Today’s trip to Ewood Park could be seen as a representation of the ills of modern football. It wasn’t long ago that Blackburn Rovers were a thriving community club, playing to a packed stadium with a host of young talent and aiming for European football. We all remember Jack Walker’s philanthropy and passion for his local club – how it memorably carried them to a Premier League title that still seems like an anomaly – and the contrast with the current Venky’s regime is stark. The situation for Rovers, founder members of both the Football League and Premier League and steeped in history, is now so bleak that their supporters’ trust have called on the owners to sell up and local MPs are seeking urgent meetings to see if they can move the show.
On the pitch, Blackburn’s start has not been much better. Appointing Owen Coyle was controversial enough without his side picking up a single point from a possible twelve, whilst the ownership’s policy of seemingly selling everything that moves makes the manger’s job even harder. Shane Duffy’s horrible end to his Rovers career – having scored three goals – shouldn’t disguise the fact that he was a quality performer in a side that has suddenly been shorn of them, making Championship safety the only target even at the end of August. Fulham benefited from the turmoil engulfing the club when pinching Tom Cairney for what looks like a pittance at the start of last summer – and the declining attendances at Ewood Park tell you everything about the mood amongst a passionate fanbase.
Coyle has at least brought in Derrick Williams and Tommie Hoban to act as replacements for Duffy and both could start in central defence this afternoon. The addition of promising West Ham winger Martin Samuelson on loan should give Rovers some much-needed guile out wide, especially as Ben Marshall appears to be hovering closer to the exit door having turned down a new contract. Corry Evans, so impressive in the last eighteen months for Northern Ireland at international level, could miss out with a groin problem and Rovers are still hoping to see more from the experienced pair of Danny Graham, who scored on his home debut against Fulham last season, and Anthony Stokes up front.
Both sides went 120 minutes in the EFL Cup during the week in absorbing contests so there are likely to either be some leggy players on view or a few changes. Coyle will be desperate for Rovers to record the sort of morale-boosting victory they managed last February, when Fulham’s performance was painfully lamentable and Luke Garbutt was hauled off well before half-time. Slavisa Jokanovic was furious that night but heads to Lancashire in far greater heart after his side’s unbeaten league start – and the bonus of a third round place in the EFL Cup earned by the promising youngsters who delivered a mature and impressive display against Premier League Middlesbrough.
He has added Ragnar Sigurdsson, Neeskens Kebano and Stefan Johansen to bolster what had looked like a small squad at the start of the week but it would be a surprise if any of the trio started this fixture. Floyd Ayite is likely to miss out with a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-2 draw with Cardiff, so the Togolese winger’s absence will require some reshuffling of his favoured side. Spanish midfielder Jozabed had an encouraging debut against Boro and will be pushing for a starting place again. The only long-term absentee remains right back Ryan Fredericks, who is still recovering from ankle surgery.
Scott Malone and others in the Fulham camp have spoken this week about retaining the high levels of performance that have characterised their strong start to the campaign – and Jokanovic has talked about ending August on a high. Three points would take Fulham’s total into double figures – a start which few predicted after the summer departures of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele – and the striking positions are now the only place where this Fulham side still seems light. Jokanovic has made the signing of a new forward a priority, but in the absence of a new arrival, Matt Smith is likely to get the nod over Cauley Woodrow, who limped off against Middlesbrough having taken a knock to his knee.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Sessegnon, Madl, Kalas; Parker, McDonald; Cairney, Christensen, Aluko; Smith. Subs: Bettinelli, Malone, Sigurdsson, Tunnicliffe, Jozabed, Kebano, Woodrow.