Rovers returned from the international break in inspired form, as they put in a fantastic display of counter-attacking brilliance to pick Stoke City off at the bet365 Stadium to notch their fourth successive away win for the first time since April 2001.
As Rovers came back off the two-week break looking to return to form, Jon Dahl Tomasson made two changes to the side that lost 2-1 against Preston North End, last time out, as he was able to welcome back some injured players to the fold. The pair in question were Hayden Carter and Harry Pickering who were the only two changes to the side, with Lewis Travis and Arnór Sigurðsson being available from the bench. Alongside them on the bench, was young full-back, Leo Duru who was included in the first-team’s matchday squad for the first time, with his presence needed given the high number of injuries that Rovers were suffering from.
With 1,876 away supporters packed in the Caldwell Construction Stand behind the right-hand goal, near the tunnel and were in fine voice ahead of kick-off, despite the typical arctic conditions that many aways fans have become accustomed to, off the A50. With referee Andrew Kitchen ready for kick-off at 3:01pm, it was Tyrhys Dolan who got the ball rolling with Rovers looking to get back to winning ways.
Rovers managed to get themselves going after just 120 seconds when Andy Moran latched onto the end of a flick by James Hill, following a Leopold Wahlstedt long-ball out to the right. The Brighton and Hove Albion loanee managed to spot Sammie Szmodics making a run behind down the left-hand channel and picked him out, but the Championship’s top scorer couldn’t add to his tally of 10, as his dink over Jack Bonham rolled wide of the mark.
As Rovers continued to pile the pressure on in the early stages, the visitors won a corner which Moran provided with an out-swinging cross aimed at the penalty spot. With Rovers bodies in the box, it was Scott Wharton who broke free of the pack just on the edge of the six-yard box as his nod evaded everyone in red and white and hit the back of the net, via the right-hand upright as he notched his first of the season to send the away crowd up the other end of the field wild for 1-0.
Stoke weren’t going to lie down, as from kick-off, they burst forwards as Bae Jun-ho managed to tee up former Preston North End midfielder, Daniel Johnson who tried to find the far corner with a shot across goal, but Wahlstedt was quick enough to get down and palm the ball behind for a corner that the Blues dealt with.
With 10 minutes gone, Rovers were forced into an early change as goalscorer Scott Wharton had a clash of heads with Dwight Gayle, which left the academy graduate worse for wear, needing lengthy treatment, before being bandaged and – thankfully – walking off, despite going straight down the tunnel. Resultantly, Lewis Travis came on to replace him, as the skipper took the armband off Szmodics and took up a right-back spot, with James Hill shuffling across to partner Hayden Carter at centre-back.
Stoke soon had two opportunities in as many minutes as they began to grow into the game after Rovers’ fast start. The first chance saw Ki-Jana Hoever – scorer of a brace in this fixture last season – deliver for Jun-ho, but the South Korean’s header missed the target. The second chance also fell to the former Daejeon Hana Citizen winger, as his strike from outside the area proved no trouble for Wahlstedt.
From the goal-kick, Rovers managed to get the ball up the other end as Adam Wharton picked out the run of Szmodics who brought the ball down on his chest, looking to round Bonham, but he was unable to keep his second touch under control as the ball skidded out of play.
That conceding of possession in the shape of a goal-kick for Stoke saw the game enter an extended period of lull, as Stoke predominantly began to hold the ball and look to probe chance after chance, however Rovers stood valiantly and defended resolutely for the remainder of the first-half, as transitional attacks failed to pay off for Rovers, with them struggling to, at times, get far into the Stoke half.
With Stoke not able to do much, despite all of their possession, with only the odd off-target attempt to add to the match facts, the 45th minute soon rolled around with a minimum of seven minutes being called for by referee Mr. Kitchen, which came as a result of the lengthy stoppage to treat Scott Wharton.
The half’s final act saw Tyrhys Dolan get booked for stopping the quick play of a Stoke City free-kick, as the half-time whistle quickly came about after some more aimless play by the home side.
During the break, Alex Neil would have wanted more urgency from his side, both on and off the ball, in order to try and break down a Rovers defence that were in top form. The former Norwich City boss would have been keen to remind his players of their quality, given they had come into this fixture on a five-game unbeaten run, with the hope of making their home advantage count.
Jon Dahl Tomasson would have been forgiven for not having a big smile on his face at the break, as despite Rovers’ brilliantly well-worked set-piece and solid defending, the boss would have been thinking about the few early chances that his side had failed to put away, rather than the one they did score. He would have encouraged his team after their first period performance, but also urged them to utilise their youthful exuberance and speed on the break where possible to try and build a bigger cushion between the teams.
The game was soon restarted by Dwight Gayle, as the Potters were looking to come back from behind and extend their unbeaten run to six in a row.
It took until the 51st minute for the second-half to have some sort of goalmouth action as Ki-Jana Hoever’s delivery from a corner was met by the head of Wouter Burger, but the former Feyenoord midfielder’s header flew harmlessly over.
In the 56th minute, Stoke’s first change saw Ryan Mmaee replace Dwight Gayle.
The pattern of the game continued much like it had in the first-half, with a lot of unproductive pressure from Stoke, however despite Rovers having more luck in breaking past the Stoke midfield in the second-half, they too were unable to cause further pressure on Jack Bonham’s goal.
As the game ticked over into the 74th minute, with Rovers keeping Stoke at bay, Alex Neil made a double change to try and change his team’s fortunes as Lyndon Gooch and Tyrese Campbell replaced Ki-Jana Hoever and Mehdi Léris.
Rovers were finally able to craft a meaningful opportunity as Tyrhys Dolan spun on a sixpence and picked out Callum Brittain on the left. The defender turned left-winger managed slip the ball into the box towards Andy Moran who twisted and turned before blazing a left-footed effort over the bar.
In that stoppage, a fourth and fifth change were made by the hosts as former Aston Villa attacker, Wesley and Jordan Thompson made their way onto the pitch, replacing Daniel Johnson and Enda Stevens.
Some decent looking Stoke pressure soon materialised in the 84th minute, as they saw a couple of efforts ping around in the box after some good blocks by Rovers, before the ball fell to Wesley who couldn’t keep his effort down as the pressure was relieved off Rovers.
With that in mind, Jon Dahl Tomasson made a second change, introducing Jake Garrett for Tyrhys Dolan as Rovers added an extra defensive body with energy in the hope of seeing the game out for all three points.
Garrett’s introduction proved to be a masterstroke as hr provided the much-needed legs and energy that got Rovers up the pitch and the ball away from their own goal. The midfielder combined with his teammates to drive up the field as he picked the ball up on the right-hand flank before playing an elongated one-two with Moran. The substitute beat the Stoke backline before stinging the palms of Bonham with a save, however the goalkeeper was soon to be beaten as Moran was the only body in the box alive to the rebound as he half-volleyed the ball into the ground as it bounced over the outstretched left of the goalkeeper and nestled just inside the far-post for 2-0. The newly-capped Irish international wheeled away in ecstatic celebrations of his first Rovers goal in-front of the away fans as the three points looked all but secured.
2-0 soon became 3-0, as Garrett again was at the heart of Rovers’ positivity in the final five or so minutes. After plucking a loose ball out of the air and skipping past his man midway inside his own half, the substitute played a fantastic defence-splitting through ball over the halfway line into space, as Sammie Szmodics latched onto it with his own run over the halfway line. The league’s top marksman – who had unknowingly been levelled during the game by former Rover, Adam Armstrong – did brilliantly well to break away from the retreating home centre-backs, before having the elite composure to take the ball round the onrushing Bonham and brushing the ball towards goal as it was turned home by a Red and White shirt, but the 3-0 clincher was eventually credited to Szmodics, as the players and their fans went wild.
With the game all but over, six minutes of added time were called for by the officiating team as Rovers soon turned to the bench to try and hand out some minutes of game time, whilst also give a rest to those who had won the game for the Blues, as Jon Dahl Tomasson made a triple change. Semir Telalović, Harry Leonard and Arnór Sigurðsson all came on for the final stages, as Andy Moran, Callum Brittain and Sammie Szmodics all departed.
Despite Rovers managing to get the ball to stick up front to the new attacking trio, they did not have enough time to try and match Rovers’ highest margin of victory of the season – which was the 4-0 win away at Queens Park Rangers – yet that didn’t matter as Andrew Kitchen soon brought the encounter to a close as the Rovers players celebrated with the travelling faithful.
Three goals, a clean-sheet and three points, what’s not to love?! A perfect result coming back from the break has shown that Rovers do have what it takes to ruffle the feathers of this division. A victory against one of the league’s inform teams on their own patch shows that they are coming into their stride, however whilst the victory was something to marvel at, the game is not one anyone would recommend if they were showing someone their first game of football. It felt like a game that could only be described as ’20 good minutes at either end of the game’ with the 70 minutes in-between – whilst it showed that Rovers were capable of defending valiantly – they were unable to put their stamp on the game for prolonged periods. But does that really matter if you pick up three points? In terms of individual performances, all the players played their hearts out and that showed in the celebrations at the end, yet special mention must go out to Jake Garrett who single-handedly drove Rovers up the field in the closing stages with his freshness and fearlessness.
Those three points have bumped Rovers back into a position of positivity, with them now sat in 10th after 17 games with 25 points and a positive goal-difference of three, with sixth place only three points away.
The games now come thick and fast for the Blues, as their next clash comes at Ewood Park on Wednesday 29th November against Wayne Rooney’s Birmingham City at 7:45pm. Following that tie, they head to Yorkshire on Saturday 2nd December to face bottom club, Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough before returning to Lancashire to host another Yorkshire outfit, in Leeds United at the earlier start time of 12:30pm due to police advice, not for television broadcast.