Matt Scrafton column: Blackpool and Preston North End's derby drama with kick-off a fortnight away
Who says international breaks are boring?
While we find ourselves in the midst of a 14-day spell without a game, there’s been no shortage of drama.
I’m referring, of course, to the upcoming derby on October 23, which will be the first meeting at Bloomfield Road between Blackpool and fierce rivals Preston North End since November 2009.
It all began when PNE announced – to much commotion – that their allocation for the fixture was only 2,200, roughly 800 short of what both Barnsley and Blackburn Rovers have brought in recent weeks.
It’s probably an understatement to say the news didn’t exactly go down well among those at the other end of the M55.
On the face of it, I had plenty of sympathy.
I wasn’t the only one either, with plenty of Seasiders querying why seats would be left empty to the possible detriment of the atmosphere.
Others, meanwhile, pointed out that, were Preston to be given the entirety of the East Stand, as some have suggested, that would give a total away following of around 5,000 – more than a third of what the overall attendance would be. Why give such a possible advantage to your rivals?
It was revealed the decision to limit Preston’s following was taken jointly by Lancashire Police and Blackpool’s ground safety officer.
Due to this being a ‘high risk’ fixture, the authorities couldn’t risk having visiting supporters housed so close to the North Stand in the North East corner of the ground, where there have already been flashpoints this season, with pyrotechnics and missiles thrown from the North and issues with fans exiting the stadium at full-time.
In an interview with The Gazette, chief executive Ben Mansford suggested Blackpool’s recent crowd trouble had played a part in the decision.
Fines, a reduced capacity and smaller ticket allocations for away fans are some of the punishments facing the Seasiders if a ‘small minority’ of mainly Pool fans in the North Stand don’t curb their over-enthusiasm.
If there’s going to be a set of fans in the North side of the East Stand, surely home supporters should be prioritised?
Unlike the Barnsley and Blackburn games, the demand is there to house Blackpool fans in all four stands – something we’ve rarely witnessed in recent years.
Only the homecoming against Southend United in 2019, last year’s pilot event against Swindon Town and the second leg of Blackpool’s play-off semi-final against Oxford United, where fans were socially distanced around the ground, immediately spring to mind.
In Preston’s most recent statement, released on Wednesday, they warned of the dangers of having both sets of fans in the East Stand, which they claim is a risk that flies in the face of previous safety concerns raised by the authorities.
As someone who has five years’ experience of working in the press box, which is situated smack bang in the middle of the East Stand, I don’t see this being a problem.
I have plenty of other concerns over the safety and location of the press box owing to fairly recent events, but that’s another topic for another day.
The 800 Blackpool fans will be housed in the far right-hand side of the East Stand, with two larger blocks and the press box separating the opposing supporters.
You’d imagine there will be a strong police and stewarding presence inbetween, too, so the segregation will be sizeable.
It won’t be a situation where rival fans are a few seats apart, like we often see at Anfield in the Premier League, for example, where a small line of stewards stand between the two.
Pool fans will fondly recall their campaign in the Premier League, where home and away fans were housed in the East Stand on a fairly regular basis with no blocks left empty.
This is a different situation entirely, so I don’t foresee there being problems.
Had Preston fans been given free reign of the East Stand right up to the North Stand, that would have been a recipe for disaster. So, in that respect, I completely understand why the police had concerns.
Of course, this naturally raises the prospect of PNE playing tit for tat and reducing Blackpool’s allocation to 2,200 for later in the season.
Sadly, that’s a real possibility, but that’s a decision for PNE to make further down the line for the return fixture at Deepdale in March.
There are big differences though. Deepdale has a higher capacity than Bloomfield Road and Preston are unlikely to sell out the home ends.
That isn’t a dig, by the way, before any North End fans kindly get in touch, but Preston have more space in their three home ends to adequately house their supporters, as we’ve seen in previous derby encounters.
There will be no demand to have supporters in the Kop whereas any space going at Bloomfield Road, be it in the East Stand or elsewhere, will be immediately snapped up.
That’s just because of circumstance, with Bloomfield Road housing roughly 8,000 seats fewer than Deepdale.
If PNE were to reduce Blackpool’s allocation from 5,000 to 2,200, they’d only be hurting themselves in the pocket.
If they feel it’s worth it to ‘get one back’ on their rivals, then so be it.
As Preston said themselves in their statement, ultimately ‘this is Blackpool’s home fixture, at their stadium and that they have every right to determine ticketing policy’.
That’s pretty much the end of the conversation, isn’t it?
This isn’t an exhibition match being played at a neutral stadium, this is Blackpool’s first home game against their biggest rivals in 12 years, this is their first encounter with the Lilywhites post-Oyston.
Of course the club is going to prioritise the high demand of its own fans.
If Blackpool were unable to sell out the home ends and were still refusing to increase Preston’s allocation to match Barnsley’s and Blackburn’s, then I’d have a lot more sympathy for North End – but that isn’t the case.
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