By Chris Harris
Mark Hughes gone. David Bentley gone. Roque Santa Cruz reportedly on his way. The summer headlines painted a gloomy picture for Blackburn fans and, inevitably, the pundits confidently predicted their club's imminent decline.
But it seems that the doom-mongers spoke too soon. Key striker Santa Cruz has since signed a new long-term contract, new manager Paul Ince has made a solid start to his first top-flight job and Rovers can count themselves unlucky not to have more than four points from their first three games.
After a win at Everton, a draw against Hull and an unfortunate defeat at West Ham, Ince will pit his wits against a man who has seen it all and done it all at the top level - Arsène Wenger. And victory at Ewood Park on Saturday would surely silence those who suspected Rovers were in for a bleak season.
We asked Jason Kayley of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph for a Blackburn perspective ahead of this weekend's game. Read on for his views on Ince's appointment, the importance of Santa Cruz and Rovers' chances of springing a surprise on Saturday.
STORY SO FAR
“It has been a pretty busy summer for John Williams the chairman and his band of merry men. The signs have been positive. He's managed to keep hold of Santa Cruz, I think Bentley leaving was inevitable, Brad Friedel came a little bit out of left field but he’s signed a quality replacement in Paul Robinson for effectively a million pounds so not bad at all. So far results have been OK, everyone's still getting to know each other down at the training ground but early signs are promising. Rovers were unlucky at West Ham, they seem to be Blackburn's bogey team and of course with Paul Ince going back down there it seemed to ratchet things up a bit. It was a little bit of a freak result and not one you can read much into.”
MAN OF THE MOMENT
“He likes to play football in what you’d describe as the right way. He likes to keep the ball, he likes to pass it about, he plays a high tempo game and the football is attractive at Blackburn to be fair. He came in as a little bit of an unknown quantity, I mean I covered a game last year at Accrington Stanley and he came as the MK Dons boss. That was on a level playing field with Accrington so when he came to Blackburn maybe it was a bit of a shock and a bit of a shot in the dark for Rovers but he’s settled in well, he’s got a lot of experience in his playing career so I think it’s a positive stat for young managers out there. Rovers have got a good record of bringing young managers through, the like of Mark Hughes, and we pay them handsomely back so hopes are high that Ince will do the same.”
THE ONE TO WATCH
“Santa Cruz is such a big influence, also off the field because he’s such a nice guy, the fans really love him. He's a gentleman and on the field he’s a very good footballer and that’s the important thing. He's brought a new dimension because we were missing a target man and we’ve got that now. Benni McCarthy shone in his first season, and Santa Cruz has shone last year so if the two of them can get a relationship going like the one that Canta Cruz seemed to have with Jason Roberts then that’s three excellent strikers with Matt Derbyshire waiting in the wings.
"I'm not really surprised Santa Cruz stayed. He’s a guy who is quite unusual in football these days. He’s a gentleman who seems to honour his contract. He’s a family man, he’s a nice guy and his word is his bond. He never said he wanted to leave, a lot of people will link him with a move away from Ewood Park but he never once said he wanted to leave. I guess these days footballers can be influenced by waving a few dollars under their noses but I guess Santa Cruz isn’t one of those. He’s a family man, he likes Rovers, the people of Rovers have really taken to him so it wasn’t really a surprise that he stayed especially after his brother Julio joined in the summer.”
“Grella and Andrews were Ince’s first targets as soon as he took the job. Keith Andrews is a hustle and bustle midfielder that people won't know a lot about because he’s come from lower league football but Ince has a lot of faith in his abilities. Grella is a well-schooled Australian international who has come from Torino and he’s got a good record in Italy. A defensive midfielder who Ince has got great faith in. That central midfield position has been a little bit of a problem because Mokoena can play that role but he’s a little bit in and out so he wanted someone with a little bit more consistency.”
“David Bentley was a great player. Rovers turned him into a £15m footballer but the feeling among the Rovers fans was that he tended to go missing in big games. Against the likes of Newcastle etc he’d really step up to the mark but when it came to Arsenal, Liverpool, Man Utd, he never seemed to sparkle in the way that Roque Santa Cruz did. So he’ll definitely be missed because he was a quality footballer, with a great right foot, and the likes of Santa Cruz really fed off his crosses into the box. Has he been replaced? Well Brett Emerton is an out and out winger. When Bentley was at Ewood Park he got played more as a wing back or a right back, now hopefully he can move into his natural position and maybe make that his own along with David Dunn and Steven Reid, all three can fill that void.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
“Ince’s biggest problem is to follow in Hughes’ footsteps. Rovers have consistently been a top 10 side, they qualified for Europe on a couple of occasions so you’d like to think that Rovers can challenge for UEFA Cup honours again, but what's happened at Man City has thrown a bit of a spanner into the works because they’ll have money to burn with their transfer deadline dealings, the likes of Robinho is proof of that. I don’t see the top 10 being out of Ince’s reach but picking up points against the teams around us, the likes of Spurs and Wigan and teams like that, that’s where Rovers will really make inroads.”
“Vince Grella picked up an injury on international duty and he looks doubtful. Other than that I think Rovers should be OK. Santa Cruz limped off last time out but he played for Paraguay in midweek and he looks to be fit. If he comes back with a clean bill of health I guess he’ll start. There’s a chap called Carlos Villanueva who a lot of people won't know a lot about, he’s a Chilean international, 22 years old, and he didn’t play in midweek. There’s a chance he could get thrown in. He made a very impressive debut and for those with the internet, a quick look on YouTube shows his abilities. He has certainly got the Rovers fans excited and he's still waiting for his first start in the Premier League. Ince may feel maybe against Arsenal he could show his stuff.”
THE EMIRATES EFFECT
“I'm surprised that Wenger didn’t add to the squad more in the summer. Losing Flamini was a big blow to English football because he’d really come on the last couple of seasons. Adebayor is a big asset for the Gunners. Obviously they’re a fantastic side and a young side and if they can stay together for the next four or five years then they’ll really mature and really be one of the top sides in Europe, they still look a top outfit in Europe but they don’t carry that fear factor anymore in my opinion. Saying that we’ll probably get stuffed 4 or 5-0 now! The feeling up here is that if Rovers can get at Arsenal I think they could be there for the taking. The Fulham result was a real freak one and we’ll just have to see if Arsenal can maybe shrug that one off and become the side that we’ve know them to be for the last 10 years.”