Thursday, January 6, 2011
Tangerine dream raising expectations
As the bubble resolutely refuses to burst, Blackpool's season grows more remarkable. Some of the praise is patronising, along with the clichéd description of being everyone's second favourite team, but their exploits are earning respect.
But while Ian Holloway has received plenty of plaudits from his peers, he represents a threat and not least because, should Blackpool survive, three others will be condemned to the Championship instead of them. Their cause for concern should be threefold.
The first is stylistic. Blackpool's tactics could be deemed kamikaze. It confounds orthodox footballing logic to attack and to attempt to out-play teams who are littered with multi-million pound internationals who are regarded among the world's elite.
An approach untainted by pragmatism is generally deemed naive - it certainly was when Tony Mowbray's West Bromwich Albion were relegated - or something that can only prosper in the short term before teams are 'found out', as Phil Brown's Hull were while, after Owen Coyle's departure, Burnley's open gameplan backfired. In contrast, Blackpool's form improved in November and December, the same stage of the season when Hull's and Burnley's began to deteriorate, suggesting they were more than simply the season's surprise package.
A logic rooted in results has prevailed in the lower half of the Premier League for years. While clubs such as Newcastle and West Ham have an age-old expectation to play in a certain way, at most of their rivals aesthetics have been sacrificed for the financial imperative of survival.
Blackpool, however, believe they are not mutually exclusive. Holloway is not alone at playing a more progressive game - Roberto Di Matteo and Roberto Martinez are almost as bold - but he is both the most cavalier exponent and, to date, the most successful. In future, relegation firefighters may find pressure to replace the football of attrition with some Holloway-esque ambition. Results may not be the ultimate defence.
The second factor is financial. Holloway is setting a dangerous precedent, not least for himself. Blackpool's famously low wage ceiling of £10,000 per player per week means signing established Premier League players is but an impossibility (Marlon Harewood, the one recruit who may belong in that category, almost joined League One Huddersfield instead). Yet by casting his net far and wide, Holloway has found footballers who seem motivated by getting a chance that no one else would have granted them.
And, given Blackpool's limited budget, it highlights a disparity in means. There are squad players on four or five times as much at other clubs who aren't delivering performances of that standard, let alone value for money. Moreover, while it is easy to dismiss lower-league footballers by suggesting they lack the quality the Premier League requires, Blackpool have played with a verve that indicates men like DJ Campbell, Luke Varney and Matt Phillips possess more ability than was acknowledged before their arrival.
Holloway's ingenuity in finding the unwanted and the unknowns does him credit, but lends itself to a worrying conclusion for some managers: big money and big salaries aren't required. If he can do it, the question may be posed to his counterparts, why can't you?
It has not always been an issue in recent years when money has talked. Examples of teams dramatically outperforming the limitations of their balance sheet do exist - Everton coming fourth in 2004-05, Wigan and Reading recording top-half finishes in subsequent seasons - but they are isolated. As it stands, Blackpool are outperforming clubs who spend millions more on wages and transfers every year. A ready-made reason for losing is removed at a stroke: it can easily be inferred that their managers aren't exactly succeeding.
If resources are reduced in the current recession, Blackpool can be cited as the explanation for why it is not an excuse for failure. The worry for Holloway himself might be that his terminally tight board expect similar underfunded overachievement again. While there might be some reflected credit, the reality is that Holloway is excelling in spite of his board, not because of them.
The ripples from his prowess are being felt in the Championship. Blackpool's promotion was utterly unexpected, both outside Bloomfield Road and inside it. To some it appeared a poisoned chalice, albeit one sweetened by the Premier League millions; memories of Derby's dreadful 11-point season in 2007-08 intimated an endless possibility of embarrassment for clubs who were not ready for the top flight.
Instead, it has provided an opportunity to impress. The Championship is a division where as many as two-thirds of teams may kick off with optimistic thoughts about reaching the play-offs, but Blackpool have offered a reason to inflate expectations. It may encourage supporters of smaller clubs such as Barnsley, Doncaster and Millwall but it is less heartening for managers in a division that normally has a high casualty rate. If the extraordinary is anticipated, they have a problem with expectations.
Not all of the sackings can be attributed to the Holloway effect, but nor does it encourage patience when the improbable happened so speedily on the Fylde Coast. Because while Blackpool's adventures in the Premier League may be welcomed by the public, they might not go down so well in the managerial profession.