Sunday 30th May 2021 – League One Play-off Final – Wembley Stadium, London
Is there such a thing as a fallen giant in footballing terms these days? The popular media will look for any opportunity to tell you that football only began in 1992 when the Premier League was formed, yet will still hark back to a long-gone era when wanting to tell a story of how far a particular club has fallen, or when it is bouncing back.
There’s a lot of hype around the Football League Championship, and in particular the end of season Play-off, dubbed “the richest game in the world”, and when you understand the figures behind that statement, you can understand why. There’s no escaping the fact that this year, two of the three relegated teams from the 2019/20 Premier League are going back up, with the third the beaten finalist in Saturday’s Play-off. That’s because they are the clubs with the highest levels of revenue, predominantly from the parachute payments made by the Premier League, which underlines the achievement of Brentford in not just being promoted, but over the last few years consistently challenging in the top six.
Of the twenty four Championship sides this season, seven haven’t played in the Premier League yet. Unfortunately, with the gap ever widening, it is unlikely that clubs such as Luton Town, Rotherham United and Wycombe Wanderers will do so in the near future unless they have a significant change in fortunes financially.
So turning now to League One. If the Championship is considered a graveyard of clubs whose Premier League legacy has been a plethora of failed managerial appointments and expensive, often unsustainable overheads, then some may wonder why clubs want to be promoted from League One. But that is the beauty of football – the David vs Goliath spirit, the dream that one day the Premier League may beckon. Ask any Wycombe Wanderers fan if they wish they would have stayed in League One rather than a season in the Championship, I am sure they would have chosen the latter any day.
Nine of this season’s League One sides have had Premier League experience. It is hard for anyone in the media to talk about Sunderland or Portsmouth without using the “sleeping giant” tag – they certainly have the support to be classed as one of the top twenty clubs in the country, but football rewards more than supporter base, which is why neither of the two clubs would be competing for the final promotion spot from League One.
Blackpool of course had been there, done that and almost gone out of business as a result, whether directly or indirectly of their foray into the Premier League. What is even more remarkable that just over two years ago the club were forced into receivership and were subsequently bought by Simon Sadler from the Oyston family. Now they were 90 minutes from a return to the Championship.
Lincoln City had also hit rock bottom and risen back. They have an unwanted record of the most successive play-off appearances, five between 2002 and 2007 where they failed to gain promotion in any of them and were relegated out of the Football League in 2011. However, under the Cowley brothers they won the National League in 2017, reached the FA Cup Quarter-Finals in the same year and have since enjoyed winning the EFL Trophy and League Two. Whilst the management duo have since moved on, now at “sleeping giants” Portsmouth, the team’s momentum carried them into the play-offs, where they beat Sunderland to reach Wembley.
So the omens weren’t good for Lincoln based on their track record at this stage of the season, whilst Blackpool where making their eight appearance in the Play-off Finals, having won five times. But as we saw last week with Hornchurch upsetting the form book and winning the FA Trophy, anything is possible at Wembley.
Having had to wear my deepest of winter coats last Saturday, eight days later and I was rocking up in shorts and a t-shirt. The fans were basking in the sunshine along Wembley way, posing for photos and sitting outside the supermarkets with their off sales. Covid-19 rules meant that only 10,000 would be present in the stadium, around 4,500 from each side. With both sides averaging almost double that “back in the day of normal crowds”, tickets were at a premium, although it was nice for once not to see any touts lining the walk to Wembley.
I was accosted by a Lincoln fan as I made my way up to the seats. “Did you hear? Jerry Yates is out, not even on the bench! I had a right chub on when I heard that”. I didn’t profess to know the source of the news that Blackpool’s leading scorer wasn’t playing, or dared to ask for proof of the fan’s excited state – I just made a comment about the weather and walked on.
I’m sure any aroused state the said Imps fan was in quickly diminished when it was announced that Yates was indeed fit and would be leading the line for the Seasiders. There was no doubt Blackpool could score goals though, and they proved that after just 41 seconds. Unfortunately, it was in their own net as Brennan Johnson’s cross was turned into his own net by Blackpool’s Ollie Turton. The quickest ever play-off final goal, and only the second time a goal had been scored in the opening minute of a final. The previous occasion was by Leyton Orient also against Blackpool, who went on to win 4-2.
It is amazing the noise that just four and a half thousand fans can make – although due to issues on the road a number of Lincoln fans not only missed kick-off but the whole game, stuck on the North Circular still as the Imps took the lead. And for the next fifteen minutes they had Blackpool on the rocks. Full-back Garbutt’s agricultural challenge on Johnson could have easily been a straight red on the 10 minute mark and Blackpool’s keeper, Chris Maxwell had to be alive to more well drilled balls into the area.
But the Seasiders slowly came into the game and should have drawn level when Mitchell’s powerful shot was beaten away by Imps keeper Palmer. A few minutes later they got their goal when Embleton’s run was blocked (and there was a hint of handball as the ball bounced off what appeared to be his arm), he teed up Dougall and his drive from 20 yards found the corner of the net.
Lincoln came out after the break looking to change their approach but it was Blackpool who struck first. Dougall had a second, from an almost identical position and an identical strike in the 54th minute to put the Seasiders into the lead and they never looked back, despite the introduction of Callum Morton to act as a target man for the Imps, who caused all sorts of aerial issues for the Blackpool centre-backs.
But it was not to be for Lincoln City. Their heroic season was over and whilst they took the applause of the fans around Wembley Stadium, they will know that the challenge next season is even harder, with Sheffield Wednesday, a resurgent Ipswich Town under new ownership and the reborn Bolton Wanderers all falling into that “Sleeping Giant box”. Whilst it is little consolation now, the club, and Blackpool, can be rightly proud of the way they have been able to climb back up from rock bottom, engaging their local communities and fans alike.