Darragh Lenihan central to Blackburn Rovers' defensive reinforcements
You won’t get through a Rovers transfer window without mention of Tony Mowbray’s now infamous words in the summer of 2019: ‘defenders are coming’. Those were made during a fans’ forum event on the back of Rovers conceding 69 goals in their 46 Championship matches, having almost run out of defenders at one period in the season. What transpired was one defender in, as Tosin Adarabioyo arrived on loan from Manchester City, with Charlie Mulgrew allowed to leave on loan. The 2021/22 campaign was built on Rovers’ 15 clean sheets, the 50 goals conceded their lowest since 2015/16, with their 13 blanks infront of goal in the second half of the season the reason for their downturn in fortunes. Rovers’ defensive record was helped by the move to three central defenders, something Mowbray had done only sporadically prior to November of this season, and availability. Scott Wharton and Jan Paul van Hecke started the season injured, but played virtually every minute from November onwards, Darragh Lenihan was a virtual ever present, and while Daniel Ayala may have only played 22 matches, his availability wasn’t as bad as some would make out. Availability was vital in allowing Hayden Carter to leave on loan, and meant that four central defenders, was enough this time around. With players of the year van Hecke having returned to loan club Brighton, Lenihan out of contract, Rovers will head into the new season with two senior central defenders in Ayala and Wharton under contract, plus the returning Carter and Tyler Magloire who signed a one-year extension. Magloire, aged 23, finished the season at Northampton Town, injury ruling him out of their play-off campaign, and with interest from north of the border, he could yet leave this summer despite being under contract. Carter too has interest from Portsmouth, though talk of a possible permanent move has been played down. He returns from another impressive League One loan spell looking to make the grade at Rovers and has eyes set on a strong pre-season in a bid to force his way into the new manager’s plans, knowing that he can’t afford his career to stand still. Mowbray had always liked his central defenders to gain experience out on loan, and would likely have considered Carter for another loan this summer, but under new management, he will be hoping that his chance will come.
Wharton still has another two years, plus an option, to run on his deal, though Ayala is into the final 12 months of his deal. Rovers want to keep hold of captain Lenihan, believing his qualities on and off the pitch are of huge benefit, and finances aren’t understood to be a barrier to any deal. He wants to see his ambitions met by Rovers, with a new manager key to that. Middlesbrough boss Chris Wilder wanted Lenihan while he was Sheffield United manager, and could return with the offer of a contract, while West Bromwich Albion are another to be linked. But if Rovers can get Lenihan signed up to a long-term deal, with Wharton, Ayala and Carter also on the books, then it likely limits the number of incomings to one. Rovers have used the loan market extensively for central defenders, Adarabioyo, Jarrad Branthwaite, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and van Hecke all brought in on temporary deals. Since Mowbray’s arrival in February 2017, only Paul Downing, a loan move made permanent, and free transfer Ayala, are the only central defender moves made by Rovers outside of loans. They have relied on their Academy for options, with Lenihan, Wharton, Carter and Magloire all coming through the Rovers ranks. Should Lenihan not sign, then it would force Rovers into the market, and fans would hope that his replacement would be a similarly long-term option, rather than another loan. If Lenihan does sign on, then a loan option to bolster Rovers’ defensive ranks would be an understandable move. Again, much of this will come down to the formation that the new manager plays, and going with three central defenders again will require the need for more options in that positions. Rovers again aren’t without a host of Academy options behind the first-team.
Sam Barnes and Louie Annesley have both captained the Under-23s of late, and remain under contract. Barnes missed much of the 2021/22 campaign through injury, but returned to win praise of Under-23s boss Mike Sheron, while Gibraltar international Annesley spent the season with National League side Woking. A loan move at the highest level possible would be beneficial for Barnes’ development next term. Under-18s duo George Pratt and Patrick Gamble have been offered professional contracts, and have already stepped up to the Under-23s, while Rovers have tabled an extension to 20-year-old Jalil Saadi. Elsewhere, there is great excitement about Ashley Phillips, not 17 until July. The England Under-17 international is highly-regarded both inside and out of the club, with Rovers having already resisted the attentions of Tottenham Hotspur. Phillips is moving into the second year of his scholarship, but has already signed a professional deal with Rovers, and an intriguing season lies ahead. He has regularly trained with the first-team, travelling with the squad for the game at Middlesbrough last August, while Phillips was on the bench for the FA Cup tie at Wigan Athletic in January. Phillips has had his injury issues, only 10 Premier League 2 appearances to his name, and only came into the Under-18s set-up on a regular basis at the start of 2021. Rovers could well see a full season in the Under-23s and training with the first-team as best for his development, but there is great excitement surrounding Phillips, and a first-team bow won’t be long in the waiting. Gain unlimited access to the Lancashire Telegraph website with a premium digital subscription with a one month FREE trial
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