The exertions of an excellent winning run finally caught up with a visibly jaded Town in the second half of a game which should have been put to bed before half time.
While never being at their best against an ultra defensive Blackburn who seemed entirely uninterested in possessing the ball in an attempt to stifle their opponents’ eagerness to attack, Town created enough to take an essential first half lead over their dour opposition.
The loss through injury of Hogg saw Whitehead take on a role which, in hindsight, seemed overly cautious and arguably superfluous. Unable to provide a cohesive partnership with Mooy, booked for a rash challenge after 17 minutes and lacking Hogg’s fluency, the more progressive Billing seemed a more obvious choice. The veteran has been a good servant of the club and is a useful player to have in certain situations, but this wasn’t one of them.
Town nearly wrote a very different script in the very first minute when a blocked Van La Parra effort ballooned up for Palmer to execute an excellent bicycle kick to bring a good, if routine, save from Steele.
With an insatiable appetite for possession – helped by their opponents’ apparent distaste for it – the good start should have been the foundation for overwhelming force but while opportunities arose in a decent first half performance, the play was too often stilted and staccato as the problems of playing against an obdurate, largely disciplined defence began to mount.
As ugly as they were, Rovers clearly knew where the threats were going to come from and targeted Mooy for special attention forcing the Aussie in to uncharacteristic errors and smothering his magic. With Whitehead playing too deep and width difficult to find, the visitors largely foiled the home side’s probing and, in their only attack of note in the first half, could have taken an implausible lead when Graham was only just too late to latch on to some good work from Gallagher.
The best chance of the half, and the turning point of a game where just one goal would have changed it’s complexion entirely, fell to Wells. Hefele threaded a fantastic ball through to the marauding Smith whose low, hard cross was met perfectly by the Bermudian only for the well positioned Steele to scramble a good block and preserve his net at a crucial juncture.
The fluency of Town’s recent performances was largely absent but the unremitting possession should have proven overpowering against clearly inferior, if dogged, opposition and it seemed likely that Blackburn’s resistance would be broken with a further 45 minutes of battering in prospect.
If anything, however, the visitors had the better of the opening exchanges and even opened up a little to try to grab at least some of the possession, without sacrificing their defensive discipline.
Town became increasingly ragged as key performers, Mooy, Kachunga and Smith in particular, failed to provide any spark to a pedestrian display which deteriorated as the minutes passed.
Even Wagner’s usually astute substitutions flopped. Bunn replaced the ineffective Van La Parra and proceeded to offer even less than the Dutchman and though Payne added his trademark energy, it failed to wake his teammates from their torpor with even simple passes going astray, a lack of spontaneity reducing attacks to plodding uncertainty and a smattering of set piece opportunities completely wasted by poor delivery.
With the game petering out to a forgettable 0-0 draw, Blackburn took the lead. With typical lack of ambition, they had few players in the box and a routine high ball should have been cleared by the otherwise excellent Hefele only for his sliced attempt to hit Schindler at close range. Lowe was pushed by Gallagher as he attempted to clear but this was not spotted by the referee and the big forward laid the ball to Feeney to loft the ball to Danny Graham’s head.
As sickening as it was predictable, Town had only themselves to blame as a tired second half display had invited the calumny. Blackburn never rose above the level of mediocre but had too easily thwarted their hosts with a relatively simple tactical plan and after the break had extinguished Town’s previous threat in a similar manner to the way they had done at Ewood a few short weeks ago, by restricting space.
In the absence of attacking options on the bench – a situation hopefully to be addressed very soon – Wagner threw Hudson in to the fray and the returning captain was sent up front with Hefele; a familiar and despairing tactic which would have some credibility if either of them had ever won an attacking header in previous deployments.
Short at the back, only a poorly placed ball by Feeney to Gallagher following a break prevented Town going 2 down and the let off was to prove crucial.
With the majority of 5 minutes injury time elapsed – ludicrously, given his team’s persistent time wasting including a veritable pantomime involving shin pads, Coyle was apoplectic when the board went up – Payne was felled just outside the box to give Town their last chance to salvage something from a disappointing afternoon.
The much maligned Wells – who again played well outside the area – stepped up and curled his shot expertly over the wall and past Steele to save a point.
Despite a scruffy, error strewn second half, Town did not deserve to lose against a horribly defensive and increasingly desperate Blackburn, and could even have nicked a win in the dying seconds when presented with a free kick and the opportunity to load the box. Smith – whose attacking play disintegrated in the second half – rightly called for Mooy to give him the ball as he had a better angle for delivery, but then, inexplicably, he passed the ball to Kachunga who was easily swamped.
It is far from unusual that a dogged, relegation battling team can gain a result at a high flying venue – we have done it ourselves in the past and Wigan were to thwart Derby in similar fashion later in the afternoon – and hardly realistic not to expect dips in form from individual players following an intense round of matches, and the salvaging of a point should be viewed positively.
With 13 points from 5 games since we last played Blackburn, Town’s hugely promising season – where they are far ahead of what seemed realistic in August – it would be churlish to over criticise a below par performance which was, thankfully, not punished by rivals later on, and the remarkable progress of a club brimming with energy and ideas will continue in to the New Year.
Another tough task follows quickly against another battling side in Wigan. Wagner’s selections for that game will be interesting as they look to avenge the recent defeat; with little recovery time (for both teams) and the continued absence of the influential Hogg, maybe the time is ripe for both Billing and a cameo from Lolley?
Whatever our fate, a Happy New Year to all Town fans, players and management. Let’s make it a great one.