A BLACKPOOL-supporting TV producer’s clever rigging of the Countdown conundrum to have a dig at the troubles of rivals Preston earlier this week wasn’t the first time that sporting business has impinged on the climax of Channel Four’s cardigan-clad celebration of wordplay and whimsy.
And I’m not referring to the crossover of Des Lynam and Jeff Stelling from making amusing asides about the football results to stilted exchanges with Susie Dent. Or even to Ron Atkinson’s baffling 2006 appearance in Dictionary Corner. (It is unconfirmed whether a chill descended on the studio every time Big Ron claimed he’d come up with a six-letter word.)
No, I’m referring specifically to the conundrum, on which football culture made an impact long before Stelling settled into the presenter’s chair.
During one of the grand finals in the Richard Whiteley era, the producers managed to squeeze two football related conundrums into one show. The first was ‘LIAMBRADY’ and the second was ‘LETISSIER’. Can you guess what nine-letter words were scrambled within? Answers at the bottom of this post.
It was hard not to laugh at the Countdown jibe at Preston’s expense. The anagram presented to the contestants was ‘PNECRISIS’. The answer was ‘priciness’. Even North End, just relegated to League One, saw the funny side.
They were less amused, though, by the Blackpool supporters who flew a plane over Deepdale during their final Championship match against Watford, with a couple of banners tailing off at the back. One read: “Poor little Preston. Enjoy League One.” The other read: “We are superior. Love Blackpool FC.”
Preston manager Phil Brown, who I’m sure must have been in Dictionary Corner at some point (come on, he must have been), declared: “If I had a gun, I would have shot the plane down.” Steady, Phil. I’ve heard the FA take a dim view of shooting down planes these days. You’ll end up with a touchline ban if you’re not careful.
With both the Countdown jibe and the plane stunt, I can’t help but feel as if Blackpool’s fans were shaky ground, though. After all, there’s every chance they’ll be relegated themselves.
Oh sure, the context is different. Relegation would be no disgrace for a Blackpool side whose entire squad budget wouldn’t pay Yaya Toure’s wages for a year. Manager Ian Holloway is absolutely right to hail his team’s tally of 39 points, when many experts reckoned they would struggled to get 10. If Blackpool do somehow stay up, it will be the most extraordinary escape against the odds since Tim Robbins wriggled his way out of that prison cell in The Shawshank Redemption.
But Blackpool, like all of us, have their grey areas too. Us neutrals might want to pat them on the head and Alan Hansen might want to keep calling them “a breath of fresh air” until he’s blue in the face. (You watch tonight’s Match of the Day if he’s on it. He’ll use that phrase at least once.) However, if you poke a stick at anything for long enough, you’ll find flaws.
And so against Blackpool’s entertaining football, there’s Charlie Adam clattering into Gareth Bale’s ankle at Tottenham. Against the club’s cheerful determination to do what they can in the Premier League on an impossible budget, there’s a shirt sponsorship deal with eye-wateringly high-interest loan company Wonga.com, just extended for another two years. Against the friendliness of the club’s staff, there’s a hastily-constructed pillar-tastic new stand in which more or less every seat has an obstructed view. And against the wit and extraordinary motivational qualities of manager Ian Holloway, there are people who fly planes arrogantly mocking the relegation of their neighbours, even though their own club are not safe from the drop.
What I’m trying to say is this: Underneath their extraordinary story, Blackpool are just like any football club. If they’re not your team (and they’re not mine), you’ll find things about them that you like and things about them that will drive you up the wall. So perhaps it’s time for us outsiders to stop patronising them. They’re not The People’s Club. They’ve just done an extraordinary job to get to where they are.
And with one game to go, they’ve still got a chance of staying in the Premier League. Today’s 4-3 win over Bolton, a match so extraordinary that even Holloway claimed he had lost count of the score, should have given them a better-than-even chance of survival. But Wolves won and Blackburn got a point against Manchester United. It means that Blackpool will probably have to go to Old Trafford next Sunday, for their final game of the season, and win.
Most people would say their chance is the square root of zero. Not Holloway. Instead, at the end of an extraordinary game, he cast his mind back to a memorable Old Trafford victory during his playing days.
It was January 1, 1992. Holloway, wearing the No. 7 shirt, was in QPR’s midfield as they took on a Manchester United side looking to win the last old-style First Division title. In front of a live ITV audience, Dennis Bailey scored a hat-trick as QPR won 4-1. It remains one of the most extraordinary matches ever seen at Old Trafford.
“We’ll need a day like that, I think,” said Holloway today, asked to rate his Blackpool side’s chances of staying up. “Can I see that happening again at Old Trafford? Who knows?”
Holloway brought success to Blackpool by getting his team to play without fear. They snuck into the Championship play-offs on the blind side last season. At the turn of the year, they were eighth in the Premier League. But you can’t climb that high unnoticed. As opponents figured out how to combat Blackpool tactically, perhaps the huge amount of attention on them started to take its toll too.
It certainly seemed to, for a while, on captain Adam. A January move to Tottenham fell through, the pressures on him to continue leading Blackpool probably took their toll as well. As he felt the weight of expectation, maybe Blackpool started to feel the fear. Of late, both captain and team seem to have rediscovered their mojo.
Adam’s winning goal this afternoon was sublime. He surged from midfield, played a one-two with Gary Taylor-Fletcher, and then fired a lovely left-foot shot into the top corner. If that was his last goal at Bloomfield Road in a Blackpool shirt, it was a special one to finish with.
And it looked as though it was. Holloway substituted Adam with two minutes to go, and the captain applauded all sides of the ground as he exited to a standing ovation. It seemed like a goodbye from a man who will surely move on this summer. Although Holloway wasn’t seeing it quite like that.
He said: “If people don’t pay us respect and pay us the right amount of money in this crazy world we live in, Charlie won’t be going anywhere, will he. I’m sick and fed up with Charlie Adam talk. He’s had enough pressure on him to sink a battleship.”
Yes, it would be better to talk about the game. And what a game. You really must catch the highlights this evening; it was the most exciting match I’ve seen all season. It helped that Blackpool had to attack and were as ropey as ever in defence, while Bolton looked out on their feet at the end of a long season.
On a day when the football fixture list has caused many murmurings about the loss of tradition, it was appropriate that this match should be a throwback to a more innocent age. The last time Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3, in 1953, was on FA Cup final day too. Well, it was the FA Cup final. Ah, how times have changed.
In short, then: Kevin Davies cleverly steered Bolton into a sixth-minute lead. DJ Campbell then deftly lobbed an equaliser beyond Jussi Jaaskelainen after darting in behind Gretar Steinsson, Bolton full-back Paul Robinson nearly headed into his own net from a corner, Jason Puncheon finished a smart three-man move by firing in Blackpool’s second from the edge of the box, then Matt Taylor made it 2-2 with a precise shot off the inside of the post.
Then Zat Knight and Gary Taylor-Fletcher came to blows amid a tangle that followed an aerial tussle, and it seemed as if every outfield player wanted to get involved in a scene reminiscent of a nightclub doorstep at 2am. Soon afterwards, Campbell touched in an Adam cross from the left, having been played onside by Knight. 3-2. Oh, and then it was half-time, and a couple of fans inside giant inflatable balls raced each other from one end of the pitch to the other in an attempt to win some money.
In the second half, Daniel Sturridge headed his eighth goal in 11 Bolton games after Davies had played in Chung-yong Lee to go round the goalkeeper and cross. But Adam had the final word. I’ve not even scratched the surface of the game there. It was exhausting, exhilarating football.
“We’ve got to go to Manchester United and win,” Holloway said. “And maybe the main man up there has written a story that would beat Cinderella. I think we can do it.”
If that Countdown producer had to come up with a nine-letter word to describe Blackpool’s fate, he would hope to go with ‘fairytale’. If his seniors ruled that was two words, maybe he’d go for ‘survivors’ instead. Sadly for Blackpool, the word he’ll probably end up with is ‘relegated’. But while there’s life, there’s hope. So for now, we’ll stick with ‘undecided’.
* Conundrum answers: ‘LIAMBRADY’ was ‘admirably’ and ‘LETISSIER’ was ‘sterilise’. But then you knew that, right?