There is little chance of the Blackpool players being carried away by their achievements this season. When the snow began to fall heavily and the temperature plummeted, a rumour spread around the squad that they might fly off somewhere for warm-weather training. Then Ian Holloway gathered them together for a team meeting.
"We're the dogs that live outside," he said. "I don't want you lads thinking we can come indoors." The remark is typical Holloway: gruff, pointed, motivational and delivered with a warm-hearted touch. His team have proved beyond the reach of people's disdain this season and have risen, quite abruptly, above the low expectations that preceded them into the Premier League.
They are due to play Liverpool today at Bloomfield Road, weather permitting, and it is a measure of Blackpool's disregard for convention that the visitors will be very wary of the assignment. In October, Holloway took his side to Anfield, where they won 2-1, having established a two-goal lead by half-time.
Charlie Adam scored the first goal that afternoon, while Luke Varney's strike turned out to be the winning goal. In a way, the two players personify Blackpool's season. Adam was a midfielder who was considered squat and doleful, despite a gifted left foot and a deft imagination, during his time at Rangers, but then Holloway signed him permanently, after a loan spell at Blackpool, and his passing range and shooting prowess have been the virtuosity that the team's progress has been built around.
Adam was a cast-off, while Varney is a player who was drifting from one loan deal to another after signing for Derby County and being marginalised. Earlier in his career, he was released by Leicester City and joined Quorn, a Northern Premier League Division One South side, where the limit of his ambition was a move to Hinckley Town, because he would earn a good wage there in combination with his factory job. Like Adam, Varney was a player who looked shunned by the game, as if unappreciated, only for his career to be renewed, enhanced even, by moving to Bloomfield Road and working with Holloway.
"We're low-budget players and he gets the best out of us," Varney says. "Some of the players I've played with wouldn't be able to deal with this, there would be a lot of moaning. But you're not allowed to do that, you've got to get on with it and it keeps you grounded. We wash our own kit, we all muck in, and the lads were clearing the snow from the training pitch the other day. I would imagine that some of the big personalities wouldn't get on too well here, because you've got to muck in and work together."
Even Varney's arrival at the club was low-key. Holloway arranged a loan deal on the last Friday of August, then when the player arrived at his office to sign the deal, told him that he would be playing the next day against Fulham. Varney couldn't sleep that night for nerves – he walked the busy streets of the seaside town, where he saw much of the kind of carousing that it is famous for – but then scored on his debut against Fulham.
Holloway was prompted to move for the striker on the advice of Dario Gradi, who managed Varney at Crewe Alexandra. Varney had bumped into him during pre-season, and told him that he was unhappy at Derby because he felt there was no future for him there, so Gradi made up a DVD of his best performances and sent them to managers that he knew were looking for a forward.
He was once as highly rated as Dean Ashton, but saw his form recoil from the obligation to live up to that potential. As he does with his players, Holloway has in a sense freed Varney, allowing him to play without anxiety. An earnest figure, Varney has responded not only to Holloway's man-management, but also to the realisation that this opportunity was perfect for him. "Being relegated with Sheffield Wednesday last season was the lowest moment of my career, it affected me a lot," Varney says. "I knew I had the fire in my belly to achieve good things this year, and the times in my career when I played against Premier League teams, I was able to raise my performance. To be able to do this every week has got the best out of me."
At 28, Varney might yet establish himself as a Premier League player, an incentive that is also bringing the best out of the likes of other Tangerine players such as Gary Taylor-Fletcher, DJ Campbell and Adam. Part of Holloway's effectiveness comes from his charisma, but there is also a shrewd mind at work. His players tend to combine a crisp technique with a blunt work ethic.
Varney has responded this season with five goals in 12 games, and the kind of displays that were once typical of his time at Crewe, who he joined from Quorn and where the game began to take notice of him. Yet it is typical of the striker, and his suitability to the club where he has regained his self-esteem, that he is prepared to wait until the summer to secure his future.
"I've been offered something, but I've said there's no point in me signing because I'm on loan until the end of the season," he explains. "I said that I'd rather stay hungry and want to earn the contract then. I've only had a good five months, so I'd rather keep my head down and not rest on my laurels."
It was the winning goal against Liverpool that convinced Varney he could thrive in the top flight, but the most outlandish moment of his season came against Wolves last month. He scored in the third minute with a dipping volley after controlling the ball on his chest, and the strike caught the eye of Prince William.
"We knew that our families had been moved from their usual seats to another end of the ground and we couldn't understand why," he says. "Then we were told that Prince William was there on a stag-do. When I went up to get my man-of-the-match award after the game, I bumped into him, shook his hand and asked if he enjoyed it. He said he'd had a great day out, then later he sent a letter to the club saying that my goal would be long in his memory."
It is that kind of season for Varney, and Blackpool.Reuse content