x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Blackpool are a small-town club with big-time ambition

The club with the Premier League's smallest budget by some distance won more away games than Manchester United this season, although it is at their home of Bloomfield Road where they will be tested tonight.

Charlie Adam, the Blackpool captain who has been arguably the club’s star performer this term, yesterday handed in a transfer request.
Charlie Adam, the Blackpool captain who has been arguably the club’s star performer this term, yesterday handed in a transfer request.

Rewind three years to a vile winter morning on Blackpool sea front. Rain lashes against the windows of the resort's faded hotels, where one can enjoy a bed and breakfast for as little as £9 (Dh53) a night.

The heavy brown swell of the Irish Sea crashes against the famous promenade, where shelter is limited and shoppers scurry quickly to avoid the downpour. Nearby, a gaggle of football fans make their way to Blackpool North train station, gateway to the resort for hundreds of thousands of working-class families holidaying from northern England and Scotland over the past century.

Blackpool attracts more visitors each year than Greece and has more hotel beds than Portugal. It consumes more chips per capita than anywhere on the planet and boasts Europe's second most popular tourist attraction, the Pleasure Beach, only topped by the Vatican.

And yet it has seen much better days.

"Blackpool is ugly, dirty and a long way from anywhere," wrote Bill Bryson in the best-selling Notes from a Small Island, "its sea is an open toilet, and its attractions nearly all cheap, provincial and dire."

The fans travelling away to see Blackpool against Preston North End, their biggest rivals, have grown tired of such criticisms.

They bemoan that the surfeit of accommodation is filled with a population of outsiders on government handouts who give the town a bad name.

They also knew that the fortunes of the football club had mirrored those of the town. Blackpool joined the Football League in 1896 and have a proud history.

FA Cup finalists in 1948 and 1951, they went one better and won the competition in the "Matthews Final" of 1953, when the Seasiders came from 3-1 down to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3, inspired by club legend Sir Stanley Matthews.

During the post-war period, Blackpool finished runners-up to Manchester United's "Busby Babes" in the race for the 1956 title. The club also supplied England with several internationals - four of them, including the great Stan Mortensen, for the famous 1953 Wembley defeat to Hungary. A statue of Mortensen now stands outside their Bloomfield Road home. Later, Jimmy Armfield was in the 1966 England squad alongside Alan Ball.

The Seasiders were relegated from England's top flight in 1971 and the rot slowly set in. Their Bloomfield Road stadium splintered and crumbled and by the turn of the millennium was the worst ground in the Football League, but at least the club was still in existence.

In 1983, just 12 years after playing in the top tier, Blackpool faced the ignominy of being re-elected (being voted back into league football by fellow professional clubs) after finishing fourth from bottom of the old fourth division.

It was not so much a roller-coaster ride, but a downhill slide in the town's famous fun house.

Local media tycoon Owen Oyston, the flamboyant former actor, saved Blackpool from ruin in 1988, only to step down when he was convicted of rape. His son, Karl, took over and remains chairman, but the Oystons divide opinion locally, with appreciation for their role in saving Blackpool from bankruptcy and keeping the club solvent tempered by concern.

In May 2006, Valery Belokon, a Latvian businessman and Oyston business associate, became club president after making an undisclosed investment which gave him a 20 per cent stake. When he talked about Blackpool playing Premier League football within five years, people considered him mad.

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When the fans reach the train station on this dire morning, the message "Good Luck Blackpool FC" appears on information screen. They will need it.

It is the 2007/08 season and Blackpool have just been promoted to the Championship, England's second tier. While they might be favourites to be relegated back to the third level, they intend to enjoy their season among bigger fish like Preston, their West Lancashire rivals from down the M55 motorway.

Preston, who boast an equally illustrious history, have spent £1.5 million on new players, Blackpool just £100,000.

Preston average 13,000 crowds in a smart and fully redeveloped stadium, Blackpool struggle to get 8,000 in a stadium with just two permanent stands. They have the smallest stadium and second lowest crowds in England's second tier.

Blackpool win the game and the three points lift them out of the relegation zone, to which they do not return. The achievement is enough for Simon Grayson, their talented manager, to be offered the job at Leeds United, a much bigger club, in 2008.

Blackpool were again favourites to be relegated in 2009 and despite being heavily dependent on loan signings (22 alone in 2008/09), they manage to avoid the drop. They were also favourites to go down last season under Ian Holloway, their new manager.

Instead, Holloway led them to the Premier League via the play-offs and a dramatic victory over Cardiff City, in which Brett Ormerod scored the winner, nine years after scoring in a League Two (fourth level) play-off final.

The town enjoys the moment and the players celebrate their success on an open top tram on the promenade, but Blackpool are predicted to go straight back down.

Championship sides such as Bristol City outbid Blackpool for players in the transfer market, with the Tangerines unwilling to pay any player more than £10,000 a week.

They spend the summer sprucing up their home and construct a new temporary stand which seats 5,000 and boosts the capacity to over 16,000. It is still the smallest in the league but it is almost twice what it was a year ago. It is in that stand that Manchester United fans will take their seats for tonight's Premier League game.

Visits from giants like United are one of the reasons why season tickets sold out and average crowds have almost doubled. Most expected to lose most weeks, while still having a good time, but Blackpool have dumbfounded the critics.

Despite having the lowest playing budget in the league by a distance, Blackpool hammered Wigan Athletic 4-0 away on the opening day of the season. They have since beaten Liverpool, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Sunderland away - all clubs in the top half of the table with formidable home records.

"They have been a breath of fresh air this season because they have gone out and attacked teams," Ryan Giggs, United's midfield veteran, said.

Blackpool have won as many away games as United, the league leaders, and champions Chelsea combined, though they have picked up just 11 points at home - fewer than any other Premier League club.

"We're living the dream and are desperate not to wake up," said Simon Early, a lifelong fan. "But we're worried we soon will. Most pundits had us down to 'do a Derby' [Derby County went through the 2007/08 season recording just a solitary victory in 38 games] but at the start of 2011 we were eighth in the table.

"But, the way the Premier League's been this season, it's still only six points off relegation, so I know which direction I'm looking."

Such nervousness is understandable given that Blackpool have lost four of their last five league games.

If they lose key players like Charlie Adam, their much revered captain who, according to his agent yesterday, had handed in a transfer request, then Holloway's task will be even harder.

He has kept the media entertained with his thoughts on everything from fielding under strength sides to the chickens he keeps at home, but underneath the jovial exterior is a demanding manager.

In turn, his players talk about being prepared to run through brick walls for him. They play good football, too. Premier League survival was considered implausible, but Blackpool have given themselves a realistic chance by their form in the first half of the season. They might not build on that against unbeaten United tonight, but where Blackpool are concerned, who knows?

sports@thenational.ae

11.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 5