In the name of all that is virtuous
By Matt Rowson
There's no value in kidding ourselves, Fulham are going up. This has been abundantly clear since the start of the season, even - dare I say - during the brief spell in which we usurped them at the top of the table. Demoralising as it is to concede as much in February, the title looks a done deal.
So who goes up with them? The play-offs are impossible to predict at this early stage... as we know so well, the timing of a run of form is a significant factor - but not the only factor - in this insupportably gripping equation. But what of the remaining automatic spot?
Bolton are the current incumbents, and have a healthy enough head start. However, their lead is not as intimidating as it would be if a number of their rivals were in the same position. Quite simply we know that the Trotters aren't that good, and are more than capable of bottling their lead with a bad run of form.
Birmingham? Oh, for pity's sake. For all their occasionally focused aggression, Birmingham will not go up simply because the world would not be able to tolerate the smugness that would permeate Tricky Trev's nasal whine. It won't even be necessary to form a conspiracy against this eventuality... the very atoms that make up the grass of Division One pitches, the forces that drive the winds, the will of every sane human being will be automatically drawn in the same direction. Let's just hope that Barry Knight and Rob Harris don't have a say in the final shake-up.
West Brom are still up there, of course, but are possibly surprising even themselves by being so. The Baggies, as has long been established, either have very good days or very bad days without often falling anywhere in between. The table suggests that they've had their share of good days for this season.
With Forest, Preston and the rest realistically a little far off, this leaves two candidates, the two sides meeting on Tuesday evening at the Vic. And Rovers, it has to be said, are looking strong... an immensely experienced squad that looks far too powerful for Division One - note that four of the squad have played for Manchester United and three for Liverpool - and the momentum of a run that has seen only one defeat in two months.
Quite simply, their painless ascent cannot be permitted. If any supporter of a lower (i.e. non-moneyprinting Premiership) division club is to maintain a healthy blinkered romanticism about their side's aspirations, all stops must be extracted to prevent the two wealthiest sides in the division, the two favourites at the start of the season, gaining automatic promotion. This is not just about our own selfish ambitions. This is in the name of the sanctity of all that is virtuous in the game.
And the coming week will go a long way in determining the outcome of Rovers' season. Following a FA Cup Fifth Round tie against Bolton at the weekend and the game against us on Tuesday they face Bolton again, in the league, on Friday evening. Meanwhile three points for ourselves are almost essential on Tuesday if we still harbour ambitions of automatic promotion, whilst the play-off place, although ours to throw away, is not secure enough for Forest and the chasing pack to give up the chase.
In goal for Rovers will be US international Brad Friedel, whose career never took off at Anfield but who has made a decent start at Ewood Park. Australian John Filan, feeling hard done by having lost his place after Friedel's arrival, has had a transfer request accepted but remains first-choice deputy whilst Irishman Alan Kelly kills time in the reserves.
Souness has experimented with formations, but most recent successes have been achieved by a 4-4-2. John Curtis, once touted as a future England captain whilst at Old Trafford, will play on the right, keeping long-serving Jeff Kenna in the reserves. Kenna too has handed in a transfer request. First choice on the left is Norwegian Stig Inge BjÝrnebyŽ, also impressing since his arrival from Anfield, but he has a knee problem that looks certain to rule him out this weekend and so may not make Tuesday. In his absence Irishman Alan Mahon, on-loan from Sporting Lisbon who he joined in the summer from Tranmere, has dropped back from midfield.
In the centre the improving Martin "Tiny" Taylor, a giant 6'4", has a regular place alongside Henning Berg, in his second spell at Ewood Park following his return from Manchester United. Another experienced stopper Craig Short provides cover as does Marlon Broomes, but Christian Dailly has left for West Ham and Simon Grayson is on loan at Stockport.
In midfield, Rovers have a wealth of options. Garry Flitcroft is the captain and engine room... he is close to a second ban of the season, having received ten yellow cards to date. Alongside him in the centre, England U21 captain David Dunn has this week signed a new five year contract with Rovers, but he has not been on top form recently. Irish international Jason McAteer is a regular on the right but is suffering from a thigh strain and is doubtful, whilst a proper Irishman, Damian Duff, holds down a spot on the left.
Other options in midfield include Israeli Eyal Berkovic, on-loan for the season from Celtic and eyeing a permanent move, the pulse of recent Barnsley teams, Craig Hignett, and flaky Frenchman Marc Keller. Two Ulstermen present wide options... Damien Johnson is returning from a long-term back problem, whilst Keith Gillespie is on his dog's chance at Ewood Park having looked like departing recently.
Up front, the pace of leading scorer Matt Jansen is often brought off the bench, with starting places going to Marcus Bent, who has already played at the Vic for Sheffield United this season, and Mark Hughes. Hughes is still a filthy bastard, and the Rovers' support seems unconvinced of his value. It will be interesting to note whether Rob Page has any reservations about kicking his international manager, although last season's confrontation at Goodison suggests that Darren Ward has no such qualms. Nathan Blake is recovering from a torn thigh muscle and will probably miss out, whilst Egil Ostenstad is on loan at Manchester City, whose potential relegation is likely to be linked to our promotion chances if the last twelve seasons are anything to go by.
As the season's run-in approaches, each game will become important... as dictated by emotion and energy now as much as by logic. Personally I'm having flashbacks to that penalty shoot-out at St.Andrews' two years ago, to the breathless coil of uncertainty, to the possibility that this time we might not win it....
We HAVE to win on Tuesday evening.