Madcap manager Ian Holloway has the Premier League's paupers playing like royalty.
A wealth of optimism at Blackpool
In these recessionary times, a lesson in how to make a little money go a long way comes from the unlikeliest of sources - football.
Perhaps only those who got lost on northwest England's M55 or who fancied a dip in the Irish Sea had good reason to visit Blackpool before Ian Holloway took the seaside resort's cut-price team to the Premier League this season.
Holloway is a rare breed, not merely because he builds his own chicken coops, but because he is a manager with a social conscience. He acknowledges that while football has not felt the full force of the economic crisis, some of its fans have. He has railed against "politicians robbing you left, right and centre", and he has no time for football's brats who earn big wages before they have earned their spurs.For these reasons, Holloway stands out among Premier League managers.
"These lads who are given far too much too early, they're monsters in my opinion," he said. "They get far too much too soon and they waste it." Little danger of that happening at Blackpool. Ideology aside, one reason that Holloway can afford to be suspicious of the corrosive effects of wealth in football is that he does not have much of it to work with. Valeri Belokon, the Blackpool president, is a Latvian tycoon who reportedly served as a sniper in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and is not as free-spending as some of the other sugar daddies in the Premier League.
Blackpool say they pay their players on average just £10,000 (Dh58,283) per week, still princely in the real world but pauperish compared to the fatter wage packets that players with top clubs rake in each day: Manchester City's summer recruit, Yaya Toure, reportedly earns £185,000 a week. Blackpool's most expensive signing this August in preparation for the rigours of top-flight football was DJ Campbell, a striker acquired from Championship club Leicester City for a bargain basement initial fee of £1 million - hardly worth getting out of bed for at Real Madrid.
Blackpool's players wash their own training kit and the club politely declined when Chelsea said they would charge £15 per head to feed the visitors lasagne after they played the mega-rich London side on September 19. "We feel like a tramp who has won the lottery," Holloway said of his little club's rise to the big league. But cheap does not have to be nasty. As their latest victim, once-mighty Liverpool, can attest, Blackpool, in the top half of the table with 10 points after seven games, are staking a claim as the Premier League's best side on a pound-for-pound basis.
And Holloway is looking good to be crowned Manager of the Year. Kudos to him for not playing cut-price football. Holloway likes to field four strikers at times. The long season will deliver the verdict on whether his tactics are admirably or merely recklessly adventurous. When it works, as it did in the historic 2-1 win at Anfield last week, Holloway's attacking philosophy is entertaining and as vibrant as the team's tangerine jerseys. Blackpool also beat Wigan Athletic 4-0 in their opening match, their first in the top flight since 1971, downed Newcastle United 2-0 and held Fulham to a 2-2 draw.
But Arsenal, masters of the type of football Holloway would like to play, spanked Blackpool 6-0 and Chelsea put four past Matt Gilks, the goalkeeper who has made spectacular saves at vital times for Blackpool, in a humbling first half at Stamford Bridge. "The rich are getting richer, the best are getting better and the rest of us are trying to hang on to their coat-tails," Holloway said after the Chelsea defeat.
Holloway has told interviewers that it was during a year out from football before taking the Blackpool job - when he also built his chicken coops - that he learned from watching games as a commentator that he wanted his sides to be free-flowing. "I'm fed up of teams getting behind the ball and trying to defend things and boring 1-0 wins," he said. But there will be times this season when Holloway is going to have to ask Blackpool to win ugly, grind out slim victories and avoid late goals like the one conceded in a 2-1 loss at home to Blackburn Rovers on September 25.
Resilience will be vital toward the end of the season when the pressure for teams battling to stay up becomes more intense. But so far, so good. In 18 seasons of Premier League football, 33 clubs have suffered the agony of the drop down to the second tier, some repeatedly. But just two - Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion - did so after earning at least 10 points in their first seven matches. So history is on Holloway's side. He has boundless optimism, too. And that costs nothing.
* Associated Press