Gazette opinion: Reflecting on Blackpool FC's momentous homecoming
I witnessed a touching moment just minutes before the game was due to kick-off on Saturday, when two middle-aged men shared an embrace.
I didn’t have to overhear their conversation to know what had just happened. The pair, who had probably not seen each other for four years, were finally united back inside their rightful home.
That, for me, summed up the occasion before the match had even got underway: Blackpool as one again.
If I didn’t have a lump in my throat at that point, I certainly did when the ground fell silent to impeccably observe a minute’s silence to remember those supporters who passed away during the boycott. Unfortunately many fans never got to see the day when Bloomfield Road was full again.
There were 15,871 fans crammed into the stadium - a figure about five times above the average home attendance - with every seat being filled apart from those spare ones in the away end.
It was a day where years of pent-up anger, frustration and distress came to the fore - a carnival atmosphere signalling the end of the despised Oyston regime and the beginning of a new dawn.
Blackpool Football Club has had some momentous days in its long, proud history; the FA Cup final win in 53’; the promotion to the Premier League in 2010; the High Court verdict in 2017 and most recently of all; the appointment of a receiver and a new board to spell the end of more than 30 years of hurt and shame.
This occasion is right up there with the rest of them.
The overriding feeling of celebration was evident hours before the fans even entered the ground, with supporters packing out the nearby pubs and congregating at Blackpool Tower to embark on a party parade.
Supporters were joyous and jubilant, revelling in a moment many of them thought might never happen.
There were fears the day might be dampened by the forecasted rain, but we needn’t have worried. Instead, the sun shone down brightly on Blackpool, which had been transformed into a sea of tangerine.
There was barely a dry eye inside Bloomfield Road when the teams emerged to an almighty roar prior to kick-off - and that was just for the warm-up!
Exiled fans have constantly reminded me of what I should expect when I heard the famous Blackpool roar for the first time. Let’s just say it didn’t disappoint.
The drama that ensued in the following couple of hours fit the occasion. Blackpool battled, they fought and their never-say-die attitude was rewarded in the sixth and final minute of stoppage time, when an own goal earned them a point.
While most agreed the game itself was largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the result did end up dragging Blackpool a point closer to the play-offs ahead of Tuesday night’s clash against promotion rivals Doncaster Rovers.
The last-ditch goal sparked wild scenes of celebrations, with some of that excitement spilling out onto the pitch.
That was more to do with a release of four years of hurt than anything else, there was no malicious intent.
It wasn’t helped that fans had already started to gather by the concourses beside the pitch, ready to trudge home after a disappointing defeat.
But the elation of that dramatic, last-gasp leveller took those fans onto the field of play, where they hugged and mobbed their new heroes, the Blackpool players that ran straight to the South-East corner where supporters had already assembled near the corner flag. For others, that was the green light to join in.
It shouldn’t have happened, but I’m sure those fans can be forgiven for their mishap when they were clearly overcome with emotion.
Everyone was, because this was a day that will never be forgotten. This wasn’t just a draw with a mid-table third tier side, this was a day when Blackpool returned for good.