Forget about Inter Milan and Barcelona and the Champions League Final… in terms of riches then Saturday’s ₤90 million Final between Blackpool and Cardiff City is by far the bigger game.
The Champions League Final carries massive kudos, but when you look at the millions on offer then the Championship Play-Off Final is arguably a more important fixture.
We all know how much teams have stood to gain from promotion to the Premier League, but this year it’s more important than ever. From next season, teams relegated from the Premier League will receive bigger parachute payments and they will be spread over four years, so it’s vital that one of these two teams grabs their opportunity on Saturday – and for different reasons.
From a romantic point of view then “little old” Blackpool could follow in the footsteps of recent underdog Play-Off winners like Burnley and Watford. They have some seriously talented players, but when you look at their budget then this has been a season of massive over-achievement for Ian Holloway’s men.
That contrasts with Cardiff, who have an amazing infrastructure and a fine new stadium. They have new Malaysian investors, but they still have a huge tax bill to pay and promotion would be an incredible shot in the arm. Given the financial problems at Cardiff, there will perhaps be more pressure on their players to win this game. They will no doubt be aware of the value of promotion because a win on Saturday could secure the club’s long-term future.
However, the players will be thinking about the here-and-now and many of them know that they will be rewarded with new contracts if they get into the Premier League. A few of the players might not get a chance in the top division, but you can guarantee that the starting XI of both sides will be focused when the opening whistle blows on Saturday.
We can expect to see Cardiff’s 4-4-2 to set up against Blackpool’s 4-3-3 at Wembley. Cardiff will have numerical advantage in midfield, but Blackpool’s young right-back Seamus Coleman, who is on loan from Everton, always pushes forward into space to even the numbers up.
Even though DJ Campbell scored a hat-trick against Nottingham Forest in the semi-final, I still felt Coleman – playing as an old-fashioned wing-back – was the best player on show in those games. He epitomises what Blackpool are all about; fearlessness, motivation, hunger and self-belief.
Meanwhile, Cardiff will be hoping Peter Whittingham is fit after an outstanding season. They moved him over to the left wing with Joe Ledley taking over in the central position and the former Aston Villa player has had an unbelievable season; providing a real goal threat from both set pieces and open play.
The twin strike force of Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd has been tremendous and they’ve benefited from good service from Chris Burke on the right-hand side. With those players on show, I think we can expect an open and attacking game – as the Championship Play-offs have historically tended to be.
I have a tremendous amount of time for both managers, even though they take different approaches to the game. Ian Holloway is a great character, but also a very astute talent-spotter. He may have a lack of resources at Blackpool, but he has the motivational skills to get the best out of what he’s got.
Dave Jones is a much more understated guy and goes about his work in a very unspectacular way. He carries some baggage with him and he puts so much into the game. He’s a real football man. Cardiff have had financial problems, but Dave has never moaned or looked for excuses – and if anything he’s used it to his advantage.
There’s definitely going to be goals in this game and it’s a difficult one to call. Because both sides are capable of scoring lots of goals, I think the side that defends the best will emerge victorious. If I was to pick a winner I would go for Cardiff. They’ve performed consistently all season and with the attacking options they have in their squad, it’s going to be very difficult for Blackpool sustain Cardiff’s constant pressure.
But you cannot under-estimate the Tangerines even if Blackpool in the Premier League does sound ridiculous. But whatever happens, both sets of players can be tremendously proud of themselves.
Written By Jonathan Moulds