Sometimes in football you get what you deserve. Today we had all the luck that was going, scoring with our only shot on goal, courtesy of a wicked deflection, while Blackburn crashed a header off the underside of the bar, drew at least two stunning saves from Amos, and had spells when it seemed they must score only for bodies to somehow get in the way. There was also a curious incident just before half-time which I’d have to see again, because at the time I was waiting for the referee to award Blackburn a free kick just outside the box and pull out a red card for Konsa. But the luck was earned and if games are won on determination and effort we deserved the victory. The commitment of each and every player couldn’t be questioned – and although other results meant that the win did not guarantee us a play-off place, if that level of focused effort is continued we should not only get the berth but go into the extra games in a very positive frame of mind.
The game itself fell some way short of a classic, with both defences on top for the most part and very, very few actual chances. Blackburn may have already guaranteed their automatic promotion and apparently rested some players, but they wanted to put on a show for their travelling fans, still had an interest in becoming champions, and had enough quality in defence to pretty much shut out our front two and a real threat going forward. To match that required hard work. A lot of hard work.
We lined up with a back four in front of Amos of Page, Bauer, Pearce and Konsa, a midfield quartet of Marshall, Kashi, Forster-Caskey and Reeves, with Magennis and Ajose up front in a basic 4-4-2. Contrary to previous indications, Johnnie Jackson took a spot on the subs bench, but the assumption was that he would only come on for the last minute or so if we were comfortably ahead. That didn’t happen.
I made a mental note after 10 mins that basically nothing had happened. Blackburn moved the ball better than us going forward and seemed to have a forward and a wide guy to cause us problems, but we were holding our own. What was missing for us was any real drive going forward, there was nothing apparent to pull them out of position and to create opportunities. If you play 4-4-2 you are looking for the two wide guys to get into decent positions to provide the ammunition and while Reeves sometimes found himself in space on the right he was usually isolated. Instead our threat emerged on the other flank as Marshall started to influence the game.
Basically Marshall did the unexpected and, while it didn’t always come off, that gave Blackburn something to worry about while balls towards our front two were not giving them problems. And after around 20 minutes Marshall worked a little space and was brought down, giving us a free kick in a decent position. The ball into the box was headed out but not far and it dropped to Pearce. He took the shot and no doubt it would have been saved, but it took a strong deflection off a defender to completely wrongfoot their keeper and leave him with no chance. Some days it goes for you.
Nobody in the ground doubted how important scoring first could prove; we’ve won every game under Bowyer when we have and being ahead allowed the team and the crowd not to get edgy about needing to create chances and chase the game. And for the remainder of the first half the game continued in a similar pattern, with Blackburn looking more of a threat than us but most of the time running up against the brick wall of Bauer and Pearce, assisted by those around them. Marshall not only won another free kick in a dangerous position (which came to nothing) but also put in a vital defensive header and then an interception to chest the ball back to Amos. We did have a moment when it looked like Page might nick the ball before their keeper in the box, but he ended up getting a yellow card for his efforts.
We were reasonably content to get to the break ahead, but before that we had the strange incident. Reeves did well to win the ball but after cutting across one or two tackles declined the option to shoot with his left foot and kept going sideways, only to be dispossessed. The ball was played long and for once we were caught short of numbers and backpeddling. It was passed towards their guy on the left side of the box and, after the linesman declined to raise his flag for offside, it looked as though Konsa put in a tackle, got nowhere near the ball and left their guy on the deck. I may have misread the situation but I was expecting the free kick to be given, possibly a penalty if the ref decided the tackle had been just inside the area, and a red card to be pulled out. But nothing – and to be fair Blackburn didn’t seem to put in much of a protest.
At half-time Amos hadn’t had a shot to save (he did have to get his hand to a rather nasty cross) but aside from Pearce’s deflected effort neither had we. No matter, we were winning and the result meant far more than attractive football.
The second half proved to be a much more testing affair as Blackburn upped the pressure and we were pushed back. One spell early on set the trend as Amos was called on to produce his first save and when the dust settled Page was still on the ground. A stretcher was required, with Dasilva the obvious replacement. We wait to find out whether the injury puts an end to Page’s season. Blackburn made a couple of changes, one of their guys got a yellow for stopping Marshall from breaking down the line with a waist-high challenge, and the game settled into a pattern of us managing to fend off most of their attacks but looking unable to get anything going in their half. The effort involved in stopping them was beginning to show through and every now and then we looked as though we were only just managing to hang on.
I’m not sure which came first but there was another spell of Blackburn pressure, which included Amos sticking up an arm to block a goalbound shot and some desperate last-ditch tackles, and that Blackburn corner. Their guy found some space and met the cross with a solid header, only for it to come back off the bar. An inch lower and the game was level. As it was, we had a stronger feeling that just possibly this was going to be our day.
Through the final 20 minutes or so there were tough choices for Bowyer to make regarding substitutions. Some were tiring and the lack of a threat to their goal meant that you could make a case for changing either of the front two. Mavididi came on for Ajose with around 10 minutes left of normal time, and after that Aribo came on for Reeves. But although we had one totally move totally out of character with the rest of the game – which saw a series of passes and flicks get us into a dangerous position – all we really wanted was the final whistle. Seven minutes of added time were signalled and by now we were looking to take the ball to the corner flags. Where was Tony Watt when we needed him? Mercifully eventually the time ran out and we had the points.
There was the fitting ovation for Jackson after the game, and some very tired limbs made it around the pitch to take the applause. Without question today they earned it. All we can do it wait to see how Scunthorpe and Plymouth sort it out on Tuesday evening. Today’s win didn’t prove decisive (except in the context of if we hadn’t won the play-offs would have been unlikely) but we know that a victory at Rochdale on Saturday means we would finish fifth or sixth, a draw could be enough depending on the other results, but we could still miss out. Whatever happens, nobody can doubt that Bowyer (and Jackson) have got the players giving their all – and we’ve never asked for more.
Player Ratings (again, if the ratings were for effort everyone would get a 10):
Amos: 10/10. Why less? Has to be man of the match. I think he pulled off two superb saves, took every cross, made no mistakes.
Page: 8/10. Looked composed, not too much going forward but this wasn’t a day for taking chances. Hope the injury isn’t serious.
Bauer: 9/10. He and Pearce truly stood up today to everything thrown at them. Immense.
Pearce: 9/10. Blackburn provided a huge test from start to finish and the central defensive pairing was crucial to us winning the game.
Konsa: 7/10. Early on it looked as though he might have problems with their guy, but he stuck to the task and if anything grew into the game. Still not sure about that tackle.
Reeves: 6/10. Plenty of effort but looked rather out of position wide right and struggled to really affect the game.
Kashi: 7/10. Not much opportunity to show what he could do going forward but involved throughout.
Forster-Caskey: 6/10. Here too plenty of effort and given the game not much opportunity to shine with the ball.
Marshall: 8/10. At half-time I had him as man of the match, just for making things happen. Did fade in the second half but was brought down when he had the chance to break.
Magennis: 6/10. Got little change out of their central defenders but never gave up on the task.
Ajose: 6/10. Much the same, but ran his socks off.
Subs: Dasilva (7/10 – took over from Page and made no mistakes); Mavididi (6/10 – little chance to influence the game in the final minutes); Aribo (6/10 – also only came on late on).