A special night that will live long in the memory: Matt Scrafton's verdict as Blackpool complete the job against Oxford to reach the play-off final
To say a lot has happened at Blackpool during the last six years would be the understatement of the century.
The club’s infamous relegation from the Championship in 2015 ended in farce and acrimony, as angry supporters stormed the pitch to force the abandonment of the final-day game against Huddersfield.
The protests against the despised Oystons only intensified over the coming years, which would be tainted by a second straight relegation, legal letters sent to fans accompanied by idle threats, ugly court action, major upheaval on and off the pitch, an unlikely promotion against the odds and games being played in front of a virtually empty stadium.
Now, after the arrival of Simon Sadler and the Oystons a distant memory, the Seasiders are 90 minutes away from returning to the second tier. In usual Blackpool style, what a ride it’s been.
The same could be said of Friday’s night rollercoaster of emotions, which just typified the way the Seasiders do things.
Bloomfield Road has longed for the return of nights like this. Whatever happens at Wembley on Sunday, May 30, the people of Blackpool have a club to be proud of once again. After years of misery and needless pain, that’s the real story.
The pain etched on Pool fans’ faces while they protested outside the ground during the boycott years has now been replaced by jubilation, pride, ecstasy, a sense of belonging, a community spirit and sheer, unbridled joy. The list goes on and on.
After the 14 months of hell we’ve all endured during the pandemic, we’ve all needed something to get us through – an escape, if you will. The Seasiders have provided that and more for the people on the Fylde coast.
While the homecoming in 2019 was an occasion like no other and will never be rivalled, this felt just as special, albeit for different reasons.
After being locked out and forced to watch the club’s best side since 2012 on an internet stream all season long, now was the supporter’s chance to finally step back inside the ground – the place they had stayed away from for so long, only to have their return cruelly snatched away from them. It just so happened their return coincided with the decisive second leg of a play-off semi-final.
Blackpool, the play-off Kings, wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Pool faithful didn’t disappoint and, let’s be honest, they were never going to. The Seasiders are a special breed of supporters and the atmosphere they generate is enough to send shivers down your spine.
Bloomfield Road was a cauldron of noise during the warm-up, never mind the actual game. But what followed will live long in the memory, because this was a special, special night. I’m sorry Oxford but the Seasiders showed you how it’s done.
As for the actual match, Oxford eventually gave as good as they got in the second leg but the damage was already done for Karl Robinson’s men.
Trailing 3-0 from Tuesday night’s game at the Kassam Stadium, the U’s got the early goal they needed to make a fight of it, even if it was against the run of play.
Pool, roared on by the raucous home crowd, made an electric start and were straight onto the front foot.
But a needless foul by the touchline conceded by Dan Ballard resulted in a free-kick which Pool failed to deal with. Matty Taylor, ever the opportunist, dragged the ball across Chris Maxwell and into the bottom corner with just seven minutes on the clock.
Despite the early setback, you never sensed the Seasiders were nervous – not on the pitch or on the terraces, either.
While it was a frustrating setback, Pool didn’t sulk. In fact, their response was nothing short of heroic.
They almost levelled straight away, Kevin Stewart forcing a smart save out of Jack Stevens at his near post.
But just four minutes after going behind, the men in tangerine drew themselves level on the night with a moment of pure class from Elliot Embleton.
The Sunderland loanee, roaming in from the left, had options in the box, but he ignored them, instead opting to curl a peach of an effort into the far corner, beating Stevens all ends up who was at full stretch.
Cue absolute bedlam in the stands.
Barely two minutes later, Blackpool were ahead. Kenny Dougall was the man to get it, hooking home expertly after Ballard had reached with all his might to keep a deep corner in play.
The atmosphere at this point was simply off the scale, the Seasiders already dreaming of Wembley glory.
Boasting a four-goal lead on aggregate, Pool could have done with calming things down and seeing out the remainder of the game with minimal fuss. But that just wasn’t in keeping with this tie.
As a spectator, you were half wanting the game to calm down and half wanting the madness to continue. This is what the play-offs are all about, after all.
Having hit the post through James Henry at the start of the second-half, Oxford levelled the score on the night with another sloppy goal from Pool’s point of view, as Rob Atkinson headed past Maxwell after being allowed to run off his marker Ellis Simms.
But again, Blackpool’s response was magnificent.
Two minutes after being pegged back, the Seasiders restored their second-leg lead through Jerry Yates, who fired across the keeper after being left on his own at the back post.
Yates, scoring for the 23rd time this season, celebrated the goal by running towards the bench and grabbing a tribute t-shirt for Jordan Banks, which he held aloft for the Sky Sports cameras and fans to see. A lovely moment.
Leading 6-2 on aggregate, it was party time for the fans. Even when Robinson’s men equalised for a second time through substitute Olamide Shodipo, you knew the job was already done. In fact, it was virtually all but done on Tuesday.
All that was left now was for the Blackpool squad and staff to show their appreciation to the supporters at the final whistle with a lap of honour. The emotion was tangible.
Critchley, a man that normally likes to keep his emotions in check, beat his chest and roared to the crowd – reminiscent of a certain Billy Ayre.
Ayre famously led the Seasiders to Wembley glory in 1992. Can Critchley follow in his steps?
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