The English Premier League has seen many one-time participants, but few, especially in the modern era, have been quite as memorable as Blackpool FC and their enigmatic maverick manager, Ian Holloway.
They held on until the final day of the season, losing at Old Trafford after going a goal up to slide back into the Championship. If you had asked any Blackpool fan if they’d have been happy taking it to the final game of the season then I’m sure they’d have bitten your hand off at the opportunity, but given the swashbuckling football that they had displayed over the course of the year, there was certainly a sense of opportunity missed when relegation was confirmed. This sense of disappointment must have surely intensified over the next decade when other ‘small’ teams like Swansea, Stoke and Burnley all managed to hold out for lengthy top-flight stints.
Getting into the Premier League the Blackpool way
The fact that Blackpool were even in the Premier League was something of a marvel. They came up through the Playoffs, having scraped in as the 6th placed team in the English Championship. Blackpool edged off Swansea City in 7th, who would go on to have their own Premier League fling two years later, were matched against a Nottingham Forest side who were desperate to reclaim their place in the top tier of English football.
11,000 fans crammed into Bloomfield Road to see the first leg of this Playoff; a relatively so-so affair that saw Keith Southern equalise to quash an early Forest goal. Diminutive midfielder Charlie Adam, one of the heroes of this tale, scored a penalty to put the home side ahead and give the playoff minnows a chance at the big time. Before they could dream of Wembley, they still had the task of holding strong at the City Ground.
Holloway’s side had won there a month before, so there was an air of quiet optimism going into the game, though few could have imagined the ding-dong affair that was about to unfold. Prominent quiz-question answer Robert Earnshaw scored early to cast some worry upon the Seasiders, but DJ Campbell scored in the second half to restore the aggregate lead. Things were getting tense in Nottingham, until a whirlwind seven-minute spell whereby Blackpool scored a further three goals. Stephen Dobbie bagged, meaning Forest had to throw caution to the wind, exposing themselves to the counterattack. DJ Campbell notched two more to complete his hat trick and secure the win. A late Dele Adebola goal was nothing more than a consolation strike.
On to Wembley for the Playoff Final and once again Blackpool found themselves a goal down early on. Unlike the previous game, they didn’t have to wait long to equalise, with Charlie Adam getting his side back on track. Joe Ledley put Cardiff ahead for a second time, but another Blackpool onslaught, this time just before halftime, turned the game on its head. Gary Taylor-Fletcher scored first before Brett Ormerod netted in first-half stoppage time.
Blackpool had done the impossible, but this was only just the beginning. They had a shoestring budget, a stadium that wasn’t going to be ready for the start of the season and a manager who, despite being a firm fan-favourite, had no top-flight managerial experience. The average football fan wasn’t questioning if Blackpool could stay up; they were wondering if they could beat the woeful Derby County points total from 2006/07. 90 minutes and change into their first Premier League game and they had already achieved over a quarter of Derby’s haul…
Ian Holloway: Premier League manager
Things should have gotten off to a rocky start. A stadium issue meant that Bloomfield Road wasn’t up to the standard needed for the Premier League, and their opener against Wigan had to be switched to a Wigan home game. The team rallied against this earlier adversity in emphatic style, putting in a truly stunning 4-0 victory at the DW. Goals from Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Alex Baptiste, either side of a Marlon Harewood double, gave the Tangerines one of the greatest Premier League debuts in the history of the league!
Blackpool were on cloud nine after this opening victory, and had a trip down to London to face Arsenal and had no fear about them – they were second in the league! Unfortunately for Blackpool, the sun wasn’t shining on them as brightly on this occasion. They were totally blown away by Arsenal, with Wenger’s men putting six unanswered goals past them. I am sure that Ian Holloway would have taken three points from two games in the league before a ball was kicked, but 6-0 is a hard pill to swallow.
The first couple of months of the season went as expected. They grabbed results against Wigan, Fulham and Newcastle, and they lost to Arsenal, Chelsea and in dramatic fashion to a strong Blackburn side. They travelled to Anfield in early October and the majority were trying to establish how many goals Liverpool were going to win by. As it turns out, the majority were wrong! Blackpool raced to a 0-2 lead at HT, and despite a Sotirios Kyrgiakos goal with over thirty minutes left on the clock, Liverpool couldn’t find a way back.
We’ll take a break from the game-by-game analysis to comment on their relegation. Blackpool were not a bad side. They picked up points, hell, they picked up wins. They finished the season with ten wins and nine draws, 39 points attained with 55 goals scored – albeit 78 conceded. The real problem with Blackpool was their consistency. Wins breed winning, and Blackpool rarely capitalised on the concept of form. They beat Liverpool, then conspired to lose Man City and then Birmingham. For a side that won ten matches in a season, only once did they earn back-to-back victories.
This purple patch occurred in November-December of 2010, where the Tangerines went undefeated in five games. 2011 was unkind to Blackpool, losing the first two games of the year to City and Birmingham again, and a match against Liverpool, rearranged after a Boxing Day call-off, looked surely to rub salt in the woods. Fernando Torres opened the scoring for the reds after three minutes, but Blackpool showed some real resilience. Taylor-Fletcher levelled on 12 minutes, and then DJ Campbell won it midway through the second half. Blackpool were hardly predictable, and that was enough to keep them afloat.
Unfortunately, in the English Premier League, teams don’t stay unpredictable for very long. Their chaotic and exciting form was being analysed by some of the brightest minds in the game and before long this fairytale was growing dark. After completing the stunning Liverpool double, Blackpool suffered five defeats in a row, with West Brom, Sunderland, Man United, West Ham and Everton defeating them. A 1-1 draw with Aston Villa stopped the run of defeats, however it still meant that they were six games without a win.
A magnificent victory over Tottenham Hotspur, another rearranged match from the festive period, saw Blackpool hopefuly of turning the corner, but alas, this appeared to be no more than a fluke. This Spurs win was secured on February 22nd. Blackpool didn’t win another match until the 14th of May.
They lost five of their next six points, but it was the game that they drew in this time period that arguably hurt the most. They had raced to an early 2-0 victory against Blackburn, with Charlie Adam scoring a double within the opening half hour. Chris Samba pulled a goal back for Rovers just after halftime, but Blackpool stayed strong. Stayed strong, that is, until the 93rd minute. Junior Hoillet scored a header late to deny Blackpool the victory. There were eight games left and they found themselves 15th in the table.
The slide towards Premier League relegation
Despite their poor 2011 form, they were able to keep their head above water, just. Eventually though, their sheer lack of points caught up on them. Following the Blackburn draw they suffered defeats to Fulham, Arsenal and Wigan, and this Wigan defeat on the 33rd week of the season saw Blackpool dip into the bottom three for the first time of the season.
Newcastle, Stoke and Spurs were their next three opponents and each one finished as a draw, the Stoke result, on April 30th, being their 5th clean sheet of the season. These points pushed them up to 17th, but the threat of relegation loomed. They faced Bolton in the penultimate game of the season, a thrilling encounter that Blackpool won 4-3. Despite the win, they fell to 18th.
Blackpool went into the final game of the season knowing that a point could be enough to keep them up, but results would have to fall their way. The concerning part was that they had to travel to Old Trafford, to battle Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United… a daunting enough prospect at the best of times. West Ham were already relegated, but FA Cup winners Birmingham, as well as Wolves and Wigan, were all in the relegation tussle.
Man United opened the scoring, but a wonderful Charlie Adam strike levelled things up just before halftime. Things went even better just before the hour mark when Gary Taylor-Fletcher put Blackpool ahead! This game was their season epitomised though. There were exciting moments and flabbergasting highs, but ultimately a lack of quality saw the team fail to capitalise. Five minutes after this goal, Anderson equalised for United. Ian Evatt scored an own goal ten minutes later and Michael Owen won it for the Red Devils shortly after. They were league champions, comfortably, and they had no desire to ease off. Sentimentality wasn’t in Ferguson’s wheelhouse.
Birmingham lost to Spurs to confirm their relegation, while Wigan enjoyed a dramatic win over Stoke to secure their league status. Wolves were defeated 3-2 by Blackburn Rovers but stayed up. They had the magical 40 points on the board and a slightly healthier goal difference.
Before the season started you’d have had very few people suggest that Blackpool would stay up, and yet, in spite of their torrid 2011, it still felt like a shock to see them go down. Their erratic and exciting play saw them grab a lot of points, however their refusal to conform to a more solid foundation in the back half of the season cost them dearly. Loses turned to a losing mentality and the goals started leaking.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in a footballing context it is extremely painful. Two more points, or one point and a little more solidarity at the back, would have been enough to keep them in the league, and who knows how they would have built from there.
Against fellow relegated teams, Birmingham and West Ham, Blackpool lost three games and drew one. That just isn’t good enough. Then there was the Blackburn capitulation. There were a myriad of “what if” results for Blackpool over the course of the season, but that means very little. While the relegation stung, they certainly gave it their all. Some teams come up and play to not be embarrassed, ironically embarrassing themselves in the process. Not Blackpool. Though. No, Blackpool left their mark. They weren’t very good, but they caught the eye, and they played like it was their time to shine. All too often they were left lacking that little bit of quality, but they were fun, and that is what football is about.
They may be back again and will have learnt some lessons. Blackpool have fallen on hard times in recent years after poor ownership and boardroom activity. They have been relegated from the Championship, seen mass protests and languished in League One for too long. They are back in the Championship again now, and things seem to have stabilised. They may never quite reach the heights of that Marlon Harewood dominance, of DJ Campbell and his heroics, or Captain Fantastic, Dundonian midfielder and football’s most parched player, Charlie Adam, but if they do make their way back to the heady heights of the Premier League, they’ll be welcomed back with open arms.