It is one of the more bizarre realities of modern football that today's most lucrative prize awaits not Bayern Munich or Internazionale, competing in Madrid for the European Cup, but Blackpool or Cardiff City, 90 minutes away from taking their place on one of the 20 velvet thrones at English football's top table.
Or rather, 90 minutes plus extra time and penalties, according to Gypsy Petulengro (real name, Langton) on the Golden Mile.
The Golden Mile, that stretch of litter-strewn, kiss-me-quick promenade between the North Pier and the South Pier, will for once fit its name if Ian Holloway and his players end up travelling along it on an open bus tomorrow. On the sports desk at the Blackpool Gazette they calculate that this afternoon's Championship play-off final at Wembley is worth £90m to the winner, which of course they hope with all their hearts will be the team from Bloomfield Road – a stadium, incidentally, with a capacity of only 12,000 and one side currently under construction. Joe Royle once told me what it had been like managing Manchester City in English football's third tier, and it was Bloomfield Road he used to symbolise the indignity. He'd spotted some mildew in the visitors' dressing room, he said, that he was sure he remembered from being there with Everton, in 1966.
There's been nothing mildewy about the brand of football played there this season. Last August, to nobody's surprise, the Seasiders were hot favourites along with Scunthorpe United to be relegated from the Championship. Scunthorpe only just survived, but Blackpool made the bookies look clueless. I wrote back in October that there were some on the promenade already daring to whisper that other "prom" word, promotion, and now they're all shouting it from the tram tops. Of course, even more unlikely than Blackpool going up is Blackpool staying up, but for those who are relegated from the Premier League there are new rules in place ensuring £48m in parachute payments over four years. That, plus TV money and other benefits, is where the Gazette get its figures from, and though nobody even at the council offices seems quite sure how much money the area gets in handouts from the European Union, which has designated it a place deserving of special assistance, it seems likely that, if all goes swimmingly at Wembley, Blackpool the football club will wind up richer than Blackpool the town.
Meanwhile, speaking of wind-ups, deadly local rivals Preston North End have just been served with a winding-up order by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which is why my Blackpudlian friend Derek this week phoned his old schoolfriend Mick, and said "We're at Wembley, the Knobbers are in trouble, God must be a Lasher". North End fans call Blackpool fans Lashers, short for "donkey-lashers". Blackpool fans call Preston fans Knobbers, deriving from "Preston Knob End". Lancashire wit can be as uncompromising as the wind off the Irish Sea, and few people know that better than Blackpool's most celebrated adopted son, Jimmy Armfield.
I talked to the great man a couple of days ago and he reminded me that Blackpool's last game in the top flight, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United in 1971, was also the last of his 627 games for the club. I asked him whether a win, heralding the return of top-level football to Bloomfield Road after almost 40 years, and thus United and Chelsea and Arsenal playing in front of the new Jimmy Armfield stand, would bring a tear to his eye? "No," he said. "I do get emotional, but not too often about football. Saying that, I did shed a tear three years ago when Blackpool played Yeovil in the League One play-off final. I had cancer and had just come out of hospital, and when I saw those tangerine shirts running out at Wembley, and I wasn't there..."
This afternoon, happily, he will be there, and purely as a fan, having declined BBC Five Live's offer of a co-commentary job for want of impartiality. And if his beloved Seasiders go up, can they possibly stay up? "Why not? Wigan managed it. When I was playing, Wigan were in the Lancashire Combination." Football, eh. You don't have to come from Blackpool to know that it's a roller-coaster ride.
Mourinho – the nearest thing to Clough
The Bayern Munich and Internazionale players contesting the European Cup final in Madrid this evening can in some ways be thankful they are not coached by Brian Clough. Before Clough's Nottingham Forest played Hamburg at the Bernabeu in the 1980 final, his goalkeeper Peter Shilton expressed some concern that near the team hotel in Arenas de San Pedro, north-west of the city, there was no suitable grass for shot-stopping practice.
Clough told Shilton that he hadn't looked properly. "We know where there's a grassed area that's perfect for you, Peter me lad," he said, then left it to his assistant, Peter Taylor, to take Shilton to a large traffic island on the edge of town, where his preparation for the big match unfolded with two tracksuit tops as goalposts, and passing cars tooting their horns. It was all part of Clough's determination not to pamper his players, and of course Forest won, so I suppose it worked. Thirty years later, it's also worth reflecting that the nearest thing football has to Clough – gobby, egotistical, brilliant maverick that he was – is surely Jose Mario dos Santos Mourinho.Reuse content