Blackburn Rovers were denied a place in the Championship playoffs on the final day, for the first-time since relegation in 2011-12, as after 211 days in the top-six this season, the Blues ended their campaign with a fantastic comeback win – denying the Lions entry into the top-six – but saw results elsewhere quell their post-season aspirations due to goal-difference.
For the crunch game down in the capital, Jon Dahl Tomasson made only one change to the side that drew 1-1 with already-playoff-bound Luton Town, last Monday, as Sorba Thomas returned to the side, for potentially his final game in Rovers colours, replacing Tyrhys Dolan, who was available off the bench. Ben Brereton Díaz was also potentially lining up in Blue and White for the final time, as it looked like he was playing in the centre of a front-three with Ryan Hedges and Thomas either side. There was a return for Thomas Kaminski who had missed the Luton game due to the birth of his second child. Sam Gallagher was an absentee, despite talk from Jon Dahl Tomasson, that the attacker would play if he got through the week of training. Newly crowned Supporter and Players’ Player of the Season, Dominic Hyam was set to make his 250th career appearance, in a huge clash for his new side.
With Sky Sports circling like sharks ahead of the final day showdown for the playoffs, with Preston North End vs Sunderland and Swansea City vs West Bromwich Albion also on the TV Guide, they were the results that Rovers were hoping would go in their favour, if they managed to get their own three points. As the tension in The Den increased, the national anthem was played to mark the King’s Coronation on Saturday, before Millwall got the ball rolling after Craig Pawson’s starting whistle.
Millwall started the livelier of the two sides as they used their home crowd to their advantage as after a few attacking moves broke down in the opening stretches of the game, they managed to break the deadlock early, after 8 minutes. Zian Flemming’s long throw caused chaos in the Rovers box as the ball dropped to Duncan Watmore, who hit a fine strike that rattled off the crossbar and bounced just behind the line, before Craig Pawson checked his watch and signalled towards the centre-circle, as the home contingency celebrated wildly at taking the 1-0 lead.
1-0 oh so nearly became 2-0 for the Lions, as they won a free-kick on the edge of the area that Flemming again stood over. The Dutchman’s set-piece again sent Rovers into meltdown, as his effort at goal crashed back off the crossbar, before Tom Bradshaw tapped home, but the home celebrations were cut short due to the linesman’s flag.
As Rovers looked rattled, their nerves were somewhat eased in the 22nd minute as they managed to force the home side back and win a throw-in deep inside the Millwall half. Joe Rankin-Costello played a one-two with Lewis Travis after the full-back took the throw, before offloading the ball to Adam Wharton on the edge of the area. The youngster only needed one touch to steady the ball before finding the bottom left-hand corner of the goal through two Millwall bodies and past George Long to draw level at 1-1 and offer Rovers hope.
The visitors nearly managed to take the lead, ten minutes after drawing level as Sorba Thomas found Rankin-Costello with a low corner towards the edge of the box, but the full-back’s effort went straight down the throat of Long.
Over the course of the next eight minutes, Rovers saw their playoff hopes and their season crumble around them as two goals for the hosts in as many minutes saw Rovers literally hand a playoff berth to the Lions in hilarious, yet frustrating fashion. The Lions hit Rovers on the counter from their own corner, as Oliver Burke brought the ball out of his own half and looked to feed Duncan Watmore with a lofted ball forwards. Harry Pickering on the retreat, seemed to have things under control, until Aynsley Pears appeared as Pickering’s wayward header left the goalkeeper in No Man’s Land. The hard-working Watmore, not to let his chance go by, tracked the loose ball and managed to find a fine finish from a tight angle through the legs of Pears to make it 2-1.
Yet, 3-1 was not far off, as the pressure mounted after an overhit pass by Adam Wharton inside his own half gifted the ball back to Burke who ran at Pickering. The Werder Bremen loanee did well to get the ball under his spell and tiptoe into the box unchallenged before drilling a low shot, past Pears, into the bottom left-hand corner for what was surely the clincher, as far as this game was concerned.
As two minutes of time was allocated onto the end of the first-half, the second extra minute saw Rovers try and grab a goal back before the break as Ben Brereton Díaz found Sammie Szmodics, who was unable to angle his attempt at goal, before the interval was called.
Gary Rowett would have been delighted with his side’s killer instinct in the first period, despite their second and third goals being handed to them on a plate. The Lions boss would have called on his side to continue their intensity and utilise the support from the sold-out terraces to their advantage, in order to quell any potential hopes of a Rovers revival.
Jon Dahl Tomasson’s reaction in the dressing room would have been the complete opposite. The Dane would have been forgiven for blowing his top at the shambolic first-half he had witnessed that could have easily seen his side go in 4-1 down at the break on another day. The boss would have wanted his side to try and earn some respect in the second-half, but also try and mount what would only be their first comeback victory this season, in order to keep their hopes of finishing in the top-six alive.
Before Rovers got the game back underway, Tomasson made a double change at the break as Callum Brittain and Tyrhys Dolan replaced Sorba Thomas and Lewis Travis, as Joe Rankin-Costello moved into midfield to partner Adam Wharton.
After just six minutes of the second-half, Rovers did manage to get one back courtesy of Joe Rankin-Costello who had topped off a decent individual performance with his second goal in the league for Rovers. A Ben Brereton Díaz free-kick on the edge of the area was parried by Long into the path of Callum Brittain who forced another save from the shot-stopper. Unfortunately for the former Hull City goalie, he couldn’t deny Rankin-Costello the third attempt who slotted between the keeper and Danny McNamara to make it 3-2 and create trepidation around The Den.
Rovers were in the ascendency for most of the second-half and despite Ben Brereton Díaz providing a rare moment of hilarity by passing the ball out of play with the outside of his foot, he soon delivered a moment of magic that restored parity between the two sides in the 63rd minute. After Millwall cleared their lines, Rovers recycled possession with a wonderful 21-pass move, before Brereton saw the ball deflect into his path before curling it into the bottom right-hand corner past the outstretched gloves of Long as he brought Rovers back into contention for a potential final day shock at 3-3.
From the kick-off, Rovers were at it again as within moments they nearly took the lead for the first time in the game as Brereton Díaz was threaded through by Szmodics – who was taken out by Jake Cooper who was soon booked – before the Chilean fought off McNamara to open up his body and curl a second one, but he was denied by the woodwork. The ball rebounded nicely into the path of Tyrhys Dolan who slipped as he tried to poke home and ultimately fired wide in a breathtaking couple of seconds.
As both sides continued to battle in a very open encounter, Gary Rowett decided to make a double change knowing that only a win would be enough for his side. Tyler Burey and Scott Malone replaced the two goalscorers, Oliver Burke & Duncan Watmore.
In the 76th minute, Callum Brittain managed to dig out a cross towards the back-post towards Ben Brereton Díaz, but the Chilean was denied a second after Scott Malone’s fantastic intervention saw him clear the ball off the line via his own crossbar.
Millwall soon conceded a corner which saw Adam Wharton whip the ball onto the head of Callum Brittain, but George Long stopped Rovers taking the lead.
In the 78th minute, Millwall were finally afforded a chance to attack Rovers in the second-half as a deep Callum Styles cross was met by Zian Flemming, but the attacker was unable to angle his nod on target.
Millwall again moved to make attacking changes in the 82nd minute as Mason Bennett and Andreas Voglsammer replaced George Saville and Lions top scorer, Tom Bradshaw.
Aynsley Pears was called into action in the 86th minute to make a crucial, potentially season-defining save, as Tyler Burey cut in and tried to sneak one in, but the strong left-hand from Pears saw him parry into the path of Dominic Hyam, who launched a Rovers counter-attack.
Hyam found Brereton Díaz, who was in acres of space as he stormed down the left. With Millwall all over the place, Joe Rankin-Costello collected Brereton Díaz’s pass before sliding in Szmodics. The number 8 did well to see Brereton Díaz sneaking in at the far-post unmarked and deliver a first-time low cross into the corridor of uncertainty, which zipped past all in blue, including the despairing George Long, before the Chilean international tapped home into an empty net for 4-3 as he completed the Rovers turnaround on his farewell from the club!
Rovers moved to make third change of the game as Ben Brereton Díaz was offered a chance to receive the applause from the travelling faithful as he departed with his head held high, with Daniel Ayala coming on to help see out the final few minutes.
As the 90th minute approached, four minutes of time were added onto the end of the game, as Rovers looked to try and see the game out for what would be their first win from losing positions this season.
A fourth and final Rovers change came in the 92nd minute as Bradley Dack was afforded a brief runout as he replaced the hard-working Sammie Szmodics.
It wasn’t long until the final whistle was blown and despite Rovers’ relief at coming back from two goals down, they shared disappointment with the hosts as neither side were able to sneak into the top six positions, despite a memorable ding-dong classic of a tie.
After 211 days inside the top six, Rovers ultimately replicated their faults from last season as they were unable to extend their season beyond the regular 46 games. Whilst we as a fanbase are all disappointed, we can all be encouraged by the way Jon Dahl Tomasson has settled into his first season at the helm and successfully implemented his style of play on, what is, a young team who will undoubtedly come back next season, more experienced and ready to go again.
Despite his final day brace, we will be saying farewell to Ben Brereton Díaz, which arguably leaves more questions than his departure answers, especially following the January fiasco that saw us fail to get deals over the line. There is now a big onus on the suits at boardroom level to replace the outgoing forward and also aid Rovers’ squad depth which became another factor in them failing to secure a playoff berth.
Of course, the January disaster was a huge let down, yet, we can look at some of the summer signings positively, with ‘Player of the Year’ Dominic Hyam and ‘Newcomer of the Year’ Sammie Szmodics offering Rovers new vibrant energy that has contributed to a successful season. As well as those who came in, we saw many academy graduates make their first-team debut and afforded a chance in the first-team, such as today’s goalscorer, Adam Wharton. It will be incredibly interesting to see how far the likes of Wharton, Hayden Carter and Harry Leonard, among others fare in the coming seasons in Blue and White and whether their experiences this season will help their future careers and future Rovers seasons.
As we head into our seventh year of making content, we want to thank you all for your support, both on the articles and on Twitter. Whilst things haven’t always been plain sailing following this football club, it has been an honour to interact with the best supporters in the world. Here’s to a successful 2023-24!
After the final day drama, Rovers have ultimately missed out on a place in the playoffs by 16 goals, after matching Tony Mowbray’s Sunderland’s 69 points. After two successive 69-point finishes, it will be a very interesting watch next season to see whether Rovers can go one further.
After the relegation drama was already decided heading into the final day, it was North-West duo, Blackpool and Wigan Athletic heading back to League One, along with Reading, with the Royals and the Latics both suffering from financial-related points deductions. The top two were already decided coming into the final day, with Burnley making an immediate return, with Sheffield United joining them. The playoffs will see Luton face final day incomers Sunderland, whilst Middlesbrough entertain Coventry, as they did in game 46 of the division.