Blackburn Rovers have found a new way to embarrass the Premier League and it is a darn sight more dignified than the last one. This season the Championship side have ousted two top-flight teams from the FA Cup – beating Swansea City 3-1 and Stoke City 4-1 – and on Sunday they will try to topple Liverpool, all of which makes an impressive change from the days when they made a mockery of the supposed high quality of the Premier League by giving monumental demonstrations of cluelessness and bile.
The Indian chicken barons of Venky's, who inspired a thousand fowl puns while unwittingly orchestrating Blackburn's descent from the top tier in 2012, remain in charge but much has changed at Ewood Park. Despite persistent challenges there is new calmness, even optimism. Not the deluded optimism that led the owners to trumpet their intention to sign Ronaldinho and David Beckham and swagger into the Champions League after taking over in 2010, but a reasonable hope the club have recovered their senses and are moving forward again. Gary Bowyer deserves much of the thanks for that.
Bowyer was 41 when he was promoted from the backroom staff and made the permanent manager in May 2013. That appointment was as a reward for his halting of the farce that had threatened to send Blackburn tumbling all the way into League One, as during a caretaker stint at the helm he got the results that saved the club from another humiliation.
Quiet intelligence began to be applied, even by the Venky's executives, who soon relieved themselves of the assistance of Shebby Singh, the self-styled "global adviser" who was blamed for many of the club's deviations from wisdom, including the ill-fated appointment of four other managers in the season in which Bowyer ended up in charge.
Bowyer’s first full season was a triumph over insanity, as the club that had diced with relegation during the previous campaign finished only two points below the playoff places. The owners felt the improvement was good enough to give Venky’s new credibility so that people would actually believe them when, at the end of last season, they offered a public apology for previous misadventures and said: “We have learned some very valuable and costly lessons.”
The style with which Blackburn finished that campaign – going unbeaten in their last 12 matches – fuelled hopes they would challenge hard for promotion this season. It has not quite panned out like that, as the initial vibrancy Bowyer brought has lapsed into inconsistency, but in theory they could still go up – Wednesday’s 2-1 victory at Sheffield Wednesday put them 10th in the table with 11 games to go. Bridging the 13-point gap between them and sixth-place Brentford looks highly unlikely, leaving the FA Cup as their route to glory.
Beating Liverpool away is only marginally more probable than soaring into the playoff places. Whereas Blackburn benefited in previous rounds from the fact Stoke and Swansea had just lost their best players, because of the injury to
and the departure of
respectively, this weekend
can field as strong a Liverpool lineup as he wishes. And Blackburn are depleted.
Josh King, who scored three of his four club goals this season in the victory over Stoke, will miss the match at Anfield because of a hamstring injury. Bowyer also has major worries in defence, as Shane Duffy, Jason Lowe and Alex Baptiste are injured and Grant Hanley is a big doubt – such is the club's plight that the Canada under-21 international Doneil Henry was rushed straight into the starting lineup against Wednesday after being signed on loan from West Ham as emergency cover. He excelled alongside Matt Kilgallon as Blackburn claimed their first away win in two months.
Blackburn might not have had to resort to emergency measures – and might have been in more realistic contention for promotion – if they had been able to buy in January. The astute mid-season acquisitions the previous year of Tom Cairney, Craig Conway and Rudy Gestede gave the club fresh impetus for the end of the last campaign. All three have continued to play well this season, especially Gestede, and the top-scorer's feats have attracted rich admirers and also offset the slight dimming of Jordan Rhodes' flame.
Bowyer could not spend in the January transfer window because of the transfer embargo imposed on the club for breaching financial fair-play rules, so Blackburn are stretched. The club hope they will get the embargo lifted in the summer – to do that they will have to show a loss of less than €8.3m – but even if they succeed, they will have a job holding on to the many players who are out of contract: they will not mind shedding high-earners such as the former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who has not been used since September, but they would like to keep King, Kilgallon and Lee Williamson, as well as in-demand players who are still contracted, principally Gestede.
There will doubtless be many references in the build up to the cup tie to the greatest day in Blackburn's history, which brought a defeat at Anfield but still ended with Kenny Dalglish's team being crowned the 1995 Premier League champions. However, to win tomorrow and succeed thereafter, Bowyer will have to show himself to be more in the mould of Jack Marshall, the Blackburn manager who briefly led the club to the summit of English football in 1963 with an improvised side dubbed "Marshall's Misfits". Guardian Service