MATCH REPORT 2022/23: Blackburn Rovers 1 – 1 Luton Town

MATCH REPORT 2022/23: Blackburn Rovers 1 – 1 Luton Town

The final game at Ewood Park for the 2022-23 Championship campaign saw Rovers just about keep their playoff hopes alive, as Hayden Carter’s first goal in Blue and White, live on Sky Sports, set up a nervy final day for the East Lancashire side.

Jon Dahl Tomasson came into the game knowing Rovers had to pick up maximum points from their two remaining regular season games, if they wanted to compete in the playoffs for the first-time since relegation from the Premier League in 2011-12. The Dane named an unchanged team to the side that were narrowly edged out by bitter rivals Burnley. There was some movement on the bench, however, as Thomas Kaminski was unavailable due to family reasons, meaning Joe Hilton took his spot on the bench and Daniel Ayala made his first return to a matchday squad since netting the winner in a 1-0 win over Swansea City in February, replacing Ashley Phillips.

Just before referee Darren England blew his opening whistle for Sammie Szmodics to kick-off, Rovers had their annual Player and Goal of the Season awards, which were both awarded to summer signings, Dominic Hyam. The central defender who arrived from Coventry City in August has been a crucial addition for Jon Dahl Tomasson and filled the gaps left by Darragh Lenihan and Jan Paul van Hecke, nicely. The defenders swooped the end of season awards, as the Goal of the Season prize was awarded to Harry Pickering for his fabulous strike in the 1-0 home victory over Sheffield United, in early March.

Rovers started the game rather brightly after just five minutes, as Ben Brereton Díaz brought the ball down from a Sammie Szmodics switch before laying the ball off for Joe Rankin-Costello, but the marauding full-back failed to control the ball as it bounced away from him.

Jordan Clark tested Aynsley Pears in the 8th minute after clashing with Adam Wharton in the box, but despite the first attempt being denied by the youngster’s tackle, the follow-up was well saved by Pears.

There was a lot of ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ for Rovers inside the first 10 minutes, as Ryan Hedges tried to win the ball back high up the field, as the loose ball fell to Szmodics. Sadly for the number eight, the attacking midfielder failed to bring the ball under his spell.

In the 14th minute, Lewis Travis saw his shot blocked into the path of Harry Pickering who has snuck into the box, but the Goal of the Season winner couldn’t replicate his champion strike as he pulled his attempt just wide of the right-hand post.

The Rovers pressure continued into the 20th minute as Hedges teed up Szmodics, whose shot was again blocked by the well-placed defence.

With Luton having already secured third place, they came into this game with nothing to play for other than pride, and it showed with their second attempt at goal coming in the 26th minute through top scorer, Carlton Morris. The former Norwich City striker brought the ball down brilliantly on his chest before attempting a wild strike that threatened the spectators in the Blackburn End more than Aynsley Pears in goal.

In the 27th minute, there was heart-warming applause from all four corners of Ewood Park, as the supporters paid tribute to Rovers fan, Elliott Simpson, who sadly passed away this week, aged 27, after a battle with cancer. Rest in Peace, Elliott. ????????

Minute 29 came, as did another Rovers opportunity as Joe Rankin-Costello found himself bombing forwards once again, but Ethan Horvath denied Rankin-Costello his second league goal with a fine save with his legs.

Hayden Carter was looking to make up for his mistake in midweek with a howitzer from range after 30 minutes, but the American Horvath again denied the Blues the lead.

Tyrhys Dolan did well to capitalise and sniff out a mistake from Sonny Bradley, but the winger’s effort spun just wide of the far-post, despite having Szmodics available on the cutback.

The winger again tried his luck, after cutting in from the left and attempting to curl an effort inside the far-post in the 40th minute, but a well-placed Sonny Bradley made up for his earlier error by nodding the ball to safety.

After one minute of time was added onto the end of the first-half, Darren England soon brought the first period to an end as neither side managed to threaten the opposition goalie.

Jon Dahl Tomasson would have been satisfied with his side’s first-half display as they had dominated most of the game, again, without putting the ball in the back of the net. The boss would have wanted his side to remain defensively tight, as they had done throughout most of the half, in an attempt to try and edge themselves ahead.

Rob Edwards would have been annoyed with his side’s inability to test a nervy Rovers, despite their safety in the playoffs. The former Watford boss, who lost at Ewood Park in September, will have wanted the Hatters to try and right his previous wrongs and come out in the second-half swinging in an attempt to pour water on what could potentially be a good evening for Rovers.

Once both sides returned to the field of play, it was Luton who got the second-half underway as they looked to delight their fans who had made the long trip up to Lancashire on the Bank Holiday.

It was the visitors who started brighter in the second period, as Luke Berry saw his effort from close-range denied by the well-placed newly-crowned Player of the Season, Dominic Hyam.

From the corner, Luton whipped the ball into the box as Joe Rankin-Costello could only nod the ball out as far as Cody Drameh, who kept the ball alive by tapping it into the feet of Carlton Morris. The Hatters’ top scorer – who came into this game searching for his 20th goal of the season – did managed to provide an assist as he dug out a cross towards the six-yard-box which Tom Lockyer guided into the bottom left-hand corner, as the visiting supporters behind the net went wild at 1-0.

Jon Dahl Tomasson reacted to going a goal behind by turning to his bench, as Sorba Thomas and Bradley Dack made their way towards the pitch with Ryan Hedges and Tyrhys Dolan the pair who were replaced.

Aynsley Pears was called into action moments after the changes as Luton remained on top, as he denied Elijah Adebayo’s effort from doubling the visitor’s lead.

Rovers came so close to equalising in the 64th minute as Dack’s deep free-kick was knocked down by Hyam into the path of Rankin-Costello who saw his effort deflect behind for a corner, which the Hatters cleared.

During the break in play, Rob Edwards decided to make a double change as Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Fred Onyedinma replaced Jordan Clark and Alfie Doughty.

As Luton stepped up the intensity, they forced Rovers backwards as Dom Hyam conceded a free-kick on the left-hand side after tripping up Adebayo. The deep set-piece towards the back-post was kept alive by Carlton Morris as Pears was left in no-mans’ land, with the knockback falling to Sonny Bradley who somehow hit the crossbar from the six-yard-box, as Rovers stayed alive by the skin of their teeth.

In the 74th minute, more Hatters changes were afoot as Allan Campbell and Luke Freeman replaced Carlton Morris and Marvellous Nakamba.

Rovers also dipped into their bench, six minutes later, as they got desperate, with Harry Leonard and Callum Brittain replacing Harry Pickering and Lewis Travis.

The home side’s attacking intensity increased tenfold with the changes, as Rovers worked it down the left-hand side, with Brereton Díaz and Szmodics playing a one-two, before the latter’s curling effort deflected behind for a corner. The set-piece caused some trouble at the far-post, before it fell to Bradley Dack, but he couldn’t keep his left-footed effort down.

In the 83rd minute, Luton’s final change saw Dan Potts replace Cody Drameh in the final stages.

The breakthrough that Rovers arguably deserved finally came in the 86th minute, as Hayden Carter rose highest in the box to net his first goal in the Blue and White halves of Rovers. Ironically, when the supporters really needed a goalscorer the most, it was the central defender who proved to be the saviour for Rovers’ aspirations for three points and for their hopes of taking the playoff race to the final day. Sorba Thomas managed to get a corner ‘right on the money’, as his outswinging set-piece landed perfectly for Carter to attack, with the ball being powered into the bottom left-hand corner with Horvath stranded for 1-1.

As four more minutes of time was added onto the end of the game as 90 hit the clock, Rovers’ supporters rallied as the decibel levels inside Ewood Park increased, as they urged their heroes on for the potential winner that would make the final day an even more tantalising prospect.

That winner was inches away from sending Ewood Park into absolute delirium, as Luton, who were under the cosh in the closing stages, only half-cleared the ball out as far as Sammie Szmodics, who did brilliantly to bring the ball down on the edge of the area and laser an effort towards goal, but sadly for Rovers, the fine margins came back to haunt them, as the ball crashed back off the crossbar and on the wrong side of the goalline before Luton cleared.

The final act of the game saw Szmodics booked for a reckless tackle inside the Luton half, as the midfielder’s frustrations got the better of him, as the final whistle soon followed.

After the final whistle, given it was the last home game of the regular season at Ewood Park, the Rovers players were offered the chance to thank their fans for their support this season, as they participated in a lap of honour. There were also opportunities to potentially bid farewell to players who might not potentially remain at the club in 2023-24.

Whilst three points wasn’t to be for Rovers – and they can feel aggrieved by not taking a maximum – the ‘never-say-die’ attitude will undoubtedly set them in good stead ahead of next Monday’s straight shootout for what looks to be 6th place, against Millwall. Rovers will need a huge slice of luck to sneak into the top six, but will also need to make sure that their own job at The New Den, as anything less than a win will see them miss out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

The point leaves Rovers in 9th place with a negative goal difference of -3 from 45 games played, but given the situation of the points around them, they might need snookers.

Jon Dahl Tomasson will close out his first season at the helm in England away at The New Den, next Bank Holiday, on Monday 8th May. With all the games in the second tier kicking off at the simultaneous time of 3pm, the Rovers players, staff and fans will be keeping a close eye on Swansea vs West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End vs Sunderland, in the hope that the Swans and the Lilywhites – who are both out of the playoff picture – can deny the Baggies and the Black Cats victories.