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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

To Hull And Back

Not even the sagest of scribes could have predicted Blackpool’s sensational 2010. Unless you’ve been on the moon, you know that the Seasiders went from relegation fodder in the Championship to the best thing to happen to Premier League football since a beach ball scored a goal against Liverpool. Their direct impact on people actually enjoying watching the league this season is rivalled perhaps only by Sian Massey.

At Magic Spongers, we’re big fans. Sure, we don’t know how or where Richard Kingson became a goalkeeper between the World Cup and the turn of the year, or how Brett Ormerod is in a Premier League squad, but what we do know is that if Blackpool go down, the league will be a poorer place for their loss.
In those initial, glorious throes of Premier League life, Blackpool were a joy. Remember how you saw that they’d won 4-0 away at Wigan on the opening day? What an absolute delight that was. When they won at Anfield? Unbelievable Jeffrey. But did anyone think they’d ultimately be ‘doing a Hull?’. We certainly didn’t, but then we were too busy fawning over Charlie Adam playing incredible passes to give a shit anyway. On reflection though, there are some worrying signs.

Ian Holloway’s side, despite spending most of the season with seemingly a magic map and compass, haven’t been able to find their way out of the metaphorical relegation woods just yet. Sitting 15th, they are only two points above the relegation zone – but then also only a win away from the relative sanctuary of 12th place. Five straight defeats and 16 goals conceded doesn’t exactly smack of the upwardly mobile though. It smacks of some rather important wheels doing some rather concerning rattling.

Let’s look at these defeats: 3-2 against West Brom, which could have gone either way; 2-1 at home to Sunderland in a game of many chances; 3-2 at home to Man United in a game they should’ve got at least a point from; 3-1 at home to West Ham; and most recently, the 5-3 thriller at Everton. Blackpoool are still scoring goals and Adam is still playing sensationally but the tide seems to have turned and they are coming off on the wrong end of results with alarming regularity instead. The focus is shifting onto their defence rather than their potent attacking.

The West Ham game was the big surprise – mostly because Andy Reid started alongside Adam in a midfield arrangement that always seemed luxurious. The Everton game then slipped away too when Holloway replaced DJ Campbell and Jason Puncheon (attackers) with Rob Edwards (defender) and Keith Southern (midfielder) on 74 minutes as Blackpool led 3-2, only for Saha to score two minutes later and for the home side to go on and win. I wouldn’t for a second question Holloway’s desire to try and see the game out, but in doing so he left Blackpool with few outlets up front for too long, as well as disorganised with an unfamiliar configuration at the back.

In no way do I want to be a harbinger of doom, but these are issues Holloway needs to address. Of course, the pressure always intensifies when gambles that were previously so successful (see: Liverpool game at Bloomfield Road, when Southern and Alex Baptiste (another defender) replaced Luke Varney and Gary Taylor-Fletcher with ten minutes to go) fail to pay off as spectacularly every time.

I am mainly worried because I’m so desperate to see the football Blackpool play be rewarded. Watching them is like being told as a child that your mam’s taking you onion shopping, only for her to drop you off at the apples stall with a quid to spend.

Are Blackpool actually doing a Hull? In the Tigers’ survival year, they had 29 points from 25 games and were 12th in the table. Blackpool, after 25 games, have 28 points and are 15th. The year Hull went down, perhaps more pertinently, they had 24 points from 25 and were 14th.

Hull’s dramatic slide in their first season was matched by their plummet back to the Championship in their second. At this stage of 2008-09, they hadn’t won since December 6, and only won a solitary further fixture (away at Fulham in March). At this stage in 2009-10, they had admittedly beaten Manchester City in game number 25, but only enjoyed a single further victory (also away at Fulham in March, rather amazingly). Blackpool travel to Fulham on April 2. Hmm.

The Seasiders last won on Jan 12, at home to Liverpool. They have 13 games left, but only five are away – although that might be bad news for a club that has picked up 17 points on the road but only eight at home.  Trips to Wolves, Blackburn and Fulham may be crucial, as will the stretch of four consecutive home games in April.

The similarities with Hull therefore exist, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, blindly believing adventurous football deserves results, they won’t go down. They might be saved by Ian Holloway’s man-management or Roberto di Matteo’s sacking, but I think they’ll have just enough. It’s a test of Holloway’s footballing principles though. If he gets too preoccupied with the defence it could upset the whole dynamic of the side. Blackpool’s porous nature has to be handled with a light touch and it would be fantastic for the neutral if Holloway can somehow manage to balance attack and defence while staying true to a philosophy that has endeared his side to so many.

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