BLACKPOOL manager Ian Holloway has been feeling under the weather of late. That’s right. Ian Holloway, the least under-the-weather man in Britain.
“It’s some sort of virus that my daughter brought home from St Albans a few weeks ago,” he explained.
“It’s the sort of thing I normally stave off because I’m so buzzing. Unfortunately, this time it’s got me.
“It’s a temperature. It’s an unbelievable headache. I can hardly actually focus correctly, and the temperature I’ve got running at the minute is not very good.
“My wife Kim’s got it. I’ve got it. And I couldn’t even come into work yesterday. I had to rely on my staff, who are different class, because I felt so ill I couldn’t come in.”
It’s not just been the fever, though. Somewhere along the line, it’s has almost seemed as if Holloway has caught the fear too. Well, perhaps not Holloway, but certainly his players.
The carefree attitude that Blackpool displayed in winning promotion from the Championship two seasons ago, and throughout much of their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stay in the Premier League, had become careworn. They weren’t enjoying their football any more. They were almost suffering, whisper it, under the pressure of expectation.
Even Holloway himself was feeling blue after a thumping televised defeat at Burnley last Saturday dropped them into the bottom half of the Championship. But then he got a phone call from the manager of Fleetwood Town.
“I’d like to thank Micky Mellon, the Fleetwood manager, because he rung me up on Monday and had a right go at me,” Holloway said.
“He cared enough to ring me up and absolutely rip my face off. He said: ‘Looks like you’re feeling sorry for yourself, what on earth’s wrong with you?’
“It did me the world of good, so I’d like to thank him for that.
“It’s all about energy. But who motivates me? The fans have had a few gripes. The chairman’s had a few gripes about the money he’s got, and how he’s not going to spend it. I’ve had a few gripes about the players I’ve lost and I’ve tried to bring in far too many.
“Sometimes, it takes someone brave enough to tell you what they think is wrong with you rather than agree with you all the time. So well done to him.”
Blackpool have had a few gripes since dropping out of the Premier League. They have lost the leadership of Charlie Adam to Liverpool, the craft of David Vaughan to Sunderland and the goals of DJ Campbell to QPR. Holloway has not been given the financial wherewithal to replace him like-for-like. Instead, he brought in an enormous cast of promising players, some of whom perhaps need to spend a little time out on loan before they are ready for the rigours of the Championship.
But the funny thing about the Championship is that it doesn’t take an awful lot to change a club’s mood. In Blackpool’s case, it seems to have been the call to the manager from their former midfielder Mellon. On Wednesday night, they inflicted a 5-0 humiliation on Leeds, whose goalkeeper Paul Rachubka was so traumatised that he was substituted as a tactical move. Today, they edged past a well-organised Millwall side 1-0 at Bloomfield Road.
And so with 16 games gone, Blackpool lie fifth – exactly as they did at the same stage of their surprise promotion campaign two seasons ago. Sure, they’re only seven points above the team in 19th – Burnley, as it happens – but there are signs that Holloway’s team are learning to enjoy their football again.
It was particularly apparent today in the performance of Lomana LuaLua. The former Newcastle and Portsmouth striker, who will be 31 in December, has recently signed for Blackpool on what Holloway calls “a terrible contract” after a few years in Greece and Qatar.
He pitched up at Bloomfield Road after a spell training at Brighton and an unsuccessful attempt to win a contract at Birmingham. He probably needs a few games to build up his match fitness, but he marked his full debut by scoring twice at Leeds, and showed today that he hasn’t lose his capacity for invention.
“I don’t think anyone knows where he’s going and what he’s going to do,” Holloway said.
One moment stood out in a first half with few stand-out moments. Collecting the ball near the right touchline, he darted past Millwall left-back Jack Smith and then thumped in a shot that keeper David Forde did well to parry. Given freedom to roam in a fluid front three today alongside two loanees – Liverpool’s Jonjo Shelvey and Wigan’s Callum McManaman – LuaLua looked as if he could be an exciting signing.
“He wanted to come here for the right reasons,” Holloway added. “I want to get him playing again.
“Life should have treated him better than it has, but while he’s been away, everybody’s forgotten who he is.
“He’s now got to produce it again, because you’re only as good as your next game. To me, it looks like he’s bursting to do it, which is fantastic.”
Blackpool needed a creative spark, because this was tough going. Millwall had an awful start to the season, but thanks to disciplined defending and the attacking threat of Jay Simpson and Darius Henderson, had won their previous three games. Three straight wins can take you a long way in the Championship at the moment. They lifted Millwall from the relegation places to mid-table.
But with Holloway’s side attacking from the off – some things haven’t changed from their Premier League days – there were few chances for Henderson and Simpson to impress. Manager Kenny Jackett, who had initially gone with a 4-4-2 set-up, responded by withdrawing Simpson to the right side of a five-man midfield around midway through the first half. From that moment on, it was clear that something special would be needed to open up the game.
That something special came from a striker Jackett knows well. Fifteen years ago, during his season in charge at Watford, Jackett had a promising young striker on his books called Kevin Phillips. As Jackett was being demoted to assistant manager during the summer of 1997, Phillips left to find fame and fortune at Sunderland.
The striker is 38 now, but has lost none of his instinct for goal. Just before the hour mark, with inspiration needed, Holloway brought him off the bench. Within a couple of minutes, Phillips had turned into half-a-yard of space on the edge of the penalty area and curled a lovely shot into the top corner.
“He just looked class when he came on,” Jackett said. “Not just his goal, but his whole approach just changed it. Things weren’t going badly from our point of view, in terms of being the away side.
“He definitely changed the game when he came on.”
It was a disappointing day for Jackett, who celebrates his fourth anniversary in charge of Millwall tomorrow. It hasn’t attracted quite as much publicity as Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25th – although both man are the longest-serving managers in their divisions – and after defeat today, it won’t be celebrated with anywhere near as much vigour.
Jackett, though, has got Millwall moving in the right direction. Championship survival on a small budget is their first priority, and they look well organised enough to achieve that comfortably this season.
What Blackpool can achieve is anyone’s guess. A trip to Bloomfield Road is rarely dull – the place has seen one goalless draw in more than two years. There’s always a memory or two to take away – usually of the football, but not always. Anyone keeping an eye on the pitch at half-time will have been treated to the sight of an 86-year-old war veteran being paraded in front of the crowd (to mark Remembrance Sunday next weekend), just as a man dressed as a giant Kellogg’s Squares bar wandered past to keep goal in a half-time penalty shoot-out. Expect the unexpected might be Blackpool’s mantra.
Or maybe: Don’t worry, be happy. Holloway seems to have remembered the importance of being fearless, as he enjoyed a victory to mark his 100th league game in charge. It is why he is not too bothered about the league table right now.
“I don’t care about that,” he said. “We’re miles behind some of the top teams. All that matters is trying to play a certain way.
“I didn’t care about where we finished last time, and I won’t care about where we finish this time, as long as my team are entertaining me and playing a way that I want them to play, because it’s about the product.
“If that is good enough and polished enough to get us up, then brilliant.”
Well, you never know. It’s happened before.