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Aug 19, 2010

Fairy tale has its horrors

There is something about the unlikely that captures the imagination. It is more pronounced in a world where status seems a direct product of material wealth and where unpredictability can be ruthlessly stamped out by those in the ascendant.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that Blackpool's superlative start to life in the Premier League has attracted attention. Underdogs in a lower league last season, let alone in the top flight, they have the resident blend of a distant but glorious history, an eccentric but quotable manager and a group of improbable but impressive players to make their progress all the more remarkable. Factor in an endearing, attractive style of play and it's no shock they have attracted well-wishers in their thousands.

The problem is that the romance of Blackpool's rise isn't the whole story. The euphoria of the travelling supporters who made the away end at the DW Stadium a sea of tangerine on Saturday was utterly understandable. The efforts of Ian Holloway, the catalyst of a manager, are rightly celebrated and the journeys of players such as Brett Ormerod, who has appeared in all four divisions for the club, and Alex Baptiste, relegated from the Football League in his time at Mansfield, are correctly praised.

But fans, coaches and footballers, important as all are, don't paint the whole picture of a club. Chairman Karl Oyston announced his intention to stand down on Wednesday, a decision that, despite the three promotions in the last seven years of his reign, should prove popular with a section of the club's followers.

Because he is a man who polarises opinions. Speaking after Saturday's 4-0 win at Wigan, Oyston presented himself as a white knight in the murky world of transfer dealings, calling himself "a lone voice" who is disillusioned with the machinations of other clubs, players and, especially, agents.

Yet the self-same accusations that are levelled at them are similar to the charges directed at Blackpool in recent years: that they have a similar interest in money. Visiting supporters to Bloomfield Road have long protested about being housed in temporary seats and being charged excessive prices. As it was a stand without a roof, many had the misfortune to get soaked. Indeed, home fans saw prices escalate dramatically in the Championship, going up at a hyper-inflationary rate.

Neutrals at the ground, meanwhile, encountered graceless, secretive hosts who failed to provide some of the features that were regarded as basic elsewhere. Complaints were made to the Football League about inadequate facilities and inhospitable treatment. Much of Bloomfield Road wasn't of the standard required for the Championship, let alone the Premier League.

It can happen, of course, that a team advances rather quicker than the rest of the club. But it has not escaped attention on the Fylde Coast that the South Stand - later renamed the Armfield Stand - was, Oyston said in 2001, due to be built the following year. It actually opened in 2010. A timescale that suited him rather more than anyone else is something the players now have an appreciation of; the bonuses that were promised for their magnificent efforts last season were belatedly paid, more than two months late, and just before the start of the current campaign.

And while few would suggest that Pool emulate Hull or Portsmouth and put the club's future at risk with reckless overspending, the concern among their supporters is the exact opposite: that the club's owners - principally the Oyston family - would attempt to bank as much of the proceeds of Premier League football and the subsequent four years of parachute payments as possible, condemning the club to certain relegation.

Lest it be forgotten, four days before the start of the season, Blackpool had made no signings. It had been thought that the Israeli defender Dekel Keinan had been recruited - not least because the club gave the impression he had - but that deal was only finalised on Wednesday - a month after it was originally announced. It makes the win at Wigan, when Marlon Harewood scored twice three days after his arrival, all the more startling.

But when Holloway called the summer "hideous" and "horrible", it is possible to imagine why; when he spoke of hoping the thrashing of Wigan would persuade the club to spend, it is easy to sympathise. His persuasive powers and motivational skills are apparent in his side's exploits over the last 12 months, which rather suggests the fault does not lie with him.

Blackpool's record signing remains Charlie Adam, a £500,000 buy; their wage ceiling is £10,000-a-week and they were unable to afford the salaries of players currently at Championship clubs.

A comparison can be drawn with Burnley, who budgeted wisely but were still able to pay £15,000-a-week and around £9 million in transfer fees in their solitary season in the Premier League. Sensible spending has not appeared an option at Bloomfield Road, however, unless a new chairman exacts a volte-face.

And, as has been highlighted elsewhere, Blackpool's peculiar relationship with money involves their choice of sponsor. Wonga.com is a short-term lender once found guilty of misleading advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority. And, despite the players, manager and supporters, it is inaccurate to market Blackpool as the Premier League's most wonderfully romantic tale.

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