In my junior years, Lincoln biscuits represented a rare treat that to this day are sadly missed, both for their unique taste and ubiquity of availability.
Putting aside the obvious but lazy dreaming spires and punting on the Isis(river) cliches, Oxford is brought to my mind for reasons of Robert Maxwell, the old Manor Ground, and the previous comma which bears its name.
A former friend once said to me that his only experience of visiting Sunderland was when ‘it was shut’, a perjorative comment to in effect insinuate that whatever floated his boat when it came to large English settlements, this famous former hotbed of ship building, coal mining, and glass making wasn’t it.
Ranking high up in and often atop the multifarious overall and specific indices relating to levels of poverty, Blackpool still carries its title of the Last Vegas of the North with some ironic pride, as if any comparison with the Nevadan sin city was anything to set one’s watch to. Whether your penchant for entertainment is of the people watching variety, drinking twice your body weight, or being flung around a sea front theme park, Blackpool manages to mask its levels of deprivation whilst simultaneously highlighting the very reasons why only yards back from the promenade exists some of the worst hardship in today’s United Kingdom.
It was though of these four vastly different areas of England where on Friday night Blackpool once more stood out from the crowd, and provided not only the 4,000 spectators(less than 25% of the stadium’s capacity) attending Bloomfield Road for the first time in 14 months a rich diet of rollercoastering emotions, but also the watching world otherwise accustomed to a smorgasbord of Premier League fayre that can range from the dire to the electric, with an overall bland median.
Already three goals to the good after a surprisingly routine victory 72 hours previous at the three-sided Kassam Stadium – 3 goals, days, and a car park instead of a stand highlights that yes, things, good or otherwise, do come in threes – the onus was on Karl Robinson’s at times overly robust but defensively fragile side to take the game to Blackpool, which was often the case in a match that will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to be there, but also the unmeasurable amount of television viewers with an affiliation to either club, and neutrals who like to get the most from their respective Sky Sports subscriptions.
With the meanest defence in League One, including the first play off semi-final Blackpool had only conceded 37 goals in 47 games. When it is considered that 14 of those goals were shipped over just five games against Ipswich Town(6 goals), Charlton Athletic(3), and Lincoln City(5) then Blackpool’s record of letting in just 23 goals in 42 outings is all the more remarkable.
It must be said that against a vibrant Oxford United with little to lose and to their credit who kept going until the 95th minute, Blackpool were arguably second-best on the night but the damage had already been done at the Kassam. An early Matt Taylor strike by a player who should have subesquently been sent off for clattering goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, assuming of course he hadn’t already gone for a similar offence against centre back Dan Ballard, was soon snuffed out by an Elliot Embleton wonderstrike that Aiden McGeady, his senior colleague at Sunderland and from where Blackpool had loaned the 22-year old, would have been proud to call his own. Quickly followed by a strong finish by Austalian defensive midfielder Kenny Dougall, Blackpool had not only restored their three goal advantage but surely extended it far out of Oxford’s reach.
If there can be a criticism of Blackpool’s defence, something which the stats all but rule out as a non sequitur, is that it has at times proved to be vulnerable to long diagonal balls and deep crosses. A second half dominated by Oxford possession was characterised by this approach, and yielded two further goals either side of Jerry Yates’ decisive finish, his 23rd of the season. Whilst this restored parity to the proceedings on the evening and in effect brought Oxford no nearer to overcoming a usually insurmountable first-leg deficit, Robinson’s men probably won Friday night’s battle whilst overall being roundly defeated in the war.
The winner of the League One ‘Golden Glove’ accolade, given to the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets, Maxwell’s 22 in regulation plus his shutout at the Kassam Staium is a remarkable achievement for a stopper who isn’t universally regarded as one of the tallest, nor at times the most mobile. In the second half these subjective deficiencies in the 30-year old’s game became more apparent as Oxford sought to exploit the perceived weaknesses in Maxwell and Blackpool’s defence, although Matt Taylor’s assault on the St. Asaph-born custodian looked to be premeditated, and cetainly incommoded his movement for the remainder of the second half.
The standout performers on the night for Blackpool were Yates, an often electric but frequently frustrating Demetri Mitchell, and the central midfield pairing of Kevin Stewart and Dougall.
Life prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic seems not only more distant than the calendar suggests, but also that it is questionable that it actually occured, such has been the seismic shift in our day to day existences. It is therefore easily forgotten but highly relevant that Oxford United were by far the best side I saw Blackpool play in the ultimately aborted 2019/20 season, and that manager Karl Robinson was approached to succeed the sacked Simon Grayson before owner Simon Sadler took the calculated risk of bringing in Neil Critchley from his youth coaching role at Liverpool.
When on the 17 August 2019 Blackpool and Oxford United last squared up at Bloomfield Road, the football landscape looked a very different place for a Seasiders’ team that was at that point in the early weeks of Grayson’s second coming, against a side that Robinson had had significantly more time to shape in his image. It is all the more remarkable that after a second-half where Blackpool were given the runaround, a 2-1 scoreline was held onto by their very fingertips. The credentials of Robinson’s Oxford were there for all to see that day, and deserved far more from their ultimately fruitless trip to FY1.
It was always said that a week is a long time in politics but a season in football can make or break teams saddled with the burden of expectation, and whilst the truncated 2019/20 season laid waste to Oxford’s automatic promotion chances, their late surge into the current campaign’s play off reckoning was only after Robinson’s position at the club was at one point placed into question as his side initially scuttled about the relegation places. Ultimately flattering to deceive under Grayson, Blackpool and in particular the outmoded methods of the then manager were found out by Christmas 2019; Grayson lasted only a month longer at Bloomfield Road.
The arrival of Neil Critchley was welcomed but also baffled in equal measure. Aftert an extremely slow start which itself precipitated calls from some quarters for a more experienced man to replace the 42-year old, the arrival of Colin Calderwood to complement the dugout rather than make it his own undoubtedly coincided with a demonstrable upturn in fortunes. Critchley will though have warmed to a role that in effect involved growing a new squad from the ground up, who would themselves need time to be inculcated in the ways, whys, and wherefores of the head coach.
In keeping with all clubs there have been failures in the transfer and loan markets, but for every Ben Woodburn there has been a Dan Ballard, and where there was a Bez Lubala the likes of Marvin Ekpiteta have heralded the successes in the player recruitment depatment that have proven to heavily outweigh its intial deficiencies.
By striding over the likes of Ipswich Town, Portsmouth, Charlton Athletic, Sunderland, and Oxford into the play offs, Blackpool have likely exceeded expectations even tacitly set by owner Simon Sadler, and are perhaps a season ahead of schedule in their development under Critchley, as well as as a club still recovering from Oyston ownership. Reaching Wembley, where Michael Appleton’s Lincoln City will be faced, is an incredible achievement and rightly pits the two best coaches from the play off contenders against each other in a one off, winner takes all stand off.
At times criticised by many this season and not in the least by myself, Blackpool have not always been easy on the eye but have efficiently gone about their work. Often stymied by opposition who came to prevent Blackpool playing rather than showing much in the way of attacking intent, Critchley’s team have undoubted favoured facing off against sides who take the initiative. Perhaps the best team in the division without the ball, Blackpool have as the season has progressed become far better with it, albeit shorn for long periods of the campaign of the services of Gary Madine, C J Hamilton, and Keshi Anderson.
The rudiments are in place for an entertaining fixture at Blackpool’s second home, so monikered by the club’s 7th visit to Wembley for a play off final. In what could be Michael Appleton’s final game in charge of The Imps, the outcome remains too close to call. In what though could be the apogee of Lincoln City’s realistic potential, promotion for Blackpool would see the club return to their natural home within the football pyramid, and enable Simon Sadler to consider the next stage of taking forward development both on and off the pitch.
There is though no divine right for what is percieved as the natural order of things coming to pass, and Lincoln have as much right to a place in the Championship and beyond as any other side in the land. One only has to see how Bournemouth survived for so long in the Premier League, and initially with some ease, to know that what the Cherries and for example Wycombe Wanderers have acheived is what makes England’s football pyramid the greatest domestic league system in the world.
May the best of two good teams win, but in this instance my unabashed bias hangs its hat very much on the Seasiders.