Sun, sea but no stand...Blackpool hit the big time

An unfinished ground, a disgruntled manager, pessimistic locals. Dave Hadfield finds a town far from ready for the Premier League
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The Independent Online

On the eve of the new season, Blackpool has the air of a town taken totally by surprise by the prospect of Premier League football.

That mighty juggernaut was meant to roll into the only town in Britain with three piers today. Instead, Blackpool have had to switch their big kick-off to a place that has only one – and that's a music hall joke.

Everyone says that Blackpool will come straight back down, just as they did in 2005 about today's opponents, Wigan.

The critique that has really got under the collective skin of the town, however, at least if the pages of the West Lancashire Evening Gazette are any guide, involves Piers again.

Piers Morgan, in his newspaper column, has not only followed the orthodox line that they are bound to go down, he has gone as far as specifying the precise date when their relegation will become certain – 5 January. It might smack of kicking a man before he's even down, but the sheer unpreparedness of the club adds its own weight to their harshest and most dismissive critics' high tackles.

There have been spectators at Bloomfield Road this week. Not to watch any football, but to monitor the progress of the ground's fourth side, without which Premier League football cannot be played there. That stand is supposed to be finished in time for the fixture against Fulham on 28 August, but opinions vary on whether it will be.

George, a ground steward, is wondering whether his services will be required on that date and has just been to the office to ask. "They said to just turn up on the day, but that doesn't seem right, does it? It's a shambles."

On balance, he thinks he will turn up on the 28th, but not with any great confidence. "It looks a bit Mickey Mouse to me," he says.

Three others on the corner where a building site meets a kindergarten are more upbeat about their seats in the new stand being available to them by the end of the month. "I've been coming down regularly and I've only ever seen two of them," he says of the workmen screwing the giant Meccano into place. "Now there's 10."

If there is supposed to be transformative effect to be gained from the Premier League coming to this part of town, it is taking its time to kick in. The bar and the shop at the windswept seaward end of Bloomfield Road are both boarded-up; even the ubiquitous Polish grocery store has a "To Let" notice in the window.

It doesn't get much better at the stadium itself, where the club shop is closed for the day.

At the pub up the road, there is a sign reading "Under New Management. Premier League Food for Premier League Supporters" and, rather excitingly, they are installing extra beer pumps, but that is about as transformed as it gets.

Other towns which have made surprise guest appearances at this level have sprouted signs proudly announcing themselves as a "Home of Premier League Football." Not Blackpool, but then again tangerine paint isn't cheap and, if you believe everyone, even Blackpudlians themselves, it will all have to be scraped off next year – if not quite as early as 5 January.

Part of the trouble has been the off-season recruitment, or rather the lack of it. Until this week's last-minute transfer scramble, Blackpool had signed precisely no new players and lost several.

Ian Holloway has never been exactly orthodox, either in his approach or his utterances, but his public ridiculing of his chairman Karl Oyston's transfer strategy was breaking new ground, even for him. "Sometimes I'm annoying," he said of their relationship this week. "The chairman is obviously infuriated sometimes."

Since then, Oyston has loosened the purse-strings just slightly, although few Blackpool fans will have heard of many of the new signings before they were acquired. As usual, Holloway has tackled that issue head-on. "I've got a big problem at the moment, because I've got a worse squad than I finished with," he said this week. "Would these lads have got us promoted? No, they wouldn't."

We have just finished discussing the strength of the squad and the potential of the newcomers on the buiding site when, in a moment of sledgehammer symbolism, six disgruntled-looking donkeys are led, tethered together, up Bloomfield Road towards the Irish Sea. If you hang around in Blackpool long enough, the right metaphor always happens along.

The false rumour that Holloway himself had been disgruntled enough to quit has only enhanced his mythic status among Blackpool fans. "He told them on Sky, didn't he?" says one. "He told them they didn't know what they were talking about."

Holloway has since agreed a new two-year contract and has talked confidently of still being at the club even when – sorry, if – they go down.

And they will go down, just as everyone predicted that they would go down, from the Championship, last season.

If this is an anticlimactic way to start life in the top flight, then it does have its consolations. Marlon Harewood might well prove as potent as DJ Campbell last season. Holloway's motivational magic might, just might, work at a higher level.

My building-site companions all have their tickets for the Wigan match and they should have a stand to sit – or steward – in by the end of this month.

It's time for the workmen to have a brew and to be asked the inevitable: "28th of August? What d'you reckon?"

"It'll be ready," says one. "Not to worry. It'll be ready."

Even Holloway admits that Blackpool will be "in the mire" if it isn't. "We've bitten off more than we can chew," he says. "and we've got to chew as fast as we can."

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