HOT-shots Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede will fire Blackburn Rovers into the top six next season.
That is the verdict of former Rovers defender Mick Rathbone after he saw the strike duo lay waste to Championship defences at the back end of the campaign.
Top scorer Rhodes and the rapidly improving Gestede net 39 goals between them in 2013-14 with 17 of those strikes coming in Gary Bowyer’s side’s final unbeaten 12 games of the season.
That run of six wins and six draws was not enough for Rovers to gatecrash the play-offs.
But Rathbone, who watched a number of the games as part of his role as mentor to Manchester United’s U21s stars, has no doubt they will improve on that position in 2014-15 thanks mainly to their prolific front pairing and the management of boss Bowyer.
“With Gestede and Rhodes Rovers have really got a cutting edge now,” said Rathbone, a former physiotherapist at Preston North End and Everton.
“And I think the difference between the teams at the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Championship is the ability to put the ball into the back of the net.
“Rovers have that so I think they will do well next season.
“Gary Bowyer did a great job this season. He faced the firestorm and steadied the ship.
“It’s nice to see someone with common sense and it seems things are sorting themselves off the pitch as well.
“I think Rovers will be one of the six best teams next season.”
The reason for Rathbone’s reappearance at Rovers’ matches was Michael Keane.
Keane scored three goals in 13 appearances during a highly successful two-month loan spell at Ewood Park.
And it was Rathbone’s job during that time to keep tabs on the England U21s international, who he hailed as a ‘brilliant signing’, as well as the other United starlets out on loan in clubs at home and abroad.
With Keane returning to Old Trafford it is unlikely Birmingham-born Rathbone will get to see as much as Rovers next season.
But they will never be far from his thoughts as he has made Blackburn his home after a well-loved eight year spell in the blue and white halved shirt from 1979 to 1987.
“I first came to Rovers on loan but once I signed permanently and started going out with a Blackburn girl, who was a Blackburn fan and whose dad played for Blackburn in the 60s, and once I got the DNA in me, that was it,” said the former no-nonsense full back, who scored two goals in 306 appearances for Rovers.
“This is my town now – I sound like a mafia don! I am a Blackburner.
“My kids were born here, my son played for the Blackburn town team – this is us.
“I changed my passport recently and it said child of Birmingham but it really should have said Blackburn.”
And Rathbone, who was the physio for the England U17s side which won the UEFA European U17s Championship in Malta last week, ensures there is a bit of East Lancashire on United’s Carrington training pitches.
“One of the young lads at Manchester United, a very good young player called Liam Grimshaw, is a massive, massive Burnley fan.
“Sometimes I join in training and I’ll say to Liam, ‘this is it lad, Blackburn versus Burnley’.
“And he’ll say ‘come on’ even though he’s young enough to be my grandson!
“Every time we have banter when it’s an East Lancs derby. He personifies everything about it – it’s his life, it’s his everything, as it is to us over here.”