James Lawton: Blackpool deserve so much more than embarrassment as they step out at the Emirates
Saturday 21 August 2010
Blackpool's arrival at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon is, we have been told by an extremely irritating schoolboy wearing a tangerine-and-white scarf in a TV advert, a matter for unrelieved joy and exaltation.
It is, he implies (so bossily that a handy house-brick might endanger the screen), an unanswerable case against so much of the cynicism that has greeted the dawn of a new Premier League season.
There are, however, a couple of problems with this.
One is that the boy is arguing against "cynicism" on behalf of a newspaper which has (I'm reliably told) bare-chested photo models quoting such as Victor Hugo and Voltaire when reflecting on the story of the day.
The other is that the Blackpool experience, which is so redolent with romance, give or take such unfortunate developments as the bankruptcy proceedings against chairman Karl Oyston and widespread derision at the suggestion of a £10,000-a-week wage cap at Bloomfield Road, has a very good chance, starting today, of turning into an open-ended nightmare.
This is not for a second to disparage the achievements of manager Ian Holloway and all those of his players who have been performing out of their skins for a year now. Nor is it to question the validity of the engagingly eccentric manager's point that, with the help of their agents, much of the football workforce has been made into a monster of inflated expectation and often woeful performance.
No, the problem has more to do with the strident claims of Arsène Wenger that this match is between teams operating shoulder to shoulder in the world's "best league". Transparently, they are not. They are coming from separate planets, completely different operations and reasonable expectations.
Most football judges are convinced that, notwithstanding the annihilation of Wigan Athletic on their own ground last weekend, Blackpool are programmed for one brief fling at the football level they so distinguished back in the days of Sir Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen. If this is indeed so, why not, then, simply sit back and wallow in a combination of nostalgia and the inevitably short-lived fantasy that Blackpool have a ghost of a chance of avoiding an instant drop?
It is because football is supposed to be about authentic competition, especially in the much trumpeted "best league in the world", and when we say this we don't necessarily mean that the majority of the teams must have anything more than a notional chance of winning the title. In this case authentic competition need only mean the ability of one team to draw something of the best out of the other.
Blackpool, let's be honest, have about as much chance of achieving such a feat this afternoon as they have of nipping in for the signing of Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas. Do not be seduced by last week's triumph at Wigan. You can be sure Holloway hasn't been. Blackpool, especially their new striker Marlon Harewood, played with splendid relish, but to draw significance from the result is to imply that Wigan looked anything other than utterly out of place in the top flight of any serious football nation.
The Wigan defence was so negligible that it defied anything more than the most casual analysis. Space was abandoned, tackles unmade and Holloway might have been challenging for the understatement of the infant season when he suggested that things were likely to get a lot tougher, and very quickly.
So let's cut to the Emirates and consider the grave threat of an embarrassment far in excess of the greetings offered to the other Premier League newcomers, West Bromwich and Newcastle, by Chelsea and Manchester United in the opening round of Premier League action.
Arsenal, given their underwhelming performance at Anfield, will no doubt be anxious to re-announce their presence among the English elite.
They will play their superior version of the game, one that has been known to have somewhat exaggerated effect against the weaker opposition. Unlike Wigan's, their defence will not dissolve at the first hint of pressure. It means that Arsenal are likely to win by at least five goals, a margin perhaps not sufficiently wide to subdue the lecturing schoolboy but maybe to give pause to Wenger the next time he is inclined to admonish anyone so impertinent as to suggest that English football has become a wasteland of fractured values.
Meanwhile, those old enough, or sufficiently versed in the days when Blackpool were one of the majority of top-flight clubs capable of playing with the craft to challenge any opposition on any one day, are surely permitted a wistful glance back to the time of Matthews and Mortensen, Jimmy Armfield, the young and fiery Alan Ball and an ill-starred but brilliant young Scotsman, Tony Green.
Sir Bobby Charlton will no doubt join such company this afternoon.
He spent much of his youth agonising over the burning question of who was better, Matthews or Preston's Tom Finney? In later life, he put the same question to Mortensen, remarking that when as a boy he had seen him heading in a perfect cross from Matthews he also remembered noting how he had run over to thank his supplier – a gesture not repeated, the boy fan recalled, when he had scored from a similar cross by Finney against Scotland at Hampden Park.
He was told by Mortensen: "Well, you know, Stan always made sure the lace on the ball was pointing away from me when I headed it in. I always thought that was very considerate."
Here, quite possibly, is touch of a fantasy football from a time never to be recovered. Still, it might provide a comforting retreat from reality at some stage of today.
Cook rediscovers sport's most vital attribute: self-belief
Among the debris of England's front-line batting yesterday, Alastair Cook's courageous century had the brightness of a diamond.
It was a far from perfect performance early on, and provoked Pakistani captain Salman Butt into a fury of frustration when an edge was sent between two stationary slip fielders, but there was always the sense of a young professional sportsman fighting for his career.
Sometimes we forget the pressure that a batsman like Cook must live with when something goes from his game; when doubts proliferate, when the most innocent delivery carries the potential to change a career, a life.
Unquestionably, that was the shadow that crossed Cook's face when he walked to the Oval wicket yesterday.
He was maybe fortunate that his time of salvation had come and gone by the time Saeed Ajmal was in the devastating groove that swept away Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan and 18-year-old Mohammad Aamer sent back Matt Prior with a delivery worthy of Wasim Akram.
However, the eruption came after Cook had passed through the worst moments of his career. He had learnt to believe in himself again. It is the most precious gift in high-level sport, and it will serve him well in the Ashes.
It will also be highly valuable in the fourth Test against a Pakistan team which has just happened to work the same magical trick.
Haye v Harrison is an affront to the boxing public
Whatever happened to David Haye, the man who was going to augment some of the most stomach-turning hype in the history of boxing with crushing victories over the ageing Klitschko brothers?
Apparently he is about to decamp to training in Cyprus to prepare for what has been described as an "intriguing" battle with Audley Harrison. It is not a joke, no more than the bitter claims of the boys from Ukraine, Vitali and Wladimir, that for all his bluster Haye is not quite so committed when it comes to the possibility of meeting a real heavyweight.
Harrison, it is true, did win the Olympic gold medal 10 years ago in Sydney but the rest of his career has been a masquerade of tragicomic proportions. Haye-Harrison has the intrigue quotient of an episode of Big Brother. It is a larcenous affront to the boxing public.
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