Countdown to the FA Cup fourth round: Grayson's Tangerine dream

Blackpool's young manager has led his side into the top six in League One, and hopes Saturday's meeting with Norwich can add to a celebrated FA Cup history
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The Independent Football

The short walk from the car park to the office provides more than enough reminders for Simon Grayson, the young Blackpool manager, that he carries the weight of history into his side's FA Cup fourth-round tie with Norwich City on Saturday. A bronze of the legendary "Mort" - Stan Mortensen, hero of the "Matthews final" triumph - stands in full, baggy-shorted glory outside the Bloomfield Road stadium and inside the foyer he pops up again - alongside Matthews, Eddie Shimwell et al, in an artwork celebrating that famous May Saturday afternoon, and again in the line-up from the 1948 final against Manchester United, which hangs on the wall. Even the stadium's corporate meeting rooms are named after the '53 heroes - and their manager Joe Smith - whose 4-3 win over Bolton stands as the tournament's greatest.

"The Cup runs through the heart of this club and when you hear people talking about it you sometimes have to pinch yourself to be sure you're the manager," says Grayson, in an office where the bare walls seem like a good way of alleviating a little of the pressure. He has endured more than his share of it since taking over the reins in November 2005, when Colin Hendry's year-long tenure came to an abrupt end with the side third bottom of League One.

Expectations, which had been few and far between for Blackpool fans since their club went out of the top flight in 1971, were suddenly rekindled last year by the arrival in Blackpool of Latvian businessman Valeri Belokon - the "mini Abramovich" as he was christened locally - who took a 20 per cent stake in the club and promptly declared he would like to see the Tangerines in the Championship within two years and the Premiership inside five. There was a little more money for Grayson this season - enough to bring in the strikers Andy Morrell from Coventry and Ben Burgess from Hull and others to increase the size of the squad. But the start to the season was then disastrous: three straight defeats and one win in the first 11 matches. The future looked neither bright nor orange for a manager who had only 15 months of success with Blackpool reserves to draw on.

Then began the turnaround which has developed 37-year-old Grayson's reputation as one of the lower league's bright young managers: one defeat in the last three months of 2006 as the side have climbed to sixth in the table in a run which has brought him the League One manager of the month award for December. To date, the Cup run has seen the side win at Huddersfield, one of League One's big clubs, and MK Dons, a tough proposition under Martin Allen this season, before putting Aldershot Town away in the third round. Morrell has scored three times. The excitement about Saturday's home tie is palpable: for all that Cup heritage, it is the first time Blackpool have reached the fourth round in 17 years.

Grayson puts this turnaround down to the gradual adaptation of this season's 12 new players (Claus Bech Jorgensen from Coventry and Wes Hoolahan from Livingston have also been hits) and to the competition for places which Belokon's money has allowed him to create. "I've got four strikers in double figures this season and any two of them could be out of the team for a while," he says. "People know if you're out of the team you could be out for some time. That's healthy and it's made the lads hungry to succeed."

Grayson, a right-back who began his career at Leeds in 1988 and played for Leicester, Aston Villa and Blackburn before signing for Blackpool on a free transfer in July 2002, has no shortage of managers from whom to seek advice as he maps out a route past Norwich - a club with "many Premiership standard players," he acknowledges. He worked under Howard Wilkinson at Leeds, at a time when Billy Bremner was still involved in the set-up, was signed up for both Leicester and Villa by Brian Little, played for Martin O'Neill at Filbert Street for three years and for Graeme Souness at Blackburn.

There is no mistaking his admiration for O'Neill. "His enthusiasm was second to none, his man management was very good," says Grayson. "He just had an aura about him, a way of getting the best out of his players and ultimately that's what it's all about." Little's approach was different - but equally effective, he says. "He was a little bit quieter than Martin but a deep thinker and obviously very tactically aware of what we were trying to achieve. I've learnt a lot of good from the managers I've played for. I take the things from them that benefited me as a player and eradicate the things I didn't like." But there is a sense that the managers Grayson is most likely to turn to are his contemporaries - and he does seem extraordinarily well connected with those on the managerial merry-go-round. He completed his coaching qualifications with Paul Jewell, of Wigan, having played briefly with him on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, and they talk.

And yet, for all his connections, Grayson has always found FA Cup success hard to come by. A controversial late penalty which resulted in his Leicester City team being put out by Chelsea, in a 1997 fifth-round replay at Stamford Bridge, sticks in the mind - though Leicester's League Cup triumph that year over Middlesbrough, after a replay at Hillsborough, helps to ease the memory. Grayson's side's strong League form of late has made them the favourites to make amends for all that on Saturday - William Hill have Blackpool as 11-8 favourites to win, with Norwich 13-8.

The Canaries' poor form under Peter Grant might help, as the Blackpool striker Adrian Forbes, who started his career at Norwich, pointed out this week. Grayson and Forbes also agree that the prospect of a blustery afternoon on the coast (Bloomfield Road's unfinished ground development leaves it particularly exposed to the wind) will make life all the harder for the visitors. "It's a long journey, they won't like the surroundings with the ground half finished and we will try to use that," says Forbes.

For now, Grayson's main task is one of managing expectations. The club ticket office was swamped with calls this week, as last Saturday's League win in front of 900 visiting fans at Orient heightened the sense that Blackpool's run could continue. "The FA Cup was at the ground last week and Bill Perry [now aged 71, who scored the winner in 1953] was here with a few others," says Grayson. "They brought their medals down and it was a good chance to think back. It does remind you that, hopefully, somewhere down the line this club can get back to where they once were."

Vaughan batting for Blackpool in Cup test

A Cup tie at Blackpool would seem to hold little interest for the England cricket captain, Michael Vaughan. But the Yorkshireman's friendship with Simon Grayson means he will look out for the score, from his current vantage point in Australia.

Grayson, a promising junior cricketer, met Vaughan and the England bowler Darren Gough while playing for Yorkshire's Under-16 side in the 1980s. His brother, Paul, played for Yorkshire and Essex and represented England in one-day internationals in 2000, and now has a coaching role at Essex.

"I've really got to know Goughy and Vaughny through Paul and that's been renewed in the last few years," says the Blackpool manager. "I've not spoken to Michael for a few months but he gets me tickets for the Tests sometimes. It's obviously a different style of management when you're captain of a national team. But like any coach or manager, he's testament to how this trade can bring its ups and downs. You can compare that to football. One minute you're loved, next minute you're public enemy No 1."

Ian Herbert

Carried away The day Stanley Matthews orchestrated the greatest Cup final comeback of all time

Blackpool's tangerine shirts may now be a rare sight in the later stages of the FA Cup but the club will always have a prominent place in the competition's history because of the "Matthews final" of 1953.

With preparations under way for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation and a British expedition on the way to conquering Everest, the nation was awash with pride and sentiment as the FA Cup final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers approached. On the Seasiders' right wing would be Stanley Matthews, the game's most revered figure at 38. Matthews played on until he was 50, and was capped for England at 42, but this seemed his last chance of an FA Cup winners' medal. Matthews and Blackpool had reached the final in 1948 and 1951 but had been beaten by Manchester United and Newcastle respectively.

In the match itself another legend, Nat Lofthouse, scored after 75 seconds. Bolton led 3-1 after 55 minutes, but they had been handicapped when Eric Bell pulled a muscle after 15 minutes and as they tired Matthews tormented his cramp-stricken marker, Ralph Banks. He helped Blackpool to draw level, with Stan Mortensen scoring Wembley's only FA Cup final hat-trick, and in injury time Matthews weaved down the wing again, pulling the ball back for Bill Perry to score.

Blackpool have only reached the quarter-finals once since then, in 1959, although they did provide two members of England's 1966 World Cup squad, Alan Ball and Jimmy Armfield.

The club last appeared in the top flight in 1970-71 and were in the Fourth Division by 1981. In the last 11 years they have twice been knocked out of the FA Cup by non-League opponents. The past may have been orange, but not the future.

Glenn Moore