Going into our game away to Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, I was unsure as to whether I would be playing after not featuring as much as I would have liked in the two previous matches.
Our manager, Dougie Freedman, was on record as saying he likes to rotate the squad and, in fairness to him, as the new man in charge at Bolton, he has to get a good look at everybody and give players a chance to impress. From a player’s point of view, sometimes it can be difficult when you’re in for one and out for two but I suppose in the modern game you can’t expect to play every 90 minutes.
However, I did have an inkling on Tuesday I would be playing against Blackburn the following night. Our manager is very meticulous in his preparations, so we worked hard both on the training pitch and in the video room to highlight Rovers’ strengths and weaknesses.
It’s always nice going back to play against former clubs. I spent three and a half years at Blackburn and, regardless of how unhappily it ended for me, I still have great memories, admittedly mainly from the first couple of years, of working under Paul Ince and Sam Allardyce.
I spoke with one of our young lads, Jacob Butterfield, a couple of weeks ago when he faced his former side Barnsley and told him to just try and relax and play his own game, not to overdo it and get involved with all the hype. I was speaking from experience as, when I returned to Molineux a few months after leaving for Hull as a young pro, the game passed me by. I was concentrating more on sorting tickets for friends and family or chatting when I arrived at the ground.
Now, as a seasoned professional, it’s second nature playing against former clubs and I was confident going into this game as part of a team I felt was really growing in self-belief, after a run of five games unbeaten under the new manager. Four of those, however, had been draws so it was important we started turning one point into three. The atmosphere on the way to the match and before kick-off was very relaxed but focused. Chris Eagles supplies the playlists which, to be brutally honest, can be shocking at times but they do at least give us a giggle.
We wanted to start on the front foot and take the game to Blackburn, especially with it being a derby. And the match couldn’t have begun any better with us taking the lead within a couple of minutes through our skipper Kevin Davies. That gave us huge belief and a platform to go and play some fantastic football. The sharp and slick passing we have been working hard on in training was coming to fruition where it mattered.
With myself and Steven Warnock as ex-Rovers players and Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears formerly of arch-rivals Burnley, it added even more spice to an already feisty atmosphere. Our travelling fans were fantastic and all three and a half thousand of them certainly enjoyed a terrific performance and, in the end, the ideal result – a 2-1 win for us — which will them bragging rights for a few months at least.
On a personal note, at the final whistle it was a very nice feeling to know I had come to my former club, played well and been part of a team which thoroughly deserved to have won. It was also interesting to hear their fans haven’t changed much in the time I’ve been away as they constantly got on their players’ backs — something I was unfortunate to have experienced at first-hand towards the end of my own time there. As an opposition player, however, it’s music to your ears when you hear the fans turn on their own players – it means you must be doing something right.
I intentionally didn’t do any media after the match on Wednesday as I felt we had done our talking on the pitch through our performance and, regardless of what I said, it would have been seen as gloating. So, instead, I made sure I caught up with a few familiar faces at Ewood before getting on the bus to head back to our training ground.
There was a good atmosphere on the short journey back. As a squad we have too much experience to be getting carried away by this result but the belief is certainly growing in the camp. This only comes from performances and, more importantly, from results — and that night we got both. We all know we have the squad to be challenging for promotion and if we keep working hard and playing as a team then I’m sure we can have a successful season.
I struggle to sleep after night matches so when I got home I had a glass of wine with my partner Claire to try and unwind as we chatted about the game. She knows better than anybody what a tough time I had at Blackburn towards the end and she knew I was very determined to do well and win this match. I’m sure she was also a little nervous as to how the game would go and the possibly negative reaction I would get there.
So I think it was a huge sigh of relief for her to learn we had won the game and that she wouldn’t have to deal with my inevitable bad mood if the evening hadn’t gone to plan.
In fact, happy as I was to have returned home a winner, I think I was even more pleased for her as she’s had to put up with a few bad moods this season.
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