An Assistant Headteacher, a 7-0 Hammering and the Son of Santiago – How Blackburn Are Fighting to Reach the Big Time

On May 7th 2012, Anatolín Alcaraz headed home a Jean Beausejour corner to secure a 1-0 victory for Wigan over Blackburn Rovers – confirming the Latics’ Premier League survival, while condemning their local rivals to relegation.


It signified Blackburn’s first relegation in over ten years, but that wasn’t the start, nor the end, of Rovers’ slide following a turbulent couple of decades.


The club came into the modern era like a bat out of hell. Local businessman and lifelong fan Jack Walker took full control of the club in 1991 and within just over a year, Rovers were promoted into the inaugural Premier League season over a quarter of a century since their last top-flight appearance, under the management of Kenny Dalglish.


Walker was ambitious and had Rovers headed for its summit, spending big money on Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton as they finished 4th and 2nd during their first two Premier League campaigns.


Then in 1994/95, Shearer and Sutton combined for 49 goals as Blackburn narrowly edged out Manchester United on the final day to secure their first title in over 80 years – with Walker realising the dream of taking his club out of the doldrums, to the pinnacle of English football.


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But the dream quickly unravelled. Within four years of winning the league, Blackburn were relegated following a period of instability, hiring another Liverpool icon in the form of Graeme Souness to turn the ship around.


The Scot won promotion, the Worthington Cup and left the Blue and Whites in the very capable hands of Mark Hughes following his departure at the start of 2004/05.


Hughes then took Blackburn to the knockout phase of the UEFA Cup, three top-half finishes and two FA Cup semi-finals before he too moved on in 2008 – setting the club on a rocky path from which it is yet to return.


Sam Allardyce took the reins and kept the ship steady, but Rovers were purchased by ‘The Venky’s’ in late 2010 who replaced Allardyce with first-team coach Steve Kean, whose agent played a role in advising the Venky’s during their purchase of the club.


It ended in disaster, as the Scot took the side to a final day relegation battle at season’s end, before eventually taking them down a year later.


Five lacklustre Championship seasons under seven different managers culminated in the club dropping down into the 3rd division of English football for just the third time in Blackburn’s history, with attendances at Ewood Park dropping to as low as 9,300. But the third tier is where things began to change.


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Tony Mowbray was appointed to try and save the club from relegation, and while he couldn’t manage it, he was entrusted with returning the club to the Championship – something he achieved at the first attempt.


Two 15th and one 11th place finish followed as Mowbray kept the club steady if unremarkable, but one continuous manager going into their 5th season with the club was something Rovers hadn’t seen since the Bobby Saxton days in the 1980s and the continuity is beginning to bear fruit.


It was all change down at Ewood in the summer. Promising loan arrivals Harvey Elliot, Jarrad Branthwaite and Taylor Harwood-Bellis all returned to their parent clubs along with Barry Douglas and Tom Trybull, while the likes of Lewis Holtby, Amari’i Bell, and Corry Evans also sought pastures new – players who played a combined 13,500 minutes last term.


The loss of top scorer Adam Armstrong would have hurt the most, though. Following 29 goals during 2020/21, the former-Newcastle forward was sold to Southampton for £16m – but Mowbray was allowed just half a million pound to reinvest in his squad, with Lincoln full-back Tayo Edun the only new permanent arrival.


Despite the talent of last season, Rovers ended the campaign in freefall – winning just four out of 20 from February until the season’s end, including a run of six defeats from seven at one stage.


Such a worrying slide combined with the squad being pulled apart in the summer led many to doubt whether Blackburn could maintain Championship status, with Not The Top 20 Podcast predicting them to finish a lowly 15th, while The Second Tier had them even further in down in 18th – but the summer actually provided Rovers’ springboard from the most unlikely of places.


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Assistant headteacher, part-time Football Manager analyst and Blackburn fan Mark Hitchen discovered that Rovers forward Ben Brereton was half-Chilean thanks to his Mother’s roots, which made the Stoke-born striker eligible to represent the South Americans.


Brereton was signed from Nottingham Forest in 2018 as a 19-year-old for £7.5m, but had failed to produce much for the Lancashire outfit – scoring just twice in his first 40 games, with an improved seven following from the same amount of matches during 20/21.


This up-turn in form, married with his second nationality being added into the FM database, led Chileans to bombard Brereton’s Instagram comments with their country’s flag in a bid to see him called up to the national side, prompting the 22-year-old to apply for a Chilean passport.


Brereton was called up in May 2021 and made the Copa América squad just a month later – making his senior international bow as a late sub against Argentina.


He may have looked sweaty in the southern hemisphere heat, out of place and anything other than South American – but he proved he belonged.


Entering the field with ‘Brereton Díaz’ on the back of his shirt to pay homage to both his parents’ surnames as is Chilean tradition, it would appear those four letters have elevated his game to a level few would have thought possible.


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After scoring the winner on his first start against Bolivia, he returned to Blackburn with a newfound sense of belief and confidence, matching in line with his club side.


Mowbray’s men opened the campaign with just two defeats from ten to put them in 6th and the fourth-highest scoring side in the division, with Díaz netting an impressive nine goals to match his Rovers tally.


He wasn’t alone in their good start; Thomas Kaminski continued his good form from 20/21, with Daniel Ayala and Darragh Lenihan forming a solid partnership at the heart of Blackburn’s backline. October was mixed with two wins, two defeats and a draw, but the most crucial result of the campaign so far fell on November 3rd.


Ewood Park hosted Marco Silva’s Fulham side who arrived fresh off the back of four consecutive wins which saw them net 14 times and concede only one – with the game proving to be the sternest test yet for Mowbray’s men, and one they simply couldn’t pass.


Two goals and a man down after just half-an-hour, things quickly got messy and by full-time Mowbray was nursing the club’s worst-ever home defeat in league football after a 7-0 drubbing.


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In his defence, the free-scoring Cottagers have now scored at least four goals in a game on nine occasions, six or more four times and Reading too suffered a 7-0 home humiliation to them later on in the season.


Many thought Mowbray was lucky not to suffer from a knee-jerk sacking following the collapse, but after the game, he said that ‘we have to put it behind us very quickly’ – something they certainly managed.


Rovers embarked on a ten-game unbeaten run in which they conceded just three goals (the same Fulham hit in a 12-minute spell in the second half), and managed seven clean sheets – including a streak of five consecutive shutouts.


They defeated title-chasing Bournemouth and play-off seeking Stoke away from home and hit four past both Peterborough and Birmingham without reply to lift the club to the lofty heights of 2nd.


Brereton Díaz has naturally claimed the headlines, netting a further eight goals in that run – including two winners and an equaliser – but once more Rovers have proved that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


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Mowbray now deploys a 5-3-2 system with Harry Pickering (a smart pickup from Crewe in January 2021 who arrived this summer after being loaned back to his former club) operating as a left wing-back and has hit two goals this season, while Ryan Nyambe has continued as the club’s option down the right. 


A general midfield three of Joe Rothwell, Lewis Travis and John Buckley has provided the near-perfect balance of technique, tenacity and energy – with Buckley in particular catching the eye for all of the above areas and someone who has shown a marked improvement from last term.


Brereton Díaz has been partnered by one of Sam Gallagher, Thrhys Dolan or Reda Khadra in either a two or three-man frontline, which has seen Rovers outscore all but Fulham in the Championship so far.


Down the other end, Kaminski has continued to be one of their best performers – with only three ‘keepers with 25+ appearances having a better save percentage than the Belgian, and only two making more saves than the former Gent man.


In front of him, the aforementioned Lenihan has often been partnered by Scott Wharton and Jan Paul van Hecke to form a backline that has been breached just five times in the previous 13 games – with no team in the top four divisions of English football conceding fewer, while only Manchester City and Mansfield have accrued more points in that time.


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When broken down, it feels quite simple; Mowbray has discovered a shape which seems to suit this group of players down to the ground, making use of their energy in the middle of the park, while the attacking potency of Brereton Díaz means Blackburn have always got goals in their side.


If you score the second-most goals in the division and find your defence in play-off level form – keeping in mind the improvements of the previous two months – you should be there or thereabouts.


But how sustainable is it? Brereton Díaz has hit 20 of their 45 goals this term to account for 44% – a number not bettered by any player across the top divisions once more.


That is a worry, especially when you consider that their next top scorer is Sam Gallagher with six, whereas Fulham have four players to have hit over half a dozen. 


But, he has remained injury free thus far and Rovers took four points from six during the most recent international period he missed, with Gallagher netting the winning goal against Middlesbrough in his absence.


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Mowbray did try to remedy this area by signing highly-rated Tottenham youngster Dilan Markanday (scorer of 12 goals in the Premier League 2 this season) for around £500K, but a cruel hamstring injury appears to have curtailed his season just 22 minutes after it began. Brereton Díaz’ deal does expire in the summer, but any attempts to lure him away during this window have appeared futile up until this point.


Rovers do, though, find themselves 17th in the division for Expected Goals and around the same mark for open play Expected Goals Against, but we should also factor in their improvements since that Fulham game and that Blackburn are, simply put, a better side now than they were during the season’s infancy.


During the remaining 17 league games, Rovers will host Nottingham Forest, QPR and Bournemouth, while they travel to West Brom and Fulham before the season’s close.


Of course, the games against the Cherries and the Cottagers stand out, but trips to Reading and Coventry and a home game against Derby could also prove difficult – although the Championship tends to throw the form book out of the window most weeks.


Out of those around them, Blackburn easily have the least amount of pressure on them; Fulham will compete with complacency and expectation following recent plaudits, while Bournemouth and West Brom are desperate to return to the big time – with the Cherries in particular needing the financial boost.


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Mark Warburton’s QPR are also punching above their weight, but perhaps not quite to the level of Mowbray’s boys.


There is plenty to like down at Blackburn; from the unique tale which saw a run-of-the-mill second tier forward become club and country’s main man, to the renaissance of a gaffer who the game could have left behind or that we’re seeing someone different in that promotion picture.


Watch on now as one of English football’s fallen giants appears to be getting to its feet once more, almost ten years on from a seemingly fatal knockout blow.


By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Early – Getty Images / Martin Rickett – PA Images