Blackpool’s big secret is out

Tom Ince, Angel Martinez and Lomana Tresor LuaLua
Tom Ince, Angel Martinez and Lomana Tresor LuaLua
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POOL are no longer operating under the radar, no longer considered underdogs.

They might have started the season as rank outsiders to return to the Premier League ... but not any more.

The secret is out of the bag – Ian Holloway’s team is one of the best in the Championship.

With few other games taking place on Tuesday night, the great and the good of the journalism world came to watch the Seasiders’ FA Cup victory at Sheffield Wednesday.

Henry Winter from the Daily Telegraph was purring about what he saw from the Tangerines.

Sky Sports’ James Cooper, so the rumour goes, was sent to Hillsborough specifically to reacquaint himself with Blackpool’s players and manager because the satellite broadcaster is convinced the club will be in the top flight next season.

And of course, many more watching ESPN’s live coverage will have witnessed how Pool dominated to an almost embarrassing extent, leaving Sheffield Wednesday – second in League One and likely to be a Championship side next term – looking ragged, forlorn and a million miles behind their opponents.

It was a footballing masterclass from Holloway’s team, despite seven changes to the team which had won so convincingly at third-placed Cardiff three days earlier.

The quite astounding job the manager has done this season is perhaps even more remarkable than the promotion campaign two years ago.

The mood was so bleak around Bloomfield Road last summer, when Pool were relegated and lost their best players.

They were written off by all and sundry, with pundits suggesting Blackpool would slip down the divisions a la Leeds, Southampton and Bradford.

Holloway, once again, has proved everyone wrong. The manager said: “I am pleased, of course I am, because if you’d asked me at the start of the season if I expected to be fourth in the table in February and in the fifth round of the FA Cup, the answer would have been not at all.

“Last summer the atmosphere was hideous. The depression was hideous; how we got relegated was hideous; I felt hideous – I can’t find a better word to express it. It was utterly hideous and I was worried.

“But we have worked hard, shaken off that Premier League hangover and I am just delighted all of the gremlins are gone.”

A key factor in ridding the demons was the additions of Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips. Holloway says the pair have been vital in turning things around. “They were the two biggest, most important signings I made. They were the two big things I got right. Our ship was rocking and it could have sunk given the players we lost. We were in the mire.

“Phillips and Ferguson were the two hardest decisions I have ever had to make, particularly to pay £750,000 for Ferguson at his age (34). But I think every single penny has been totally well spent.

“He shows his class in training. His attitude is spot on and if I was going through hell I’d take him with me. I’d feel safe with him alongside me. “And everybody knows what I think about Kev. He is undoubtedly one of the best goalscorers I have ever worked with and I’m so glad we got him.”

What Holloway has done so well is build a squad with depth. At Sheffield, he was able to bring in Angel Martinez, Lomana LuaLua, Tom Ince, Neal Eardley and Ludovic Sylvestre, all quality players who were fresh because they hadn’t played the previous game. Given freedom to express themselves in a continental system dreamed up by the manager, it led to a first-class display.

“We have some fantastic players,” agreed Holloway. “Most of them would easily have got in the promotion team I had before it was disbanded. Tom Ince has been a revelation and Matt Phillips just gets better. It is always a balance.

“If you look at our promotion team two years ago, I had a main side and I didn’t really deviate from it because I couldn’t. The 11 more or less picked itself, especially the midfield – Charlie Adam and David Vaughan.

“But now there is no first-choice 11 because we have got 20-odd players who can play any given game and do exactly what I want them to. To have that is fantastic and I don’t care what selection problems it gives me.

“It is now up to me to select the right team for each game, and if I can we might just have a wonderful chance of achieving something very special. These boys have been absolutely sensational and I can’t thank them enough.”

It is a happy camp at Blackpool at the moment ... but everyone else in the Championship knows it and will raise their game against the Seasiders.

The big question is: can they cope with the pressure as the season enters its most important period? We’re about to find out.