Rovers marked their 5000th league fixture in the perfect way, by returning back to winning ways following the first international break of the season, as a Sammie Szmodics brace, put rock-bottom Middlesbrough to the sword, via a 2-1 scoreline.
Jon Dahl Tomasson decided against bringing in any new summer signings, following his side’s disappointing 3-0 defeat to Plymouth Argyle, following the international break, despite a few of them featuring in behind closed doors friendlies against the under-18s and Rochdale. The boss made only one change to the side that fell short in Devon, as Tyrhys Dolan came back in to start, ahead of Andrew Moran, who was on the bench. Sam Gallagher marked his 28th birthday on Friday with his 200th league appearance for Rovers, as he led the line, whilst new duo, James Hill and Semir Telalović were available from the bench.
Prior to Sammie Szmodics getting Rovers’ 5000th league fixture underway, a presentation was made to celebrate the occasion, as a host of former Ewood Park favourites were invited onto the pitch alongside CEO Steve Waggott, EFL Chairman Rick Parry and former Blues chairman, Robert Coar. There was also a minute’s silence to pay respects to those suffering and have lost their lives following the natural disasters in Morocco and Libya. The honorary guests included: Rudy Gestede, Chris Samba, Chris Sulley, Gordon Taylor, Paul Round, Colin Hendry, Marlon Broomes, Kevin Gallacher, Tony Parkes, Malcolm Darling, Chris Sims, John Byrom and Bryan Douglas.
With the ball rolling, it was Rovers who started the game in the ascendancy, looking to take advantage of Boro’s poor early season form, as Callum Brittain caused panic in the visitor’s box after just three minutes. He sent in a deep cross towards the back-post that flashed across the face of goal, but Tyrhys Dolan couldn’t angle his header downwards into the empty net, as the North-Eastern side were given a goal-kick.
Brittain was at it again, nine minutes later, when he set Sam Gallagher free before the milestone marksman teed up his skipper, Lewis Travis, but Seny Dieng was on-hand to make a good close save.
Ten minutes later, Rovers remained on top, with Boro virtually penned inside their own half. Szmodics played a one-two with Dolan, before weighing up the effort from outside the box, but the attacking midfielder couldn’t keep his shot down.
Six minutes later, the first booking of the game emerged, as referee James Bell booked Hayden Carter for hauling down Boro’s number nine, Emmanuel Latte Lath.
As the 30th minute ticked over, there was heartwarming applause from all four corners of Ewood Park as the whole stadium paid tribute to former PA announced, Matt Sillitoe, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago.
That emotional atmosphere soon erupted into a cauldron of noise, as Rovers managed to get themselves ahead through Szmodics, as if it was ‘meant to be’. Hayden Carter emerged from the back with the ball and slithered past a couple of red shirts, before picking out Sam Gallagher with a pass. The forward had the presence of mind and the timing to dummy the ball, whilst also eliminating former teammate, Darragh Lenihan from the move, as the ball fell perfectly for Szmodics on the edge of the area. The playmaker took a touch to find half a yard ahead of Rav van den Berg, before striking a low, but grass-cutting shot which proved just out of Dieng’s reach, as the ball nestled into the bottom left-hand corner for 1-0.
Four minutes after going behind, Marcus Forss looked to try and get his side back in it straight away, but Aynsley Pears showed his worth against his former club by palming the shot around the post.
Boro’s spell of pressure increased as in the 36th minute, Jonny Howson’s corner was met by Latte Lath, whose header dropped wide of the far-post.
Moments later, Boro delivered a free-kick into the box, but Latte Lath was again denied by Pears.
With five minutes left in the half, former Rovers skipper and academy graduate, Darragh Lenihan was booked after fouling ex-teammate and his skippering successor, Lewis Travis.
The 44th minute nearly saw Rovers head into the break with a two-goal advantage as Szmodics delivered a pinpoint cross into the box which gave an unmarked Gallagher the chance to extend his fine goalscoring record against Middlesbrough to four goals in his past five games against the Teessiders, but his free header curled past the near-post with Dieng beaten.
As three minutes of time were added onto the end of the first period, the half’s final act saw Howson deliver a corner to Lenihan, but the former Rover’s nod was well-blocked by his successors in defence, as referee James Bell soon brought the first 45 minutes to a close.
Jon Dahl Tomasson’s reaction at the break would have been one of delight, as his side had perfectly executed his game plan and remained on top for a majority of the first period. The Dane would have called for his side to remain focussed ahead of the second period. He would have also emphasised the need for a second goal to provide his side with the necessary cushion towards three points.
Michael Carrick would have been wondering what he and his side could do to end their poor start to the campaign, which has seen them go winless in their first five league games as they prop up the table. The former Champions League winner would have been calling for his side to be quicker in their attack and in their passing, in order to try and exploit a Rovers side who could quickly tire under pressure.
The second-half was soon started by the visitors, who were looking to try and kickstart their campaign, after a disappointing end to last season, which saw them falter in the playoff semi-finals to beaten finalists, Coventry City.
It seemed as if Rovers had picked up where they left off in the first period, as under 60 seconds into the period, Rovers were again knocking on the door. Szmodics beat Dael Fry and found Dolan with a cross. The winger failed to bring the ball under his spell and was forced to dig out a shot that was saved by Dieng.
Lewis O’Brien was experiencing a ‘what might have been’ situation by playing at Ewood Park following his failed move in January, and he nearly marked his first return since the failed move with an equaliser, but his attempt was easily claimed by Pears.
Rovers weren’t going to hang around and let Boro grow into the game, as a fantastic move from back-to-front resulted in Sammie Szmodics finding the top left-hand corner with his second of the game and his second from outside the area. After Rovers built out from the back, the ball was fed out to the right where Ryan Hedges was waiting, as he cur inside and found Szmodics who was just outside the area. The goalscorer took a touch to bring the ball under his spell, before releasing a rocket that found the top corner via the right glove of Dieng, for 2-0.
Boro were frustrated and managed to grab a goal back, six minutes later in incredibly controversial fashion. As the visitors worked the ball out leftwards, Jonny Howson broke into the box and picked out Forss who found Matt Crooks. The former Rotherham midfielder, despite impeding Pears and being in a blatant offside position, flicked the ball past Pears, to reduce the arrears to 2-1, despite heavy protests from everyone in Blue and White falling on deaf ears.
The home crowd’s frustration towards the officials increased tenfold moments after the Rovers restart as Adam Wharton’s low drive was parried by Dieng into the path of Dolan, who pirouetted round the goalkeeper and was brought down, with James Bell waving the penalty appeals away.
In the 57th minute, Lewis Travis tried his luck from range, but his effort proved easy for Dieng to deal with as he saw it curl wide of his net.
Rovers soon made a double change after Sam Gallagher picked up a knock, as he was replaced by the debuting Semir Telalović, whilst Andrew Moran took the place of Tyrhys Dolan for his own Ewood Park debut.
Marcus Forss looked to pick out Latte Lath in the 62nd minute, but the Ivorian’s effort cleared the crossbar.
The Fin moved from provider to finisher, but he also couldn’t angle his effort towards goal, two minutes later, as Boro ramped up the pressure.
Moments later, O’Brien was getting in on the act, but he forced Pears into a fine diving save to keep Rovers’ lead intact. The subsequent corner saw the ball fall to the head of Rav van den Berg, who nodded over the bar.
Rovers again tried to turn Boro inside out, as they moved the ball from back-to-front, with Szmodics finding Hedges, but the Welshman could only force a corner from Dieng’s save.
Prior to the set-piece, the visitors made their first change of the game as Sammy Silvera replaced Alex Bangura, in the 69th minute.
As the momentum fell in Rovers’ favour after the corner, Szmodics and Hedges again combined in the 71st minute, as the former fed the latter, but a fine save by Dieng at the near-post kept the Teessiders in the game.
Both sides soon made more changes in the 76th minute, as injury forced Lewis Travis off, with Joe Rankin-Costello taking up a midfield position in his place. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick sent on Pukas Award nominee, Riley McGree in-place of their goalscorer, Matt Crooks.
In the 82nd minute, with Boro pushing for an equaliser, Rovers picked them off on the counter-attack, as Telalović slipped the ball into Szmodics’ path, as he set the goalscorer free for a potential hat-trick, but Dieng was quickly off his line to deny Szmodics the match ball.
After Boro regained possession after the save, they moved the ball up the other end of the pitch quickly as Forss’ shot was blocked into the path of Silvera who had left his shooting boots in the dressing room, as he fired over from close-range.
Hayden Hackney was booked in the 88th minute for dragging down Szmodics.
Carrick soon made a double change when the foul saw a stoppage in play appear, as Josh Coburn and Morgan Rogers replaced Markus Forss and Jonny Howson.
As the 90th minute ticked over, the fourth official signalled for a minimum of eight minutes to be added onto the end of the game, which gave the visitors hope, much to the disappointment of the home crowd.
In the 93rd minute, Latte Lath was sent through on goal, as he left the Blue and White defenders in his wake, but Pears showed why he had been promoted to first-choice as he rushed out and patted the ball out from the feet of the striker expertly, whilst also avoiding a potential penalty in the dying moments of the game.
Despite being five minutes into the added time, Rovers made a double change to solidify their defensive unit and inject more energy in the dying embers, as central defender James Hill replaced Adam Wharton and took up a more unorthodox midfield role, whilst Player of the Match, Sammie Szmodics saw Harry Leonard take his place.
The final act of the game came in the 96th minute, when Telalović was played through, but his left-footed effort from a tight angle hit the side-netting.
That didn’t matter, however, as moments after Dieng’s goal-kick, referee James Bell brought an end to a very pulsating, but nervy afternoon at Ewood Park that saw Rovers mark their milestone fixture with a return to winning ways.
A display and result worthy of such a fantastic milestone. With Rovers becoming only the seventh club to hit 5,000 league games, and only the second to rise to the occasion and win their game – alongside Bolton Wanderers – the fans and the legends were treated to a magnificent display that shows the quality that Rovers possess at both ends of the pitch. Whilst Rovers were ultimately denied a clean-sheet due to poor officiating, the players can be proud of their performance and the way they created a plethora of chances against a side that will no doubt, pick up the pace as the season continues.
After that fine three points, Rovers have moved up to 8th in the division with 10 points from six games, despite their negative goal-difference of minus one. Of course, it is still way too early to take serious note of the standings, but it’s always good to wake up on a Sunday and see Rovers around the playoffs!
Looking ahead to the upcoming fixtures, Rovers are again at home in midweek, as they welcome another North-Eastern side to Ewood Park, as Tony Mowbray and Bradley Dack make a return to East Lancashire with Sunderland on Wednesday 20th September for the 7:45pm kick-off, After that tie, Rovers make the long journey down to Suffolk on Saturday 23rd September to face Ipswich Town at 3pm. The following Wednesday sees Rovers’ attentions turn back to the Carabao Cup Third Round, as Cardiff City make the trip over to Ewood Park on the 27th September for the 7:45pm start.