After another weekend of bitter twists at the foot of the Premier League, I'm trying to work out how many points will be enough to keep a team safe this season. Supporters of Blackburn Rovers, along with those of at least five other strugglers, are doing the same. And have been for weeks now. As far as Rovers are concerned, wins in their last three home games – starting with Liverpool's visit to Ewood tonight – would take them to 37 points. Might that be enough?
As I sit in a deserted dressing room at Blackburn's Brockhall training ground, in the wake of Saturday's defeat at West Bromwich Albion, my desperate arithmetic on Rovers' behalf is soon interrupted by Jason Lowe: "I don't think you can say a certain number of points will keep us up. That'd just be guessing."
Of course, he is right. As his manager, Steve Kean, points out later, Lowe has a wise head on young shoulders. Just 20 and in his first season as a first-team regular at Ewood Park, his positivity is a product of fierce, natural enthusiasm. Lowe just does not see the point of dwelling on what-ifs and maybes.
"Given where we are, this is still a fantastic place to come and work," he insists. "Morale's up, team spirit's good. And we're going to need that going into these last six games. It's why we're still in it. Nobody's looked for excuses. We know that as long as we stick together, we've every chance. And that's what we'll do between now and the end of the season, regardless of how anybody else's results go. We'll stick to what we're doing and see what happens."
Perhaps Lowe learnt how to deal with football's slings and arrows earlier than most. Born in Wigan, he was released by Manchester City as a 10-year-old, which you would imagine loomed pretty large as a disappointment for a lad that young. This lad, though, just shrugged and got on with it:
"Maybe at that age you do take it a little bit personally," Lowe remembers. "You don't really know what you're doing, other than that you're playing football for fun. It did hit me a bit but I just went and started playing with my mates again and, when the opportunity came to join Blackburn, I grabbed it."
The offer from Blackburn came after a year spent back enjoying himself at Eastleigh Junior Football Club and Lowe has been at Ewood ever since. After making his debut last season, he has established himself as a regular fixture – in midfield and, more recently, at right-back – in Steve Kean's starting XI. That rapid rise through the Rovers ranks has been mirrored at international level: Lowe captained England at last summer's Under-20 World Cup and impressed Stuart Pearce enough to earn a regular place with the Under-21s in this campaign.
Although there is a core of experienced senior players at Ewood, the availability of a clutch of promising and competitive young academy graduates has enabled Kean to cut Rovers' wage bill back to a point where they are fighting a decent battle to get the club debt-free. Getting his chance so early goes some way to explaining why Lowe is lavish in his praise of the set-up he grew up in at Blackburn.
"From as soon as I came here, everybody was fantastic. We'd come in Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, training; sometimes on a Saturday morning, too. We'd play our games on a Sunday. I loved it even if fetching me up here all the time was probably a nightmare for my mum. The staff were great all the way through: teaching you the game, teaching you principles on and off the pitch.
"It's a homely club, a fantastic club. Especially for young players: you look at the number of us in the squad and in the first team now. It's a great place for a young player to develop."
There have been some pretty harsh lessons to learn during his first full season. And it may be that the harshest of the lot is still waiting in the wings. Lowe, though, continues to relish the challenge. "This is a game you have to grow up fast in," he observes, with the ease natural to one who already has. "The sooner you can learn, the sooner you've got a chance of becoming a player. When you're out there for the first time, in front of the crowd, with all the atmosphere and the fuss in the media, you realise what first-team football's about. It comes as a bit of a surprise, maybe. But, if you're lucky enough to get a taste of it, you realise it's a brilliant feeling. You can't imagine the intensity unless you're out there. It's the best feeling in the world."
Excited as Lowe is by where he finds himself, he has not been immune to the emotional turmoil that occasionally threatened to engulf Blackburn's season. Before Christmas, he watched on as Kean became a lightning rod for supporters' frustrations. Now, the player does not hide his admiration for his manager's response:
"There's things been said and written and have happened when sometimes it's been the gaffer taking the flak for what we've been doing out on the field. He's always been ready to take the pressure off us and I can't believe how well he's handled some of what's been thrown at him. He's a great coach, very hands-on on the training ground – great with the players – and that's why we've all got the utmost respect for him. We'll fight for the manager as well as each other."
Anyone who was at Ewood for the Manchester United game a week ago will know that Rovers supporters have put their long-term concerns to one side and committed themselves to the short-term battle against relegation, too. Lowe admits that, at times earlier in the season, the team found it easier to play away from Ewood Park. He understood the fans' attitude then, but is grateful they are behind the team for the crucial weeks of the season, starting tonight:
"I know, from growing up with the club, how important Rovers are to the town. How the club belongs to the town. And we're doing everything we possibly can to make sure they'll be watching Premier League football next season. The last couple of months, the crowd have been fantastic, backed us up the whole way. Last home game, against United, everything we did – tackles, shots, dead balls – the fans were up and behind us. Hopefully, it'll be more of the same against Liverpool. Whatever's gone on, the team and the staff have stuck together and tried not to dwell on things. It feels like the fans are part of that now."
Lowe and company responded with an excellent performance against United a week ago. It will need another against Liverpool but, tonight, Rovers have to get a result to match their best intentions. Although Liverpool's form has been nothing like that of the champions-elect, who left Ewood with a win secured by stunning late goals from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, Lowe is not expecting to face a team distracted by their FA Cup commitments: "Liverpool have been having a difficult time and they've got a semi-final coming up next weekend. But I don't think that means they'll come here and roll over. Quite the opposite: they'll want to come here and turn things round before Saturday at Wembley."
For Blackburn, of course, this and their remaining home fixtures against Norwich City and Wigan Athletic amount to cup finals. It is pretty much win or bust for his team now and Lowe is ready to play his part, as he has been all season: "For me personally, being involved with the first team has just been fantastic; the international games, too. It's been great and, in some ways, I suppose I don't want the season to stop. But when it does, I know we have to be out of that bottom three. That's all I'm bothered about now: as long as Blackburn Rovers are safe when the last ball's kicked on the very last day of the season, I'll be very happy indeed."Reuse content