Holloway has Blackpool rocking at prospect of return to the big time
As the Tangerines stand one win from the Premier League, the whole town can reflect on a season of rare sporting success
They are not even sure they will bother having today's Championship Play-Off final on TV at the Bloomfield Hotel, just up the road from Blackpool's ground. "I don't think there'll be anyone here," says the barman – and with over 35,000 tickets sold by a club with a ground capacity of around 12,000, he might have a point.
He goes back to polishing the pictures of the 1953 FA Cup final that still dominate the walls of the deserted pub. "Everyone's staying in and saving their money for the weekend."
Sport in Blackpool has been not so much a sleeping giant as a skinny man from a Donald McGill postcard, in string vest with a knotted hanky on his head, dozing in a deck-chair. All that changes today when the town's football club goes to Wembley to try to reclaim the top division status it last enjoyed almost 40 years ago – and that is not the only success story on the Fylde Coast.
In their own, slightly smaller ways, Blackpool Panthers and Fleetwood Town are enjoying unprecedented good times. Fleetwood have won promotion to the Blue Square Conference Premier for the first time, while the Panthers are setting the pace in rugby league's Championship One. There must be something in the water, apart from the occasional cautiously-dipped toe.
"It's all come as a huge surprise," says one of Blackpool's most iconic figures, the former England captain, Jimmy Armfield, of his old club's success. "If you'd asked people at the start of the season what was a realistic expectation, they would probably have said establishing themselves in the Championship. You have to give [manager] Ian Holloway a lot of credit, because it's basically the same team, plus a few loan signings.
"And now they've opened the new stand here, that shows a bit of ambition, although there's still temporary seating on one side, which they'll have to do something about." Armfield, on his way out to play the organ at a funeral, is too modest to mention that the stand is named after him.
The broadcaster, David Oates, is that Blackpool rarity, a supporter of the town's teams in both codes. "But there's no doubt that it's really a football town and, after 29 years in the two bottom divisions, this is the best season I can remember," he says.
Oates credits Simon Grayson, now at Leeds, with turning the club around and recalls his doubts when Holloway was appointed as his successor last summer. "Things had gone pear-shaped for him at Leicester and people weren't 100 per cent sure that they'd got the right man," he says. "Until they got to know him, they thought he was a bit of a clown."
Oates now believes that Holloway "has connected with the town" – its transient population, its shortage of full-time employment, its general air of swimming against the tide – in a remarkable way. "I remember thinking early in the season when they beat Newcastle that maybe it wasn't going to be a relegation scrap after all and now we're one game from the Premier League. Taking the whole of the Fylde Coast, we've got the Panthers and Fleetwood doing so well, it all adds to it."
To describe the history of rugby league in the town as a roller-coaster ride would be to invite a complaint from the Pleasure Beach. Like the football club, that history is not short of legendary names. Blackpool FC had Matthews and Mortensen; Billy Boston and Brian Bevan played for the now defunct Blackpool Borough. The difference was that they only spent the declining days of their distinguished careers beside the seaside.
Apart from a heady period in the late 1970s, when they contested a John Player final and won promotion to the old First Division for a single season, life was always a struggle for Borough and their successors. In the Blackpool Panthers, however, the town now has a winning side.
Last season, they won their first trophy in more than half a century of striving – the Northern Rail Nines. This time, they have the last 100 per cent record in the three professional divisions, put a record 132 points past Gateshead on Sunday and were given a standing ovation by Leeds supporters when they trailed only 22-16 at half-time in the Challenge Cup at Headingley recently. Like Blackpool FC, they have a young man with a style all of his own at the helm. Martin Crompton is a droll Wiganer who played at top level for Warrington among others and took on the Panthers as his first coaching job.
"We're all talking about each other. Blackpool often give us a mention and it would be fantastic if they got into the Premiership," he says. "Ollie's done a remarkable job. I've met him a few times; he's a down-to-earth bloke and a likeable character and a bit similar to me in that he follows a lot of different sports."
There is another affinity that will not be lost on the long-suffering sporting public of Blackpool. "Both of us have had some very dark days not too long ago," Crompton says.
On the Promenade, though, the sun has come out. There is a gleaming tangerine-liveried tram – specially repainted for the Wembley occasion – on its way to Cleveleys and, up and down the coast, professional team sport is back on track.
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