x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Blackpool hope that lightning strikes twice with Premier League return

It was assumed Blackpool would be one-season wonders after relegation from the Premier League last season, but they are well placed for a return. An FA Cup fifth-round tie at Everton gives them the chance to showcase their potential.

Blackpool's English midfielder Matt Phillips is one of the up-and-coming players giving the club a chance of promotion back to the top flight.
Blackpool's English midfielder Matt Phillips is one of the up-and-coming players giving the club a chance of promotion back to the top flight.

The final 90 minutes were a microcosm of their season. With a gung-ho attitude and no little quality, Blackpool surged into a 2-1 lead against Manchester United. Then the Premier League's most porous defence was breached three more times and were defeated and demoted.

With hindsight, there seemed an inevitability to their demotion last season. They were too naive to survive.

And that, most assumed, would be that. Blackpool would return to obscurity, being remembered as an improbable aberration, a one-season wonder in the top flight. Except that lightning might just strike twice. They return to a top-flight venue, Everton's Goodison Park, in the FA Cup, but are threatening to be back for good.

"If you'd asked me at the start of the season if I expected to be fourth in the table in February and in the fifth round of the FA Cup, the answer would have been not at all," manager Ian Holloway said. Unbeaten in 10 games, his side have acquired the same momentum that characterised their promotion two seasons ago.

"We've dusted ourselves down," Holloway added. "I felt a bit sorry for myself for a while but we've got the bit between our teeth." He was swift to say he was not interested in succeeding Mick McCarthy as Wolves manager; he is aiming for a Premier League comeback as part of the Tangerine dream.

Rewind six months and it looked unlikely.

"The atmosphere was hideous, the depression was hideous, how we got relegated was hideous," Holloway explained. Club and morale dropped while their prize assets were plucked by more glamorous clubs.

Top scorer DJ Campbell moved to Queens Park Rangers, midfielder David Vaughan went to Sunderland and captain Charlie Adam to Liverpool.

Deprived of the Scottish midfielder, his former colleagues set about emulating him. Watching the early-season Blackpool was seeing player after player attempt 50-yard diagonal passes. Few came off.

The current side are a very different outfit. "It's nice to win ugly," said Holloway after last month's dramatic turnaround against Coventry. The purist has rediscovered his pragmatic streak. More pertinently, a team that suffered from late drama has started to enjoy it.

The Seasiders have conceded first in five successive league games recently, but took 11 points courtesy of comebacks.

"I feel we can score late goals because of the options on the bench," Holloway added.

It is the result of a huge overhaul at Bloomfield Road. Fourteen players have come in and 13 gone out, while Holloway has played the loan market enthusiastically. In particular, he has signed strikers for fun.

The major threat may be found on the right flank, however. The England Under 21 winger Matt Phillips was used as an impact substitute last season. Now a regular starter, he has scored 10 goals in his last 11 games. Holloway, who is tipping him to join one of the top five clubs in the country, rejected January bids from Bolton Wanderers and Cardiff City.

On the opposite flank, Thomas Ince, son of former England captain Paul, is another youngster to offer pace and trickery. Not that either is guaranteed a game.

"Now there is no first-choice 11 because we have got 20-odd players who can play," Holloway added. With more options, he is adapting his gameplan and no longer being deemed an innocent adventurer. "It is great to hear people saying the tactics are good," he said.

Such comments were in short supply last year, not least when Blackpool lost 5-3 in an incredible game at Goodison Park. This, though is a different Blackpool; still attacking but less open, with a very different midfield and forward line and intent on securing a second promotion.

"We have worked hard, shaken off that Premier League hangover and I am just delighted all of the gremlins are gone," Holloway said. "We'll return to savour the occasion -and hopefully we can show that we are a Premier League team in the making."

sports@thenational.ae