Pool heading down the drain
It was a balmy summer's evening at Bloomfield Road and the early-season optimism even extended to the losers. "I'll be happy if we finish one place below them, because that will probably mean we are promoted," Neil Warnock said after his Leeds team were beaten by Blackpool's eager attackers. Nor was Warnock alone in tipping the cavaliers from the Fylde Coast for a return to the Premier League. Unluckily relegated in 2011, unfortunate to lose the play-off final in 2012, Blackpool's stand-alone story, unique in every respect, seemed set for a sequel.
Fast forward nine months and much has changed. Leeds actually finished above Blackpool, albeit after sacking Warnock. Thirteenth and 15th respectively, they were marooned in mediocrity. Yet Blackpool did have a promotion of sorts. Ian Holloway, who began the season by taking them to the top of the table, ended it by piloting Crystal Palace into the Premier League. Kevin Phillips, brought to Bloomfield Road by Holloway and then borrowed by his former manager, scored a play-off final winner with an estimated worth of at least £120 million.
And then, deep in the bowels of Wembley, Holloway harked back to the heartbreak of Blackpool's demotion two years ago, referring to an eventual point tally that normally suffices for survival after a campaign where they beat Liverpool home and away, led Manchester United in both matches and became the neutrals' favourite underdog.
"I learnt that achieving 39 points ain't bad," he said. "That would have kept us up the last two seasons. I learnt if you don't stay up, the Premier League boys are like vultures. They take your good players and you have to build another team. That's why I am not there now: I didn't want to build another team."
And, indeed, Blackpool were raided for captain Charlie Adam, top scorer DJ Campbell and player-of-the-year David Vaughan. Two years on, a still bigger team-building exercise awaits one of Holloway's successors, Paul Ince. Because the reality is that the rest of Blackpool's only top-flight side since 1971 is being disbanded. The cause, as ever at Bloomfield Road, seems to be cost-cutting.
"These lads had to decide whether they wanted to play for Blackpool or whether they wanted more money," Ince said, although in some cases, they merely wanted to avert pay decreases. Out-of-contract players were invariably offered reduced or unsatisfactory terms. Almost to a man, they are going. Striker Gary Taylor-Fletcher, one of their Wembley heroes in 2010, appears headed for Huddersfield and midfielder Ludovic Sylvestre turned down a deal, perhaps to link up with Holloway again at Palace. Defender Alex Baptiste has signed for Bolton, right-back Neal Eardley for Birmingham and centre-back Ian Evatt headed off for a trial with Blackburn. Left-back Stephen Crainey is set to leave, destination unknown.
In short, Ince will need an entire new defence. In reality, he needs virtually an entire new team. Only goalkeeper Matt Gilks and defender Craig Cathcart were regulars in the Seasiders' recent glory days and remain. With 19 out-of-contract players and only Barry Ferguson re-signing so far, hardly anyone remains at all.
Two that do are the greatest financial assets. Blackpool have activated clauses in the contracts of wingers Matt Phillips and Thomas Ince to keep them for a further year. Each has been the subject of £6 million bids in the past – Phillips from Southampton, Ince from Liverpool – and, in both cases, Blackpool hope to commit them to longer deals. That, in turn, would increase their market value.
And yet while Blackpool have been good for both, enabling them to realise their potential, there is only one other persuasive argument to stay, and that only applies to one of them: the longer Ince junior stays, the longer Ince senior's managerial career may last. They are inextricably linked. Already the father's gameplan is to give the ball to his son and, as he scored 18 times last season, nepotism is also logical. This is a family business with a difference.
Blackpool have broken new ground here: managerial choices don't tend to be based on whose offspring are among the playing staff. Yet finding a manager – any manager – has presented Blackpool with problems. Having tired of the perennial penny-pinching of the owners, the Oyston family, Holloway left in October, having already flirted with Bolton and Blackburn. His replacement, Michael Appleton, quit after 65 days to head to Ewood Park for a similarly brief spell there. More than a month passed before Ince was appointed.
While the Oystons are among the more loyal employers – no manager has been fired since Colin Hendry almost eight years ago – frugality has become contagious. They neither sack nor back their managers. Spending has its perils, but spendthrifts can suffer in a different way.
In their Premier League campaign, Owen Oyston took £11 million in a payout, via one of his companies. As Pool went down by one point, fans are entitled to wonder if they would have stayed up had Holloway been granted the funds to recruit one more player. Or, indeed, if they would have returned to the Premier League in 2012 had he authorised one more buy: instead, the injured Taylor-Fletcher was sorely missed in the play-off final. Or, had Holloway been given grounds to stay, if August's excellence could have led to another promotion push.
They can ask, too, why the new training ground promised in 2009 still hasn't been built (Holloway said last year: "A mate of mine who works for the PFA came to see me the other day and said: 'This is the worst training ground I've ever seen.'") or if the pitch, bumpier and sandier than the nearby beach, was in such terrible condition because, supporters have suggested, the club were too tight to buy the more expensive brands of grass seed.
Parsimony has become policy but Blackpool have taken it too far: while they are the anti-QPR, they are so concerned with the balance sheet they keep on harming themselves on the football field.
A club who brought a feelgood factor to the Premier League are now engulfed in negativity. As they were in their promotion campaign of 2009-10, Blackpool are among the pre-season favourites for relegation to League One next year. This time, short of players, low on morale and wondering when the Oystons will cash in on Ince and Phillips, there are reasons to fear from them.
Having emerged from obscurity, they could make a swift and ignominious return there but this is a needless decline. Having downsized, the only way seems to be down.