Three games into the new Championship season and it is Blackpool who find their name up in lights, or at least sitting pretty atop of the fledgling Championship table with a perfect 100 per cent record. As well as the three wins, Blackpool have scored ten goals while only conceding a solitary Tom Lees goal against Leeds. Their crushing 6-0 victory over Ipswich, who had registered an excellent 1-0 win at Watford in their previous match, laid down a major statement of intent for the season ahead, although the hard fought comeback victory against Leeds four days earlier may say as much about Blackpool’s promotion credentials.
That Blackpool have made such a good start to the season is not surprising, although history shows that teams that miss out in the Championship play-off finals one season often have a hangover at the start of the following campaign. Even though Reading ended up winning the Championship last season having been the bridesmaids in Swansea’s play-off success at the previous season’s culmination, it was not until Her Majesty had addressed the nation, the turkey sandwiches had been consumed and Jason Roberts had been signed that the Royals made their surge that would win them the Championship crown. Having been the better side for much of the play-off final against West Ham, defeat to the club managed by one time Tangerines’ manager Sam Allardyce could very easily have had an adverse effect on players still haunted by a near miss of epic proportions. It would need a manager at the helm with strong psychology skills, able to pick the players up quickly and get them ready and focused for the treadmill of another campaign.
Fortunately for the Seasiders, Ian Holloway remains in charge. Despite being linked in despatches to the Swansea City job made vacant by Brendan Rodgers’ departure to Anfield, Michael Laudrup’s installation as manager at the Liberty Stadium ensured that Holloway started the new campaign in charge still at Bloomfield Road. Since Holloway’s appointment to the Blackpool hotseat in 2009, supporters of the club have largely lived the Tangerine Dream with the club’s progress chart largely showing an upward trajectory. The highlight of which was Blackpool’s first top flight season since 1971 in the 2010/11 campaign which ultimately saw Blackpool relegated on the final day of the season, having been as high as eighth in January.
The season may have ultimately been a gallant failure, but Blackpool gained a lot of admirers along the way for their gung-ho attacking approach to the game and for their plucky attitude. Their army of supporters clad in Tangoman attire enjoyed some memorable away days with victories at Anfield, St James’ Park, the Stadium of Light and the Britannia Stadium, as well as a memorable opening day massacre of Wigan. Their erratic form at Bloomfield Road proved to be their undoing, yet there were some highlights within the vicinity of the Golden Mile to linger long in the memory as Tottenham were given a footballing lesson while there was also a repeat of their 1953 FA Cup final success against Bolton as Blackpool again triumphed 4-3. They also had a 2-0 lead over Manchester United and could have been further in front before United’s superior fitness in the final 20 minutes resulted in the inevitable comeback from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side as United won 3-2 to precipitate the Seasiders’ ultimately fatal slide down the Premier League table.
Much of the admiration of Blackpool could be attributed to their shy, retiring Bristolian manager. Holloway left his indellible imprint on his team’s ethos and approach to play with a commitment to playing the game in an entertaining and attacking way and by never knowingly giving up on a lost cause. Holloway’s playing days had seen him play in the Premier League during the autumn of his career for Queens Park Rangers, reunited with his former manager from his Bristol Rovers days, Gerry Francis. Francis was such an admirer of Holloway’s that in 1987 when Holloway returned for his second playing stint with the Gasheads, he paid Brentford the £10,000 transfer fee out of his own pocket. Holloway’s playing career was one of a tenacious journeyman, a snarling midfielder who was renowned for his perspiration rather than his inspiration. These are the attributes which Holloway seems to have transferred into his managerial career as none of his teams could ever be accused of lacking in commitment or work ethic. In fact, from watching his Blackpool side over the past three years, you get the impression that Holloway has fostered a real one-for-all and all-for-one team spirit that even Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan would approve of.
Yet, despite it being evident that Holloway has been a master motivator of his players and the man responsible for getting Blackpool to seemingly play well beyond the sum of their parts, it still seems as though Holloway is not entirely taken seriously or appreciated for the work that he has done, at least not outside of the Fylde coastline. Sure, the media likes Holloway as much as Holloway likes the media, but this appears to be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Holloway always guarantees the press a good story and a soundbite, a memorable analogy or an anecdote, but you sense that for many Holloway is still celebrated more for being a gifted raconteur or a wannabe club comic. Holloway is never a man to shy away from an opinion or to crack a joke, but sometimes you feel that if Holloway could bite his tongue occasionally, the footballing fraternity would sit up and take notice of him as a seriously good football manager rather than just a variety warm-up act more commonly encountered at the Hippodrome or in the bars of the Golden Mile as an alternative to the seemingly boundless supply of Elvis impersonators.
But then this is part of the Ian Holloway package. He is a maverick, an unorthodox figure in a sport where cutting in from leftfield is often frowned upon rather than celebrated. By his own admission, Holloway is an underdog and perhaps it is no surprise that the best work of Holloway’s managerial career has been at clubs where his back has been against the wall and expectation has been low. After cutting his managerial teeth at the two clubs with which his playing career is most commonly associated, Bristol Rovers and QPR, Holloway commanded respect for the work he did at Plymouth Argyle where the Pilgrims made great progress under his tenure, making the quarter-finals of the 2007 FA Cup before being denied, just as they had been in the 1984 FA Cup semi-final, by Watford, who were grateful to an inspired performance in goal by Ben Foster. Holloway also led Argyle to an eleventh place finish in that season’s Championship and they were on the fringe of the play-offs midway through the following season when Holloway made the decision to succumb to Milan Mandaric’s advances and take over as manager of Leicester City.
This would prove to be the biggest mistake of Holloway’s managerial career to date as despite having half a season to turn around the Foxes’ fortunes, Holloway was unable to arrest Leicester’s slide and they were consigned to playing in the third tier of English football in 2008/09 for the first time in their then 125 year history. This unwanted historical milestone would prove to be a millstone as far as Holloway was concerned and he was to leave the East Midlands club just six months after he had arrived. It is possible that Holloway was purely simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but given that Leicester remains the biggest managerial assignment of his career so far and it also marks his greatest failure, it does offer a possible reason for why Holloway has been overlooked for vacant positions that have arisen at ‘sleeping giant’ type clubs over the past four years.
When Holloway arrived at Blackpool in 2009 in the aftermath of Simon Grayson’s defection to his boyhood team, Leeds United, there was very little expectation resting on his shoulders. Grayson had secured Blackpool’s promotion back to the second tier for the first time in almost three decades a season earlier and their first Championship campaign had seen them finish in nineteenth place. Given that Blackpool were to enter the new campaign with the smallest budget of any of the 24 clubs in the 2009/10 Championship, the Seasiders were regarded by many pundits as overwhelming favourites for relegation and rank outsiders for promotion. Despite this, the close season saw Blackpool smash their transfer record by signing Charlie Adam for £500,000 from Rangers. This would prove to be a watershed moment both for Adam and for his new employers. Elsewhere, Holloway relied largely on manipulating the loan market, something which has been a hallmark of his tenure at Bloomfield Road. Nine months later as Blackpool defied the odds by winning the Championship play-off final against Cardiff City 3-2, Blackpool called upon DJ Campbell, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Dobbie, who had all being acquired on a temporary transfer.
Ian Holloway’s approach to Blackpool’s first top flight campaign in almost four decades was to treat the experience as a blank canvass, perhaps an appropriate attitude to take for a man who lists painting as one of his favourite remedies for unwinding from the stresses and strains of being a football manager. Blackpool had been favourites for relegation from the Championship a season earlier, but upon their elevation to the Premier League the question with many of the more cynical observers was not whether they would be equipped to stay up but if they were in danger of exceeding Derby County’s low points record total of 11 from the 2007/08 season. This was a red rag to a bull as Holloway would need no excuse to revel in the underdog mentality. As Holloway once famously said himself, every dog had its day and Blackpool’s Premier League initiation at Wigan was to prove to be a woof-woof day of memorable proportions. Blackpool played with care free abandon and unrelenting commitment to attacking football. At the end of the campaign, Blackpool scored 55 goals from their 38 Premier League matches, which was exactly the same number of goals that had been scored by Harry Redknapp’s expansive Tottenham side on their way to a fifth place finish. The reason for Blackpool’s relegation, however, was to be found in the goals against column. A total of 78 goals conceded was seven more than any other team conceded during the league season. The absence of first choice goalkeeper Matt Gilks for much of their Premier League campaign due to injury played no small part in this defensive record, even if Blackpool’s bold commitment to attacking football was also a source of their undoing. Still, Blackpool’s haul of 39 points would have resulted in their Premier League survival in the following campaign’s standings.
Having dropped back to the Championship at the first time of asking, Blackpool could very easily have sunk without trace the following season just as several relegated Premier League clubs from yesteryear have done. These fears were intensified when Blackpool offloaded Charlie Adam to Liverpool while midfielder David Vaughan upped sticks to Sunderland. Added to which, DJ Campbell who had been influential in Blackpool’s promotion while a loanee before signing permanently for Blackpool’s Premier League campaign, was snapped up by QPR. These three losses in a short space of time meant that once again Holloway would have to make some shrewd manoeuvrings in the loan market and for out of contract players, but he particularly struck lucky by signing the 37-year-old Kevin Phillips on a free transfer following his release from Birmingham City. In addition, he made further inroads into the loan market with the temporary signing of Nouha Dicko from Wigan Athletic. But Holloway’s good relationship with Kenny Dalglish particularly worked to his advantage with the signing of a young player of promise from their academy. Tom Ince arrived from Liverpool in August 2011 after a promising loan spell at Notts County the previous season who were then managed by his father. The young winger had an impressive breakthrough season at Bloomfield Road, notching 8 goals from 42 appearances in all competitions.
In addition, Holloway also recalled Matt Phillips from a successful loan spell at Sheffield United with the pacy winger scoring seven goals in the second half of the last campaign, including bagging two hat-tricks within the space of three weeks. Phillips’ rich vein of goalscoring form attracted interest from Cardiff City with Blackpool reputedly rejecting a bid of £800,000 to secure the Scottish international’s services during the January transfer window. The contribution of both Phillips the younger and Phillips the elder, along with Ince’s rapid development ensured that Blackpool reached the play-off final for the second time in three seasons, this time facing up to West Ham. Despite being the better side for large periods of the match, Blackpool were made to pay for their profligacy in the final third with Matt Phillips squandering two gilt edged chances at a time when Blackpool were at their most dominant. Getting so close but failing was a great disappointment for Blackpool, yet reaching the play-offs was an achievement of sorts given that they found themselves outside of the play-off spots at the halfway point in the season.
To the here and now and Ian Holloway must be counting down the seconds to when the transfer deadline passes at the end of the month, with both Tom Ince and Matt Phillips being linked with moves away. Ince’s immediate future looks likely to remain at Bloomfield Road after his father reputedly advised him in private that the development of his footballing education was best served by staying with the Tangerines. However, Matt Phillips’ future at Blackpool seems much less certain after he submitted a transfer request earlier this month. This resulted in him being left out of the matchday squad altogether for Blackpool’s opening day league victory at Millwall as Holloway felt that the unsettled winger was not in the right frame of mind to play. Phillips has subsequently made substitute appearances in Blackpool’s league victories over Leeds and Ipswich, but with Southampton having met with Holloway’s chagrin by allegedly making an advance for the former Wycombe man and with Everton in the market for a winger following their target Adam Johnson’s move to Sunderland, Holloway will be a relieved man if Phillips is still on the club’s payroll as August ticks over into September.
The new Championship season may be in its infancy, but even at this early stage Ian Holloway must be deeply encouraged by the prospects of maintaining his 100 per cent record of ensuring that Blackpool have made the top six in the Championship in every season that have played at that level since Holloway arrived at the club in 2009. On the surface this may seem like a hollow achievement, but even when taking into consideration the parachute payments, Blackpool are not one of the more prosperous teams in the Championship. The disadvantage of getting one of the lowest average attendances in the second tier works against Blackpool, with the club only twice managing attendances in excess of 14,000 during the 2011/12 season. Considering this attendance deficit in comparison to some of the division’s big hitters such as Leeds and the East Midlands triumvirate of Leicester, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, Blackpool’s endeavours in finishing above all of these clubs and other big spenders such as Cardiff and Ipswich last campaign was an impressive effort. In the close season, some of their promotion rivals have again been splashing the cash while Karl Oyston’s prudent approach to managing the purse strings has reportedly seen one former much maligned England international forward turn down an offer of £90 per week.
All things considered, when looking at the resources which Ian Holloway has at his disposal, surely it is about time he was given proper credit for the job that he has done in getting a club that is resourced amongst the Championship’s featherweights competing at the business end with the super-heavyweights. Beyond Holloway’s lugubrious features and bluster and his rent-a-quote cabaret act is a serious football manager who has found himself his niche at Blackpool. The club, like Holloway, is an underdog, an outsider operating against more glamorous names. Holloway famously observed this in his own indomitable style not long after taking over by Bloomfield Road by saying he and Blackpool had much in common, not least that both the resort and himself look better in the dark. But certainly Holloway seems to thrive most in footballing outposts, with his previous best work coming at Plymouth Argyle.
Yet, despite Holloway continuing to confound the sceptics and getting Blackpool to make an excellent start to the 2012/13 Championship campaign, there is a sense that Holloway’s credentials as a manager are not entirely taken seriously or given the respect that they warrant, at least by those living outside of the Lancashire coast. Maybe it is because for many Holloway is seen as a servant to the media first and a football manager second. Holloway’s skills as a raconteur would no doubt be in high demand on the lucrative after dinner circuit at the nineteenth hole of every golf club in the north west of England were he not a football manager, while he continues to supplement his income with a newspaper column in at least one Sunday supplement. Holloway’s press conferences are the stuff of legend but they also polarise opinion, with some regarding him as one of football’s foremost characters while others view him as a self-publicist who plays too hard for laughs. Either way, the wisecracks mask Holloway’s genuine qualities as a manager who can motivate a limited group of players to take to the pitch and give their absolute all to the cause, whilst simultaneously entertaining the paying audience. It says much for the respect Holloway must be in receipt of from his players that week after week for the past three years his troops have produced the goods with consistent regularity.
Holloway is not the finished article as a manager, but nor is he a managerial novice. At 49 years old, Holloway is midway through his managerial career having first donned his three piece suit and brogues in the Twerton Park dugout back in those Britpop filled days of 1996. Like one or two of his Championship managerial contemporaries, Holloway still has something to prove at top flight level and managing a big club. His spell as manager of Leicester City is the one major black stain on his career to date, while his five year spell as manager of Queens Park Rangers between 2001 and 2006 did see him oversee promotion to the Championship, but his time in charge was overshadowed by disputes with the board at a time when Holloway was not privy to type of financial backing that some of his successors at Loftus Road have enjoyed. His best body of work has been enjoyed when he has been the big fish in a small pond, much like his former midfield general Charlie Adam’s playing career. The test for Holloway once his work is done in Cannon and Ball’s backyard is to see if he can work his magic in a city where expectations are higher.
That is in the future though. For the time being, Holloway’s objective will surely be on ensuring Blackpool’s Premier League campaign of two seasons ago was not an isolated occurrence. For if Holloway is able to build on his side’s early season flourishment and guide the Tangerines to promotion nine months from now, it will be time for the laughter to subside, for Holloway to put away the clown’s shoes for good and for Bristol’s finest export since Massive Attack to finally be regarded as one of English football’s finest man-motivators of his generation and one of its shrewdest shoestring budget operators too.