Blackpool are back

Published : Jun 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Blackpool are there again because they won the final of the so called Championship playoffs, in 107 degree heat and on Wembley's dangerous apology for a pitch against a Cardiff City team which had finished half a dozen points ahead of them.

So, after all these years — 39 of them to be precise — Blackpool are at last back in the top division. For their own fans, for sentimentalists and traditionalists, it is a moving moment. Look at it rather more objectively, it is something of a farce. Blackpool are there again because they won the final of the so called Championship playoffs, in 107 degree heat and on Wembley's dangerous apology for a pitch against a Cardiff City team which had finished half a dozen points ahead of them. Newcastle United, who won the division, were fully 32 points in front of them. And Nottingham Forest, whom they impressively beat home and away in the semi-final playoffs, had actually finished third, nine points ahead of them.

Such, alas, are the injustices and imbalances of the so called playoffs, which were dubiously introduced to try — as indeed they have — to keep hope and drama alive in the lower three divisions. If justice is not of this world, it is far and away from the convention of the playoffs. Over the League season, Forest plainly deserved to be promoted. In the tidal wave of romance which has swept over Blackpool, Forest surely deserve some sympathy.

The bookmakers have already laid five to two against Blackpool being instantly relegated. Judged on their display at Wembley, however gallant and resourceful, I'd say the odds were pretty generous. I was there to see a consistently exciting and dramatic game, but that's how games go when defences are so vulnerable. Cardiff it should be recorded hit the woodwork three times in Blackpool's 3-2 victory and right at the very end a splendid blocking save by the Blackpool keeper Natt Gilks preserved that lead.

Time and again poor positioning and poor marking by both defences allowed good chances to the opposition, and Cardiff bemoaned the injury to Jay Bothroyd, arguably the most accomplished and dangerous of the Cardiff attackers, which forced him off the field after a quarter of an hour. Though I thought that the equally tall Kelvin Etuhu stood in well for him. While the razor sharp through passing of Peter Whittingham, from the left, was a potent weapon, which twice split the Blackpool defence in the opening minutes, on the second occasion bringing a goal.

As against that, Charlie Adam responded with a glorious, left-footed freekick from the right which gave Blackpool the lead. It remains a mystery why this gifted player, dangerous on either flank or when he chooses, through the middle, was let go for a mere £500,000 by Glasgow's Rangers, who hardly wallow in talent. Strange too that it was as unfashionable a club as Blackpool, whose remote past glitters in the distance, should have been the one to acquire him. All in all, however, as one watched this fascinating but untidy game it was impossible not to wonder, with some measure of alarm, what Premiership attacks would do to such casual defences.

For Blackpool's exuberant, loquacious, sentimental manager, Ian Holloway, it was a marvellous and unexpected afternoon. A Bristolian, once a useful inside right with Bristol Rovers, it was both a triumph and vindication. Two years earlier, he had been sacked by Leicester City when, under his tutelage they sank out of the Championship. fter his victory he was predictably effusive and loquacious, drawing as was his right a sharp contrast between the modestly paid largely obscure members of his team and the immensely, even absurdly, rewarded stars of the four or so leading English clubs.

It wasn't always like this. Blackpool had a fine team during the Second World War when they relied heavily on the permitted guest players, and when football officially resumed in 1946, first with the FA Cup then with the Football League, they had a team that glittered. Above all in the shape of the superb England right wing pair of Stanley Matthews, alias “The Wizard of Dribble”, and Stanley Mortensen. But whereas Mortensen, though he came to the Lancashire seaside club from the North East, was very much their product, Stanley Matthews was essentially a Stoke City player from adolescence, a dazzling guest during the war when stationed with the RAF near Blackpool, crazily forced out of Stoke City by a jealous manager, Bob McGrory, who'd been his pre-war teammate there.

Stoke's huge loss was Blackpool's immense gain, when Stanley officially joined them in 1947. Officially, because he “guested” for them in the war when they already had a splendid attack, forcefully led by the big, fearless Scot, Jock Dodds, an actual Blackpool player, though he had led the Sheffield United attack and hit the Arsenal bar during the 1936 Wembley Cup final. Mortensen came later, dazzlingly quick, a supreme opportunist.

So it was that Blackpool reached the FA Cup final three times between 1948 and 1953 though they won it only on the third occasion; in what has always been known as “The Matthews Final”. This because it was seen as Stan's last chance, he having been on the losing side against Manchester United in 1948, Newcastle United three years later, to win the gold medal he coveted.

Win it he did with the whole of English football, bar Bolton Wanderers, the last gasp losers, and their fans, swerving and swaying in from the right-hand goal-line to pull the ball back for Bill Perry to make it 4-3.

Blackpool's average home crowd was some 30,000. Now, alas, their stadium takes a mere 12,000 though somehow they had 35,000 fans at Wembley, where victory means a huge bonus of nearly 90 million pounds for them. So at least Holloway is in a position to buy if he wants to. I'd say he needs to, but predictably, he would like to cling on to the players who have brought Blackpool up again.

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