Of Daggers and Tangerines - Dreams in smithereens
So Blackpool return to the Football League just a year after they left it, writes Iain Liddle. The result most neutrals and pundits pencilled in at the start of the season, but, by the end of it, few wanted.
As someone who spent a large part of the 2010/11 campaign reporting on Dagenham & Redbridge, it is hard not to draw parallels between the two clubs’ plights. Yes, they were both cast in the role of plucky underdogs and yes, they both ultimately fell at the final hurdle, but there are deeper similarities, dating right back to the way they won promotion in the first place.
Both came up after sneaking into the final play-off place in their division, following a fine late run of results. Blackpool took 19 points from the last 24 available, before beating top seeds Nottingham Forest at home and away. Dagenham won four of their last five and didn’t even need the second leg of their play-off semi-final, having beaten Morecambe 6-0 in the first game at Victoria Road.
Then at Wembley, just two days apart from each other, a 3-2 scoreline was enough for both to see off Cardiff City and Rotherham United respectively, secure promotion and immediately be installed as red-hot favourites to return to the division they had just exited at the first attempt. I remember interviewing defender Scott Doe in the mixed zone after the League Two play-off final and he seemed awed by the fact that he would returning to the County Ground to play against Swindon Town – the club who released him as a teenager. Fast forward a year and Daggers took four points from six against the Robins en route to comfortably finishing above them.
Although their journeys through the season took different paths, each were underpinned by the managers’ basic belief in winning rather than not losing. It should be obvious to all football observers that three draws in a row is no better than one win and two defeats. However, coming off the back of a World Cup where the early rounds were filled with restrictive tactics, it was refreshing to be reminded of that fact.
There were great victories and inglorious defeats along the way. For Blackpool, there was the opening day rout of Wigan Athletic as well as coupon-busting home victories against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. In contrast, there were also points dropped from winning positions against Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers. Dagenham’s home victory over Charlton was labelled the biggest in the club’s history by manager John Still, while the win at Carlisle in December seemed like a genuine turning point. Equally, if they could have avoided even just one of the injury time goals conceded at home to Tranmere, MK Dons and Hartlepool they would have stayed up. Sometimes your chin is most vulnerable when you’re trying to connect with punches of your own.
When both sets of supporters looked at the fixture lists last June, the optimists would have turned immediately to the final day for a potential great escape venue, but neither group will have wanted to rely on it. Many may even have thought the dust may have settled before that point. Trips to Manchester United and Peterborough United to take on different generations of the Ferguson family, as it transpired, beckoned. Going into the final weekend, Sir Alex’s side had scored 45 goals in 18 home matches and conceded just ten, Darren’s an incredible 64 in 22.
If this all sounds mightily patronising to those involved then that is far from my intention. Their achievements were made possible by sound managerial skills and certain players performing above the levels it was previously thought they were capable of reaching. It also helped that each side boasted a classy playmaker – in Charlie Adam and Danny Green respectively – capable of a rifled free kick or pinpoint assist when the occasion called for it. Despite it all though, the fact they went into the last round of fixtures in the final relegation spot looking upwards is a real feat in itself.
There was a degree of hope considering Manchester United had the Premier League title wrapped up, with one eye on the Champions League final. And Peterborough could only finish in fourth place, knowing the play-offs were just around the corner. The fairytale finale seemed possible when the alarm clocks went off on the morning of each game but as we now know, it was not to be. Blackpool conceded a fourth goal searching for an equaliser and Dagenham could not hold back the relentless tide that was Posh’s attacking threat. Even if the eventual 5-0 scoreline was slightly unreflective given the three late goals conceded when the visitors switched to a 2-3-5 formation.
There seems little romance in the end result. Both sides were relegated and punters who bet their mortgage on that being the case at the start of the season woke up with a roof still over their head and wife by their side. Looking further ahead, neither will be a favourite to make a swift return and both will face a battle to hold onto their star players.
I lost count of the number of times I was told at away grounds “you’re far from the worst team to come here, you’ll be fine” and it counts for little in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes glory can be found among the wreckage of despair. Up and down the football pyramid, we have witnessed one of the most open and exciting seasons for some time. There is no doubt that in the Premier League and League One, that was in part due to two sides who few thought were deserving of spots there in the first place.