Blackburn’s Sammie Szmodics prepares for the last tango in Leicester

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Saturday marks the end of the Championship season and probably Sammie Szmodics’ Blackburn career - can he save them one last time?

Saturday marks the last day of the Championship season – and could well mark Blackburn Rovers’ last day in the second tier as well, should they fail to get something away to Leicester City. Even if they do survive, it will almost certainly be the last time that Sammie Szmodics, cult hero and the league’s leading scorer, will be seen in the blue and white halves.

Szmodics, who was signed from Peterborough for an undisclosed fee somewhere slightly north of £1m in 2022, has scored 25 league goals this year – five more than anybody else – and 31 in all competitions. To call him talismanic would be to undersell him significantly. In a chaotic season in which just about everything has unravelled at the club, he has kept scoring important and often beautiful goals. Without him, Blackburn would have been sunk with Rotherham United weeks ago.

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Blackburn will, in all probability, stay up. A point away to promoted Leicester would see them safe, and even if they were to lose, they would still need three results to go against them – Plymouth Argyle and Birmingham City would have to win, while Sheffield Wednesday would leapfrog Rovers with a point away to Sunderland. But then again, the last time Blackburn went down to League One, it was because every other team involved in the relegation battle won on the final day. Memories like that tend to haunt a fan.

Regardless of the final result, Szmodics will almost certainly leave the club this summer. Celtic and Everton are among the clubs to have been linked with a transfer, which would likely net Blackburn a fee in the region of £15m. It will be a deeply painful parting, but not the first that the club’s supporters have endured in recent years.

There was Ben Brereton Díaz, the adopted Chilean who flipped from flop to goalscoring titan the moment he unexpectedly Hispanicised himself. Bradley Dack, the reality TV star with his flowing hair and brittle ligaments. Adam Wharton, a wiry whippet of a midfielder who is probably the most talented player to emerge from the club’s academy in a generation or more. Jordan Rhodes, the striker who simply didn’t stop scoring under any circumstances. Blackburn have loved and lost so many heroes who elevated the team and showed a glimpse of a better, brighter future, if only for a little while.

But Szmodics, the heavily-tattooed, bottle-blonde Ireland international with his steady stream of goals, seemingly endless engine and trademark salute celebration, may be the most important Blackburn player since relegation from the Premier League all those years ago.

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He has scored more than a third of the team’s goals this season and his individual contribution to the club’s short- and long-term wellbeing has been colossal as a consequence – or at least it will have been if they survive. He isn’t just the best player at the club, but very often the only player able to rise above the wreckage around him. He snaps at heels, whines at the referees, scores goals to win games his team have no business winning, and isn’t above the odd entertaining indulgence in the darker arts of the game. In other words, Blackburn fans utterly adore him.

Preston North End fans probably have the lowest opinion of him, even leaving the elements of Lancashire rivalry aside. Last season, with the fixture at Deepdale poised at 0-0, Szmodics punched a cross into the roof of the net and then had the audacity to complain vociferously to the referee’s assistant when the Hand of Szmod was ruled out. Naked cheating by a nimble little forward in an important match? Perhaps Blackburn fans should have condemned it, but you may as well go to Buenos Aires and ask someone to denounce Maradona.

Szmodics isn’t quite that good, of course – although if you support Blackburn, the gap doesn’t feel all that big – but he does have just a little dash of Diego in his DNA. He’s small but stocky, blessed with a little burst of acceleration that makes him a nuisance to mark, finishes with remarkable coolness, will run himself into the ground to get a result - and doesn’t care too much about how he gets it. He’s a brilliant player, and seems to be a complete pain in the backside.

His habit of spitting defiantly in the face of Blackburn’s broader incompetence will be called for one last time against Enzo Maresca’s Championship-winning side on Saturday, and he likely represents Blackburn’s only hope of earning a clean break from the relegation zone – or at least one of their two hopes, the other being that the champions are still smashing back the champagne come Friday night. With Jamie Vardy in the side, it’s not entirely out of the question.

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But boozing or beach-readiness aside, Blackburn’s template is the recent 1-0 win over Leeds United, one of just two in the league under new manager John Eustace. Leeds had 75% of possession, 19 shots on goal to three, but lost anyway when Szmodics guided the ball serenely past Illan Meslier with ten minutes to play – the only defeat they’ve endured at Elland Road all season. If Szmodics felt any of the pressure of the moment when he popped his instep through the ball, it didn’t show. He performed his salute in front of the home fans, of course.

That game is not a great template to have to follow, one which acknowledges the absolute superiority of the opposition, but it’s probably a necessary one. After Jon Dahl Tomasson’s reign collapsed into tactical chaos and a long string of dreadful defeats, Eustace came in and completely failed to figure out how to get the team going in attack. There has been one apparent plan - get the ball to Szmodics and see what happens. He just has to make it happen one last time.

To make matters worse, the club has a financial noose around its neck with its owners’ ability to continue funding them under question. A case awaiting an outcome in Delhi’s high court may determine Blackburn’s fiscal future – and the hearing has been delayed until August. The sale of Wharton and the inevitable sale of Szmodics will keep the lights on for a little while, but the club may not know whether it can spend any of the money earned on anything other than bills and debt servicing until the end of the summer. It’s a deeply worrying situation.

Hopefully, Szmodics can drum up one last day of brio, bravery and brilliance and provide some relief, for Saturday at least - but when he leaves, it’s hard not to feel that the last little spark of hope for the immediate future will go out as well. Perhaps there will be another Szmodics, or another Brereton Díaz, Dack or Rhodes, to save them next season – but perhaps not, and perhaps there won’t be any funds with which to buy them anyway. For now, however, it’s only fair that Rovers’ fans forget the gloomy future for five minutes and raise a toast to Szmodics and everything he’s given them this season – and bid a brilliant player a very fond farewell.

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