Old heads, young hearts the secret for Holloway

Blackpool manager hopes he has the blend – and the defence – right for latest Wembley promotion bid

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The Independent Football

Here comes a surprise statistic to anyone who followed Blackpool's relegation from last year's Premier League: going into today's Championship play-off final against West Ham United at Wembley, the Seasiders have kept six clean sheets in their last nine games.

After a messy defensive display away to eventual champions Reading in March, ending in a 3-1 defeat, Ian Holloway had his players focus on the art of protecting what is theirs every day for the next week. It bore fruit, with a superb run of form meaning they finished five points better off than when they won promotion in 2010.

"We've kept a lot of clean sheets lately. That's really important," said Holloway. "We're not as big as the other teams physically and that is a big weakness, but we manage to overcome that by the amount of ball we keep. I want to evolve a way of playing that is entertaining and you win the ball back very quickly, then pass it and move teams around. You have to learn to build an attack and a defence behind that attack.

"We have to improve on set pieces as well. We've managed to do all of those things recently and that's with more or less the same back four as I had before."

Holloway has been credited with replacing important players with a blend of exciting young talent and shrewd experience.

Throughout the campaign one of the older heads, Kevin Phillips, has been allowed to train at his home in the Midlands before joining up with the rest of the squad later in the week. It seems to have worked: the 38-year-old has scored 17 goals, as a result of which Blackpool have chosen to activate a year's extension to his contract. The striker has also relished becoming a mentor to younger players such as Matt Phillips and Tom Ince, allowing them to flourish.

"As a kid, I looked at the senior pros and I wanted to learn off them," the elder Phillips said. "Maybe that's why I'm still playing now because I made sure I learned as much as I could from them, what they did on and off the pitch. Here we have got a lot of youngsters who look up to us and want to learn, which is exciting. It's certainly paying off towards the end of the season.

"Barry Ferguson has been a massive influence – he's skippered the team brilliantly – but it's not just him; you've got Ian Evatt, Keith Southern and Brett Ormerod."

Asked whether Blackpool's two heavy defeats to West Ham in the league gave Sam Allardyce's side the edge, Phillips was defiant. "We're a different proposition to what we were in those games," he said. "You hear all this talk in the media about how we needn't turn up because they're clear favourites to win and that suits us. Once the whistle goes what's happened before goes out of the window; it's who performs on the day."