So this is it: the end of another season. 556 games played and arguably the last and most important one takes place tomorrow afternoon when either Blackpool or West Ham will be promoted back to the Premier League.
Like the rest of the mini tournament, Saturday’s game is unusual as it features two clubs who are looking to ‘bounce back immediately’ (to quote Messers Kean, Coyle and Connor – although Stale Solbakken presumably hasn’t said anything yet) to the Premier League: although any fans of Bolton, Blackburn & Wolves who are reading might want to skip the next paragraph…
In the last decade, there’s only been one playoff tournament that’s featured more than one club that had been relegated from the Premier League in the previous season (2003/04) and over the same period none of the relegated clubs were promoted via the playoffs: West Ham (2004) and West Brom (2007) both lost in the finals.
I’ll have more thoughts about ‘bouncing back immediately’ before the start of next season, but the correct response from any of the current Championship clubs to the recent outbreak of misplaced optimism from the management of the newly relegated clubs should be amusement.
Back to the game. It’s obvious why West Ham are favourites to win promotion, but the closer you look at the game the less straightforward it becomes. The Hammers had no problems in either of the league games between the sides this season: an aggregate score of 8-1 with seven different players scoring in those games appears to give Sam Allardyce’s side a considerable psychological advantage.
Then there’s the historical edge that the Hammers have in their meetings with Blackpool. The last time they lost to Blackpool was in a 3rd round FA Cup tie in January 1971, when the Tangerines ran out 4-0 winners: Bobby Moore, Brian Dear and Jimmy Greaves had been out drinking the night before the game and all three were fined and suspended by Ron Greenwood. That was the last meeting between the clubs until the 0-0 draw at the Boleyn Ground in November 2010 in the Premier League.
So far so good. But here’s the counter argument: this game will be the fifth final in the last two decades between clubs that finished in third and fifth places and the lower placed team has won three of them. Blackpool won at Wembley two years ago as the lower placed team and seven of the starting eleven who beat Cardiff in 2010 are still with the team: in short, Blackpool have a crucial advantage of having ‘been there and done that’ which could be absolutely vital.
Ian Holloways’s team also fits the playoff winner profile in other respects. Blackpool were competitive this season without ever enough consistency for a sustained run at the automatic places – in fact, they have a lot in common with Hull (2008), Burnley (2009), Birmingham (2002) and Swindon (1993). They were never higher than fourth but never lower than mid table but Blackpool only cracked the playoff positions in January when late goals from Elliott Grandin and Chris Basham gave them a come from behind win against Crystal Palace at Bloomfield Road. They’re currently on a nine game unbeaten run, which is their best form of the season.
West Ham have been in the top five all season- and were top of the pile for a few weeks – but five consecutive draws in March effectively ended their hopes of automatic promotion. The Hammers haven’t lost in eight games since being turned over by Reading at the Boleyn Ground and in any other season would have probably won automatic promotion but this term there were two teams that were better than they were. If they win tomorrow then they’ll joined a very select band of clubs: only Charlton (1998), Ipswich (2000) and Bolton (2001) earned more points during the regular season than West Ham did this term and won the playoff final.
As there’s no home advantage at Wembley, the real key to the game could be the away records. West Ham were the best team on the road last season, but Burnley and Leeds – yes even Leeds – had better away numbers than Blackpool did and only four teams conceded more goals away from home than the Tangerines. Given that only Birmingham City scored more away goals than the Hammers did, it’s possible we might have a goalfest on our hands, especially as there’s a history of high scoring games between the two clubs. In the last ten meetings, there’s been an average of 3.5 goals with most of West Ham’s wins over Blackpool being by at least two goals.
It could well be a classic final and regardless of which club wins promoted they’ve both contributed to a memorable season. There’s been a lot of moaning on various other blogs recently about how boring the Championship is supposed to have been this term, but as I’ve made clear over the past months I think that’s down to the ‘safety first’ attitude of some of the mid table teams rather than the clubs that were involved in the promotion and relegation issues.
Enjoy the game: I’ll be back on Sunday evening with a recap as I’m making a day of it – my wife and I are going to a barbecue immediately after the game before watching the Champions League final.