BLACKPOOL’S ground has changed a fair bit since my last visit there seven months ago. So much has happend so quickly, it’s tempting to wonder if Bloomfield Road’s refurbishments have been done by the 60 Minute Makeover team. (Or 46 Minute Makeover, as Harry Hill calls it, because of the adverts.)
This weekend 12 months ago, Blackpool were at home to Scunthorpe. They were a Championship side with half a chance of making the play-offs and half a ground. I’m not sure if anyone at the club can properly explain all that’s happened since.
Today, the ground has four sides (and anyone who has been there in the last 10 years will tell you what a novelty that is). And today, Blackpool – with wins at Newcastle and Liverpool behind them – were at home to Everton in the Premier League.
When they won promotion by beating Cardiff in the Championship play-off final, Blackpool set themselves up for a busy summer – and not just in terms of strengthening the squad on a small budget. Where uncovered temporary seating had lined one side of the pitch, a new East Stand was built in a matter of weeks. New press and TV facilities had to be built too to meet Premier League requirements.
But despite the refurbishments, the ground has not lost its character. There wasn’t an awful lot of room to build the new stand, which still has a temporary feel, even with a roof on.
It backs right on to a row of houses so that, if you go to the rear of the stand and peer through its mesh fence, you find yourself looking down into someone’s garden. Go down to one end of the stand, and you can see Blackpool Tower. A visit to Bloomfield Road is one that visiting Premier League fans are unlikely to forget this season.
The club are shining on the Premier League like a tangerine beacon. There’s none of this cagey football nonsense. Under Ian Holloway, Blackpool have decided to go for it. Holloway has been keen to point out in recent days that it’s not exactly a ‘bugger the consequences’ approach – he feels he can keep the club in the top flight – but nor do his side go into games feeling fear.
Last Monday, a milestone was passed. Victory over West Brom took Blackpool’s points tally for the season to 13, passing the record Premier League low of 11 set by Derby three seasons ago. (In the entire history of English top-flight football, only Stoke have recorded fewer points than that – 10, in 1889/90 – and that was when there were 22 games in a season and two points for a win).
So whatever happens now, the Seasiders won’t be the worst side the Premier League has ever seen. But then anyone who has seen them play this season already knew they were a lot better than that Derby side.
The scorer of the first goal against West Brom on Monday, Charlie Adam, has continued to perform impressively despite being involved in one of football’s odder contract disputes. Last season, he was due a £20,000 bonus if Blackpool avoided relegation from the Championship. Instead, he got a £400,000 bonus for winning promotion, but argued that he was still due the £20,000 too.
It’s currently being dealt with by an arbitration panel, with the apparent possibility that Adam’s contract will be declared void if he wins, enabling him to leave the club on a free transfer.
In response, Holloway said that he hoped Adam would stay and help Blackpool push for the Champions League. Those are the words of a man who is always looking up.
Against an Everton side unbeaten in five since crashing out of the Carling Cup at League One Brentford in September, Blackpool started with the kind of positive attitude exuded by their manager.
Everton boss David Moyes bemoaned his own side’s sluggish start afterwards, saying that they had conceded four free kicks in the opening five minutes. It was a free kick conceded by Mikel Arteta in the 10th for a trip on Adam that would prove costly.
Adam scored a spectacular free kick against Cardiff at Wembley in May, and most would have expected him to take this one. Instead, right-back Neal Eardley, who had never scored for Blackpool, stepped up. Well, it was his 22nd birthday. And he scored.
The goal was not a springboard for Blackpool, though. It was their only shot on target of the first half. From my point of view, this was a help. The new press box at Bloomfield Road is in the East Stand, between the home and away fans. Journalists don’t make great stewards, so a line of police officers – plus stewards – stood on the gangway to my left to ensure the (well-behaved) Everton fans didn’t try to wander into the wrong section.
As a result, I couldn’t always see very much that was going on at the end Blackpool were attacking in the first half, as the picture below shows. The TV monitors in the press box – a Premier League requirement – came in very useful.
Everton, though, did most of the first-half attacking after Eardley’s opener. And within three minutes, they were level.
I’m always amazed at the statistics Opta manage to drag up, and recently, they unearthed a gem on Tim Cahill. The 5ft 10in Aussie has, it would seem, the best headed goals ratio in Premier League history – one every six-and-a-bit games, a record which beats Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson and Les Ferdinand.
Cahill’s 28th headed goal (and 50th overall) in 174 Premier League appearances came from a Yakubu cross after good work by Steven Pienaar and Sylvain Distin. It was a typical Cahill goal, as he outjumped a defender at least four inches taller than him, Ian Evatt, and powered a close-range header past Matt Gilks.
Everton dominated the remainder of the half as Twitter king Phil Neville and his wing-man Seamus Coleman caused all sorts of problems down the right. Coleman could have had a couple of goals before half-time.
Instead, Blackpool scored again within three minutes of the restart. It was about as close as you could get to a ‘scrum five’ in football, with Gary Taylor-Fletcher and DJ Campbell nudging Everton back towards their own line before David Vaughan touched down.
Again, Holloway’s side could not hold their lead for longer than the time it takes to boil an egg. Everton’s second equaliser came from a young man who knows Bloomfield Road well.
Coleman spent the final three months of last season on loan at Blackpool, playing a key role in their promotion. He still has plenty of mates at the club to go with his fond memories. When he left Stephen Crainey trailing – not for the first time this afternoon – to drive a shot beneath Gilks, Coleman did not celebrate. A very classy gesture, when you consider it was his first goal in the Premier League.
There will be more. Moyes suggested recently that Coleman has what it takes to match Gareth Bale’s achievements. Everton’s manager, though, is unlikely to let the 22-year-old from Donegal get carried away with any hype.
“Seamus did great for the goal,” Moyes said afterwards. “There were one or two things he could have done better, but overall his performance was good.”
Holloway was more effusive. “I’ve just told Seamus he should have put it wide,” he said. “He’s a very good lad and a very good player. I’m delighted to have played any part in his life.”
And still the chances came. Gilks scrambled away a Pienaar effort, Louis Saha somehow fired wide when clean through and fellow substitute Jermaine Beckford would have had his first Premier League goal but for Evatt’s last-ditch block.
Still Blackpool could have won late on. Adam’s fizzing shot was tipped over by Tim Howard, before Marlon Harewood had a late goal ruled out – possibly for offside, possibly for a push. Either way, it was a tight decision.
Neither side deserved to lose a cracking game, though. They both made a commitment to playing attacking football, and the match was a treat as a result. A 2-2 draw was about right.
“We’re at the top level, and we’re starting to look as good as some of the sides we’re playing,” Holloway said. “This is the best trip I’ve ever had. I don’t want it to stop.
“I don’t think that will be last on Match of the Day tonight because that was a really good game of football.”
Yes, the entertaining football: One thing that hasn’t changed at Bloomfield Road over the last 12 months.