James Lawton: We all share the pain as the lights go out and Tangerines' hopes fade

As Owen ended the Premier League's most romantic story, who couldn't bleed for them?
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In the end we had to settle for mere integrity, the kind that said the all-time champions of England and Champions League finalists must influence Survival Sunday without the need for a stewards' inquiry.

However, when Michael Owen gave us a sliver of his past with the goal that put Manchester United's victory beyond doubt – and ended potentially the most romantic story in the history of the Premier League, which has become so much about money and power – who couldn't but bleed at least a little for Blackpool?

Who couldn't sigh at the reality that the great illumination show of English football, the neon fantasy that for one season at least it might be more about the wit and the spirit of a team and its dreamy, passionate coach Ian Holloway than the size of its payroll, was probably always doomed?

None of this is to minimise the dramas elsewhere, the ones that saw the superior football instincts of Wigan's Roberto Martinez and the sheer dreadnought defiance of Wolves' Mick McCarthy emerge safely at the expense of Birmingham City's Alex McLeish, a tough and practical football man who ultimately may have paid the price for one extraordinary day of overachievement against Arsenal at Wembley.

It is just to say that at Old Trafford we went to the heart of how it is when you fight enormous odds, when you play with all the courage at your disposal, and still have to face the most dispiriting of conclusions – the one that insists that you can only do so much in the face of deeper strength and resources.

Of course, there is no solution to a problem that will always exist so long after the concept of a level playing field went the way of gaslights and hansom cabs.

Holloway said all that he could as he walked away from the Old Trafford pitch. If he had regrets they had little to do with a final statement of the spirit – and the inherent weaknesses – of the team which had questioned at times so fiercely the distribution of Premier League strength.

His pain was that there was nothing that could be said to ease the fact that a thrilling, improbable adventure was over. Of course, you can attempt to pick up the pieces but in football there is another reality and one which gathered like iron filings around the magnetic presence of Blackpool's outstanding player, Charlie Adam.

Here was the man who, at 25, had put so far behind the career crisis which came when he was loaned out to Ross County. There were two more such assignments for the Scot before Blackpool signed him to a contract which now has been converted into an unanswerable statement that he has made his home in the top flight of English football.

He could not have done this more eloquently at Old Trafford yesterday. He scored with a superb free-kick which took much of the hyperbole out of Sir Alex Ferguson's statement that for set-piece work on the ball alone he is worth £10m, and this was after he had delivered an opening piece of work which should have seen Blackpool jump into an instant lead. It was Adam who most effectively carried Blackpool's unlikely challenging of the odds and when it was over, and he shook hands with some of the United players it was not as someone taking a last grasp of the big time.

Holloway confirmed as much when he said, with infinite sadness: "We had a great group here but now it will dissipate. Yeah, it hurts, whatever you say."

What could you say? Only that he and his team had dared to do something as unlikely as it would have been great. They gave everyone in football, wherever they languished, the most precious of gifts. They gave hope.

Wolves and Wigan survive, Birmingham go down, pages 4&5