The Future is Bright, The Future is Tangerine Again
22nd May 2011. Manchester United 4-2 Blackpool. The final whistle sounded and Ian Holloway’s Blackpool were relegated. Their time entertaining the nation in the Premier League was over. Taking six points from Liverpool, four from Tottenham and leading at Old Trafford on the final day with 30 minutes to play, they had come so close. But it wasn’t to be, and in the backdrop of United’s 19th league title, the Seasiders were ruthlessly thrown back into the Football League.
The Seasiders won 39 points that season – no side has won as many and gone down since, and only West Ham in 2003 have gone down with more. They scored 55 goals, as many as Spurs who finished 5th, and the most any relegated side have scored. But it was the 78 conceded and a failure to build on the 28 points won before the end of December that sent Pool down. The side, deemed a ‘breath of fresh air’ nearly every weekend and becoming many people’s second team, quickly became old news and fell back into the shadows from whence they came.
Joint-top scorers Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell left for Liverpool and QPR respectively, while player of the year David Vaughan also departed on a free transfer to Sunderland. Holloway was left to rebuild his side and attempt to pull off another miracle by getting the club back up to the Premier League. He signed Thomas Ince, Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips and led the tangerines to the Play Off final, where they were narrowly beaten by West Ham as Ricardo Vaz Te dealt the cruel blow on 87 minutes in a 2-1 defeat at Wembley.
Holloway and Blackpool were back to square one, and the Bristolian’s patience by this time wearing thin. After a decent start to the following season, the team’s form took a dip. By November, he had departed to Crystal Palace. Almost immediately, Blackpool began to drop. First, down the Championship table. Then, down the football league. Following back-to-back relegation, the tangerines were in the bottom tier by 2016.
Holloway had intended to leave a legacy at the club. Instead, they’d fallen to the lowest level they’d been at since 2001, less than three years after he departed. Not a single senior player remained from the side defeated by West Ham. Fans had begun a boycott in 2015 with a ‘Not a Penny More’ campaign designed to force the Oyston family out of the club following their failure to build on the riches brought in from the Premier League season. The club was on its knees and the atmosphere amongst the fanbase was both toxic and desperate in equal measure.
Seasons passed, players came and went, as did managers. But the fans stayed away, waiting and hoping that an ongoing court case would lead to the demise of the Oystons. That happened in 2017, when Latvian businessman Valeri Belokon, whose investment significantly contributed to Pool’s rise to the Premier League, won against the Oystons, who were forced to pay him more than £31m. The club was handed to the receivers, and put up for sale.
Fans didn’t return until March 2019, by which time Pool had climbed back up to League One, celebrating the ‘homecoming’ at Bloomfield Road with a capacity crowd as they fought to a last-minute draw with Southend. That was the first time that many fans had been in Bloomfield Road for four years.
Simon Sadler, a Blackpool-born businessman who had made his fortune by investing in hedge funds in Hong Kong, took over the club in the summer of 2019, vowing to get the club back to the Championship within three years. He invested both on and off the field, bringing in a new board and recruitment team headed up by former Leeds United and Maccabi Tel Aviv CEO Ben Mansford. He reappointed Simon Grayson as manager, who had taken the club up from League One previously in 2007, in his first managerial job. 23 new players were signed in his first season, 16 permanently, as the two Simons looked to assemble a side able to compete at the top end of the division, ripping out the previous mercenary culture at Bloomfield Road and assembling a squad of players who all wanted to fight for the cause. There were casualties along the way, but overall the feeling around the club had badly improved.
A bad run of form led to Grayson’s axing in February, before Pool appointed former Liverpool youth team manager Neil Critchley to see the club into the summer and look to build on the investment by building a squad to compete. Form and performances were mediocre, but Pool were finally back on the up and attendances vastly improved.
Then came COVID-19. Blackpool finally had a chairman willing to invest and fans had returned 12 months earlier following four years of boycotting. They’d established a squad capable of competing at League One level, and appointed new staff to become a more professional outfit. And a worldwide pandemic led to football being postponed.
Just eight months into his reign, Sadler’s intent and dedication was to be tested to the limit, as football was paused indefinitely. Would he put his money where his mouth was and support the club in the sport’s most testing time?
Sadler could have looked to protect the club’s assets and maintain the status quo. But instead, they did not furlough his recruitment team in a bid to hit the ground running when football did resume. Pool made 17 new signings – nine of them free transfers, many of whom had to be let go by their previous clubs as teams across all four divisions began to feel the pinch. Four more were brought in for fees, as Blackpool became one of the most significantly backed clubs in the division, while four others were added on loan. While other clubs at League One were trying to protect what they had, Blackpool were looking forwards.
Had Blackpool’s previous ownership had an ounce of the ambition shown by Sadler in his first 12 months, they’d likely have had a much more successful decade than they’ve had. Ten years ago, Blackpool sat 8th in the Premier League with two games in hand, going into a January transfer window. Rather than build on what they had and try to push on, they decided they were happy with what they had and gambled with Premier League survival. They lost the gamble big time, losing the only manager who has finished in the top half of the Championship in the last 40 years, as well as every player from the squad which got them there. The club lost a generation of supporters, as fans stayed away from Bloomfield Road and instead chose to support local football, watched elite football on the TV, or simply found other things to occupy their weekend.
Now, in the midst of coronavirus, Blackpool are a side pushing to return to the level they feel they deserve a fair shot at. There is no entitlement or guarantee in football, but the way the club was left to die by its board and the EFL means that the fans are eager to see the club genuinely compete at that level again. Fans, heartbreakingly, cannot return to Bloomfield Road, having opted to stay away for the greater good for four seasons. It’s tough for all football fans, but Blackpool is a club which has already lost a number of years and must stay away once again.
But despite having to stay away, the fanbase is positive. From having the worst owner in football, the club now has one of the best – a supporter who has the club’s best interest at heart, it seems only a matter of time before the club is back on the up.
Promotion will have to be earned rather than given, but through continued growth off the field and having the right people around the club, Sadler has given the side the best chance of achieving something special. There may have been teething problems along the way, as the cancer of the previous regime was ripped out of the club in a cut-throat, business-like fashion, but the club is now pressing on to take the club forwards.
Form on the field has been inconsistent this season, as 17 new signings and a new managerial team get to know each other and attempt to play a free-flowing, progressive style of football with shades of Holloway’s swashbuckling attacking football which took the tangerines right to the top. If Blackpool are able to achieve their goal of returning to the Championship, there will surely be no fanbase as deserving, and there certainly won’t be a fan base as appreciative.
The future is bright again, the future is tangerine again.