This coming Saturday will see one of football’s most financially lucrative games return to Wembley, but whilst Blackpool and Cardiff City will be going full throttle to ensure that they will be playing Premiership football next year, it may be that for Ian Holloway’s men this game has come a year or two earlier than desired.
The achievement of Holloway at Bloomfield Road has been the success story of this season’s Coca-Cola Championship. Appointed at the tail end of last term as the permanent successor to one of football’s perennial caretakers, Tony Parkes, Holloway has taken a team which was caught in mid-table mediocrity to the brink of the Premiership with limited outlay. It is a sign of the strides taken by The Seasiders this season that former manager Simon Grayson earnt a job at Leeds United off the back of 19th and 16th placed finishes – seen by many as a resounding over-achievement. This season, Blackpool finished 6th before knocking out a top-class Nottingham Forest side in the play-off semi’s, beating them on their own turf.
Dave Jones, on the other hand, occupies one of the most pressurised positions in the division. Cardiff City have flattered to deceive in recent times, and supporters and pundits alike could be forgiven for thinking it is now or never for The Bluebirds. With Peter Ridsdale’s summer departure, and apparent Far Eastern investment raising suspicions given the ominous demise of Portsmouth, a failure to capitalise on their best opportunity in years could leave Cardiff sliding back down the league. The potential for success in South Wales is enormous, with a fanatical following and huge infrastructural resources, but with key players becoming inpatient at floundering in the second tier, this may be Jones’ last realistic hope of promotion before his side breaks up.
However, given the increasing financial gap between the Championship and Premiership, and the lessons learnt from Hull City and the aforementioned Pompey, prudency off the pitch is now as important as success on it. If Blackpool beat Cardiff on Saturday and earn their place in the elite, they will undoubtedly keep the purse strings more or less shut in the close season. They would do well though to observe the case study of Derby County’s turbulent campaign in 2007/08. By Billy Davies’ own admission, promotion came two years too early, and by Christmas the hard work of the past few years had been in vain. Having been the victim of raised expectations, Davies was sacked, Derby were relegated with the lowest points total in Premiership history and they are now subject to a major rebuilding job courtesy of Nigel Clough.
The low crowd capacity of Bloomfield Road means that even if the board were willing to spend, income will be limited and available money for additions small. In Charlie Adam, Holloway has a player of excellence who established himself as a hot prospect at Rangers before a loss of form halted his rise. However, other than the Scot the star performers are limited – DJ Campbell has been a revelation, but not only remains unproven in the top flight, he still belongs to Leicester City. Blackpool’s success has been based on a terrific home record, organisation and a manager who has reinvented himself following a poor couple of years.
However, the glitz and the glamour of the top flight does strange things to some people, and there is no guarantee that the club’s hierarchy wouldn’t be tempted into a knee-jerk reaction if, by Christmas, they were 6 points adrift of safety. Were Holloway dismissed, the hard work would be done and the club may start to slide back down the pecking order.
As unnerving as the change in ownership is, the resignation of the controversial Ridsdale and the signal of a new era has set Cardiff City up to prosper in the top flight. Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd are part of a frustrating group of players who are too good for the Championship but not top-flight quality, but in Peter Whittingham, Joe Ledley and Chris Burke they have real guile and class in midfield and with the acquisition of a ‘bruiser’ in the middle of the park, Cardiff would be in a healthy position. Given suitable investment, the Welsh side have every chance of following the example of Stoke City and establishing themselves in the division.
History has shown there is real danger in premature promotion. Supporters become frenzied, and all perspective flies out of the window. Whilst it would be enjoyable to see one of England’s great old clubs back in the top flight, along with the affable eccentricity of Ian Holloway on Match of the Day, logic suggests that another couple of years of building would see Blackpool make a more considered step into the big time. A victory on Saturday might result in a classic case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Cardiff City, on the other hand, are running out of opportunities to grab the bull by the horns. With a new stadium and squad members reaching their peaks, Dave Jones has the chance to put to bed his own memories of relegation with Wolves and cement South Wales as an area of real footballing prestige. The occasion at Wembley on Saturday will be one to savour, but I can’t help thinking that, when head rules over heart, both sides might wish for a common result.
Written By James Aldridge