AS a delighted Danny Graham took in the familiar surroundings of Ewood Park very little appeared to have changed.

The sun was shining as brightly as it did in the final game of last season and the affection toward the striker from the Blackburn Rovers supporters remained as strong as ever.


But scratch beneath the surface and much had altered from the first time Graham walked through the Ewood doors five months before.

Back then, in late January, Paul Lambert was Rovers’ manager and the squad he possessed was very different to the one that will report back for the first day of pre-season training under Owen Coyle this morning.

Graham is a different player, too. Or at least, more like his old self.

After a deeply frustrating three-year stay at Sunderland, where he scored only once following a £5m move from Swansea City, he arrived in East Lancashire low on goals and confidence.

That may sound surprising now given the goals he grabbed and the stellar performances he produced during his highly impressive loan spell at Rovers in the second half of the 2015-16 campaign.

Surprising, too, given his previous record at Carlisle United, at Watford, where he won the Championship golden boot, and at Swansea, where he notched 14 goals in their debut season in the Premier League.

Graham openly admits, though, that when he first joined Rovers his belief had been shook.

But, thanks to the support he received on an off the field, it swiftly returned.

And, after being bowled over by Coyle’s determination to sign him on a permanent transfer, he is now ready to repay that support.

“There were a lot of ups and downs at Sunderland,” said Graham, speaking at Ewood on Thursday after he put pen to paper on an initial two-year contract with Rovers.

“I was in the team, I was out the team, I was in the squad, I wasn’t in the squad, different managers left me behind in pre-season and then put me back in, so it was a difficult time.

“Nothing really worked out there, my confidence was probably at a low, so to come here and do so well, and for the way the lads and everyone got behind me, was a massive sway in the right direction.”

Graham hit seven goals, his last coming in the 3-1 win over Reading on the final day of last season, and established himself as a firm fan favourite with a series of tireless and talismanic displays.

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But, with Lambert having already announced his departure, the 30-year-old walked away from Ewood on that sun-drenched afternoon wondering whether he would ever return.

Graham was not short of offers. None of his prospective new managers, however, showed as much desire and enthusiasm as Coyle.

“Paul Lambert was great for me, he got me going again, he got my confidence back up, and I owe a lot to him,” said Graham.

“But when he left I thought this club might not be an option; that, whoever came in to replace him, might have wanted a different player to me. It was up in the air.

“But since the gaffer has got the job he’s not been off the phone to me and that helped massively in my decision to come back here.

“I’m not just saying it, he was never off the phone, and as a striker, and after the difficult time I had at Sunderland, it was nice to feel that wanted.

“There was interest elsewhere, of course there was, but nothing as concrete as what Blackburn were doing. They wanted it done yesterday whereas other teams, there were offers on the table, but they were waiting around and stuff.

“The gaffer is very infectious and I think he’s going to be great for the lads. Hopefully the fans can get behind him, get behind the boys, and let him do his job and put his stamp on the football club.”

Graham has been joined at Rovers by fellow forward Anthony Stokes, left-back Stephen Hendrie and winger Liam Feeney.

Manchester City starlet Jack Byrne will soon join the quartet of summer signings with Coyle determined to add more quality to the ranks given finances and opportunity.

Rovers finished a disappointing 15th last season. Graham, though, has no doubt they can improve on that finish in 2016-17.

And, if Coyle can bring in further additions, and keep hold of key players like captain Grant Hanley, Shane Duffy, Corry Evans and Ben Marshall, he is not ruling out a play-off push.

“The gaffer sees us finishing a lot higher up the table than last year, which the lads would agree with,” said Graham, who has been inundated with texts from goalkeeper Jason Steele, who he first played with at Middlesbrough, throughout the summer about rejoining Rovers.

“It was an inconsistent season and we shouldn’t have been where we were but the gaffer’s going to come in, put down his plan, tactics and how he wants to play, and come Monday we’ll start the hard work to try and have a better season.

“I think we are building a good squad and I don’t think the gaffer has finished yet. He’s got a lot of good connections, and hopefully he can use them wisely, and he can get more good players in, and we’ll have a good squad and have a real good go at the season.

“In this league anything is possible. You’ve got to try and keep the core of your team, the players who have done well over the last few years. Players like Grant are massive, he’s made 200 appearances for the club, Duffy was solid when I came in last year, and he’s continued it at the Euros, as has Corry Evans.

“There’s a lot of good players at this football club and if the gaffer pulls in a few more I’m sure it will benefit us, and who is to say the top six is unrealistic.”

If Rovers are to challenge for the play-offs then they are going to have to score more goals.

Only 10 teams in the entire Football League found the net on fewer occasions last season and Graham finished as the club’s leading marksman despite playing only 18 games.

Coyle has started to address that issue by bringing in players with proven goalscoring records and players who can create chances.

Stokes is one of a number of different faces to the ones Graham encountered when he first signed for the club in the New Year.

And he is confident he can strike up a good partnership with the former Celtic frontman.

“Anthony did ever so well at Celtic, he scored a number of goals up there, he got Champions League experience, and the gaffer speaks very highly of him,” said Graham.

“We’ll work hard on the training ground and hopefully it’ll click together.”