The fearlessness of Ian Holloway

SEAN O’Driscoll has a media profile about as far removed from Ian Holloway as it is possible to imagine. But although the Doncaster Rovers manager may speak quietly, he does talk sense.

Asked earlier in the season about the job Holloway was doing at Blackpool, O’Driscoll replied: “They’re a dangerous side to face, because he’s got them playing without fear.”

It’s as good an explanation as any as to how Blackpool, with a fraction of the budget of virtually all of their Championship rivals, have managed to make it into the Premier League.

In a season where Middlesbrough’s baffling underperformance left the third promotion place via the play-offs up for grabs, Holloway’s side were fearless when others got nervy.

Against Cardiff at Wembley yesterday, Holloway set up his team in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. No one who has watched the Seasiders on a regular basis this season would have been surprised. Even by Blackpool’s standards, though, a 3-2 half-time scoreline was a little on the wild side. For once, they decided to take a more cautious approach in the second half. It was the right decision.

After yesterday’s victory, Blackpool’s players repeatedly spoke up for Holloway’s motivational skills. It was fascinating to hear how he managed to get them to play above themselves – because it was something he so noticeably struggled to do during his brief stint in charge at Leicester.

Just as it is miraculous that Holloway has taken Blackpool up into the Premier League, it was bewildering that he somehow managed to get Leicester relegated to League One two years ago.

If you want an example of how the magic deserted Holloway at the Walkers Stadium, a home game against relegated Colchester on a warm April afternoon two years ago is as good as any.

Before that game, Holloway showed his Leicester players the inspirational basketball movie Coach Carter in a bid to gee them up. Just before the kick off, Foxes legend Alan Birchenall took a microphone and walked around the pitch whipping up the crowd. It was a game tailor-made for Holloway’s powers of motivation.

But Leicester’s players froze that day. They could barely string any passes together. Midway through the second half, a disgruntled fan ran across the pitch to confront Holloway. Leicester were lucky to get a 1-1 draw out of the match. They were relegated on the final day, and Holloway was sacked, his managerial reputation apparently in ruins.

It’s the sort of game that Holloway’s Blackpool would have won. So what happened in the meantime?

It would be tempting to say that a year out of the game gave Holloway some perspective on life, were it not for the fact that he has always had it.

He wrote movingly about nursing his wife Kim through lymph cancer – and about the deafness of his three daughters – in his 2007 autobiography. There’s plenty of depth beneath all the “our performance may not have been the best looking bird” nonsense.

It’s not that Holloway ever lost his enthusiasm for football, but his experience at Leicester perhaps forced him to rethink his approach. “I looked at what I was doing and there was fear behind every move I made, and I don’t want my players to play like that,” he admitted this week.

His determination and enthusiasm impressed the Blackpool board to give him a chance when he was not every supporter’s first choice. A sober appearance on the BBC’s Football League Show after an opening-day draw at former club QPR hinted at an attempt to ensure he was seen as more than a funny quotes machine.

There have been times this season when Holloway’s imaginative thought processes, his desire to be taken seriously and his sense of perspective have collided. After a 3-3 draw at Doncaster in late October – the match which prompted O’Driscoll’s comments on Blackpool’s fearlessness – Holloway was asked about a possible offside in the build-up to a late goal. He responded with a discussion about a Channel Four documentary he had seen on Katie Piper, a young model disfigured in an acid attack, and how much it had moved him. It was a response which stunned the assembled journalists into silence.

It is a tribute to Holloway’s powers of motivation that he managed to revive Blackpool’s play-off challenge after a mid-season wobble. He could have been forgiven if he had settled for mid-table comfort at a club who have spent most of the last 30 years in the lower divisions. Instead, he refused to allow his players to slack off.

A run of six wins in the final eight games carried them into sixth spot. And a 4-3 victory at Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi-final second leg typified the adventurous spirit that O’Driscoll had picked up on.

There was a nice symmetry to the fact that Brett Ormerod scored the winning goal yesterday. Nine years ago, during his first spell at the club, Ormerod scored the final goal as Blackpool beat Leyton Orient 4-2 at the Millennium Stadium in the Third Division play-off final, a win which began their club from the bottom to the top.

Ormerod’s nomadic career has taken him to Southampton, Leeds, Wigan, Preston, Nottingham Forest and Oldham during the intervening period, not always with great success. But like Holloway, he is enjoying a career revival.

According to Ormerod, Holloway deserves a knighthood for taking Blackpool up. Perhaps the striker’s father Glynn should get some credit, too. Ormerod senior missed that 2001 play-off triumph, but was present when his son was on the losing side with Southampton in the 2003 FA Cup final.

Being the superstitious type, Glynn decided his presence yesterday would be a jinx, and stayed away. Perhaps if he misses every single Blackpool game next season, they will be Premier League champions.

Holloway has acknowledged that the Seasiders may get a few spankings next season, but he is not scared.

Or as he put it: “Petrified to go to Old Trafford? I would go there to attack them. I would go there to win the game. If it ends up 20-0, so be it.”

That fearlessness will be a welcome addition to the Premier League.

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