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May 22, 2011

Champs upstaged by brave Blackpool

They rose to their feet in all four corners of Old Trafford to salute a manager. It is an annual event at Old Trafford and, when it was his chance to acknowledge the claim, Sir Alex Ferguson bowed theatrically to his raucous admirers in each of the stands before delivering his end-of-season address to the assembled masses. Yet, for once, the 69-year-old had to share the spotlight. The man deemed "Ollie Mourinho" by the tangerine-clad visitors was also granted a standing ovation.

Few things generate goodwill quite as much as a gallant near-miss and Blackpool's desperately unfortunate relegation, allied with their gung-ho attitude and his eccentric rhetoric, has made a folk hero of Ian Holloway.

"You're famous for two seconds in football and you're gone," he said, adapting Andy Warhol's maxim and underestimating his impact at Bloomfield Road. The likelihood is that his inveterate adventurers will be remembered far longer, and with much greater fondness, than he realises, and not merely by the followers of the champions. For five minutes, the cavaliers were cavorting to safety, after Gary Taylor-Fletcher put Blackpool ahead at Old Trafford. Instead their extraordinary season culminates in the manner all bar the most optimistic thought it would, in relegation.

"Our castle was built on sand," Holloway lamented. Theirs has been a valiant attempt to confound footballing and financial logic, the bargain-basement team spoon-fed DVDs of Barcelona. Disdainful of defending, audacious in attack, they bowed out in typical fashion: amidst a flurry of goals at either end. They have scored as many as Tottenham, conceded more than anyone. Roulette football, Tony Pulis called it in December.

As Holloway is godfather to the Stoke manager's son, Anthony, this was no embittered loser speaking, but one of the Premier League's pragmatists. But it was an apt analogy. Holloway has been spinning the roulette wheel all season, playing games of chances, sometimes making off with unlikely winnings. Others try and limit their losses. Blackpool have been high rollers - not financially, where their expenditure has been minimal - but in their approach. They go back to the Vegas of the north after a great gamble almost produced another multi-million pound windfall.

In January, when Charlie Adam terrorised United for an hour, Ferguson suggested his corners were worth £10 million alone. A gloriously precise free-kick, arrowing in off the far post, threatened to bring a still bigger dividend. That levelled after Ji-sung Park had put United ahead, Ian Evatt misjudging Dimitar Berbatov's pass.

Then came the instant when mission impossible seemed distinctly possible. David Vaughan picked out Gary Taylor-Fletcher; the graduate of non-league's deft finish suggesting they could storm fortress Old Trafford. Not so: United went on to equal Chelsea's record of 18 wins and a draw in 19 home league games. The excellent Anderson levelled, completing a one-two with Park by curling the ball in.

Then the unfortunate Evatt erred again, an outstretched leg turning Chris Smalling's cross past Matt Gilks. The Seasiders were already holding on, Gilks' outstanding save thwarting Berbatov. Michael Owen ensured that, finally, there was no way back for Blackpool, scoring a belated second league goal of the season, the 78th United have mustered and the 78th Blackpool have sieved.

"The fat lady has finished singing and I don't like her tune," added Holloway, a short man lamenting. "I've got to swallow it. I'm really proud of my team's efforts: they bridged all sorts of gaps." Yet the reward for Evatt, Taylor-Fletcher and Keith Southern is, Holloway revealed, the same wages they earned in the Championship last season, because of demotion.

"I've got the hardest job ever," bemoaned the manager, aware of the reality that follows the romance of their rise. "I don't think the team will stay together. None of them will want to play in the Championship. The better ones will be snapped up by the vultures. It will be a long time before I get a group this good. They were absolutely exceptional to a man. I hope there's some more bronze left on the Fylde Coast because some of them deserve to go down in history like the great Jimmy Armfield."

The former England captain was among those watching as Adam, surely the finest player to represent the club since his retirement 40 years ago, flourished on his farewell. A daring attempt to beat Edwin van der Sar from the centre circle didn't quite succeed but it summed up skipper and side alike, believing when few others did. "We'll only get 10 points," chorused their fans, referring to the pre-season predictions that they would prove the worst side in Premier League history. They got 39 and, harshly, it wasn't enough.

The town's tourist industry has provided the metaphors for their season. They have illuminated the Premier League, turning its various grounds into their pleasure beach on a rollercoaster ride. This, however, was a steep decline on the big dipper. And, as the visitors to Blackpool know, holidays end. Holloway's extended break in the top flight did so with crushing cruelty.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Edwin van der Sar - A sentimental choice, perhaps, but in his valedictory afternoon at Old Trafford, the retiring 40-year-old produced a wonderful stop from Evatt to stop Blackpool making the score 3-3. Excellent to the last, it was a fitting finale for him.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Four of Ferguson's team - Van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Park - are likely to start against Barcelona, making this a stronger line-up than Holloway anticipated. Anderson impressed but, with the Spanish champions in mind, the fact that Darren Fletcher completed 90 minutes may prove more meaningful. With Owen Hargreaves already released, the other Owen - Michael - may have also played his last part for United.

BLACKPOOL VERDICT: Picking holes in their defending now may seem like kicking a team when they are down, but it was symptomatic of their failings at the back all season. With Vaughan, Gilks and Stephen Crainey all out of contract, it promises to be a very different Seasiders side in the Championship next season.

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