Is the Premier League ready for Ian Holloway?

The Blackpool manager is sizing up the heist of the season.
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The Independent Online

"If you're a burglar, it's no good poncing about outside somebody's house, looking good with your swag bag ready. Just get in there, burgle them and come out. I don't advocate that obviously, it's just an analogy."

Ian Holloway is currently standing outside the Premier League, his swag bag slung over his shoulder, three games away from stealing a place in the world's richest league for a club that began the season wanting only to stay where they were. Blackpool, the club, the town, can barely believe its potential change in fortunes.

The world according to Holloway is a peculiar place – Joanna Lumley should be PM and the Dukes of Hazard should always be on TV (or is it the other way round?) – but it is one that has emboldened Blackpool, a club that has not been in the top flight for nearly 40 years.

When this campaign began in August with a draw at QPR, one of Holloway's former clubs, the mission statement was just about survival. Instead at lunchtime today, Bloomfield Road will host the opening game in the Championship play-offs as Blackpool take on Nottingham Forest. Tomorrow Leicester City play Cardiff City. The return legs are next week before the final on 22 May, the game that offers the largest prize in football. This year winning the play-off is valued at an incredible £90m. Blackpool in the top flight would be the heist of the season.

"If you consider where the club has been over the last 20-odd years – in the lower leagues and with supporters starting to lose a bit of faith – it is wonderful," said Jimmy Armfield, one of the club's former greats who made the last of his record 568 league appearances in their last game in the top flight, against Manchester United in May 1971. "This season has been beyond all expectations – certainly mine and probably Ian Holloway's as well. We were favourites to be relegated so for us to finish in the play-offs has left half of the teams in the division totally stunned."

Last year they struggled to stay up having lost Simon Grayson, their bright young manager, to Leeds United two days before Christmas. Tony Parkes, the man who could tell Pinter a story or two about caretaking, stepped in and swept them nervously to safety.

His departure over a contract wrangle led to Ian Holloway's arrival. The supporters were underwhelmed. Here was a manager who had helped deposit Leicester into the third tier of English football for the first time and who had not worked for two days short of a year since.

But with more-or-less the same squad that struggled in the previous campaign, Holloway has proved an unlikely alchemist. "Having me as their manager when I hadn't worked for a year must have been unbelievably hard for them [the players] because I don't stop talking," he said yesterday. "My enthusiasm is limitless and I bet they are fed up and could do with going on holiday at the minute. But if we can extend this season then I'm sure they'll have as good a time as I will.

"Are we good enough? Time will tell but I can't wait. I've been saying all season that these boys are good enough. Now we're aiming for the stars and we've got a chance of getting there. Let's bring it on."

On the pitch Holloway has inspired, prodded and goaded a collection of perceived journeymen of the ilk of Brett Ormerod, who plays against his former club, Jason Euell, Stephen Crainey, once of Scotland, and David Vaughan, the former Crewe stalwart, to play above themselves. But, perhaps most importantly, he used the money handed him by Valeri Belokon, the Latvian businessman who bankrolls the club, to turn Charlie Adam's loan from Rangers into a permanent deal. It cost £500,000 – a club record – but has proved worth every penny, especially given the potential prize that now awaits.

Adam, a languid, sometimes overweight, often underperforming midfielder at Ibrox, has been the creative heart of a side who have abandoned the defensive mindset that secured survival a year ago and flourished under the 4-3-3 set up Holloway has introduced. It has brought victory over Newcastle at Bloomfield Road, a crucial 5-1 March thumping of Swansea, whom they pipped to the final play-off spot by a point, and a double over Forest, Adam scoring in both games en route to a season's tally of 17.

Holloway's other telling recruit has been DJ Campbell, who had also been on loan last season. He returned in February and has scored some timely goals – the winner against Peterborough in the penultimate game and two against Forest in the one before that. He though is a doubt today having injured his elbow on the last day of the season proper against Bristol City.

Bloomfield Road has known some good times, the names that adorn the stands are testimony to a great past: Mortensen, Matthews and Armfield. That leaves one side of the ground to be built and named. A £90m win at Wembley in three weeks' time and what price the Holloway Stand?

The Wit and Wisdom of Ian Holloway

*On winning ugly against Chesterfield: "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."

*"I don't see the problem with footballers taking their shirts off after scoring a goal. They enjoy it and the young ladies enjoy it too. I suppose that's one of the main reasons women come to football games. Of course they'd have to go and watch another game because my lads are as ugly as sin."

*On Cristiano Ronaldo: "He's six-foot-something, fit as a flea, good-looking – he's got to have something wrong with him. Hopefully he's hung like a hamster. That would make us all feel better."

Ups and Downs

League One

*Leeds will be promoted if they beat Bristol Rovers, but anything else could let in either Swindon or Millwall, who play each other. If that match ends in a draw, victory for Charlton (at Oldham) or a 4-0 win for Huddersfield (over Exeter) could take them into the final automatic promotion slot.

*Tranmere will go down if they lose at Stockport, but Rovers can save themselves by bettering Exeter's result, or by gaining two points more than Hartlepool or three points more than Gillingham.

League Two

*Morecambe and Dagenham hold the final two play-off spots, with Bury, Port Vale, Chesterfield or Northampton all able to overtake them should they lose.

*Grimsby need to win at Burton to stay up, or draw and hope Barnet lose by six against Rochdale. A win for both would put Cheltenham in danger.

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