Blackpool continue ascent against all odds

The Premier League table doesn’t look quite as promising for Blackpool as it did a week ago, but I bet there’s not a single Tangerines fan who would not have settled for 11th position at the half way point in the league. They have a few games in hand too.

Despite excelling,  Blackpool are still only five points clear of the relegation zone - and I really hope they don’t go down. I’m not a fan, I just can’t believe they made it to the Premier League in the first place and I’ve been absolutely amazed by what’s happened since.

I’ve been to Blackpool twice for FourFourTwo. The first time was a decade ago when Bloomfield Road was falling apart. A decade after the Taylor report, it was the last ground in the country to have money spent on it and was still essentially the same as it had been for decades.

Actually, it was worse. The roof on the Kop had been dismantled and half of it was condemned, the advertising hoardings were faded and the floodlights were reduced in height to weird looking stumps because they were a bit rusty at the top. And to think that it once held 38,000.

Bloomfield Road was a mess, while over at the training ground, players changed in portable buildings and manager Steve McMahon fined anyone if they were caught using their mobile phone.

Seven years later in 2007, I went back to Blackpool to do a feature on the West Lancashire  derby with Preston North End. I met some great people, from club legend Jimmy Armfield to the retired club secretary and some of the more boisterous element of their support.

I spent a few nights in the resort at the faded Norbreck Castle, where the Manchester United players stayed in the 1960s. It was full of coach parties of pensioners from the old Lancashire mill towns, all enjoying the view of the Irish Sea’s heavy brown December swell. Nearby, you could get a B&B for £9. Long-time locals bemoaned that the accommodation was filled with a benefit and drug dependent population of outsiders who gave the town a bad name.

I had to be objective, but Preston’s fortunes appeared the better of the two, whichever way you looked at them. Preston had acquired city status and its city centre was booming thanks to a university, Blackpool’s was much maligned.

Preston were far better supported and Deepdale was almost redeveloped into a smart 23,000 seater stadium modelled on the magnificent Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, while Bloomfield Road had just two permanent stands. Arguments raged locally about whether they would ever build a third, but the feeling was that Blackpool’s stay in the Championship wouldn’t be a permanent one and a 9,200 capacity would be enough.

I was stunned that Blackpool stayed up in the Championship and put it down to their talented young manager Simon Grayson.

When Grayson left for Leeds and was replaced by a caretaker manager, I feared that Blackpool would slip back into the third tier, but they managed to stay up. They also were favourites to go down last season under new boss Ian Holloway and on average gates of 7,000 (10,000 less than the league average), you could understand why. Instead, Holloway led them to the Premier League via the play-offs.

Reading between the lines, Blackpool were disorganised over the summer and unprepared for life in the top league. A journalist friend from the Daily Telegraph intended to go and write a piece on them, yet found communication impossible and they said that there would be no press on the day he’d planned to travel up.

Then, a press conference was hastily arranged. My friend got a call ten minutes before it started. Not everybody lives within 10 minutes of Bloomfield Road…

I talked to a couple of players, one who claimed that there were a couple of better paid non-league players than Blackpool first teamers.

I was certain that they’d go down and be well adrift of the rest, yet a new stand went up over the summer and Blackpool started the season with a bang – a 4-0 win at Wigan. That set the template for what would follow, the most magical story in English football for years.

I also spoke to someone who worked on the playing side at Bloomfield Road. “It’s all about the manager,” he opined. “Those players would run through brick walls for Ian Holloway.”

Preston? They’re four points adrift at the bottom in the Championship with average attendances 4,000 behind Blackpool. Greavsie was right. It’s a funny old game.

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