Brian Viner: Blackpool prom and Holloway's illuminations

The Last Word
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Until May this year there was, in the public consciousness, only one man named Holloway associated with the Lancashire town of Blackpool. That was the comic actor Stanley Holloway, who in 1932 recorded Marriott Edgar's daft, delightful ode "The Lion and Albert", about "a grand little lad" called Albert Ramsbottom who was swallowed whole by Wallace, the scarred old lion at Blackpool zoo. "There's a famous seaside place called Blackpool," it begins, "that's noted for fresh air and fun."

Well, for supporters of Blackpool FC, fun has been in short supply these last few decades. But in May another Holloway began a relationship with the town. Ian Holloway took over as manager of the Seasiders and he has guided them to fifth place in the Championship. On Tuesday they hammered Sheffield United 3-0, playing such attractive football that a friend of mine, a supporter for 47 years, said he spent the next few days "with a smile on my face you couldn't chisel off". On the promenade some are even daring to whisper the other prom word: promotion.

Meanwhile, the club's venerable stadium, Bloomfield Road, is being given a much-needed facelift. I remember interviewing Joe Royle when he was manager of Manchester City, and he talked about the indignity of managing City in the third tier of English football, in the 1998-99 season. The image he used to illustrate this indignity was the trip to Bloomfield Road, where in the away dressing room he swore he saw some mildew in the corner that he remembered from when he had last visited, with Everton in 1966.

But times have changed, and not only at City. Holloway might not take Blackpool into the Premier League, and no experienced football man gets excited by the look of his division before October is out, but still, to be sitting in a play-off position, just two points below West Brom in top spot, is heady stuff indeed.

Moreover, the gleaming new stand is nearing completion, and is due to be unveiled at the match against Preston North End in a month's time. Preston, it is worth adding, are level on points just a place below Blackpool. It is a long time since these old Lancashire rivals were scrapping so close to the top of the table, and let me also mention my hometown club Southport, on the other side of the Ribble estuary, flying high in the Blue Square North. With Burnley, Blackburn and Wigan in the top flight, the blood is really pumping again in football's original heartland.

It was Burnley, Blackburn and Wigan that Jimmy Armfield cited when I talked to him a couple of days ago. If they could play in the Premier League, he said, then why not Blackpool? Armfield, after whom the new stand is to be named, played for the whole of his illustrious career at Blackpool, from 1954 to 1971, during which time he was capped 43 times for England and at the 1962 World Cup was voted the finest right-back in the world. Blackpool might never again have a player considered the best on the planet in his position, but they have got three full internationals playing for them this season and, as Armfield cheerfully pointed out, he can't remember the last time that happened.

He can, however, remember his final, 627th game for Blackpool, a 1-1 draw against Manchester United in 1971. That was the club's last game in the top division, at least until August 2010, should those burgeoning tangerine dreams be fulfilled.

Pleat has secret to keeping the chairman's vote of confidence

My friend John Beaman, the grand panjandrum of the Rankin Club in Leominster, Herefordshire, close to where I live, has featured on this page before.

With charm and perseverance rather than wads of banknotes, John has been attracting sporting celebrities to speak at the Rankin Club once a month since 1981, and given that Leominster is not even close to the nearest beaten track, the list of speakers he has assembled is remarkable: most of England's 1966 World Cup team have been, as well as Dennis Lillee, Ian Botham, Henry Cooper, Gareth Edwards, John Francome, and even the famous Pontypool front row, which tested the little stage to its limits.

Anyway, last Monday evening it was the turn of David Pleat, who was insightful and entertaining, and aired his conviction that Fabio Capello, for all his astuteness, is woefully wrong to afford David Beckham a continued place in his England squad. Best of all, though, Pleat shared with us a piece of advice from his old mentor at Luton Town, the late Harry Haslam, which served him extremely well, he said, throughout his managerial career. "Win, lose or draw," said Haslam to Pleat, "always tell the chairman's wife how lovely she's looking."

Hail the Messi of the mille-feuille

Watching the final of Professional Masterchef this week, I was struck by the parallels between top-notch cooking and the pinnacle of sporting performance. Hard though the producers tried to crank up the tension, it was clear to all of us who had watched the thing through that Steve would beat his fellow finalists Daniel and Marianne. They were fine cooks, good technicians with considerable flair, but he was plainly operating at a different level, potentially the Messi of the mille-feuille, the Federer of the fritter.

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