Ian Holloway: The funfair's over, now it's time to get serious

The Blackpool manager is renowned for crazy quips but with the Premier League in sight he no longer plays the joker. Steve Tongue speaks to Ian Holloway

It is a date writ larger than any other in the history of Blackpool Football Club: 2 May. It was on this day in 1953 that Stanley Matthews finally won his FA Cup medal in what many still insist was the greatest final of them all, when Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers were beaten 4-3 after leading 3-1 with only a quarter of the game remaining.

No better day, then, for a new tangerine dream, as the Seasiders take on Bristol City this afternoon needing an equal or better result than Swansea City achieve against Doncaster in order to make the Championship play-offs.

Blackpool in the Premier League? Returning to a level they have only enjoyed for one brief season in the past 43 (1970-71, winning four games out of 42) would be the most romantic of tales, even if they were immediately made favourites to return below stairs as quickly as last time.

Promotion would also bring a return to prominence for someone regarded as a larger-than-life figure who is expected to enliven many a dull day – not to say Match of the Day. But be warned. The club's manager since last May, Ian Scott Holloway is older (47), wiser and, a little disappointingly, altogether more serious.

The man once voted 15th funniest in London on the back of a few soundbites as the manager of Queens Park Rangers has grown tired of his image; Mr Madcap now wants to be known as Captain Sensible.

In this interview he rarely smiles and apart from one metaphor, about polishing gems and selling them on – one of his greatest strengths as a lower League manager – there is only one attempt at the sort of analogy that once caused a whole book to be published on The Tao of Ian Holloway. It comes when discussion turns, a little reluctantly on his part, to the possibility of Blackpool, 19th and 16th in the last two seasons, qualifying for the play-offs and then taking their place among the country's elite.

Gesturing towards the big dippers on Blackpool's seafront within sight of the training ground, he says in that Bristolian burr: "You go down the road here and buy a ticket for a ride, you know there's gonna be ups and downs and that's the exciting thing. You don't want to think about the end, worry about getting off. You just want the ride. So if we get in the play-offs, we'll be looking forward to that ride."

Ian Holloway's ticket to ride, like anyone with 30 years' service in football, has had its highs and its bumps, accentuated by moving clubs nine times and by a family life made infinitely more complicated when three of his four children were born deaf. For a year after being sacked by Leicester City in 2008, he was able to devote more time to the girls and his long-suffering wife Kim, a cancer survivor, even if the enjoyment became tinged occasionally with self-doubt about his employment prospects.

"I sat thinking, would I ever get another opportunity, did I want one? I was getting some media work, which I found really refreshing, and had an opportunity to watch some top-class football. But there was a time I thought I wasn't going to be given another chance. I had an interview at Swindon and they didn't want me. That was not a nice moment.

"My wife was happy, saw a lot more of me, we were talking about getting a house somewhere, doing something different, maybe self-sufficient. Sometimes the football side of my life doesn't really suit the person Kim is.

"It was a strange year but a good year. I think it does everybody good to look at themselves and evaluate. Then you think if you ever got another chance how you'd do it."

The chance came at a Championship club slowly recovering from hard times. For half a dozen seasons in the 1980s and 90s Blackpool were in the fourth tier, once finishing fourth from bottom with several gates of under 2,000. The then club chairman, Owen Oyston, went to prison for three years but under his son Karl and Latvian businessman Valery Belokon there has been a steady revival. There were more than 59,000 at Wembley three years ago to see Simon

Grayson's team reach the Championship and after he left for Leeds it was to Holloway that the club eventually turned.

Grateful to be brought in from the cold, he determined to make the most of it with a new approach: "I think it's what I needed. I'd never been up north before, nobody's ever heard any of my interviews and what have you. That year out thinking I might not ever get another chance changed my mindset. I believe my duty is to entertain people, that's my new philosophy that I came up with. I don't want to defend my way to a win. After 14 years I'd become more scared of losing a game than being fearless to win it."

The first target he set was to turn last season's goal difference of minus 11 around. Only the promoted sides, Newcastle and West Bromwich, have scored more, and he admits: "Maybe we've been too open. I just want to continue to create chances, because I believe that my lads will score."

Since a 3-0 defeat by Sheffield United, they have won six games out of seven, losing only to Newcastle. Victory at Peterborough last weekend while Swansea lost carried them a point ahead of the Welsh side and into a play-off position. Real pressure then? Holloway almost snorts. "Pressure to me is not this game. It's not even Crystal Palace versus Sheffield Wednesday to see who goes down. If you've got a life-threatening illness and got to have chemotherapy [as his wife did] and might pass away, that's pressure. The rest of it is just dealing with your job, and my job is trying to entertain people with a football team."

Entertainment will be provided on the pitch rather than in after-match quotes. The new, serious Holloway says: "I can't worry about how other people perceive me because of what I've done in the past. I can't deny I've done them and said them. I don't think it does you any favours at times but you can't help what people think about you. That belongs to them. Anybody now who wants to talk to me about any sort of subject will realise I'm a serious fella who wants to be a good football manager."

He is better equipped to achieve that than the player-manager who started 14 years ago with his first love, Bristol Rovers, ground-sharing the ramshackle Twerton Park with Bath City. "It was

hard. I'm glad I am now where I am in my career. I wouldn't like to go back to the first day I took charge. You bluff it and you blag it. You develop as you go along. You have ideas and then you've got to learn."

Lessons have been accumulated from hard-up Rovers, from administration at Queens Park Rangers, then Plymouth, where he thought he had found a West Country home from home, and Leicester under Milan Mandaric. "I went away from a fundamental thing," he says, "which is building slowly, selling people on and eventually trying to get there. I got sick and fed up of seeing other people buying my good players. I got a little bit jealous and a little bit impatient. That was the story at Leicester. You need to polish up your own gem and then sell that on. That's what I've made a career of doing. Probably too successful for my own good because I lost all my better players. Then I wanted a chance to spend some money."

At Blackpool he was allowed to spend a club record fee of £500,000 on Charlie Adam from Rangers, who has become the leading scorer, though only after selling the captain Shaun Barker to Derby. No complaints on that score. "This is one of the most solid clubs I've ever been at. It's fantastically well run. We don't spend money we haven't got. We've got no debt and the way this football club is run, a lot of clubs should use it as a role model."

At one o'clock this afternoon, on Blackpool's day of days, it will be Bristol City, the old enemy from earliest times, standing in his way. No funny quips or tortuous speeches in the dressing-room this time. "I think we've got a good spirit and some fantastic players. As long as we stick together, who knows? Anything's possible. Someone's gonna get there and I've said to these lads, why can't it be us?"

Ian Holloway will be writing a World Cup column exclusively for The Independent on Sunday, starting on 6 June

Ups and downs

Automatic promotion: Newcastle United are champions and West Bromwich Albion secured the runners-up spot.

Play-offs: Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City and Leicester City filled three of the four play-off places. Blackpool (hosting Bristol City) must at least equal Swansea City's result (at home to Doncaster) to claim the final play-off spot.

Relegation: Peterborough United and Plymouth Argyle have already been relegated. Sheffield Wednesday will join them unless they beat Crystal Palace today; they would go down instead.

Wit and wisdom of Holloway

"I have such bad luck at the moment that if I fell in a barrel of boobs I'd come out sucking my thumb."

"To put it in gentleman's terms, if you've been out for a night and you're looking for a young lady and you pull one, some weeks they're good looking and some weeks they're not the best. Our performance today would have been not the best-looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi. She wasn't the best looking lady we ended up taking home but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee"

"There was a spell in the second half when I took my heart off my sleeve and put it in my mouth."

"Every dog has its day, and today is woof day! Today I just want to bark."

"We threw everything at them. The kitchen sink, golf clubs, emptied the garage and threw it at them. Unfortunately, it was not enough, but at least my garage is tidy."

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