Blackburn Rovers 1-4 Nottingham Forest (EFL Cup Round Four)
It was supposed to be Notts County v Barnet on Tuesday night but for Saturday’s FA Trophy matches being annoyingly frozen off, instead replayed in slightly warmer conditions three days later at the expense of the originally scheduled National League fixture which I was set to attend.
I didn’t get an invite to the Magpies re-arranged visit of Chorley which ended 2-1 to Notts, so work done for the year, books & stats packed away until 2023, I’m back watching my own childhood sweethearts Nottingham Forest on Wednesday night, as a supporter only, to follow my team over an eight-hour road trip and a couple of pints with PJ in Blackburn for the Carabao Cup Fourth Round tie.
Last time watching the Reds was in the last round in the win against Spurs, a game that revitalised confidence going into the ‘winter break’ as Forest backed that victory up to beat Crystal Palace and sign off ‘world cup window’ with an uplifting Premier League win.
Since then, we’ve had plenty of football elsewhere to get our teeth into and of course the Qatar final which ended in magnificent theatre on Sunday night, I watched it half cut, half in the pub and half at home, marvelling at Messi, mouth watered by Mbappe, mortified by the fame seeking torture of watching celeb chef Salt Bae get in on the selfies during Argentina’s trophy parading ‘moment’.
Blackburn are going well in the Championship under former Newcastle United flop Jon Dahl Tomasson. The Danish centre forward signed by Kenny Dalglish in 1997 scored just three goals in 23 Premier League games before rejuvenating his career at Feyenoord and Milan, he’s in his first year in charge at Rovers after leading Swedish side Malmo to a couple of Allsvenskan titles in recent seasons and has done well so far, the team from Ewood Park sitting third in the division.
Forest played on Friday night with a small number of fans travelling over to Valencia for a friendly match in which the Reds won 2-1, the game itself celebrating 100 years of the Mestalla Stadium. Valencia actually played at the City Ground back in 1965 in a game that celebrated 100 years of Nottingham Forest. Perhaps the two cities should be twinned?
It’s 4pm and I’ve just arrived at PJ’s, his dad and his father-in-law are coming with us tonight, Ted the Red who often goes home and away, Rene the Canadian who hasn’t a clue what’s going on, or just how far Blackburn is from Nottingham.
“There’s a crash on the M62” I tell PJ… “It’s been closed all day” as Sat Nav redirects us strangely up the A1… I leave PJ to it, head down delving into my work emails before resetting my fantasy team for the restart of the Premier League fixtures on Boxing Day.
It’s dark and wet as we hit the M62 and cut across east to west, reliably informed it’s now fully open, but traffic is building up during rush hour and peak commuter period passing Leeds.
Finally onto the M66 and the A56 we’re guided off at Haslingden heading over some murky hills of green into the valley of Blackburn past the Grey Mare Inn on the B6232 Grane Road, entering a borough twinned with Darwen populated of just 140,000… Surely the Premier League’s smallest previous title winning town?
Traffic is bad as there’s 6,500 away fans tonight, all most likely guided by GPS from Nottingham down the same route as we enter Blackburn via the Haslingden Road. Parked up on a bit of wasteland opposite the Blackburn Empire Theatre, we walk over the Alan Shearer Way and down Bolton Road as we notice a dodgy looking lap dancers club which is unfortunately closed.
It’s getting on for 7:45pm and I’m told to collect my ticket as it failed to arrive by post no thanks to the recent Royal Mail strike, walking towards the stadium the huge lights glowing in the dark above rows of terraced houses, we come to the large Jack Walker Stand, past the hospitality and players entrance as we reach the away supporters ticket kiosk where I’m told thankfully, my tickets are there, and that kick off has been delayed due to the earlier accident which caused a backlog of fans still to be outside the stadium.
Tickets in hand, priced just £12 each for this particular match, we walk around to the Bryan Douglas Darwen End where it’s slow to get in. One guy in hi-vis casually stroking people’s shoulders and hips for weapons as we scan a ticket through an unattended electronic barrier and walk up to the second tier.
It’s a lovely stand, roughly 25 years old, most of the stadium was built during the golden era built on uncle Jack’s millions, which saw the club win the Premier League title in 1995. Spacious inside the venue, most fans now at their seats, I buy PJ a chicken balti pie and pint of lager to thank him for driving, with just nine minutes to drink it until kick off, we race out freshly fuelled with under a minute to spare as I marvel at the classic looking venue only half full, but for the Forest end in full voice.
Blackburn have made eleven changes from the side that beat Norwich, Forest are at pretty much full strength, it seems a gimme to me as I check the odds firmly in the Reds favour, so much so it’s not even worth a bet.
Steve Cooper's energetic side are on the front foot from the off and Brennan Johnson is causing havoc down the right, he’s looking sharp tonight, electric pace, quicker than shit off a shovel but he spurns a great opportunity to score before being felled inside the box by Scott Wharton. Johnno slots home from the spot to send the Reds fans into a chorus of ‘he’s one of our own’.
There’s so much time on the ball for him down the right, he’s squared to Taiwo Awoniyi but his effort is well saved by Aynsley Pears who I’m sure is the son of former Boro goalkeeper Stephen. At least, he looks like him and has the same surname. Uncanny?
I tell PJ “no way the Rovers left back is coming out for the second half” as he’s exposed alone and unwilling to defend, Johnno has free run as Forest dominate but as I head for a pint to beat the half time rush, a cheer from the stands tells me Blackburn have scored.
I’m perched under the stand the whistle only just gone, with two pints of mainly froth and partial fosters in Blackburn logoed plastic cups, PJ walks over and says “bloody rubbish” as the Reds relinquish a lead that they should have added to, not surrendered.
We harp on about not taking your chances and scoring when you’re on top, how they might regret not winning this game and what losing it might do to confidence, as we take our seat for the second half (along with Blackburn’s left back Mola who by now is as I predicted, replaced), a few moments in, we needn’t have worried.
Jesse Lingard is racing at defender Wharton who was apparently credited for the equaliser (which I missed), the defender who already conceded a first half penalty again sticks out a leg, Lingard over with just the goalkeeper to beat but outside the box, Wharton booked, luckily for him, but not so lucky moments later, as Lingard’s deflected free kick takes a couple of nicks and wrong foots Pears to give Forest the lead.
The better side in control and looking more like adding to their tally than conceding, as Pears saves from Awoniyi after slick play by Johnson inside the area, it’s one way traffic, and when Lingard finds Awoniyi on 79, the Nigerian striker does the rest, calmly shrugging off his marker to slot home past the keeper and put the game to bed.
After kissing his shin pads in celebration, Awoniyi is substituted for Sam Surridge who gets a warm reception from Forest fans, you can tell when a player is liked, an underrated footballer appreciated by his own, and late on he sends Johnson through, the Welshman calmly finding the corner to round off a fabulous win for the Forest faithful, by now in full voice of cheer.
A lot to be happy with as a Forest fan, Brennan Johnson the star of the show with his electric pace steals the limelight with two goals but the workrate of Jesse Lingard and Taiwo Awoniyi really impresses me, fitness levels of Lingard in particular looking so much better than they were two or three months ago, the quality the Reds shown in possession, in particular through Swiss international Remo Freuler and Lingard, often a level above what the boys from Blackburn could produce, at times the industrious Orel Mangala looks like he could be a thrilling footballer, but is one that seems to be more seven out of ten than outstanding when I’ve seen him play, I’m always left impressed, but feeling like he can do more during a game to be the absolute next level Premier League beast that can compete with the likes of Casemiro, Thiago and Kante in opposite but same position.
In defence, Harry Toffolo at left back has a faultless ninety minutes and his old Huddersfield team-mate Lewis O’Brien does well when he came on as a sub. Willy Boly and Joe Worrall but for a couple of nervy moments are relatively solid as centre halves.
For Blackburn, well let’s just remember that eleven changes were made by Tomasson, and this was far from a first team which rested the likes of Ben Brereton Diaz, Sam Gallagher & Bradley Dack, but one that has a few promising starlets inside its young makeup.
17-year-old Ashley Phillips did well at centre back whilst 18-year-old Adam Wharton, brother of Scott who assisted his older siblings goal from a free kick, looks like one for the future, the Wharton’s both born and bred in Blackburn, whilst the best player from an attacking sense looked like Dilan Markanday, a diminutive right winger signed from Spurs Academy, he’s technically superb with very good feet and could be pushing for first team opportunities in good time.
Football is back, the World Cup is over and Premier League teams are again focus of our nations newspaper sporting column inches for the foreseeable. The Carabao Cup is now getting to the business end with Nottingham Forest in a quarter finals for the first time since 1994 (back when it was sponsored by Coca-Cola) where they were then beaten by John King's Tranmere. Seven Premier League teams and Charlton Athletic of League One will now hope for a favourable draw and further shot at Wembley plus silverware.
Whilst Blackburn’s eyes were looking elsewhere at their own more important Premier League push, you can probably understand just why less than 10,000 of their own supporters turned up tonight, they never had a chance, because they never gave themselves a chance to win with the side they put out, only time will tell if that was the right decision by their manager, to simply throw this one away.
For Forest, a lifting victory ahead of Manchester United in their Premier League return, whilst Blackburn, a proper town where football meets the working class, well I wouldn’t begrudge them a return seat at the big table should they achieve their goal of promotion this season.
A good night out in the North West and a stadium well worth a visit, just a shame the lapdancers wasn't open, so Rene could have really seen what Blackburn was all about.
Blackburn Rovers: Aynsley Pears, Lewis Travis, Ashley Phillips (Dominic Hyam 72), Scott Wharton, Clinton Mola (Tayo Edun 46), Jake Garrett, Adam Wharton (John Buckley 73), Dilan Markanday (Tyrhys Dolan 72 (Ben Brereton Diaz 88)), Sammie Szmodics, Ryan Hedges, George Hirst.
Nottingham Forest: Dean Henderson, Neco Williams (Loic Mbe Soh 88), Joe Worrall, Willy Boly, Harry Toffolo, Ryan Yates, Orel Mangala (Lewis O'Brien 63), Remo Freuler (Jack Colback 83), Brennan Johnson, Jesse Lingard (Sam Surridge 83), Taiwo Awoniyi (Emmanuel Dennis 82).
7:45pm Kick Off. Wednesday 21st December 2022, Ewood Park, Blackburn (att 15,138).