Since the English First Division was rebranded ‘The Championship’ for the 2004/05 season, only one side has ever been further ahead of third place after 17 games. That was Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United in 2005, if you’re asking who were 11 points clear of third place. Sheffield United had accrued one more than our forty points at this stage. In the thirteen seasons of ‘The Championship’ there have only been five teams who’ve been more than four points ahead of third place at this stage of the season. All were promoted automatically. United will be record breakers this season. Not that it matters. Getting 107 points or 79 points (Stoke City 2008/09) – the only thing that matters is promotion. If there are records to be broken along the way then great. That means we win more games and create more memories. United would have to break records not to be promoted with this number of points after 17 games. Each team who’ve achieved more than 37 points at this stage has gone up.
So naturally talk will turn to complacency. Blackburn travel to United in the relegation zone of this division despite a slight form improvement in the last six weeks. They look doomed to be relegated with the improvement and managerial changes at Cardiff and Wolves. Burton Albion may replace them in the relegation zone eventually or maybe Nottingham Forest but either way Blackburn seem so badly run that they’re likely to follow Leeds, Wolves, Portsmouth and Forest to fall into the third tier of English football after winning a first division or Premier League title since the war. Blackburn would become the first team from the Premier League era to do so, after being the first Premier League Champions to fall out of the division.
Blackburn aren’t a huge club. Realistically the football club is based in a large town and not a city. They’re located in the football ‘hotbed’ of the North West. There are fifteen football league clubs from the ‘North West’, one more than London but there are about 4 million people less than in London. If you’re interested Blackburn can realistically count Preston, Fleetwood, Blackpool, Morecambe(ish), Accrngton, Burnley, Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, the two Manchester clubs and Liverpool sides, as local rivals. Blackburn have won three league titles and six FA Cups. My first ever away game was Blackburn and 28,000 turned up on Boxing Day for a 2 2 draw. I believe there were about 4,000 away fans that day so considering crowds now hover at 10,000 at Ewood Park, 14,000 local people have turned their back on the club and it’s owners. It’s a shocking state of affairs.
Blackburn’s record against United was generally good during the Premier League years. United won just two out of eleven games against the Lancashire outfit between 2004 and 2011, so I wasn’t keen on them. That run included six straight wins for Blackburn against us and before Steve Keen came along, Rovers were well and truly United’s bogey side. That run came to an end in tame fashion as a resurgent United under Pardew in 2011 breezed past a relegation bound Rovers courtesy of a Demba Ba hat trick. Even during these bleak years for United Blackburn away became one of the most anticipated fixtures in the calendar for mags as affordable tickets and a large allocation gave hundreds or thousands of younger fans (like me) the opportunity to see United away from home and taste weak as piss Carling at the Fernhurst pub.. So I was disappointed when they left the division, like I was when Bolton went as well. I don’t have anything against the likes of Bournemouth, Watford, Crystal Palace or even Reading or Brighton if they come up – but there are 100 reasons I’d like to see Blackburn back in the Premier League with their proper football ground located in a working class town over the aforementioned clubs. Not that it’s going to happen any time soon.
Blackburn finished 15th last season under Paul Lambert who left the club. The club are £100 million debt and this is the last season parachute payments will be paid to the club by the Premier League. Quite simply the future looks bleak. The club owners, the Venky’s don’t attend games and are based in India. They clearly don’t know what they are doing and are seemingly uninterested in saving the club from disaster. The malaise has spread to the pitch. Owen Coyle took the helm in August and has struggled since. Things started badly as Rovers conceded seven in their opening two fixtures and didn’t win until mid-September. Nine defeats in 17 games with just four wins is relegation form. Owen Coyle points to the fact they’re unbeaten in five of their last eight games (ignoring the fact the vast majority of these have been against sides in the bottom half of the league) and while their form has improved, their situation is perilous. Their only away points came in an unexpected 2 1 win over struggling Derby County and a draw at QPR in September. Both clubs have changed managers since. Strangely, apart from their opening away game at Wigan ( a 0 3 defeat) all of Blackburn’s away loses have been by a single goal, which is probably an antidote to those thinking we’ll score eight this weekend. They haven’t been helped by selling their captain to us to sit on our bench.
Of course I expect United to win. Who doesn’t? Certainly not many Blackburn fans. My only doubt is that the winning
run has to come to an end. Rafa’s United will become the first side in our history to win ten consecutive games across a single season. It would be very United to ruin that this Saturday. So apart from history and complacency what is there to prevent a home win. At the time of writing the allegations surrounding Shelvey are as of yet unresolved. I have no idea when all of this will take place but I do know we’re not as good a side with him in the side. So we’ll see. There’s also the prospect of a massive game against Hull on Tuesday which has us 90 minutes from a domestic semi-final for the first time in 12 years. With 3 games in six days as we play Forest on Friday night we could see wholesale rotation, even among centre backs as three games (including the prospect of extra time) in six days is too much for any player. So the question is will it be this game or Tuesday we’ll see wide spread changes, or both?
Personally I don’t think it matters too much, but I believe our rotated side has enough about it to beat Blackburn. I’d like to see Mbemba, Yedlin, Hanley and Atsu come into the side for the weekend. One of the centre halves will need to brested and Goufrann will likely be grafting his bollocks off next week so Atsu could come in. Colback and Shelvey are my preferred two for Hull so I’d like to see Hayden given a shot here and Yedlin is our best right back. Mitrovic could come in but I’d play Dwight Gayle in all three games if he’s up to it as he’s so much better than the Serbian. Most likely Mitrovic will play against Forest I’d have thought.
We’ve been very lucky that the last three home games have seen the games won by half time with goals scored in the 11th, 1st, and 3rd minutes of games. I’m going to say we may be made to work a little harder for this win, should it come. It may take some patience from the crowd. We’re yet to really win ugly in this division. I’ll take a 1 0 scored in the 85th minute. We can’t play in second gear each week and win as easily as we do, can we?
Prediction: 2 0 United
ALEX HURST – FOLLOW ALEX ON @tfalex182
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