The early season is over now. The clocks have gone back, which means that there will be precious few matches that finish in daylight between now and next spring, and in commemoration of this fact the Premier League rolled out the luminous yellow ball last weekend. There is something deeply aesthetically unsatisfying about the yellow ball. Marketing fools still doubtlessly proffer the argument that it is somehow more “visible” than a white ball, as if we are incapable of seeing through their guff, but still they press ahead with it. The ball isn’t the only affront to the eyes at Bloomfield Road this evening, either. Both Blackpool and West Bromwich Albion have their shirts adorned with sponsors’ logos which defy all logic by making the companies – a payday loan company and an emergency insurance company respectively – that they are flogging even less unattractive than they may already be.
Fortunately, there is much, much more to this game than aesthetic concerns. This match was almost certainly selected for live television broadcast on the basis that it would be a relegation six-pointer, but West Bromwich Albion at least are defying the pre-season odds with a string of excellent results, including taking seven points out of nine from matches against Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United. Moreover, they have done it with a degree of style and panache (they scored seven goals in those aforementioned three matches) which indicates that they Roberto di Matteo has no intention of sacrificing good football for results – not that he has needed to, yet. Blackpool will always have That Day At Anfield, but points aren’t exactly coming thick and fast for them at the moment – two straight defeats have dropped them to within a point of the relegation places and they are the only Premier League club still without a home win.
An entertaining match was widely expected this evening, but whether this was what West Bromwich Albion supporters could possibly have bargained for is another matter altogether. Albion have the first decent chance of the evening, a low shot from Cox that is pushed aside by Gilks, but then all hell breaks loose. Perhaps if Blackpool’s season is to turn around before the long, hard slog of winter kicks in, they need breaks like this. DJ Campbell looks optimistic in trying squeeze past Ibanez in the penalty area and falls like a sack of potatoes, but the referee, in one swift pincer movement, gives the penalty and sends Ibanez off. Charlie Adam’s penalty is far from perfect – in fact, you’d go almost so far as to say that Scott Carson should have saved it – but the ball squeezes under the goalkeeper and Blackpool lead.
For the remainder of the first half, though, the teams don’t so much throw the script out of the window as fire it into the sun with a cannon. Albion react positively to the goal and a lapse of judgement from Gilks almost gifts them an equaliser when he over-stretches for a relatively aimless cross, palming the ball into the path of Marc-Antoine Fortune, but Fortune, bending himself into the shape of a broken weather vane, can only shoot into the side-netting. Just before the half-hour mark, though, the remaining pieces of Albion’s roof caves in when Gonzalo Jara throws himself into a tackle on Luke Varney like a lion going in for the kill on a gazelle and follows Ibanez down the tunnel for his troubles. If the first red card was a harsh decision this one is completely vindicated. Perhaps Jara and Ibanez can play cards in the dressing room for rest of the match.
In this position, perhaps the best that West Bromwich Albion can hope for is a divine intervention and the best hope of this comes in the form of a monsoon-esque rainstorm which leads us to idly wonder whether the match will even finish. As the conditions deteriorate, however, Albion pick up the pace and finish the match as, if anything, the stronger of the two sides, barring a moment of pinball in the West Bromwich Albion penalty area which pointedly ends in Blackpool failing to seize the moment and score again. With conditions seemingly becoming more and more difficult with each passing minute, it feels in the minutes prior to half-time as if there is still potentially a major banana skin for Blackpool to slip on if their nerves get the better of them or their game-plan slides away on the greasy Bloomfield Road pitch.
We can only speculate as to what Ian Holloway said to his team at half-time, but for twenty minutes of the second half it seems to have had the desired effect upon his players. Blackpool look more composed – more comfortable in their own skin – and start to make their numerical advantage count in the centre of the pitch and, just after the hour, they double their advantage with an excellently taken goal. Grandin is wide on the right hand side and threads the ball through the eye of a needle. Varney has timed his time to perfection and with a couple of Albion arms half-raised for an offside that they will be waiting a long time for, and the Blackpool forward rolls the ball past Carson to double the lead.
For a while, it seems as if this is the way that the match will pan out – Blackpool know how important the points are, and West Bromwich Albion will be keen to avoid a morale-sapping hiding – but just as it feels as if things are settling down, Blackpool start to wobble and West Bromwich Albion find themselves a way back into the match. Gilks beats Barnes to a long ball through the middle and scrambles it clear, but it is returned within seconds and Youssuf Mulumbu swerves the ball into the top corner. In the blink of an eye, Blackpool’s insecurities are writ large all over the pitch. Within two minutes, Brunts loops the ball into the Blackpool penalty area and Scharner heads narrowly wide. It’s still eleven against nine, but late-comers to the game would, without physically counting the number of players on each team, be hard-pressed to be able to tell at a glance which team is two players short. As the ninety minutes tick over, Dorrans gets his feet stuck under the ball ten yards from the Blackpool goal but can’t dig it out and the home side survive. There are gaping holes in the West Bromwich Albion defence and Grandin misses two golden chances in injury time for Blackpool, but it is the home side that seem more relieved to hear the final whistle.
It has been an odd, perplexing evening, and both managers can read any number of positives or negatives from what has played out at Bloomfield Road tonight. Roberto di Matteo may well ruminate over what might have happened had his team kept all eleven (or even ten) players on the pitch and the spirit that his team displayed. It was a sheer bloodymindedness which bodes well for the rest of their season. Ian Holloway, meanwhile, may have his delight at his team’s first home win of the season tempered by the fact that his team were unable to fully kill the game off, even with a two goal and two man lead. There was little on offer this evening that could accurately give us many pointers as to how the rest of the season will play out for either Blackpool or West Bromwich Albion. Those of us that remain neutral to the long-term hopes of the clubs concerned should at least be grateful that they played out such an entertaining match for us this evening.