It’s all back to The City Ground, then, for the second leg of the Championship play-off, and the people of Nottingham clearly have better thing to do than worry about who will or won’t be forming the next government this evening. They’ve got Blackpool to worry about. Their trip to the seaside at the weekend was some distance from what one might describe as “the Premier League experience”. The travelling supporters were housed in a temporary, roofless stand while the two teams played out a high tempo match on a bumpy pitch with a high wind swirling around. This evening, though, they’re back on home turf and it feels rather as if everything is back under their control.
The City Ground is, after all, a Premier League ground in most respects. Only the Main Stand feels like a throwback, and that was only built in 1965. Sitting opposite it, The Brian Clough Stand was opened in 1980 but it was a prototype for the steel and glass that we take for granted today and certainly wouldn’t look out of place mixing it amongst the best. The current team, however, may be a slightly different matter. They finished third in the table but didn’t often look like seriously troubling Newcastle United or West Bromwich Albion for one of the automatic promotion places, and in the first leg of this tie at Bloomfield Road they were comprehensively outplayed in the second half, and Blackpool’s lead from the match was well-deserved.
The other thing stand stands out about The City Ground this evening is the condition of the pitch. In sharp contrast to Bloomfield Road, where it occasionally felt as if a mole might pop out of one of the penalty spots (and, it should be pointed out, there is nothing wrong with this – it is the middle of May, after all), the pitch looks like a bowling green. Whoever the Nottingham Forest groundsman is, the Football Association should be tapping him up quick sharp to try and stitch the pitch at Wembley back together again.
Perhaps Blackpool’s players are used to the uneven surface at Bloomfield Road. It would certainly explain the mistake that allows Forest to sweep into the lead after just seven minutes, when Radoslav Majewski’s through-ball is missed by Alex Baptiste, who seems to almost stub his toe as he moves to bring the ball under control. Robert Earnshaw picks the ball up and drives it into the bottom corner of the net to give the home side the lead. It briefly looks as if Blackpool might fold as, with the roar of the crowd behind them, Forest go in immediate search of a decisive second goal, but they stabilise, keep it calm and slowly start to eke out a couple of half-chances of their own. The best of these falls to Charlie Adam, who fires in a powerful, dipping volley that the consistently impressive Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp has to stretch to tip over the crossbar.
Shooting towards the River Trent in the second half, it still feels as if Forest could go on and run riot if they can nab the second goal, and two minutes into the second half Earnshaw breaks free and puts the ball in the back of the net for a second time, but this time the linesman’s flag is up and the goal is disallowed. As the second half starts to bed in, though, Blackpool start to get more and more involved again, and twelve minutes in they bring themselves level on the night and, infinitely more importantly, put themselves ahead on aggregate. David Vaughan flicks the ball through to DJ Campbell, and Campbell seems to be at an unfriendly angle to score from, but Lee Camp is a little hasty off his line and he lifts the ball over the goalkeeper and it rolls agonisingly slowly over the line to put Wembley back in Blackpool’s sights.
Suddenly, the air of confidence around The City Ground that sat slightly ill at ease with the fact that they were only level on aggregate has been punctured. Forest start throwing themselves players forward, and just eight minutes later they are back in front. Dexter Blackstock feeds the ball in from the right and Earnshaw, who looks quite clearly like a Premier League striker on this evening’s evidence, lashes the ball over the Blackpool goalkeeper Matthew Gilks and into the roof of the net. The two teams are level on aggregate again, and it starting to feel as if the result of this match may be determined by whether Blackpool can contain Earnshaw.
Except it would, of course, had these two teams not long since taken the script, torn it up and thrown it around like confetti. At the precise moment that it starts to feel inevitable that Forest will this time go on and finish the game off for certain, Blackpool score three goals in seven minutes to kill the tie stone dead. Stephen Dobbie has only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes, but his shot clips the heel of the Forest defender, completely wrong-footing Lee Camp and rolling into the back of the net. Within five minutes, there have been chances at either end and how they turn out determines how the tie ends. At one end, Matthew Gilks makes a superb double save from Dexter Blackstock and Robert Earnshaw, Blackpool then break straight to the other end of the pitch, Stephen Dobbie plays the ball to DJ Campbell and Campbell puts the ball past Camp. Three minutes later, Dobbie’s shot is parried by Camp and Campbell rolls the ball into the empty goal for his hat-trick. It’s 4-2 to Blackpool and Nottingham Forest are down and out.
There is still time, even after all of this, for another Alex Baptiste error to let Dele Adebola in to pull another goal back for Nottingham Forest, but it’s only a consolation for a team that has played a full part in this evening’s match but was ultimately undone by a perfectly executed smash and grab from the visitors. With Hull City and Portsmouth not seeming terribly likely to start next season in a particularly good financial position, Forest can at least take some consolation from the fact that the race for promotion next season in the Championship will be considerably closer than it was season. They are surely in with an excellent chance of being there or thereabouts this time next year.
Blackpool, meanwhile, will go to Wembley. They managed promotion from Leagues One and Two via the play-offs. It would be quite a hat-trick if they could manage a third promotion by the same means. This evening, they played pragmatically. With a narrow advantage from the first leg, they had no particular need to commit players forward from the start, reacted well to the early shock of going a goal down and played attractive, economical football. Most importantly of all, when push came to shove, DJ Campbell, a player that has had more than his fair share of enigmatic moments since making the step up from non-league football, came of age and showed exceptional cool-headedness to put the match beyond Nottingham Forest. They thoroughly deserve their place at Wembley, and Cardiff City and Leicester City, one of whom will play them there in a couple of weeks’ time, will have watched with some degree of trepidation at the prospect of having to face them.