VERDICT: Blackburn Rovers 4 Bolton Wanderers 1
THE gloves were off before Wanderers had even got down the tunnel – a few home truths were about to be told.
Judging by the sheepish looks from players heading back on to the team bus at Ewood Park, Dougie Freedman had just dished out the biggest rollocking since he arrived at the club.
The Scot is not an old fashioned shouter and baller – but you would back him to say a few choice words when he needed to and there was ample evidence his Glaswegian temper was simmering as he walked briskly back to the dressing room after the final whistle.
With only five games gone in the season you would hope the message sinks in quickly enough with some to turn things round. But for others, this was probably the final straw.
Owen Coyle lost his job last October because he stayed too loyal to certain players who were not pulling their weight after the club dropped out of the Premier League. You get the feeling Freedman is not about to let the same thing happen to him.
The manager wisely stopped short of singling out individuals but hinted his anger was directed towards those on inflated Premier League contracts who had got “too comfortable” and allowed their game to slip.
It is now all eyes on the Reebok exit door because without having the finances to simply bring in players to fix the problem, it now falls on Freedman’s shoulders to ship out those players he considers a problem, and fast.
There is a certain déjà vu about Wanderers’ situation.
A year ago, we wondered whether the hangover of relegation would ever go away.
Freedman’s arrival and fresh approach seemed to change things – but over the last five games things have regressed. Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan aside, no player could escape criticism after a defeat as demoralising as anything in recent memory.
Certainly in a defensive sense, Wanderers currently look as frail as they have at any stage over the last decade.
Club captain Zat Knight has come under heavy fire from fans and his performances this season have fallen way below par. But likewise his centre-half partner David Wheater has looked a pale imitation of his former self since signing a new deal and returning from injury.
Tyrone Mears – seemingly given a second chance by Freedman – was utterly dominated by 21-year-old Josh King, Rovers’ pacy Norweigan winger. He must be under considerable threat if the boss carries through his threat to swing the axe.
In midfield, both Medo and Jay Spearing – normally the most trustworthy pair with the ball at their feet – surrendered possession time and time again.
And up front David Ngog produced one moment of genuine quality amidst one of those frustratingly anonymous displays that make you wonder whether his mind really is elsewhere.
Chris Eagles also disappointed on his return just when the stage was set for him to make an impact as a second-half substitute.
Freedman cannot possibly hope to get everything done by 11pm tonight. How could he?
But if the club are serious about challenging for a play-off spot then surely the manager must be given some scope to make changes at a faster rate?
Injuries have not helped recently, not least at left-back where Marc Tierney was only deemed fit enough to make the bench and Alex Baptiste was again played in an unfamiliar role.
From the off, though, Blackburn just looked hungrier, quicker to the ball and more capable in possession.
Things might have been different had Jermaine Beckford beaten Jake Kean with an early effort.
But by the time Blackburn forged ahead on 27 minutes, Wanderers could hardly complain, having coughed up possession several times unnecessarily.
As it happened, Pratley’s mistake in midfield proved costly as King raced away down the left and played a well-timed pass inside for David Dunn to skip nimbly past three would-be challenges before slotting past Bogdan.
Just 60 seconds later the travelling contingent could hardly believe their eyes as Baptiste allowed space for Dunn to play in Rhodes on the edge of the box.
He rolled Knight all too easily before drilling a left-footed effort into the bottom corner.
It was powder-puff defending that rather summed up the start to the season for Wanderers. A penny for Craig Dawson’s thoughts on the bench at West Brom?
Things could have got much worse. Ben Marshall hit the inside of the post and Bogdan made a world-class stop from Rhodes to prevent a total landslide.
Then, out of nowhere, Wanderers somehow clawed themselves back into it just before half time.
Chung-Yong Lee had done well on the left to keep the pressure on after a corner and a slick pass from Spearing found Baptiste unmarked in the box and he crashed home his first goal for the club.
Briefly, it looked like being a contest. After the restart Ngog produced a brilliant run down the right which ended in Todd Kane clearing the shot off the own line when the Frenchman would have done better to square for Jermaine Beckford.
Spearing also went close with a deflected effort, created well by the jinking run of Chung-Yong.
Eagles and Andre Moritz were thrown on for Ngog and Pratley but their introduction perversely seemed to slow things down.
The momentum seeped out of Wanderers’ comeback and they soon found themselves 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go.
Knight hooked King’s header clear to the edge of the box but sub Corry Evans met the ball with a perfect volley that rocketed into the net via a slight deflection off Spearing.
King could have helped himself to a couple more but just before the end Rhodes doubled his own tally with a tap-in after Kane had picked Wheater’s pocket on the right.
When Keith Stroud called time on the game the Wanderers fans that stayed behind looked more stunned than distraught. Little did they know that the inquest had already begun.