There’s little point in conducting a detailed post-mortem on the game at Old Trafford, by now everyone knows the outcome, everyone knows the consequences of that outcome. Blackpool fans worldwide are cycling through the emotions that hit us all in times of heartbreak and despair. Hearts are broken but dreams were made and our dreams will never die. The dreaming continues and the pain will subside, the sadness fades with each passing hour and hours become days, weeks become months and soon the optimism will return. The tide has gone out by the seaside, but it will soon return and a fresh patch of wet sand will emerge and the footprints on that sand will be of the next generation of Blackpool players to take this club on to its next chapter.
The game at Old Trafford summed up the season that Blackpool had, excellent on the ball, chances being created, goals being scored. Drive, determination, passion and commitment graced that pitch, however, the defensive frailty that has been apparent all season long came back to kill them off. Manchester United eased up a gear or two and with that the Blackpool defensive line was pulled back to front and side to side, twisted and turned inside out, till the pressure became too much to bear.
As predicted the game was open, even if the line ups were too hard to call given the pressures that the hosts had elsewhere. Blackpool may well have broken the deadlock early on, decisive passing and drive first put Keith Southern and then Gary Taylor-Fletcher within yards of the goal, only for composure to evaporate in front of the Stretford End.
The first Manchester United goal was picked out in the preview, Berbatov pulling out to the wide right to latch on to a ball from the deep. Park Ji-Sung finishing superbly after being given a yard by Ian Evatt. Give a yard to a footballer at this level and you might as well give him ten. Blackpool responded, in truth Manchester United looked happy to let them have the ball and Blackpool were happy to have it, caressing it about the pitch, working it along their back line and in to midfield. However, as they stepped in to the final third the Manchester back line snapped at the Blackpool heels and refused to let them turn on goal.
Blackpool did get chances, but they had to work ridiculously hard for them. Their midfield three took it in turns to step higher up the pitch to pressurise Scholes in the deep and Fletcher roaming free. The goals came from familiar routes for Blackpool, a set piece and then a deft passing move. Charlie Adam and Gary Taylor-Fletcher getting the goals, the former drawing plaudits all season long, but really it’s the latter whom encapsulates what has been so good about Blackpool this season. Taylor-Fletcher when standing next to the athletic physiques of a Premier League footballer looks like your average bloke, but his mind is razor sharp and he plays strongly with an imagination that many a footballer just can never possess.
As the game wore on Sir Alex Ferguson made a few changes bringing on talent that showed he is a winner and his team are winners too and that is what happened. Stephen Crainey had pushed Nani back and away from goal, and stopped him from running at him in a one on one situation. However, Ferguson switching his wide men proved to cause enough doubt in the mind of Neil Eardley at times, forgetting his assignment and affording too much space to a critical attacking threat. Which added to Eardley’s cheap concession of the ball assisted in the pressure being ratcheted up to a notch that caused the defensive line to buckle and the game was lost.
Having a final game against Manchester United was perfect in so many ways, a contrast on many levels and in so many ways (too many for this post). After the Blackpool squad trudged with dejection towards the tunnel, the preparations for a party were just beginning and not long after, came the procession. It was led by a celebration of the Manchester United backroom staff and after all twenty-something of their coaches came on to the pitch it was apparent that football at this level needs structures around the first team that nurtures and supports each player week in week out. Before the season started Ian Holloway had an assistant, a physio and a part time goalkeeping coach. Last minute shuffling and recruitment upped those numbers marginally so that another coach came in, someone could offer guidance around fitness, analyse performance and train goalkeepers on a full time basis. It was breathtaking to see Manchester United’s troupe of coaches walking out on to the pitch, to the casual observer you’d have thought it was their first team. They were professional and they were bristling with pride, content and satisfied with a season of work. It’s a testament to the work that Ferguson puts in, team talks and tactics are a fraction of what he has built and listening to Holloway’s press conference afterwards, you can see that he has aspirations to build Blackpool back up, but build them as a club to sustain Premier League football.
This has come too soon for a club of Blackpool’s size, they weren’t supposed to get promoted, the club officials didn’t expect a manager to bond and blend a side together and turn them from potential League One material to a side who could grace the biggest stages in the land. Some teams prepare ‘projects’ designed to get in to the Premier League, they invest in fat fees and salaries and park up at a freshly built stadium complete with sponsorship from multinationals and backed with the drive and commitment of a board intent on breaking in to a market or the Premier League as it is also known.
Now Blackpool’s return to the Football League has been confirmed you’ll note that this blog post has changed somewhat, it might be more (or less) fluent and less focused on the rational. There may be a little more narrative, a little opinion or two. That is a conscious choice, perhaps an acknowledgement that to ‘chalkboard’ this match is a little futile. I could probably back up my earlier observations if I had the energy, in fact you might have noticed that I’ve slipped in to the first person for the first time on the blog. I hope you’ll allow me to do that for now. I hope you have enjoyed what I’ve tried to do on the blog this season, I’ve enjoyed every minute of doing this and every single minute of the season. Each season comes and goes, but this one was that little bit special. Going to those grounds you normally see on tv, hearing those familiar voices talk about your club, your players.
I’d normally take in a couple of Premier League games with my regulation Blackpool medicine and I was always fascinated with the speed and technical precision of the game at the highest level. I once saw Arsenal draw 1-1 with Liverpool at Anfield, I remember seeing Cesc Fabregas dominate the game with supreme passing, movement and awareness of tempo. In the same game I remember thinking that Kolo Toure was carrying a lot of timber for a footballer but still shifted at a rate of knots that left me gawping. A game at Bloomfield wasn’t like this. We’d marvel at the maverick genius of Wesley Hoolahan or roll on a Nolan (never sure which one) at the start of a season for a comedic kick off. The hope would come once a year that we might play Liverpool or Manchester United in a cup game, occasionally we drew a big club and the fever swept the coast. However, in the back of my mind I could never imagine our players trotting out at Anfield, they weren’t good enough, strong enough, quick enough or big enough. Our shirts weren’t tailored the same, not made by Adidas or Nike, we didn’t have drinks crates on the side lines. All those seemingly silly things stood out as a contrast, the Premier League was about supreme talent in stadiums rich with tradition and history.
I never seriously thought I’d be here after a season of seeing my team in the Premier League and I never thought I’d feel so sad about leaving it. At the start of the season I was happy to have a good season and return to the Championship. However, we football supporters become consumed in anything that we are doing in the moment and those moments captivated me and I realised that our team was capable of playing Premier League football, they were as good, were as fast as other teams and when they shot at goal they could swerve it and move the ball in the air. With all that was the realisation that I cared, I cared because I wanted another season and another season in this league. Why? One reason, the gap isn’t that far, these footballers aren’t on another planet. They are beatable, they are humans, they just work in the confines of greater structures and have been exposed to different levels of conditioning. Sat this season in Anfield, not far from where I saw that Liverpool v Arsenal game I saw my team turn in a near faultless first half to put Liverpool behind by two goals. It was unreal, surreal, but yet reading the results and watching it later made it real and it was real. We deserved that game, we deserved every game we won with the exception of one (Spurs at home), we played on the front foot, we attacked. We lost more than we won, but the sadness lingers around those results that we couldn’t close out from winning positions. Holloway tried a plan B, but for a plan B it helps if you have a deep squad and another mind or two to assist you with the strategy and another mind or two to help practice that.
However, right now I feel sad that we couldn’t achieve the impossible. We gave it everything, but it wasn’t quite enough. This world doesn’t always reward the aesthetic or the cultured aspect of humanity, life is tough, life is nasty, brutish and short (thanks Hobbes). I believe in the good of this life, the beauty of this world, for purity and joy. For art and for science. Cynicism and treachery hold no place in my soul. Being upfront and passionate are integral, bullying and physicality are traits best rid out of the world. For Blackpool, we tried to do things differently, perhaps we have set a precedent, perhaps clubs will learn from what we did. Looking at Swansea then perhaps there has already been a shift in the way clubs are thinking. Hopefully, more clubs will come up and try and cultivate footballers rather than athletes and try to string patterns of play together that see the ball hug the grass. Perhaps not, as a Premier League season is nasty, it can be brutish and for Blackpool it was short.
I’m sad that this signals the end of an era. Of the starting eleven yesterday, eight of the players were brought to the club prior to Ian Holloway’s arrival. We’ve seen those players flourish under his tutelage and become ‘proper’ footballers like what you see on the telly an’ all. It’s sad that I’ll never see David Vaughan do his pre-match shuttle runs, or chase a lost cause or exchange passes with Charlie Adam whilst in a tangerine shirt. Sad for the loss of all the players, whilst knowing that they have brilliant chances to further their careers elsewhere.
I hope you’ve kept reading this post as it wandered down the page from match report to quasi diary entry with flickered notes of emotion, stifled by the rawness of this moment and the lack of ability on my behalf to write as lucidly as a more seasoned author might. I hope you’ve enjoyed all I’ve tried to do on this blog and I hope you enjoy the posts that come in the next couple of weeks as I put forward my highlights of the season and review from a tactical and statistical point of view where things went right and wrong for Blackpool. I may wake from this dream soon, but only briefly before I close my eyes again and dream once more.