As I write this, Blyth Spartans have just beaten AFC Bournemouth in an FA Cup Second Round replay at Croft Park. The reward for Blyth is a Third Round match against Blackburn Rovers at the start of January, and there is a possibility that Blackburn will not have a new manager by then. It was a monumental evening’s work for Blyth, who harried and harrassed Bournemouth for ninety minutes before hitting them with a sucker punch right at the death. For Blackburn, one cannot help but feel that this is the worst possible match, at the worst possible time. In freefall in the Premier League and with Paul Ince having departed from Ewood Park earlier today, the future looks bleak for Blackburn.
So, Paul Ince. Before we go onto discuss his spell in charge in any detail, let’s get one thing about the way. Paul Ince’s sacking from Blackburn Rovers wasn’t a race issue. If it had been a race thing, presumably they wouldn’t have hired him in the first place. This was a matter of too much, too soon. Ince was in a hurry to get into the Premier League from the time that he set foot behind the manager’s desk at Macclesfield Town. His achievement in steering them clear from the relegation zone in League Two was significant, as was his taking Franchise into League One last season (though that may have been somewhat overstated, as demonstrated by another managerial rookie, Roberto Di Matteo, taking them into the promotion places in League One this season). Ince, one suspects, was in too much of a hurry – too much of a hurry to turn himself into an excellent manager, which you really need to be in the Premier League these days.
There have been problems at Blackburn from not long after he took the job. As early as last summer, there were dark rumours of dressing room rebellion coming out of the club. He had a reasonable start with three early wins, but since then the slump has been dramatic. Blackburn have lost eight matches in a row, plummeting down the table into the relegation zone. Moreover, they have been playing dreadfully badly. Their supine defeat at Wigan on Saturday was the final nail in the Ince-shaped coffin which has been being rapidly constructed over the last two months or so. There is a case for saying that he hasn’t been given long enough. After all he has only been in the job for five months and the transfer window re-opens in January, allowing clubs four blissful weeks to try and patch up their ailing squads. Some might say that Ince deserved at the very least a full season to try test his mettle.
The flipside to this argument, however, is a powerful one. Blackburn Rovers simply cannot afford to get relegated from the Premier League. The foot of the Championship is littered with the corpses of former Premier League clubs – Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton Athletic are all clubs that now sound a stark warning for Premier League clubs that have got just a little bit too confident for their own good. Looking at Blackburn’s recent performances, it’s difficult to see how Ince could have turned this around. Sacking him may have been a desperate measure, but the argument of, “Well, what else could we do?” is a surprisingly powerful one.
More worrying still for Blackburn fans is the dire state of the candidates for the vacant role. Graeme Souness is said to be the early favourite, with the likes of Sam Allardyce, Avram Grant, Steve McClaren and (gulp) Alan Shearer also amongst the favourites. Hardly the sort of selection that set the hairs on the back of your neck on end. With Newcastle and Spurs having improved of late, Hull looking unlikely to get dragged into a relegation battle this season, Gianfranco Zola’s West Ham team showing a bit of backbone at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea last weekend and Sunderland looking likely to have the first shout on any new manager looking to come into the Premier League, it’s difficult to see how things will improve for them. The semi-professionals of Blyth Spartans will be rubbing their hands with glee.