From up on the north-western coast of England has come one of the surprise stories of the season. Very few people would have anticipated Blackpool surging into the Championship play-off places this season, but Ian Holloway’s team have managed it while other clubs with bigger ambitions such as Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town have struggled. Even though Holloway tends to divide opinion, few would deny his achievement in taking a club with an average home crowd of just over 8,000 – the second lowest in the division after Scunthorpe United – to the brink of a place in the Premier League. Blackpool’s geography means that a Premier League place may mean more to them than most – derby matches against Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers as well as matches against the four massive clubs from Liverpool and Manchester would lay in wait if they can negotiate their way through the play-offs.
For Nottingham Forest supporters, meanwhile, this month marks an almost poignant anniversary. Thirty years ago, in May 1980, they were the European champions and were gearing up to, successfully as it turned out, defend their European Cup in a Madrid final against Hamburg. The days of provincial English clubs being able to hold their own at the top end of European football may be gone and unlikely to return in the forseeable future, but Forest have been revived over the last couple of years after years of mismanagement that left them uncomfortably close to death, but there are still enough of their supporters that remember the salad days of Clough & Taylor for the Premier League to feel like a natural home. To an extent, it is possible to argue that both Blackpool and Forest are clubs that have laboured in the shadow of more successful predecessors. It has been over forty years since Blackpool were last in the top division, and over a decade for Nottingham Forest. For both, though, today is a chance to start creating a modern legacy of their own.
Bloomfield Road is unrecognisable from the old, traditional style ground that sat here ten years ago. It used to be a something akin to a physical testimony to the slow decline of the club between the late 1960s and the end of the last century. The huge, open terrace behind the north goal had been largely closed since the 1980s and is now long gone, as is the peeling tangerine paint that only partly covered up the rust. Three sides of it have now developed into a tidy if slightly anonymous looking modern all-seater arena. The work will continue until the ground holds 16,000 people. For now, though, the travelling Nottingham Forest supporters are housed in a roofless temporary stand which leaves them exposed to the elements in a crowd of just over 13,000. Some things, however, haven’t changed. There is a swirling wind whipping in from the Irish Sea and it takes both sides a little while to adjust to the difficult conditions. Consequently, the opening ten minutes are a little scrappy as the two teams adapt.
Blackpool, the highest scorers of the four teams in this year’s Championship play-offs, seem the more composed of the two teams and push forward looking for an early goal, but it is Forest that strike first. The Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp takes advantage of the wind with a long clearance that reaches the edge of the Blackpool penalty area and is only half-cleared. Radoslaw Majewski rolls the ball to Chris Cohen, and Cohen floats the ball perfectly into the top corner of the net. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated build up, but with fifteen minutes played it’s a goal the momentarily quiets the noisy home crowd, and for the next five or ten minutes Forest look more likely to extend their lead than Blackpool do to cancel it out. Chris Cohen’s free-kick from the left hand side squeezes through the Blackpool defence, but Wes Morgan can’t quite get on the end of it.
Twelve minutes after Cohen’s moment of brilliance, however, Blackpool bring the scores level. Seamus Coleman weaves horizontally across the edge of the Nottingham Forest penalty area, seemingly tyring to find an angle to shoot from. Instead, he rolls the ball wide to Ian Evatt, whose low cross evades attempts at clearance and runs to Keith Southern, who places the ball past the goalkeeper and a defender on the line to bring Blackpool level. With away goals counting for nothing in the play-offs, we’re back to square one. The goal doesn’t seem to faze Forest at all, though, and they have the best chances of the remainder of the half. Wes Anderson’s cross is met by Dexter Blackstock, whose looping header hits the top of the cross bar and, in stoppage time at the end of the half, Wes Morgan’s shot is hacked off the line by Stephen Creaney, who then heads off the line from the resulting corner. Half-time comes with Blackpool hanging on to their parity for dear life, but the two sides leave the pitch at the end of an entertaining half on level terms.
With the advantage, such that it is, of the wind behind them, Blackpool start the second half strongly and eleven minutes into the second half they take the lead. DJ Campbell races into the Forest penalty area and is brought down by James Perch, who is slightly fortunate to not be sent off. Charlie Adam, who cost Blackpool half a million pounds from Rangers, steps up and looks to his right and places the ball to his left, sending Lee Camp the wrong way and putting Blackpool in front. For the next ten minutes, they have Forest thoroughly on the back foot as they push forward for a third goal that would immeasurably improve their chances of holding Forest at bay in the second leg. Brett Ormerod and Keith Southern both have shots blocked in a desperate scramble in the Forest six yard area and then, just over mid-way through the half, a golden chance falls to DJ Campbell when, with the Forest defence stretched again, he is found unmarked on the left hand side of the penalty area with a pass from Charlie Adam but he rushes his shot and it sails harmlessly over the crossbar.
In the last twenty minutes, the pace of the match, which was already high, increases still further and this affects the flow of play somewhat. Forest don’t seem able to settle on the ball and Blackpool seem more likely to add a third goal than concede an equaliser, and with eight minutes left to play substitute Ben Burgess sees a low shot flash just inches wide of Lee Camp’s right hand post. In the final five minutes, however, Forest finally start to exert a little pressure upon the Blackpool defence, but their final ball on a somewhat bobbly surface is still too often over-hit, under-hit or just plain sloppy. Stoppage time doesn’t see any great surge forward from either team, as if both teams feel reasonable happy with the way that things have turned out this afternoon, although Forest still have a chance to haul themselves level with ten seconds to play of the five minutes added when Gary Cohen’s low shot has to be pushed round the post by the Blackpool goalkeeper Matthew Gilks, who has spent much of the second half as a spectator. Such concentration could prove to be invaluable to Blackpool in the second leg.
Blackpool, then, have a lead, albeit a slender one, to take to The City Ground and without having to concern themselves with away goals, they merely need to avoid defeat in the second leg against a team that they have now beaten three times out of three this season to book a place at Wembley. Nottingham Forest may consider that, taking into the account the amount of possession that Blackpool had in the second half of this match, a mere one goal deficit going into the second leg is something that they can overturn if their players apply themselves assertively in the second leg. This afternoon, however, provided little conclusive evidence of what will or will not happen at The City Ground on Tuesday night. At half-time in this play-off, there is all to play for and, for both clubs, a date at Wembley at the end of this month remains firmly on the horizon.