2010. What a time to be alive. The UK economy came out of recession for the first time in two years, David Cameron was elected Prime Minister, Prince William got engaged to Kate Middleton and to top it off, Blackpool were promoted to the Premier League.
The seaside town better known for its pleasure beach than its football team had a side sitting at the top table of English football alongside the established royalty of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
How did a club that had been playing in the basement division of the Football League in 2001 and who only managed to squeeze into the final Championship play-off position by a point on the last day of the 2009/10 season end up at the highest echelon of English football? The answer can probably be found somewhere deep in the realms of the bonkers and brilliant mind of Ian Holloway.
The enigmatic Bristolian took charge of Blackpool in May 2009, nearly a year on from a disastrous spell at Leicester City which saw the club relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time ever. When Holloway arrived at The Seasider’s, his remit was to secure Blackpool’s Championship status for another season, with the club one of the favourites to face relegation to League 1.
Even the most optimistic Blackpool fan couldn’t have predicted the season that followed. Led by the inspired form of Scottish midfielder Charlie Adam, Blackpool made it into the Promotion Play-offs, scraping a 1-1 draw at home to Bristol City on the final day of the season to earn their place ahead of Swansea.
Blackpool’s success was a product of Holloway’s attacking philosophy that saw the men in tangerine finish as The Championship’s third highest-scoring side in 2009/10. Any notion of shutting-up-shop in the play-offs was put to bed following an enthralling semi-final tie against Nottingham Forrest. The two-legged affair eventually finished 6-4 in favour of Blackpool, with DJ Campbell scoring the first hattrick of his professional career in a 4-3 second-leg victory at The City Ground.
The final at Wembley presented Blackpool with the chance to play top-flight football for the first time since the 1970/71 campaign. They faced Cardiff City In what was to prove one of the most dramatic play-off finals of recent years.
Cardiff took the lead early on through Michael Chopra before Adam equalised for Blackpool minutes later with a superb free-kick worthy of gracing any Wembley final. Cardiff would go ahead once more before Holloway’s men responded again via Gary Taylor-Fletcher.
The comeback was completed quite fittingly by Brett Ormerod, a man who would finish his career having scored in each of the top four divisions of the Football League for Blackpool. He poked the ball past David Marshall just before half-time to secure a sensational victory and a multi-million-pound ticket to the promised land of the Premier League.
Never shy of a quote, Holloway declared the achievement as the best day of his life second to his children being born and getting married. But now, the real challenge began. From the moment Blackpool were promoted, they were brushed aside as relegation cannon fodder. The majority of their squad had no Premier League experience, they had one of the smallest budgets in top-flight history and their stadium held just over 12,000 people.
Holloway sought to bolster his squad in the in the summer transfer window, bringing in Premier League experience in the form of Marlon Harewood from Aston Villa and Chris Basham from Bolton Wanderers, but he was forced to stick largely with the group of players who had helped Blackpool gain promotion. Controversial Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston imposed a strict wage cap that dissuaded many potential targets from joining and tied Holloway’s hands.
Blackpool went into the opening game of the 2010/11 Premier League season against Wigan as clear favourites for relegation. To add to the weight of the task facing The Tangerines they were forced to play the game away from home, as work on their Bloomfield Road stadium wasn’t completed in time for the start of the season. Holloway, with everything stacked against his side, decided to play a reverse psychology card ahead of the game, questioning whether or not he had a set of players capable of surviving in the English Championship, let alone the Premier League.
Blackpool romped to a 4-0-win, silencing doubters who advised Holloway to abandon his expansive 4-3-3 system in favour of a more defensive approach. The result briefly but Blackpool top of the English football pyramid for the first time since the opening day of the 1957/58 season. Holloway had done what he does best, stuck two fingers up to the English footballing establishment, who had written him and his side off. Blackpool supporters, if only for a moment, were in dreamland.
Sadly, the dream would become harsh reality just a week later, with Holloway’s men suffering a humbling 6-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal. However, Blackpool regrouped earning a 2-2 draw in their next game against Fulham in what was Bloomfield Road’s first ever taste of Premier League football. A League Cup exit was followed by a win away to Newcastle, a 4-0 thumping by Chelsea and an agonising last-minute defeat to Blackburn, before a much anticipated Anfield away trip.
At Anfield, Blackpool produced a stunning display, defeating admittedly one of the poorer Liverpool sides of recent years thanks to goals from Charlie Adam and Luke Varney. It was a day the Blackpool faithful will never forget, but it wasn’t the only time that season the Seasider’s stood up to one of the Premier League elites. They would defeat Liverpool again in January before narrowly losing 3-2 to Manchester United having held a 2-0 lead with just 18 minutes remaining. An impressive 3-1 win over a Gareth Bale-led Tottenham side that had recently conquered AC Milan was another highlight.
Blackpool graced the Premier League that season, playing with a freedom and carefree attitude that completely disregarded the conservative approach often adopted by many newly-promoted sides. They were involved in the joint highest-scoring game of the season, a 5-3 defeat to Everton and striker DJ Campbell flourished, finishing the season with 13 goals, equal with players like Javier Hernandez and Rafael Van der Vaart. The form of talisman Charlie Adam led to him being nominated for the 2010/11 PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, with the Scottish midfielder eventually moving to Liverpool at the end of the season.
Off the pitch, the always intriguing Holloway added a touch of colour to the Premier League’s managerial circuit. He courted controversy in November 2010 when he made 10 changes to his side before a game against Aston Villa, citing Blackpool’s run of four games in 12 days as the reason behind the move. It would end up costing Blackpool £25,000 as the Premier League fined them for fielding what was considered a weakened line-up. Holloway had threatened to resign if a fine was imposed but was convinced to renege on that decision, allegedly by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Other classic Holloway moments from Blackpool’s maiden Premier League season included openly admitting to fielding an understrength team in an FA Cup tie against Southampton because his side had ‘no chance’ of winning the competition, stating he was going home to tell his turkeys they’ve got some respite because he’d ‘had a word with FIFA’ and decided to move Christmas (commenting on FIFA’s plans for a winter World Cup in 2022) and comparing his wife to Harry Redknapp, saying ‘On a looks front, my wife’s got a lot more about her but on a managerial front he [Harry] takes a lot of beating.’
Blackpool’s attacking approach may have illuminated the league that season, but defensive deficiencies and inconsistency would dog them in their fight to avoid the drop. The Tangerines dropped into the relegation zone for the first time in April 2011. They went into the final game of the season needing to win away from home to stand any chance of survival. There was just one problem; they were facing a title-winning Manchester United side that had only dropped two points at home all season.
Exactly a year on from their Wembley play-off triumph, goals from Charlie Adam and Gary Taylor- Fletcher had Blackpool fans dreaming once again, but it wasn’t enough as they eventually fell to a 4-2 defeat, condemning them to relegation by virtue of one point and three goals. Blackpool went down having amassed 39 points, one of the highest points tallies ever achieved by a team relegated from the Premier League.
All too often held up as a joke figure in English football, Holloway’s achievement in first of all getting Blackpool to the Premier League was immense, but to then lead them to the brink of survival playing an entertaining and expansive brand of football with incredibly limited resources was nothing short of remarkable. He effectively tore up the rulebook on how newly-promoted sides should play in the top division and paved the way for others.
Holloway eventually decided to part ways with The Seasiders in November 2012, leaving for Crystal Palace having led the club to another Play-off final that ended in defeat to West Ham United. Holloway’s exit was followed by a catastrophic chain of events at Blackpool, including successive relegations, an on-pitch protest against the ownership that saw a match against Huddersfield abandoned and a major player crisis two weeks before the start of the 2014/15 season which meant the club had only eight players on its books.
Nowadays Blackpool find themselves sitting in mid-table in League 1, a far-cry from the heydays of just under a decade ago. You won’t see ‘Pool fans complaining though, with most just happy to see their club freed from the grip of the much-hated Oyston family, following a sustained fan campaign and a long-awaited takeover by local businessman Simon Sadler in June 2019.
It’s been a long and painful road for Blackpool fans in the last decade, but they’ll always have the memories of their Premier League fairy-tale to fall back on.