Promotion Tales: Blackpool in the Premier League? Yeah, right!
For the second in our narratives exploring fans differing attitudes to promotion to the Premier League, we are pleased to welcome back Chris Walker, @OneDaveBamber on twitter and the maestro behind the Measured Progress blog. As a fan of Blackpool FC, Chris looks back to a season we ourselves chronicled in the first year of this blog’s life.
“Blackpool in the Premier League? Yeah, right!”
For a generation of ‘Pool fans, this is the answer that would be forthcoming had someone been ridiculous enough to suggest that the Seasiders could dine at the top table of English football. I was one of those people too. It just wasn’t the natural order of things. For almost 30 years Blackpool had bounded between the third and fourth tiers and despite our former glories in the eras of Mortenson and Armfield, lower league football is something to which we had all become accustomed.
Then, in 2006, something started to change. Investment from Latvian businessman Valeri Belokon prevented a drop into the fourth tier before pushing the club into the Championship under the management of Simon Grayson. When purchasing his 20% stake Belokon bravely announced that “Premier League in five years” was the target. Being realistic however, consolidation was very much the goal in the fans’ minds – after all, we were just happy to be in the second tier after 29 years away – and that’s how the first couple of seasons panned out.
It was assumed that survival in the Championship was about the limit of the club’s potential and Grayson opted to drop a division to join boyhood club Leeds United in December 2008, believing that the long-term potential there would be greater. It was hard to argue too much with this logic, however disappointing it was at the time, and it was left to perennial caretaker manager Tony Parkes, he of Blackburn Rovers fame, to guide Blackpool to safety aided significantly by the loan signings of DJ Campbell and Charlie Adam.
Despite a strong finish to the 2008/09 season, Parkes would not remain at the helm following a reportedly insulting contract offer and ‘Pool were left searching for a new manager. It was widely felt at the time that Parkes deserved more and for it to end in such a distasteful manner after serving the club so well, it would take one hell of an appointment to make amends. Step forward Ian Holloway.
It was an appointment that nearly didn’t happen with chairman Karl Oyston originally not wanting to interview the Bristolian due to, shock of all shocks, issues with an agent. Holloway convinced Oyston to grant him an interview, yet nearly walked out when Oyston showed up late and scruffily dressed. Thankfully for all concerned, the job went to Holloway, who had spent a year out of the game following a less than spectacular reign as Leicester City manager which saw the Foxes relegated to League One.
Holloway wasted no time in making his presence felt at Bloomfield Road, stating almost immediately that the training ground was a “hellhole” and was unfit for purpose. Sadly, it’s a problem that even more than two years since his departure is yet to be remedied. Holloway did however win concessions to train elsewhere on the Fylde coast for large portions of the 2009/10 season, including at the local rugby union side’s facilities.
The playing budget was also an early frustration for Holloway, which led to an emergency summit in Latvia during which Belokon authorised the creation of a transfer fund. It was this kitty that allowed £500,000 to be spent on the permanent signature of Adam from Rangers, a man Holloway would build his side around in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. It may only be around five years ago, but at the time virtually every other Championship side still operated using a more rigid 4-4-2. Blackpool’s system produced plenty of goals and when Campbell returned on loan at the end of January, a play-off place all of a sudden didn’t seem a million miles away.
The momentum at the back end of that season was something special, a team united in an improbable pursuit of promotion that became more tangible with each passing game. In March, a 5-1 home win over Swansea, the team ‘Pool were hunting down for 6th place, brought the play-offs closer, but for me, and many others, it was the Good Friday win at Glanford Park that provided the “I believe” moment.
Pegged back at 1-1 just after half-time, the minutes were ticking away and the three points Blackpool so desperately needed looked to be slipping out of reach. However, three goals in the last 15 minutes sparked euphoria in the away end, the goals being celebrated with all the outfield players lining the width of pitch stoking up the fans into even more of a frenzy. The players believed, the fans believed – the dream was on.
The penultimate league game of the season was the day that the Seasiders finally overhauled the Swans to leap into 6th place with a nervy 1-0 win at Peterborough, backed by a vociferous travelling support on the away terrace. Swansea tripped up at Bramall Lane meaning that on the final day Blackpool only had to match the Swans’ result. The Seasiders nearly blew it, drawing 1-1 at home to Bristol City, only for Swansea to be held too at the Liberty Stadium. Despite being tipped for relegation by many of the pundits pre-season, an unlikely play-off campaign awaited Holloway’s side.
Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest were the semi-final opponents, the two sides having met only weeks previously at Bloomfield Road when the diminutive yet belligerent Scot rested many of his key players with their play-off spot secure and no chance of catching West Brom or Newcastle for an automatic place. It’s a decision he would possibly later regret given the three points that day helped Blackpool into the play-offs. Despite falling behind on home soil, ‘Pool ran out 2-1 winners and took a slender advantage to the City Ground where the real magic would happen.
The second leg of the play-off semi-final is, for many of the 2,000 Seasiders who attended, almost more fondly remembered than the final itself. The atmosphere was quite simply electric as the game got underway and the noise from the Forest fans was deafening. Robert Earnshaw gave the hosts an early lead to really ramp up the pressure on Holloway’s men, but a second half hat-trick from DJ Campbell stunned the City Ground into silence, aside from a small tangerine corner of the stadium which erupted like never before. Blackpool were going to Wembley.
By this point, it’s fair to say tangerine fever had caught the imagination of the Blackpool public. The club has had a strange relationship with its residents down the years and before promotion to the Premier League, there was probably only a hardcore of around 3,000-4,000 with roughly the same number again being occasional visitors to Bloomfield Road. With Holloway’s Bristolian charm and enthusiasm though, coupled with the success being enjoyed, the club had no problems selling out their allocation against Cardiff.
Thinking back to the day of the final, much of it now feels like a blur. Five goals in the opening 45 minutes as the game swung one way and then another, but Brett Ormerod’s goal to put Blackpool ahead for the first time in the game felt like a killer blow had been landed. Cardiff had struggled to live with the Seasiders and going in at half-time with a deficit must have felt insurmountable. They did have their chances after the break, but ‘Pool held on. The so-called fairytale was complete. That feeling when the final whistle sounded is one that will always live with me. Never have I felt so euphoric in a single instant and it was a special moment surrounded by family.
On the coaches that headed back north, the talk was all about how this would change the club. I vaguely even remember saying “who cares if we even finish bottom…£90m! We’re actually going to be able to spend some money now!”. In the days that followed, Karl Oyston seemed to echo this sentiment when he was quoted as saying “It will absolutely change the club forever. It can’t fail to.” Well, we all know the story from here…
Once the parades had ended, one might have expected the planning for the Premier League to go into overdrive. Just how was Holloway going to try and keep his side from being embarrassed every week, let alone keep them in the top flight? While retaining on-loan Seamus Coleman was never a viable prospect, surely both loanee heroes Stephen Dobbie and DJ Campbell would be signed up without a moment’s hesitation? Not so. Blackpool dithered, and while Campbell did eventually arrive on August deadline day, Dobbie stayed at Swansea, helping them to play-off success the following season.
Another Swansea-based target was Angel Rangel, but refusal to part with any serious cash meant that that deal never happened. And neither did so many others. Only a week before the start of the season, barely any new arrivals had walked through the door and pre-season had been that desperate that even Francis Jeffers pitched up as a trialist at one point. The hopes of spending some real sums of money – not mega millions left, right and centre, but the odd £1m player here, maybe a £2m player there – looked more and more remote.
Four players were eventually signed three days before the season – Chris Basham, Craig Cathcart, Ludo Sylvestre and Elliot Grandin – for modest sums, but to say Blackpool were leaving it late was an understatement. The latter two were both believed to be signed off a DVD sighting alone, so the hopes that moving up a level would professionalise the recruitment process seemed ill-founded. The club also bucked the trend by loaning Luke Varney from the league below. This is Oyston’s self-styled “unique way of doing things” in full view.
It wasn’t only on the pitch where Blackpool had work to do either. The anecdote, as told by the then club secretary Matt Williams, goes that in the days following promotion, officials from the Premier League visited Bloomfield Road to discuss rules and regulations for the forthcoming seasons. Requesting a meeting with Blackpool’s nine department heads, Williams had to inform the Premier League that the club didn’t have nine departments, let alone heads for them. The Blackpool way was to operate on a lean basis, with Oyston and Williams overseeing the running of the club between them.
When the meeting was finally held, the anecdote continues that of 102 criteria required of promoted clubs, Blackpool could meet just three. It’s a story that seems a little exaggerated, but nonetheless one that club officials appeared to revel in, with the Seasiders as “the little club that could”. One element of Blackpool’s inadequacy though could not be doubted, and that was the state of the stadium. A frantic rush over the summer saw a new semi-permanent East stand constructed, although not quite in time to fulfil the opening fixture scheduled at Bloomfield Road against Wigan, which had to be switched so the building work could be completed.
It was perhaps fate that it set up that opening day at the DW Stadium in that way, because it’s hard to imagine any team has ever started their debut Premier League season in more spectacular fashion. Three first half goals, courtesy of an opener from Gary Taylor-Fletcher and a brace from Marlon Harewood blew Roberto Martinez’s Wigan away, and a fourth goal from a mishit Alex Baptiste cross capped off the day for the 5,000 strong travelling Tangerine Army. Come full-time, Blackpool were top of the Premier League.
Blackpool came back down to earth with a bump on the end of a 6-0 thumping from Arsenal (albeit with 10 men) and were also humbled 4-0 in early September by Chelsea, but for the most part the first half of the season was simply exhilarating. Holloway’s men spent most of that period in mid-table and incredibly won five away matches before the turn of the year; many promoted sides fail to hit that figure all season. Indeed, Lancashire rivals Burnley had failed to win away from Turf Moor in the entirety of their Premier League campaign in the preceding season.
The 2-1 victory at Anfield in early October was arguably the highlight of those heady autumn days, if not the whole season. Once a still-in-his-pomp Fernando Torres limped off early on, Blackpool dominated a stunned Liverpool taking a 2-0 half-time lead with both goals at the Kop. Roy Hodgson’s team rallied late in the game but the Seasiders clung on to claim a famous victory. If anything was to signal the club’s arrival on the world stage, this match was it. Indeed, I know of two Canadians who cite this match as the moment they adopted ‘Pool as their soccer team of choice. Oh, how they might now wish that match had turned out differently!
Aside from the hammerings received off Arsenal and Chelsea, the only other real black mark on the season pre-January came at Villa Park, when Holloway controversially opted to change 10 players from the previous week. It was a selection that the Premier League deemed to be a devaluing of their competition resulting in a £25,000 fine for the club fielding a weakened team, despite all of the players being included in the 25 man squad submitted back in August and only a stoppage time goal sealed a 3-2 win for the hosts.
Such wholesale rotation against an Aston Villa side there for the taking at the time did raise eyebrows among ‘Pool fans and to this day some still question if that was the ultimate difference between survival and relegation, but one can still argue the club were treated unfairly. When the top four had made eight or nine changes ahead of big European games in the past, they had gone unpunished, yet seemingly Blackpool were guilty. Moments like this gave the impression that the club weren’t really welcomed or embraced by those in power, and that paranoia would develop into a siege mentality as frustration began to creep in during the second half of the season.
At the end of December a 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light took Blackpool onto 25 points, eighth place and cruising towards a second Premier League season. However, the singing of Auld Lang Syne sparked a collapse of gigantic proportions. From this point on, very little would go right and a lot would go horribly, horribly wrong. Although a famous double would be sealed over Liverpool in Kenny Dalglish’s first game in charge, January would go on to be remembered as the month which contributed most to the eventual relegation.
On the pitch, Blackpool would lose all four of their other five matches that month, and the final one of the lot, at home to Manchester United, was particularly galling. It all seemed to be going swimmingly too with a 2-0 half-time lead and a shock on the cards. Early in the second half Luke Varney was clearly felled in the box by Rafael da Silva and as most of the ground expected a penalty and possibly even a red card to be the outcome, play on was the call from referee Peter Walton. Had it been at the other end, one suspects it might have been a different decision; there goes that small club paranoia again.
Sure as night follows day, United capitalised on an incensed Blackpool and inspired by the introduction of Ryan Giggs off the bench, turned the game around in the final 20 minutes in classic fashion to emerge 3-2 winners. That result was a real sucker punch, both at the time and looking back now, and one suspects that had that penalty been given and converted, that likely win could have changed the course of the entire season.
Off the pitch, naivety in the transfer market would also be another nail in the coffin. Seemingly learning no lessons from the chaos of the summer’s recruitment, a haphazard approach was taken and deals left late. On the one hand, Blackpool resisted the advances of Liverpool to keep talisman Adam at the club until the summer, much to the midfielder’s annoyance, but the incoming players were simply a poor fit. Or possibly, it was assumed the team had already done enough and were virtually safe, so transfer business could be left until the summer.
James Beattie, Andy Reid and Sergei Kornilenko all arrived with the intention of providing added depth in midfield and attack, but all three turned up lacking fitness and appeared to adopt a diet of nothing other than fish and chips off Blackpool promenade during their spell on the Fylde coast. Moroccan defender Salaheddine Sbai joined on a free transfer without ever making an appearance, while only Jason Puncheon, on loan from League One Southampton, provided any impact.
The leaky defence received no reinforcements and perhaps most crucially of all, no replacement was sought for the hapless Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson. Following an injury to Matt Gilks in November, Kingson stepped into the breach but his performances were less than convincing, even when he did keep a rare clean sheet. Gilks would not return until April and the points dropped during Kingson’s tenure between the sticks due to goalkeeping errors were another scapegoat for missing out on survival.
Post-January, the home stretch was largely a miserable experience. One bright light that briefly raised hopes was a home win over Spurs, including a landmark goal for Brett Ormerod which saw him enter the records books as scoring for Blackpool in all four divisions, but February was also notable for a turgid home defeat for relegation-bound West Ham and a frankly insane 5-3 defeat at Goodison Park – if ever a game epitomised the way Holloway’s side approach life in the Premier League it was that one, replete with swashbuckling attacking and kamikaze defending.
Results continued to go wrong for the Seasiders and a DJ Campbell moment of madness at Molineux saw the main source of goals suspended for three games. One of them was the trip to Ewood Park, which saw Blackpool squander a two goal lead and drop two more crucial points that would be the difference between staying up and going down. The flapping Richard Kingson was to thank for this one, gifting Blackburn Rovers an equaliser right at the death in stoppage time.
The momentum was now firmly against the Seasiders, but a run of four home games in April, including three against Stoke, Newcastle and Wigan – all seemingly winnable – gave hope that Blackpool still had it in their own hands. Those four games on the Fylde coast yielded just two points, and a spineless 3-1 defeat to Wigan inched the team ever closer to relegation. With three games to go, only goal difference was keeping Blackpool out of the bottom three. Trips to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford comprised two thirds of the remaining fixtures; the prospect of salvation now seemed remote.
Yet somehow, so very nearly, Blackpool almost came back from the dead. Away at Spurs, ‘Pool went 1-0 up through an Adam penalty, who had to wrestle with Campbell for the privilege of taking it after missing one only seconds earlier in a frantic couple of minutes. Alas, the familiar pattern re-emerged and dropping deep to hold onto the lead, Jermain Defoe found a last minute leveller to break tangerine hearts. The final home game saw Bolton visit Bloomfield Road and the two sides played out a re-run of the Matthews Final with a rip-roaring 4-3 victory for the Seasiders which seemed to give survival hopes a real boost. Results elsewhere however went against Blackpool and it meant that they would likely need to win at Manchester United to stay up.
It had been hoped that United, having already won the title and with a Champions League final to prepare for, might have taken it easy on plucky little Blackpool, but no such luck. Against a near-full strength side, Holloway would need his charges could beat the champions on their own patch. When Ji-Sung Park opened the scoring midway through the first half, any blind optimism from the away end looked to be swept away.
Blackpool being Blackpool however, weren’t going to go down without a fight. A Charlie Adam free-kick set the club on their way in the play-off final exactly a year to the day prior, and another looked like it might save the day, with the former Rangers man rifling one low past Edwin van der Sar on the stroke of half-time. Just before the hour mark, the unthinkable happened when Gary Taylor-Fletcher tucked away a David Vaughan pass to give ‘Pool the lead. If they could hold out for half an hour or so, the team written off as potentially the worst Premier League side of all time before a ball had been kicked would be having the last laugh.
It just wasn’t to be though. Taylor-Fletcher’s goal only served to prod the beast and within five minutes, Anderson had equalised. 10 minutes later and a cruel Ian Evatt own goal sunk Blackpool, with Michael Owen wrapping it up shortly thereafter. The away fans nonetheless sang loud and proud – “10 points, we’ll only get 10 points” was the defiant chant in admiration of their heroes who while relegated, had done the shirt proud and won over many neutrals.
Holloway looked like a broken man in his post-match press conference, stating that Blackpool’s house had been built on sand and worrying that his team that had given it such a good go would now fall apart. It seemed he knew which way the wind was blowing, as later years would prove.
There would indeed be casualties following relegation – Adam, Vaughan and Campbell the most notable – but the arrivals of Kevin Phillips and Barry Ferguson helped steady the ship and provide a strong platform for promotion push. The club would spend the majority of the season in, or just outside, the play-off places and once again Holloway had a side playing entertaining free-flowing football. Yet, in many ways, the football was far from the biggest story.
In early March, the club’s accounts for their season in the Premier League were made public and with it came the revelation that Owen Oyston, majority shareholder and chairman Karl’s father, had been paid an £11m salary through his company Zabaxe Ltd, along with various other transactions that showed large sums of money being spent not on the football club, but other Oyston entities. £11m was equivalent to roughly the entire wage budget – had that money been spent on players rather than being gifted to the owner, perhaps relegation would have been easily avoided. If there had been impatience up to this point at the lack of a visible legacy from the Premier League windfall, this was now amplified as the Oyston family’s priorities were made clear.
It is a pattern that has continued with each year of parachute payments, from which the supporters have yet to see any real investment back into the football club, be it on the playing staff or a new training ground to replace the dilapidated Squires Gates facility. The stance Oyston took on wages in the Premier League could be argued as admirable in that the club’s future wasn’t risk for the sake of multi-million contracts, but ultimately the money has been used to secure the family’s own wealth rather than progressing the football club. It’s quite simply heartbreaking.
Anyway, back to the 2011/12 season and while the financial revelations saw an on-pitch wobble in the weeks that followed, Holloway did eventually get his troops back on course and a 5th place finish was fairly comfortably achieved. The Championship play-offs 2nd time around had an altogether different feel about them. Yes, there was tension and yes, there was a willingness to get back to the Premier League, but there certainly wasn’t the same buzz as two seasons prior.
The same euphoria as that felt at the City Ground in the semi-finals the first time around was absent and the whole feel of the day at Wembley against West Ham was just ‘off’. As it happens it was a final that Blackpool largely dominated, and were it not for their own profligacy, they would surely have sealed an instant return to the top division. Alas, it wasn’t to be and that was that. That defeat seemed to completely finish off Holloway, and after his departure to Crystal Palace, Blackpool have gone through managers, and players, like hot dinners.
The missing buzz does raise a critical question however; what would it have been like to experience the Premier League for a second time? If the novelty factor had disappeared for the second run at the play-offs, would top flight football also have been somewhat emptier as a repeat event? It’s certainly true that not everything about the experience was positive, and there were things I was quite happy to see the back of.
For a start, there was the cost as a fan. Having previously rarely paid above £30 in the Championship for a match ticket, such a sum was now commonplace. Paying upwards of £40 was now to be expected and the £49 charged at Chelsea was stomach-churning. Determined to follow the club round the country in what could be a one-off season, the bullet was bitten on many occasions, but it was never a transaction to be proud of. Could paying those prices in a second, third or fourth Premier League season really be sustainable?
Obtaining away tickets for the big games could be tricky and there was some division and in-fighting between ‘Pool fans over how priorities were allocated based on length of time as a season ticket holder as opposed to past away attendance. That said, it is surely a problem that would have evaporated as the novelty wore off and the cost of road trips began to mount up. Would people really cough up nearly £50 to see Blackpool get hammered at Stamford Bridge a second time, especially with easy access to either television coverage or the omnipresent online streaming? We could have easily become known as a club whose fans travel poorly, much like Wigan were unfairly maligned for their relatively low numbers on the road. With the cost of modern football and the traditional size of both clubs, nobody could blame fans for staying away.
That feeling of being belittled, or perhaps even worse patronised, would surely have grown over time too. Just as the novelty of being in the Premier League would likely have dissipated among Blackpool supporters, fans of other top flight clubs and the media would possibly have turned on the Seasiders. For many, Holloway’s schtick was already wearing thin halfway through that season anyway. Would staying up, or winning that play-off final against West Ham, resulted in people growing tired of little old Blackpool?
The levels of patronisation were something of annoyance for large parts of that season. Figures in the mainstream media would utter some platitude such as Blackpool being a “breath of fresh air” countless times, while at the same time coming across as them serving up only backhanded compliments. It’s not to say that the Seasiders should have got more credit than they did, and let’s be honest, the second half of the season was a virtual car crash, but that when credit was forthcoming, it felt more like a pat on the head rather than anything sincere.
So, all that in mind, it is worth considering if Blackpool were better off out of it altogether. High ticket prices, being belittled and patronised, bickering supporters and a general feeling of being unwelcome at the top table, one begins to wonder if it’s for the best that it was a one time thing.
That I’m even asking the question if a return to the Premier League would be welcomed though seems somewhat perverse given the current situation. Blackpool definitely look on course to get out of the Championship this season, but through the trapdoor rather than heading back to the top. No, being back in the top flight seems a distant prospect.
Perhaps a better question is if, knowing what I know now, would I take back ever making it to the Premier League in the first place? It’s a question to which there is no simple answer, and there are certainly arguments in favour of wishing the past few years had never happened. The only ones to really benefit from the promotion of 2009/10 are the Oyston family and their bank accounts. And boy, have they revelled in it, often at the fans’ expense. That has been a bitter pill for many to swallow.
But what about the memories of that season in the sun, that’s got to count for something, right? Would denying the Oystons their big payday outweight the good times fans experienced in the height of the Holloway era? Giving up those memories would not be easy. Blackpool boast a 100% Premier League record over Liverpool for crying out loud and we were the talk of the country and even now fans of other clubs still have a fondness for what ‘Pool so nearly achieved against the odds.
There was also the time that Blackpool sat on top of the pile, even if it was only on the first day of the season and for two hours. Do you know how many Seasiders had that screenshot of the league table as their lock screen on their phones, or in some cases, still do? And then there’s that feeling of taking the lead at Old Trafford on the final day. Sure, it didn’t last but those were some five minutes let me tell you. Blackpool were the ultimate underdogs and we so bloody nearly did it.
There’s been a lot of celebratory imagery used here, possibly bordering on being over the top. Hero this, monumental that. This would be a valid criticism. After all, Blackpool did still get relegated, however close they may have come. But what I think is important is the feelings those good moments provided. Even more so now, with the future promising to be so gloomy, looking back at fonder times with a rueful smile provides some levity from the current grim reality. We can at least still be proud of what we once were.
And with that, I’m fairly sure I’ve answered my own question; no, I wouldn’t take it back. The situation that ‘Pool now find themselves in, one of the Oyston family’s own making, is deeply upsetting. There seems to be no end in sight and for all the determination to avoid “doing a Portsmouth” by limiting the amount spent on players, the club Blackpool most look like emulating at the moment is Stockport County. This is a downward spiral, make no mistake, and it will take drastic change to reverse this slump. Remembering those better times might be all we have soon.
So, the immediate future is bleak, but at least we made our mark back then, however brief it was. It’s often said that football is cyclical and who knows, maybe 5, 10, 20 years down the line we could be back. After that amount of time away, the downsides of being a top flight club will be long forgotten and the excitement of competing with the best in the land would surely overtake and make it a tantalising prospect once more. But, for now…?
“Blackpool in the Premier League? Yeah, right!”