"This is our World Cup final”.
Those are the words of former Blackpool striker John Murphy, now in charge of the club’s academy, as he prepares to lead the youth team out at the Emirates stadium tonight for what, for many of them, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The young Seasiders head to the capital for the decisive second leg of their FA Youth Cup semi-final against Premier League giants Arsenal, kick off 7pm.
Blackpool, who drew 2-2 with the Gunners in the first leg at Bloomfield Road, are just 90 minutes away from becoming the first third-tier side to make the FA Youth Cup final in 30 years.
Since its inception in 1952, the competition has been won by 23 different clubs. As you would expect, the list of former winners is dominated by the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham.
United are the competition’s most successful club, winning it 10 times. But reigning champions Chelsea, who play Birmingham City in this year’s other semi-final, have dominated the competition in recent years – winning it four years in a row.
The tournament has served as a springboard into the professional game for many top British players.
The likes of George Best, John Barnes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale have all won the tournament or played in the final.
For Blackpool, they have already defied the odds this season to win five away games to reach the last four, and beaten three clubs with category one academies – the highest status.
But Murphy says tonight’s game will be the “ultimate test” for Blackpool’s heroic youngsters. He told The Gazette: “We’ve had nothing to fear since the third round, when people were expecting us to lose.
“We were unbelievably made up to get to the fourth round, then we were in our wildest dreams to get to the fifth before we get to the sixth and we’re thinking ‘wow’.
“So we’ve got nothing to lose at all. Whatever happens, the players have done fantastically well and they can be proud of themselves.
“West Ham away, Southampton at home, Blackburn and Ipswich away, no one expected us to win them. No one expected us to draw 2-2 with Arsenal either but we caused them problems in that game.
“It wasn’t like it was 2-2 but Arsenal should have won. Yes they missed a penalty but it wasn’t like they ought to have won 6-2, we had chances as well.
“The game at the Emirates could be completely different but we’ll have a go and we’ve earnt the right to do that.
“I know it’s the semi-final but we’ve treated every game in this competition as our cup final. But this now is the ultimate, this is like the World Cup final for us.
“It’s the Emirates Stadium and I think there’s going to be around 5,000 people there, which will be a great experience for the lads.”
Blackpool’s achievement is made more remarkable because it comes against the backdrop of well-documented unrest at the club.
In fact last month’s home leg came on the same night as Blackpool fans met with the EFL, in what was latest move to get the Oystons out of the club.
“All we can do is just get on with it,” Murphy said of the off-the-field situation.
“If we come in and look at what’s happened with the club and down tools, well you can’t do that. You have personal pride in what you do. Just look at the Blackpool team that got promoted to the Premier League. They were obviously good players but their attitude was right.
“Yes they weren’t getting this, they weren’t getting that, but they felt they didn’t need it.
“Players at the big clubs were getting their kit washed for them and their cars valeted, they were getting dropped off everywhere, someone was taking their car for an MOT. Well you don’t need all that.
“It’s nice if you can get it to feel pampered, but that squad that got promoted stuck together and had a never-say-die attitude.
“They knew they had to do everything on a shoestring, but look where it took them. It just goes to show what can be achieved with personal pride and putting things that aren’t in your control to one side.
“We just come in and get on with it, we try and get the best out of ourselves and the best for the lads.”
There has been no fortune involved in Blackpool’s run – in fact it comes a season after the youth team completed a league and regional cup double.
But the man who masterminded that success – Ciaran Donnelly – left at the start of the season to take on a role down the road at Fleetwood Town.
But Murphy, along with assistant Ian Dawes, have built on that success and taken it to a whole other level.
Murphy is already held in high regard by Blackpool fans, having scored 83 times in 229 appearances at the turn of the millennium.
But should he take his young charges to the final, that achievement would surely eclipse anything else he achieved during his time at Bloomfield Road.
“The secret to our success is nothing that nobody already knows,” Murphy said. “Everyone knows it’s organisation, hard work and a bit of talent thrown in.
“There’s a saying that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, that is completely true with this.
“With a lot of the games the lads have worked it out for themselves. That’s not down to us.
“We can only tell them certain things, they’ve got to work the rest out for themselves.
“As a team, it’s about playing for each other and playing together in little units. They’ve done everything at their disposal against so-called better, more talented players.
“But we’ve worked hard and stopped the opposition doing what they’re good at and done what we’re good at.
“Whether teams have taken us lightly, I don’t know, but six wins in a row is too much of a coincidence I think.
“It’s just all about the shape and organisation, but it also just goes to show you if you have a team which is willing to work, listen, do what you tell them and play with their heads rather than their hearts and play the game properly, how far it can take you.
“I’ve said it in the past but Wigan winning the FA Cup, was that a fluke? Over that many games I don’t think it will be.
“It’s consistency, you have to be consistent at what you do to get some success.”
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY...
Former youth players Harrison McGahey, Mark Waddington and Dom Telford all broke into the Pool first team and were tipped for big things at Bloomfield Road – but all left after well-documented issues with their contracts.
McGahey chose not to renew his professional contract and left for Sheffield United in a two-year-deal. He is now an ever-present at League One rivals Rochdale.
Waddington and Telford, meanwhile, were reportedly only offered £200 a week to sign professional deals and both left for Stoke City in 2015. Telford is currently on loan at Bristol Rovers.
Whether Blackpool do the unthinkable and reach the final or not, the big question for the club will be whether or not they can integrate these youngsters into the first team in the coming years.
Unfortunately, that’s something Murphy has his doubts about.
“That’s the big question because they’ve done ever so well for six games,” Murphy added.
“But how many games are there in a league season at a professional level? 46?
“So that’s the big thing with our pathway at this club, we all know about it. We all know it’s difficult to get from the youth team into the first team.
“With no middle-ground to get further development, which players need, not everyone develops at 17 or 18, some people develop at 22 or 23.
“I was fortunate enough that I was developed at the age of 18, so I was able to go from the youth team into the first-team environment, albeit at Chester City back in the day.
“I had the size and the stature, not everyone has got that. So it’s difficult for me to say this player is ready for the first team because these lads need more development.
“Now whether that’s here or somewhere else, I don’t know.
“But they’ve shown they’re certainly capable of performing against people who have played in the first team.
“We played against Rochdale the other week and I think two of their players had 15 to 20 appearances for the first team between them. They were good players and on the day we struggled against them, but we do have players who didn’t play who wouldn’t struggle against them.
“So if you put these youngsters into a team, where they are surrounded by experience, strength and pace, I’m sure they can do it.
“Rowan Roache has already played for the first team, Finlay Sinclair-Smith has as well in the Checkatrade Trophy where he did ever so well. So they have shown they can do it.
“But it’s crystal ball time. Can they make it in two or three years’ time? I don’t know. Are they ready for first-team football right now? I’m not sure.”