Everyone loves the Championship; but they all want to get out of it. Everyone proclaims its excitement and unpredictability; but they’re either thinking of the status of the Premier League or the embarrassment of League One. In the absence of the Premier League, it’s a Championship weekend.
Blackburn Rovers know about all three of those divisions. It has brought joy and despair. Recently there has been some indifference.
Not any longer. Blackburn are second in the Championship and have an upward exit strategy. They possess stability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom. And it turns out, stability pays.
Derby County, meanwhile, know about the Championship because they have been in the division for the past 14 years.
Desperate to get back to the Premier League, they, too, had an exit strategy. It’s just theirs involved getting to the pot of gold by moving around pots of silver. There were spillages. This brought debt and now Derby, second-bottom, are staring at League One, a level they have not been at since 1986. They may look at Blackburn and wonder.
Derby would not be alone because it is not so long ago that anyone citing Rovers as an example of good practice would have been ushered into a corner. Under the ownership of Venky’s, headquartered in Pune, India, Rovers became associated with extravagance and error. Venky’s stock is chickens – millions of them – and when Blackburn stumbled, the punchlines came easily.
Rovers were Premier League champions in 1995 and were in the glorious, lucrative league when Venky’s arrived in 2010. But by 2017 the fixture list facing Rovers was League One’s. They had fallen fast and hard. Venky’s personnel retreated to Pune and the name disappeared from everyday conversation, even in parts of Lancashire.
There had been a series of managers: Sam Allardyce, Steve Kean, Henning Berg, Michael Appleton, Gary Bowyer, Paul Lambert and Owen Coyle. It’s difficult to recall any spell positively, though that may be harsh on Bowyer.
Next, in 2017, Blackburn turned to Tony Mowbray and in 2018 the team scrambled back up into the Championship. In the following three seasons, Rovers finished 15th, 11th, 15th. The club was being run on new financial lines, Mowbray chopping sales with loans and the occasional inward buy such as Sam Gallagher. In August 2018 they acquired a zippy striker from Newcastle, Adam Armstrong, for £1.8m, and took a 19-year-old called Ben Brereton on loan from Nottingham Forest. Five months later they paid £6m for Brereton.
But there was no lift-off and when last summer Armstrong was sold to Southampton for £16m, Mowbray spent £400,000 on a defender from Lincoln City, Tayo Edun.
The two transactions did not reek of ambition and when in mid-October Rovers lost 1-0 at QPR, Mowbray’s team had four wins in 13 games and were already 14 points behind leaders Bournemouth. Then, a fortnight later, at home to Fulham, Blackburn lost 7-0.
There was a time when that would have brought Mowbray a phone call from Pune. Not now. Nerve was held and Blackburn went on a run of nine wins and one draw in their next 12 games.
They have 52 points. To reach the play-offs in the last five seasons has required a minimum of 70 and an average of 76-77. Eight wins in their remaining 18 games should ensure Rovers a play-off, though they are hoping for more.
On Saturday it is Luton away. They will be without Brereton, who along the way became Ben Brereton Diaz. His Chilean mother meant a Chile call-up and a whole new life. He is off playing World Cup qualifiers in South America.
That burst of colour, allied to a unity of purpose all at Ewood mention, plus individual performances such as Darragh Lenihan’s on Monday against Middlesbrough, have made Rovers a neutral’s favourite.
On Thursday Mowbray spoke frankly about the desire to reach the Premier League – for his players, for him and for the club.
As he talked, co-incidentally England’s Football League released a statement regarding Derby. They have been given another month to persuade the EFL they can see out the season. It is that serious.
While Blackburn economized and looked inward, Derby spent. They have Wayne Rooney as manager – doing well – but in a pandemic, without crowds, who is funding Rooney’s ginormous wages? Not gate receipts.
It’s only one question and the EFL have found Derby’s previous responses so unsatisfactory they have deducted 21 points.
Mel Morris, the Derby County owner, tried to game the system and the points deductions address a sporting injustice. It does not, however, address an economic injustice, which is why Middlesbrough and Wycombe Wanderers feel so strongly.
Other clubs agree, because while also suffering from Covid, they obeyed the rules, paid bills. Derby, under Morris, took a different approach. It can seem technical and complicated, but it’s also simple.
And so two founder members of the Football League are in the Championship, one looking up, the other looking down. One set of fans are happy, the other bewildered – Derby’s supporters did not inflict this on their club.
It comes back to leaving the Championship. It comes back to governance.
Aaron Connolly could do with a goal. As he laboured at Ewood Park on Monday, getting no change from Lenihan, that thought returned.
It was there nine days previously. On loan from Brighton, on his debut for Middlesbrough against Reading, Connolly looked chunky. There was no lack of effort, but it was not wholly convincing and after Blackburn you could hear grumbling on Teesside.
Boro still looks an opportunity for Connolly, 22 on Friday, to restart himself. In fact it seems smart for both parties: Connolly could score the four or five winners that might lift Boro into the playoffs. But he could do with one to get going, perhaps today at home to Coventry; if he starts.
Celtic could be polishing a gem
Reo Hatate had a very different debut. The midfielder was one of three Japanese signings for Celtic manager Ange Postecoglu in the window.
Hatate, 24, made an immediate impact starting against Hibs 12 days ago. He passed and moved with speed and adventure. It was a bit of a statement and on Wednesday Hatate followed it up with a swerving 25-yard strike at Hearts to help Celtic maintain the pressure on Rangers.
Facing an expansive Hibs at home is one thing, going to Tynecastle is another.
It’s Dundee United at Parkhead on Saturday and then, next Wednesday, it’s Rangers. We will know more about Hatate after that. But from what he has shown, Celtic may be polishing a gem.