WHEN Rovers Under-23s won 5-3 at Derby County in December, it signalled the next step of Bradley’s Dack comeback. Within two weeks, he would be back on the first-team pitch.

Commanding fewer headlines was the player who replaced Dack at half time of that match, Joe Nolan, then a trialist, a free agent after leaving Preston North End last summer. Within 25 minutes, he had his first Rovers goal.

In the first Premier League 2 fixture of 2021, and as transfer deadline day drew to a close, Dack’s latest appearance saw the Under-23s taken centre stage after a busy day of dealings at Ewood Park.

Again, Nolan was introduced at half time, this time for Corry Evans, and by the 74th minute, he had his second goal in three outings, and soon signed his first professional deal.

Dig a little deeper, and for Nolan, who turned 19 last week, this meant more than a normal trialist. Here was a boyhood Rovers fan, who like many of his age idolised Tugay, wanting to seize every moment of the opportunity to represent his club.

The attacking midfielder has since become a firm fixture in Billy Barr’s side, a happy knack of popping up in the six-yard box having seen him already score four times.

There is a glint in his eye, and an enthusiasm to his voice, as he discusses the opportunity he has been afforded. Yet it came after the potential of drifting out of the game altogether when, like Tyrhys Dolan, they were among those released by Preston North End as the pandemic, and a lack of opportunities at Under-23s level, proved decisive.

“It was a bit of a blow really, it was during lockdown and I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Nolan told the Lancashire Telegraph.

“I had a feeling it could happen, but I can’t hold it against them, it was just one of those things. They didn’t need me and I’ve come here and I’m doing well so I’m doing really well.

“I didn’t have any certainty, when I realised I was going to get a trial at Blackburn I knew that I was going to have to take it because it was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to come and play for my boyhood club.

“I didn’t really feel pressure, just excitement. I just wanted to get back out there having not played for so long, but to sign, it was so enjoyable.”

By this point fans were already lauding the arrival of Dolan, who had starred already for the first-team, over their near neighbours, and now look to have taken another prospect off North End.

He was part of the Preston side beaten by Rovers in an epic FA Youth Cup encounter last March, ticking off an achievement of playing at Ewood Park.

He now dreams of doing it in the blue and white of Rovers, but playing a part in a successful Premier League 2 campaign for the Under-23s is an opportunity he’s grasping with both hands.

“It would be a dream come true, all my family and friends are Blackburn fans, so it would be unreal.

“I get a lot of texts off them and saying to try and get in the first-team and fingers crossed hopefully I will.

“I’m really enjoying my time here, I’ve supported Blackburn all my life and it’s a dream come true to score for my boyhood club.

“I’m looking to play as many games as I can and play well, that’s what I want to do and try and keep pushing on.

“I want to keep adding more goals to my game and see where I end up, keep going.”

So how did a boyhood Rovers fan slip through their net initially?

Nolan said he came to the club for trials aged seven, but would then go onto join Manchester United before Preston. That seemingly runs in the family, with his younger brothers turning out for those two teams respectively.

As for the player he holds in the highest regard, well that’s an easy one to answer.

“I loved watching Tugay, he was my inspiration. Everything he used to do, his passing, his touch, his goals. He was frightening,” he said without pausing for thought.

“If I could take a few bits from his game, then who knows.

“I prefer playing a bit further forward, looking to get goals. Billy has said to me that it’s a good habit to have so I’m enjoying as a No.8 or a No.10.”

Being released after a two-year scholarship at Preston at the same time as clubs were looking to cut their cloth threatened to see Nolan drift out of the game.

However, he was sold on the dream of being a professional footballer, and keen to push himself to the limits required to reach it.

“I was doing a lot on my own, I had a few coaching sessions as well. I played for Runcorn Linnets, had a few games for them and enjoyed it, and kept myself ticking over,” he explained.

“Had I stopped then the fitness would have dropped, I just had to keep plugging away and then when my chance came I managed to take it.

“This is all I’ve wanted since I was a young boy and to be able to live it right now I couldn’t ask for anything better.

“It’s really good to be playing in the Under-23s league, coming up against teams like Arsenal and Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, teams that I haven’t played against before so it’s something new for me but I’m enjoying the challenge.”