After all the pre-season optimism, a lot of scales fall from the eyes of football supporters by five o’clock on the opening day of the season. On Saturday afternoon, however, it was Wigan Athletic supporters rather than those of Blackpool that had pause for thought at just how arduous the coming nine months could be after a defensive performance of such paucity that Roberto Martinez might just already be starting to consider how long into the season he will be able to last at Wigan. They were saved from an even greater thrashing by a ropey offside call and some poor first half finishing by a visiting attacking pairing that played parts of the first half as if they were still getting to know each other.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall on Saturday morning, when the front page of The Guardian asked the question of Blackpool, “Is this the worst team to ever appear in the Premier league?”. It was a question that seemed like an odd one to be putting forward on the first day of the season and it was one that begged to be upset by a Blackpool that had, of course, ended last season on the crest of a wave. Indeed, by the end of the afternoon Blackpool supporters could have been forgiven for answering the question by saying, “No, but perhaps Wigan is”. They stayed top of the Premier League for just a couple of hours after Chelsea demolished a desperate looking West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge in the early evening match, but just to win on the opening day of the season is vindication enough for their place in the Premier League this season.
It says something about the reality of life at Bloomfield Road in the Premier League that Marlon Harewood ummed and ahhed before choosing Blackpool over the League One football that Huddersfield Town were offering him. Harewood took a while to come to life, inadvertently blocking Brett Ormerod’s goal-bound ricochet before scoring two in five minutes of his own to Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s opener just before half-time to kill the game as a contest before the interval had even arrived. Admittedly, they had been helped on their way by the Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, who was at fault for the first of Harewood’s goals, and by a Wigan defence that was so accommodating that the only thing missing from their performance was a butler walking around offering Harewood and Ormerod canapés and light refreshments.
Wigan improved somewhat in the opening stages of the second half. They had a goal of their own incorrectly chalked off for offside and hit the crossbar, but the final embarrassment was lavished upon them when Alex Baptiste’s relatively aimless cross squeaked in at the near post, under the body of the now scientifically-proven to be hapless Kirkland. Harewood was withdrawn on the hour and Blackpool ran down the clock with ease against a team that was already looking demoralised. They were booed from the pitch at the end of the match and, in the post-match interviews Roberto Martinez couldn’t mask his team’s deficiencies. Where they go from here this season is anybody’s guess.
Blackpool know exactly where they are going from here, in a literal sense – Arsenal, and then Chelsea. Four of their first five matches are away because of ongoing building work at Bloomfield Road, and such a fixture list should help Ian Holloway in what may be his most difficult task over the next few days or so – to keep his players’ heads on the ground. The other factor which should keep everybody at the club focussed on the task in his hand will be articles such as this one, which crossed the line between reasonable criticism of a team that seems likely to struggle this season and a snobbish and unpleasant attack on the town and the townspeople themselves. Its words should be written on the side of the home dressing room door at Bloomfield Road for the rest of the season.
The scale of the task ahead for Holloway is already well-established – to keep a team in the Premier League on a maximum wage of £10,000 per player per week would appear to be almost insurmountable. Saturday, however, will have gone a long way towards convincing a lot of the people that may need persuading – the players and the supporters quite possibly amongst them – that it can be done. They are unlikely to play another team as defensively woeful as Wigan were on Saturday afternoon, but modern Premier League football is a game that works on many psychological levels and the usefulness of the result that they picked up last weekend cannot be understated. We have, after all, been here enough times in recent seasons – with Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City, for example – to surely be able to understand that there is nothing pre-ordained about whether a team will be relegated or not at the start of a season.
For Blackpool to survive this season on their most modest of budgets will require another trend to be bucked, but if it is impossible for them to do so, we may as well give up on the football altogether, print out a list of annual wage bills in descending order each August and save ourselves a considerable amount of hassle and expense. As summer turns to autumn and autumn turns to winter, the going will likely get considerably tougher for them than the last few days have been, but for now at least Blackpool supporters can look forward to the coming months with a sense of optimism that is based on something tangible, and regardless of what is to come they will always have that couple of hours for which they were top of the Premier League. What we know for certain is that we saw very little “relegation form” from their team on Saturday afternoon.