When Michael Appleton was linked with the Blackburn Rovers job in January, many fans were left bemused and angry. What had Appleton achieved in his short managerial career to suggest that he would be the right man to guide the Lancashire club to success – to the play-offs and the Premier League?
Given the dreadful circumstances he worked under at financially-troubled Portsmouth, Appleton’s record with the south-coast club may not have painted an accurate picture of his managerial skills and ability. However, having replaced Ian Holloway as the Blackpool manager in November 2012, the Salford-born boss managed just two wins in 12 games. Surely there were better options out there? Rovers’ fans hoped for the best, but feared the worst.
Caretaker manager Gary Bowyer left a side that sat in mid-table, but only four points away from the play-off positions. Crucially, Rovers were 11 points above the relegation zone after Bowyer’s final game in charge.
Despite a defeat in Appleton’s opening game at Charlton and a respectable home draw against Brighton, Blackburn improved to earn victories over relegation-threatened Bristol City and Ipswich. Optimism grew, even though it was known that tougher challenges lay ahead. But when Rovers achieved an incredible win over Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup, the early uncertainty over Appleton largely disappeared.
And then it all fell apart. Blackburn failed to win any of their next nine games – seven of them in the Championship. Rovers managed to score just four goals in that time. The play-off dream was dying.
Perhaps the most damaging defeat came in early March, when Rovers slipped to a home defeat at the hands of bottom side Peterborough. The visitors took a stunning 3-0 lead within the space of just 27 first-half minutes and although Blackburn pulled the score back to 3-2, the damage was done. Appleton blamed his players, but a few games later, the fans were blaming his tactics.
An FA Cup quarter-final clash against Millwall offered an opportunity for supporters to forget about their Championship woes. Rovers were bottom of the form table in the league, having collected just two points from their previous six games. Millwall had managed three points. This was Blackburn’s chance to reach Wembley.
Despite a lacklustre, defensive display at the Den, Appleton’s men managed to secure a 0-0 draw and a replay. But Rovers’ ugly approach and dire performance in the return fixture angered many as Danny Shittu’s goal ended the hosts’ Wembley dreams.
Supporters were worried. Fierce local rivals Burnley would be next to visit Ewood Park – Blackburn had not tasted defeat against their fellow Lancashire side in 34 years. Fans feared for that proud record. It almost came to an embarrassing end.
Burnley led the game until the fourth minute of second-half injury time, only for local hero David Dunn to pop up and secure an equaliser to save Rovers’ blushes. The midfielder’s goal also saved Appleton from the fans’ anger.
But it did not save Appleton’s job. On Tuesday morning, the former Portsmouth and Blackpool boss was sacked, along with his staff. Despite his poor record – Appleton had managed just four wins in 15 games as Rovers’ manager – fans have reacted negatively.
Including caretaker managers, Appleton was the fifth man to occupy the Ewood Park hot-seat this season. There was a sense that Appleton – who lasted 67 days, just 10 days more than predecessor Henning Berg – was fixing things behind the scenes and would need time to clean up the mess that Blackburn Rovers had become. Many fans simply crave stability.
Other supporters have no confidence in those tasked with selecting a new manager. They argue that Steve Kean, Berg and Appleton were poor appointments – what evidence is there to suggest that the board would be capable of choosing a more appropriate man to take the job? Worse still, who would want to manage at this chaotic club?
Early reports suggest that Bowyer, who earned three wins and a draw as caretaker boss following the departure of Berg, will take charge for the rest of the season. However, Bowyer, who has worked closely with the Rovers’ talented youngsters, will find a squad quite different to the one he left behind.
Gone are Ruben Rochina (loan), Mauro Formica (loan) and Simon Vukcevic – the creative trio of midfielders were moved on under Appleton. Experienced midfielder Danny Murphy, too, was axed from the first-team squad by the outgoing manager.
In have come DJ Campbell, David Jones, David Bentley, Karim Rekik, Lee Williamson and Cameron Stewart. Bowyer’s main job will be to try and keep Blackburn in the Championship this season.
Who Blackburn will turn to as their next permanent manager, however, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Rovers’ fans will be hoping and praying that Bowyer can steady the ship.
When Bowyer was last in charge, some argued that he should have been given the job full-time. If he impresses with results over the next six weeks, the hierarchy at Blackburn may have little choice but to consider him for the role.
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