EVERYONE has their bogey ground, and mine is Bloomfield Road. Don’t get me wrong: I love Blackpool. I briefly worked for a newspaper there, and have spent many happy days and nights in the town. It’s just that none of them were at the football ground.
I should explain myself. Before today, I had been to Bloomfield Road three times, twice as an away fan, once as a journalist. Every time, the team I was supporting or covering lost.
My first visit was for a cup game in the early 1990s. At that time, Blackpool were in something of a slump, and their ground – impressive in its day – was looking rather tatty. Away fans were shoved into one corner, with two options: stand on the open terrace behind the goal and risk getting drenched, or stand undercover and risk being unable to see the pitch.
I took the undercover option and, as a result, missed the only goal of the game because the far end of the pitch was hidden behind a mass of fences and pillars.
When I made my second visit, for a league match several years later, I stood in almost the same spot and suffered a similar fate. Only this time, I got an added bonus at full-time as I made my way to the away fans’ exit. Right outside the exit, and impossible to leap over or step round, was a pile of manure so large that the horse who left it must have enjoyed a particularly satisfying curry.
In 2000, I went back, this time as a journalist, to cover an early-season League Cup tie between Blackpool and Stockport. I made my way up the M55 on a glorious August evening, eagerly anticipating my seat in the stand, from which I would be able to see the entire pitch.
Well, I did get a seat in the stand. But half of Bloomfield Road had been demolished since my last visit, which the result that the press had to sit behind one goal. This was fine when all the action was going on at our end. But during the second half, when it had gone dark, there were several incidents at the other end – such as goals – that I was only able to report using the classic sports journalism fallback of pure guesswork.
Seven-and-a-half years on, Blackpool are in the top two divisions for the first time since 1978, but Bloomfield Road is still unfinished.
Two impressive stands have sprung up over the last few years, but already, the stanchions are showing spots of rust, the tangerine seats at the front have faded. There’s a faded glory about the town as a whole, and it’s almost as if the new stands have done their bit to try to blend in.
There is also a temporary stand along one touchline, with no roof. That is where the away fans go. A temporary TV gantry, like the ones that used to come with the Subbuteo Grandstand edition, towers over them.
And that’s it. Behind the other goal is a car park, with some portable cabins and a giant metal container with the name ‘Maersk’ painted on in black letters. It is separated from the pitch by a metal corrugated fence which looks as if it could blow over with one gust from the Irish sea.
And yet, and yet… today, my Bloomfield Road nightmares ended. The staff were friendly and welcoming. I had a good seat in the stand, at the side, from where I could see the whole pitch without any fences in the way. I watched a good Championship game between two teams, Blackpool and Ipswich, who set out to play entertaining football. What more could I have asked for?
Admittedly, I might not have had the same perspective had I been an Ipswich fan, making a six-hour journey from Suffolk to the Lancashire riviera on a cold January day to sit out in the elements. Throw in the fact that Ipswich haven’t won away from home for 10 months, and you could be forgiven for wondering if those fans had taken leave of their senses.
Ipswich’s away form has become such a bugbear now that even their local journalists are sick of talking about it. There’s a point when a story starts to become a burden for even the most diligent hack, and I get the impression that point passed for the Ipswich media about two months ago.
What makes it even more bemusing is that the Tractor Boys are unbeaten at home in the Championship this season; indeed, they’ve only dropped six points in 14 league games at Portman Road.
Maybe it’s something to do with the tactics. Ipswich play a 4-4-2 system, but it’s really more like 4-2-4; or at least it was today. Every few minutes during the first half, strikers Gary Roberts and Pablo Counago swapped places with wide players Jon Walters and Danny Haynes.
The idea, presumably, is to confuse any opposing defences who attempt a man-to-man marking system. That’s fine at home, where visiting teams will tend to play more defensively and let you have more of the ball. But away from home, it’s a system that leaves your two central midfielders in danger of being overrun and your full-backs exposed.
So in the first half, Ben Burgess had two clear headed chances to put Blackpool in front after the visitors gave Gary Taylor-Fletcher too much time and space to cross from the right. And then Claus Jorgensen did give the Seasiders the lead, tapping into an empty net after Stephen McPhee had charged clear on to a Wes Hoolahan through pass with Ipswich light on numbers in midfield.
Blackpool fans were in full voice at this point, singing to the tune of Blue Moon: “We’ve only got two stands.”
Ipswich’s supporters, by now feeling the cold, spent the half-time interval swarming around a burger van in the corner with an ‘Incredible Edibles’ sign on top.
The strange thing is that Blackpool probably would have gone on to win had Ipswich not had a player sent off. Spanish left-back Luis Castro Rodriguez (or Sito, according to the Ipswich media, or Castro Sito, according to the name on the back of his shirt) was shown a straight red card for a two-footed challenge on Hoolahan.
Ipswich switched to a more defensive set-up and yet, paradoxically, were level within three minutes, thanks to Walters’ powerful header from a Roberts corner.
Blackpool pressed for a winner, coming closest when Latvian centre-back Kaspers Gorkss (the spellchecker’s nightmare) headed Stephen Crainey’s left-wing cross towards the top corner, only for keeper Neil Alexander to make a flying save.
1-1 at the end; Ipswich’s fifth away point from 14 games. It’s now 18 league and cup matches on their travels without a victory. The next chance to end the run comes at Sheffield Wednesday in a fortnight.
“We got a point, and that stopped the bleeding for us,” said Ipswich manager Jim Magilton.
Bizarrely, though, it was Blackpool manager Simon Grayson who was more critical of the sending off.
“Should their lad have been sent off? From where I was standing, I didn’t think so,” Grayson said. “I don’t think you’re allowed to tackle any more.”
That last word, though, should go to Stephen McPhee, the striker making his home debut after signing from Hull, and who missed a clear chance to put Blackpool 2-0 up in the crazy three minutes between Sito’s sending off and Walters’ equaliser.
“It’s a great atmosphere even though it’s only half a ground,” McPhee said. “It will be great to see what it’s like when it’s eventually finished.
And how does he feel his first two weeks at Blackpool have been?
“Wet,” he said. “Very wet. A few of the lads have been asking me if I had rain put in my contract. Every day I’ve trained, it’s rained. I’ve gone home, and there’s been no rain. I’ve come back, and it’s been raining.”
It’s all part of the Lancashire seaside experience, Stephen. You’ll get used to it.