The New Football Manager Story P9 – Battling Back

So, the 23/24 season had seen me join Middlesbrough, swiftly get fed up with them, leave them, and join fellow Championship side Blackburn. Blackburn were enjoying a better season than Middlesbrough, though they were very much a mid-table side after 23 games. The second phase of the season would get underway at home to 2nd-placed Derby. Now, I’d already lost to Derby at home as manager of Middlesbrough, but a different tactical approach (and better players) yielded a very different outcome. A second 4-0 home win, this time with two goals from Lundstram, and two very late goals as well, meant Blackburn’s tails had to be up.

Boxing Day brought me to my first away day as Blackburn manager, at Preston. For the third game in a row, we won 4-0. Things were looking good for Blackburn, very good, but could we sustain our progress? We’d host Rotherham next. Another win came our way, albeit only 2-0 this time. This was followed up with a short turnaround before a trip to Nottingham Forest.

Four games in, and Blackburn had played four, won four, scored 14, conceded none. We conceded against Forest, but staged a brilliant comeback to win 2-1, despite Forest being one of the league’s high-flyers.

The FA Cup 3rd round greeted us next, and here was a case of nostalgia. Blackburn travelled to… Wealdstone. Yup, my first club would play host to my current one. Wealdstone had struggled in League Two, and sat bottom of the professional football establishment. Blackburn had the potential to pile on the misery, but in the end, we won 1-0, so we got the result we wanted, and did not humiliate Wealdstone.

League hostilities resumed with the visit of Millwall. The 2-0 win could be described as ‘routine’. This was followed by the visit of fellow play-off chasers Barnsley. This proved to be a 3-0 win.

So far, my key performers were Palmer, Ben Davies in defence, and, well, pretty much the entire team. Seven wins in a row, with six clean sheets, was a great start, and Blackburn were now 4th in the standings, having lifted themselves from mid-table to the play-offs. A sterner test was next. We travelled to Watford, who were top of the table, and by some margin. I did not expect the league leaders to roll over for us, especially given they’d lost only once all season, so I’d settle for a point. Instead, we took all three.

At half-time, an edge-of-the-penalty-area hit from midfielder Joe Buckley had put Blackburn ahead. After half-time, Watford were reduced to ten men following a red card, and attacker Anthony Gordon scored twice, with captain Darragh Lenihan scoring a fourth late on. To win was one thing, to win 4-0 away at the league leaders was quite another, and real statement of intent. We were cementing our place in the play-offs, and we weren’t too far off automatic promotion either.

After eight league games in charge, things were looking rosy at Blackburn, and they were certainly worlds apart from the misery at Middlesbrough. What with the FA Cup win, Blackburn had nine wins in a row, and had conceded only once in all that time. However, the next test was another FA Cup away day, against Premier League veterans Arsenal. In-game, Arsenal’s last trophy was the FA Cup, in 2020. 14-times winners, the Gunners were currently 9th in the Premier League table. However, they would be the most formidable opponents I had yet faced. This would be a test for Blackburn.

Or would it? After 22 minutes, Buckley had scored twice. Arsenal pegged one back towards the end of the first half, and the stage was set for a nervy 45 minutes of football… or was it?! The expected Arsenal onslaught did not materialise. The Gunners misfired. Lenihan made it 3-1 from a corner. Buckley then scored a looping effort to complete a hat-trick, and a remarkable, astonishing, incredible 4-1 victory.

This was starting to turn into Cloud Nine territory, and that worried me. In my experience, the bubble always bursts. Would we get stung by the Bees (Brentford) next? Almost. Well, I say almost, we were by far the better side, but even after Brentford lost a player to a red card, midway in the second half, it took a late scramble and a close-range effort from Palmer to break Brentford’s resistance, and claim a 1-0 away win.

Our next game involved a trip to the south coast. Blackburn were off to face Portsmouth. As with Brentford, it took a while for Blackburn to find a head of steam. The breakthrough came from a melee at a corner, with Buckley poking the ball home, and then a penalty a few minutes later from Martin gave us a bit of a cushion, which we needed, for Portsmouth pulled one back. We held on, to claim yet another win, and now Blackburn occupied 2nd. This meant automatic promotion, if we could hold onto the spot.

We had 12 consecutive wins in all competitions (10 league wins, two FA Cup victories). If we were to achieve lucky 13, we’d have to beat Stoke at home. We duly did, 2-0, but it was not a great performance, and Leniham got sent off, which made life difficult. Nonetheless, a win was a win.

It was 2nd versus 5th next. Blackburn hosted fellow promotion chasers Swansea. We deserved to win, but for the first time under my stewardship, we didn’t. A 2-2 draw was a direct result of the game’s annoying phantom goal routine, yet again costing me (it never seems to gain me points!). Ah well, 11 league wins in a row was not what I had expected when I took the job. Nor had I expected to be in the 5th round of the FA Cup. I couldn’t complain too much. Coventry away would be up next. Now our unbeaten run became important…. aaaaand it was gone. Despite creating a host of chances, we couldn’t break Coventry down, and they snatched it from a free kick. I was not happy.

We needed to bounce back immediately, at home to Cardiff. We’d done brilliantly to fight into the play-off places, and even challenge for automatic promotion. I did not want a late collapse to scupper all that hard work. The team huffed and puffed for ages, and eventually, Reach scored from the left flank just after the hour mark, with midfielder Rothwell scoring a volley from a corner on 87 minutes to secure the points. Hot on the heels of Cardiff, we visited Brighton. The seagulls were pushing for a play-off place of their own, so they would motivated. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when we ended up winning 3-0, and in the process, Blackburn returned to the automatic promotion spots.

FA Cup duties returned, with Blackburn playing host to Premier League Tottenham. Spurs had just won the Carabao Cup, beating Liverpool on penalties, so they’d had a long, extra-time slog. However, they remained a potent Premier League side, and sat in the Champions League places. Yes, we’d performed brilliantly to beat Arsenal last time out, but Spurs – in the game at least – were slightly beyond Arsenal. Needless to say, I played down expectations with the media.

We took an early lead through Gordon, but Harry Kane equalised shortly after half-time. The game went to extra-time, and then to penalties, where Blackburn’s FA Cup dream ended. Still, taking Spurs to penalties was no disgrace. Now we could focus our energies on the league once more, and prepare for the arrival of Bristol City.

Against Tottenham, I’d handed a debut to a right-back by the name of Adam Pring. The 18 year-old Welshman would start for me against Bristol City too. Well, I say debut, it turned out he’d already made a handful of appearances, but he was still quite wet behind the ears, so to speak. He was one of a number of talented youngsters that would be crucial to Blackburn’s long-term future, assuming I could keep them all at the club. As far as the match was concerned, we drew 0-0, which was disappointing, given our usual firepower. We slipped down to 4th.

With eight games to go, our destiny was still more or less in our own hands, but not completely. We had what amounted to eight cup finals, whilst we had to rely on Derby (and now Swansea) slipping up, at least once. For training, I focused on scoring goals. The first of our finals was away to relegation-threatened QPR.

A 2-1 win gave us a platform. Next, we hosted Fulham, who still had ambitions of a play-off place. A header on the stroke of half-time from captain Leniham gave us all the points. We climbed back to 2nd, and that all-important guaranteed promotion spot. The third of our crucial finals was away to mid-table Luton. This ended 0-0, and we never looked like winning. As a result of the draw, Swansea took 2nd place.

There was a break for internationals next, and this gave some weary players a chance to recuperate. We’d host Sheffield Wednesday once the break was done and dusted with. Two goals from Palmer and two from Gordon, all in the first half, saw off Wednesday in comfortable fashion, even if our second-half performance wasn’t so good.

Next up, a grudge match. Blackburn would travel to Middlesbrough. We’d guaranteed a play-off place, but Middlesbrough were still in deep relegation trouble. Defeat for either side would not be the death blow to our respective ambitions, but neither side could afford to drop points now, with four games to go. Middlesbrough took an early lead, but two goals from Lundstram, and a late goal from Christie, gave Blackburn a vital win. It was also nice to get one over on a miserable bunch of players.

We moved back to 2nd, but Swansea, who had emerged as our closest rivals, had a game in hand, and so could move a point ahead of us. There was nothing I could do about that, so instead, it was all about the next game, at home to mid-table Huddersfield. Unfortunately, we made life hard for ourselves, and laboured to a 0-0 draw.

With two games to go, Swansea were now a point ahead of us. Our penultimate fixture was away to Birmingham, who were trying to secure a play-off spot. Birmingham’s fight ended ours. a 1-0 defeat, coupled with a Swansea victory, meant the play-offs would become our path to the Premier League. One final league game awaited, away to Reading, in what was, as far as Blackburn were concerned, dead rubber. We ended up with a 1-1 draw, and finished 4th in the standings.

Birmingham were to be our play-off opponents. Could we beat them over two legs, and book a place at Wembley? We lost 2-1 in the away leg. We were lucky to avoid losing by more, but we had a life-line, and we needed to exploit it at home. We did… sort of. A 1-0 win in normal time forced extra-time, where Birmingham missed a penalty, and then Blackburn won the penalty shootout, to bring that promotion dream one step closer!

One final test awaited us. One last challenge of the 23/24 season. Blackburn would meet with Nottingham Forest at Wembley to settle who went up, and who would face another season in the Championship.

For the first 39 minutes of the game, it was pretty even, and I was pretty anxious. Both sides had created chances, but my concern was we had been quite wasteful of late, and if you don’t take your chances at this level, you will eventually get punished. Then the game turned on its head. Notts Forest player Findlay got sent off for a second bookable offence, and Palmer scored from the penalty spot to give us the lead. Moments later, Martin added another. At half-time, we had a two-goal lead, and Forest were going to face an entire 45 minutes with ten men.

Sometimes the team with ten actually plays better. Not this time! Palmer went on to get a hat-trick, in what was probably his final game for Blackburn (I couldn’t see Man City selling him now, at least not at a price we could afford), and Gordon (another loan star) also scored, completing a 5-0 rout of Forest, and in the process, booking Blackburn’s place in the Premier League! The top tier of English football waited for me.

It was a far cry from how the season had began, with that awkward time at Middlesbrough, who ended up being relegated. Talk about taking things in the opposite direction!

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