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Monday, May 24, 2010

All or Nothing

After Blackpool seal promotion to the Premier League with their play-off victory against Cardiff, Nobes considers what the future could hold for both teams.

Blackpool boss Ian Holloway celebrates his team's play-off final triumph

To the neutral it probably didn't sound like the kind of final to get the pulse racing.

Indeed, money men aspiring to engineer a 39th top flight game played across the cities of Asia would have been less than impressed at the prospect of one of Blackpool or Cardiff joining England's elite.

It wouldn't have taken long for either party to change their pre-match conceptions. Insane, madness, and mental were just a few of the descriptions I saw used to describe the flurry of first half goals at Wembley on Saturday.

True, the mistakes which allowed Blackpool to lead 3-2 at the interval would have put shame to a pub team's back line. However, for sheer entertainment value, it made for a spectacle rarely surpassed in the top flight.

Aside from the usual talk of the glamour and riches of the Premier League awaiting the winner though, there was another underlying feeling about this year's final. For both Blackpool and Cardiff it was now, or never.

Indeed, those connected with the Welsh club even went as far as describing the clash as 'win or bust' for City. Bluebirds fans will now be hoping that was nothing more than typical pre-match hyperbole.

For the Lancashire outfit, perhaps their tenacity in twice coming from behind was evidence of their belief that, if they were to make the promised land, then they'd never have a better opportunity.

Now though, two clubs who went toe-to-toe in North London go their separate, and very different, ways for at least the next 12 months.

It would have been very tempting as the strains of the Dave Clark Five and 'Glad All Over' blasted out of the Wembley PA system for
Blackpool to get too caught up in the Premier League odyssey they are now embarking on.

For a side who were one of the pre-season favourites for the drop from the Championship, a fixture list next term including the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United represents heady days indeed.

However, it is now crucial that their Latvian benefactor, Valeri Belokon, and chairman Karl Oyston ensure this Tangerine dream doesn't become a nightmare.

Encouragingly, Oyston has come out and said that pressing ahead with the construction of a fourth stand at Bloomfield Road will be a priority.

The third stand - dedicated to club legend Jimmy Armfield - was only opened at the tail end of the campaign. Until then, the club had been restricted to crowds around the 8,000 mark.

It's a further indication of the achievement Holloway has managed this term with a squad built on the cheap and the second lowest average attendances in the division.

In truth, just remaining amongst England's top-44 clubs is an achievement for the club in their current state. Now they'll be attempting to stay in the top-20.

Blackpool have only recently completed a third permanent stand at Bloomfield Road

Unsurprisingly, bookies already have Blackpool as strong favourites for an instant return in 12 months time.

Some observers have compared their meteoric rise to the top flight from nowhere to that of another Lancashire club last season - Burnley.

Despite the Clarets dropping straight back down though, such a comparison still being made in a year's time would not be such a bad thing for Pool.

Burnley have not 'bet on the farm' in the words of chairman Barry Kilby. They added modestly, and sensibly, to their promotion squad and the riches of the Premier League will stand them in good stead for the future.

Blackpool must spend their Premier League money, estimated to be around £90 million, in a similar fashion - using it to build a fourth stand and provide an improvement on training facilities Holloway described as a "horrible environment."

While their progress from the basement division has been rapid on the pitch, they have struggled to keep up with progress off it. Building an infrastructure that can help establish them in the Championship - not the Premier League - must be their primary aim.

After all, they need not look far for all the warning signs they need of what can happen when you win promotion and spend your money unwisely.

Bradford's signing of foreign stars on big wages crippled the club financially and relegation from the top flight was the beginning of a tumble down the divisions. They are languishing in League Two ten years later.

Another side from the other side of the Pennines, Hull City, are now in a similar position as they gear up for life in the Championship next season. The Tigers have a wage bill which threatens to tip them into financial peril.

It might sound like a defeatist attitude to simply take the money and run, but it is simply sensible.

By all means enjoy the top flight and the glamour it brings though. Judging by t-shirts on show at Wembley declaring 'Bye Bye Preston', Tangerines fans will also revel lauding it over their hated rivals from down the M55 - who are still to grace the Premier League.

As are Cardiff. For Dave Jones's side, after the most agonising of defeats, a summer of upheaval surely awaits.

The club is about to be transferred into the new ownership of a Malaysian consortium backed by billionaire businessman Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun.

It's a move which will signal the end of chairman Peter Ridsdale's tenure at the club. Unfortunately for the controversial former Leeds man, he will forever be haunted by the financial meltdown he presided over at Elland Road.

Despite leaving City with debts estimated between £15 million and £30 million though, he has overseen a move to new training facilities and, most importantly, a new 25,000 stadium geared for the Premier League.

Cardiff City players contemplate missing out on the Premier League

Saturday's defeat is also likely to see departures on the playing front, with much sought-after midfielders Joe Ledley and Peter Whittingham leaving the club.

Striking trio Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd, and Ross McCormack could also be in demand.

For Jones, a manager who, despite his sometimes prickly attitude in post-match interviews, is well liked and respected, a major rebuilding job could be on the horizon.

He is already the division's longest serving manager - having been at the Welsh club since 2005 - and saw Wembley's final as the culmination of many year's work towards the Premier League.

Despite his experience of losing in the 2002 play-offs with Wolves only to triumph in them 12 months later, he will be aware that losing play-off finalists tend to find it hard to bounce back.

Sheffield United - beaten by Burnley in the final last year - only managed to finish 8th this time around.

He will also know that Cardiff have never had a better opportunity to make it back into the top flight after almost 50 years away.

Bristol City, another side never to have played in the Premier League, have only managed two mid-table finishes since losing the 2008 final to Hull.

Preston, too, have twice been losers in the final in the past decade and now, after a 17th placed finish this term, appear a long way from the top flight.

Barnsley, albeit having enjoyed one season in the Premier League, were defeated by Ipswich in the 2000 final and haven't finished in the Championship's top half since.

When the opportunity arises, smaller clubs must take it. When everything comes together and clicks, like Blackpool this term, and Hull and Watford in previous years - you must grab your chance to sit at football's top table.
How long before Cardiff come as close again?

Well, if Jones remains at the helm then perhaps, with their new stadium and added financial backing, defeat at the national stadium need only be a temporary blip in Cardiff's Premier League ambitions.

More urgently however, the club - who have been dogged by financial problems throughout the season - have a date at the High Court next month to answer a winding up order.

Such was the thin line between success and failure - it is a meeting they will now be approaching with less confidence than had they beaten Blackpool at the weekend.

It is also the kind of scenario the Seasiders must strive that their Premier League jackpot ensures they never get into. Heavy losses on the pitch next season pale into insignificance compared to heavy losses off it.

Promotion has given this proud old club and their passionate support a chance to rebuild themselves for the future. They have taken the first opportunity with promotion, now they mustn't waste this next one.

Relegation next season may hurt temporarily, but the long term future for Blackpool can be promising and ensure they can feel glad - all over again.

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