Due to family matters, it was relatively late in the morning before I got the nod of approval from the power that be, namely the better half, that I could take my seat in friend Andy’s jalopy (I lie, he only picked the vehicle up from the showroom on Tuesday last) for the trip northwards, up our favourite limited-access highway, destination Ewood Park, Lancashire, home of fellow founder member of the Football League and Premier League, Blackburn Rovers Football Club.
Rovers have been playing their home games here since 1890, and while we four haven’t been making the journey to the stadium that stands virtually on the banks of the River Darwen, every season since that inaugural campaign, we did make our first visit here back in the mid swinging-sixties, back in the days when it was never a happy hunting ground for the lads from Brummagem B6. Of course more recently we’ve enjoyed some three pointers here, and we journeyed north this morning in good spirits, fairly confident that yet another Villa victory at Ewood Park might just be on the cards.
With Andy driving, and consequently in charge of the in car entertainment, we were all well aware that we would be in for a fairly healthy dose of sixties Tamla Motown music, and Andy didn’t disappoint. We sang along, and tapped our feet to the likes of Smokey, The Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and Junior Walker. Destination Ewood Park maybe, but at times we had to remind ourselves that we weren’t heading off up town for a Saturday night at The Rainbow Suite or The Top Rank.
Topics of conversation varied as per usual, the vast majority of our chat centred around football in general though, and AVFC in particular. All four of us selected different starting line-ups, nothing unusual there, as we attempted to pre-guess Martin’s line of thinking. Three of us agreed that Nigel Reo-Coker should start, two of us selecting John Carew to partner the on-fire Gabby up front, one of us selecting Habib Beye as a starter at right full back in the continued absence of Luke Young, while all four of us had fingers crossed that Ashley Young would be fit to torment Big Fat Sam’s defence. Certainly seems as if we are spoiled for options nowadays, well certainly compared to recent seasons anyway.
Lot of Villa cars were keeping us company on the M6, plenty of familiar faces, and even though we somewhat surprisingly failed to sell out our full allocation for the game, it certainly appeared that we were taking another healthy following.
Anyway, with complete disregard for the time and effort we’d put into selecting our preferred line-up for the afternoons encounter, MON went with the following starting X1:-
Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar, James Collins, Richard Dunne, Stephen Warnock, James Milner, Stan Petrov, Fabian Delph, Ashley Young, John Carew and Gabby Agbonlahor.
On the bench we had, Brad Guzan, Habib Beye, Nicky Shorey, Craig Gardner, Nigel Reo-Coker, Nathan Delfouesno and Emile Heskey.
The travelling Villans were in full voice as the teams made their appearance, Gabby and Big JC kicking us off to get the game underway.
If we thought that Gabby gave us a bright and early start against Cardiff City on Wednesday evening, he gave us a repeat performance here to stun Rovers, running on to a John Carew flick, to sidefoot past Paul Robinson, seemingly scuffing his shot somewhat in doing so. The ball hit the inside of the post before trickling over the line. Great start.
Rovers though hit back immediately. Fabian Delph was penalised for a challenge on David Dunn, and from the resulting free kick, Stephen Warnock made an excellent block, to deny Rovers a potential equalising goal.
A bright start from both sides, with us certainly looking dangerous on the break. ‘Looks like a game that will provide some goals’ said the guy sitting in front of us, and several heads nodded in agreement.
Superb fluid counter attack from us almost brought a second Villa goal, Ashley Young floating the final ball in, just too high though for John Carew.
Chris Samba had looked dangerous for the home side when pushing forward to get on the end of deadball situations, and on twenty-three minutes it was he who grabbed the equaliser for the home side.
A long ball into the box caused panic at the back, Dunne made a mess of his header, failed to clear, and Samba beat Friedel to level matters.
Rovers goal saw us step up a gear, with Ashley Young firing just wide, but Rovers, not to be outdone were soon back up the other end, bringing a fine save from Brad Snr to deny ex-bluenose David Dunn.
Still end to end football, with us not looking as confident at the back as we have been in recent games.
David Dunn was involved in all of Rovers better moves, while El-Hadji Diouf, as irritating as ever with his over the top antics, was warned to calm down by the Rovers captain Nelsen, at the request of referee Mark Clattenberg.
Fabian Delph was enjoying an impressive first half, certainly not overawed in any way by only his second start in the premiership, but both teams while impressive when pushing forward, looked somewhat shaky at the back.
Two minutes of added time at the end of the first half failed to provide a go ahead goal for either side, and the 1-1 half-time score was in truth a fair refection of the first forty-five minutes.
We had looked dangerous on the break, while Rovers were threatening from set-pieces, free kicks, corners, and long throw-ins.
Second half got underway with the home side very much on the offensive, without really carrying enough threat to trouble Brad Friedel.
Gabby and John Carew were not really working close enough together, not feeding off one another. Gabby needed to be more alongside JC, one or the other was often way too isolated for them to be effective as a strike duo.
Warnock went down clearly in much distress following a heavy challenge, yet it was Delph whose name went into the referee’s notebook, for a mistimed tackle on one of the home lot.
Big Fat Sam hauled off Pedersen, much to the home fans, and the players annoyance, while MON retaliated by sending on Heskey for Fabian Delph. A somewhat surprising move that, adventurous too.
With an hour on the clock, we were clearly losing the plot somewhat, Rovers having hustled and bustled us out of our stride.
Gabby provided a brief respite when firing just over the bar, but in truth we shouldn’t have been in danger of dropping points from this encounter. Rovers looked far from a decent team, yet they’d succeeded in ruffling our feathers somewhat, and we seemed to be playing into their hands.
We were allowing Rovers physical style to knock us off the ball, and there was simply no excuse for that. The game was getting way too stretched to really suit our style.
Twenty-five minutes left, and to get three points out of this game, it was becoming obvious that Carew, and the newly arrived Heskey, needed to start putting themselves about a bit more. Certainly it had been a disappointing afternoon so far from Carew, one of his ‘slightly less than interested’ games.
Stan Petrov received a yellow, and then shortly afterwards, Rovers were reduced to ten men when Grella received his second yellow of the afternoon.
Allardyce decided to respond to the red card by replacing Diouf with Keith Andrews, sacrificing the more attack minded player for the more defensive midfielder.
Scrappy was certainly the best way to describe both teams second half efforts, as the game entered the twenty minutes to go stage. Frustrating to say the least.
There was just no obvious urgency from us since the break. Sloppy passes giving the ball away all too frequently. We certainly looked a lot less likely to score this half than we did in the opening forty-five, and even with the home team being reduced to ten men, we hadn’t been able to turn the heat up at all.
A Milner cross come shot trickled behind with Carew unable to reach the ball to force it home, but in truth we simply weren’t troubling Robinson in the home goal at all.
We seemed unable to pass a ball from A to B, unable to find a claret and blue shirt, and if there was going to be a winner, you had that horrible feeling that Rovers might just sneak it.
Friedel made a fine save from Emerton, as Blackburn pushed forward for the winner, and the home crowd, perhaps sensing a possible second Rovers goal, started to get behind their lot.
We just looked completely short of ideas, often breaking forward in numbers, but not knowing what to do as we approached the Rovers area.
Two minutes to go, and a penalty was awarded to Rovers following handball from Richard Dunn. Up stepped David Dunn to beat Friedel from the spot. 2-1, and three points quite simply thrown away.
How on earth did we allow this one to slip away from us.
A minimum of four minutes of extra time were signalled, but the way we’d performed second half it could have been forty minutes, and we still wouldn’t have had enough about us to be able to salvage a point.
A long range strike from James Collins brought a fine save from Robinson, but it was all a case of too little, way too late.
We were well and truly mugged in the end, but I don’t really think that on the basis of our second half showing, we actually deserved anything from the game.
We’ll come up against many better teams than Blackburn this season, but the ease with which they brushed us aside has to give cause for concern. Back to the drawing board me thinks. No doubt the 4-4-2 formation will come in for much criticism again, and maybe rightly so? Maybe today’s reversal proves that it is a formation that quite simply doesn’t work for us, not with the current crop of players that we have at our disposal?
Too many of our lads today though, simply didn’t show up for this one. We looked shaky in defence, were hustled and bustled off the ball in midfield, while up front Gabby and Big John just couldn’t get their act together. Emile when he was introduced into the action brought absolutely nothing to the table, in fact without wishing to sound unkind, we’d have been just as effective (or ineffective I should say) if Martin O’Neill had decided for us to play the final twenty-five minutes or so with just ten men.
All in all then, a very disappointing ninety minutes plus, beaten by a distinctly average, if that, Blackburn Rovers team, who quite frankly, were there for the taking, particularly after we had taken that very early lead.
Right, my marks out of ten for the individual performances:-
Friedel – 6
Cuellar – 5
Dunne – 4
Collins – 6
Warnock – 5
Milner – 7
Petrov – 5
Delph – 5
A Young – 5
Carew – 4
Agbonlahor – 6
Heskey – 3