extending his stay, his versatility in being able to play at right back at well would be a good option to have. 

  1. Extend and improve Thomas Kaminski’s contract

I’m not one for using superlatives at every opportunity, but I’ll use this one: Thomas Kaminski is the best goalkeeper we have had at Rovers since Brad Friedel left in 2008 – and that is coming from arguably David Raya’s biggest fan. Kaminski is at least 7/10 in every category – shot stopping, reflexes, on the ball, playing the ball out, collecting crosses, communicating with the back four, and commanding his box. Since Friedel, each keeper we have had has had their flaws – Robinson became susceptible to shots from distance; Raya never really commanded his box and would often come for the crosses he shouldn’t and stay home for the ones he should claim; the less said about Walton the better. Pound for pound, costing just £500k, Kaminski is up there with the best signings in recent years – in fact, in absolute terms, he is up there with the best signings in recent years.

In the modern game, a goalkeeper comfortable with the ball at his feet, able to play out from the back and able to perform the sweeper-keeper role is a wanted man. It would come as no surprise if there were already a number of Premier League clubs sniffing around Kaminski, and if he features at all in the Euros that interest is only going to grow. 

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It was a worrying revelation when I learnt/remembered this week that we only signed him on a 2-year contract (with the option for a further year), and that in just 12 months’ time we might lose him for a cut price fee. 

Before the Euros, Rovers need to be sitting Kaminski down and offering him a new, improved and extended deal to stay at Rovers to either ward off potential suitors or increase his price tag. It’s taken us 12 years to find a goalkeeper this good, we don’t want to lose him for pennies without a fight.

  1. Jordan Rhodes on a free

It feels as though ever since Rhodes left Ewood there have people wanting his return; not surprising given his goals return during his time at Ewood – 83 goals in 159 games, better than the Holy Grail for strikers of at least a goal every two games. 

After leaving Ewood, Rhodes helped take Middlesbrough up to the Premier League, before moving to Sheffield Wednesday where he has been since, including a season long loan to Norwich in 2018-19 which culminated in them winning the league and gaining promotion back to the Premier League. 

Up until now, I have always seen the potential return of Rhodes to Ewood as a bit of a pipedream, and as such wasn’t something I entertained with any seriousness, partly because he didn’t fit the mould of a Danny Graham-type striker who would lead the line, hold the ball up, win the flick-ons and bully defenders, and partly because of his wages. Also, I always worry that when a player leaves and comes back it is never as good as the first time around – think, Santa Cruz, Bentley, Henchoz, and from a managerial point of view, Berg. But there is David Dunn to buck that trend. 

Rhodes was rumoured to be on around £35k a week when he left Rovers in 2016 for an improved deal at Middlesbrough of around £50k a week. Depending on which sources you read, he got another pay rise to £60k a week when he joined Sheffield Wednesday on a permanent basis in July 2017 and looks to be on around £35k a week now. In comparison, for the 2018-19 season (lasty published accounts) Rovers average weekly wage was just shy of £11k/week. 

Since leaving Ewood, Rhodes has scored 29 goals in 152 games across his spells for Middlesbrough, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday – not a fantastic record, but his recent form isn’t to be sniffed at – scoring three goals in three starts, for a team who find themselves 23rd in the league and 6 points from safety.

Rhodes might not have been a target man as such during his time at Ewood, and he wouldn’t bully a defence, but what he did do was score goals, lots of goals, and what Rovers have missed at times this season is that killer instinct in front of goal. If the ball drops at Rhodes’ feet inside the 18-yard box, there’s a good chance a goal will follow. He might not fit the playing style we see preferred at present with someone like Armstrong trying to get in behind (but lets be honest that hasn’t actually happened for a while now), or a Dolan playing as a roving false nine, but he is a completely different option, and Mowbray has been criticised at times this season for lacking a Plan B. Jordan Rhodes would be a great Plan B, and it would give everyone a massive lift to see him back, none more so than the fans hopefully returning to the stands.

The big stumbling block remains wages. At age 31 he has arguably passed his prime, although his game has never been about pace and fitness, but he is likely looking for one last decent contract. It remains to be seen whether he is on the radar of other clubs, clubs with more money to offer than Rovers, and a productive end of season run-in raise interest from others. That said, he was loved at Ewood and by all accounts loved his time at Rovers, and since leaving has seen his game time much reduced, featuring in approximately 73% of games, a big chunk of which from the bench, whilst during his first three seasons he featured in 93% of games, starting the vast majority of those. 

It’s a long shot, but with his contract due to expire, and the potential prospect of Sheffield Wednesday being relegated, if he would be willing to accept a pay-cut to return to a place he has fond memories of, and where the crowd would love to have him back, maybe there is a small chance. Rovers should at least register an interest when allowed to do so and test the waters with Rhodes. What we must be careful of is not crippling the club financially by breaking the wage structure to same him, something they were guilty of back in 2012 – although it wasn’t his wages in particular that caused the problem.

  1. Release the annual accounts and talk about them

Tony Mowbray created a rod for his own back before the start of the 2020-21 season by saying that he thought this time was capable of the top six and promotion. I have some sympathy with him – what is he supposed to say? That we are expecting a middle of the road mid-table finish? He has to create optimism and during a time when the club didn’t know what the future held with COVID-19 I imagine he was also trying to lure anyone in who hadn’t made their mind up on buying a season ticket. I also believe that Mowbray actually believed what he was saying, and at times this season, Rovers have indeed looked like a top six team, unfortunately just not consistently enough.

In many respects, for me this season has been a bit of a free hit and maintain that it would be harsh to judge Mowbray based on a season impacted by COVID-19, a minimum pre-season, injuries, the state of the pitch to name a number of things. That said, it was a free hit in respect of the fact that it levelled the playing field to an extent – you could have all parachute payment money in the world but it wouldn’t stop you missing players due to a COVID outbreak, or giving you a longer season, or protecting your pitch from the rigour of the Championship without the usual summer break and re-seeding (unless you’re). It was chance to make an impact in a one-off season where finances might not dictate who finished in the top six, and I think that is what has been my biggest disappointed with this season.

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Financially, Rovers can’t be as competitive in the transfer market and wage structures as the likes of Bournemouth, Cardiff, Norwich, Stoke, Swansea and Cardiff and this hamstrings us to an extent. It is no surprise to see three of those teams in the top six, and another two just outside. Rovers must find ways to be competitive on the pitch without spending the vast sums of money off the pitch – the relaxation of FFP rules helps, but it isn’t the magic solution to all our problems.

I think every football fan probably thinks this of their club, but sections of the Rovers fanbase have delusions of where realistically we should be in the grand scheme of things of the football pyramid. As I said earlier, I’m a pessimist, but I also think I’m a realist – there is no God-given right for us to be a Premier League team just because we won it and have spent a large portion of time in the league during its existence, that isn’t how football works. Gone are the days of us being free spending, both getting promoted the first time, and then again the second time in 1999-00. The financial rules are a lot tighter now on what you can spend, and we also don’t have an owner with a deep-rooted love for the club and a drive to see them be the best. 

It might not make for a nice bedtime story but Rovers, and Mowbray, could benefit from managing expectations through first the release of the accounts for 2019-20 and then an explanation of how COVID-19 has affected those accounts, how they are likely to affect this years accounts (2020-21) and where this puts us in the grand scheme of things. For example, for the 2018-19 (covering the last accounts submitted), Rovers had the 16th largest wage bill – not surprisingly Aston Villa had the highest and Norwich the third highest, both of whom won promotion, with Sheffield United bucking the trend and winning promotion with the sixth lowest wage bill in the league. From a revenue point of view, for the same season Rovers had the 19th largest revenue – only Bolton (relegated), Rotherham (relegated), Preston, Brentford and Wigan had a smaller revenue.

There is also an opportunity to use this data and the opportunity that the end of lockdown and the return of fans at stadiums could bring. Without sounding to much like a charity-case Rovers do to an extent, need to lean on the heart strings to get fans back through the turnstiles and get some money in the bank or else the financial picture is only going to look bleaker, or we are only going to become less competitive on the pitch.

It’s going to be an interesting summer with the Euros, the contract situation at Ewood, the Manager’s situation, and the on-going impacts of COVID-19, but as this 2020-21 season peters out, once we’ve confirmed our Championship status for next season, I’ll be looking forward to it starting all over again, only this time, hopefully, with all of us fans back in the stadiums.

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images

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