Blah, blah, blah…”The richest game in football”….blah, blah, blah.
We’ve all heard it. We’ve all had the “theory” pushed down our throats but it doesn’t stop the speculators keep raising the value of the npower Championship Play Off Final every year. This year, the “biggest mouth in football”, © Sam Allardyce even went as far as saying it was the “Bigger than the Champions League Final”. Yeah, whatever Sam. A global audience of 500 million will probably disagree on that point.
The game is supposedly worth £45 million to the winners for the next two seasons. If that is the case it has hardly done the winners over the past decade any good has it? With such an injection of money surely it would make them a shoe-in to keep their place in the elite? Statistics tell us otherwise.
2002 Winner – Birmingham City – 4th in Championship last season – 4 seasons in Premier League after play off final
2003 Winner – Wolverhampton Wanderers – Relegated from Premier League in 20th Place – Relegated following season
2004 Winner – Crystal Palace – 17th in Championship – Relegated following season
2005 Winner – West Ham United – 3rd in Championship & Play Off Final contender – Relegated in 2011
2006 Winner – Watford – 11th in Championship – Relegated following season
2007 Winner – Derby County – 12th in Championship – Relegated following season
2008 Winner – Hull City – 8th in Championship – Relegated after two seasons
2009 Winner – Burnley – 13th in Championship – Relegated following season
2010 Winner – Blackpool – 5th in Championship & Play Off Final contender – Relegated following season
2011 Winner – Swansea City – 11th in Premier League
So the winners of the “richest club game in the world” in 6 of the past 10 Play off finals have been relegated after just one season in the Premier League. Wolverhampton Wanderers are the only one of these who has since managed to get back into the Premier League (Blackpool could make it two if they beat West Ham) proving that money is not all that it takes to stay in the Premier League.
So there are the encouraging stats for the winners of this game, although the prize for losing is so much greater for the managers. Allardyce has won few fans this season at West Ham after his outbursts, unattractive football and failure to recognise that changing a winning team is not a good thing. The Hammers fans would have taken a Play Off Final spot at the start of the season, although would have hoped to be there because of the great form elsewhere rather than the poor home form which saw them take just 8 points from 7 home games from February until April. He has assembled one of the biggest, and dare I say, expensive squads in the Championship and whether he will be allowed to continue this policy should West Ham lose is open to heated debate.
Blackpool on the other hand are the neutrals favourite. Most fans outside of Preston like Ian Holloway for his sound bites and refreshing honesty. However, there is a view that he will have taken Blackpool as far as he can if they fail at this step. With Martinez seemingly a shoe-in for the Anfield revolving door, how long before the likes of Wigan Athletic come calling for him?
Originally I wasn’t going to attend the game. I had been lucky enough to be granted a media pass for the Champions League final – Bayern Munich versus Barcelona. Perfect game – Bayern in their home stadium, with the hopes of a city, state and nation on their shoulders and over 1 million applications for their tickets. Barcelona, the greatest club team in the world. It would be perfect. Except Chelsea went and spoilt it all. Chelsea qualify and flights all of a sudden disappear. By the time I get my official bit of paper I have the £750 option via Prague or the space in a 1974 Ford Anglia. Meanwhile West Ham have beaten Cardiff and the dilemma starts – forfeit the summer holiday to go to Bavaria for 20 hours or spend a few hundred on a tout ticket for Wembley.
I asked Twitter what I should do. The answer was plain and simple “Sell me your press pass and use the money to buy a hooky ticket”…Thanks. But I did return my accreditation with a heavy heart to UEFA and hoped that the gods would shine on me and find me a ticket for Wembley.
West Ham unsurprisingly sold them by the bucket full. Season Ticket holders and Members snapped up 38,000. Blackpool could muster 29,000 after opening it up to “Anyone who had been up the Tower”. It looked like for the first time since 2007 the final would have an attendance of less than 75,000 (and then it was only by 7 fans). The Football League relented and said that some of Blackpool’s allocation would go to West Ham. But not the 15,000 or so – 500. Now I appreciate there are some segregation issues, but 3% of the tickets is a little bit of a piss take.
Tickets went on sale at 9am on Tuesday. At 9.02am I had secured my ticket. Huge sighs of relief all round. The ticket arrived on Thursday, although confusingly it clearly said it was from the West Ham/Cardiff City allocation – i.e not one of the returned tickets at all. So somewhere, someone is either hoarding these tickets or has absolutely no clue what is going on. Based on who owns the stadium I would certainly say the latter.
What a day of sport it was to be. Some Test Match action from Lords as breakfast, then train up to Wembley for the main course before heading back into town for a snack of Ulster v Leinster in the Heineken Cup Final before a supper of Champions League football. Has there been a better day of sport ever?
As normal I headed up to Wembley via Marylebone. Quite why more people do not take this route I do not know. Nine minutes on the train then less than five minutes to the stadium as opposed to forty minutes to Wembley Park and a further fifteen minute walk. The trains were rocking with West Ham fans, and a few Blackpool fans for good measure. There was no animosity that you may have got with Birmingham City or a host of other clubs. Before we got to the 2nd verse of Twist and Shout the arch loomed into view and West Ham had arrived back, some 31 years after last being here.
Saturday 14th March 1981 to be precise. Runaway leaders of the then 2nd division West Ham were taking on Liverpool, the most dominant team in England (and Europe) during the early 80’s. Few gave West Ham hope, but with possibly the worst referee ever to come out of the British Isles, Clive Thomas, in charge, the game could go either way on his whim. Ninety minutes saw neither team score so the game went to extra time. I remember standing on the wooden benches behind the goal as with just two minutes to go Liverpool scored. Even today with the relaxing of the offside laws it would be hard to see how the goal could stand, let alone 30 years ago. A Liverpool corner was met by a punch out from Phil Parkes in the West Ham goal. In the process Sammy Lee was knocked to the ground on the six yard box and was still laying in an offside position in front of Parkes when Alan Kennedy’s shot came back in and found the back of the net.
Thomas and controversy followed each other hand in hand and there was still more drama to come. With time up West Ham had a corner. The ball was floated in by Jimmy Neighbour and Alvin Martin sent a crashing header goalwards. Terry McDermott raised a hand on the line and diverted the ball onto the bar and out. Whilst the concept of the “professional foul” still hadn’t been ratified, McDermott should have been sent off for serious foul play. Instead Thomas just gave the penalty, which 22 year old Ray Stewart calmly stroked home with the last kick of the game. Thirty one years later and those memories are still as clear as day for us “maturing” West Ham fans.
The walk up the hill saw me pass a number of souvenir stalls selling those awful “half and half” scarves (“With free jester’s hat”). They are a crime against football and I still to this day do not understand why anyone would ever buy one? Yet trade was brisk for some reason. Fools.
A quite drink inside (just £4.90 for a 330ml bottle of Carlsberg today) with Football Jo and it was time to take our seats for the “richest game in club football”.
Blackpool 1 West Ham United 2 – Wembley Stadium – Saturday 18th May 2012
“Wembley, are you ready?” Boomed the voice on the mic and one of those ridiculous floating banners blocked our view of the teams entering the pitch. Why, oh why does the organisers of these events just keep it simple. Forty thousand West Ham fans were more than capable of building an atmosphere without the need for fireworks and floatie things.
West Ham’s only injury doubt Jack Collison had passed a fitness test and lined up in a five man midfield that had Carlton Cole on his own up front, spelling out to the watching world what Allardyce’s tactics would be. Blackpool’s danger man, Tom Ince saw some early ball, although every touch was met with some booing from the West Ham fans – Ince junior was born 3 years after Ince senior’s faux pas of being photoed in a Man Utd shirt whilst still at West Ham. Time to let things go I would say.
Blackpool settled into a rhythm first with Stephen Dobbie forcing Rob Green into the first save of the season. Then on fifteen minutes Matt Phillips wastes two glorious chances to put the Seasiders ahead when clean through on goal but he weakly shot at the keeper. But if you don’t take your chances at this level you will be made to pay and that is exactly what happens on thirty five minutes.
Ince loses the ball deep on the West Ham left and the ball is played up to Matt Taylor who crosses and finds Carlton Cole. One touch and then the ball is in the net. Long Ball football 1 pretty passing 0. Half time and the masses of fans disappear down onto the crowded concourses for their £4.90 bottle of warm, fizzy beer.
The refreshments must have been good because only two-thirds of the stadium make it back into their seats before Thomas Ince (who else) equalised for Blackpool after Winston Reid was left horribly out of position by a Phillips long ball. Need we be reminded that Blackpool have taken more points from losing positions this season than anyone else? No, I didn’t think so.
Two minutes later and Blackpool should have been ahead when Baptiste lobs Green but Matty Taylor is back on the line to clear. There is no answer to the Blackpool tide and Allardyce has no idea or Plan B. It takes West Ham twenty minutes into the second half before they have a sniff at goal when Cole forces a great save from Gilkes. But the ball simply goes up the other end and Blackpool wasted more chances.
West Ham needed something and Nolan’s volley almost gives them the lead but it crashed off the bar. I would imagine by this stage the bookies had stopped taking money on a Blackpool win it was so one-sided. But there was to be no happy ending for the men in orange. With just two minutes to go Carlton Cole scrambled a shot which Gilkes could only parry and Ricardo Vas Te smashed the loose ball home. The clock said 88:14. West Ham were going back to the Premier League.
Forty thousand fans jumped up in relief as the players sank to their knees. Blackpool had come so close but for West Ham there was some kind of justice. They were the bookies favourites and had almost lost their way due to some awful performances and tactics in the home games after Christmas. Allardyce had won few friends with his style of play but he had completed his objective of steering the club back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
The celebrations were again spoilt by the floating banner and some truly awful music being played (Paradise by Coldplay for the trophy lift, really?). Being up in the gods meant that we were a long way from the celebrations so I took my leave as soon as the champagne corks had been popped.
Twenty four hours later the email arrived telling me that I could buy a Premier League Season Ticket for “just £600″…And rather than celebrating the success for what it was, David Gold used Twitter to berate Blackpool and the Football League for not giving West Ham more tickets. He really knows how to make friends doesn’t he? Just give it up and shut up for a while please?
It was exactly 47 years to the day that West Ham United had beaten 1860 Munich at the old Wembley to win the European Cup Winners Cup. Some of that team were in the stadium to see the club once again triumph although in very different circumstances. The challenge now – build a squad that can basically beat three other Premier League teams and finish in 17th place…oh, and perhaps play the ball on the ground once in a while?