It is called the richest game in football; a match that could be worth anywhere between £40 million and £80 million for the winners and on Saturday, West Ham and Blackpool go head-to-head for the right to compete in the Premier League next season.
Both sides were relegated this time last year and are looking for an instant return to the top flight. Though both have parachute payments to prop them up for another stint in the Championship, the onus and pressure is on West Ham to seal promotion to ease the financial burden on the owners.
The Hammers were many people’s favourites for automatic promotion and with some justification. Despite relegation, David Gold and David Sullivan invested heavily in the club, from dealing with the debts to hiring the most expensive manager in the league in Sam Allardyce and spending £5 million on Kevin Nolan. They were also active in the January window, with the Davids putting most of their eggs in the instant return to the Premier League basket.
In the orange corner Ian Holloway has gone about his business in what has become his usual manner; careful investment in the squad and getting the most out of the players at his disposal. While a challenge for the top two never materialised owing to inconsistency, the Tangerines delivered when it mattered to land a top six place and beat Birmingham over two legs.
It’s not only kit colour and approach to the season that contrasts between the two sides. The style of football deployed by their relative managers is also at opposite ends of the spectrum. Allardyce’ success as a football manager is based on his sides being the strongest, filling the midfield with the energy needed to feed off the knockdowns up front. Even with long stints in the top two, many Irons’ supporters have never taken to his style given the footballing traditions of the club.
Blackpool’s last promotion, two years ago, was based on Holloway instilling the belief in all of his players that they can play passing football in an attacking fashion. It was this very approach that won the club so many admirers in the Premier League. This season has been no different; Blackpool have had 567 attempts on goal.
While ‘Pool may edge the contest on attacking flair, that they ended the season with a goal different of plus 20 shows that defensively, there could be some concerns. They let in 38 goals on the road, with only four sides conceding more. Allardyce will no doubt have done his homework in looking to exploit this weakness.
What to watch out for:
West Ham may have the edge when it comes to available talent with a strikeforce of Carlton Cole, Sam Baldock, Ricardo Vaz Te and Nicky Maynard testimony to that. Their midfield too is packed with players who have made a name in the Premier League. However, it is Blackpool who have the recent experience of this sort of occasion and a manager who will set out his team to play without fear. And, with the evergreen Kevin Phillips likely to start from the bench, Holloway has a possible matchwinner up his sleeve.
Blackpool – Gilks, Eardley, Crainey, Evatt, Baptiste, Ferguson, Angel, M Phillips, Dobbie, Taylor-Fletcher, Ince
West Ham – Green, Reid, Tomkins, Demel, McCartney, Noble, Nolan, Collison, Taylor, Vaz Te, Cole
Recent form: Blackpool – DWWDWD; West Ham – WDWWWW
Prediction: Blackpool 2 – 1 West Ham
Tags: Blackpool, Championship, Ian Holloway, Premier League, Sam Allardyce, West Ham United